Author's note: This is our final installment of the serial. My thanks - enormous thanks - to everyone who joined me on the journey.
Davs had no sooner ridden his edlak into the stable courtyard they shared with Ess’s mother and aunts than he fell out of the saddle onto the well-swept pavers. Ess, eager to get home, had ridden ahead up the hill on their sure-footed Sidle, and had already dismounted. They just managed the dive to prevent Davs’ head from hitting the stones.
What have you been hiding and how long? Zie swallowed a sigh and undid the stirrup straps on his bad leg before he slid off carefully and retrieved his cane from behind his saddle. After the afternoon in the saddle, his leg complained about wanting a hot bath and a long rest. He told it to shut up and be patient. Davs came first.
By the time he’d made it to their portion of the family compound, Ess had already carried Davs to their bedroom and was easing him down on the bed. Of all the comforts of home, Zie always missed this bed most. Long enough for Ess to stretch out comfortably and big enough for the three of them to curl up or sprawl as the mood took them, it was a luxury one didn’t often find on the road.
“Oof.” Ess stretched their back after yanking Davs boots off and hefting his feet onto the bed. “I swear you didn’t used to be this heavy.”
“Maybe it’s age,” Davs muttered as he cracked an eye open. “What in all the mother’s depths?”
Ess smoothed the nut-brown hair back from Davs’ forehead. “You fainted dead away, love. And Zie looks rather annoyed with you.”
“Hmm.” Zie leaned his cane against the bed and gave Ess a kiss on the cheek, the ishai rings pinging against each other as his ears flicked.. “Leave him with me, sheshu. The poor edlaks are standing in the yard.”
“Oh. Yes.” Ess straightened with a sigh. “Please don’t be too harsh with him, love.”
“No promises.” Zie settled on the edge of the bed next to his heroically large ishai, and when Ess had left, asked, “Where is it and how long?”
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
“You nearly cracked your head open, sheju.” Zie scooted closer to stroke Davs’ cheek, hoping that and his use of beloved—the masculine form to the non-gendered sheshu he used for Ess—would take the sting from his words. “You’re hiding a wound. It’s become infected. You forget that my nose is better than yours and I can smell it. Tell me where, or I get out a knife and cut your clothes off.”
Davs mumbled something that may have been bossy little man, but he sighed and rolled up his right shirt sleeve. “It’s not so bad. Honestly.”
“You’d say so if your arm were half lopped off.” Zie frowned to keep from hissing in dismay. Yes, the wound wasn’t terribly deep, slicing across muscle and missing tendons. But inflamed and sporting some unnatural colors, it was well and truly infected. “Why didn’t you simply tell me? We could’ve had this mended by now.”
“The client had an arrow in her leg,” Davs offered at his driest. “You were a little busy.”
“I wasn’t busy every moment of the last three days. And we got her home safe, as promised, yesterday.”
“You get so tired doing larger healings.” Davs sighed and let Zie take the arm into his lap. “And I really didn’t think it was bad.”
Zie only nodded in answer, already focusing on the wound. Some days, like this one, he missed Ke more than others, but she had left them the year before, gone back home after declaring that there was no more she could teach him. For anything else he wanted to learn, he was on his own.
The last year of his apprenticeship with her had been spent on healing. She had shown him to use pieces of the disciplines, particularly water, growth, pneuma, and sometimes fire, to treat various ailments and injuries. In all her tutelage, this was what Zie had latched onto tooth and claw, as something missing, something he needed.
Zie removed his hat and eyepatch, this one the plain black leather one he used for traveling, and set them on the end of the bed. With practice and Ke’s patient coaxing, he’d found that while his damaged eye no longer saw the physical world, it still showed him the shapes and tracks of magic with far greater accuracy than his unharmed one.
In Davs’ poor inflamed arm, in the smallest of the small spaces, he saw what he expected—the tiny invaders he had no name for, the ones causing the gash to sicken. He’d tried to explain it to Ess once, and they’d blithely taken to calling them the itty-bitty blood bugs. Close enough.
The most important thing was to encourage the body to engineer its own healing. He began the exacting process of deconstructing the invaders and speaking to Davs’ tiny blood guardians. They understood him and began to marshal their forces, picking up intelligence for their campaign from the slain invaders. They would do the rest, if all went well.
Zie patted Davs’ stomach. “That will do for now, though I need to clean it. Don’t even consider getting up.”
Cane in hand, he turned so Davs wouldn’t see his arm shaking as he clomped out of the room. Oh yes, he was tired. Beyond bone weary. He did find if he exhausted himself that he slept better, though. That and sex tended to stop the nightmares.
Five years in and they still haunted him. Not as often and not as screamingly dreadful as they were at first. Still.
Not that it had been a bad five years. On the contrary. As soon as they had arrived back in Pellienport, Essenin had gotten on their knees to ask them, formally, to be their ishai. The family had welcomed them with open arms and had helped to build the house for them on the sea cliff side of the shared property. Three rooms and a bath of their own, hot water piped in from the central boilers, room for their edlaks in the shared stables, and a few chockas in the yard.
They made their living as Davitts and Essenin always had, taking contract work as caravan guards and escorts. Ke would go with them to make sure the teaching was never interrupted, so there was usually little trouble with two sylvas mages in the company.
At first, the clients weren’t certain what to make of a crippled, one-eyed sylvas wearing braided gold ishai rings, but the first time Zie had called the wind to knock bandits out of the trees changed their outlook. Word had spread quickly and they’d been much in demand.
And there had been plenty to occupy him in those times in between jobs. A busy life, but a satisfying one.
Essenin caught up to him in the kitchen where he was heating water. “Is he all right?”
“He will be, no thanks to his stubborn nonsense,” Zie muttered as he poured the heated water into a pitcher. “He didn’t tell you either, did he? That he was in pain and fevered.”
“Of course not.” Ess snorted and gathered the supplies to carry them for Zie. “He knows I’d run right to you telling tales. Couldn't have that.”
Something was definitely bubbling in Essenin’s mind. They had that half smile that wasn’t quite a smile in place all through getting Davs cleaned up and tucked in, and still as they joined Zie in the bath to help each other wash off the travel dust. They kept silent until all three of them were in bed and Zie was beginning to drift toward sleep.
“I was thinking.”
“Dangerous,” Zie mumbled into Davs’ shoulder.
“Hush, you.” Ess reached across to swat his hip. “But I have been. Thinking. And Davs getting sick from a sword gash just made me think it harder.”
Davs cracked an eye open and sighed. “Are you going to tell what you’ve been thinking or just keep talking about thinking?”
“We’re not getting any younger—”
“We’re hardly in our dotage.” Zie lifted up on one elbow to peer across the expanse of Davs’ chest.
“Do you want to hear this or not?” Ess gave him a wounded look.
“I’m sorry, sheshu. Do go on.”
“Maybe…” Ess set both forearms on Davs’ chest as if he were a table, meeting Zie’s gaze directly. “Maybe it’s time to stop risking ourselves for money and reputation, before something really awful happens. Maybe it’s time to settle down. Stay put.”
“We’re too young to retire, sweets,” Davs rumbled. “Besides, what would you do with yourself? You’d make a nuisance of yourself with no honest occupation.”
“That hurts. Even if it’s true.” Ess patted the blanket, eyes shining with something barely held in check. “But see here. We’re very good at what we do. And there’s been no weapons’ school in town since old Faita retired. We should do that.”
“Retire?” Davs asked with a frown.
“No, start our own school. You’re very patient. And I’m very good.” Ess ignored the dual snorts. “And Zie could teach knife fighting if he wanted to. That’s something we didn’t learn much of.”
Davs picked up his head with a grunt. “You're serious about this. Yes, I see you are. We have some savings, but…”
“I did tell you I’ve been thinking. The family sets aside funds for new ventures. We’ll have to put the proposal in front of the aunties, make certain we’ve thought of all the questions they’ll ask, but I’m sure we can be persuasive enough for a loan. Just to get us started. The old school stands empty. No one’s been willing to take it on. Zie, love?”
Zie let the question hang between them a moment. “You have been thinking. But it’s hardly a conversation for when we’re all half dead from the road and Davs is poorly. Go to sleep. No decisions until morning.”
Thwarted, Ess plunked onto their back with a huff, but they behaved and the idea kept quite well until morning. Zie added his voice to the idea that it was time for his loves to stop flinging themselves into peril and Davs began the serious business of calculating who and how many they would need on staff, what equipment would have to be found, and how much the school’s building might be to purchase or perhaps to rent.
He left them to it. This was more their world than his, and while he would assist where he could, he also had his own concerns. Quietly, he packed up his satchel, gave them each a kiss, and headed down the hill to town.
In the poorest part of the city, he had his own establishment. No more than a poorly patched shack, but it had a door and there was a well nearby for water and a brazier inside for boiling. The residents knew that he came and went—something that was soon to change, apparently—but they always knew when he returned. Word spread quickly in the crowded tenements, called from room to room.
The healer’s back.
He opened the door and set a cobble against it to hold it open, lit the coals and set his cane against the wall. There were two low stools and a pallet stuffed with hay that someone had replaced in his absence. The residents knew by now that he took no fee for his services. They understood it as something he felt he must do, but were kind enough not to ask.
With his bag unpacked, Zie bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Zaia of the snows, I offer my labor this day as recompense for all the lives I took, willing or no. To those spirits still restless and wandering, I offer my skills as reparation, in the hope that you may be soothed and move on.”
He took his seat on one of the stools and only had to wait a few moments before his first patient arrived, a mother with a fevered toddler. Healing was the greatest gift Ke had given him in their four years together. Most likely his own soul would never be entirely at peace, but there was solace in this, these simple things he could do to ease another’s pain.
And with his loves giving up their lives of adventure and danger? Life would be full of wonderful things. Love and laughter and a safe domestic haven, and his work here, to give back what he could. He was content and could want no more. No one could ask for more peace than that.
Zie smiled as he sent the mother off with instructions to come back if the fever worsened again. He had a place to stop, to make a different sort of stand. He was home.
Back in September of 2021, my writing had hit the wall of walls. Nothing was working - I was simply unable to can.
Then a character appeared in the middle of the night, standing atop a fence post. I didn't know his name or where he'd come from. I just knew he was running from...something.
"Maybe I'll write something just because," I said. "A serial that I'll post weekly. Something short. It'll be fun."
Thirty-nine posts and a novel-length story later, we have Shadow Run. I'll have to rename it, since there's a franchise already out there of that name, but it WAS fun. It just wasn't short. :D
There will be an Epilogue post for Monday, and I'll leave the posts up for a bit. Eventually, I'll take it down and give to Editor to start the process of putting the story in book form. Zie deserves that, I think, after all I put him through.
Thank you all for coming along on this journey where you all got to find out what happened next pretty much when I did. It did help - I've got a release coming up!
The sun sparked off the mica dotted benches outside the zerl’s rotunda. Such a cheery, quiet day with little blue lizards playing in the garden pond and tiny birds fluttering in the bushes. Zie hadn’t considered before that the weather could be mocking him, but it certainly felt like that with the anxious storm raging inside him.
Their passage back home had been…idyllic. A dream that Zie struggled to hold close for comfort, reviewing memories of simply being with Ess and Davs, of Ke’s careful teaching, of the murmuring of waves and the wind untainted by Shadows. Ess had carved him a cane with a sefta head since they said the clever little river predators reminded them of Zie.
Slowly, slowly, the left side of his body had begun to obey him and through persistent, constant practice, he could walk again, though he dragged the left leg still. The left arm was weak and shaky but could manage simple things like helping to pull on a boot. His eye…well. That would likely always remain cloudy, his sight on that side like peering through heavy fog at night. Davs had sewn him a blue eye patch to match his coat.
He wore both coat and eye patch now as he waited to be called into the chamber by the gathering of ulla, the clans’ eldest matriarchs, who made up the zerl. Their initial reaction had been joy to find that someone from his clan had survived. That joy had turned to stone-faced anger when Zie told them the whole of it.
For him, the kernel of bittersweet joy, of relief, to find his people still alive, to learn that while clans were wiped out, the damage had been limited to four and not the whole of the north. He had returned, he said to them with his head bowed and hands held wide in penitence, to tell the tale and to face judgment.
Ess and Davs were in there now, acting as witnesses. Davs testimony was a quiet rumble in which Zie couldn’t make out any actual words, though he was sure that Davs kept to factual answers. Ess’s voice rose and fell, some of his testimony impassioned enough that Zie could make out phrases like never seen such courage and all he needed was answers.
He supposed his actions at the end might have been mistaken for courage. He hadn’t felt at all brave at the time, though he loved Ess for trying to make him into the hero. No illusions. No hiding from it now. You’re the villain in this story. So many dead. Children. Elders. Entire families. My own family. I have snuffed out potential and murdered knowledge in all those lives. Murder is murder and can’t be erased.
I’ll always be a murderer. No matter what the decision today, I have to live with that.
One of the little blue lizards had climbed onto the carved entrance archway and was trying to bite one of the painted stone flowers. Six times it tried before it gave up. Some things were more difficult to learn than others, perhaps.
Ke’s voice, raised in anger, floated out from the chamber, “As if you’re free of blame! That boy has more power in his little claw than all of you’ve had in your long, pebble-headed lives! And you simply let him wander around untrained because of tradition!” She practically spat the last word, but then lowered her voice so Zie couldn’t overhear any longer.
He sat blinking in shock. No one spoke to the zerl that way. It was a wonder they hadn’t tossed her out. Ke must have stunned them all to silence to be permitted to keep speaking, though a little bit of his heart warmed to hear her speak so fiercely in his defense.
Finally, after the sun had moved across nearly the whole of the garden, Ess came to fetch him.
“They’re ready for you now.” Those lovely burgundy eyes were deeply worried. “Do you need an arm?”
Zie stood and made sure of his balance after sitting for so long. He tugged Ess’s head down to kiss their cheek. “No. I need to do this on my own.”
The five steps up into the chamber were the hardest since the actual floor where councils took place was raised in order to run heating pipes underneath the stone to keep old joints comfortable in the cold months.
Thump-slide, thump-slide, thump-slide, cane, then drag the leg up another stair, one slow step at a time. He meant no disrespect, but this was as fast as he could manage, and he was all too aware of Ess hovering behind him in case the leg buckled.
When he reached the center of the room, directly below the octagonal window of colored glass at the apex of the dome, he straightened as best he could, though he kept his gaze on the floor.
The ullas murmured around him, the thirteen who made up the zerl, though it was Ulla KIsh whom he faced, the oldest at somewhat over two hundred years.
Despite her age, her voice rang out strong and steady, and perhaps a bit irritated. “Young mahk, you have caused grievous harm. Your impetuous, reckless actions, summoning monsters in complete ignorance, might have been the end of all things. And certainly was the end for far too many.”
Zie had no right to refute the truth. He nodded and remained silent.
Ulla Kish clicked her tongue and let out a gusty sigh. “You complicate things since you also saved everyone left alive from these same monsters.” She raised a hand when Zie looked up and might have spoken. “We understand how wild your grief for your mother must have been. We understand that you had no one to teach you but your own rather frightening ingenuity.”
“The judgment, Kish,” one of the ulla’s behind Zie called out. “Haven’t we been here long enough today? I’d like to get home before the seasons change.”
“I may get to it faster if certain persons wouldn’t interrupt me.”
Someone laughed. It might have been Ke. Zie gripped his cane tight, trying to stop himself from flexing his claws. This was where he lost his freedom for the rest of his life and never saw his loves again. This was only what he deserved.
“Zie of clan Ruzt,” Ulla Kish went on. “You are banished from sylvas lands. If you set even claw or hair here again, the survivors of the decimated clans are given the right of blood feud by this council. Your clan’s holdings and goods are forfeit, to be divided among those survivors. You may return to the compound for your own belongings, whatever you can carry on your own back, and your mother’s knives. We give you two days grace for travel.”
Blinking in astonishment, Zie’s head jerked up. “I’m not…I’m not being sent to the deeps?”
“No, youngling. Untaught, you’re far too dangerous to shut away and hope for the best. Part of our decision came about because you have a teacher now.” Ulla Kish narrowed her eyes at Ke. “One as ferocious as the north wind, it seems. But you must be taught elsewhere. Go away, preferably far, and do not return.”
“Yes, Ulla.” Zie offered a bow, tongue-tied and dazed. Thank you seemed wrong somehow. Blessings on your judgments might sound facetious. All he managed was to repeat, “Yes.”
A gentle pat on his shoulder and Ke’s voice just behind him telling him it was time to go finally snapped him out of his frozen state. Two sets of strong hands reached up to assist him down the stairs, and this time, shaking and dizzy, he was more than happy to accept the help.
Emerging back into the sunlight, Zie drew in a gasping breath as if he’d surfaced after struggling up from the depths. A heavy stone of sorrow lay in his stomach, that he would never see his homelands again, that he was forbidden to live among his own people, but overtop the sorrow was…relief.
“Sweetheart, are you all right?” Davs asked from his left.
Zie tipped his head up to look at that beloved face. “I’m not certain. Not yet, at any rate.”
“I won’t have you going back into that compound where all this happened,” Ess said in what they probably meant as a stern voice, ruined by the quake in it. “You tell us what you need and we’ll fetch it out. And then…” Ess swallowed hard, their tone far less certain. “And then I’m hoping you’ll come home with us?”
“Home.” Zie considered the word a moment. It no longer meant what it used to. “I’m home. With you and Davs. The location doesn’t matter.”
Ess’s smile could have lit the length of a winter night and Davs leaned in to plant a kiss atop Zie’s head. It might well be that Zie would never walk comfortably again, but right then, he was certain he could fly.
Turn for me just a smidge…turn…perfect. Essenin sipped their tea to hide the sigh of admiration as he occupied the window seat and watched Davitts split wood in the courtyard below. They had a spectacular view of Davitt’s back muscles as he swung and split a log in one sure stroke.
“Has he taken his shirt off?”
Zie’s voice came in a hoarse whisper from the bed and Essenin’s heart twinged. They’d tried so hard to let him sleep since the nightmares had been bad. All of them had nightmares. Zie’s were particularly distressing. At least his speech had regained its normal cadence and he was able to sit up on his own again. Small steps.
“Oh, yes. He most certainly has. Those glistening shoulders.”
Essenin turned in time to witness Zie’s plaintive sigh and they took pity. They put down their tea, strode to the bed to gather Zie up in their arms, and carried him to the window seat where they could admire Davs together. Zie’s injured eye was covered by a blue scarf to protect it from the light. Perhaps it might heal, though the selak healer who came in the afternoons was less optimistic about the eye than she was Zie’s already twitching left arm. But his uncovered eye devoured the sight of Davs splitting logs.
“He, ah, does that so well.” Zie swallowed audibly and his soft sleep pants didn’t hide the growing bulge at all.
“Mmm.” Essenin sipped their retrieved tea. “The axe is his accessory of choice, after all.”
They sighed in tandem longing as Davs stacked up the wood, as promised to the innkeeper to help defray the cost of three rooms, and head to the bathhouse. The three of them shared, of course, but Rolli had his own little convalescent room under the eaves where he was all too pleased to be fussed over by the innkeeper’s son and daughter, and Ke had a room down the hall.
That Davs might have been doing extra work out of guilt? Well, no one was unkind enough to mention it.
When Davs emerged from the bathhouse wrapped only in a sheet, drops still fell from his water-dark hair, and it made Essenin oddly pleased somehow that they’d undone all the braids and washed their own hair that morning. Washing the last of the Shadows from them, perhaps.
Essenin turned to Zie and caught the moment of miserable yearning before he shut his expression down. Oh no, we can’t have that. And we should’ve talked about it before now.
“Davs told you before not to think it,” Essenin said gently. “And here you are, still thinking it.”
“What is it I am supposed to be thinking?” The sardonic drawl wasn’t quite back yet, but the ghost of it colored Zie’s words.
“That we don’t want you anymore. Won’t desire you anymore.”
Zie was silent for almost too long, staring out the window at nothing. “You’re both so beautiful and I am broken. How could you still love and desire something so broken?”
“You’re changed, love.” Essenin took both his hands, the one that could hold back and the one that couldn’t. “You made a hero’s choice and in return, you got all that comes with those sorts of choices. But changed isn’t broken, and how can we look on the consequences of a hero’s choice and not love you more?”
“Don’t make me cry.” Zie sniffled and wiped at his good eye with his sleeve. “Not with Davs coming up the stairs.”
Ah, yes. Now Essenin heard those beloved footsteps, too. There had been absolutely no change in Zie’s excellent hearing. They both turned as Davs came into the room and shut the door behind him.
“What?” Davs gaze darted from one to the other. “I’ll comb my hair. Promise.”
The words got away from Essenin. “Zie thinks we can’t love him anymore.”
“I see.” Davs dropped the bath sheet and Zie’s eyes widened as he came to one knee in front of them both. “Because you did something heroic and you think we’ll feel inferior?”
Zie squirmed. “No…I…”
“Oh, well, then it must be because you were wounded during these heroic actions and believe we feel too guilty for not preventing that?” Davs put his hand on Zie’s knee and looked up into his face, his earnest gaze unpinned with a definite smolder. “No? Not that either?”
“Don’t make fun, Davs. Please,” Zie choked out.
“I’m not. Sweetheart, I’m not.” Davs set his head in Zie’s lap with a sigh. “I do feel guilty that I couldn’t help you. That’s just how I’m made. But it’s not as if Ess has never been injured. It’s not as if I haven’t sat by their bedside wondering if they’d wake, if they’d be able to walk or pull a bow again. It’s never, ever made me love them less.”
The wounded, strangled sound that came from Zie had them both lunging for him, and they ended up a mess of limbs and tears on the carpet. Ever the protector, Davs had managed to be mostly on the bottom, though, with Zie draped across his chest. Apologies, reassurances, and soft words of comforting nonsense all melded together in tender counterpoint.
Zie’s lips found Essenin’s even as Davs tugged at laces swearing softly at being the only one naked. Contorting themself so as not to hurt anyone, Essenin disentangled quickly to shuck their own clothes, leaving Davs to help more gently with Zie’s.
He stopped with a hand on the drawstring of Zie’s pants. “Only if you want this.”
Another one of those sounds escaped Zie. “I do. Want. But I can’t…I can’t…”
Now completely naked, eager erection on full display, Essenin lay on the carpet on their side facing their loves. “I do appreciate your bossy assertiveness in the bedroom. Usually. But just now, just for today, you don’t have to do anything but feel.”
Davs sat up and moved Zie between his thighs, becoming a chair to support him. “And tell us if anything doesn’t feel good.”
For a moment, Essenin simply lay with their head propped on their hand, drinking in the lovely view—Zie’s dark hair spread along Davs’ chest, his pale skin setting off Davs’ sand-copper. That lasted only until Essenin couldn’t stand the anticipation of touching any longer and they reached out to stroke Zie’s left thigh.
“Could you…? Ess? The other side, perhaps?” Zie whispered, his purple eye three shades darker with desire.
“You see? Still bossy.” Essenin grinned and scooted around to the right side and laid their head on Davs’ knee where they could reach all the immediately important things. “Davs, maybe nudge back just a bit so I can get my hand…”
Davs let out a satisfying, rumbling moan as Essenin closed their fingers around his cock where it lay trapped between his belly and Zie’s back. The mingled scents of freshly washed Davs and recently woken Zie were intoxicating from this angle, all musk and soap and the enticing spice of Zie’s arousal.
“Curl closer, Ess.” Davs patted their ass to underscore his demand. “You’re too far away.”
While this puzzled Essenin at first since Davs’ reach was more than adequate, they soon understood when Davs took Zie’s hand and wrapped them both around Essenin’s prick. And oh, that felt good, larger fingers cradling smaller ones caressing up and down in leisurely strokes.
But they couldn’t just lie there drinking in the attention. This was about Zie. Essenin hitched a shoulder back and found the perfect position to lick up the underside of Zie’s cock. Even though the hands on them were distracting, only made deliciously worse when Davs tangled strong fingers in their hair, Essenin fought to concentrate on what their own hands and mouth, stroking Davs and taking Zie down to the base, swallowing around him until he swore and moaned.
Zie’s desperate squirming speared right to Essenin’s core and when he cried out and thrust hard into Essenin’s throat, they struggled to swallow, dribbles of spend leaking from their lips as they groaned around Zie’s cock and came seconds after.
Not wanting to be left out, Davs shoved his hand, now coated with Essenin’s orgasm, between himself and Zie and wrapped it around Essenin’s, squeezing harder and encouraging them to stroke faster, until he was huffing like a bellows and buried his face in the crook of Zie’s shoulder to muffle his bellow of release.
They all ended up in a panting, boneless pile again when Davs collapsed onto the carpet and Essenin couldn’t help a little laugh.
“Sorry, love. We got you all dirty again.”
“Mmm. Small price to pay.” Davs lifted his head far enough to kiss Zie’s temple. “There. You could. You did. It was glorious, as always.”
Zie growled and nipped at him with his sharp teeth, which most likely meant, yes, yes, you were right, now shut up. Wisely, Davs shut up.
They lay on the rug in sun-soaked indolence until Zie said, “I have to go home.”
Essenin rolled off and sat up. “Very soon. Though I thought you’d want to train with Ke first. But when you’re ready, we’ll find a ship and go back. My family’s going to start wondering what happened to us.”
“Ess. I think our Zie means that he had to go back to his home.” Davs readjusted them so Zie could recline comfortably in his lap again. “Yes?”
Zie gave them a slow nod. “I need to go home. To…face things. To see if the bard was right. To face judgment if there are those left to pronounce it.”
“They won’t…” Essenin trailed off and swallowed hard before they could continue. “They won’t execute you, will they?”
One of Zie’s eyebrows clambered up his forehead. “Ah, no. Sylvas believe that someone who has done terrible wrong should live with that knowledge and be shamed for it. There are other possibilities besides execution.”
“Oh.” Essenin took both Zie’s hands. “But—”
“Ess, stop,” Davs spoke gently, but there was steel behind the words. “If this is what Zie has to do to be whole, we support him. And we go with him.”
“You would do that?” Zie’s uncovered eye misted. “Stand with me?”
“At the very least, we’re witnesses, right?” Essenin leaned in to plant a kiss on Zie’s lips. “And we wouldn’t desert you now, of all times.”
No one mentioned Zie’s tears as they held each other tight. Apparently, adventuring wasn’t done with them quite yet.
The sea breeze revived Zie considerably after what he considered the excessive warmth of the interior. He sat in a cart by the gangplank of the ship they would take home, waiting for Essenin and Davs to say their goodbyes to Rolli. Ke had not come to see them off and he was a little surprised by how much that stung.
“It was good to see you again,” Rolli was saying as he embraced Ess hard. “I suppose you won’t be back any time soon.”
Essenin squinted at him. “You could come to Pellienport, you know. You don’t have to wait for us to have another job out this way.”
“Maybe if I ever find myself with funds again, I’ll take you up on it.” Rolli offered Davs a hand, the one with the unbroken wrist. “Davitts, take care of them. It was good to see you, too. In spite of all the everything.”
Davs frowned and pulled Rolli into a huge hug. “Sorry about all the everything. And the wrist. Goddesses. I hope you can play again soon.”
“That will happen eventually.” Rolli pulled back with a grin. “I’ve found a handsome blacksmith in town who would like sewa lessons. That should keep me for a bit.”
It looked like Ess has something arch to say to that, but they were interrupted by a hail from down the dock. Ke strode toward them with a pack slung over one shoulder.
“Well, youngsters, are we about ready?”
Zie stared at her, trying to find something intelligent to say, but all he managed was, “You’re coming?”
“Of course I’m coming.” Ke snorted and gazed up at the ship. “Now that I’ve begun teaching you, I can’t let you run about the world without guidance. How irresponsible.”
With final hugs for Rolli, Davs scooped Zie out of the cart and they all made their way onboard.
Home. I’m going home. Those weren’t words Zie ever thought he would consider again, and the ache in his chest was part longing and part anxiety for what awaited. But it was still a good thing. The only thing. And with what seemed undeserved goddess blessings, he wasn’t doing it alone.
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.
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.