Davitts charged through the sand, supporting Zie on his bad side. The sylvas’ fear infected the air around him, his eyes showing white as he flicked panicked glances toward the trees.
It seemed obvious that Zie believed his pursuers had found him, but he wasn’t alone. Davitts pulled his broadaxe from the holster on his back, keeping an eye on the woods while Essenin kept them headed toward the boat. Archers were his greatest worry, but the moon shadows through the twisting branches would confuse aim to some extent.
Another fifty steps to the launch. If they could get it in the water, they’d be out of range of anyone in the trees. Almost there. The wind from the sea wasn’t fierce that evening. It’d be an easy row past the surf. The wind…
The branches swayed toward them. The wind couldn’t be blowing in both directions. Not naturally. It isn’t, because it isn’t wind. There was movement in the branches, too widespread, too diffuse to be archers in the trees. A spike of ice drove through Davitts’ spine. What in all hells is out there?
The three of them skidded to a stop at the launch’s stern. Zie whirled to face the trees, both hands held out at waist height. His palms began to glow.
“Get the boat launched,” he panted out. “Get it out in the water. Give me a safe place to run.”
Davitts clutched his axe haft in both hands and glanced over at Essenin, who shook their head and drew their cutlass, saying, “We won’t leave you alone with this.”
The brightness grew into balls of blinding white light in Zie’s hands and he screamed through clenched teeth before aiming a vicious kick at Essenin. “Launch the mother-cursed boat! You have no weapons for this, you idiots!”
They stared at Zie, open-mouthed, and as Davitts turned to argue, he caught definite movement in the branches—dark, twisted shapes. Hands with horribly elongated fingers reached out from the trees. Distorted faces with jaws and nostrils turned at impossible angles leered at him. They shifted, broke apart, reformed, and all the while hissed and whispered, words just out of hearing. Eyes blacker than the deepest pits snagged Davitts, beckoning him closer…
Zie gave another feline scream and stepped in front of him, preventing him from taking a step toward the woods. “Go! Now! Do as I say or we all die!”
The thought of Ess lying dead in the sand broke the spell. He tossed all their packs in the boat, grabbed Ess’s arm and spun them around. When Ess resisted, he shouted above the rising wind, “Magic, Ess! He knows what he’s doing!”
Both hands above his head now, Zie leaned into the unnatural storm, the creatures roiling and pacing at the edge of his light spell’s reach. With a strangled sob, Ess put their shoulder to the stern and helped Davitts shove the launch into the waves. As soon as the bottom cleared the sand, Davitts scrambled aboard and struggled to get the oars set with shaking hands. Ess flopped into the boat as soon as Davitts got untangled and heaved all his weight against the oars, pulling them past the surf in three strokes.
He stopped, Ess turned, and they both went still, eyes riveted to the scene on shore. Zie held fast, his light so bright now that Davitts had to put up a hand to shield his sight.
“How’s he going to reach us?” Ess clutched the sides of the boat, his body straining toward the beach. “He can’t get to us out here!”
Davitts shipped the oars and put what he hoped was a comforting hand on Ess’s shoulder. “Hold us here, love. Best you can. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t have a plan, right?”
“Right. Yes. Right.” Ess nodded vigorously and trailed a hand in the waves, their water magic humming in soft vibrations through the wood as they forced the boat to hold position against current and tide. “Stay little launch,” Ess whispered. “Stay, stay…”
On shore, the light expanded to surround Zie and even from a distance, the tension in his muscles was evident. He has to let the spell go. He’ll drain himself and collapse on the beach…
A roar cut off Davitts’ thoughts and Zie’s huge ball of light exploded outward into the trees. Terrible shrieks came from the trees as the shadow things scattered and shredded. Zie turned, limping in a weaving run toward the waves. At first, Davitts thought he would try to swim out to them, though it didn’t look like he had the strength to. But his boots hit the waves and didn’t sink. Zie kept running on top of them, his steps leaping from white foam cap to cap.
He’ll make it. He will. Almost there…
The light had dissipated, making it more difficult to see the beach, but Davitts could still make out the shadows rushing out of the forest, their hideous, twisting bodies and grasping fingers reaching out over the waves. Those tattered, twisted arms kept reaching, impossibly long, while Zie managed to keep only just two steps ahead. Finally, the shadows appeared to have reached their limit, shrieking and writhing their rage on the sand. Zie turned his head to check and tripped on the top of the next wave.
His eyes went wide in horror as he sank like a stone.
Ess’s shout was the only warning Davitt’s had before his half-selak lover dove over the side, leaving Davitts to scramble trying to keep the boat from capsizing. Ess was perfectly safe in the water. Everything would be fine. He kept telling his hammering heart that as he took up the oars again to hold the boat as steady as possible, straining to see any sign of them in the impenetrably dark water.
Nothing. Mother of storms, where are they? It’s been too long. Has it been too long?
Just as panic started to set in, Ess crested and rolled onto their back to kick toward the boat with a sodden bundle of black hair and flopping limbs in their arms. They heaved their burden over the side and Zie flopped onto the decking, coughing and trembling.
Essenin rolled back into the launch with considerably more grace and gathered Zie close, trying to shield him from the wind. Their eyes gathered Davitts in too, relief and shock mixed in equal parts in there. “Row, Davs. Get us out of here.”
No one had to tell him twice. Davitts rowed toward the mouth of the bay, toward the bulk of the Golden Runner waiting at anchor, hard enough that his shoulder joints screamed, but he didn’t care if he popped one out of the socket. Ess could put it back. He wanted lantern light and people and normal things.
“Are we safe?” Essenin asked when Zie had stopped heaving up his lungs.
“They can’t cross the water,” Zie whispered as he curled into a compact ball in Ess’s lap. “They can’t cross the water. Can’t.”
Suddenly, Zie’s desperation to put an entire sea between himself and his pursuers made all sorts of sense. Horrible, horrible sense.
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.