I fell asleep. I actually, truly, really fell asleep. The exhaustion and anxiety had finally caught up with me. I didn’t even dream; there was only darkness. I woke up to find Sedgewick leaning around from the front seat, gently shaking my shoulder.
I blinked and caught Meritha’s expression in the rear view mirror. It was probably a good idea that he had woken me, and not her. Meritha would have done something she found amusing — like shove an ice cube down my collar.
(And she would have found an ice cube, somehow.)
“We’re ten minutes out from the camp.” Sedgwick tipped his head at the armor I still wore. “You need to change.”
“Right. Yep.” I pushed myself upright and realized that he had already changed. I could see the very top of his bodysuit under a stained, long-sleeved shirt. A knit cap mashed down his hair, and torn, fingerless gloves covered his hands. I had no idea what he had done with his sword.
A bag of clothes waited for me on the next seat.
I struggled out of the armor. I tugged on the breast plate too hard and accidentally slammed it against the ceiling. I almost twisted off my right leg trying to remove the greave. Sedgewick flinched a few times and I saw his fingers twitch as he fought the urge to do it properly.
“Five minutes,” Meritha prompted.
“Working on it,” I grunted, pulling on a ragged shirt and sweater over my head. My back twinged. Baggy pants were next and a scarf, which I wound over my head and around my neck. “Um, what about my boots? Our boots?”
“We hope no one notices,” Meritha answered.
The vehicle slowed, but didn’t stop.
I peered through the tinted windows. We were near the southern wall. I had slept through the entire drive from the coven house, through the residential districts, around the wide circle of streets, through the apiaries and orchards, and into the parklands. This particular area was mostly grassy fields with wide-spaced trees.
Or it had been, in years past.
A high metal wall, taller than the coven house, rose up to our left. It stretched for a good mile in either direction, running parallel to the city’s outer wall. It had been built decades ago, a desperate attempt by the High Holy Orders of Egleia to contain the refugees from Petral. It had failed. There were simply too many. They had spilled out of the enclosure, building rough houses of tent fabric and metal sheets and whatever other debris they could find. As they spread out, seeking space and supplies, the field was trampled flat, alternately turning to mud or freezing with the change of seasons. The trees were cut down or ripped out, leaving stumps and gouges in the earth.
Meritha cranked the wheel, bumping over ruts, pulling around a small huddle of children. They looked up as we drove past, too skinny, too angry.
More looping as Meritha navigated around people and shelters. Refugees by the hundreds wandered aimlessly or played cards or dice.
I caught sight of agents from the Office of Law and Enforcement patrolling here and there, most on foot, a few on horseback, guns and knives holstered but ready.
The refugees gave them a wide berth, glaring after them.
The main gate of the refugee compound came into view. It gaped open. There had been large double doors with wide horizontal bars, so that it could be locked from the outside. After the bombing last spring, when citizens of Egleia had stormed the camp, the doors had been heavily damaged. One had been ripped from its hinges and left where it fell.
The doors had never been repaired or replaced.
A semi-circle of official vehicles now arced in front of the gate, their lights flashing. There was a unit of officers on horseback, too, shields obscuring their faces. A few officers and Vigilants had exited their vehicles, exchanging dark looks with the refugees who clustered just a few feet away. I could see the latter muttering to one another, breath misting in the cold.
Meritha drove past the gate, then swung the vehicle around, facing the semi-circle. We were so close to the wall of the refugee compound that I wouldn’t be able to open my door all the way.
One of the agents, hand resting on the butt of his pistol, started towards us.
“Wait until the noise starts,” Meritha said. She clicked off the engine, motioning for us to get out of sight. I crouched as low as I could, wedging myself into the space between the front and back seats. I could barely hear her as she continued, “Get in, ask your questions. Thirty minutes. Then I’m arresting you. Keep your phones on, but silent. Clear?”
She didn’t wait for a response, instead shoving open the door. She slammed it shut almost immediately, but I caught the crunch of her boots and the words, “We ready to go, Derien, or what?”
I couldn’t make out his response.
Horses clattering. Car doors slamming.
Then a whoosh of air and a loud voice. Meritha, but someone had summoned wind, funneling and expanding her words so that they carried through the gate and across the compound.
“Citizens of Petral! By order of the Office of Law and Enforcement and the Guild of Necromantic Vigilants, you are required to present yourselves for inspection and questioning. Failure to do so will result in immediate detention. I repeat — hey! Wrong direction! Line up! Over here!”
Another whoosh of air and her words were lost. I could make out indistinct shouting, low rumbling, horses neighing, more car doors slamming, running.
I peered over the top of the seat and through the front windshield. There was no sign of Meritha or Derien or any of the other officers or Vigilants. A single pair of mounted officers remained, apparently guarding the now empty vehicles.
The refugees outside the gates were no longer wandering aimlessly or playing games. They had formed their own semi-circle, surrounding the vehicles. They were muttering louder now, faces twisted with anger.
A woman ran out of the compound. Then a small group of men and children, then another person. Refugees, fleeing the raid. Some were walking quickly, others limping, others running. When they hit the semi-circle of official vehicles they pushed through the gaps, joining the growing crowd outside the compound, or stopping completely, uncertain where to go.
The pair of horses pranced, tossing their heads as people shoved and clumped around them.
Shouts from inside the gates, getting louder, angrier.
Sedgewick’s head appeared above the seat. “Change of plans. This is already too dangerous. We’re le —”
I pushed open the passenger door, grabbing it just in time to keep it from cracking against the wall of the compound. I twisted and slid out of the vehicle, crouching and closing the door.
Sedgewick shoved open his own door, leaning through the gap to glare at me. “Get. Back. In.”
It was getting louder. Feet pounding against the ground, voices raised.
“This is our only chance. If there’s someone here who can answer even a few of our questions, we have to try. Now. Or we go into Petral even more blind than we already are.”
He glared at me for a beat longer, then pushed his door open as wide as it would go. I scooted back, giving him barely enough room to drop to the ground. He crouched, shut the door, then leaned towards me. His breath skimmed across my cheek. “You are never out of my reach, and you follow any order I give you, without question.”
I nodded once, swallowing.
He waited another beat, as if trying to judge my sincerity. Then, expression grim, he turned and edged towards the front of the vehicle.
I followed, my legs and back protesting the awkward scuttling position. When he stopped, I paused, laying my hand to his back, and peeked over his shoulder.
The space in front of the gates was packed with people, elderly and young alike. They were pressed up against the vehicles, rocking them back and forth. The horses were twisting and prancing, and the officers had pulled their pistols and now held them in their hands.
Someone was going to get killed. Maybe several people.
And then I heard sirens. Lots of sirens.
The refugees who had clustered in front of the gate scattered. Some made for their ramshackle shelters. Others fled back inside the compound, shoving and hitting one another.
Tires screeched, spitting clumps of frozen mud. Doors slammed. Another whoosh of air and a loud voice that I didn’t recognize yelling, “Return to the enclosure immediately! All citizens of the former city of Petral will return to their designated area of habitation immediately!”
Sedgewick grabbed my hand and tugged me forward. I stood, stepping into the crowd, and was immediately swept into the chaos. An elbow rammed into my ribs. Someone stepped on my foot, kicked my ankle. I caught only a brief glimpse of another dozen vehicles, including a horse transport, and a swarm of officers with shields and batons and guns. And then we were through the gates, running through the compound, people screaming and crying around us.
I clung to Sedgewick, my fingers grabbing his hand tight. We ran. My breath sawed in my lungs. We dodged around people, around tents, around shelters, following the crude paths. Screaming and the pounding of my own heart filled my ears. I smelled smoke and mud. The cold bit into my cheeks, stung my eyes. Down one rough pathway after another, in and out among the shelters. An officer over there forcing a refugee back towards the gate, a Vigilant over that direction, hauling a bleeding refugee to his feet.
A child. Crying.
I skidded to a halt, stumbling, dragging Sedgewick to a stop.
I might have spoken. I couldn’t hear myself. It was so loud.
Sedgewick wouldn’t let go.
I bent and picked up the child, one armed. Maybe two years of age, missing her shoes. She was crying. I hauled her against my chest. She kept crying.
We started running again, slower this time. Jogging, keeping close to the shelters, away from the center of the paths.
Sedgewick stopped. I bumbled into his back, twisting at the last moment. I hit him at an angle, my shoulder taking the brunt of the impact instead of the child. He glanced quickly over his shoulder, eyes falling and rising quickly to check me for injuries. Then he turned away and rapped on the door of the building.
I tilted my head back, squinting against the cold sunlight.
It had changed little since last winter, when I had been summoned to assist the angry spirits who refused to move on. It was simple wood, but a proper structure with solid walls and windows and a door and a roof. It had been a “gift” from the Temple of Khura, built not long after the war ended; it was supposed to serve as a temporary residence and sacred precinct for the High Holy Order Hydromancer of Petral, who had survived the war and the plagues and the long walk to Egleia. Then, the building had been covered in colorful paintings, splashes of brilliance meant to cheer the refugees and remind them of the beauty of the Rite of Rain and Seas.
The Hydromancer had died only weeks after arriving, and the colors had long faded to shades of grey.
No Hydromancer had lived here since. Instead, the building had been occupied by a succession of speakers meant to liaise with the High Holy Orders of Egleia; the speakers had been variously elected by the refugees or self-appointed through fear and bribery.
I wasn’t sure how Othinith had come to be speaker for the refugees, but she had held the position longer than anyone — even through the riots and arson and forced expulsions last spring. And she had walked with Grieta and I last winter, not leaving my side over the entire day as I moved around the compound, coaxing those angry higher souls into leaving the mundane world.
She had even said thank you, helping me to the car when I could barely walk, while Grieta kept watch.
Sedgewick knocked again.
The door shifted open a crack. An eye glared out at us. “Seek shelter at the hospital or the circle, my kindred. If you’re wanted by the Eggies, surrender, and the Four watch over you.”
I leaned around Sedgewick, balancing the little girl on my hip. She was sniffling now, fingers wound tight through my ragged sweater. “Othinith, we need to speak with you. Please, let us in.”
The eye widened, blinked. The door slipped open a bit more. “Necromancer? What do you want?”
A cluster of frantic refugees raced down the pathway. Hands and elbows slammed into my back and shoulders, pushing me into Sedgewick. The little girl started to cry again.
Sedgewick didn’t ask. He rammed his hand against the door, knocking Othinith back. He stepped forward, paused in the entry, took a quick look in, and then pulled me in ahead of him. He squeezed to the side, free hand on my hip, and kicked the door shut behind us.
Othinith crossed her arms, her one good eye narrowed in annoyance. Her greying braids were pulled up into a coronet, and the holes in her coat had been neatly patched with other bits of fabric and thread.
Sedgewick finally released my hand. I missed the feel of it, the weight and comfort.
Pushing that thought away, I shifted the little girl higher in my arms as she continued to wail.
At least I think that’s what Othinith muttered. She held out her arms and the little girl reached for her. The child’s crying lessened almost immediately to sniffling.
I cleared my throat. “Thank you.”
“We really need to do this more quickly,” Sedgewick said. He stood with his back to the door, one hand tucked behind him. A weapon, no doubt.
“Do what?” Othinith growled.
“We need information.” I swallowed. “We need to know what happened to Petral. We need to know what happened when the city was destroyed.”
Othinith laughed. She laughed so hard that the startled little girl quit sniffling and stared up at her in surprise.
“What happened?” she finally gasped. “You? You want to know what happened when Petral fell?” She hiccuped. “Why?”
I opened my mouth and it all spilled out, a mad rush of words. “Someone has blasphemed a Primal Rite and has committed a great crime against the Creators and their creation in an attempt to avenge the destruction of Petral, and they are murdering innocents and using corpses in perverted ways to murder even more innocents, all in an attempt to kill me but I don’t know why because I really am not a Divine Summoning I don’t care what anyone else thinks I would know if I was a Divine Summoning and we have to stop them before they do even greater harm to creation than the terrible sin already committed by Egleia and I am so so sorry.”
Othinith stared at me.
“That was quick,” Sedgewick said.
He might have been teasing me. I didn’t turn around to look at him. I kept my focus on Othinith.
“Hmph,” she finally said.
She turned, carefully handing the little girl over to an elder sitting at a small table in the back corner. I hadn’t even realized they were there. Actually, there was more than one person. The elder, the little girl now balanced in their lap, and a boy in his late teens.
Othinith waved a finger at them all. “Stay here. Keep the door locked. Anyone asks, you have no idea where I am, because you don’t.”
The elder nodded. The boy scowled, angry gaze darting between the three of us.
Othinith turned for the door, Sedgewick moving aside. “And feed Grezith.”
“With what?” the boy demanded. “There isn’t anything.”
“Give her my portion.” Othinith pulled open the door, stuck her head out, then motioned for us to follow.
Sedgewick grabbed my hand as I stepped back out onto the crude, frozen pathway. Clumps of icy earth had been kicked up by frantic feet. I thought I say hoof prints, and, now that I was listening for it, I could hear the neighing of horses. A few shelters had been knocked over, tents ripped open or torn loose of their stakes to tumble in the wind.
The scent of smoke was stronger, and the air was filled with screams and shouts.
I felt my phone vibrate inside my clothes, tucked up against the bodysuit.
Othinith walked quickly. I hastened to keep pace, Sedgewick only half a step behind.
“Where are we going?” I panted.
“There is an old man. Very old. His name is Rithin, Lal Rithin.”
Othinith wove around a group of refugees, two of them supporting a third with a bloody head wound. A woman straggled along after them, holding her broken arm and crying.
Othinith stopped, holding out a hand. “Inirin? What happened?”
“They tore down the hospital.” The woman — Inirin — shook her head. “So many people ran there to escape the raid. We didn’t — we — I don’t know why they came. Why today? The hospital — there were too many people. A wall gave out. And the Eggies came in on their horses, waving their guns, and they chased everyone out, and they knocked down the other walls and the hospital is just gone.” Inirin scrubbed her good hand across her face, hugging her injured arm against her chest. “I don’t know if everyone got out — I don’t —”
She was crying again.
Othinith gently laid her hands on the other woman’s shoulders. “Get to Shirimal’s. Get cleaned up. I’ll join you shortly.”
Inirin nodded, the movement jerky. She stepped away, around us, slow.
“You. You should cry.”
I started, looking at Othinith in surprise, and realized her comment was directed at me. I blinked, feeling the weight of half-frozen tears on my eyelashes, and the cold tracks of water down my cheeks.
Othinith shook her head. “I just pray to the Four that no one dies today. May it be on your soul if they do.” She spun on her heel, striding away. “Come on. The sooner I dump you with Rithin, the sooner I can get to doing whatever needs to be done.”
Sedgewick pressed up close behind me, matching my steps. “You said that Lal Rithin is old. Old enough to have witnessed the destruction of Petral?”
“Aye. But more than that.” Othinith scooted to the side, allowing a man with a bag on his back and a child in his arms to run past. “He was your opposite, in a way. Lal Rithin was the First Vigilant of the High Holy Order Zoemancer of Petral. If anyone has the answers you seek, he does.”
[End Part Twelve. Part Thirteen will appear in the October 2021 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]