I drop to my knees and muffle a scream, but it doesn’t stop the stone cold dread from washing through me, shocking my nerves and freezing my brain. Erany and Gyrax are both shouting, but I can’t hear them; I’m vacillating between total horror and thought-freezing panic.
“You killed our brother!” Khyrell shrieks. He twists his fingers into a fist. The space between his knuckles glows bright orange-red. My muscles clench into a snarl of knots.
“AAAAHHH!!! STOP!” I’m not in control—I want to get away.
“Not until I’ve ripped the sinew from your bones.” Khyrell bares his teeth in a sick grimace. I can feel the tissues twitching inside me, ready to snap like over-tightened cable.
The last time I beat them, I had to relax. But right now, all I can think of is my tendons and ligaments, wrenching away from my bones and cartilage.
“Gyrax!” I gasp. “HELP ME!”
I flop onto my side and try to crawl, but my fingers skew in different directions, popping and cracking like miniature fireworks. Through my pain-reddened vision, I see Gyrax and Erany contorting on the floor. My head starts twisting back and forth, evoking a jag of pain with every swing, threatening to turn completely around.
I’m about to break my own neck.
Something pops in my shoulder. A series of kr-kr-KRACKS resonate from the base of my skull.
This is it.
Then, through the film of my tear-blurred vision, I see something completely unexpected.
Blindfold Guy (from my Earth-side visions) appears in a flash of neon green lines. He doesn’t resolve into flesh and blood; he stays transparent like a Star Wars hologram. Both Sytíshí look pleased to see him.
“Knifelock!” Khyrell twists his fist a notch tighter, stealing my breath with a surge of pain. “Good to see you! We were just about to—”
Knifelock’s hands blur to his waist, drawing his back-curving knives with dizzying speed. Khryell manages a panicked “NO—” before the daggers punch a couple of neat red holes right above his heart.
The pain in my body immediately ceases. “HUUUHHH—” I push to all fours and vomit forcefully.
Sarisyrin’s expression switches from pleasure to shock. He throws a ray of crackling light, but the Nightkeeper swats it aside with a quick backhand. Sarisyrin opens his mouth, but before he can speak, Knifelock blurs toward him, transforming into a glowing clutch of lines before resolving and grabbing the Sytíshí by the throat.
Sarisyrin’s feet rise off the ground. He clutches at Knifelock’s hand and gurgles something desperate. A second later, his vertebrae begin to compress and break. CR-CR-CRACK.
Knifelock’s hologram turns and studies us. Elier and Erany stagger to their feet, bringing their weapons into sloppy guard.
The Nightkeeper scoffs in amusement and blinks out of existence.
“What…what happened?” I lean against the wall.
“Arganti Knifelock,” Ren pants. “We’re lucky he didn’t kill us.”
“We weren’t worth his time.” Erany lowers her sword and collapses to the floor.
Gyrax’s eyes flick back and forth. He’s working the angles, trying to make sense of what he just saw.
Finally, he says, “Aye, we were lucky.”
“What now?” Lucky asks.
Nyanti peers out the window. We’re on the third story of a sprawling castle, which gives her a good view of the city and the forest.
“The Iguars are going door to door. They’re looking for us.”
Ren walks in a short circle around the room, taking a good look in each of the windows. “They’re canvassing the city from the outside in. It’s only a matter of time before they get to us.”
“Options?” Elier asks.
“Create a diversion, escape in the chaos,” Gyrax says. “But that will be risky, seeing as you and Lucky are both injured.” He turns to Nyanti. “Have you signaled Jelia?”
“I have,” Nyanti says. “But they haven’t responded.”
“Then it’s settled,” Ren says. “We create a diversion and break for the gates. If we link our auras and weave a concussive spell, our combined energies could—”
“We have another option,” Nyanti says.
Six pairs of eyes settle on the Witch.
“In the past, I have dealt with a Nelithy Elemental named Arenia D’sae. I could reach out to her and ask for her help. It’s possible she could convince her husband—Aiethic Tymore—to aid us as well.”
“Well what are you waiting for?” Lucky snaps. “Tell her to hurry over!” He flaps his hand in disgust. “If we had cut around Jelia, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
“If we had cut around Jelia, it would have fallen into Sytíshí hands!” Ren snaps.
“Who cares?” Lucky yells. “I can tolerate this idiot thinking Jon is the Prophesied Traveler—” he flings a hand at Gyrax, “—but when the rest of you start believing him…understand this: none of us are heroes, saviors, or martyrs! Get that through your Nok-damned skulls!”
Ren stalks over, grabs the thief by his lapels, and pushes him up against the wall.
“This entire time, you have made excuses for your greed and avarice, declaring that faith and fortune will see you through. Why don’t you grin as you have in the past, and tell us that everything will be fine and fair? Don’t you believe in your own rhetoric?”
Lucky’s handsome face twists into a sneer. “Listen to yourself. If you could only see how stupid—”
“Enough.” Erany steps between them and spreads her arms. “The odds are against us as it is. If we bicker and gripe, we might as well slit our own throats.”
“What about Knifelock?” I ask. “He helped us once….could he do it again?”
Uneasy glances all around.
Ren shakes his head. “He’s a Nightkeeper, Jon. And not just any Nightkeeper—he’s Lyderea Fairdyle’s right-hand lieutenant.”
Gyrax looks like he wants to say something. But then he closes his mouth and shakes his head. “Ren is right. There might be more to him than meets the eye, but now is not the time to explore it.”
“Makes sense.” I turn to Nyanti. “So how about them entities?”
“It’s not that easy,” Nyanti says. “Arenia D’Sae will demand a tribute.”
“Joy,” Lucky grumbles. “This gets better and better.”
“What kind of payment?” Gyrax asks.
“A huge investment of arcane energy. And the only way I can give it to her is—”
“If you have access to the hexflow spring,” Erany finishes.
“Yes.” Nyanti nods. “If we call her without it, she will devour us all without hesitation.”
Lucky’s voice rises with alarm. “Elier and I are both injured—are you going to leave us here while you head for the spring?”
Nyanti looks him in the eye. “We could leave you here, yes. If fortune favors you, the Iguar will pass you by.”
“I’d rather throw myself out of the low-shadow windo—”
“It would allow the rest of us to employ stronger magic on our way to the spring.”
Lucky turns to the side and spits vehemently. “Stronger magic? That’s of no concern while Elier and I are stuck in this room.”
“The other option is to take you with us. But in order to do that, we would have to spend a good amount of energy in an intensive healing.”
“So heal us,” Lucky says.
Ren steps forward, hands up, palms out. “Lucky, think for a second: if we have better magic we can move faster—we’ll be able to summon Arenia in less time, without putting ourselves in nearly as much danger. Healing you might seem attractive in the short term, but—”
“Who’s selfish now?” Lucky hisses. “You would rather I sit here while you make a run for that damnable hexflow?”
“No, that’s not what I—”
“Enough. Heal me, Witch.” He looks pointedly at Nyanti.
Ren tries again, “Lucky, just—”
Erany cuts him off. “He is requesting aid, Ren. That is it and that is all.”
“Without stronger magic, we’ll have to rely on luck and stea—”
Gyrax steps toward Ren, casting a massive shadow across his face. “Remember your lineage, Wayfarer.”
Ren’s face twists in frustration. “I…I…” He hangs his head. “Very well.”
“Heal me first,” Lucky says. “Since I was the first one injured.”
I glance at Elier, expecting him to be at least a little bit irritated by Lucky’s selfishness, but the swordsman shrugs with typical stoicism. “Either way is fine by me. If I am to die by an Iguar’s sickle, then so be it.”
Lucky gives him a disbelieving look, then scoffs loudly. Anger races through me—what an asshole. Evidently, Ren feels the same: the wanderer tightens his jaw and shakes his head.
“Then it’s settled,” Nyanti says. “Let’s get started.”
“Finally,” Lucky grumbles.
The Witch kneels beside him, letting her hands settle an inch above his leg. She closes her eyes and begins to chant softly beneath her breath. At first it’s a low murmur, but then it picks up, a slip-slide of vowels and sibilant consonants. Her brow furrows in concentration.
“Gods,” Lucky hisses. “Is it supposed to hurt? Nyanti?”
She doesn’t respond; she just keeps chanting.
Lucky dips his chin and squinches his eyes, breathing in short, shallow huffs. A second later he blurts, “What are you doing? Why does it—aah!” He twists in place but Gyrax and Erany pin him down. Nyanti’s chant grows in volume, expanding into a double-toned elegy that echoes throughout the room. Blue-green light spills off her fingers, wrapping Lucky’s leg in throbbing luminescence. Lucky shrieks like someone stuck him with a red-hot poker.
“Get off get off—AAAAHH!!!”
I glance out the window. Hiding from an army while your thieving companion is screaming his head off…let’s just say it doesn’t do much to steady my nerves.
After Nyanti finishes, Gyrax and Erany ease off. Lucky scrabbles to his feet, hand on gus dagger. He glares at us, then lets his hand drop to his side.
“Thank you,” he says stiffly. “I feel much better.”
Nyanti responds with a nod and walks over to Elier. The Duelist regards her with apprehension, then closes his eyes as she kneels beside him.
“Make it quick,” he says through gritted teeth.
She places her hands above his injury. The light purls off her fingers and spreads across Elier. His expression tightens, but a second later, he cracks an eye open.
“What…” He looks down at his leg, then up at Nyanti. The Witch doesn’t move; a bead of sweat trickles from her hair to her chin, limning her face with a crescent of moisture.
A minute later, she’s done. “That should do it.” She rises to her feet.
Elier stares at her, dumbfounded. “It…it almost felt good.”
“You’re not Lucky,” Nyanti says. “His psyche is plagued by deep-seated problems, whereas yours is relatively clean.”
Lucky mutters, “Or it could be your lack of skill.”
“Predictable,” Nyanti says. “I wouldn’t expect you to take responsibility for any of your weaknesses, even if it made you a stronger man. Shall we?” She extends a hand toward the open door.
Ren goes first, drawing his sword as he approaches the door. The rest of us draw and follow behind.
As Gyrax passes by Nyanti, he says, “Thank you.”
“This isn’t over, Wolven. Save your thanks until it is.”
A rueful smile. “Celebrate the small victories, Nyanti. They should have taught you that in basic Witchery.”
Nyanti half scoffs, half laughs. “Come on.” She jerks her head at me. “Let’s get this over with.”
I walk behind Gyrax, unsure of how to feel. I just lived a terrible version of my Earthling future, killed a short, wingless gargoyle, and healed a Jelian Witch with my magic imagination.
Atriya’s contract flashes through my mind. It feels like a lifetime since I signed it.
I volunteered for this. No going back. In for a penny, in for a pound.