I slept, and slept, and slept. I am sure that I dreamt, but I remembered little; only snatches of images and sounds. Inirin’s higher soul in the woods outside the camp, the laughing zoemancer, Grandfather Arcis sneering down at me, a dragon twisting and dying beneath my feet.
I finally awoke to bright sunlight flooding my room. Cha-Cha had crawled out from beneath the covers to spread out on top of the blankets, her belly turned towards the light.
There was no sign of Sedgewick. The blanket and pillow were gone, my door closed.
Dragging myself into an upright position, I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and propped myself against the headboard. Cha-Cha rumbled in disapproval, rolled over, and blinked at me.
“Sorry,” I apologized, and started scrolling through newsfeeds.
The cat rumbled again, and closed her eyes.
None of the main sites had the videos taken inside the camp; at least, none that showed the Petralans being shot or trampled. No, the only videos on the main news sites were from the point of view of the Law and Enforcement Officers and the Necromantic Vigilants: Petralans refusing to follow orders, attacking the agents with pipes and bricks, screaming and swearing and spitting.
Both the official official and unofficial official explanations were still making the rounds. A variety of experts were trotted out to defend the official reason behind the raid — the Petralans’ unreasonable demand for jobs — while subtly hinting at the unofficial reason — payback for the bombing of the bus of pilgrims on the North Road.
Never mind that no evidence of any sort linked the refugees to the bombing. Only innuendo and suspicion and fear.
The not-mainstream sites were different. The videos taken inside the camp, many by refugees, others lifted from LEOs and Vigilants, were still up. The comments were confused and confusing, with people debating their veracity, the truth of the official statements, and all of the rumors about the raid and the bombing.
No one really seemed to know anything.
My stomach rumbled. Cha-Cha took that as a hint and jumped down from the bed to stand by the door. She started meowing, and kept meowing even after I tossed aside the blankets and pulled on some fresh clothes. She only stopped when I finally opened the door, dashing down the hallway and down the stairs.
“That is a truly ungrateful animal,” Meritha said from the doorway of the bathroom. Her hair was wet, and a toothbrush stuck out of her mouth.
“She just misses Mykal. We’re all just poor substitutes, as far as she’s concerned.”
“Mmm. Sleep okay?”
“Surprisingly, yes.” I tilted my head. “You?”
Meritha shrugged. “Kept the door closed against the furry face-hugger, but I was up for hours anyway.” Her phone buzzed in her back pocket and she rolled her eyes. “The reason being ….” She pulled out the phone and squinted at the screen, absently brushing her teeth. She grunted. “Uh. Good news. Jerith finally got back to me.” At my confused expression, she continued, “My ranger contact. Guess he’s finally close enough to a com tower. Anyway, he’s an arrogant ass, but he knows the southern wilderness better than anyone. He’ll get us to Petral.”
She shrugged and slipped the phone into her pocket. “He might stick around. He might not.” She backed into the bathroom. “Depends on how interesting we are.”
Other than Meritha and Cha-Cha, I might have been alone in the coven house. The doors to Taz’ and Kanady’s bedrooms were closed; Sedgewick’s stood open, but a quick peek confirmed that it was empty; and the only Vigilants I saw were through the windows, patrolling the ironwood fence. I found the remains of a midday meal — noodles with garlic sauce, more cheesy bread, and a watery fruit salad — stowed in the refrigerator.
Cha-Cha finished off her own kibble and demanded more, so I plopped a few chunks of bread in her bowl. That kept her quiet while I heated my own portion and sat down at the small corner table to think and stare out the window.
Most of the ravens were perched on the roof of the gazebo at the back of the yard. A couple of others were hopping around in the branches of the massive oak tree, its side still scarred and burned from the attack only three nights ago.
So much had changed since then. So much of what I thought I knew now proven false, while other things had become terribly, horribly clear.
I ran a hand through my hair and continued to watch the ravens. One of the birds on top of the gazebo turned, wings fluttering, and seemed to look directly at me. Giving a loud, raucous “Caw!” it leaped into the air, arrowed across the lawn, and settled on the railing of the back steps.
Twisting in my chair, I turned to watch it hobble and hop. It cawed again and again, head swiveling. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to be holding something shiny in one foot.
Frowning, I pushed aside my plate and rose to my feet. My boots had been moved … somewhere. I lifted my coat from the hook on the wall and tugged it on as I opened and stepped through the back door. The wood of the small porch was cold through my socks, and the wind pulled at my hair.
The Vigilant patrolling the ironwood fence to my left paused, a concerned expression on her face.
I waved her away and turned to the raven.
The bird tilted its head, eyes bright. It opened its beak and cawed loudly, wings flapping in agitation. It hopped a few steps closer, than back again, balancing on one leg.
It was definitely holding something.
“What have you got there? Hhmm?”
I lowered myself into a crouch, one hand against the railing, until I was eye level with the raven.
Another head tilt, another caw, though this one was softer.
The other birds lifted off the gazebo, wings wide, and swept across the grass, joining the two already in the oak tree. I could feel all of them watching.
Slowly, I lifted my hand and held it out, palm flat. The raven danced, then, with a flick of its foot, dropped the shiny thing into my hand. And then it was away, the entire flock lifting into the air, flapping madly towards the south.
Rising to my feet, I studied the shiny thing.
It was flat and oval, almost teardrop-shaped. Mostly green, but varying shades, and opalescent. It shimmered in the sunlight as I turned my palm this way and that. Slightly rough at the pointed end, where a few tiny greenish threads clung to it.
Not threads. Not fur, either. Not quite mammal, not quite plant, but something wholly unique.
The longer I stared at the shiny thing, the faster my heart started to pound. I felt sweat begin to bead along my forehead.
I squeaked, heart stuttering, and stumbled. Spinning on my toes, I forced a smile.
Taz smiled back at me from the doorway, arms wrapped around her chest to hold back the cold. Her breath misted.
“Just a pebble,” I lied. “Guess the ravens thought it was pretty.”
“Oh.” She nodded. “There any pasta left? I’m starving.”
“Yep, plenty.” I kept smiling. “And hopefully Meritha left us some ice cream.”
I carefully tucked the dragon scale into my pocket, and followed Taz back into the house.
Meritha eventually joined us at the small table, crowding in so that our elbows were almost touching.
We talked of nothing important. Books. Cha-Cha. A new art exhibition at the city’s premiere museum. The new ballet that would be opening with the Equinox in the spring; supposedly an adaptation of “The Nine-Tailed Cat of Suxia and the White Roq.” I could just imagine the dancers flitting around the stage in their cat and roq costumes, tails swirling, cape twirling. The thought almost made me smile.
Then I remembered the dragon scale in my pocket.
Thoughts a jumble, I dumped my plates in the sink and excused myself to return to my room. I only made it two steps up the stairs before I turned back around and went into the library. I browsed the titles, trailing a finger across the spines.
Solemnities of the Eastern Temple of Thueta.
I pulled it off the shelf, flipping it open to the first page.
An ink line drawing of a dragon filled the paper. Twin horns curled back over its head. Meadowy fur sprouted from a hide of teardrop-shaped scales, and clustered in a thick tuft at the tips of the dragon’s wolf-like ears. Buds and full blooms sprouted here and there, and its furry tail loop-de-looped to the bottom of the page. The dragon’s jaws were open wide, teeth bared, lava erupting from its throat to spread across the top.
I swallowed hard, tracing the figure.
Closing the book, I set it back on the shelf and climbed the stairs to my room.
I awoke again after dark. Only the exterior security lights illuminated my room. I hadn’t intended to fall asleep again. I had laid down, still fully dressed, arms wrapped around a pillow, hoping to pull my thoughts into some coherent order. Instead, my eyes had closed and I had dreamt of dragons and burning cities and a laughing necromancer.
I could feel Cha-Cha’s warmth and rumbling weight against my side. I blinked, trying to clear the darkness from my vision, and saw Sedgewick. He was sitting against the closed door again, blanket across his lap. His chest was bare, his sword propped against the wall.
When I rolled over, his eyes opened.
“Hey,” I said.
“Where’d you go today?”
He drew his legs up, bracing his arms over his knees. The blanket slipped, and I saw that he was wearing grey pajama bottoms again. “Making arrangements for our journey south. If we’re to be accompanied by a host of Zoemantic Vigilants, it seemed prudent to make sure that an equal number of Necromantic Vigilants came along.”
“Vigilants you trust?”
“Absolutely. Operr. Dalis. Others.”
“She still mad at me about her armor?”
I hesitated, debating, and finally continued with the current topic. “Did you speak with the First Marshal?”
It was his turn to pause. “I did. She was evasive in some of her answers, forthcoming in others.” He curled and uncurled his hands, his gaze drifting to stare at the wall. “She is part of the cover-up.”
He rolled his head towards me, then away again. “I do not believe that she knows or understands the extent of what is going on. Someone is calling in a favor, calling on her to perform her duty without question. Could be Grandfather Arcis, could be the other High Holy Orders. Could be your mother.”
I rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling. Cha-Cha grumbled at being disturbed. I absently scratched her head, thinking back to my conversation with the Hag at the Great Pyramid, and how she had secreted that copy of Syl’s A Select Analysis of Four Primal Rites to us through Tohra.
I almost smiled at the memory of Tohra, stiff and uncomfortable and disapproving, covertly handing me the book in the bathroom.
I find myself in an awful position, daughter. I am the Hag of the High Holy Orders. The overseer of all necromancers in Egleia. Dear to the Creators. Beloved of the Ancestors and Speaker for the Dead. My duty is to them, and to this city and its people. ….
I do not think that I can protect you from what’s coming.
“She knows.” My voice was too low. I could barely hear myself speaking. I cleared my throat and tried again. “She knows, but I don’t think that she’s known the entire story for very long. And now she’s trapped. If she exposes the conspiracy, she risks undermining the High Holy Orders and the very structure of Egleian government and society. Huh. And I can only imagine how Syris and Theleia and Taranz — and all of the Petralans they have taken in — would react to the news. Perverting a Primal Rite to destroy one of the oldest cities in the world? That would bring war to our gates, and we would never survive. No hope of that, at all ….”
“So she lays the burden on her daughter?”
The anger that thickened his voice startled me. I sat up, swinging one leg over the edge of the mattress. Cha-Cha huffed and got up to occupy my pillow. “Who else is there?” I swallowed, trying to arrange my thoughts. “Her daughter. She trusts me, knows me. The most powerful necromancer of my generation, definitely in Egleia and probably in all of the neighboring cities, too. A loyal coven. A loyal First Vigilant … who would even defy his own order and First Marshal to protect me ….”
He rolled his head towards me again, studying me in the low light.
“All the rest of this ….” I waved a hand. “The bombings, the attack on the coven house. She had no way to anticipate any of that. It’s not part of the conspiracy she’s trying to expose. It’s completely separate.”
“Petralans driven to avenge their city in their own way. By murdering you and all of Egleia.”
I twisted my hands together. “So … that means that all we have to do is expose an eighty year-old war crime without bringing about another war; somehow, someway, make amends to the survivors, if that’s even possible; keep Egleia from crumbling into anarchy and despair when the truth is revealed; expose a second conspiracy that has already murdered dozens of people and perverted a Primal Rite, and which intends to actually, really destroy Egleia; and bring those conspirators to justice; all without getting killed.”
Silence, soon interrupted by a most unusual sound: Sedgewick was laughing.
It was a wonderful, rich sound.
It liked it. I liked Sedgewick’s laugh.
“Easy,” he huffed between breaths.
I smiled, chuckling a little myself. “Easy.”
Gradually, his laughter faded.
I swallowed, debating what to say next; if I should say it at all. I cleared my throat. “If I tell you something — show you something — do you promise not to tell anyone else?”
That brought me up short, and I stared at him through the low light.
“If there is a chance that this something will put you, or Taz, or Kanady, or even Meritha in danger, than I will absolutely tell if it means keeping you safe.”
I nibbled on the inside of my lip, then pushed aside the blanket. Crossing the room, I sat down opposite Sedgewick, my back to the wall of the panic room. He watched me, one eyebrow raised, and drew in his legs to give me space.
Stalling, I tugged the edge of the blanket over my lap. I immediately felt warmer, and than got warmer still when I felt the fabric heating. I smiled at Sedgewick in gratitude, screwed up my courage, and reached into my pocket.
I pulled out the dragon scale and held it out, palm flat.
Sedgewick picked it up, frowning. His fingers grazed my palm, and my skin tingled.
He went very still.
“Where did you get this?”
His eyes darted between the scale and me, and back again.
“Do you think this is from the dragon of Petral?”
I shrugged. “I don’t see how. The Wheel of Unbecoming unbecomes things. Utterly. There’s nothing left.”
He rotated the scale in his fingers. “So ….”
“We’re not going to say it?”
“No. Or, I’m not. I don’t want to be wrong.”
“Mmm.” He studied the scale for a moment longer, than handed it back to me. “This is definitely staying between us. For now.”
I nodded. “Until we know for sure.” My fingers curled around his, around the scale, holding tight.
“Until we know for sure.”
Dawn came too soon. Or not soon enough. I was still tired, but I was also antsy and anxious.
As the first bits of sunlight trickled over the horizon, I pushed the blankets away and dropped my legs over the side. Sedgwick lay on the floor directly next to the bed. I poked him with my toes.
One eye cracked open, and he mock glared at me.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Mmm.” He wrapped one hand around my ankle, massaging gently, warmth radiating up my leg. I felt some of the tension in my muscles ease.
I wondered what it would be like to get a back massage from him.
Shivering at the thought, I dragged my mind back to the day ahead.
“I should call Ehna. Let her know not to bother coming over.”
“Really?” Sedgewick pushed himself upright, muscles flexing. “You’re worried about your physical therapy appointment? Now?”
“What?” I shrugged. “It would be rude not to let her know.”
“Mmm,” he said again and climbed to his feet. Neatly folding the blanket and draping the pillow over it, he fixed me with a hard look. “I’ll call her. And don’t take too long to pack, or pack too much. One bag. You just need clothes, and sturdy boots. Dalis and Operr spent most of yesterday getting the vehicles stocked with supplies.” He paused, his gaze going distant for a moment. Then he nodded. “Understood.” He turned back to me. “First Vigilant Armeia is already here, with her contingent of Zoemantic Vigilants.”
“She can wait.”
“Agreed.” He lightly traced one finger down my cheek. “I’ll see you downstairs.”
Thirty-two minutes later, I was in the living room, an overstuffed duffel bag in my hands. A couple of other bags that I recognized as belonging to Taz and Kanady lay next to the front door, which remained solid and in place. The third bag was purple and ratty, the straps barely holding together; the crest of the Law Enforcement and Order Academy was barely visible on one side. Hard, angular objects that looked a lot like guns and knives poked at the fabric from the inside.
Through the window to the side of the door, I could see an entire convoy of vehicles filling the driveway and part of the street.
The neighbors would be thrilled.
Meritha stepped out of the kitchen, huge travel mug of coffee in hand.
She grinned. “Thanks. Had it for ages. Never go anywhere without it.” She took a sip, and sobered. “You ready?”
“I have been asking myself and everyone else that a great deal lately. The answer has to be yes.”
Footsteps pounded down the stairs. Taz had tied her hair up into a tight bun, and was wearing practical, heavy, black clothing; not at all her usual vibrant colors. Kanady had followed suit, but had the ugly orange knit hat that Grieta had gifted them in one hand.
We all looked at one another solemnly.
“Last chance to stay home,” Meritha said, eying each of us.
“Here’s not any safer,” Taz muttered.
Kanady pulled on the hat. “Too many mysteries coming to a resolution. I am not going to miss that.”
Taz rolled her eyes.
The door to Sedgewick’s bedroom opened, and he and Dalis and Operr stepped out. They were in full armor, faces covered by red skull hoods. They walked confidently, swords and knives and pistols at their backs and sides, armor gleaming a dark red. The upside down quadruple triangles on their chests glinted in the pale light coming through the window.
The three Vigilants paused, and we found ourselves standing in a rough circle.
I looked around at all of them. With the exception of my mother, the most important people in my life were right here. Taz and Kanady and Meritha. And Sedgewick, stoic and seemingly disapproving, who had come into our lives at a moment of loss and crisis, and taken care of us. And, I was coming to realize, Operr and Dalis; little more than names and faces even a few days ago, they were quickly becoming as important to me as my coven mates.
I could almost feel of the weight of the dragon scale, carefully tucked into a pocket inside my shirt, right against my chest.
I took Taz’ hand on one side, and Sedgewick’s on the other. Around the circle, Operr and Dalis appearing surprised at first, but then joining in. And Meritha, even though it meant that Kanady had to grab her elbow.
“A terrible thing happened. We’re going to tell the world. And another terrible thing might happen. But we’ll stop it. Clear?”
Sedgewick’s fingers tightened around mine.
“Then let’s go.”
Dalis tapped the ironwood door — “Achiya” — and we stepped out into the dawn.
[End Part Seventeen. Part Eighteen appears in the April 2022 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]