Texts flew blew and forth between Taz and Kanady. They talked over one another, sometimes typing the same thing. All caps, no caps, no punctuation, run-on sentences, desperate and breathless.

Did you see that? Did you? The trees! The trees are dying what is happening to the trees? Is it spreading its spreading holy creators ITS SPREADING dragon dying ITS SPREADING —

I typed deliberately. Stop.

The screen went still, the previous messages floating on the black background.

Kanady, you first.

A long moment when nothing happened, when I hoped they were collecting their thoughts.  

Dragons are earth elementals. The next few sentences came slowly. Cities are built on a grid, north, south, east, west. Dragons were under the oldest cities, which were a long way from one another. Weeks to travel. Newer cities were built between the older ones. 

Taz jumped in. Egleia squished between Theleia, Taranz, and Petral.

And? I prompted.

The dragon under Petral didn’t support just that city. I think. Maybe. Hypothetically.

My fingers felt numb as I typed. So now the other cities will die, too.

… Maybe. Hypothetically. Yes. Probably.

I sucked in a breath. The dragon scale was a warm weight against my chest, through the fabric of my shirt.

Sedgewick reached over and rested his hand on my leg.

I drew a second, steadier breath, relieved at his touch, and held out my phone to him. I could see his eyes moving through the slits in his mask as he read through the messages. His only reaction was a low grunt, and then he turned back to the window.

“Care to share with the rest of the class?” Meritha called back from the front seat. “This about the ironwood trees? ‘Cause I’m a trained observer, you know.”

“Yep. Just a second.” 

Taz front loaded her text with a dozen question marks, then asked, Why haven’t we heard anything from Theleia? Taranz? Even Syris to the south?

I answered first — Egleia is closer — followed immediately by Kanady’s — They may have been hit already, but don’t know what it is. And no city wants to announce that their ironwood trees and wards are dying.

“Hellooo,” Meritha sang.

Gritting my teeth in exasperation, I leaned forward far enough to pass my phone to her through the seats. My back twinged.

Phone in one hand, Meritha glanced back and forth between the screen, and the road and vehicle ahead. “Well, shit,” she muttered. “How are we supposed to fix that?”

I glanced over at Sedgewick. He gave a quick shake of his head. No.

Nothing about the dragon scale. The new dragon scale. Not yet. 

Meritha bent her elbow awkwardly, passing the phone back to me just as another text popped up from Taz. There was a hopeless edge to it as she mirrored Meritha’s question. 

How can we stop it? How can we possibly heal the earth, save all these cities, all these people? How?

***

We continued south. Hours passed. The sun rose higher, wintery light growing gradually brighter before being lost behind thick clouds just after noon. The day turned gray. The wind picked up, pushing against the vehicles. To either side of the road, the wide swath of meadowland outside the city walls quickly gave way to scrubby trees and prickly shrubs. Spidery cracks appeared in the asphalt, and then shallow holes filled with ice and water.

My back stiffened, forcing me to do slow bends and twists to maintain some flexibility. I would be lucky if I could walk by the time we stopped for the night.

The connection dots on my phone dropped. Five to four, and then to three.

I repeated what Officer Derys had told me. Two other grants of passage. A couple of weeks ago, and last spring. Never returned.

Comforting, was Taz’ sarcastic response.

A flutter of black attracted my attention, and Sedgewick’s, as well. The seat shifted as he leaned to peer around me.

The ravens flew alongside our convoy. Wings spread wide, tails flared, beaks open, they cawed loudly. Excited.

A flash of reddish-gold, and I understood their excitement. My breath caught. The vehicle jerked and swerved, and Meritha swore loudly as her attention was momentarily caught.

A qrow flew among the ravens. The fire elemental was smaller than its brethren, black in its center, feathers gradually lightening to red and then gold and then brightest white flame. The air wavered around it, steam curling a trail in its wake.

The qrow called out, startling the ravens, who dipped and flapped. The air heated, expanded, the sudden burst of wind rattling bare tree branches and setting a handful of small shrubs aflame.

“Fuck me,” Meritha muttered. “Varney is never going to believe me. Somebody take a fucking picture!

With another call, lighting an entire tree on fire this time, the qrow swiped its wings through the air and rose up, up, up, disappearing among the clouds.

***

The trees and shrubs thinned out. We entered another meadowy area, grasslands interspersed with widely-spaced, bare-branched trees. They were dark shadows and smears in the grayish light, and the grass was a deep brown-gold. I could almost hear the brittle stalks rubbing against one another in the wind.

The ravens continued to follow us, sometimes darting ahead, sometimes back. They would disappear and then return, flying parallel to the convoy for a time before flying off again.

Sedgewick touched my leg again, his fingers light. “Alys.” When I looked up, he tipped his head towards his window.

I leaned towards him, peering through the glass towards the east.

Green hills moved across the landscape.

No. Not hills. Grass tortoises. 

A thicket of the gigantic reptiles — the smallest was easily twice the size of our vehicle — was moving slowly through the fields, in and among the trees. Whereas the grass of the meadow was winter brown, the pastures growing on their shells were bright green, and sprinkled with wildflowers. If we had been closer, I could have seen the birds and squirrels and insects that made their habitat on the backs of the tortoises.

Some of those birds and squirrels and insects were completely unique, evolving and living only in the biome that grew on the shell of a single tortoise. When the tortoise’s long, long life eventually came to an end, the shell would remain, creating a micro ecosystem.

One of the parks in Petral had featured such a tortoise hill. It had already been there when the city was founded millennia ago, with the Petralans constructing their roads and homes around it.

I wondered if the hill was still there, if the tortoise shell had somehow proved resistant to the death of the dragon. 

Somehow, I doubted it.

***

We munched on protein bars and pudding cups. Sedgewick cautioned me against drinking too much water, too quickly. Apparently, Taz did not get the same warning, or she ignored it.

I HAD TO PEE IN A BAG, followed by a dozen exclamation marks. 

Kanady responded with a snarky smile and an enthusiastic thumb’s up.

“Tell the children to behave,” Sedgewick said. At my inquiring look, he tapped his ear. “Dalis did not appreciate having to explain how the bag works, and apparently Kanady is laughing so hard that Magnis is afraid they’ll hyperventilate.”

I typed a quick Boss says be good then asked him, “How long do you think your ear mics will work?”

“Not as long as the phones. Coms are already staticky. They work off the same towers, but have a lot less power.”

The vehicle made a wide pass around a deep hole in the road, Meritha spinning the wheel. “Road’s getting rapidly worse, too. We should’ve brought horses. Or motorcycles. I look good on a motorcycle.”

“I’m sure that you do,” Sedgewick deadpanned.

She looked in the rearview mirror and stuck out her tongue. Then her expression changed suddenly, morphing in a moment into grim alertness.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Something up ahead,” she answered vaguely.

I strained, but could hear nothing from either of their ear mics. Sitting forward, pressing against my safety belt, did no good, either. I couldn’t see around the vehicle carrying Taz.

Her texts popped to life on my phone. Abandoned vehicle. Recent, not old. Looks like it was heading south.

Then a picture. It was at a bad angle and through the windshield and front passenger window. Heavy duty, all black. The two tires that I could see were shredded and there were massive dents in the side. Three of the windows had shattered, exposing the interior.

I could see a skull.

And then we were driving past the abandoned vehicle, too, tires spitting ice and gravel. Almost too fast for me to see it — the wisp of milky light, jumping and lurching in agitation.

I spun around in my seat, back twinging, yelling, “Stop! Turn around!”

“Absolutely not,” Sedgewick snapped.

“No, you don’t understand.” My phone was pinging wildly. Kanady and Taz had seen it, too. “There’s a higher soul. I don’t know why it’s still there, but it is. We could question it, and then perform the Rite of the Ascendancy.”

I could see his jaw working behind his mask, and his eyes were narrowed.

Sedgewick turned his head towards the front seat. Meritha shrugged in the mirror, her gaze darting back and forth between us and the road ahead. “Could be worth it. And it’s pretty flat here. Trees are sparse. Be difficult for anything to sneak up on us.”

“That’s not what concerns me.”

My phone was still pinging madly.

Sedgewick growled and pressed a hand to his ear. Meritha made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort. 

The vehicle ahead swerved left, then right, and came to an abrupt stop at an angle across the road. Meritha pulled our vehicle to a much more dignified halt, followed by the vehicles carrying Kanady and Armeia and her Zoemantic Vigilants.

My phone rang. The connection dots had dropped from three to two, and they flashed a yellow warning. I tapped the speaker button.

“Did you see it?” Taz yelled. “We have to go back!” Her determined, almost frantic, tone was completely at odds with the picture of her I had saved to the screen: over-sized sunglasses, big grin, hair a rainbow of reds, pinks, and yellows.

The phone beeped again and Kanady’s picture slipped into place, splitting the screen. They squinted up at me; or us. “Whoever that higher soul is, they might know something about the two previous groups sent from Egleia. We need to go question it.”

Taz scowled. “That’s what I just said.” 

I lifted my head, tilting it in question at Sedgewick.

After a long moment, he sighed. Pointing a finger at me, he said, “You will do exactly what I say.” 

“So long as it does not interfere in my duty to this higher soul, agreed. Yes.”

He rolled his eyes and sat back. “Dalis, turn us around. We’re going back to the wreck.”

My phone clicked off before I could hear the echo of her answer. A moment after that, the vehicle ahead of us backed up, then forward, then back again, before pulling around and creeping past us. I couldn’t see Taz or Dalis or young Acher through the tinted windows. Then it was our turn, and then the vehicle carrying Kanady, spinning around one by one to retrace our route, back to the mysterious ruin and the higher soul who waited there.

***

Getting out of our vehicles took entirely too long. Sedgewick ordered me to stay put. Then he ordered Meritha to stay put. She saluted. He ignored the gesture, climbed out, and proceeded to investigate the area with Acher and Magnis. Acher’s sword towered over his head, and it was easily the width of his thigh.

Sedgewick’s flaming sword was still more impressive.

They circled around and around, checking the abandoned vehicle, the road, the grass to either side. Sedgewick walked so far out among the grass and bare trees that I almost lost sight of him.

Finally, he returned and lifted his hand.

“Okay,” Meritha said. “But one of us will be sticking close to you at all times.”

She shoved her door open before I could answer, stepping back to open my door. I followed her, gingerly setting my feet on the cracked and frozen asphalt, waiting for my back to stop twitching. The wind stung my cheeks and tugged at my hair. Now I really could hear the stalks of grass rubbing and snapping against one another.

It was an unexpectedly mournful sound.

Kanady moved into view, their back to me as they studied the vehicle and the higher soul, Operr at their side.

“Looks like something hit them.” They waved a hand, encircling the large dents that bent the chassis and the frame underneath.

“Unitaurs,” Meritha said. When I blinked at her in surprise, she shrugged. “Those are hoof impressions, not grille or bumper marks. And I can see a small amount of blood and skin caught in the seam of the door. Trained observer, remember? Comes in handy when I’m trying to catch bad guys. Wanna move this along?” 

Meritha’s gaze slid to the two vehicles at the end of the convoy. First Vigilant Armeia had emerged, along with three of her companions; she had her mask up, and her eyes were narrowed.

“I don’t like being out here in the open.”

I looked around. Meritha had spoken truthfully. She remained close to me, with Operr close to Kanady and Dalis right on Taz’ heels. Sedgewick and Magnis and Acher were spread out in a loose circle, keeping themselves between us and the Zoemantic Vigilants, and whatever else might be waiting in the grass.

Like feral unitaurs.

Or treacherous Zoemantic Vigilants.

Nodding in understanding, I turned my attention to the higher soul; for now, questions about why unitaurs would attack a vehicle would have to wait.

The soul was still just barely a wisp of milky light. It was … stuck. Not evolving. This could not be the soul’s true, final form. Could it? It was too small, too pathetic.

Unless this person had lived a truly pitiable life. One without compassion or curiosity or courage. In that case, perhaps this wisp was the soul’s true form; a tiny fluff of almost nothing, the end result of a life not lived. 

For a moment, I was back in the woods outside the refugee camp, watching Inirin’s higher soul change. She had quickly lost her human form after physical death, transforming into a magnificent, opalescent crow.

This soul — whoever they had been in life — had been nothing like Inirin.

I felt Taz come up beside me. “That has to be one of the saddest things I have ever seen,” she whispered.

There was no condemnation in her voice. Only concern and pity.

Gravel and ice crackled under First Vigilant Armeia’s boots as she strode over to us; her companions remained behind. “Is this necessary? We’re wasting time. This soul —” she waved a hand towards the ruined vehicle “ — will still be here when we return from Petral. Exorcise it then.”

Taz gasped, hand flying to her mouth. Kanady turned and stared at Armeia in disgust. Even Meritha looked shocked at the use of such a vulgar term.

I drew a deep breath. Anger roiled through my belly. But I had already explained myself to Armeia once, my duty and calling to serve the dead. If she had not listened then, she would not now.

“Come.” I took Taz by the hand. “Let’s send this soul on to the Creators. But first, let’s ask it a few questions.”

[End Part Nineteen. Part Twenty will appear in the June 2022 issue of ev0ke: witchcraft*paganism*lifestyle.]

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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