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.
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.