We make it two more blocks before we’re spotted by another pack of Iguar. Lucky shoots an arrow, but just as he hits one in the eye, we’re spotted by three more packs—they emerge from the structures to our left, front and rear.
“RUN!” Ren’s hand flashes up, throwing a dagger at the pack to our front.
We charge forward, crashing into their ranks with ferocious abandon. My mind clicks back into cold observance, keeping a tight rein on my runaway heart as I try to 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, there are more Iguar. They’re accompanied by a pair of ember-eyed hounds—skin made of char and ash, tiny curls of fire wisping from their nostrils.
They break into a gallop, opening their mouths 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 transform into reddish-orange fog, like what you’d expect from the heart of a furnace. I wince instinctively as it roils across me.
Once again we’re stabbing, slashing, blocking, dodging. One of the hounds tackles Gyrax, who slaps his left wrist twice 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, but he accelerates into a spin and throws it into a wall.
Elier and Lucky whirl and slice, covering each other’s backs. 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 me 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 into the cobbles. I scrabble to my feet, throwing my dagger into sloppy guard, then Nyanti crashes into its unguarded side, barrel-rolling twice while grabbing its head with her cobalt-glowing fingers.
Thick streams of vapor pour off both of them—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 shroudy haze, I see their silhouettes break away from each other.
Gyrax grabs the back of my collar and hauls me up. “This way!”
I stumble-sprint through the chaos, swiping at Iguar silhouettes. Gotta keep fighting—
The air abruptly clears. I cast a wild look around and spot the others emerging from a bank of ropy smoke. Nyanti sprints a dozen yards ahead and leaps into the air, fist cocked high and pointed down, then turns mid-leap and lands in a crouch, punching the street with her blazing knuckles. Jig-saw cracks erupt from her strike, whipping back toward the Iguar in an undulant wave of broken cobble. Our pursuers spit and scream in fury, gabbling angrily as they’re tossed and thrown.
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.
Or maybe not. The path behind us is filled with rubble, but even so, the Iguars are starting to regain their momentum. I can see armored silhouettes scrabbling and leaping across the wreckage.
“Hurry!” Nyanti calls.
We take off running. 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 while slashing the air with both hands, hitting them with a twenty-foot plume of billowing flame. It burns a couple but most just cry out and stumble back. We smash into their line; cutting, striking, running past them. Gyrax picks a javelin out of his shoulder and chucks it with such force back at its thrower that it lifts the Iguar 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, blowing their horns as they chase us down.
Exhaustion is steadily filling my limbs, robbing me of strength and eating my speed. The others don’t seem to share my dilemma. We’ve all been caught in a frenetic rhythm. 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, but they manage to shove him back onto his butt. Their glowing red fangs ignite small fires across his fur, blackening his flesh with spots of char.
He bellows in fury, then starts banging their heads like a pair of pots, knocking them together as hard as he can. They let loose with barks, then squeals, and then they let go.
When they try 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 sags against the wall of a torn-apart building, holding his burnt and bloody arms loosely against his chest.
“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 buddy.
He turns his shaking palms toward his face and utters a slippery chain of whispery words. 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 my friend. Man, his arms look really bad…
The runic symbols connect together into a glimmering bracelet, then tighten down onto his wounds. He bares his teeth as they squeeze his forearms, forming a magical brace for each one. He flexes his right hand experimentally, 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 townhome off to her right begins to tremble, sounding out a series of cracks, pops, and wrenching moans. A second later it rips free of its foundation. There’s a bunch of Iguar right beneath it; they shout in alarm before it smashes them flat, crashing against the street in a deafening, ground-shaking blast.
Nyanti stumbles back and loses her footing. Faint curlicues of residual magic appear and disappear around her body. 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.
We stand in a loose circle, looking at each other in muted amazement. An unspoken understanding flows through our group: we’re lucky to be alive. Even luckier to be whole and uninjured. 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. “It’s not over yet, but we have given fair account.”
“Aye,” Elier says. “I’m glad I came along. Much better than sitting in the castle and hiding from Iguar.”
“Tell that to my hands.” Gyrax smiles wryly.
“Nothing some ale wouldn’t cure.” Elier smiles back. Everyone chuckles or flashes a grin—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’s throwing us all a Grinch-like scowl. “This isn’t funny.”
Ren bursts into hearty laughter. I’m not sure if he’s only doing it to get on Lucky’s nerves, but it’s infectious as hell. The rest of us laugh along, the thief simply stands there and smolders.
“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 burst into another round of raucous laughter.
“Be easy, Lucky.” Gyrax grins at him. “We’re stealing merriment from dire circumstances—the most daring theft a man can commit. You should be pleased and honored.”
“ ’Tis not a theft,” Lucky grumbles, “for the prize is available to any and all. Its lack of scarcity mutes its shine.”
“Time to get moving,” Ren declares.
“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, it would take half an hour, maybe less. But seeing as how we have to be stealthy, our travel 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. Kill any 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.”
“Right. Let’s get going.” Ren begins treading up the street, carefully scanning the empty buildings and shadowed doorways.
As I follow behind, a sense of inevitability settles over me. It’s strangely comforting, this lack of options. We have to play our hand and hope for the best.
All we can do is see this through.