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.