The effort of climbing the cliff, even with carefully placed wind gusts to help shove him up the trickier parts, was almost too much for Zie. He clawed his way over the edge and collapsed at the top, gasping for breath. The more magic one used, the more one could use, but just as even the best runner had limits, so did an experienced mahk. The half day of wind work and the extended run across the waves had taken their toll.
At least I didn’t fall in this time. I managed not to look back, not to think too hard. Small victories.
When he had the breath to roll onto one elbow to see what had happened behind him, he caught sight of one thing that filled his heart with satisfaction and another that turned the smug gratification to sudden horror.
The Shadows had followed him and run their stolen vessel onto the rocks as Zie knew they would. They might have grown intellectually, but they lacked experience with waterways. While he had to assume that was why they stole both ship and sailors to begin with, keeping the sailors under thrall hadn’t helped them gain from the collective experience under their control. Zie couldn’t help a ferocious smile at their scramble to desert the sinking ship for dry land.
That smile died hard and fast when he caught sight of what else was in the water.
“Oh, Ess. No. No.”
But Ess couldn’t hear him, arrowing through the water like a spear fish, directly for the spot Zie had left the water. Of course they’d followed. Of course. Since the last time Ess had seen Zie wave-walking, he’d lost his concentration and nearly drowned. Zie’s throat tightened on tears. They were supposed to be safe now. He’d led the Shadows away and the two of them were supposed to be safe.
Ess reached the base of the cliff and began to climb, and Zie nearly panicked, his whiteout flight response screaming run! But Ess… Ess was one of the most persistent people he’d ever met. They would follow and simply put themself in more danger. He couldn’t just run away. Not, oh mother of storms, not now. Not from this.
“It’s fine,” Zie whispered as he lay on his belly and tried to ignore the tears dripping down the cliff face. “Everything… It will be fine.”
Despite his exhaustion, he called the wind to him once more and lifted Ess up the cliff bit by bit so they wouldn’t need to tire themself climbing. One of them should be able to walk without stumbling and if the Shadows did catch up? Better that Ess would be able to run while Zie held them back.
Not cracking likely. You see how well that works.
By the time he was able to grasp Ess’s wrist and help him up the last bit, he’d nearly regained his control though he still swiped a few stray tears from his face. Then he met the anger in those lovely dark eyes and nearly lost his composure again.
“Don’t start with me.” Ess gave him a shake before pulling him into a hard embrace. “And don’t you dare do that again. No more of this I alone can keep everyone safe nonsense, do you hear me?”
“I had to,” Zie’s whisper barely made it past the stone lodged in his throat. “The ship. Everyone aboard.”
Ess twisted their head to watch the sinking Shadow ship and huffed. “Fine, yes. Leading them away was best. But after we’ve made a quick plan. Together. Not you rushing off on your ridiculous own.”
“But—” Zie did his best to squirm away, but Ess held tight.
“Listen, really listen. Let’s say we let you get away with it. Let you play martyr and run away from us. How much longer do you think you can keep running? And what happens when you can’t anymore? Once the Shadows destroy you, do you think they’ll just piff, vanish like good little monsters?”
Yes. They would. They should… Though he had no proof of that. The brief and incomplete references he’d found made no mention of how the summoning had ended. “I don’t know. I have suspicions, but I can’t be sure.”
“That’s what I thought.” Ess stood pulling Zie up with them. “I know you thought you’d have time once we landed. Time to consult with elder sylvas. Time to find answers. Things didn’t turn out as you planned, so it’s time to plan again.”
Zie shoved back a step. “I’m not certain you should criticize my planning. You left Davs behind.”
The tips of Ess’s ears darkened. “I did not leave… Ah. I think you could be making an attempt at humor. Not a terrible effort. Davs and I agreed on a meeting place, which is where we should be headed.” They spared a glance toward the island where the Shadows had massed to escape the water. “Now that your friends have marooned themselves.”
“If those are friends, goddess protect me from someone who hates me.”
“More jokes? What have you done with my Zie?”
Ess took his hand and led the way along the ridge until they found a path down, not much more than an animal track, but better than trying to climb down the sheer landward side of the cliff where he’d come up. Zie clung to Ess’s arm with both hands by the time they’d made it down, sweat trickling through his hair and making his ears twitch.
“Is it far? This meeting place?”
“Just a few hours or so outside the port. We’ll skirt the city and be there before dark.” Ess stopped, furrows creasing their forehead. “You’re shaking.”
“You’re so tired, you can’t even tell. Water magic really knocks it out of you.” Ess crouched down and offered their back.
Zie hesitated, though now he felt the tremors running up his legs and back. “I can’t use you as an edlak.”
“Up. Come on. You don’t weigh much. The sooner you just do what I tell you, the sooner we get to see Davs.”
Ess clicked their tongue as they would at a dozing gossta, and though Zie felt ridiculous, he climbed onto Ess’s back, holding tight as Ess rose again, shifting and shrugging until they had Zie where they wanted him. Treading carefully at first down the seagrass lined path, Ess picked up the pace when they hit a better-used cart track, then a proper road. He laid his head on Ess’s shoulder and tried to banish thoughts of Shadows with inn and Davs and dry land, and as Ess began to whistle a bouncy shanty, he thought maybe he succeeded. Just a little.
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.