Man, what happened? The last thing I remember is those freaky Whisper Folk, muttering something-something-something about being a rat on a wheel. Think I fell asl—
“On your feet!” Gyrax hauls me up by the elbow. “You broke the enchantment, Jon! We need to kill them before they escape!”
My memory rushes back, snapping into place like a clockwork series of latches and tumblers. A hundred yards ahead, Nyanti, Erany, and Ren are waving their arms like Tai Chi masters, throwing blasts of light from their outstretched hands. The Whisper Folk are lined up across from them, responding in kind. I don’t understand magical combat, but judging from the Sytíshís’ pained expressions, I think they’re getting their asses kicke—
“Jon!” Gyrax shakes me. “Help Elier and Lucky!” Then he breaks away and sprints toward the arcane battle.
I turn around, just in time to see an arrow fly from Lucky’s bow. Elier’s standing in the middle of the street, cavalry sabers out and cocked, staring down a horde of four-foot tall, armored goblins. They’re pouring toward him like a zombie horde.
Frying pan, meet fire.
I sprint to his side, flipping my dagger into an icepick grip. “I’m coming, guys! Don’t worry, I’m—”
“There!” Elier points his saber at a piece of ground directly behind him. “Hold there, Jon!”
“What should I 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 a drop of water against a full-on fire. 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, then a blue ball of light arcs in front of us, peaking brightly before it explodes. For a nerve-rending second my vision whites out. A split-second later my sight resolves—the discharge forms into a light-woven line, starting at the edges of street and meeting in the middle. A magical barrier rises high, punching hundreds of feet up as it rushes out to either side. Its insides fill 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 and shrinking the left and right edges until they’re contained to the street. Instead of a single wall, now it’s a pair of them swinging outward, creating a gap for the Iguar to enter.
Nyanti counters with a phrase of her own, freezing the walls at diagonal slants. The gap is only four feet wide—enough to accommodate a couple of Iguar. Now, instead of a barricade, we’re working with a channelized kill-zone. (Thank you Starcraft, for giving me a primer on battlefield strategy).
Elier blocks the gap, spinning and twisting his cavalry sabers. “Behind me, Jon! Kill the ones that slip my blades!”
I keep my distance as he twirls and slashes. My focus gravitates 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 react on their own; entangling, diverting, and stabbing before I consciously register I’ve actually done it. I finish my attack by shoving the Iguar. Its throat leaks blood as its falls by the wayside.
“Good, Jon, good!” Lucky shoots two in their eyes; their heads jerk back as they flop to the ground. “Stay keen!”
Under normal circumstances, I’d roll my eyes and reply sarcastically. Stay keen—you don’t say? But this is the polar opposite of normal circumstances—I feel like puking and pooping and screaming in terror.
“Elier!” I yell. “Need some help? If you want to switch out, then—”
“Stay where you are!” Elier 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 goblins are scaling the townhomes on either side of the magic barrier. Thanks to the kill zone and Elier’s swords, they haven’t yet flanked us. But if they climb down the roofs and onto the street…
Elier cuts 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 barrier. A bright burst of color erupts from its surface as the Iguar bounces off. Before the goblin can regain its bearings, I throw my shoulder into its chest. It flies into the wall 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 or Call of Duty, this is real life. I just killed a living being. Even though it was in self-defense, I—
“Get ready!” Lucky shifts his fire to the edges of the barrier, where Iguar are scrambling down the townhomes. Holy shit, they can move—they remind me of the 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. A flurry of arrows streak from his bow, killing the first few Iguar who drop to the street on our side of the barrier.
Gyrax shouts some much-welcome news: “We’ve got them on the run!”
I look over my shoulder, watching as two Sytíshí take to their heels, speeding away in zigzag blurs. Every time they change direction, they briefly resolve into solid shapes. 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 wide and his forearms are crossed, forming an X in front of his face. The gesture seems connected to the violet-black forcefield surrounding his body—each time they hit it with magic, his crossed arms shake and tremble.
Then he takes a breath and waves his arms, gathering the forcefield into his palms. As it collects and brightens within his fingers, Gyrax, Ren, and Erany shake the air with a chorus of chants, flinging fire, lightning, and patterned streams of searing energy. Each blast hits him full-on, brightening pieces of his body into multicolored embers before they turn to 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 the concentrated forcefield. It gathers mass as it speeds toward us, lit by an umbra of amethyst blaze.
Gyrax howls, “DOWN!” and leaps forward, scissoring his legs for torque and chucking a spear made of blue-green shimmer at Revakhy’s chest. It strips away his remaining flesh and disintegrates his bones into a gust of ash. At the same time, his Sytíshí magic 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! We need to run!” Nyanti—unconscious or dead—is draped across his right shoulder.
Murrrgh…what happened? Did we just—
He shakes me again. “Get UP, Jon!”
Oh yeah—Iguars. Sytíshí. Magic duel.
“Yep, got it!”
I shout at full volume, but I can barely hear myself—everything sounds like I’m underwater. I rise to my feet and stagger sideways, assaulted by waves 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 an Iguar into bloody halves.
Further up the street, Lucky is sandwiched between Ren and Erany; he’s hanging onto them as they help him limp across the cobbles. The half-Elf princess twists in place, chucking some arcane artillery that sails past me and lands amidst the mob of 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 onto the small of my back, guiding me into the crook of his elbow. Lucky grunts and hisses in pain.
“Easy—easy!” Lucky grimaces. “Would you two slow dow—AH!” He hops twice, jerking his injured leg up to his waist.
“Can’t,” Ren says tightly. “We need to hurry. Jon—heed my count so we can walk together. One two, one two—”
Lucky twitches and limps in time with our steps, 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 spits.
Ren ignores him. “Draw steel, Jon. If one of those Iguar gets past the others, we’ll have to kill it.”
“Seriously?” I throw him a panicked look. “Dude, I’m not good at fighting. I doubt I can do it while I’m carrying Lucky.”
“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 should be shocked, but it has the opposite effect; I suddenly feel aloof and disconnected. The terror and panic are both 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 from Lucky’s arm. Lucky screams and cusses, condemning Ren as a low-shadow akersnatch and to give a gods-cursed warning so he can keep his weight off his gods-cursed leg.
As I adjust my footing to bear Lucky’s weight, I chance another look back over my shoulder. Erany throws an exploding orb, causing dirt to rain down all around me. A bit of it slips between my lips, flooding my mouth with bitter earth.
Then I see an Iguar hurling a bundle: segmented and bound, capped by 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 blast of rubble and smoke. The blast wave lifts Gyrax and Nyanti high in the air; they bang into a house on the other end of the street and crumple into lifeless heaps. I scream without meaning to.
Lucky swears and curses, shouting something-something-something about paying attention, but it barely registers. My best friend is either unconscious or dead. 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 heavy against the wall, shielding her face with a bent-armed hand. When she sees the Iguar flanking Elier, her eyes widen in shock and horror.
“Come hither!” 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 understanding of human anatomy. Spotty blue light trails 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 an azure wave that cuts through the street and envelops us all. The others disintegrate into pixelated light, disappearing in a fade of indigo slashes.
This is the end. Nyanti knew it and spared us some pain by killing us all. I can’t decide if I’m grateful or—
My vision fills with searing color, then the world goes dark.