As Iguar march around the bend—gotta be over a hundred this time—Ren hustles us into a squat building. Unfortunately, every time we try and leave, more Iguar come bustling along, forcing us to duck back inside. After our fourth try, the last rind of sunlight arcs sinks onto the horizon, painting its edge with red-orange glow.
I try to keep from grinding my teeth together. “Ren, if we don’t leave soon, then—”
“Thank you,” he hisses, “for stating the obvious. Yes, I’m well aware—if we don’t leave soon, they’ll tear our bodies limb from limb.”
My cheeks flush red. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to—”
“Easy, Jon.” Gyrax lays a hand on my shoulder. “We still have a little bit of daylight. We have to pick the right moment, or it will all be for naught.”
“I know, I know.” I shake my head, frustrated. “It’s just that—”
“Relax. Enjoy this.” His whiskered face widens in a grin.
“What?” I ask incredulously. I can’t believe he’s actually smiling.
“Savor your hardships, or you may look back in regret and wish you had appreciated them for what they truly are.”
“And what are they?”
“Opportunities.” His eyes flick up as Ren signals with a bent-armed wave. “Come.” He pats me twice. “Let us see what fate has in store.”
He walks out the door. I follow behind.
For the next thirty minutes we move with quiet urgency, striking a balance between stealth and speed. Strangely enough, It feels incredibly lonely. Despite being surrounded by badass adenturers, my world is reduced to the swish of cloaks, the tread of boots, and the insistent thump of my adrenalized heart. I’ll take it, though, if it means—
An Iguar bugle sounds from behind us
“Run!” Ren pounds forward, cloak flaring as he picks up speed. The rest of us stay tight on his heels, chased by horns and the rattle of armor.
The streets explode with hundreds of Iguar. Their presence causes a palpable disturbance in the air and temperature—I can actually feel them closing in.
“Start casting!” Gyrax bellows.
Lucky chucks a searing red oval, following up with three more just like it. Some earn a yelp, but most detonate with a loud bang and do little to no damage. Elier’s a little more versed in combat magic; he’s carving rune-laden flourishes into the air, projecting purple-black waves from the edges of his blades. The spells are meant for personal defense—meaning each one disappears after ten or twenty yards—but when they hit, bones snap and skin unravels.
Meanwhile, Ren twists his fingers in hypnotic circles, shooting galvanic blue lightning from their half-gloved tips. It jumps from Iguar to Iguar, revealing their bones in an x-ray flash before frying their flesh into charry dust.
I can’t see the others; the air cracks and sizzles, the ground ripples and quakes. The entire world is breaking apart, exploding at the seams and tearing at the edges. I wish I could help, but all I have is a single dagger. Maybe I could chuck it, but—
“Keep running!” Nyanti screams. “Almost there!”
Then, in a deceptively gentle shift of light, the sun disappears below the horizon.
Gyrax shouts, “The sun is out! The sun is out! Watch your flanks!”
I spot a sudden gap in our seven-person line. Someone stopped casting but I can’t tell who. I think it’s Lucky, but—
A random breeze clears the smoke, revealing the reason behind his plea: one of the Iguar threw a bola—a connective rope with weighted skulls on either end—and bound his feet in a snarl of rope. He’s sitting on his butt, sawing at the line with his dagger, but it’s strong and fibrous; he’s not getting through. To make matters worse, five Iguar are running straight at him.
Gyrax crashes into the Iguar as I run up to Lucky. I saw frantically away at the Iguar bola, putting my weight into my blade. The rope holds taut, then snaps apart with an angry twang.
“Come on!” I pull Lucky up and stumble-run forward, holding tightly onto the crook of his arm. He blurts a thanks, finds his footing, and we resume sprinting down the street.
My dread blossoms into full-on panic. How close are we? Because if we don’t reach shelter in the next few seconds…
What the hell? Hard to think with my heart pounding, lungs throbbing. Don’t know if that was just my imagination or—
I gasp, “Who are you?” I suck in lungful of dusty air, then manage, “What are you?”
[Ailura Qartesi, the Avalon Clapfire. Draw me—we’re running out of time.]
The moon pokes out from behind a tower, spilling pale light across the street. When it touches the Iguar, their muscles enlarge into ropy, cabled masses and they grow a couple feet taller in less than a second. Their eyes change too—from wide yellow circles into nasty red glints.
Elier continues cutting them apart, but with nowhere near the same ease or frequency. The newly empowered Iguar are starting to nick him, deadlocking his swords with alarming regularity. Only a matter of time before he makes a mistake.
Lucky isn’t even trying to be technical—he’s straight-up brawling, sitting on an Iguar’s chest and stabbing it manically with a blood-coated dagger. Another tries to attack him from behind, but Gyrax backhands its face with his massive fist. He hits so damn hard that its head spins around; its neck breaks with a savage snap.
[Jon. Draw me.]
Elier curses as a serrated dagger runs along his arm, ripping cloth and opening an ugly wound along his tricep. Gyrax leaps forward with his paw cocked back, torquing his legs as he grabs an Iguar’s head and drives it viciously into the ground.
I reach around to my lower back, flick the button on the revolver’s pouch cover, then dig inside and wrap my fingers around the grip. As I swing it up and out, the half-gun blazes with glaring incandescence. In place of its missing cylinder, there’s a frazzled ball of emerald light, washing the streets in swamp-green brilliance. Several Iguar turn toward me and I can’t help but tremble. It’s one thing to fight a creature half your size, entirely another to face a six-foot beast-man.
I pull the trigger. The gun roars.
The emerald ball leaps from Ailura, expanding into a giant wave of aquamarine blaze. It hits a line of snarling Iguar, catapulting them back with the force of a bomb. Visible energy surges outward, coalescing into a violet ring that sweeps the street and floods the air with arcane wind. A bunch of us—me included—are knocked off our feet and onto our butts.
An eerie calm takes hold. Man, it’d be nice to just sit here and—
“RUN!” Nyanti screams.
We dart down the road, the staggered Iguar faltering after us. I’m still holding a sentient revolver. Maybe if I ask her for help…
“Keep going!” Ren shouts. “It’s just around the corner!”
The street opens into a spacious square, home to an imposing cathedral-like building. Just like the castle, it’s formed from a tree that rises from the ground, interspersed with stone facades and stained-glass windows.
“Inside!” Ren cries. “Jon, shoot them again!”
I swing back, raising the half-gun, but it remains cold and dark. I can still feel Ailura in the back of my mind, but just barely.
“Can’t!” I scream. “She’s not responding!”
Ren curses in a foreign language, then spits out a booming sound that sounds like an axe chopping a cord of firewood. His feet blaze with slate-blue shine, then he rockets forward like a human comet, levitating a couple feet off the ground as he shoots toward the sylvan cathedral. The air in front of him ignites with brilliance, forming a fiery shield around his face and chest. He tucks inward, aiming his shoulder at the double-door entrance, but—
—rebounds off it.
“Gods!” He gets to a knee and smacks the cobbles in sheer frustration. “They’re warded!”
“All together!” Gyrax yells. “Link auras!”
Nyanti and Erany throw a couple more spells, then face the doors and begin chanting. Glowing runes encircle their hands, ringing their features in purple-green shine. Gyrax and Ren blast a few more Iguar, then face the doors and join in.
Palpable energy fills the street—the atmospheric charge of a late-summer storm, only a thousand times stronger. Sizzling energy cracks and pops, setting random patches of air afire. After a hanging moment of whipcrack tension, their combined spell releases with a roar—they’ve shaped their intent into a gigantic ray.
It hits the cathedral with blinding force, momentarily whiting out my vision. A split-second later, the doors swing open with an enormous bang. We scrabble inside without missing a beat.
“CLOSE THE DOORS!” Gyrax shouts. “DON’T LET THEM IN!”
He takes the right door, we take the left. For a nerve-rending moment, both doors refuse to move, but then they relent with a deep-rooted groan.
Gyrax orders, “Ren! Nyanti! Get in the middle! Keep those Iguar from coming through!”
Ren and Nyanti break from the door and fill the gap, eyes glowing as they cast a bevy of destructive spells. Outside the building, hastily formed magic erupts and explodes, evoking screams from the charging Iguar, then the door slam shut with a decisive BOOM.
Gyrax unslings his axe in a lightning-fast draw, whirling sideways toward the knotted tie-down holding the twenty-foot deadbolt. He slices through the rope—
—and the stone deadbolt drops into a pair of braces jutting from the door, barring it shut with deafening finality. Howls and wails erupt from outside.
“How long will it hold?” I ask nervously.
Nyanti nods at the deadbolt, now glowing feather white. “That’s a stout enchantment. Unless they’re friends with a Sycajister mage, I’d say we’re safe for at least a month.”
Lucky grumbles, “I can’t stay in this low-shadow temple for an entire—”
“Watch your tongue,” Nyanti warns. “This is the heart of Jelia. Show some respect.”
Lucky turns his head and waves dismissively. Bah.
Gyrax looks around at the beautifully sculpted, marble-coated chamber. “Where’s the spring?”
Nyanti sits on an iron bench, formed from twists of gem-laden metal. “Down the hall. Inner sanctum.” She tilts back and closes her eyes. “We’ll get to it later. Right now I need to rest.”
Ren gestures angrily at the door. “We’re just going to wait? They’re right outside!”
“Cry off, Ren.” Gyrax re-slings his axe. “She needs to recover.”
“Unless you want to summon with a depleted Witch.”
Lucky mutters, “For once, I agree with Ren.” But that’s the extent of his protest.
We all take a seat on one of the wall-benches. Gyrax crosses his arms and lets his head droop down. Erany curls onto her side and starts snoring. Ren and Lucky lean forward, elbows on their thighs, and stare furiously at the ground.
I try to sleep, but it’s ain’t gonna happen. I just escaped an army of monsters, several of whom I killed in hand-to-hand combat. Oh, and let’s not forget: I vaporized a bunch with a magic half-revolver.
Not gonna lie—SFSU sounds pretty good right about now.
My mind circles back to recent events: the Sytishí attack, healing Nyanti, our fight with the Iguar…I can’t stop thinking about how—
And then I’m asleep.
I rub my eyes, clearing them of gunk. Holy crap…feels like I got hit by a mack truck…
Erany, Gyrax, and Nyanti are standing in the center of the chamber, talking quietly. Gyrax is gesturing while Nyanti is listening with crossed arms.
Urrrgh…I swing my feet over the side of the bench. The motion ricochets through my body, rousing stiff muscles and dry joints.
“Jon?” Gyrax walks over. “Are you well?”
“Yeah…I think so.” I give him a bleary-eyed stare. “Haven’t been this sore in…I don’t think I’ve ever been this sore. I can barely move.”
“You expended an enormous amount of energy. Your body’s trying to recover.”
“You don’t say.” I rotate my arms in forward circles, wincing as they twinge and pop. Each one feels fifty pounds heavier. “Man, I am tired…not sleepy, but just totally beat down…”
He nods sympathetically. “Walk slowly—that should help.”
“Okay.” My gait is stiff and bow-legged. “Ugh…how do you get used to this?”
Gyrax shrugs. “If your perception is flexible, it can expand to meet nearly any circumstance. Your body and aura will naturally follow.”
“I see.” My muscles creak and pull, drawing an involuntary groan from my chapped lips.
After a few more laps around the expansive foyer, my legs start to loosen. Awesome—for a minute there, I thought I was going to turn into Abe Simpson, complete with a limp and quavery voice. I’m still sore, but not the kind that makes you think twice about moving.
“Nice.” I circle my arms and crack my neck. “Much better—I can run and fight at least.”
“Good.” Gyrax eyes Nyanti and Erany, who are still chatting. “In the next few hours, you’ll have to do both.”
“But not if Nyanti summons the Elemental, right?”
“I’m not sure if it will come to our aid. And even if it does, there might be too many Iguar for it to—”
Time to tap my inner eighties action hero: “Gotta have faith, right?” I shrug cavalierly. “Things will work out.”
Gyrax grins. “ ‘Be dust upon your breath.’ ”
“Yessir,” I agree. “And if you can’t breathe, then sack up and give it a try, because you might just hit it out of the park.”
“Good man.” He claps my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “Nyanti will do the brunt of the work. Erany and I will try and help. Everyone else will stand guard.”
Lucky pipes up: “Oy! When are you gods-cursed mages getting us out of this low-shadow city?”
“Soon.” Nyanti regards him with clear disgust. “Let us once more into the fray…so you can grace us all with complaints and cowardice.”
“I’ve been accused of worse throughout the years.” Lucky stretches his arms directly overhead, then places his hands on his back and arches his spine, eliciting a bony crack from his lower vertebrae. “Ah.” He twists his neck from side to side and shakes his arms. “Much better.”
Nice to see he’s doing well. I suspect it’s because he’s a fair-weather optimist, but I gladly welcome fair-weather optimism over dickhead cynicism.
We follow Nyanti into a hall leading out of the foyer and find ourselves walking down a long, echoey corridor. Enchanted stained-glass lines the walls, lit by a soft, arcane glow. The light slides and coalesces across the art, bringing different parts of it into relief.
The beginning of the corridor starts with pictures of settlers. The middle of the corridor shows them fighting dragons and monsters. As we reach the end, the images depicts a growing city: gradual construction of buildings, streets, and fixtures. A magic version of San Francisco, only with better layout and nicer aesthetics.
Soon, we reach the end of the hallway. A wrought iron door stands before us, interspersed with colorful pieces of slender glass. I’m not sure how it opens—it doesn’t have a knob.
Nyanti closes her eyes and kisses her index and middle fingers, causing a rotating sparkle to shine from their tips. She reaches out, brushing the door with her glimmer-lit fingers. When she touches its oval centerpiece—a magenta inlay with a beautiful twist of curling blue strands—the shine from her fingers flows into the door, imbuing its designs with a soft, undulant luster.
The latch clicks back. The door creaks inward. Inner sanctum, here we come.