Erany and Gyrax are both shouting, but I can’t understand a word they’re saying—I’m deep in the grip of mind-rending pain.
“You killed our brother!” Khyrell shrieks. As he twists his fingers into a fist, the space between his knuckles glows orange-red. At the same time, my muscles clench into a snarl of knots.
“AAAAHHH!!! STOP!” I scream without meaning to—I just want to get away.
“Not until I’ve ripped the sinew from your bones.” Khyrell bares his teeth in a sick grimace.
My tendons and ligaments jerk and twitch, threatening to tear off fascia and cartilage. I flop onto my belly and try to crawl, but my fingers skew in different directions, popping and cracking like miniature fireworks. My head twists from side to side, evoking jags of pain as it does its best to spin completely around.
I’m going to break my own damned neck.
Then, through a film of tear-blurred vision, I see Blindfold Guy (the ninja-mage from my Earth-side visions) appear in a flash of neon green lines. He doesn’t resolve into flesh and blood; he remains transparent like a Star Wars hologram.
“Knifelock!” Khyrell tightens his fist, stealing my breath with a surge of agony. “We were just about to—”
Knifelock’s hands flash to his waist, drawing a pair of knives with stage-magic speed. Khryell manages a panicked “NO—” before the back-curving daggers punch holes in his chest and twitch back into their sheaths.
The pain in my body immediately ceases. “HUUUHHH—” I push to all fours and vomit forcefully.
Sarisyrin spits a curse and flings an upturned palm in Knifelock’s direction, fingers extended in an elegant flourish. A ray of crackling yellow flies from his gesture, but Knifelock swats it away with a quick backhand.
The Sytíshí opens his mouth, about to speak, but Knifelock cuts him off by speeding toward him, transforming into a glowing clutch of lines before grabbing his throat and lifting him up off his feet. Sarisyrin clutches Knifelock’s hand and gurgles something desperate. A second later, his vertebrae begin to compress and break. CR-CR-CRACK. His eyes roll back, his tongue lolls out.
Knifelock squeezes a little harder, digging viciously into his throat, then lets him go with a casual shove. Elier and Erany stagger to their feet, bringing their weapons into sloppy guard. Knifelock gives them a disinterested glance, then blinks out of existence.
For a long moment, no one moves.
“What…what just happened?” I stare at the others.
“Arganti Knifelock,” Ren rasps. “We’re lucky…” He coughs and wheezes. “We’re lucky he didn’t kill us.”
“Not worth his time.” Erany lowers her sword and sags 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 a third-story window. “The Iguar are going door to door.”
Ren walks in a short circle, pausing briefly at each window so he can look for himself. “They’re canvassing the city from the outside in. It’s only a matter of time before they find 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 Elerica?”
“Yes,” she says. “But they haven’t responded.”
“Then it’s settled,” Ren says. “If we link our auras and weave a spell, our combined energies could—”
“We have an alternative,” Nyanti says.
Six pairs of eyes settle on the Witch.
“In past dealings, I have conducted business with a Nelithy Elemental named Arinia D’sae. I could reach out to her and request her aid. It’s possible she could convince her husband—Aiethic Tyanmore—to help us as well.”
“What are you waiting for?” Lucky snaps. “Summon her!” He turns away and flaps a hand in disgust. “If we had avoided Elerica, we wouldn’t be stuck in this low-shadow mess.”
“If we had avoided Elerica, it would have remained in Sytíshí hands,” Ren counters.
“Who cares?” Lucky yells. “I can tolerate this idiot thinking Jon is the Prophesied Traveler—” he flings an arm at Gyrax, “—but when the rest of you actually start to believe him…” He hisses through his teeth in frustration and anger. “Listen close and listen well: none of you are heroes, saviors, or martyrs! Get that through your Nok-damned skulls!”
Ren grabs his lapels and pushes him violently against the wall. “From the very beginning, you have cheerfully excused your greed and avarice, claiming that faith and fortune would see us through. Why not grin like you always have, and tell us that all will be fine and fair?”
Lucky’s face twists into a sneer. “Listen to you. If you could only hear how stupid you sound, you wou—”
“Enough.” Erany pushes them apart. “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 breaks the silence with, “He’s a Nightkeeper, Jon. And not just any Nightkeeper—he’s Lyderea Fairdyle’s right-hand lieutenant.”
Gyrax looks like he’s about to speak, then he closes his mouth and shakes his head. “Ren is right. There might be more to what we saw, but now is not the time to explore it.”
“Makes sense.” I turn to Nyanti. “So how about them entities?”
“It is not that easy,” Nyanti says. “Arinia D’Sae will demand a tribute.”
“Joy,” Lucky grumbles. “This just keeps getting better and better.”
“What kind of tribute?” Gyrax asks.
“A substantive investment of arcane energy. And the only way I can offer it is if—”
“—we gain access to the hexflow spring,” Erany finishes.
Nyanti nods. “If I call her without it, she will devour us all without hesitation.”
Lucky’s voice rises with concern. “Elier and I are both injured. Are you going to leave us behind while you head for the spring?”
Nyanti looks him in the eye. “That would be prudent. If I didn’t have to heal you and Elier, I would gain access to stronger battle-magic, which would serve us well on our way to the hexflow.”
Lucky turns sideways and spits in disgust. “Stronger magic? How is that a concern when I’m sitting in this room like a piece of huntbait?”
“Our only other option is to take you with us. But in order to do that, I would have to perform an intensive curative, and that would more than halve my ener—”
“Well that settles it,” Lucky says brusquely. “Heal us both. Do it quickly.”
Ren steps forward, palms out. “Lucky, think: if we can access more magic, we can move faster and reduce our risk. Healing your leg might seem tempting, but—”
“Who’s selfish now?” Lucky demands. “You would leave me to die while you run for that 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 with, “He is requesting aid, Ren. That is it and that is all.”
“With stronger magic, we could—”
Gyrax steps toward Ren, casting a massive shadow across his face. “Remember your lineage, Wayfarer.”
Ren’s face twists in frustration. “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 irritated by Lucky’s behavior, but the Duelist shrugs with typical stoicism.
“Either way is fine by me. If I am to die by an Iguar’s sword, then so be it.”
Lucky scoffs loudly, as if to say what an idiot.
Anger races through me; I clench my fists without intending to. Evidently, Ren feels the same: he tightens his jaw and shakes his head.
Nyanti kneels beside the thief, stilling her hands above his leg. She closes her eyes and begins chanting softly under her breath. At first it’s a murmur, but then it picks up—a slip-slide of vowels and sibilant consonants.
“Gods,” Lucky hisses. “It hurts. Is it supposed to hurt? Nyanti?”
She doesn’t respond; she just keeps on chanting.
Lucky dips his chin and squinches his eyes. A second later he blurts, “What are you doing? Why does it—aah!” He twists and flails but Gyrax and Erany pin him down. “Let go of me!” he demands. “Let go, you gods-cursed—”
Nyanti’s chant grows in volume, expanding into a double-toned elegy that echoes through the room. Blue-green light spills off her fingers, wrapping his leg in throbbing luminescence.
“Get off get off—AAAAHH!!!”
The Witch finishes a second later. Lucky doesn’t miss a beat. He scrabbles to his feet, hand on his dagger, and rakes us all with a murderous glare. After a hanging second, he lets his arm drops to his side.
“Thank you,” he says stiffly. “I feel much better.”
Nyanti doesn’t respond; she walks over to Elier and kneels beside him. The Duelist regards her apprehensively.
“Make it quick.” He closes his eyes and swallows hard.
She places her hands above his injury. The light purls off her fingers and fills his wound. His expression tightens, but a second later, his eyes cracks 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, lining her face with a crescent of moisture.
“That should do it.” She rises to her feet.
Elier stares at her, dumbfounded. “It…it almost felt good.”
“You and Lucky are worlds apart,” Nyanti says. “His psyche is plagued with deep-seated scars, whereas yours appears to be relatively clean.”
Lucky mutters, “Or it could be your lack of skill. I know mud-town hedge-witches that are better at physicking.”
“Predictable,” Nyanti replies. “I wouldn’t expect you to lay claim to your weakness, even if doing so would make you stronger. Shall we?” She extends a hand toward the door.
Ren goes first, drawing his sword as he exits the room. As Gyrax passes Nyanti, he says, “Thank you.”
“This isn’t over, Wolven. Save your thanks until it is.”
He gives her a rueful smile. “Learn to celebrate the smaller victories. Sometimes, they’re all that stand between you and the Clear.”
Nyanti half scoffs, half laughs. “Come.” She jerks her head at me. “Let’s get this over with.”
I fall in behind Gyrax, unsure of how to feel. I just lived a nightmare version of my Earthling future, killed a couple of pint-size goblins, and healed an Elerican Witch with Laiddinic powers.
Atriya’s contract flashes through my mind:
Truer words were never written.