We make it two more blocks before we’re attacked again. Right as Lucky hits an Iguar in the eye with an on-the-fly shot, we’re spotted by three more packs—they emerge from the buildings to our left, front and rear.
Ren screams, “MOVE!”
As we crash into them, my mind clicks back into cold observance, muffling my heart as I catalogue openings and counters. It’s all a blur of blood, metal, and snarling faces until—
A serrated, back-angled sword runs opens an ugly gash on my right tricep. I glimpse a pucker of angry red tissue before I flip my knife into an icepick grip and punch it in and out of a shoulder, clavicle, and neck.
Then we’re running again.
Our cloaks flutter as we pick up the pace. Up ahead, more Iguar turn the corner, only this time, they’re accompanied by a pair of ember-eyed hounds: skin made of char and ash, curls of fire wisping from their coal-red nostrils. The monstrous dogs break into a gallop, blowing out streams of ragged black smoke.
Nyanti spreads her hands and claps them together, shouting a wordless phrase that’s melodic and forceful. A purple-tinged wave shoots from her fingers, colliding head-on with the hellfire smoke. The discharges combine and clash, mixing together into a reddish-orange fog. I wince and flinch as it roils across me.
One of the hounds tackles Gyrax, who slaps his left wrist with his right hand, causing a gauntlet made of rippling blue shine to form around his lower arm. The hound clamps down on his light-armored wrist, violently jerking from side to side. It’s ridiculously strong—it almost succeeds in pulling Gyrax off-balance before he accelerates into a spin and throws it like a discus. The dog soars across the street and crashes through a wall.
Elier and Lucky whirl and slice, covering each other’s backs in a brutal duet. Ren and Erany are doing the same, only with a bit more elegance. The Duelist and thief are brawling and smashing, but the Princess and Wayfarer are all business—they’re dispatching Iguars with mechanical precision, moving from one to the other without a movement squandered, without a breath wasted.
As for me, I’m just trying to stay alive—flailing and thrashing without any semblance of aim or accuracy. I manage to kick an Iguar in the face before another one smashes me with its shield and sends me tumbling across the ground. I skid to a stop, look up, and lock eyes with a demon-hound.
It lumbers toward me and accelerates into a gallop, burning ash-ringed prints onto the cobbles. Before it can bite me, Nyanti crashes into its unguarded side, barrel-rolling twice while grabbing its head with her cobalt-lined fingers.
As they both gyrate across the ground, thick streams of vapor pour off their bodies—she’s using water-based magic to counter its heat. Through the haze, I can see their silhouetted bodies wrestling and thrashing. She breaks contact with a quick shove and throws a full-force smack, cracking its jaw with a power-charged hand.
Gyrax hauls me up by my collar. “This way!”
I stumble-sprint through the soupy chaos, swiping at random attackers. Keep it together, Jon. Gotta keep running, gotta keep fighting, just focus on the nex—
Suddenly, the air clears. I cast a wild look around and spot the others emerging from the smoky chaos. Nyanti sprints a dozen yards ahead and leaps into the air—arm cocked high, knuckles pointed down—then turns around while still in the air, landing in a single-kneed crouch and punching the street with her blazing fist. Jigsaw cracks erupt from the strike, whipping back toward the Iguar in an undulant wave of broken cobble. The goblin-men gabble and shout as they’re tossed and thrown.
Man, 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. The Iguars curses turn to screams as they’re buried under mortar and shingle.
Okay—that was enough.
Or maybe not. The Iguar that survived—the ones a bit further back—are still after us. I can make out their armored silhouettes, scrabbling and leaping across the wreckage.
“Hurry!” Nyanti calls.
Once again, we break into a sprint. Resonant horns blare and carry, sounding the alarm throughout the city. We’re being hunted and my body knows it—my heart shifts into red-line overdrive: all I want is to run run RUN.
More Iguar round the corner, blocking our way forward. Erany bellows a percussive phrase while slashing the air with both hands, hitting them with a twenty-foot plume of billowing flame. It burns a couple but most just screech and stumble back. We take advantage of their disrupted rhythm by smashing their line, cutting and striking, then streaking past them. Gyrax picks a javelin out of his shoulder and chucks it with such force back at its thrower that it hits the Iguar in the chest and lifts it bodily off its feet. A second later, we clear the melee.
Ren shouts, “Nyanti, make sure we’re going the right—”
“This way!” she screams, taking a hard left onto a building-lined avenue. As we make the turn, Iguar emerge from every corner, alley, and doorway.
I’m abruptly aware of exhaustion pooling through me, robbing me of strength and eating my speed. We’re holding our own, but the instant we let up—
Another pair of hounds leap at Gyrax. He crosses his arms in a brawny X, forcing them to bite his wrists instead of his neck. Even though he blunts their charge, they still shove him onto his butt and savage his flesh. Their glowing red fangs ignite small fires across his fur, blackening his hide with spots of char.
He growl-shouts a curse in gutter-speak Wolven, then bangs their heads like a pair of pots, slamming their skulls together as hard as he can. They bark, squeal, and let go his arms.
As they turn to run, he stomps the first one’s spine with enormous force—I hear the cr-cr-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 clear through to the other side.
“Gyrax!” I slip a chop, grab the back of my attacker’s head so I can steady it for a knife-strike. The blade hits home but I barely notice; I’m concentrating on my best friend.
He turns his shaking, burnt 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 really bad…
The runic symbols connect together into glimmering circles, then tighten down onto his wounds. He bares his teeth as they squeeze his forearms, forming a magical brace for each one. After flexing his right hand experimentally, he grunts in satisfaction. He tries his left. His face tightens as he curses softly beneath his breath.
I ask, “No good?”
He shakes his head. “No.”
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 attacker, 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 up and to the right, fingers trembling like she’s trying to shut a stubborn door. The stone-wrought townhomes off to her right begins to fountain apart into rough spouts of blocks and beams. There’s a bunch of Iguar right beneath them—they 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 and hooks her arm, pulling her up and onto her feet.
She clasps his hand in both of hers, giving 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 damn horns—but it’s close enough.
Without speaking, we shuffle inward and form a loose circle, regarding each other with muted amazement. An unspoken understanding flows between us: we’re lucky to be alive, even luckier to be whole and healthy. Gyrax is the only one who’s suffered an injury, but at least he’s able to fight and run.
“Good.” Ren looks at each of us in turn. “Good. It’s not over yet, but we have given fair account of ourselves. Be sure of that, friends, for those cursed 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 shrugs, 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 and shakes it onto his injured hand. The burns disappear, leaving bald patches of healthy skin.
“You could have healed me this entire time!” Lucky shouts. “Why didn’t you—”
“This is for Wolven only, thief. It would strip the muscle from your bone.”
“Ale would be better. Ale heals all.” 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’s the only one who isn’t amused; he throws us all a Grinch-like scowl. “This is no time for cheer.”
Ren bursts into hearty laughter. I can’t be sure if he’s doing it just to mess with Lucky, but it’s infectious as hell nevertheless. The rest of us laugh along with him. Lucky just stands there and glowers balefully.
“Are we done?” he snaps. “I have better things to do than stand around and jest.”
Everyone stares at him for a hanging second. Then we all give into another laughing fit. Not just hearty, but raucous this time.
“Be easy, Lucky,” Gyrax chides, still chuckling. “We’re stealing merriment from dire circumstances—the most daring theft a man can commit. You should rejoice, for right now, 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 we agree on something.” Lucky nocks an arrow onto his short bow. “I estimate we have three hours of daylight, maybe four.” He looks at Nyanti. “Can we make it to the spring before nightfall?”
“Under normal circumstances, yes. It would take half an hour, maybe less. But we must be stealthy, so our progress will be slow and gradual.”
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?”
“Their strength, size, and athleticism will all increase significantly. They’ll also gain access to Bruteroc magic, which means they’ll be capable of throwing arcane projectiles.”
“Got it.” I raise my hands in mock surrender. “Sunlight good. Moonlight bad.”
“Nothing changes.” Gyrax grips his battle axe. “Tread light and talk soft. Eliminate threats as fast as you can.”
“Aye.” Nyanti nods. “My magic has been heavily taxed. I might be able to break a few more rushes. But the rise of the moon will dim our chances.”
“Time to move,” Ren declares. “Eyes open, weapons close.”
The Wayfarer begins treading up the street, scanning empty buildings and shadowed doorways. As I follow behind, a sense of inevitability settles over me. Not gonna lie—this lack of options is strangely comforting. We’ve made our decisions and placed our bets.
At this point, all we can do is see this through.