Man, what happened? All I remember is those freaky Whisper Folk, mutttering something-something-something about being a rat on a wheel. Think I fell asl—
“On your feet!” Gyrax grabs me by the elbow, hauling me up. “You broke the enchantment, Jon! We need to kill them before they recover!”
Things snap into focus. Dozens of yards ahead, Nyanti, Erany, and Ren are waving their arms like Tai Chi masters, throwing blasts of light from their outstretched hands. The three Whisper Folk are facing them down, responding in kind. I don’t understand magical combat, but judging from the Sytíshís’ pained expressions, they seem to be getting their asses ki—
“Jon!” Gyrax shakes me. “Go help Elier and Lucky!” He sprints the other way—toward the arcane battle—dropping to a four-legged gallop.
I turn around, just in time to glimpse an arrow flying from Lucky’s bow. Elier’s rooted in a wide-legged stance, cavalry sabers out and cocked, ready for the four-foot tall, armored gargoyles pouring toward him like a zombie horde.
Frying pan, meet fire.
I sprint forward, drawing my dagger in an icepick grip. “I’m coming guys! Don’t worry, I’m—”
“Here!” Elier points his saber at a piece of ground to his left. “Hold here, Jon!”
“What do you want me to do? Is there anything I—”
“Here they come!” Lucky fires again, shooting two arrows at the same time. A pair of Iguars collapse and crumple, but it’s not enough. There’s hundreds of them. Maybe thousands.
“Stay close, Jon!” Elier shouts. “Stay close and watch your ba—”
He raises a sword, ready to swing, but a ball of blue light arcs in front of us, peaking brightly before it explodes. For a nerve-rending second, my vision whites out, then the discharge forms into a light-woven wall, starting at the edges of street and meeting in the middle. The magical barrier immediately rises, punching hundreds of feet into the sky. Its insides fills with undulant hues, filling the air with mother-of-pearl blaze.
One of the Whisper Folk shouts a phrase—it booms through the air like Saruman’s voice—and a bright white line runs up the barrier, splitting it in two right at the center. Instead of a single wall, now it’s a pair of them slowly swinging outward, creating a gap for the Iguar to pour through.
Nyanti counters with a phrase of her own (her voice is incredibly beautiful—like a sixty-string orchestra and a harmonic series of giant xylophones) freezing the walls at diagonal slants. The gap is only four feet wide—enough to accommodate a couple of Iguar. So instead of a barricade, we’re working with a channelized kill-zone. (Thank you Starcraft, for giving me a primer on battlefield strategy).
Elier rushes up to the gap, spinning and twisting his cavalry sabers. “Behind me, Jon! Kill the ones that slip my blades!”
I run behind the Duelist as he twirls and slashes. My body can’t decide whether to freeze or charge as handfuls of Iguar fall before Elier. My focus keeps sliding down to my chest, where my heart is pounding like a runaway drum. Just gotta hope that—
And then one gets through.
My arm and hand act on their own: entangling, diverting, and stabbing before I consciously register I’ve actually done it. I shove the Iguar away as blood leaks from its punctured throat.
“Good, Jon, good!” Lucky shoots two in their yellowed eyes. Their heads jerk back, they flop to the ground. Elier shouts, “Stay keen!”
Under normal circumstances, I’d roll my eyes and pop off a one-liner. Stay keen—you don’t say? But this is the farthest thing from normal; I feel like puking and pooping and screaming in terror. I’ll give him a pass on redundant advice, especially since he’s doing most of the work.
“Hey!” I yell. “Need some help? If you need to switch out, then—”
“Stay where you are!” He lunges into a sweeping slash, decapitating an Iguar at the base of its neck. Its head tumbles left, its body slumps right.
“They’re climbing the walls!” Lucky screams.
Sure enough, handfuls of goblin-men are scaling the townhomes on either side of the magic barrier. Thanks to the kill zone and Elier’s swordwork, they haven’t yet flanked us. But if they finish the climb and drop to the street…
Elier kills two with a spinning swipe. A third Iguar ducks his slash, shoulder-rolling sideways with its sword and shield.
“Kill it, Jon—KILL IT!”
I kick it in the shield as hard as I can, sending it flying back into the enchanted wall. It flashes with color as the Iguar makes contact and rebounds off the glimmering surface. Before the goblin can regain its bearings, I throw my shoulder into its chest. It flies into the barrier and crumples to the ground. This time, it doesn’t move—I’ve knocked it unconscious.
Elier throws me an angry glance. “What are you doi—FINISH THEM, Jon!” He hop-skips sideways and spears the Iguar through its throat.
The reality of what I’m doing suddenly hits me. This isn’t Skyrim or Call of Duty, this is real life. I just killed a living being and aided in the murder of another. Even though it was in self-defense, I—
“Get ready!” Lucky shifts his fire to the edges of the barrier, where Iguars are scrambling down the townhomes. Damn, they can move. They’re like the underground Goblins in the Mines of Moria, streaming across walls like sure-footed crabs.
“Can’t hold—” Elier spin-kicks an Iguar in its snarling face, sending it flying back into three of its buddies. “—much longer!”
“I as well!” Lucky shouts. “Almost out!” A flurry of arrows streak from his bow, killing the first few Iguar who drop to the street on our side of the barrier.
Then Gyrax shouts some much-needed news: “We’ve got them on the run!”
I look over my shoulder as two of the Sytíshí take to their heels, speeding away in zigzag blurs. Every time they change direction, they briefly resolve into a solid shape.
Nyanti and the others (Gyrax, Ren, and Erany) are standing tall in the middle of the street, dueling with the last of the Whisper Folk (Revakhy, I think). His feet are spread in a bent-legged stance. His forearms are crossed, forming an X in front of his face. The gesture seems to be connected to the violet-black forcefield surrounding his body—each time they hit it with a blast, his crossed arms shake and tremble.
But then he takes a breath and waves his arms, gathering the forcefield into his palms. As it collects and brightens in his fingers, Gyrax, Ren, and Erany shake the air with a chorus of chants, flinging fire, lightning, and patterned streams of searing flare. Now that Rekhavy’s forcefield is no longer present, each blast hits him full-on, brightening pieces of his body into multicolored embers before they turn into ash and blow away. His bones and muscle are clearly visible, his bottom jaw is stripped of flesh.
“CAST HARDER!” Ren shouts. “HE’S GOING TO—”
Revakhy—half skeleton at this point—pitches forward like a major league pitcher and slings a ball of crackling energy. It gathers mass as it speeds toward us, lit by an umbra of amethyst lightning.
Gyrax howls, “DOWN!” and leaps forward, scissoring his legs for torque and chucking a spear of blue-green light into Revakhy’s chest. It strips away his remaining flesh and disintegrates his bones into a gust of ash. At the same time, the Sytíshí’s magic projectile lets off an ear-piercing whine—
—and detonates in the middle of the shattered street. Waves of force roll out from the impact, throwing us all off our feet. I see a chunk of pavement hurtling toward me, eclipsing my vision before the world goes dark.
Someone’s shaking me. Hard.
A second later, I realize it’s Gyrax. “Jon! Jon! We need to run!” Nyanti—unconscious or dead—is draped across his shoulder.
Murrrgh…what? What just happened? What just—
He shakes me again. “Get UP, Jon!”
It all comes rushing back to me. Iguars. Sytíshí. Magic duel.
“Yep, got it!” I shouted at full volume, but I can barely hear myself. Everything sounds like I’m underwater. I stagger to my feet, assaulted by wave after wave of nausea and vertigo.
Oh man, my freaking head…
“GO!” Gyrax shoves me, pushing me forward. At the same time, he unslings his axe and swings it diagonally from hip to shoulder, slicing a charging Iguar into bloody halves.
Further up the street, Lucky is sandwiched between Ren and Erany, holding their shoulders as they help him limp down the block. The half-elf princess twists in place, chucking a piece of arcane artillery that sails past me and lands amidst the Iguar, blowing them apart into blood and gore.
I run up beside Erany. “Hey, is there anything I can—”
“Take my place,” Erany orders. She ducks out from Lucky’s arm and places her hand on my upper back, guiding me into the crook of his elbow. Lucky grunts in pain.
“Easy—easy!” Lucky grimaces fiercely. “Would you two slow dow—AH!” He hops twice, jerking his injured leg into the air.
“Can’t,” Ren says tightly. “We need to hurry. Jon—listen to my count so we can walk together. One two, one two—”
We both fall in step. Lucky twitches and hops in time with our rhythm, dragging his bad leg along as best he can. It’s far from smooth, but at least we’re all moving in unison. After a dozen yards, Ren unsheathes his sword and holds it out to the side.
“What are you doing?” Lucky hisses.
Ren says, “Draw steel, Jon. If one of those Iguars gets past the others, we’ll have to deal with it.”
“Seriously?” I throw him a panicked look. “Dude, I’m not a good fighter under normal circumstances. I doubt I can stab someone while I’m carrying Luc—”
“Draw, Jon. And say a prayer to the gods you hold dear, for we are moments away from crossing into the Clear.”
Damn. Shit just got real.
I reach down and draw my dagger. Never thought I’d die from bloodthirsty goblins, but—
Ren swivels and decapitates an Iguar. I suddenly feel aloof and disconnected. The terror and panic are still there, but they’re not jolting through me. My arm lashes out in a swift, downward motion, impaling a second attacker through the eye.
“Keep going.” Ren unhooks himself from Lucky’s arm. Lucky screams and cusses, condemning Ren as a low-shadow akersnatch and to give a gods-cursed warning next time so he can keep his weight off his gods-cursed leg.
As I adjust my footing to bear Lucky’s weight, I chance a look over my shoulder. Elier cuts apart another Iguar, Erany throws an orb that explodes on the ground. Dirt rains down all around me—bits of it slip in my mouth, flooding it with a bitter, earthy taste.
Then I see one of the Iguar hurling a segmented bundle with a sparking fuse. It flies into the window next to Gyrax, but he’s too busy casting to take notice of it.
“Gyrax, watch ou—”
Before I can finish, the building blows outward in an enormous burst of rubble and smoke. Gyrax and Nyanti rise in an arc, soaring high into the air before banging into the house on the other side of the street.
Then they both hit the ground, crumpled into lifeless heaps. I scream without meaning to.
Lucky swears and curses at me, shouting something-something-something about paying attention, but it barely registers. My best friend is in mortal danger and I need to—
A second later, Gyrax pushes to his feet.
He shakes his head, growling and muttering under his breath. Nyanti—ironically woken by the deafening explosion—leans against the wall, shielding her face with a bent-armed hand as she gathers her wits. When she sees the Iguar flanking Elier, her eyes widen in shock and horror.
“Run toward me!” she shouts. “NOW!”
The effect is immediate—everyone stops what they’re doing and sprints toward her. She chants and waves, bending her fingers into impossible gestures that defy my understanding of human anatomy. Spotty blue light follows her hands, forming into slashes that converge together into a swirling nexus.
“Hurry!” Ren screams. “Nyanti, you need to hur—”
The nexus detonates, flattening into a wave of energy that cuts through the street and envelops us all. I see the others disintegrating into pixelated light, disappearing in a fade of ragged slashes.
This is the end. Nyanti knew it—spared us some pain by killing us all. I can’t decide if I’m grateful or—
The wave passes over me. My vision fills with searing color, and then the world goes black.