A pack of Iguar round the bend, forcing us to hustle into a squat building. Every time we try to leave, another mob comes bustling along. After our seventh try, the sun sinks down onto the horizon, painting its edge with a red-orange glow.
My teeth start grinding; it takes a conscious effort to make them stop. “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 will grow three times stronger and tear us apart.”
My cheeks flush red. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to—”
“Easy, Jon.” Gyrax lays a hand on my shoulder. “We must choose 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 face widens into a grin.
“What?” I can’t believe he’s actually smiling.
“Savor your hardships or you may dwell in regret, wishing you had seen them for what they were.”
“And what are they?”
“Opportunities.” His eyes flick up—Ren signals with a bent-armed wave. “Come.” He pats my shoulder. “Let us see what fate has in store.”
For the next half hour we move with quiet urgency, striking a balance between stealth and speed. Strangely enough, it feels super lonely. Despite being surrounded by my adventurer 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 bugle sounds from behind us.
“Run!” Ren pounds forward, cloak flaring as he picks up speed. The rest of us follow, chased by horns and the rattle of armor. A second later, the streets explode with hundreds of Iguar. Their presence causes a disturbance in the atmosphere—I can actually feel them closing in.
“Start casting!” Gyrax bellows.
Lucky starts chucking glowing red ovals. Some earn a yelp, but most blow apart and do little to no damage. Elier’s more versed in combat magic; he carves rune-laden flourishes into the air, projecting purple-black waves from his cavalry sabers. The spells are meant for personal defense—each one vanishes after ten or twenty yards—but when they hit, bones snap and skin unravels. At the front of our line, Ren twists his fingers in hypnotic circles, shooting galvanic blue lightning from their half-gloved tips. The electric discharge jumps between Iguar, revealing their bones in an x-ray flash before turning them into charry dust.
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 knife. I could throw 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! ’Ware 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 rope with weighted skulls on either end—and wrapped his feet in a tight-bound coil. He’s sitting on his butt, sawing at the line with a double-edged dagger, but it’s strong and thick; he’s not getting through. To make things worse, five Iguar are running straight at him.
Gyrax crashes into them as I catch up to Lucky. I saw frantically away at the Iguar bola, putting my weight into the blade. The rope holds taut…then snaps apart with an angry twang.
“Come on!” I pull Lucky up and stumble-run forward, holding the thief by the crook of his arm. He skips, lurches, then finds his footing and resumes 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?” Suck in a dusty lungful and 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 dilate into ropy, cabled masses. Their eyes change as well—from wide yellow circles into nasty red glints.
Elier continues cutting them down, but the newly empowered Iguar are giving him trouble, deadlocking his swords with alarming frequency. Only a matter of time before he makes a mistake.
Lucky is straight-up brawling, sitting on an Iguar’s chest while stabbing it manically with his blood-coated cutlass. A random Iguar tries to rush him but Gyrax kills it with a ferocious backhand, hitting it so damn hard that its head spins completely around; neck breaking with a savage snap.
[Jon. Draw me.]
Elier curses as a serrated dagger runs down his thigh, ripping cloth and opening an ugly wound along his leg. Gyrax leaps forward with his paw cocked back, torquing his legs as he grabs one by the 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, a ball of emerald light leaps into being, washing the streets in swamp-green brilliance. Several Iguar turn toward me, spitting and hissing. I can’t help but tremble—it’s one thing to fight something half your size, entirely another to face a six-foot beast-man.
I pull the trigger. The gun roars.
Green magic leaps from Ailura and expands into a wave of aquamarine blaze. It hits a line of snarling Iguar, catapulting them back with the force of a bomb. Visible energy surges out from the impact, coalescing into a violet ring that sweeps the street. A bunch of us—me included—are knocked off our feet and onto our butts.
An eerie calm abruptly takes hold. Man, it’d be nice to just lay here and—
“RUN!” Nyanti screams.
We dart down the road as staggered Iguar falter after us. I’m still holding a sentient revolver. Maybe if I ask it for help…
“Keep going!” Ren shouts. “It’s just around the corner!”
The street opens into a spacious square, constructed around an imposing, cathedral-esque 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 its unchambered top stays cold and dark. I can still feel Ailura in the back of my mind, but only 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 glimmer, then rockets forward, levitating a couple feet up as he shoots toward the sylvan cathedral. At the same time, 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, then—
—rebounds off it.
He tumbles across the street and gets to a knee, smacking the cobbles in sheer frustration. “Gods! They’re warded!”
“All together!” Gyrax yells. “Link auras!”
Nyanti and Erany throw a couple more spells, then face the doors and begin chanting in tandem. Glowing runes circle their hands, ringing their features in purple-green shine. Gyrax and Ren blast a few more Iguar, then face the doors and join in the chant.
Palpable energy fills the street—the atmospheric charge of a late-summer storm, only a thousand times stronger. It manifests as a series of multicolored lightning bolts that set patches of air ablaze with flame. After a hanging moment of whipcrack tension, the 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 as fast as we can.
“CLOSE THE DOORS!” Gyrax shouts. “KEEP THEM OUTSIDE!”
He takes the right, we take the left. For a nerve-rending second, both doors refuse to move…then grudgingly relent with a deep-rooted groan.
Gyrax orders, “Ren! Nyanti! Stand in the middle! Lay them low if they try to rush through!”
Ren and Nyanti break from the door and fill the gap, eyes glowing as they cast a bevy of spells. Hasty magic erupts and explodes, evoking screams from the charging Iguar, then the doors slam shut with a decisive BOOM.
Gyrax unslings his axe, whirling sideways toward the knotted tie-down holding up the twenty-foot deadbolt. He slices through the rope—
—causing the stone deadbolt to drop into a pair of braces jutting from the door, barring it shut with deafening finality. Howls and wails sound from outside.
“How long will it hold?” I ask nervously.
Nyanti nods at the deadbolt, now glowing feather white. “As stout an enchantment as any I’ve seen. Unless they’re friends with a SyCajister mage, we’re safe in here 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 Elerica. Show some respect.”
Lucky turns his head and waves dismissively. Bah.
Gyrax looks around at the beautifully sculpted, marble-coated chamber. “Where is 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 her strength.”
“We cannot 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 benches. Gyrax crosses his arms and lets his head droop down. Erany curls on her side and starts to snore. Ren and Lucky lean forward, elbows on their thighs, and stare furiously at the ground.
I close my eyes and try to sleep, but it ain’t gonna happen. I just escaped an army of monsters, several of which I killed in hand-to-hand combat. Oh, and let’s not forget: I vaporized a bunch with a magic half-revolver. SFSU sounds pretty damn 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 ripples through my body, rousing stiff muscles and dry joints.
“Jon?” Gyrax walks over. “Are you well?”
“Yeah. I think so.” I meet his gaze with 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 a great deal of energy.”
“You don’t say.” I rotate my arms in forward circles, wincing reflexively. Each one feels fifty pounds heavier. “Man, I am tired…not sleepy, but just totally beat down…”
He gives a sympathetic nod. “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 a groan from my chapped lips.
After a few laps around the foyer, my legs start to loosen. Awesome—for a minute there, I was afraid I was going to turn into Abe Simpson, complete with a limp and quavery voice. I’m still sore, but not the kind of sore where I 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. “You will have to do both soon enough.”
“But not if Nyanti summons the Elemental, right?”
“I am 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 provide assistance. Everyone else will stand guard.”
“I thought the Iguar couldn’t get in here.”
“Summoning an Elemental is no easy feat. The arcane flux could momentarily cause the wards to fail, in which case—”
“We go back to fighting a bunch of face-eating monsters. Gotcha.”
Lucky pipes up: “Oy! When are you mages going to summon Arinia?”
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 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. “Much better.”
Nice to see he’s doing well. I suspect it’s because he’s a fair-weather optimist, but I prefer fair-weather optimism over dickhead cynicism.
We follow Nyanti 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 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 off monsters. As we reach the end, the images depict a growing city: gradual construction of buildings, streets, and fixtures. A magical version of San Francisco, only with better layout and nicer aesthetics.
At the end of the hall is a wrought iron door, 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. When she touches the door’s oval centerpiece—a magenta inlay with a beautiful twist of curling blue strands—the shine from her fingers flows into the glass, imbuing its designs with a soft, undulant luster.
The latch clicks back. The door creaks inward.
Arinia D’Sae, here we come.