Man, what happened? Last thing I remember is those freaky Whisper Folk, mutttering something-something-something under their breath. 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 cast a quick 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. “Go help Elier and Lucky!” He sprints toward the Whisper Folk, dropping down to a four-legged gallop.
I turn and assess the other 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 sprint toward them, drawing my dagger in an icepick grip. “I’m coming guys! Don’t worry, I’m—”
“There!” Elier nods at a piece of ground six feet to his left. “Hold there, 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 blue ball of light arcs in front of us, peaking brightly before it explodes. 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, 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, creating a gap for the Iguar to pour through.
Nyanti counters with a phrase of her own, freezing the walls at diagonal slants. The gap is only four feet wide—big enough to accommodate 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, spinning and twisting his cavalry sabers. “Behind me, Jon! Kill the ones that slip my blades!”
Holy crap. Okay okay—you’ve got this, Jon. You’ve trained for this.
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. Heart’s pounding like a runaway drum. Just gotta hope that—
One gets through, locking its cat-slit pupils onto my eyes. 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 one, Jon!” Lucky shoots two in their yellowed eyes. Their heads jerk back and they flop to the ground. Elier shouts, “Stay keen!”
Under normal circumstances, I’d roll my eyes—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 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, neatly decapitating an Iguar at the base of its neck. Its head tumbles left, its body slumps right. (Okey-dokey. Not gonna argue with a 50th-level Duelist.)
“They’re climbing the walls!” Lucky screams.
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 yet 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.
“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 rebounds off its 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—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, this isn’t Call of Duty, this is real life. I just killed a living being, and 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 from 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!”
“Same!” Lucky shouts. “Almost out!” A flurry of arrows streak from his bow, killing the first few Iguar who drop to the street.
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 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.
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 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.
“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 blue-green spear of glowing energy into Revakhy’s chest. It strips away his remaining flesh and disintegrates 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 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.
Gyrax shakes me awake. “JON! JON! WE NEED TO RUN!” Nyanti’s unconscious body is draped across his shoulder.
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—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 from behind, 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 walking with Ren and Erany, holding their shoulders as they help him limp down the street. The half-elf princess twists in place, hurling a piece of arcane artillery that blows apart Iguar into blood and gore.
I run up behind 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 do—AH!” He hops twice, jerking his injured 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—”
We fall in step. Lucky twitches along as best he can, dragging his bad leg behind him. It’s far from smooth, but at least we’re all moving in unison. After a dozen steps, 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 have to protect Lucky.”
“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 recite a prayer to whatever gods you hold dear in your soul, for we are moments away from crossing into the Clear.”
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 through me. My arm lashes out in a swift, downward motion, impaling another 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 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.
One of the Iguar hurls a segmented bundle with a sparking fuse hanging from its end. It flies into a 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 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; my dog is in mortal danger and I need to—
A second later, Gyrax pushes slowly up 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. 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 stops what they’re doing and 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, 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, then the world goes black.