Ren hustles us into a squat building. A minute later, an Iguar patrol trots down the street.
Unfortunately, every time we get ready to leave, more Iguar come bustling along, forcing us to duck back into the building.
I estimate we’ve been here for over an hour. The sun is arcing down below the skyline.
I try to keep from grinding my teeth together. “Ren, if we don’t move soon…”
“Thank you,” he hisses, “for stating the obvious. Yes, I’m well aware—if we don’t move soon, we’ll be torn to shreds by Dark Moon Iguars.”
My cheeks flush red. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to—”
“Easy, Jon.” Gyrax lays a hand on my shoulder. “We still have an hour of daylight. Keep in mind we have a single shot at this. We need to be careful.”
“I know, I know.” I shake my head in frustration. “It’s just…”
“These are the times when you should relax and enjoy.” His fur-lined face widens in a grin.
“What?” I ask incredulously. I can’t believe he’s actually smiling.
“All will be well, Jon. Don’t forget to savor these hardships, for you may look back and wish you had appreciated them for what they are.”
“And what are they supposed to be?”
“Opportunities.” His eyes flick up as Ren beckons with a curl of his hand. “Come.” He pats me twice. “Let us see what fate has in store for us.”
He walks out the door and I follow behind.
Even though it’s still daytime, everything is coated in cooling shadows. We’re all moving with quiet urgency, doing our best to stay quiet while trying to cover as much ground as possible.
It’s kind of lonely—my world is reduced to the swish of cloaks, the tread of boots, and the insistent thump of my adrenalized heart. I can see the others but they might as well be on another planet; they’re all focused on stealth and speed.
Not gonna lie—I’m getting kind of paranoid. If anything happens to us in the next few minutes, then—
Iguar horns rip through the air.
“Run!” Ren takes off, his cloak fluttering up to shoulder level. We instantly follow, chased by horns and the rattle of armor.
The streets explode with hundreds of Iguar. The air is filled with clicks and clacks, howls and jabbers. As if that wasn’t enough, their presence causes a palpable disturbance in the air and temperature—you can actually feel them closing in.
“Start casting!” Gyrax bellows. “That means you, Lucky—we need to throw every bit of magic we possibly can!”
Lucky doesn’t respond, not verbally anyway. His hands and eyes glow with smoky yellow light, then he chucks a searing red oval that materializes in his hands. They’re followed shortly by six more. Some earn an occasional yelp, but most just detonate harmlessly and saturate the air with stinging gas.
I glance over at Elier. The Duelist is slashing the air, sending rippling purple waves shooting from the edges of his blades. Those spells are meant for duels or defense—each one disappears after ten or so yards—but when they hit, they snap bones and rip through flesh.
The real work is being done by Gyrax, Ren, Erany, and Nyanti, who are throwing a gamut of destructive spells.
Erany slams the ground with a clenched fist, summoning a violent wave of pressure that break and collapse the buildings behind us; they crack and fall at different angles, transforming a neat row of houses into a ramshackle mess of cluttered debris and broken walls.
Ren twists his fingers in a hypnotic circle, shooting a blast of galvanic blue lightning from their tips. It jumps from Iguar to Iguar, revealing their bones in an x-ray flash before frying their flesh into charry dust.
Gyrax blows into an upturned palm, releasing a thirty-foot billow of swamp-green fire, burning Iguars to a blackened crisp and littering the streets with their ember-veined bodies.
Their casting picks up, too fast for me to make sense of. The air is cracking and sizzling, the ground is rippling and quaking. 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 going!” Nyanti screams. “We’re almost there!”
Then in a deceptively gentle shift of light up above, the sun disappears below the horizon.
Gyrax shouts, “The moon! The moon has risen! ’Ware your flanks and cast harder!”
My entire being funnels down into a singular purpose: we need to survive. By the frenzied swoops of offensive magics, I think everyone feels the same.
I see a sudden dark spot in our seven-person line. Someone stopped casting but I can’t tell who. I think it’s Lucky, but—
My dread blossoms into full-on panic. How close are we? Because if we don’t reach sanctuary in the next few seconds…
What the hell? Did I imagine that? Hard to think with my heart pounding and my lungs throbbing. Don’t know if it was just a—
[Jon. You need to draw me.]
Okay, that was definitely real.
“Who are you?” I gasp. I suck in air, then manage, “What are you?”
[Ailura Qartesi. The Avalon Clapfire.]
I’m about to be torn limb from limb. Not the best time to start chatting with a sentient revolver.
[We’re running out of time.]
The first bit of moonlight trickles across the street. The effect is immediate—the Iguar it touches let loose with deep, guttural grunts. Muscles spring out from their jaws and neck, they grow a couple feet taller in less than a second, and their eyes turn from wide yellow circles into nasty red glints.
Pretty soon, the Iguar have gone from angry little goblin-men to full-on Orc.
Even though Elier is cutting them down left and right, it’s not with the same ease as before. The newly empowered Iguar are starting to nick him, jamming him up with alarming frequency before he jiu-jitsus his swords out of a lock. It’s only a matter of time before he makes a mistake.
Lucky has ditched any attempt at skill or technique. He’s straight up brawling, mounting an Iguar’s chest and stabbing it manically with a blood-coated dagger. Another one tries to rush his back, but Gyrax backhands it with a massive fist, sending it spinning into a nearby wall.
Erany runs by and hooks Lucky’s arm, jerking him to his feet so they can both keep running.
[Jon.] The revolver again. [Draw me.]
Elier winces in pain as a serrated long dagger runs across his arm, ripping through cloth and opening an ugly wound along his shoulder. Gyrax leaps forward with his arm cocked back, torqueing his legs and not just punching an Iguar, but grabbing its face and driving it full force into the ground.
I don’t belong here. I’m not skilled, I’m not strong, I can’t cast…
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 a chamber, there’s a frazzled ball of brilliant green light, washing my surroundings in a swamp-green glow. Several Iguar swing toward me and I can’t help but tremble; it’s one thing to fight a creature half your size, entirely another to face down six-foot beasts.
I pull the trigger. The gun roars.
The twilight air lights with a blinding flash. My attackers spin crazily through the air. Visible energy surges from the impact, forming violet ring of force that sweeps outward and washes the street in arcane wind. Everyone ducks or backpedals wildly, as if we’re blades of grass and a giant gust is flattening us out. Some of us—me included—are knocked off our feet and onto our butts.
My pistol’s discharge has interrupted their attack; it’s the first break we’ve had since they started swarming us.
“RUN!” Nyanti screams.
We dart down the road as the staggered Iguar falter toward us. I’m still holding Ailura Qartesi. We could definitely use another shot. Maybe if I reach for her…
“Keep going!” Ren shouts. “It’s just around the corner!”
Nyanti and Ren clear us a path, blasting handfuls of Iguar with raw, searing energy. The rest of us follow close on their heels.
The street opens up 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.
Funny, even though we’re running for our lives, I’m struck by the beauty of the Jelian archit—
“Inside!” Ren cries. “Jon, shoot them again!”
I swing back and raise the half-revolver, but it stays empty and dark. I can still feel Ailura in the back of my mind, but she’s barely there; a muffled whisper instead of a lucid voice.
“Can’t!” I scream. “She’s not responding!”
Ren curses in several different languages, 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 door. The air in front of his body quickly ignites with parabolic brilliance, forming a blazing shield around his front. He ducks inward, aiming his shoulder at the cathedral’s double-doors, but—
—rebounds off them.
“Gods!” He gets to a knee and smacks the cobbles in frustration. “They’re warded!”
“All together!” Gyrax yells. “Link minds and smash those doors!”
Nyanti and Erany throw a couple more spells, then face the doors and sprint toward them. Shining circles of rotating runes spring up around their hands and faces, ringing their features in purple and green. Gyrax and Ren blast a few more Iguars, then face toward the doors and follow suit.
A palpable energy fills the street—like the atmospheric charge of a late-summer storm. Sizzling energy cracks and pops, setting random patches of air afire. After an interminable moment of whipcrack tension, their combined spell releases with a roar—they’ve shaped will and intent into a giant, phosphorescent ray.
It hits the doors with an enormous bang, setting them a-swing on their cast iron hinges. We scrabble inside and turn right back around.
“CLOSE THEM!” Gyrax shouts. “CLOSE THEM NOW BEFORE THEY GET IN!”
He takes the right door, we take the left. For a nerve-rending second they refuse to move, but then they gradually relent with a deep-rooted groan.
Gyrax orders, “Ren! Nyanti! Get in the middle and throw some spells! Keep those Iguar from coming through!”
Ren and Nyanti break off from their door and rush into the gap. Their eyes glow with ragged light as they cast a bevy of offensive spells. Beyond the door, hastily formed magics erupt and explode, drawing snarls and screams from the charging Iguar.
Ren slashes a muscled sword wielder across the thigh and face, then thrust-kicks it in the chest, sending the Orc-man flying back. A split-second later, the doors slam shut with a decisive BOOM. Gyrax unslings his axe in a lightning-fast draw, whirling sideways toward the knotted tie-down holding up a 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. Howls and wails erupt from outside.
“How long until they get in?” I ask nervously.
Nyanti nods at the stone deadbolt, now glowing feather white. “That’s a stout enchantment; it would take them a week to get inside, and that’s if they’re aided by a lower SyCajister. Unless they’re aided by a strong wizard, I’d say we’re safe in here for at least three months.”
Lucky grumbles, “I can’t stay in this low-shadow temple for three cursed—”
“Watch your tongue,” Nyanti warns. “You speak of the heart of Jelia.”
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 intricate twists of gem-laden metal. “Down the hall. Inner sanctum.” She tilts her head back and closes her eyes. “I’ll answer your questions soon enough. Right now I need to rest.”
Gyrax opens his mouth to speak, thinks better of it, then nods in agreement.
“As you will.”
Ren glares at Nyanti and 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 perform the summoning without her.”
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 their elbows on to their thighs and stare furiously at nothing.
I try to fall sleep, but it’s ain’t happening. I just escaped an army of monster-men, several of whom I killed in hand-to-hand combat. Oh let’s not forget—I vaporized a bunch of them with a magic half-revolver.
Not gonna lie—SFSU sounds pretty good right about now.
My mind keeps circling around 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 I feel like I got hit by a truck…
Ren, Lucky, and Elier are checking their gear. Erany, Gyrax, and Nyanti are 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, disturbing stiff muscles and creaky joints.
“Jon?” Gyrax walks over. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I stare up at him with bleary eyes. “Haven’t been this sore in…I can’t remember if I’ve ever been this sore. I can barely move.”
“Your body—it’s trying to recover from an enormous amount of effort.”
“You don’t say.” I rotate my arms in forward circles. They feel fifty pounds heavier. “Man I am tired…not sleepy, but beat to absolute crap…”
He nods sympathetically. “I’ve been there many a-time myself. Walk slowly—that should help.”
“Okay.” I start walking. 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.”
“Inflexible perception. I see.” My muscles creak and pull, drawing another groan from me.
As I pass by Erany and Nyanti, Erany adopts a slack-faced expression and spreads her arms and legs, walking in place and mocking my stride. I respond with a pained smile and a forced laugh: yeah yeah, yuk it up.
After a few more laps around the echoey foyer, my legs start to loosen up. Awesome—for a minute there, I thought I was going to turn into Abe Simpson, quavery voice and all. My body’s still sore, but not the kind of soreness that makes you think twice about moving.
“Nice.” I circle my arms and crack my neck. “Feels way better—like I can run and fight at least.”
“Good.” Gyrax eyes Nyanti and Erany, who are still chatting. “In the next few hours, you might have to do so.”
“But not if Nyanti summons that Elemental, right? Why would we have to fight if we got a fiftieth-level badass on our side?”
“We still haven’t summoned her. And we don’t know if she’ll agree to help us.”
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.’ ”
“ ‘Be dust upon your breath,’ ” 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.”
This time, he full-on laughs, making me a little proud of myself. “Good man.” He claps my shoulder and gives it a reassuring 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 going to get 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 your complaints and cowardice.”
“I’ve been accused of much worse throughout the years.” Lucky pushes off the bench and gets to his feet. He 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 out. “Much better.”
“We have a long way to go before we’re safe,” Ren cautions.
The thief responds with an easy grin—the first one I’ve seen since we entered Jelia. “In the eye of my mind I’m counting coin, basking in the glow of their ample shine.”
(Lucky, it seems, is a bit of a fair-weather optimist. Not a surprise.)
Nyanti enters the hall leading out of the foyer and into the temple. The rest of us fall in behind her.
We find ourselves walking down a long, art-coated corridor. Enchanted stained-glass lines the walls, lit by an inherent inner glow. The light slides and coalesces across the glass, bringing different parts of it into relief.
The beginning of the corridor starts with pictures of settlers, then the middle of the corridor shows them fighting dragons and monsters. As we reach the end, they depict a growing city: construction of the central castle and the outer walls, buildings and streets popping up throughout…I’ve only seen Jelia from the side, but seeing it from different angles allows me to appreciate its size and flow. Like an arcane version of San Francisco, only with better layout and nicer aesthetics.
After a minute, we reach the end of the hallway. A wrought iron door stands before us, interspersed with colorful pieces of inlaid glass. I’m not sure how you opens because it doesn’t have a knob.
Nyanti closes her eyes and kisses the tips of her index and middle fingers. A rotating sparkle shines from between them. She reaches out with her glimmer-lit fingers and touches the center of the door. When she makes contact with its oval centerpiece—a magenta glass inlay with a beautiful twist of curling blue strands—the shine from her fingers flows into the door, settling into the magenta and imbuing it with a soft, undulant glow.
The latch clicks back. The door creaks inward.
“The spring is in here.”