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."
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.