We make it two more blocks before we’re spotted again. They burst from the buildings to our left, front and rear.
Ren screams, “MOVE!”
My mind clicks back into cold observance, cataloguing openings and counters. It’s all a blur of blood, metal, and snarling faces until—
A back-angled sword grazes my arm. Painful and shallow, like a long-running papercut. I flip my knife into an icepick grip and punch it through a shoulder, clavicle, and neck. Then we’re running again.
Our cloaks flutter as we pick up the pace. Up ahead, more Iguar round the corner, only this time, they’re accompanied by a pair of ember-eyed hounds. Their skin is made of char and ash, curls of fire wisp from their nostrils.
The monstrous dogs break into a gallop, blowing out streams of smoke-wreathed fire.
Nyanti spreads her hands and claps them together, shouting a wordless phrase that’s simultaneously melodic and forceful. A purple-tinged wave shoots from her fingers, colliding with the fire and mixing together into reddish-orange fog. I wince and flinch as it roils across me.
One of the hounds tackles Gyrax. He slaps his left wrist with his right hand, causing a rippling blue gauntlet to envelop his arm. The hound clamps down on his spell-armored wrist, violently jerking him from side to side. It almost succeeds in pulling him off-balance, then he accelerates into a spin and throws it like a discus, launching the dog across the street and through a building.
Ren and Lucky whirl and slice, covering each other in a brutal duet. Elier and Erany are doing the same, only with class and elegance. The thief and the Wayfarer are brawling and smashing, while the Princess and Duelist are dispatching Iguars with efficient precision. I’m just trying to stay alive—flailing and thrashing without any semblance of aim or accuracy. As I stab an Iguar and kick another, their buddy shield-smashes my chest and sends me tumbling across the ground. I skid to a stop, look up, and lock eyes with a demon-hound.
It lopes forward, accelerating into a thunderous gallop that burns ash-ringed prints into the cobbles. Before it can reach me, Nyanti crashes into its side. As they barrel-roll, she grab its lips with her blue-glowing fingers. Thick vapor pours off their bodies; she’s using water-based magic to counter its fire. The muggy haze makes everything bleary, but I’m able to make her out as she knees it twice, then cracks its jaw with a power-charged hand.
Gyrax hauls me up by the collar. “This way!”
I stumble-sprint through the soupy chaos, throwing swipes at random attackers. Gotta keep running, gotta keep fighting, just focus on the nex—
Suddenly, the wind picks up and disperses the fog. Nyanti sprints a dozen yards ahead and springs into the air—arm cocked high, knuckles pointed down—then turns around mid-leap, landing in a single-kneed crouch and punching the street with her blazing fist. Jigsaw cracks erupt from her strike, whipping back toward the Iguar in an undulant wave of broken cobble.
I hope that’s enough. It was impressive as hell, but I’m not sure if it did any actual dama—
The buildings on either side give way and collapse, filling the air with snapping beams and tearing walls. Mortar and shingle crash down atop our rabid pursuers.
Or maybe not. The surviving Iguar—the ones a bit further back—are still on our ass. I can make out their armored shadows, scrabbling and leaping across the wreckage.
“Hurry!” Nyanti calls.
Resonant horns blare and carry, sounding the alarm throughout the city. We’re being hunted and my body knows it—all I want to do is to run run run.
More Iguar appear in front of us. Erany bellows a percussive phrase while slashing the air with both hands, throwing a plume of billowing flame. It burns a couple but most just screech and stumble back. We take advantage of the disruption by smashing their line, then streaking past them. Gyrax picks a javelin out of his shoulder and chucks it back at its thrower—it hits the Iguar in the chest and lifts it bodily off its feet.
Ren shouts, “Nyanti, make sure we’re going the right—”
“This way!” She takes a hard left onto a building-lined avenue. Iguar emerge from every corner, alley, and doorway.
I’m abruptly aware of the exhaustion spreading throughout my body, robbing my strength and eating my speed. We’re holding our own, but the instant we let up—
A pair of hounds leap at Gyrax. He crosses his arms in a brawny X so they bite his wrists instead of his neck. Small fires take hold in his fur, ignited by their ember-spotted hellfire fangs.
He growl-shouts a curse in gutter-speak Wolven, then bangs their skulls like a pair of pots—they bark, squeal, and let go of his arms. He stomps the first one’s spine with enormous force—I hear the gunshot CRACK of broken vertebrae—then skip-steps forward and kicks the other in the ribs. It yelps loudly as it flies into a building and smashes clean through to the other side.
“Gyrax!” I slip a chop, grab the back of my attacker’s head so I can steady it for my knife. The blade slides home but I barely notice.
He turns his palms toward the sky and utters a chain of slippery whispers. Bright blue lines blaze into existence around his injuries, forming symbols and runes an inch from his skin.
“GYRAX!” I thrust-kick an Iguar, following as it backpedals, swatting away its sword and punching my knife through its gullet. A few more steps and I halt before Gyrax. Man, his arms look bad. Blackened and cracked, leaking blood and yellow-tinged fluid.
The runes combine into glimmering circles, then tighten down onto his wounds. He bares his teeth as the symbols squeeze tight, forming a magical brace for each forearm. After flexing his right hand, he grunts in satisfaction. He tries his left. His face tightens.
I ask, “No good?”
He shakes his head. “No. But I can heal them if we catch a reprieve from these Nok-damned—”
Erany sidekicks an Iguar into three of its peers. “Gyrax! If we combine our auras, cast a crux-melded spell—”
“Can’t!” he shouts. “My arms!”
She backhands an Iguar, sending it spinning to the ground. “Nyanti! We need to break their tempo! We can’t keep—”
“Say no more!” The Witch extends her arms, fingers trembling like she’s trying to shut a stubborn door. Glowing orbs materialize in the air, swelling and crackling before detonating with the force of a small bomb. The Iguar caught in the blasts are immediately reduced to burnt, blackened husks. Some of the orbs explode in the townhomes, breaking them apart into rough spouts of blocks and beams. The goblins beneath them shout in alarm as they’re pelted and pummeled, then pancaked flat by falling buildings.
Nyanti stumbles, her balance stolen by the quaking earth. Ren swoops in, hooks her arm, then pulls her up and onto her feet. She clasps his hand in both of hers and gives him a grateful look that says it all: I’d thank you if I could, but I’m too damn tired.
I know exactly how she feels.
A moment of quiet descends upon us. It’s not quite silence—we can still hear those damned horns—but it’s close enough. Without speaking, we shuffle inward and form a circle, regarding each other with dilated pupils. Unspoken understanding flows between us: we’re lucky to be alive, even luckier to be whole and intact.
“Good.” Ren looks at us in turn and takes a steadying breath. “It’s not over yet, but we have given fair account of ourselves. Take pride in that knowledge, for those low-shadow Iguar know it well.”
“Aye.” Elier gives an amused scoff. “I’m glad I came along. Much better than sitting in a castle.”
“Tell that to my hands.” Gyrax smiles wryly. “Didn’t want to use this just yet, but…” He reaches in his carry and produces a small glass jar filled with floating, sparkling dots. He pops it open with a flick of his thumb, then turns it upside down onto his injured hands. The burns lighten and disappear, leaving bald patches of healthy skin.
“You could have healed me with that!” Lucky exclaims. “Why didn’t you—”
“Wolven only, thief. It would have stripped the muscle from your bone.”
“Ale would be better. Ale heals all, regardless of designate.” Elier quips.
Everyone chuckles or flashes a grin. As far as jokes go, it isn’t that funny, but we’ve all been operating at the edge of our capacity. Lucky is the only one who isn’t amused; he gives us all a Grinch-like scowl.
“This is no time for cheer.”
Ren bursts into hearty laughter. I’m not sure if it’s genuine amusement or he’s simply trying to piss off Lucky, but it’s infectious as hell. We laugh along while Lucky stands there and glowers balefully.
“Are you done?” he snaps. “I have better things to do than stand around and jest.”
Everyone stares at him, then we all give into another fit. Not just hearty, but downright raucous.
“Be glad, Lucknar,” Gyrax chides. “We are stealing merriment from dire circumstances—the most daring theft a man can commit. You would do well to rejoice, for you are at the very height of your larcenous craft.”
Lucky opens his mouth to retort, but Ren cuts him off with: “Enough. We need to keep moving.”
“For once I agree.” Lucky nocks an arrow onto his bow. “I estimate we have three hours of daylight, maybe four.” He looks at Nyanti. “Can we make it to the spring before nightfall?”
“Typically, yes—it would take half an hour, maybe less. But we must try and be stealthy, which will slow our progress.”
Lucky groans in frustration. “Can I please just get a yes or n—”
She holds up a finger, cutting him off. “I believe we can, but more importantly, we must. Come nightfall, the Iguar will assume their Dark Moon aspect.”
“Is that bad?” I ask nervously. “I mean, I know it’s bad, but on a scale of one to ten, how bad are we talking?”
“Depending on the individual, their size and strength will double or triple. Their durability will also increase by a factor of—”
“Got it.” I raise my hands in mock surrender. “Sunlight good. Moonlight, not so much.”
“Nothing changes.” Gyrax grips his battle axe. “Tread light and talk soft. Eliminate threats as fast as you can.”
“Aye.” Nyanti nods. “I can break another rush, maybe two, but the rise of the moon will dim our chances.”
“Time to move,” Ren declares. “Eyes open, weapons close.”
The Wayfarer takes his place in front, scanning empty buildings and shadowed doorways. As we follow behind, a sense of inevitability settles over me. Weirdly enough, I find it comforting—we’ve made our decisions and placed our bets.
All we can do is see this through.