This time, the Sytíshí attack isn’t nearly as subtle; I’m barraged by a wave of absolute terror. I drop to my knees and muffle a scream, but it doesn’t stop the stone cold dread from washing through me, electrifying 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!!!” The scream bursts from my lips before I can help myself. “STOP!” Again, I’m not in control—I just want to get away from him.
“Not until I’ve ripped the sinew from your bones.” Khyrell bares his teeth in a sickly grimace. I can feel my tissues twitching inside me, ready to burst apart like over-tightened cable.
The last time I beat them, I had to relax. But right at this second, relaxing is the farthest thing from my tortured mind. All I can think of is my tendons and ligaments straining and pulling, 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 the haze of 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 snap my own neck.
Something pops in my shoulder and a series of kr-kr-KRACKS resonate from the base of my skull. This is it. There’s no way we can beat these guys. I just wish I didn’t have to die this way, with my tissues and muscle wrenched off my—
Through my tear-blurred eyes, I see something incredible: Blindfold Guy from my Earth-side visions appears in a scintillating 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, stealing my breath with a blast of pain, and turns toward Blindfold Guy. “Good to see you! We were just about to—”
Knifelock’s hands blur to his waist, drawing a pair of back-curving knives with dizzying speed. They flick out of their sheaths and into Khryell’s chest. He manages a panicked “NO—” before the daggers punch neat red holes above his heart.
The Sytishí drops to his knees, mouth and eyes wide with shock. The pain in my body immediately ceases.
“HUUUHHH—” I push to all fours and vomit up bile.
Sarisyrin’s expression switches from pleasure to shock. He throws a ray of crackling light, but the Nightkeeper swats it aside with a backhand. Sarisyrin tries to speak but Knifelock blurs forward, transforming into a glowing clutch of lines before resolving in front of the Sytíshí and grabbing him by the throat. Sarisyrin’s feet rise off the ground—he clutches at Knifelock’s hand and gurgles something desperate. I wince involuntarily as Sarisyrin’s vertebrae compress and break. CR-CR-CRACK.
Knifelock’s hologram turns and studies us. The others stagger to their feet, bringing their weapons into sloppy guard. It’s clear that Knifelock has no interest in them—he scoffs in amusement, then blinks out of existence.
“What…what just happened?” I lean against the wall.
“Arganti Knifelock,” Ren pants. “We’re lucky he didn’t kill us.”
“I guess 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.”
Ren gives him a questioning glance, but doesn’t press the issue.
“What now?” Lucky asks.
Nyanti peers out the window. We’re on the third story of a sprawling castle, which affords us a good view of the city and the forest. “The Iguars are going door to door. They’re looking for us.”
Ren looks out through an east-facing window. Then through another one, facing south. “They’re canvassing the city from the outside in. It’s only a matter of time before they get to us.”
Lucky groans. “I shouldn’t be here.” Everyone ignores him.
“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.”
Lucky curses. Once again, everyone ignores him.
“Then it’s settled,” Ren says. “We do as Gyrax says: create a diversion and break for the gates. Maybe if we weave a concussive spell, our combined energies could—”
“There’s another option,” Nyanti says.
The room fall silent. 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 Arenia. If we’re lucky, she’ll agree to help us. It’s possible she could convince her husband—Aiethic Tymore—to aid us as well.”
“What are you waiting for?” Lucky snaps. “Tell them to hurry over to this low-shadow castle!” He flaps his hand in disgust. “If we had cut around Jelia, this never would have happened!”
“If we had cut around Jelia, it would have fallen into Sytíshí hands!” Ren shouts.
“Who cares?” Ren yells. “Not I, I can tell you that much! I can tolerate this idiot thinking of Jon as the Prophesied Traveler—” he flings his hand at Gyrax, “—but when the rest of you start believing him, that presents a serious problem! Understand: none of us are heroes, saviors, or martyrs—get that through your thick, Nok-damned skulls!”
Ren stalks over to Lucky, grabs the thief by his lapels, and pushes Lucky against the wall. “The 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 like you always do, and tell us all that everything will be fine? Don’t you believe in your own rhetoric?”
Lucky’s handsome face twists into a sneer. “Listen to yourself. If you could only realize how stupid you—”
“Enough.” Erany steps between them and spreads her arms. “This is neither the time nor the place. As things stand, the odds are against us—if we bicker and gripe, we might as well slit our own throats.”
“Erany is right,” Gyrax says. “Summon the entities, Nyanti.”
“What about Knifelock?” I ask. “He helped us once…could he do it again?”
Uneasy glances all around.
“We can’t count on him,” Ren says. “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, bites it back, then shakes his head. “Ren is right. There might be more than meets the eye, but now is not the time to explore it.”
“Makes sense.” I turn to Nyanti. “So howsabout them entities?”
“It’s not that easy,” Nyanti says. “Arenia D’Sae will not aid us out of good will alone. She demands payment.”
“This keeps getting better and better,” Lucky grumbles.
“What kind of payment?” Gyrax asks.
“A huge investment of arcane energy. And the only way we can give it to her is—”
“If we can get to the hexflow spring,” Erany finishes.
“Yes.” Nyanti nods. “If we called her without it, she would devour us all without hesitation.”
“What about us?” Lucky snaps. “Elier and I are both injured—are you going to leave us here while you head for the spring?”
“I was just getting to that.” 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 that low-shadow windo—”
“It would allow the rest of us to marshal our energies. We could employ deadlier battle magics on our way to the spring.”
Lucky turns to the side and spits vehemently. “Battle magics? That should be the least of your concerns, Witch. 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 most of our energy in an intensive healing. You and Elier are badly injured; my earlier spell was only a temporary stopgap.”
“So heal us,” Lucky says. “I’m not sticking around so they can quarter and eat me.” He jerks his head at the nearest window.
Ren steps toward him, hands up and palms out. “Lucky, just think about it: if we have more magic we can move much faster, and we’ll be able to summon aid quicker. It is not just you and Elier whose lives are at stake, but those of the Jelian citizenry as well. Healing you may seem attractive in the short term, but—”
“Who’s selfish now?” Lucky hisses. “You would rather I sit here and rot 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—” but Erany cuts him off.
“It’s his decision, Ren. He is requesting aid—we are bound to give it.”
“Yes, but without those battle-magics, we’ll have to rely on stealth and—”
Gyrax steps closer to Ren, casting a massive shadow across his face. “Remember your lineage, Wayfarer. Your forbearers would not agree with you, not at this moment.”
Ren’s face twists in frustration. “I…I…” Then 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 in disbelief. Anger races through me—what an asshole. Evidently, Ren feels the same: the wanderer tightens his jaw and shakes his head.
But the rest aren’t fazed; they’re focused on the problem. “Then it’s settled,” Nyanti says. “Let’s get started.”
“Finally,” Lucky grumbles.
The Witch kneels next to 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, easy murmur, but then it quickly 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 to me? Why does it—aah!” He twists in place but Gyrax and Erany pin him down with their knees and hands. 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 Lucky’s leg in throbbing luminescence. You’d think something that beautiful would feel soothe and calm, but Lucky’s screaming like someone stuck him with a red hot poker iron.
“Get off get off get off—AAAAHH!!!”
I glance out the window. Hiding from an army while your thieving companion is screaming bloody murder…let’s just say it doesn’t do much to calm my nerves.
As Nyanti finishes, Gyrax and Erany ease off. Lucky scrabbles to his feet, hand on a dagger. He glares at us for a couple seconds, then regains control.
“Thank you,” he says stiffly. “I feel much better now.”
Nyanti responds with a nod and walks over to Elier. The Duelist regards her apprehensively, then closes his eyes as she kneels beside him.
“Make it quick,” he says through gritted teeth.
“I’ll try.” She places her hands above his injury. Her lids droop halfway closed and she begins chanting. The light purls off her fingers and spreads across Elier. His expression tightens—he’s anticipating the same level of pain that Lucky suffered through—but a second later, he cracks an eye open, like a guy in a movie who was expecting a bomb to go off, only he just realized it was actually a dud.
“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, forming a crescent of moisture along her temple.
A minute later, she’s done. “That should do it,” she says, rising to her feet.
Elier stares at her, dumbfounded. “Lucky was screaming bloody murder, but it…it almost felt good.”
“You’re not Lucky,” Nyanti says. “His psyche is plagued by deep-seated problems, whereas yours is relatively clean. And unless you want to spend a decade learning arcane philosophy, I suggest you leave it at that.”
“Fine by me,” Lucky mutters. “But I’d say it was your lack of skill rather than any ‘deep-seated problems’ within my mind.”
“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 stoward the door.
Ren goes first, drawing his sword as he approaches the door. He lets it swing wide, then carefully cuts a semicircle around it, looking to the left and right before giving us a nod and walking through. The rest of us draw and follow behind.
As Gyrax passes by Nyanti, he gives her a nod. “Thank you.”
“This isn’t over, Wolven. Save your thanks until it is.”
He smiles ruefully. “Celebrate the small victories, Nyanti. They should have taught you that in basic Witchery, for it is a lesson that applies throughout all of life.”
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 forceful imagination. Atriya’s contract flashes through my mind. It feels like a lifetime since I signed it.
My thoughts recede as I walk through the door, resisting the absurd urge to close it behind me. I volunteered for this. No going back.
In for a penny, in for a pound.