It shouldn’t have been endearing and Essenin should’ve been Very Angry still, but Zie’s earnest, continually failed attempts to help Ke with the light rocks tugged hard at their heart.
He set the latest glowing rock beside the other three with a heavy sigh. “I can’t seem to force the light inside. I don’t know what else to do.”
“You can’t force it, youngling.” Ke snorted and set aside her third light-infused rock. “Do you think this is the sort of thing one learns in a double handful of minutes?”
“No, mishu.” Sitting cross-legged on the sand, Zie spoke to his boots. “I…beyond very early things, I’ve never…”
“You’ve never had a teacher. It shows. What was your mother thinking?”
“She…there was never time. She was in negotiations, but…” Zie waved a hand in a helpless gesture.
Ke huffed, though presumably not at Zie. “The old ways. That’s what comes of them. See here, then. A quick lesson. Think of the smallest pieces you can break a stone into. Then break them smaller still.” She picked up a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers. “Smaller than the finest grains. And now remember that there is still space between the smallest smallest pieces. This is where we urge the light to store itself. Not in the stone itself, but woven into the in-between.”
“Oh.” Zie picked up another stone from his pile, and though it looked to Essenin that all he was doing was staring at a rock, apparently he managed something. A tiny smile crept out, his eyes full of wonder, and Essenin’s heart wanted to break at this glimpse of how Zie must have been before his world shattered, this inquisitive, earnest soul. “I think I have it.”
Zie set the rock down, still watching it closely. Then it exploded in a shower of sparks and sand.
“Real learning takes time.” Ke’s too expressionless face suggested she was trying not to laugh. “For anything other than guesswork and reading the half-boiled explanations of some ancient ancestor. In the meantime, you’re a walking keg of disaster. Please stop helping.”
Rolli did snicker at that, but quickly stifled it when Davitts’ glare promised certain violence. The rest of their planning time, Essenin concentrated on battening down their panic. Sending Davs over to help set a trap was one thing. Letting Zie walk up to the monsters that had devoured his family was another level of madness entirely. But Ke was talking him through it, coaching him through recalling everything he’d done to summon the Shadows so he could do them in reverse. It sounded…possible? More or less? Since the light would distract them?
For his part, Essenin was only allowed to swim Rolli, Davitts and the rocks in their pockets on a log most of the way across the lake. Then Essenin would be condemned to wait and hope the people they loved managed to survive.
While they were all standing on the bank, waiting for Ke’s go ahead, it didn’t help at all that Zie kept whispering to himself, It’s fine. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
“It’s most certainly not fine,” Essenin whispered back as they wrapped Zie in a fierce hug. “But we believe in you.”
Zie clung tight for one trembling moment, then nodded and stepped back.
A few strides away, Davitts had single-handedly shoved an enormous log into the water, one that would’ve taken five, possibly six, Rollis to budge. Rolli had helped by watching appreciatively.
“Ready for this, dunderhead?” Davitts clapped Rolli on the shoulder. “Not that it matters.”
“I’m risking my life here!”
“Still, you could be nicer.” Rolli held up both hands when Davitts growled. “I’m ready. I have it. Place the stones, do the tap rhythm, and if I can’t get them to glow, leave them and you’ll come around.”
Davitts grunted at him and turned to Essenin, who had stripped to their drawers this time. No need to take all their clothes for another bath. They stopped for a kiss on Davs’ cheek before wading in. “Let’s go, love. Sooner started, sooner done.”
“You sound like your mother.”
“Very sensible woman, my mother.” Essenin patted the log. “Hop on, or I leave without you.”
This at least was familiar, the teasing, the picking at each other before battle. Though usually, those came with weapons and considerably more clothes. Essenin heaved a steadying breath before he took hold of the log and shoved off the murky lake bottom to get it moving. They’d all decided this was the best and safest way to get their light rock bearers across. Rolli was a terrible swimmer and while Davs could’ve made the swim, he would’ve been dangerously tired after.
Rolli clung to the log with both hands, eyes closed, while Davs went into this straight-backed and clear eyed. Courage might not have been Rolli’s best feature, but give him his due, he was trying.
Once Essenin felt the shallows rise beneath them, they stopped swimming and gave the log a last push toward shore. “This is as far as I go. Mother of storms watch over you both.”
Davs didn’t wait for the log to stop drifting and slid off into the water to swim the double handful of strokes needed to reach a place he could stand. Rolli hesitated a little longer, then splashed gracelessly into the water, floundering and flailing to where Davs could seize him by the shirtfront and haul him to shore.
It was a good plan. A fairly simple plan. Up until Zie’s part, Essenin felt it had a good chance for success. Davitts approached where the Shadows had coalesced into a seething, raging mass, speaking low in Rolli’s ear to be heard over their shrieking and pointing to three spots. Rolli nodded and jogged off to start placing his rocks. Three rocks on one side, three on the other, forming a hexagon around the Shadows, and so far, the Shadows didn’t react to them at all.
At Davs’ nod, they began their rock awakening simultaneously, three quick taps followed by two slow ones. Davs’ first rock sent out a curtain of light immediately, and now, unfortunately, he had the Shadows’ attention. They surged toward him, but now Rolli managed to wake his first one, confusing and distracting them.
They both continued around, Rolli just a few beats slower than Davs, since it took the bard more than one try to wake his rocks. After his second rock, Davs stopped and shook his head, stumbling as he rose from his crouch. He staggered to his third rock and woke it, too, but then clutched his head, mouthing words Essenin couldn’t hear.
Oh no. No, no, no. “Rolls, get clear!” Essenin tried to warn him. “They’ve gotten into Davs head!”
“What?” Rolli called back, obviously confused or possibly unable to hear since the Shadows’ furious screaming had only increased as the light cage closed around them, each light curtain bending toward the others to join together and rise overhead to form a dome.
Oblivious, Rolli worked on his last rock, the one that would close the cage, but Davs, face contorted with rage, charged and tackled him, hurling them both away from the final light stone. He pummeled Rolli with both powerful fists while poor Rolls could only curl into a ball to protect what he could.
Essenin had been moving the moment they’d realized the Shadows were whispering to Davs. They just couldn’t let the cursed Shadows couldn’t escape now. They shot out of the water and dashed up the beach to that final rock. Every muscle in their body strained to go to Davs but priorities, they told themself sternly. Shadows first.
The Shadows sensed them, surging toward them as they reached the light cage, a sickening pull starting in Essenin’s chest as they tried to reestablish possession of Essenin’s body.
“No, no and more no.” Essenin muttered as he tapped the rock. Taptaptap…tap…tap. Again, as the Shadows raced closer. Taptaptap…tap..tap. The second time, the sequence took and light flared from the last rock to join its brethren, and Essenin felt it as a physical jolt when the Shadows slammed into that final light barrier and recoiled back.
Essenin scuttled back from the now-completed light cage, chest on fire as they tried to breathe through the panic, and stumbled over to where Davs was trying to turn Rolli into bean paste.
“Davs, stop! Stop it!” They got Davs in a headlock and managed to heave them both over onto their backs to give Rolli a reprieve. But once interrupted, Davs stopped fighting and lay still, his barrel chest rising and falling like a forge bellows.
“Whispered to me,” he choked out. “They called my name.”
“I know, love. I know. We’re all right now.”
Something of an overstatement, perhaps. Rolli was probably not all right and none of this was over.
The tip tip tip of wave running reached Essenin’s ears as Zie and Ke raced to them across the lake. Ke would stay outside the cage, shoring up the light spells as they wavered. Zie…
Zie stood in front of the cage staring straight into the light, perhaps afraid he might lose his nerve if he looked at any of them. With a deep breath, he pulled the brim of his hat down to shade his eyes, and stepped inside.
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.