Man, what happened? Last thing I remember is those freaky Whisper Folk, mutttering something-something-something under their breath. I think I fell asl—
“On your feet!” Gyrax grabs me by the elbow and hauls me up. “You broke the enchantment, Jon! We need to kill them before they recover!”
I open my eyes and look around. Dozens of yards up the street, 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 doing the same. I don’t understand magical combat, but judging from their pained expressions, they seem to be getting their asses ki—
“Jon!” Gyrax shakes me. “I’m going to assist! Go help Elier and Lucky!” He sprints toward the Whisper Folk, dropping down to a four-legged gallop.
I turn away from the Sytishí and scan the opposite end of the street. Lucky looses an arrow and nocks another. Elier’s rooted in a wide-legged stance, cavalry sabers out and ready. Four-foot tall, armored gargoyles are pouring toward them like a zombie horde.
Frying pan, meet fire.
I bolt up and sprint toward them, drawing my dagger in an icepick grip. “I’m coming guys! Don’t worry, I’m—”
“Here!” Elier nods at a piece of ground six feet 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 glowing ball of light arcs in front of us, peaking brightly before it explodes with blue-violet brilliance. 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 upward into the sky. Its inside fills with undulant hues, painting 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 in fitful lurches, creating a gap for the Iguar to pour through.
Nyanti counters with a phrase of her own, preventing the walls from completely opening and freezing them both at diagonal slants. The gap is only four feet wide—big enough to let through a couple of Iguar. Instead of a barricade, we have a channelized kill-zone. (Thank you Starcraft, for giving me a primer on battlefield strategy).
Elier rushes up to the gap and gets to work, spinning and twisting his cavalry sabers. “Behind me, Jon! Take care of the ones that get past my blades!”
Holy crap. Okay okay—you’ve trained for this, Jon.
I run behind Elier as he twirls and slashes. My body can’t decide whether to freeze or charge as handfuls of Iguar fall before Elier. Can’t think, can’t breathe. Heart’s pounding like a runaway drum. Just gotta hope that—
One gets through, giving me a quick impression of cat-slit pupils. My arm and hand act on their own: entangling, diverting, and stabbing before I can consciously register I’ve actually done it. I shove the Iguar away, blood leaking from its punctured throat.
“Good one, Jon!” Lucky shoots two in their yellowed eyes. Their heads jerk back before they flop to the ground. “Stay keen!”
Under normal circumstances, I might roll my eyes and respond with sarcasm—you don’t say? But this is the farthest thing from normal; I feel like puking and pooping and screaming in terror. Think I can forgive him for redundant advice.
Elier’s doing pretty much all 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 neatly at the neck. Its head tumbles left, its body slumps right.
Okey-dokey. Not gonna argue with a 50th-level Duelist.
“They’re climbing the buildings!” Lucky yells.
Sure enough, Iguars are scaling the two-story townhomes to either side of the magic barrier. Thanks to the kill zone and Elier’s swordwork, they haven’t flanked us. But if they climb the houses and drop to the street…
Elier kills two with a spinning swipe. A third Iguar ducks the slash, rolling sideways with its sword and shield.
“Jon—one got past me!”
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 rebounds off its glimmering surface. Before the goblin can recover 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 think I knocked it out.
“Finish them, Jon!” Elier throws me an angry glance. He hop-skips sideways and spears the unconscious Iguar through its throat.
The reality of what I’m doing suddenly sets in: This isn’t Skyrim, this isn’t Call of Duty, this is real life. I killed a conscious being, and even though it was in self-defense, I—
“Here they come!” 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 the ceiling like sure-footed crabs.
“Can’t hold—” Elier spin-kicks an Iguar in its snarling face, sending it stumbling back into three of its buddies. “—for much longer!”
“Me too!” Lucky shouts. “Almost out!” A flurry of arrows streak from his bow, killing the first few Iguar who make it to the street.
Gyrax shouts some much-needed news: “We’ve got them on the run! Let’s GO!”
I look over my shoulder—two of the Sytishí 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 and 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, and his squinched eyes tighten in pain.
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 flares. Now that Rekhavy’s forcefield is no longer protecting him, 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.
“POUR IT ON!” Ren shouts. “HE’S GOING TO—”
Revakhy—half skeleton at this point—pitches forward, slinging a crackling ball of energy. It gathers mass as it speeds toward us, lit by an umbra of amethyst lightning.
“DOWN!” Gyrax howls.
He chucks a blue-green spear of glowing energy into Revakhy’s chest, stripping off his remaining flesh and disintegrating his bones into a gust of ash. At the same time, Rekhavy’s magic projectile lets off an ear-piercing whine—
—and detonates in the middle of the shattered street. Waves of energy roll out from the impact, throwing us all off our feet. A chunk of pavement hurtles toward me. It’s the last thing I see before the world goes dark.
Gyrax shakes me awake. “JON! JON! WE NEED TO RUN!” Nyanti’s unconscious body is draped across his shoulder.
Murrrgh…what? Where am—
He shakes me again. “GET UP, JON!”
It all comes rushing back to me. Iguars. Sytishí. Magic duel.
“Yep, got it!” Crap—I shouted that at full volume, but a second later I realize I can barely hear myself. It sounds like I’m underwater and everything’s muffled. I stagger to my feet, assaulted by wave after wave of nausea and vertigo.
Oh man, my freaking head…
“GO!” Gyrax shoves me forward. At the same time, he unslings his battle axe and swings it diagonally from hip to shoulder, slicing a charging Iguar into bloody halves.
Further up the street, Lucky is being assisted by Ren and Erany, holding their shoulders as they help him down the street. The half-elf princess is twisting around, hurling balls of pixelated light. They’re arcane artillery—Iguar blow apart into blood and gore.
I take off running, intent on helping Ren and 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. (Even though we’re in mortal danger, I can’t help but notice how good her hand feels). Lucky limps along, grunting in pain.
“Easy—easy!” Lucky grimaces in pain. “Would you two slow the hell—AH!” He hops twice, jerking his damaged right leg into the air.
“Can’t,” Ren says tightly. “We need to hurry. Come on, Jon—listen to my count so we can walk together. One two, one two—”
Me and Ren fall in step. Lucky twitches along as best he can, dragging his injured leg across the ground. It’s far from smooth, but at least we’re all moving in unison. After a dozen steps, Ren draws his sword and holds it out to the side.
“What are you doing?” Lucky hisses.
Ren says, “Draw your dagger, Jon. If one of those Iguars gets past the others, we have to protect Lucky.”
“Seriously?” I throw him a panicked look. “Dude, I’m not a great fighter under normal circumstances, and now you’re telling me I might have to stab someone while we’re carrying Luc—”
“Draw. And say a pray to your patron god, for today could be the day we cross into the Clear.”
Oh man. 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 me. My arm lashes out in a swift, downward motion, impaling an Iguar through the eye.
Ren tells me to keep going and unhooks himself from under Lucky’s arm. Lucky screams and cusses loudly, condemning him as a low-shadow akersnatch and to give a gods-cursed warning so he can keep his weight off his gods-cursed leg.
I tighten my grip on the thief and look over my shoulder. Elier’s cutting apart Iguar, Erany’s throwing scintillating orbs that explode against the ground. Handfuls of Iguar go flying skyward, chased by spouts of dirt and fragments. As it rains down around me, bits of it slip between my lips, flooding my mouth with a bitter, earthy taste.
One of the Iguar hurls a segmented bundle with a sparking fuse hanging from its end. It flies into the window to Gyrax’s left, but he’s too busy casting to take notice of it.
“Gyrax, watch ou—”
Before I can warn him, the building blows outward in an enormous burst of rubble and smoke, as if the the Hulk punched it from the inside. Gyrax and Nyanti rise in a parabolic arc, soaring a dozen yards before banging into the house on the other side of the street. They both crumple into lifeless heaps. I scream without meaning to.
Lucky swears and curses me, shouting something-something-something about paying attention, but it barely registers. A second later, Gyrax pushes slowly up to his feet.
He shakes his head, growling and muttering beneath his breath. Nyanti—ironically woken by the explosion—leans against the wall, shielding her face with a bent-armed hand. When she sees the Iguar flanking Elier and closing with Erany, her eyes widen in shock and horror.
“Run toward me!” she shouts. “NOW!”
Everyone sprints toward her. She chants and waves, bending her fingers into impossible gestures that defy my knowledge of human anatomy. Spotty blue light follows her movements, forming into slashes that converge together into a bright swirling ball.
“Hurry!” Ren screams. “Nyanti, you need to hur—”
The ball detonates, flattening into a wave of energy that cuts through the street and envelops us all. I see the others disintegrating into pixelated light, then disappear in a fade of ragged slashes.
This is it—we’re all gonna die. Nyanti knew it and spared us some pain by killing us all. I can’t decide if I’m grateful or—
The wave passes over my face. My vision fills with searing color, then the world goes black.