[For those who would like to start at the beginning, The Necromancer’s Guide starts here.]
Othinith led us to one of the few stone structures inside the walls of the refugee camp. This part of Egleia had once been semi-wild parkland, a mixture of forest and meadow. Hunting had been prohibited, but wild gathering, camping, and hiking were allowed, and small stone buildings had been scattered around for citizens to use as overnight shelters.
The refugees from Petral had converted the shelters as best they could, turning them into small homes for their cherished elders; the people who knew the stories and history and rites of their ancestral city.
Sedgewick stepped through the door ahead of us, swept the room with a single gaze, and waved us in after him. He shoved the door shut and moved to the side, putting his back to the wall.
Half a dozen beds crowded this particular shelter, three to either side. They were all occupied, the elders half-buried under blankets, propped up by old pillows; a few of them moaned in fear, while others were silent. A fireplace along the back wall burned with a weak, elemental fire; there wasn’t enough wood or other fuel to sustain a normal fire and apparently the pyromancer who had created it didn’t have the power to make it any larger or warmer. The windows were hidden behind heavy curtains. Electric lanterns on the table in the center of the room and a pair of bulbs dangling from the ceiling provided a bit of artificial light.
A middle-aged woman stepped into view, braided hair pulled into a loose tail, a long knife in one hand and a small flicker of flame in the other. She must have been behind the door. Sedgewick didn’t so much as twitch. How he had seen her in that quick glance, I had no idea.
She glared at Othinith, then at us. “Why are the Eggies raiding? Who are they after?” She scowled harder. “And who are you? I don’t recognize you two.”
“Knife down, Eregrin. And put out that so-called fire.” Othinith waved a hand at the flame that wavered in the other woman’s palm. “They’re here to talk to Rithin. He awake and coherent?”
A series of loud bangs outside. I could feel the vibrations in my feet.
“Gas canisters?” I asked Sedgewick and he nodded, otherwise silent.
“Coherent enough.” Eregrin shrugged. She lowered her hands. The flame went out and she tucked the knife into a sheath at her back. She tilted her chin at the door, where more bangs could be heard, and shouting and running. “All of this isn’t going to help, though.”
Othinith moved a step to the side and pointed towards the middle bed on the left. “Better make it quick. And try not to agitate him.”
My jaw flexed. We would be questioning him about the death of his city. Agitation was an unavoidable given.
I grabbed a chair from the center table and carefully maneuvered between the beds. The legs scraped against the stone. The man — the very very old man, easily a century, but probably older — looked up at me slowly. He leaned against a small mountain of pillows, blankets piled over his thin frame. I could barely see the outline of his body through the layers. His hands were folded over his belly, spotted and heavily wrinkled. The knuckles were swollen. His eyes were clouded and wet.
I lowered myself onto the chair. It leaned alarmingly to one side and I had to brace my foot to keep from falling over.
“Vigilant Lal Rithin, it is an honor to meet you. I am Alys duMar, Necromancer. I know that this will cause you pain, and I apologize, but I must ask you questions. Questions about the last days of Petral.”
A long, slow blink. His mouth twitched, followed by a raspy hmph. “I knew.” He coughed. “I knew, after she left. I knew that someone would come. It would be so.”
I frowned, ignoring my phone as it vibrated again. “I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”
Rithin coughed again. His hand uncurled, reaching for a dirty cloth near the edge of the bed.
I picked it up and gently pressed it to his mouth. When he had finished coughing, I wiped his mouth and laid the cloth back down on the bed.
He nodded once in thanks. When he spoke, his voice was harsh with phlegm. “Esyllt. Daughter of my son’s daughter’s daughter.”
It took me a moment to sort out the archaic language. Great-great-granddaughter.
I cast a quick glance towards Eregrin. Her arms were crossed and she was glaring at me, but there was an edge of desperation and worry to her expression. Othinith stood silently beside her, watching me, the eyebrow over her one good eye raised. The scar across her other eyes was pulled tight.
Shifting on the seat, I turned my attention back to the elderly man. “I am very sorry to hear that, Vigilant Rithin. I must ask you, though: what can you tell me about the last days of Petral? How did — how did the city die?” I leaned towards him. “Tell me, please: was there a dragon?”
Someone in the room sucked in a breath.
Rithin blinked rapidly. His hands scratched at the blankets. “I am cold, Necromancer.”
The fire in the hearth rose higher, not suddenly, but steadily. It filled the stone hollow, light and warmth spilling across the room. The flames were red-orange at first, brightening to golden yellow.
I glanced at Sedgewick. He shrugged ever so slightly, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. A quick look at the screen, followed by rapid typing. He tucked the phone away and made a hurry up motion towards me.
Sliding back around, I focused my attention on Rithin. His gaze had drifted towards the fire.
“Vigilant.” I reached out a hand, lightly touching his arm. His head slowly lifted, his eyes seeming to fix on me. “Was there a dragon?”
“Secret. The Grandparent knew. The High Holy Orders —” a hard, terrible cough “ — knew. All knew, back to the beginning. The very beginning of Petral. And the Vigilant. Me. First Vigilant to the Grandparent.” He nodded, lifting a shaking hand towards his own chest, the motion jerky. “It was beautiful.” Tears and cloudy mucus rolled down his cheeks. He drew a long breath, steadying his words. “It lived in the caves beneath the Pyramid. That’s why the Pyramid was there. Why the city was there. That’s where the dragon was. It could flow through the earth like water. Like earth itself. Its horns were like ironwood trees. It breathed lava and, when it laughed, flowers bloomed along its back.” Rithin frowned, his gaze growing distant. He drew another long breath, his words fading. “And then it died. Terrible. So terrible.”
I swallowed hard.
My phone wouldn’t stop vibrating. Irritated, I reached inside my jacket and flicked it off.
Meritha would be pissed.
Leaning forward, I gently squeezed Rithin’s arm, drawing his attention back to me. “How did the dragon die?”
There was a pause, and I wasn’t sure if the elderly Vigilant had even heard my question. But then his head lifted and his gaze locked onto me, even through the milky stains of his eyes. “Egleians. I don’t know how they got into the city, but they did. Down to the bottom of the Pyramid, the very depths. Murdered the Grandparent, the other Zoemancers. Terrible. So terrible. I saw only the very end. The dragon couldn’t even scream. Just twisting round and round as … pieces of it broke away, faded, burned. And the man …. That poor man ….” Opaque tears rolled down Rithin’s cheeks. “He couldn’t scream either.”
More bangs outside, and more screaming, and what might have been gunfire.
“Vigilant Rithin.” I licked my lips. I was squeezing his arm too hard. I loosened my grip, flinching in shame at the marks I had surely left. “I need to know exactly what you saw.” I scooted forward on the chair, nearly losing my balance. I caught myself, pressing my foot hard against the stone. The sudden tightening of my muscles made my back spasm. I flinched again at the twinge of pain. “It looked like an elemental altar, yes? But not?”
A slow nod.
“How many people were there? Four? Six?”
“Six.” Rithin coughed again, then angled towards me, one hand dropping from his belly to lie limp atop the blanket. “The circle drawn in the earth, and the four cardinal lines. North, south, east, west. An ironwood pole in their hands while they sang the song. That terrible song. That poor man in the center. Floating, twisting, as he tore apart. His breath first, then his blood, then the fire of his heart, then his body. Then finally his soul. ” The old Vigilant sneered, his expression curdling with disgust. “The Zoemancer beneath him. The Egleian Zoemancer. Kneeling, her arms up. Smiling. She was smiling while she sang, and the man came apart, and the dragon came apart, and they both came to nothing. … Nothing …..”
Something slammed hard against the side of the building. The other elders were whimpering and crying in their beds. Othinith stood grim and silent. Eregrin’s arms were crossed, and her expression of desperation and worry had given way to open weeping.
“We should go.” Sedgewick tugged his hat further down his head.
“Just one more question, Vigilant Rithin. I am so sorry. The song. Do you remember the words from the song?”
His expression changed again, hard and angry. “The First Tongue. They sang creation’s speech to unmake creation. The Calling of the Elements at the Dawn of a New Soul. But they sang it wrong.”
His hand curled around, grabbing my wrist. I jumped, forcing myself to not pull away and risk injuring him.
“Wrong. It hurt to hear it.” Tears pooled and dribbled out of his eyes again. “It hurt me. I could not … help. Stop them. I fell. I thought I would never rise again. They left. Just left. Walked away.” He turned, the fire illuminating the deep lines of his face. “Took me three days to crawl out of the Pyramid. The water was poison, then. Sickness. The ground wouldn’t stop shaking. The orchards and fields all rotted. My wife found me. I couldn’t walk. She carried me. Here. Here. To the city that murdered us.”
Screaming outside, and running feet, and the wild neighing of horses.
“Why did you murder us?”
I was weeping. My face was hot and wet, and my chest was too tight as air sawed in and out of my lungs.
A hand settled on my shoulder.
I looked up to find Sedgewick standing over me, his expression stoic and grim.
“Now,” he said.
I felt my head bob in acknowledgement. Rising on shaking legs, I opened my mouth to thank Vigilant Rithin. But saying thank you felt vulgar, uncaring. And his head was turned away, his gaze distant.
Drawing a breath, I stepped around Sedgewick.
Othinith was scowling at me, her eyebrows drawn together, the scar an angry red. Eregrin stared at the floor, arms wrapped around her chest.
“Well?” Othinith asked. She waved a hand at the door and the horrible sounds outside. “Was all this worth it?”
“No,” I answered.
She blinked at me.
“Not yet. But it will be.” My fingers curled tight. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Othinith led us in a winding, confusing path through the refugee camp. Many of the tents had been knocked over and torn. The scraps of debris that had been hammered into rough buildings had been scattered and trampled into the frozen dirt. The air was smoky, and the traces of gas made my throat itch. People ran all around us, in every direction. Others limped, or just staggered in shock. Many of them were bleeding.
Sedgewick kept a firm grip on my arm, his body pressed close.
“When did Esyllt leave?”
Othinith threw a distracted look at him over her shoulder. “What?” She dodged out of the way as man came hurtling down the path clutching a pile of books. He stumbled around us, eyes wide, and disappeared around a tent.
“Esyllt, Vigilant Rithin’s great-great —”
“Yes, I know who she is, thank you. Why are you asking?”
“I’m curious as to the timing.”
Othinith stopped and swung around, her jaw set. “You think Esyllt is connected to this … what did you call it? Great crime against the Creators?” She huffed. “Leave it to you to insult me and make me laugh at the same time. Esyllt is a child. Not even fifteen yet. Not old enough to braid her hair, let alone pervert some Primal Rite to get revenge for the death of a city she’s never seen. That her mother didn’t see, or her grandmother.”
“She knew about the dragon.”
Othinith rolled her good eye. “Everyone knew about the dragon. Or, we’d all heard the story, at least. Rithin likes to tell stories, and it’s not always …. He came out of Petral more damaged then most, and being stuck in Egleia didn’t help him any. We’re not always sure of what he’s telling us is history, fable, sacred tale, or just his own nightmares.”
She turned on her heel and I hastened to follow, Sedgewick’s grip still tight on my arm. “You didn’t believe him? About the dragon? And the perverted Rite?”
I heard the bang of gas canisters and a loud, rolling crash as a series of shelters tumbled to the ground.
“Eventually.” Othinith had to shout to be heard. “The city fell too fast, so you Eggies did something. The dragon dying fits.”
I felt Sedgewick’s fingers flex around my arm.
Othinith stumbled too a sudden halt as a rider on horseback leapt in front of her, shield obscuring their face. Another appeared behind us, rifle in-hand. And then two Necromantic Vigilants, armor splattered with mud and other fluids, swords and knives at the ready.
Sedgewick shoved me between him and Othinith, turning to face the Vigilants.
“Been looking for you two.”
Meritha stepped into view. Her jacket was torn and her ear muffs were gone. Dried blood framed her nose and one corner of her mouth, and an ugly bruise was forming on her left cheek.
No smile. No joking. I had never seen her so angry.
She lifted a pair of handcuffs.
“Been looking for you. You are so absolutely under arrest.”
[End Part Thirteen. Part Fourteen appears in the December 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]