We make it two more blocks before we’re spotted by another pack of Iguar. Right as Lucky shoots an arrow, hitting the first one in the eye, we’re spotted by three more packs—they emerge from the structures to our left, front and rear.
Ren screams, “RUN!”
We charge forward, crashing into them with ferocious abandon. My mind clicks back into cold observance, keeping a grip on my runaway 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 across my tricep, opening an ugly gash on my upper arm. 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. They’re accompanied by a pair of ember-eyed hounds—skin made of char and ash, curls of fire wisping from their nostrils. The monster-dogs break into a gallop, opening wide and releasing a stream of ragged black smoke.
Nyanti spreads her hands and claps them together, shouting a wordless phrase that’s melodic and forceful at the same time. A purple-tinged wave of distorted air shoots from her fingers, colliding head-on with the necrotic smoke. The discharges combine and clash, mixing together into reddish-orange fog, like what you’d expect from the heart of a furnace. 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 light to form around his lower arm. The hound clamps down on his gauntleted wrist, violently jerking it from side to side. Gyrax accelerates into a spin and throws his attacker like a giant discus. It crashes through a wall and disappears from view.
Elier and Lucky whirl and slice, covering each other’s backs in a brutal duet. Ren and Erany are doing the same, only they’re a bit more elegant. 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.
I’m just trying to stay alive—flailing and thrashing without any semblance of aim or accuracy. I manage to kick an Iguar before another one smashes my chest with its shield, sending me tumbling across the ground. As I skid to a stop, I look up and lock eyes with a demon-hound.
It gallops toward me, burning ash-ringed prints onto the cobbles. I scrabble to my feet and raise my dagger into sloppy guard. Before it can maul me, Nyanti crashes into its unguarded side, barrel-rolling twice while grabbing its head with her cobalt-glowing fingers.
Thick streams of vapor pour off their bodies—she’s using some kind of water-based magic to counter its heat. In a matter of seconds, they’re completely enveloped in a thick soup of steam and mist. Through the haze, I see their silhouettes wrestle and thrash. She throws a full-body open-handed smack, cracking it across the jaw with her power-charged hand and sending it flying into a handful of Iguar.
Gyrax my collar and hauls me up. “This way!”
I stumble-sprint through the chaos, swiping at random attackers. Gotta keep fighting—
Suddenly, the air clears. I cast a wild look around and spot the others emerging from the ropy smoke.
Nyanti sprints a dozen yards ahead and leaps into the air—arm cocked high, knuckles pointed down—then turns mid-leap and lands in a single-kneed crouch, punching the street with her blazing fist. Jig-saw cracks erupt from the strike, whipping back toward the Iguar in an undulant wave of broken cobble. Our pursuers gabble angrily as they’re tossed and thrown by the sundered earth.
Man, I hope that’s enough; it doesn’t look like it did any actual dama—
The buildings on either side groan and sway…then give way and collapse, filling the air with the sound of snapping beams and tearing walls. The Iguars curses turn to screams as they’re buried under demolished walls and piles of shingles.
Okay—that was enough.
Or maybe not. The path behind us is filled with rubble, but even so, the Iguars that weren’t crushed—the ones a bit further back—are still after us. Their armored silhouettes scrabble and leap across the wreckage.
“Hurry!” Nyanti calls.
We break into a sprint. Resonant horns blare and carry, sounding the alarm throughout the city. I’m being hunted and my body knows it: my heart is in overdrive—all I can think of is to run run RUN.
More Iguar round the corner. Erany bellows a percussive phrase and slashes 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 momentum by smashing into 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 its 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. Iguar emerge from every corner, alley, and doorway.
Exhaustion is pooling throughout my limbs, robbing me of strength and eating my speed. The others don’t seem to share my dilemma, but it’s only a matter of time. 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, forcing them to bite his forearms 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 what I’m pretty sure is Wolven, then bangs their heads together like a pair of pots, slamming their skulls against each other 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 he skip-steps forward and kicks the other in the ribs. It yelps loudly as it flies into a building and smashes through it.
“Gyrax!” I slip a chop, grab the back of my attacker’s head so I can steady it for a knife-strike. The blade slips in and out but I barely notice; I’m concentrating on my best friend in the entire world.
He turns his shaking, burnt palms toward his face 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, then follow it 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, then tries his left. His face tightens. 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! Combine your aura with mine and Ren’s! If we 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 flattened against the street as the remains of the buildings smash them flat in a ground-shaking blast.
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.
A moment of quiet descends around us. It’s not silence—we can still hear those damn horns—but it’s close enough.
Instinct takes over. 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 a wound, but he’s still 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. Be sure of that, 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.
“Ale heals all.” Elier smiles back.
Everyone chuckles or flashes a grin—as far as jokes go, it’s not 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’m not sure if he’s doing it to get on Lucky’s nerves, but it’s infectious as hell. The rest of us laugh along while Lucky stands there and glowers.
“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 burst into laughter. Not just hearty, but raucous this time.
“Be easy, Lucky,” Gyrax chides, still chuckling. “We’re stealing merriment from dire fates—the most daring theft a man can commit. This is the very peak of your profession.”
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 have to be stealthy, so our progress through the city 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.
“Their strength, size, and athleticism will all increase by a factor of ten. They’ll also gain access to Bruteroc magic, meaning they’ll be capable of throwing arcane projectiles.”
“Okay okay—got it.” I raise my hands in mock surrender. “Sunlight good. Moonlight bad.”
“Nothing changes.” Gyrax grips his battle axe with his least wounded hand (his right). “Tread light and talk soft. Dispatch 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.”
“Enough talk,” Ren declares. “Eyes open, weapons close.”
The Wayfarer begins treading up the street, scanning the empty buildings and shadowed doorways. As I follow behind, a sense of inevitability settles over me. Gotta say—it’s strangely comforting, this lack of options. We’ve made our decisions and placed our bets.
All we can do is see this through.