I drop to my knees and muffle a scream, fighting to regain control of my body and mind. Erany and Gyrax are both shouting, but I can’t make head or tails of what they’re saying; I’m deluged by horror and utter panic.
“You killed our brother!” Khyrell shrieks. As he twists his fingers into a fist, the space between his knuckles glows orange-red. My muscles clench into a snarl of knots.
“AAAAHHH!!! STOP!” I’m not in control of what I’m saying; 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 twitch and jerk, threatening to wrench away from my bones and cartilage.
I flop onto my side 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 a sharp jag of pain as it does its best to spin completely around.
I’m about to break my own neck.
Then, through the film of my 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 smiles at him and tightens his fist, stealing my breath with a surge of agony. “We were just about to—”
Knifelock’s hands flash to his waist, drawing his back-curving knives with stage-magic speed. Khryell manages a panicked “NO—” before the daggers rupture his left pectoral, punching a couple of holes above his heart.
The pain in my body immediately ceases. “HUUUHHH—” I push to all fours and vomit forcefully.
Sarisyrin spits a venomous curse and turns his palm up at Knifelock, extending his fingers in an elegant flourish. A ray of crackling yellow flies from his gesture, but Knifelock swats it aside with a quick backhand.
The Sytíshí opens his mouth to speak, but Knifelock cuts him off by speeding toward him, briefly transforming into a glowing clutch of lines before grabbing the Sytíshí by the throat.
Sarisyrin clutches at 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 from his lifeless mouth. Knifelock squeezes a little harder, fingers digging brutally deep into Sarisyrin’s throat, then lets him go with a casual throw, as if he was discarding a piece of trash.
Elier and Erany stagger to their feet, bringing their weapons into sloppy guard. Knifelock scoffs in amusement and blinks out of existence.
None of us move. An unspoken understanding flows between us: he could have killed us without even trying.
“What…what just happened?” I stare at the others.
“Arganti Knifelock,” Ren pants. “We’re lucky…” He coughs and wheezes. “We’re lucky we’re still alive.”
“Not worth his time.” Erany lowers her sword and sags against the wall.
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 Iguars are going door to door.”
Ren walks in a short circle around the room, looking briefly through each window. “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 Jelia?”
“I have,” she says. “But they haven’t responded.”
“Then it’s settled,” Ren says. “If we link our auras and weave a concussive spell, our combined energies could—”
“There’s another option,” Nyanti says.
Six pairs of eyes settle on the Witch.
“In the past, I have done business with a Nelithy Elemental called Arinia D’sae. I could reach out to her and request her aid. It’s possible she could convince her husband—Aiethic Tyganimore—to help us as well.”
“Well what are you waiting for?” Lucky snaps. “Tell her to hurry up and save us!” He turns away and flaps a hand in disgust. “If we had cut around Jelia, we wouldn’t be in this low-shadow mess.”
“If we had cut around Jelia, it would have fallen into Sytíshí hands,” Ren says.
“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 start believing him…listen close and listen well: none of us are heroes, saviors, or martyrs! Get that through your Nok-damned skulls!”
Ren strides 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, claiming that faith and fortune would see you through. Why don’t you grin like you always have, and tell us that everything will turn out fine and fair? Don’t you believe in your own rhetoric?”
Lucky’s handsome face twists into a sneer. “Listen to you. If you could only see how stupid you soun—”
“Enough.” Erany steps between them and 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. “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. 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. “Arinia D’Sae will demand a tribute.”
“Joy,” Lucky grumbles. “This just gets better and better.”
“What kind of tribute?” Gyrax asks.
“A substantive investment of arcane energy. And the only way I can offer it to her is if we—”
“—gain access to the hexflow spring,” Erany finishes.
Nyanti nods. “If we 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 here while you head for the spring?”
Nyanti looks him in the eye. “It would allow the rest of us to employ stronger magic—it would be of great use on our way to the hexflow.”
Lucky turns to the side and spits vehemently. “Stronger magic? That is 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 perform an intensive healing. And that would more than halve our available ener—”
“Well that settles it,” Lucky says. “Heal us both, and do it quickly.”
Ren steps toward him, palms out. “Lucky, think for a second: if we have more magic we can move faster and minimize the danger to all in this room. Healing you might seem attractive in the short term, but—”
“Who’s selfish now?” Lucky hisses. “You would rather I rot here, helpless, 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 with, “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 irritated by Lucky’s blatant selfishness, but the Duelist 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, as if to say You’re an idiot.
Anger races through me—what an asshole. Evidently, Ren feels the same: the wanderer tightens his jaw and shakes his head.
Nyanti kneels beside the thief, stilling her hands an inch above his leg, then closes her eyes and begins chanting softly under 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. “It hurts. 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. “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 throughout the room. Blue-green light spills off her fingers, wrapping Lucky’s 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 glares furiously at us.
After a hanging second, he lets his hand drop 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. He doesn’t bother to hide his worry; the Duelist regards her with a considerable measure of apprehension.
“Make it quick,” he says through gritted teeth.
She places her hands above his injury. The light purls off her fingers and spreads across his wound. 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, 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’re not Lucky,” Nyanti says. “His psyche is plagued by deep-seated problems, whereas yours is relatively clean.”
Lucky mutters, “Doubtful, Witch. I’d chalk it up to your lack of skill—I know mud-town hedge-witches that are better at physicking.”
“Predictable,” Nyanti says. “I wouldn’t expect you to take responsibility for any of your weaknesses, 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. The rest of us follow in his wake. 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. Sometimes, they’re all that stand between you and the Clear.”
Nyanti half scoffs, half laughs. “Come on.” 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 terrible version of my Earthling future, killed a couple of short, wingless gargoyles, and healed a Jelian Witch with my Laiddinic imagination.
Atriya’s contract flashes through my mind. It feels like a lifetime since I signed it.
Truer words were never spoken.