Inside the cage, the light was blinding. Zie had to squint, but the Shadows stood out clearly enough, a blot of restless darkness against the glare. These were his, these horrific, genocidal monsters. They were him. His rage and hate and grief. Every nerve in his body screamed to go to them even as every fiber of him was repulsed to the point of nausea. His Shadows. They ceased shrieking and began to hiss as they recognized him.
Maker. Maker. Come to us. Come…come…
The light seemed to confuse them, as if they couldn’t be sure where he was, just that he was close. Otherwise, Zie was certain they would have already engulfed him. Listening to them would only drive him mad, and his fear was already doing that quite well, thank you.
Reverse what you did to call them. Quickly. Think. Darkness, wind, blood, rage.
The light, Ke had provided. The opposing half of wind was vacuum. Blood was a water magic, after all, and that discipline's other half was drought. Rage…fear, panic, flight…
The Shadows sent an arm of darkness toward him that he barely evaded, ducking low and grabbing onto the moisture in the air. Each breath burned harder than the last as he banished every drop of water from inside the cage, leaving the air desiccated. This didn’t please the Shadows at all since they whipped about like a snake in its death throes, their furious shrieks tinny in their arid prison.
Zie’s next move would be to remove the air inside the cage, which might well kill him before it destroyed the Shadows. He had to do this all at once. Commit. But pouring love and peace into them seemed to him unlikely to work.
He dodged an inky tentacle, then rolled under another. I’m unlikely to be able to concentrate on peace in here, either.
Concentrating was the issue here, while trying to avoid being devoured. Zie spun away from a reaching tendril, the flying tails of his coat nearly caught before he yanked them away. His heart slammed against his ribs at yet another close escape in all the months of them. Nothing’s changed. Still running.
The thought hit him so hard, it nearly dropped him to the ground. Still running. That had been his solution all this time, and had worked as well as it could while he was alone, friendless, without family, believing himself the last of his community.
But I’m not alone. The bard had reminded Zie that the Shadows had followed him, and that there might yet be survivors in the north country. A whole community of sylvas on this continent were relying on him to keep them from harm. And this most extraordinary thing had grown from what he’d intended to be a night of comfort sex.
Essenin sprawled in naked, languid grace across the bunk, the sunlight reflected off water shimmering over his skin. Davitts with his feet planted and axe gripped tight in his strong hands, ready, without question, to defend. The two of them wrapped around Zie with the heady scents of sex and sweat surrounding him, safe, so safe in their arms. He loved them so, but even more astounding…
I am loved. And from the shelter of that love, I have learned. You stay, you turn, you stand fast to defend those you love. You do not run.
Though his heart felt as if it would claw its way up his throat, he stood, and turned to face the Shadows. His Shadows.
They stilled, only their wind twisting at the tails of Zie’s coat, perhaps curious as to what he intended.
“You are mine,” he snarled at them. This is it. I do this all at once, or not at all. “Your hate and your rage are mine. You have taken part of me. Give it back!”
He raised his hands and stepped forward. The Shadows rushed to meet him, rearing above him and swooping in to surround him. Zie pulled in a deep breath, reached deep into his magic, expelled the air from inside the light cage and yanked the Shadows toward him.
Agony ripped through him, his every nerve ablaze, unable to scream in vacuum. The Shadows merged with him and the blackness consumed him.
“Are they gone?” Rolli’s broken whisper came from within the shelter of his arms.
Davitts knew they weren’t. He could still feel their pull. But when he answered, Not yet, Ess and Ke echoed him in unison.
Rolli made a pained sound. “Oh, that wasn’t scary. Not at all.”
“Are you all right, Rolls?” Ess didn’t bother getting up, just crawling over to where Rolli was still curled up tight.
I don’t feel guilty. That wasn’t me. Aaand I’m lying to myself. Davitts cleared his throat, not sure it was quite the time to apologize yet. “I can still feel them in there. I’m sure Ess can, too, since they were possessed.”
Ke straightened from shoring up one of the light spells, her expression set in a deep frown. “I feel them both, still. The shaktz and Zie. His magic is active.”
He’s alive. He’s in there fighting. Come on, Zie. Don’t let them win.
“Davs, I think you cracked a rib.” Ess broke into Davitts’ thoughts. “Possibly broke a wrist. But, Mother’s miracles, I think that’s the worst of it.”
Still there. Shadows are still there… “Rolls, I’m sorry. I know I’ve told you I’d flatten you once or twice, but I wouldn’t—”
Ke gasped and straightened from the nearest stone. “No. No! You little idiot!”
The sudden pain in Davitts’ dropped him to his knees, clutching the sharp stabbing around his heart. Ess cried out at the same time, an anguished wail. Oh goddess. He’s dead. Is that what this pain means?
As suddenly as it began, the pain lifted. The pain…and something else. Davitts raised his head, barely daring to hope. “They’re gone? I think they’re gone. I don’t feel them anymore.”
“We have to bring the light cage down.” Ke matched words with actions and started to tap out the light rocks, Essenin scurrying to assist. “The Shadows are gone, by all goddesses holy wombs, they’re gone, but I don’t feel Zie, either.”
With the first light rock dimmed, a panel of the cage vanished and air rushed in with a pop and a brief roar. Then with half the light cage down, Davitts could make out a Zie-sized shape on the ground. He started to rush in, but Ke halted him with a palm on his chest.
“Wait. Let me be certain first.”
Davitts swallowed against the lump in his throat, since he knew just what she meant. Certain the Shadows were truly gone. Certain that Zie was actually Zie. Maybe even certain that he still breathed. Davitts squinted against the remains of the light cage, but with Zie’s hat over his face and his long coat draped around him, it was impossible to tell.
Essenin whispered a continual streak of swearing and took Davitts’ hand as they watched Ke approach the crumpled form lying in an uneven ring of dead grass and wildflowers. She bent toward him, careful not to touch, and ran a hand over his body. After a moment, she straightened, her frown deepening.
“The Shadows are gone. I don’t know what the youngling’s done, but they’re gone.”
“Ke,” Davitts held onto Ess tighter to keep from shouting. “Is he…alive?”
“He breathes. His heart beats rapidly, but steadily. What condition he’s survived in will have to wait until he wakes.”
That was enough waiting for Davitts, and Essenin, too, as they both rushed over, hands hovering, afraid to touch, terrified not to. Ess gently removed Zie’s hat and placed it on the grass that looked as if it had suffered through a drought. Davitts stroked the dark hair back from Zie’s face. His lids twitched, his eyes blinking open.
“Zie? Sweetheart?” Davitts leaned in to kiss the tip of his ear. “Are you with us?”
“Thirsty.” The single word was a spare, broken croak.
“You took all the water out of the air. Of course you are.” Ke handed her waterskin to Ess. “You’re lucky you didn’t pull all of it out of your body, too.”
Ess supported him and helped him drink, his voice bright despite the deep concern in his eyes. “You’ve done it, love. You’re amazing. I knew you would.”
“How did you do it?” Davitts stroked his hair, reassuring himself that Zie was still there, still whole. “I follow taking away the air, and the water, sort of, but what then?”
Zie let out a wheezing cough. “I…consumed them.”
“You ate the Shadows?” Ess asked in wide-eyed horror.
“In a…manner…of speaking.” Zie tried and failed to sit up, his left arm flopping rather than assisting and now that he had turned, Davitt’s had a view of his left eye, the white veined heavily with red. “Something’s…wrong.”
Ke put a finger under his chin while Davitts helped to hold him upright. “Look at me. Do you see me with both eyes?”
“Yes,” Zie answered uncertainly, then when Ke held a hand over his right eye, “No.”
“You can’t move your left arm, can you? And the leg?”
Zie’s forehead creased as he concentrated, but there was no movement. He grimaced, still speaking slowly, “No. No…I…no.”
“You’ve had a brain injury, child,” Ke spoke more gently than Davitts had heard before. “Taking away your own air might have done it. Consuming Shadows…” She shook her head. “Consequences could’ve been worse, of course.”
The desolation in Zie’s eyes was all too easy to read. Davitts gripped his good hand and gave it a shake. “Don’t you even consider it. This doesn’t make a sliver of difference in how we feel, and shame on you for thinking it.”
“But it’s your choice if you stay with us,” Ess hurried to add. “Everything’s your choice now. It’s done. You’re free, love.”
“I’m…free,” Zie whispered in answer, turned his face into Ess’s naked chest, and began to sob.
Whether they were tears of joy, relief, or merely the release of too much held close didn’t matter. Davitts wrapped his arms around both his loves and held them tight, letting their tears mingle as they fell.
It shouldn’t have been endearing and Essenin should’ve been Very Angry still, but Zie’s earnest, continually failed attempts to help Ke with the light rocks tugged hard at their heart.
He set the latest glowing rock beside the other three with a heavy sigh. “I can’t seem to force the light inside. I don’t know what else to do.”
“You can’t force it, youngling.” Ke snorted and set aside her third light-infused rock. “Do you think this is the sort of thing one learns in a double handful of minutes?”
“No, mishu.” Sitting cross-legged on the sand, Zie spoke to his boots. “I…beyond very early things, I’ve never…”
“You’ve never had a teacher. It shows. What was your mother thinking?”
“She…there was never time. She was in negotiations, but…” Zie waved a hand in a helpless gesture.
Ke huffed, though presumably not at Zie. “The old ways. That’s what comes of them. See here, then. A quick lesson. Think of the smallest pieces you can break a stone into. Then break them smaller still.” She picked up a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers. “Smaller than the finest grains. And now remember that there is still space between the smallest smallest pieces. This is where we urge the light to store itself. Not in the stone itself, but woven into the in-between.”
“Oh.” Zie picked up another stone from his pile, and though it looked to Essenin that all he was doing was staring at a rock, apparently he managed something. A tiny smile crept out, his eyes full of wonder, and Essenin’s heart wanted to break at this glimpse of how Zie must have been before his world shattered, this inquisitive, earnest soul. “I think I have it.”
Zie set the rock down, still watching it closely. Then it exploded in a shower of sparks and sand.
“Real learning takes time.” Ke’s too expressionless face suggested she was trying not to laugh. “For anything other than guesswork and reading the half-boiled explanations of some ancient ancestor. In the meantime, you’re a walking keg of disaster. Please stop helping.”
Rolli did snicker at that, but quickly stifled it when Davitts’ glare promised certain violence. The rest of their planning time, Essenin concentrated on battening down their panic. Sending Davs over to help set a trap was one thing. Letting Zie walk up to the monsters that had devoured his family was another level of madness entirely. But Ke was talking him through it, coaching him through recalling everything he’d done to summon the Shadows so he could do them in reverse. It sounded…possible? More or less? Since the light would distract them?
For his part, Essenin was only allowed to swim Rolli, Davitts and the rocks in their pockets on a log most of the way across the lake. Then Essenin would be condemned to wait and hope the people they loved managed to survive.
While they were all standing on the bank, waiting for Ke’s go ahead, it didn’t help at all that Zie kept whispering to himself, It’s fine. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
“It’s most certainly not fine,” Essenin whispered back as they wrapped Zie in a fierce hug. “But we believe in you.”
Zie clung tight for one trembling moment, then nodded and stepped back.
A few strides away, Davitts had single-handedly shoved an enormous log into the water, one that would’ve taken five, possibly six, Rollis to budge. Rolli had helped by watching appreciatively.
“Ready for this, dunderhead?” Davitts clapped Rolli on the shoulder. “Not that it matters.”
“I’m risking my life here!”
“Still, you could be nicer.” Rolli held up both hands when Davitts growled. “I’m ready. I have it. Place the stones, do the tap rhythm, and if I can’t get them to glow, leave them and you’ll come around.”
Davitts grunted at him and turned to Essenin, who had stripped to their drawers this time. No need to take all their clothes for another bath. They stopped for a kiss on Davs’ cheek before wading in. “Let’s go, love. Sooner started, sooner done.”
“You sound like your mother.”
“Very sensible woman, my mother.” Essenin patted the log. “Hop on, or I leave without you.”
This at least was familiar, the teasing, the picking at each other before battle. Though usually, those came with weapons and considerably more clothes. Essenin heaved a steadying breath before he took hold of the log and shoved off the murky lake bottom to get it moving. They’d all decided this was the best and safest way to get their light rock bearers across. Rolli was a terrible swimmer and while Davs could’ve made the swim, he would’ve been dangerously tired after.
Rolli clung to the log with both hands, eyes closed, while Davs went into this straight-backed and clear eyed. Courage might not have been Rolli’s best feature, but give him his due, he was trying.
Once Essenin felt the shallows rise beneath them, they stopped swimming and gave the log a last push toward shore. “This is as far as I go. Mother of storms watch over you both.”
Davs didn’t wait for the log to stop drifting and slid off into the water to swim the double handful of strokes needed to reach a place he could stand. Rolli hesitated a little longer, then splashed gracelessly into the water, floundering and flailing to where Davs could seize him by the shirtfront and haul him to shore.
It was a good plan. A fairly simple plan. Up until Zie’s part, Essenin felt it had a good chance for success. Davitts approached where the Shadows had coalesced into a seething, raging mass, speaking low in Rolli’s ear to be heard over their shrieking and pointing to three spots. Rolli nodded and jogged off to start placing his rocks. Three rocks on one side, three on the other, forming a hexagon around the Shadows, and so far, the Shadows didn’t react to them at all.
At Davs’ nod, they began their rock awakening simultaneously, three quick taps followed by two slow ones. Davs’ first rock sent out a curtain of light immediately, and now, unfortunately, he had the Shadows’ attention. They surged toward him, but now Rolli managed to wake his first one, confusing and distracting them.
They both continued around, Rolli just a few beats slower than Davs, since it took the bard more than one try to wake his rocks. After his second rock, Davs stopped and shook his head, stumbling as he rose from his crouch. He staggered to his third rock and woke it, too, but then clutched his head, mouthing words Essenin couldn’t hear.
Oh no. No, no, no. “Rolls, get clear!” Essenin tried to warn him. “They’ve gotten into Davs head!”
“What?” Rolli called back, obviously confused or possibly unable to hear since the Shadows’ furious screaming had only increased as the light cage closed around them, each light curtain bending toward the others to join together and rise overhead to form a dome.
Oblivious, Rolli worked on his last rock, the one that would close the cage, but Davs, face contorted with rage, charged and tackled him, hurling them both away from the final light stone. He pummeled Rolli with both powerful fists while poor Rolls could only curl into a ball to protect what he could.
Essenin had been moving the moment they’d realized the Shadows were whispering to Davs. They just couldn’t let the cursed Shadows couldn’t escape now. They shot out of the water and dashed up the beach to that final rock. Every muscle in their body strained to go to Davs but priorities, they told themself sternly. Shadows first.
The Shadows sensed them, surging toward them as they reached the light cage, a sickening pull starting in Essenin’s chest as they tried to reestablish possession of Essenin’s body.
“No, no and more no.” Essenin muttered as he tapped the rock. Taptaptap…tap…tap. Again, as the Shadows raced closer. Taptaptap…tap..tap. The second time, the sequence took and light flared from the last rock to join its brethren, and Essenin felt it as a physical jolt when the Shadows slammed into that final light barrier and recoiled back.
Essenin scuttled back from the now-completed light cage, chest on fire as they tried to breathe through the panic, and stumbled over to where Davs was trying to turn Rolli into bean paste.
“Davs, stop! Stop it!” They got Davs in a headlock and managed to heave them both over onto their backs to give Rolli a reprieve. But once interrupted, Davs stopped fighting and lay still, his barrel chest rising and falling like a forge bellows.
“Whispered to me,” he choked out. “They called my name.”
“I know, love. I know. We’re all right now.”
Something of an overstatement, perhaps. Rolli was probably not all right and none of this was over.
The tip tip tip of wave running reached Essenin’s ears as Zie and Ke raced to them across the lake. Ke would stay outside the cage, shoring up the light spells as they wavered. Zie…
Zie stood in front of the cage staring straight into the light, perhaps afraid he might lose his nerve if he looked at any of them. With a deep breath, he pulled the brim of his hat down to shade his eyes, and stepped inside.
Davitts expected Zie to break down at the pronouncement that the sole way to destroy the Shadows was with his own death. But no. Zie had gone as still as stone, only his claws flexing and releasing, flexing and releasing.
That bastard son of a moon pup. He knew. He already figured it out from what the ghost told him. He knows. And he didn’t say a blasted thing.
“I…” Zie nodded slowly. “Of course.”
He turned and walked past the little fire they’d made on the beach, and though the night was warm, pulled on his leather coat of deep blue and jammed his broad-brimmed hat on his head.
Gaze firmly fixed on the sand, he turned to Davitts and Essenin and whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I would have loved you both…I do love you both. You deserve so much better.”
“Zie, wait—no!” Davitts dumped Essenin out of his lap in his scramble to his feet. “Stop!”
He lunged, but too late. Zie had already sped out onto the water. But Essenin was faster still. Despite languishing on the ground a moment before, Ess hurled themself into the water, a spear flung through the waves. Zie hadn’t managed eight steps before Ess breached like a sailfish and tackled Zie, taking them both underwater.
“I thought Ess said the little guy can’t swim,” Rolli called out as they all rushed to the water’s edge.
“Not well. Not his best element.” Though his lungs constricted, Davitts tried to concentrate on breathing, counting, in and out. They had to surface soon, didn’t they? “He should be safe with Ess.”
Rolli was muttering something about should being about as useful as a knife made of jelly when Ess surfaced with a gasping, flailing Zie under their arm. Grim-faced, Essenin swam back and dragged a coughing, wheezing Zie onto the sand where they dropped him in a heap.
“Wonderful. Now that you look like a drowned chocka fledgling…” Ess plopped down next to Zie and grabbed hold of one of his ankles to prevent a second flight. “Would you like to explain what in all Mother Ocean’s sixteen hells you thought you were doing?”
“What I…” Zie glanced between Davitts and Essenin, his eyes huge and wet. “What I have to. To end this. All of this. To stop the killing. To keep you safe. To keep everyone safe.”
“To keep us safe.” Ess’s tone was sharp enough that even Ke cringed. “While we sit here on our hands and watch you commit suicide?”
“There’s no other way. And you can’t be sad to see me go. I slaughtered an entire continent of sylvas. I’m a murderer. Worse than. A murderer and a coward who ran instead of stopping it right where it began.”
“First of all, you didn’t know,” Davitts pointed out. “You had no way to know the key to stopping them. And somewhere in this disaster of an evening, you’ve decided that me finding out what really happened changes how I feel about you.”
“How we feel about you,” Essenin broke in.
“Yes. I’m angry you didn’t tell us. I’m sure Ess is angry, too, that you kept things from us. Important things. But you can be furious with someone and still love them. It doesn’t erase that. Not to the point of wanting to watch you die.”
“How do you know they’re all dead?” Rolli blurted out.
A headache was starting behind Davitts’ right eye. “Don’t be an ass, Rolli.”
“Hold on. Hear me out, please.” Rolli raised both hands, palms out. “But Zie, did you go to every clan compound in the north country? Before you fled south?”
“Of course not.” Zie tried to pull his leg free, but Essenin held stubbornly fast. “I didn’t purposefully put more people at risk after realizing there was no help to be had.”
“Right. So again, how do you know?”
Zie’s eyes sparked, an angry retort obviously ready, then he stopped and his expression became perplexed. “But the rumors ran ahead of me. No one has seen sylvas since then. The northlands are empty. I heard it everywhere I went.”
“That’s the thing about rumor. I should know. Bards are very good at it. Sometimes too good.” Was Rolli being self-deprecating? Introspective? The world was ending. “Once a good one takes hold, one that people are willing to accept and not investigate themselves, it takes on a coating of truth. And when enough people believe, it becomes truth.”
“What…? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Zie shook his head, finally giving up trying to break Ess’s grip.
“Until a traveler or merchant caravan gets up the nerve to go look for themselves, none of us know what happened or whether there are survivors.” Essenin shook the ankle he held. “That’s what he’s saying.”
“Does the exact accounting of how many people I’ve murdered truly matter?” Some of Zie’s normally dry tone had returned. At least he was thinking now instead of simply reacting.
“I’d say it matters if you didn’t wipe out the entire sylvas homeland, yes,” Ke arched a dark brow, her tone surpassing Zie’s by several degrees of dryness. “I didn’t mean for you to fling yourself directly at the shaktz, youngling. You do have a problem with jumping in face first.”
Zie hung his head. “Yes, mishu.”
“A plan then.” Davitts retrieved Zie’s hat from where it had floated up on shore and shook out the worst of the water. “Obviously Zie still needs to send the Shadows back himself. But is there a way to control them? Contain them while he undoes his summoning rather than letting them devour him?”
“I wish we could just shove them in the water,” Essenin muttered as they dragged Zie close to wrap him in their arms. Zie squirmed, but quickly subsided when he couldn’t get free.
“We’ve tried that twice now. They’re too clever about it.” Davitts got up to pace. “They fear water. They ignore humans, as far as we know. They’re repelled by light.”
“But no one can hold a light spell for long, and it’s only as a wall, not a cage,” Essenin added.
“I like these two. They think.” Ke squinted across the water and Davitts was sure he saw the moment a thought hit her. “There is a way to store elements. I haven’t done so in years…but it can be done.”
“Store light? To sustain it for a longer time?” Zie sat up, suddenly interested.
“Yes.” She nodded slowly. “Yes, and in this case, to create a cage. One person couldn’t do it. Even two could only hold so much ground for so long. But prepared beforehand…”
“Four, or even six objects. Stored light. So one could concentrate on other things.” Zie tapped his claws together in agitation. “But no one could get close enough to set a trap like that.”
Rolli got to his knees and waved one hand over the other. “Excuse me. Human available right here,”
“Rolls, what are you on about?” Ess asked with more patience than Davitts would have.
“You all said that the Shadows ignore humans. I’m a bard. I do listen. So here I am. One human who can set the whatever the things are while being ignored.”
Davitts whipped his head around to stare at Rolli. “You’re scared of everything. Absolutely everything.”
“Well, no. Not everything. I’m not scared of an audience.” Rolli swallowed hard, clutching his instrument. “Ess has been a good friend. If I can help… I, ah, I should help. So this is me, a human, offering to help.”
“Huh. Who would’ve thought,” Davitts muttered, then turned back to Ke. “Two humans.”
“Davs, no!” Ess grabbed his arm. “You’re not fully human and those things called to you before.”
Ke considered him. “Part taur, aren’t you? At least one grandparent. Do we know how they react to taurs?”
“We really don’t.” Davitts patted Ess’s hand. “They called my name the first time we encountered them. I didn’t listen then. I won’t now. And I have a tiny bit of magic. If the objects have to be…activated, I suppose? Rolli might not be able to.”
“Two humans, six light-infused objects, and the mahk that summoned the shaktz.” Ke nodded in satisfaction. “We might be able to survive this after all."
“What do you mean, you summoned them?” Davitts’ voice had gone soft and colorless.
The mahk, Ke, regarded Zie with narrowed eyes. “Explain yourself, youngling.”
This was it. This was when it all ended. Zie’s legs gave out and he plunked down on the sand. Davs, who would have defended him against anything, would hate him. Essenin, when he came back from being traumatized by Shadow possession, would hate him with just cause. Ke, who should have been teacher and mentor, would want him put down like a mad dog. Still. He’d said it. Stopping now wouldn’t do any good.
“I summoned them. From fragments in my clan’s irsk—the family history, I suppose southerners would say. Though it’s more than that. I thought I could control them.”
The frost in Ke’s voice could have frozen the lake twice over. “That is a confession, not an explanation. Begin from where this begins.”
“I…” Where is the beginning? Where in all this horror was there one? “The Hauk clan. It’s a long and strange enmity between their clan and mine. Sometimes better. Sometimes worse.”
The splash of something large breaking the surface made everyone start and twitch back from the shore. With the Shadows still screaming on the opposite bank, nerves were strung tight. A dark shape crested and crawled onto the sand a few lengths down the beach.
“Ess!” Davitts darted toward the figure even as he shouted, leaving everyone to hurry along behind him. “Are you you again?”
A bizarre question at any other time, but Zie understood. The need to be certain the Shadow’s had left completely was a hard lump under his heart.
Essenin, it truly was them, flopped onto their back and brushed the braids from their face. “It’s me. I would like, very much, to never do that again, please.”
With a strangled, heart-stabbing sound, Davitts fell to his knees and gathered Essenin close, rocking them both as his breaths shuddered in and out. Zie’s arms ached to join them, to hold them both, but he’d lost that right. He’d never had that right. He’d simply been borrowing time, waiting for the inevitable revelation of his villainy, his complete unworthiness of their trust and kindness.
“Don’t do that to me again,” Davitts whispered, his face buried against Essenin’s shoulder.
“It’s not like I intended to the first time.” Essenin managed to get both arms around Davitts. “I’m here. I’m all right. Just…I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sleep again. I’ll be afraid they're still waiting behind my eyes.”
“Ess...” Davitts sobbed and Zie’s heart shattered at that quiet, despairing sound. I did this. I should never have--
“We’re all happy to see you back with us,” Ke broke in with a meaningful clearing of her throat and a glare at Zie. “And pleased you’re unharmed, Essenin. But someone was about to tell his tale, which we can hope contains something we might use against the monsters. The Hauk clan.”
“What are we doing?” Essenin whispered as Davitts moved to sit them up leaning against his chest.
“Hush, love. I think we just need to let him get through this.”
Zie settled cross-legged, far enough apart from everyone that no one could touch him and that he could stare at the sand without seeing any part of them. “The Hauk clan. Yes. The feud has been on and off for generations. Most of my life, everything was peaceful with them. We were a merchant clan, they were smiths. There was little need to interact with them if we chose not to. Not until the kemmas raid, in any case.”
“The what now?” Essenin asked, sounding both confused and exhausted.
“Old custom. Not often seen these days, but it used to be a way to keep the clan lines from interbreeding.” Ke’s tone was grim, impatient. “The young people would raid another clan for prospective mates. Not always violent, and these days, more a celebration set up beforehand than a raid. I take it this one was not consented to.”
“Apparently not. From what we heard, it was a particularly violent one.” Zie shifted uncomfortably. “We did not perpetrate the kemmas, but no clan laid claim to it and the Hauk blamed us as the most likely. My mother went to meet them, to negotiate a peace…” He trailed off, reliving the horror of that day again, opening the box again. “They murdered her and sent her eyes back.”
The unfamiliar voice startled Zie and he twisted to find the human, Rolli, had settled nearest him. Odd not to have heard him since humans weren’t terribly quiet. The interruption allowed him to catch his breath again, though.
“A particularly cruel declaration of blood feud. I don’t believe I was in my right mind from then on,” Zie continued. “There were acts of sabotage. Small skirmishes. Minor incidents for a few months. Then they attacked our compound in force.”
He had to stop again, claws flexing and releasing as he stared hard at the sand. It would do no good to burst into tears now. None at all, and would only delay the story, but he kept having to fight the sobs back. Too long. I’ve lived with this for too long that it’s eaten me hollow. Soon I’ll be nothing but whispers and tears like the ghost in the tower.
“We are…we were…well defended. The attack became a siege. I had been studying passages of our irsk, looking for ways to…to defend us.”
“You wanted revenge. For your mother,” Ke interrupted in a flat voice.
“I… Yes. For that, too. They took her eyes.” Zie covered his own eyes with the heels of his hands and rocked fretfully. It took several breaths before he could go on. “The Shadows. The text mentioned the Shadows eating one’s enemies. I was adept at light and dark magic, it only took a little of my own blood, and it required one to reach for the darkness, but to do it with all the hate and rage in one’s heart, to pour all of it, all of it, into the dark. I did that. It worked.”
“And did they devour your enemies?” Davitts asked in a strangled whisper.
“Oh, yes. Every last one. Quickly. Soundlessly. The Shadows overwhelmed them in moments.” Zie squeezed his eyes shut against the memories. Hest in the courtyard. His aunt at the gate. His small cousins in their room. “I couldn’t control them. I couldn’t control them.”
“So they ate your family,” Essenin murmured, clearly horrified.
The Shadows had returned through the gate and began devouring Zie’s clan. No matter what he did or how he tried to beat them back, the monsters took them one by one, Hest staring up at him in disbelief as he vanished into blackness. Zie ran. He took his edlak and ran to the neighboring clan to warn them, to get help, it didn’t matter. He had to get away.
And the Shadows devoured that clan, too. And the next. The deaths piled one atop another until Zie fled the sylvas lands—all those deaths suffocating him…
He found himself hauled up by the front of his jacket until he faced Ke, her face twisted in fury. She slapped him hard enough to knock him back to the ground, but at least he could breathe again.
“You foolish, stupid child. Genocide by incompetence!” she snarled. “You don’t summon anything that you don’t know how to send back.”
“Honored Ke?” Rolli asked in a small voice. “How do you send them back?”
“The ghost in the tower,” Zie murmured before she could answer. “They said I needed to break the cycle or the Shadows would feed forever.”
“Ghosts know things.” Ke stood with her arms folded, glaring across the lake. “The old texts say there’s only one way to send the Shadows back. The summoner has to give himself to them.”
The urge to scream until his lungs exploded nearly took Davitts out at the knees. All the magic at sylvas fingertips and they let the damned Shadows possess his Essenin?
Instead of howling, he grabbed a double handful of shirt fronts—Zie’s and this newly arrived mahk’s—and bellowed in their faces, “Do something!”
The firelight danced over Zie’s face, deepening the haunted shadows. For a moment, he simply stared at Davitts before patting his chest. “Yes. Yes, I have to do something.”
He gently removed Davitts fingers from his shirt and took three unsteady steps toward the water. It took Davitts’ anguished brain nearly a second too long, but when he caught up, he tackled Zie with a distressed grunt. “Not that! Dear goddesses! Are you suddenly trying to die?”
“I have to save them,” Zie whispered to the sand. “This is my fault. It’s all my fault.”
“Not this again. Not the time..” Davitts hauled Zie to his feet and turned to the sylvas woman. “Without wave running out there and making yourselves Shadow food, there must be something you can do.”
Nearby, Rolli was tugging the last edlak up onto the sand. He turned his head to call over, “Davs, this is Ke. Ke, Davitts.”
“Thank you, Rolli. Always so helpful,” Davitts muttered, rubbing at his chest. His heart was going to give out, it struggled so badly. On the opposite shore, the Shadows were doing something awful with Ess’s hands, making them move a huge fallen log.
Ke squinted across the water, arms folded tight. “Youngling, I hear you are something of a wind worker.”
“I…I…” Zie cleared his throat and tore his gaze away from the water. “Yes, mishu. It’s one of my primaries.”
“Is yours stronger than the monsters’ windworking?”
“Possibly,” Zie murmured, some of the dazed grief fading from his eyes. Good. He was thinking again.
The Shadows windworking, though incredibly strong, was unreliable without a sail and their progress across the lake slowed by gusts shoving the tree-boat as much sideways as forward. Davitts hoped that maybe Ess would fall off amid all the shoving about, but they clung tight. His disappointment only grew as the Shadows did that horrible thing again with the inky tendrils oozing out of Ess’s hands so they could break off the biggest branch and use it to start poling across to the island.
Slowly, every movement twitchy and slow. Mother of waves, poor Ess. Are they in there fighting? Are they aware at all?
Ke spoke sylvas words at Zie, too fast and sharp for Davitts to catch any of them. Eyes wide, hands trembling, Zie nodded and raised his arms toward the water. The stance had become familiar from their sea voyage as Zie closed his eyes and called a wind that nearly took Davitts off his feet, whipping sand into tiny whirl-demons as it roared out from the island.
The waves kicked up in answer, rocking the tree trunk, but not enough to dissuade the Shadows from moving forward inch by inch. Was Zie trying to blow the craft back to the opposite shore? That didn’t sound feasible.
No. Ke raised her arms in imitation of Zie’s posture and the waves nearer the far shore rose impossibly, as if they were ocean breakers.
Ah, now I see what they’re doing. Davitts clenched his fists to keep himself still, unwilling to distract the mages. Inside, though, he chanted, come on, come on, come on, a little more, a little higher, wilder.
The waves crashed against the tree, whipped even higher by the gale force wind Zie called. Between the two of them, they had fashioned a tempest, and the tree heaved and bucked in the impossible peaks and troughs of the storm.
A wave splashed over the tree soaking Ess and drawing ear-piercing shrieks from the Shadows. The oily black tendrils came out again, trying to cling to the bark as Ess lost their grip on the pole branch. Out of the corner of his eye, Davitts caught a quick series of gestures, Zie and Ke in tandem, and waves began to swamp the tree from both sides.
The deluge would have drowned someone without gills—and the Shadows panicked when Ess lost their grip and began to slide off the tree.
Howling as if the sky were splitting, the Shadows flung out tendrils toward the nearer shore, only a few lengths away. They grabbed desperately for branches, for sand grasses, for the thorns and spines of the low, scraggly bushes and heaved themselves back to safety, abandoning Essenin as he fell into the lake.
A wounded sound came from beside him and once again, Davitts had to catch Zie before he flung himself onto the lake.
“We have to get them. We can’t just leave them!”
“Sh, hush.” Davitts wrapped him up tight. “Ess is perfectly safe. The water’s the best place for them. The safest place.”
“What if they’re unconscious? What if they’re hurt?” Zie whimpered pitiably. “I have to get them. It’s my fault.”
“The safest place, as I said. If Ess is knocked out, they’ll sleep it off underwater. Where it’s perfectly safe for them.”
“I’m glad the lovely selak is safe,” Ke said nearby, her voice dust dry and soft. “What those monsters did, not something I’d wish on anyone, and certainly not someone so kind. But I find myself wondering, young mahk, why you keep saying that this is all your fault. When your lover reassures you that it’s not, why do you still assert that it is?”
In Davitts’ arms, Zie went stiff and still. Then he shoved away, backpedaling like a startled animal until his bootheels splashed up the water at the lake’s edge. He glanced between them, his purple eyes haunted and full of anguish.
Finally, he whispered, “I say it because it’s true. My fault. I did this. I summoned the Shadows.”
It had been an excellent plan. Simple. Efficient.
Essenin had bellowed at Rolli to take the edlaks before the Shadows could catch up to them. Get the non-combatant out of harm’s way so he wouldn’t be a distraction. Davs would be proud that they were thinking strategically. Rolli had only hesitated for a moment, fear and anguish clouding his eyes, before he took the reins and plunged into the lake with all three edlaks.
Ke’s light shield was as powerful as Zie’s had been on the beach so many days ago, but she tired more quickly. Perhaps because she was older or light was a more difficult discipline for her. Essenin knew what they had to do when she faltered the second time.
“Go! Run the waves to the island! I’ll hold them!” they shouted over the Shadows’ wind.
“With what, selak child?” Ke snarled back at them.
A laugh that felt like broken glass bubbled in Essenin’s chest as they called the water to them. This way. This way. Up. Up onto the sand. “With the thing they hate most!”
Why the Shadows feared the water so much, Ess couldn’t say. Perhaps it had something to do with not being able to use the wind underwater, taking away their ability to move, or it was simply just too unlike them for the Shadows to tolerate. Essenin didn’t really care. As the water advanced, covering Essenin and Ke’s legs to mid-calf, the Shadows shrieked and retreated.
“I will hold them,” Essenin repeated with a grin they hoped relayed more confidence than they felt. “Go, Ke. Before you can’t any longer.”
With a strangled sound, she let her light shield fall and ran into the lake, leaving Essenin alone with the Shadows pacing the shoreline just above the waterline, rage rolling off them in waves. The whispers had already begun—now the feathered intrusions into Essenin’s mind became harder to ignore. The Shadows didn’t call them by name, as they had Davs. Rather, they insinuated.
Weary…exhaustion… they whispered. Too hard…so tired…
Essenin shook their head, fighting against listening. Only until Ke reached the shore, then they could let go and dive under the safety of the water. Just a few moments longer. The Shadows were wasting their nonexistent breath.
So tired…so tired…hold you up…buoy you…come to us…let us in…
“Shut up, shut up, shut up, you psychotic murderous ink smudges. I’m not listening. Can’t hear you.” Though Essenin could still hear the tip-tip-tip of Ke’s wave running. He needed to hold on a little longer, let her get far enough away that they couldn’t reach shadow arms over the water to snatch her.
The Shadows stilled, a wall of eerie, watchful darkness, their will still pushing hard at Essenin. No illusions that the monsters were giving up. No. They were thinking, and this could only be a bad thing. Essenin took the chance to back farther into the water. Shin deep. Knee deep.
The sudden shock of hurricane-force wind threw Essenin down on one knee and they saw to their horror that the sudden squall had thrust the water back from the shore, away from Essenin until there was only sand, all protection gone.
They glanced up in horror to see the wall of Shadow curving down in a massive wave and had time for a single scream before the searing cold of them invaded the top of their head. The agony of the Shadows invading every nerve and muscle went on and on, though Essenin could no longer scream. Hate and rage battered them until they were certain the Shadows contained nothing else.
Maybe this is why none of the selak sailors could remember. It was all too much.
Through the awful pain and the terror of invasion, Essenin stayed present, though. Shoved into a tiny, compressed sliver, but still aware somehow. They heard Zie’s heart-rending scream from across the lake. Dav’s agonized bellows for them. All so far away. So far…I’ll never get back to them. Oh my loves.
Dimly, it registered how the Shadows tried to move stolen arms and legs. It was as if they had forgotten their previous practice onboard the ship they had hijacked. One arm jerked, then the other. In clumsy, unbalanced twitches, they got Essenin’s body standing and clomped farther onto the shore. The burning cold was the worst of it, biting even more sharply into each muscle as the Shadows moved it, but the weight of them…how could Shadows be so heavy? Though not heavy in the sense of tearing bone and sinew, but the pressure on Essenin’s mind was crushing.
The howling wind dropped. The Shadows began their whispering again, though this time seemed to be talking to themselves. Each other. Impossible to say if they were a single mind or many.
Essenin’s head jerked from side to side, the Shadows obviously searching for something as they whispered over and around each other. Driftwood, lake grasses, someone’s abandoned blanket—they considered and discarded all of these. Then Essenin’s eyes fastened on the trunk of an old, fallen tree, one big enough that Davs wouldn’t have been able to get his arms around it.
The pieces slammed together in Essenin’s compressed mind all too clearly. The airless void was how the Shadows saw the water, hardly airless, as any selak could’ve told them, but it was a medium over which they had no control. The tree trunk was their solution, their way to stay atop the void, as they had used ships to cross the sea.
Good. That’s fine. I’m not strong enough to move that tree on my own.They’re stuck here. With me. I’m stuck here. At least my Davs and my Zie are safe. Dear goddesses, how do I get out of this?
Essenin told themself that the other selak had all been fine. Released when the Shadows had finished with them. They would tire of their Essenin pack edlak. Eventually.
Somehow this didn’t help the screaming fear one bit.
One twitching step at a time, the Shadows moved them to the massive trunk, its broken and gnawed roots reaching toward the water like far too many broken fingers. Essenin’s hands came up, shoving at the tree. As they’d presumed, it didn’t budge.
Good. Stupid evil ink blots.
The moment of smug satisfaction evaporated when tendrils of shadow slithered from Essenin’s fingers, a nauseatingly oily sensation, and coiled around the tree trunk until it was wrapped in a sheath of darkness. The Shadows still needed Essenin’s hands, but now the strength of all those Shadows joined them, shoving the trunk into the water where it spun and bobbed until the larger branches steadied it.
Inside their own mind, Essenin strained to stop their own body from climbing onto the log, but not even a little finger listened. They could only beat against the walls of their mental prison as their traitor body knelt atop the trunk and the Shadows summoned storm winds to push the improvised raft across the lake.
Please, please stop us. Don’t let the monstrosity reach you, Essenin thought desperately at his lovers and companions across the water. Shoot me dead. Set it on fire. Do something!
But the tree raft with its horrid cargo sailed on.
By unspoken agreement, Zie had been watching the Shadows while Davs kept an eye on the road. The roiling mass of darkness kept to the trees, surging to the left, then to the right again as if searching for a way across the water. Zie’s grip on the ancient battlements of the tower was the only thing keeping him from collapsing in a panic-stricken heap.
He had to bite back a shriek when Davs seized his shoulder.
“There. Just coming over the rise.” With his spyglass to his eye, Davs pointed up the road. “There’s our Ess. He’s brought a sylvas with him. Let’s hope she’s a mahk.”
Zie squinted at the road, struggling to make anything out in the last light of dusk. Ess rode in front, identifiable by their dark braids flying in the rising wind. A smaller figure thundered behind, bent close to their edlak’s neck. That would be whoever Ess had brought from the sylvas compounds. But the third figure made no sense to Zie, with a misshapen hump on their back. “Who is the third rider?”
Davs moved his spyglass and heaved an irritated sigh. “For fuck’s sake, Ess. Why would you bring Rolli, of all useless people?”
“Who is he?” Zie leaned over the tower’s stones as if that would help him see better.
“A bard of our acquaintance. Human. Expert in being a nuisance.” Davs’ voice had sunk to a bass growl, his words clipped and short. Part of that was most likely worry over Ess, which Zie understood with every jangled nerve in his body, though Davs seemed to truly dislike this Rolli person. “There. They’ve spotted the beacon.”
Davs handed over the spyglass so Zie could get a better view. Essenin had halted them on the road, gesturing and pointing while they spoke urgently to their two companions. After a short debate, the edlaks wheeled away from the Shadows and Essenin took them down to the path that ran around the lake, but in the opposite direction.
“He’s going to try to cross on the other side of the island,” Zie murmured. “If they can do it quickly…”
“That’s it, love.” Davs murmured as he moved around the tower to track their progress. “Just keep ahead of them.”
“The Shadows are moving.” Zie clutched Davs’ arm, whispering as if the things could hear him. “They’ve seen. Oh, Ess. Hurry.”
But there were only so many places the edlaks could safely navigate down the steep embankment to the lakeshore. The monsters had spotted their prey now and had called the wind to speed their pursuit.
“Do you think they know?” Davs asked just as quietly now. “Do they sense sylvas?”
Zie swallowed hard, twice, before he could choke out, “They know. Not scent or actual sight, but they know.”
The Shadows were closing ground far too swiftly, though Ess had found a safe way to the bank and was leading them down at a precipitous pace. Zie was certain it would only be through a local goddess watching over them that the edlaks managed without breaking a leg.
They were down, the Shadows on the heels of the last mount in line. The human bard made the mistake of turning to look and nearly fell off his edlak in horror. He probably cried out, since the others turned toward him. Zie wanted to shout at them not to stop. Keep riding! They don’t want him!
He couldn’t swear that they would never harm a human, though. He knew why Essenin, so much more courageous than he was, had stopped.
The sylvas rider vaulted from the saddle and faced the Shadows. Both hands came up and light flared, then exploded along the shoreline, a calling of light so brilliant that Zie had to squint through his fingers. The Shadows’ enraged shrieks cut through the night, carried on their evil winds across the water. The sound sliced through Zie’s heart.
Essenin had dismounted now, too. Waving their arms, gesticulating and most likely yelling at the human who seemed confused or terror stricken. Finally, Ess got their point across and the human, Rolli, grabbed up the reins of the loose edlaks and urged them into the water. The poor beasts needed little encouragement to flee toward the island. They tossed their heads and surged through the shallows in a mad dash to escape the horrible Shadow screams.
Of course, Essenin didn’t follow. Naturally not while the mahk held off a horde of monsters with nothing but a light spell. Essenin put an arm around her waist and while still facing the Shadows, backed them both toward the water. They appeared to be arguing.
“They better have a plan,” Davs said through gritted teeth. “And not the usual Essenin kind that’s mostly I’ll figure it out as we go.”
“They’re going to use the water,” Zie pointed to where the waves appeared to be in conflict, trying to land on and rush away from the shore at the same time.
When the churning waves touched Essenin’s bootheels, they raised their hand as well. The water surged forward even as the Shadows’ wind strove to force it back. Slowly, slowly, Essenin was winning.
Beside him, the mahk stumbled. The light flickered and strengthened again, once, then twice. Holding such bright light was exhausting, Zie knew all too well, and even the strongest mage could only manage for so long.
Zie gave the spyglass back, a terrible anxiety growing within him. Ess backed them into the water, ankle deep now, neither one of them apparently willing to turn their backs on the Shadows. More words, possibly angry ones, flew back and forth between them. Finally, the mahk released the light and stumbled into the water, barely managing a wave run over the now wind-tossed lake.
Alone now on the shore, Essenin held the Shadows at bay with the water at their command. The Shadows crept closer and closer still as Ess struggled to keep the waterline from receding as the howling shadow winds battered the water. Another step back. Another. But Essenin was struggling now, the Shadows whispers all too obviously calling to him.
“No, no, no!” Zie shouted. “Dive into the waves! Go!”
The winds tore his words away and he rushed for the tower stairs, barely aware of Davs calling after him. The fortress raced by in a blur as he sprinted for the shore, leaping fallen masonry and low-lying scrub.
By the time he reached the sandspit where Rolli was just hauling the edlaks onto the island, Essenin had stopped backing up. They stood with their arms spread wide, terribly still. The Shadows mirrored them, the restless darkness gone eerily still.
“Essenin!” Zie screamed and was about to throw himself onto the surface of the lake when strong arms caught him and lifted him off his feet. “No, no! Let me go!”
“Have you lost your mind?” Davs bellowed in his ear.
With a roar of a hundred thousand voices, the Shadow wind struck, knocking them all to the ground and sweeping the water back from the far shore so that Essenin stood only on sand. For one, heart piercing moment, the cataract of Shadows rose, poised directly over Essenin. Then, with a horrific shriek, the Shadows fell upon them, driving through their skin, through their skull, vanishing within until only Essenin remained, their limbs jerking, the light drained from their eyes. Possessed.
Please leave a message at the beep... Fine. Of course I'm here. Online is portable, after all.
A brief check in since I'm visiting my sister in the Virginia mountains.
Shadow Run, which I started writing because I wasn't writing, has hit 30 episodes. I honestly thought it would be quite short. A short story. Perhaps a novelette. Ha. We'll see where we are when it's done. I apologize in advance for any cliffhanger episodes as we reach the dramatic climax.
Rarely Pure and Never Simple is on track for a June 28 release. Hooray!
From the Noblest Motives is swiftly approaching 50K - and is nowhere near done. I'm not even going to try to estimate a word count this time. I'm thinking around 65K? We shall see.
The old fortress wasn’t across a continent, but even the short distance felt too far for Essenin. They pushed the edlaks to the fastest pace they could safely maintain. It would be both stupid and cruel to ask for more just to gain an hour or two. Still, every nerve in Essenin’s body screamed that they would arrive too late.
During an uphill climb where they needed to walk the edlaks, Ke pulled up to ride beside Essenin. “Where are they, that they feel is safe to stop?”
“There’s a lake about a day and a half’s ride away still. Deep water. Would take maybe two hours to row across.” Essenin shifted in their saddle to help Sidle with the incline. “In the middle, there’s an island with an old ruined fortress.”
“Wonderful,” Ke muttered. “They’ve gone to ground at Haiernas. Between the ghosts and the ruins, I’d hardly call that safe.”
Essenin shrugged. “We’ve camped there before. Some parts are more stable than others and the occasional ghost didn’t bother us.”
Ke shot them a look that could only have been called judgmental. “Oh, to be spirit blind. Haiernas Keep retains all the violence and fear of its ruin. There are far more than occasional ghosts.”
“You know the history, then?” Essenin tried to keep their voice light, but a chill stole over their heart. If a mahk was more sensitive to spirits, what had they sent Zie into? How bad would this be for him?
“Your bard would most likely know more.” Ke nodded to Rolli, who had dismounted to lead his stubborn, balking edlak up the slope. “It was before any sylvas stepped foot on Cau Senis shores. Before the imperium put an end to local feuds and land wars.”
“But still, you know what happened.”
“The barest bones of the story.” She stopped her sturdy edlak at the top of the rise to wait for Rolli. “A warlord had been rolling through the old lord’s lands in that area. One vassal after another forced to surrender. One stronghold after another besieged and conquered. From what I’ve heard, the aging lord retreated to his last reliable vassal at Haiernas.”
Essenin cringed. “Which doomed them.”
“You’re a quick one.” Ke snorted. “Yes. They say the siege lasted three years, though that’s probably a storyteller’s exaggeration.”
“We never exaggerate.” Rolli said in his driest tone as he climbed back onto Bramble’s back. “The ballads say three years. Historical documents say maybe eight months. Still horrible.”
“Oh, so you know about this fortress, too?” Essenin huffed. “You could’ve said.”
“One, you didn’t ask. And two, I thought you knew.”
Ke flapped a hand at him. “You finish the tale then, bard. Since all I have is pieces.”
“My pleasure.” Rolli pulled his sewa around and started tuning it.
Essenin hurried to stop him. “Ah. No, Rolls. No ballads, please. Just tell me. Briefly. As close to the facts as you can.”
“Fine.” Rolli shot him a quick glare, then slumped in the saddle. “The quick, boring version is that the mistress of Haiernas sent most of her ishai out to get help from neighboring allies. They never came back. The siege went on too long and the defenses failed. Lots of slaughter and so on. The place has been deserted ever since because it’s too eerie to live there with the ghosts.”
“Wonderful. Just perfect.” The anxious knot in Essenin’s stomach decided it was a mass of snakes instead. “Now Zie, who has been a bundle of traumatized nerves since we met him, will have the extra horror of camping in the middle of a ghost siege.”
“Eh, you didn’t know.” Ke urged her edlak to a faster pace again. “The island is the best defensible place against these Shadows. It will give me time to get to the bottom of what happened in the north.”
They veered onto the main road again that evening and spent the night out under the stars. The mild early summer weather made it no hardship, but Essenin had sunk too far into worry that they didn’t sleep beyond a few minutes anxious dreaming here and there. They finally got up in the hour before dawn after a dream of Davitts and Zie being ripped apart while the Shadows laughed.
Essenin needed the whole hour, with the sky turning from deep blue to rose gold, in order to calm their racing heart, the dream had been that vivid, that real.
They’re both fine. You’ll get there and swim the edlaks to the island and the most that may have happened is that Zie kicked Davs for snoring too loud.
Still, once they broke camp and were back on the road, Essenin urged them to a swifter pace. They were closer now and something in Essenin’s gut told them reaching the lake by nightfall was crucial. Fretting when the edlaks had to walk and snapping at their travel companions didn’t help a thing, but every mile it was harder to stay level-headed and patient.
Finally, as the sun was setting, they rode around the turn that showed them the lake glittering in the valley below. Essenin kicked Sidle into a gallop, bent low across her neck. Soon the island came into sight—the island, the watchtower. Oh gods.
Essenin reined in so abruptly that Sidle reared and nearly threw him.
“What is it?” Ke called out as she caught up to him.
They pointed to the bright flames atop the tower, the signal they’d arranged with Davs. “We’re too late. The Shadows are already here.”
Davitts tried his best to keep Zie occupied. During the day, this was easier. The general tasks that came with making camp anywhere kept them busy. Gathering tubers and berries. Searching the island for firewood. Doing a little sling hunting. Fishing, though one could only eat so many of the same lake fish.
None of it was enough to distract Zie from his anxious thoughts. He chewed on his claws and was incapable of sitting still for more than a few minutes. At night, he wandered the haunted ruins, and came back to Davitts wide-eyed and shivering. What he’d seen and heard, he wouldn’t say.
That evening, they’d set up their cookfire on the beach and Zie had made a stew of the fisher bird Davitts had gotten with a lucky shot that afternoon. Full and as content as two worried people could be, Davitts sat with his back against a fallen log and Zie between his thighs, snuggled back against his chest, for once mostly still.
“Was Essenin a terrible child?” Zie asked as he traced lines on Davitts’ forearm.
“You don’t know?”
Davitts chuckled. “I didn’t know them well as a child. We grew up in the same town and our families certainly had dealings with each other, but we lived at Mama’s shop in town and Ess lived with their family nearer the harbor. Different friend groups. Different learning creches. But I imagine they were a handful. Into everyone’s business. Probably hard to keep their attention on one thing.”
“Easy to picture. And you?”
“I was a good child, for the most part. Eager to help. Reliable. Maybe not always the quickest or the brightest.”
Zie turned in his arms, frowning. “I’m sure you do yourself a disservice.”
“Maybe. But unlike Ess, I was rarely in trouble. Not until I got older and became more interested in weapons than in the family mercantile business. Mama didn’t approve of that.” Davitts wrapped his arms around Zie and gave him a squeeze. The little mahk was obviously trying to distract himself and the last thing Davitts wanted to do was ask questions about his childhood. “Weapons. That’s where I got to know Ess.”
Zie turned to lean against Davitt’s raised knee. “What does that mean?”
“We both attended Rakon’s. That’s the training house in town. Classes for all manner of combat.” Davitts blew out a slow breath as he recalled the volcanic argument his wanting to attend had set off. “Ess’s family sponsored them without question. It’s what they wanted. My Da convinced my mother that she had enough children for the business, and it would do no good to keep the few whose passions lay elsewhere. His words.”
“But they, ah, sponsored you?” Zie asked, giving the impression that he had no idea what sponsoring meant in that context.
“A couple of my aunties actually did the sponsoring. Mama wasn’t throwing money away so I could die violently. Her words.” Davitts loved his mother, but the years he’d spent training, things had been tense between them. “Ess and I were already taller than most of the other kids, so we were paired up for things like sword class.”
“But you don’t carry a sword.”
“It’s not my weapon of choice, but I can use one. Ess is better, though again, not their favorite.” Davitts couldn’t help a smile, remembering Ess huffing and swearing through fencing drills all those years ago. “Anyway, that’s how we became friends. Smacking each other with practice blades.”
Zie actually snickered, the happiest sound from him in days. “I’m sad to have missed it.”
“We can try to recreate it for you sometime—” Davitts cut off when Zie bolted straight up and stumbled toward the shoreline. The chill in his heart told him the answer, but he still asked, “Zie? Sweetheart, what is it?”
“They’re here.” Zie’s voice came out a strangled whisper. “Across the water. In the trees. They’ve come for me. And Ess is out there still.”
In the fading light, Davitts struggled to make out anything in the trees besides a dark mass of branches. He pulled out his spyglass and searched the treetops, noting how the trees bent with the breeze off the lake. Except some of the trees bent in the wrong direction, disturbed, jostled. There.. Dark shadows moving independent of any object, moving toward the lake.
“Come on.” Davitts gripped Zie’s shoulder and gave him a little shake. “We have to get on top of the tower and light our beacon. Ess will know what it means and I won’t have those things surprising them when they get here.”
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.