When we’re far enough into the forest that I’m confident we’ll be safe for a few moments, I stop. I could keep running, and we should keep running, but I know Danielle needs a break.
She drops to the ground to catch her breath, but less than a minute later, she looks up at me. “Yusha, what is going on? What was all that about?”
I take a deep breath. There’s no sheltering her now. “Shar wants to kill you.”
“He wants to what?”
“He’s trying to kill you.”
“Why me?” Danielle stands up, takes a few steps in no particular direction, then faces me. “I don’t even know who he is!”
““Shar is…” How can I explain this? “He’s a Kreigav.”
Danielle’s eyes widen in fear.
“But I’m here to keep you safe.”
“From a, a Kreigav?” Her voice is small now, soft as a whisper. “How can you do that?” She shakes her head, sending her unbound hair bouncing around her petite face. “Kreigav aren’t real. They’re a legend, a myth, everyone knows they’re not real.”
This part is not going to be easy. “They are not a myth. And I assure you, they are very real.”
Danielle looks at me, her features tightening into a scowl as her fear is chased away by anger. “You expect me to believe that there are really magical, evil beings flying around Samokei, searching for the lost descendants of the Bunitheor dynasty?”
I only nod. What more can I say?
“Come on, Yusha! What is really going on here?”
“I’m keeping you safe.”
“Yes, yes, I know. But safe from what?”
“Who is Shar?”
“The Kreigav who is trying to kill you.”
“Ugh! This is getting nowhere! Can’t you just answer my questions?”
I thought I was answering her questions, but somehow I know I shouldn’t say that right now. So I say nothing.
“Who are you Yusha?”
A fair question. She only knows me as the strange boy who moved to the village with no family three years ago. And now I’m leading her off into the forest and speaking of legends as though they’re reality. I can tell her the truth, but will she believe it?
“I am a Zazti.”
Danielle’s eyes widen. “That’s, that’s not possible.” Her people know of the Zazti, of course. But, like the Kreigav, we are only a legend to them. No one believes we exist. Not anymore.
“But it is the truth. I am here to—”
“No, no, no. You’re Yusha. My friend. Not some mythical creature.” She pauses and her eyes narrow. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Joke? “No, it’s no joke.” I step closer and take her hand in my own. “And I am your friend. Your friend who is here to protect you.” That’s all I can do. I can’t explain everything to her. I may not even be able to keep her trust after this day. But I can protect her. Of that, I am sure.
“If you are a Zazti, then why are you protecting me?”
I’ve never considered that question before. The Zazti are protectors. We guard the descendants of Bunitheor from the Kreigav who would kill them. Why do I need a reason for that?
Danielle pulls her hand free and takes a half step backwards. “The Zazti only protect the descendants of Bunitheor. That’s what all the legends say. Do I look like a princess to you?”
“No, I mean, yes, but—“
“They also protect pretty girls who they become obsessed with.”
Shar is descending from the trees above us, his long cloak fluttering on the breeze that carries him.
How did he find us? How does he always find us?
“You seem like the one with the obsession,” Danielle snapped at him. “You’re trying to kill me.”
“A quick tongue,” Shar says with a smooth grin, “but how do you know he’s not the one trying to kill you?” His finger stretches out towards me.
“That’s absurd!” I protest. Surely she can see that, right? I glance at Danielle and see doubt flicker across her features.
“I was coming to save you, and Yusha here whisked you away to the woods where he can kill you in solitude.” Shar’s brown eyes were soft, deceptively compassionate.
“No, I don’t believe you.”
But she doesn’t sound very convinced.
“You don’t? Are you sure?” His voice was low, almost a purr as he sowed doubt deeper into her mind.
“No, she doesn’t,” I declare with as much certainty as I can muster, stepping between them.
“I can speak for myself, Yusha.”
Danielle is next to me again. I don’t know what’s going on inside her head, but I know this can’t end well.
“But he’s right,” she says to Shar. “If you were coming to save me, you’d have no need to go throwing people around.”
“A quick tongue and a quick mind. Perhaps I understand what you see in her, Yusha.”
I see a question on Danielle’s face at that remark, but before I can say anything, a swell of earth rises up to crash onto Danielle from behind.
I shove her aside and relax to let the earthen wave pass over me without damage.
Shar lunges for Danielle, having anticipated my move. But he always forgets how quick I am. I slap his arm, spinning him off balance so that his momentum carries him past Danielle instead of into her.
This time she flees without a word. Satisfied that Danielle is safe for the next few moments, I let my full focus return to Shar. He can’t go after her now without dealing with me first.
A faint rumble is the only warning I get before the soil beneath me erupts upward like a geyser. I’m propelled up for a few seconds before I feel the pressure beneath me stop and drop me back toward the ground. Panic crowds in.
Shut it out, shut it out.
I get myself upright just in time to land on my feet.
Now I’m face to face with Shar. His fists are filling the air between us and it’s all I can do to redirect them. Before I even know it’s there, his leg sweeps in from the side and I’m on my back.
His fist pounds the dirt where my head lay a moment earlier. I spring up and back, trying to catch my breath and gain some space.
“You know how this ends, Yusha.”
“As do you, Shar. You kill me and you die with me. She’s safe.”
A roar of rage twists his face and the ground between us buckles, rises, and rushes for me. The earth swallows me, blotting out the sun and stealing the air from my lungs.