“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.”
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.