Our progress is interrupted by what seems like a parade of Iguar. There’s too many to fight, so Ren hustles us into a squat building. Unfortunately, every time we try to leave, more Iguar come bustling along, forcing us to duck back inside. After our fourth attempt, the last rind of sunlight arcs below the skyline.
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 move soon, we’ll be torn apart by Dark Moon Iguar.”
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. Remember: we need to be careful.”
“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.
“Don’t forget to savor these hardships, or you may look back in regret and wish you had appreciated them for what they are.”
“And what are they?”
“Opportunities.” His eyes flick up as Ren signals with a curl of his hand. “Come.” He pats me twice. “Let us see what fate has in store.”
He walks out the door and I follow behind.
For the next thirty minutes we move with quiet urgency, striking a balance between stealth and speed. Strangely enough, it’s incredibly lonely. Despite being surrounded by my badass friends, 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 horn sounds from behind us
“Run!” Ren takes off, his cloak fluttering and billowing. The rest of us follow, cahsed 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 that materializes in his palm. He follows up with more of the same. Some earn a yelp, but most just detonate harmlessly.
Elier slashes the air, projecting purple waves from the edges of his blades. The spells are meant for personal defense—each one disappears after ten or so yards—but when they hit, bones snap and skin unravels.
Ren twists his fingers in hypnotic circles, shooting galvanic blue lightning from the palm of his hand. It jumps from Iguar to Iguar, revealing their bones in an x-ray flash before frying their flesh into charry dust.
I can’t describe what the rest are doing; all I know is they’re throwing some major-league whup-ass.
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 from above, the sun disappears below the horizon.
Gyrax shouts, “The sun is out! The sun is out! ’Ware your flanks!”
I see a sudden gap 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 shelter in the next few seconds…
What the hell? Hard to think with my heart pounding, my lungs throbbing. Don’t know if that was just my imagination or—
That was definitely real.
“Who are you?” I gasp. I suck in 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. Pale light trickles across the street. The effect is immediate—when it touches the Iguar, muscles spring out from their jaws and neck and they grow a couple feet taller in less than a second. Their eyes turn from wide yellow circles into nasty red glints.
Elier continues cutting them down, but nowhere near with the same ease as when they were small. The newly empowered Iguar are starting to nick him, deadlocking his swords with alarming frequency.
Just a matter of time before he makes a mistake.
Lucky is straight up brawling, sitting on an Iguar’s chest and stabbing it manically with a blood-coated dagger. Another one tries to attack him from behind, but Gyrax backhands it with a massive fist, hitting it with such force that its head spins completely around, breaking its neck in a savage snap.
[Jon. Draw me.]
Elier curses as a serrated dagger runs across his arm, ripping through cloth and opening an ugly wound along his tricep. Gyrax leaps forward with his fist cocked back, torqueing his legs as he grabs an Iguar’s head and drives it viciously into the ground.
I reach around to my lower back, flicking the button on the revolver’s pouch cover. I 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 emerald light, washing my surroundings 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.
I pull the trigger. The gun roars.
The emerald ball leaps from my gun, expanding into a giant wave of aquamarine blaze. It hits a line of snarling Iguar, catapulting them backward. Visible energy surges from the impact, forming a violet ring of force that sweeps outward and washes the street in 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 Ailura Qartesi. 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 and raise 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 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 cathedral. The air before him ignites with parabolic brilliance, forming a fiery shield around his front. He tucks 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 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. 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 the doors and join in.
Palpable energy fills the street—like 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 giant, phosphorescent ray.
It hits the cathedral with blinding force, whiting my vision out as the doors swing open with an enormous bang. We scrabble inside and turn back around.
“CLOSE THEM!” Gyrax shouts. “DON’T LET THEM IN!”
He takes the right door, we take the left. For a nerve-rending second, 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 away from their door and rush into the gap. Their eyes glow with ragged light as they cast a bevy of destructive spells. Outside the cathedral, hastily formed magics erupt and explode, drawing screams from the charging Iguar, then 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 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. Howls and wails sound 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 in league 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 a cursed—”
“Watch your tongue,” Nyanti warns. “This is the heart of Jelia, thief. 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 sleep.”
Ren glares at her 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 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 fall sleep, but it’s ain’t happening. 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 of them with a magic half-revolver.
Not gonna lie—SFSU sounds pretty good right about now.
My mind keeps circling 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 just 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 creaky joints.
“Jon?” Gyrax walks over. “Are you well?”
“Yeah…I think so.” I stare up at him with bleary eyes. “Haven’t been this sore in…I don’t think I’ve ever been this sore. I can barely move.”
“You’ve expended an enormous amount of energy. Your body’s trying to recover.”
“You don’t say.” I rotate my arms in forward circles. They each feel fifty pounds heavier. “Man, I am tired…not sleepy, but just totally beat down…”
He nods sympathetically. “Walk slowly—that should help.”
“Okay.” I start shuffling. 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 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. I’m still sore, but it’s not the kind of soreness 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. Or so I’d wager.”
“But not if Nyanti summons that Elemental, right?”
“I am not sure if it will come to our aid.”
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 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 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 your complaining and cowardice.”
“I’ve been accused of much 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 that Lucky is feeling better. I suspect it’s because he’s a fair-weather optimist, but I’ll take fair-weather optimist over cynical asshole any day of the week.
Nyanti enters the hall leading out of the foyer. The rest of us follow. We 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 pieces depict a growing city: construction of buildings, streets, and fixtures. Like 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 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. A rotating sparkle shines from their tips. She reaches out, brushing the center of the door with her glimmer-lit fingers. When she makes contact with 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 and the door creaks inward.