As we file in, I try not to gape. The center of the chamber is defined by a luminescent, rainbow-sheened pool—it’s gotta be at least twenty feet across.
Eight rocks ring the edge of the pool. They’re all mounted on six-foot poles, set about twenty feet back from the edge of the water. Each rock is about the size of a strongman atlas stone, rough and craggy with unpolished color and coarse, shiny juts. Their cradles, however, are the exact opposite; they’re made from rich twists of gold and silver, intermingled with the occasional streak of ocean-blue metal.
“Whoa,” I whisper. “What are those?”
“Orphic polestars,” Gyrax says. “Infused with fae-shine and crafted from lodes of anexium ore—it serves as an amplifier for those who know how to tap its potential.”
“And for those who don’t?”
“If they’re lucky, nothing happens. If not…” He shrugs.
“Gotcha.” I nod. “Fall down go boom.”
“If by ‘fall down go boom,’ you mean ‘flay your soul until its little more than a pale shadow of its former self,’ then yes.”
“Lend me an ear,” Nyanti calls. We stop gawking and bring it in. “Typically, summoning a Nelithy Elemental involves a coterie of seasoned mages. But we are short on luxury and long on peril, so we’ll need to make do with what we have. And what we have is me, Erany, Gyrax, and Ren.” She looks at Elier and Lucky. “Unless you want to assist in an interplanar summons.”
They glance at each other, then shake their heads in tandem.
“That’s what I thought,” she says. “Calling Arinia will require unwavering focus. While we’re casting, we will be physically vulnerable.”
Elier dips into a sweeping bow. “I shall ensure your safety, milady.”
Nyanti cracks a smile. “My thanks, Duelist.”
I look back and forth between them, eyebrows raised. Am I missing something? Are these two flirting?
Nyanti clears her throat. “Jon, be ready to help. I don’t think we’ll need you, but I’d prefer to have you just in case. You and your…” for a second, she struggles to find the words, then says, “abilities might come in handy.”
“Yep.” I nod. “No problem.” (Little bit confused as to what my “ability” is, exactly—seems to be something along the lines of magic storytelling, or maybe imagination-based spellcasting)
“Good. Mages, draw in close. Our first concern will be the nine-angled points of our Aglecktian Foci…”
The casters huddle together, leaving me, Elier, and Lucky standing off to the side. After a couple minutes of uncomfortable silence, I try to strike up a conversation. Nothing witty comes to mind, so I go with a time-tested: “So…how ’bout them Knicks?”
Lucky and Elier give me a puzzled look, then shake their heads in mild bafflement. Just Jon being Jon. What a derp.
Judging by their body language, the others are almost ready. My suspicions are confirmed a minute later when they surround the water in an equidistant circle.
“As we discussed,” Nyanti says. She closes her eyes.
For a long moment, nothing happens.
Then I hear a low-voiced hum. At first, I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but then it rises in volume. I’m not sure who it’s coming from, then Nyanti opens her mouth and raises the pitch. The others join in. Soft to start with, then increasingly louder. Gyrax downshifts, underscoring the melody with a resonant growl—the canine version of a Himalayan monk.
One by one, orphic polestars erupt with different-colored flames.
Me, Lucky, and Elier take an involuntary step back. Nyanti, eyes still closed, nods to herself in apparent satisfaction, then drops her voice a couple octaves. The polestars’ fire dims and fades, leaving a pulsing glow in their craggy interiors.
The pool starts to bubble. Steam rises off it in an angry hiss, filling the chamber with hot vapor. Vaporous curls appear in the mist, then coalesce into a woman’s face. Distinctly African, with proud cheekbones and an attractive haughtiness in the cast of her eye.
“Nyanti. It has been a day and an age since our last palaver.”
Nyanti bows. “Arinia D’Sae. The honor is mine.”
“As it should be.” Arinia’s watery lips curve into a smile. It fades away, replaced by faint puzzlement. “What is happening outside? It sounds dreadful…” Realization blooms in her eyes. “Iguars.”
“Aye, milady. It’s why we summoned you. And perhaps your husband, if he is willing to help.”
“My heartmate is busy—as much as he would enjoy killing goblins, it cannot be. What do you offer?”
“As Designate Guardian of the Witchcraft City, I offer you a draught of these enchanted waters.”
Lust and avarice twist Arinia’s features, but she regains her composure just as quickly. “More than fair, Witch. I accept.”
Nyanti traces a circle with her index and middle fingers, marking the air with an orange corona. The magical halo sizzles and hisses, leaking ember-bright sparks into the water. Then—slowly, deliberately—she inscribes a light-woven rune in the center of the circle: a red letter wreathed in velvet black flames.
“As High Coven Witch, I scriven this warrant to seal our bargain.”
Arinia’s eyes flare blinding white. “Your warrant is just. In return, I pledge aid and combat.”
“So it is. So shall it be.”
The circle and rune break apart, leaving a scatter of glittering flickers. Arinia’s watery face grows a torso and limbs, then morphs into a glossy silver humanoid figure. She doesn’t have clothes, but the R-rated parts aren’t visible—she’s a naked Barbie doll, only her body is made of mother-of-pearl shine.
“For the next five minutes, I am yours to command.” The iridescent figure walks out of the spring.
“Very well,” Nyanti says. “Clear us a path.”
Arinia dissolves into flowing mercury, streaming out of the chamber as fluid light. It’s hypnotic to watch: curves and flourishes of airborne silver, twisting and winding toward the—
“Jon!” Ren is running, looking back at me over his shoulder. “Come on!”
I catch up a second later, just as Arinia surges into the foyer, crashing through the double-door entrance and reassuming form outside the temple. Almost immediately, she’s swarmed by hordes of ravenous Iguar.
The Elemental’s fighting style is relaxed and indifferent—lazy backhands, sometimes even just a flick of her fingers. Whenever she hits, a gunpowder bang erupts from the contact, lighting the air with a brief, violent flash.
As casual as she is, the resultant damage is anything but. Iguars fly dozens of yards through the air, portions of their body burnt to ash and crumbly tissue. Occasionally, she’ll grab one by the throat and hold it in place. The prolonged touch sets off a series of angry detonations, charring their necks with black powder burns before their heads pop off and roll across the ground.
Gyrax says, “Get ready to run.” Then yells, “Arinia! We need a path, dammit!”
She continues wading through the Orc-men, blasting them apart with firecracker pops. “I can amplify my presence, but it will halve my time as a physical being. Your choice, mortal.”
Gyrax looks at Nyanti, who gives a noncommittal shrug. What do we have to lose?
“Do it!” Gyrax shouts.
The shine in Arinia builds to a peak, cohering into a rippling orange wave that jets from her midsection and crashes through the Iguar; the eddies of energy rip them apart and burn them to embers. Some see it coming and shriek in alarm, but it’s way too late—before they can run, the deadly magic sweeps through their ranks.
“There!” Gyrax declares, pointing at a glaring break in their decimated ranks. “That’s our opening!”
We pour outside in a frenzied sprint. Right as we emerge, Iguar burst from alleys and windows, doorways and corners. Thankfully, Arinia has a few more tricks up her extradimensional sleeve. A halo of light winks into existence around her body, then concentrates into a marble of brilliance inside her torso. As I pass her, she lowers to a knee and a ringing note sounds from her mouth. I chance a look back over my shoulder—in the span of a second, she grows fifty feet tall in less than a second.
“TAKE SHELTER, MORTALS!” Arinia booms. “THIS WILL BE NOTHING SHORT OF CATASTROPHIC!”
“In there!” Ren points at a nearby townhome. “GO!”
Gyrax drops to all fours and gallops ahead of us. When he’s ten yards away he leaps into the air and rams the door with massive shoulder. It breaks off its hinges and flies inward.
He follows right behind it, collapsing into a roll and coming up on a knee while swinging his great axe into guard. Four Iguar are waiting inside the house; he decapitates two with a single swing. Ren and Erany rush through the doorway and kill the others.
After we pile inside I turn around. Fifty-foot Arinia opens wide, blasting white-cored energy out from her mouth. As it rips ragged trenches into the street, I see handfuls of Iguar caught in its blast, briefly silhouetted in blinding light. Their corpses are unrecognizable; they’ve all been reduced to charred, smoking husks.
“LAST ONE!” She bellows. “GET READY TO RUN!”
She rears back and inhales mightily, backlit by the glare of the cloudless moon. I can hear—no I can feel—the air being drawn into her lungs: a rush of cold against my skin and a tickling sensation deep in my ears. The Iguar unleash ear-splitting cries, running straight at her in a frenzied sprint. They’re all over her, crawling up her ankles and onto her calves…
She bows forward, craning her neck like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Terrible sound pours from her mouth, warping the air into a distorted mess. All throughout, random crackles of rich blue lightning spontaneously ignite and set the night ablaze. Nearby Iguar contort and explode, as if they’d been hit by one of the guns from District 9.
“Shaddock’s breath,” Lucky whispers.
Pressurized death whooshes outward, detonating Iguar by the dozen. Pretty soon, the streets are covered in chunky gore and crispy corpses. The ones within fifty yards of her are instantly transformed into a bloody, unrecognizable splatter, but everyone beyond that just gets sick, vomiting like crazy or falling onto their sides and curling into a ball.
Oh shit. It’s heading right for us.
I open my mouth to shout a warning. Before I can do so, the blurry wave slams into the building and envelops us in haze.
My ears, nose and throat instantly swell. Adrenalized jitters deluge my body, threatening to loosen my bowls and twist my innards into a Gordian knot. I instinctively gasp and clutch my belly. God, it feels like knives are cutting my stomach from the inside out…
Everyone else is in the same predicament—gritting their teeth, trying desperately to recover from the arcane feedback. Luckily, the effects begin to fade almost immediately. The lump in my throat and chest dwindle and subside—the swelling goes down in my sinuses and lymph nodes.
Whew. For a second there, I thought I was going to barf out an organ.
“MORTALS!” Arinia swings toward us, eyes glaring with a cruel white gleam. “THIS NEXT SPELL WILL BE MY LAST! IF YOU WOULD KEEP YOUR GUTS IN YOUR FRAGILE BODIES, I SUGGEST YOU CAST A CIRCLE OF PROTECTION!”
“Come on,” Gyrax manages. His eyes are leaking yellow-green gunk, the fur on his cheeks is matted with tears. “Erany and Ren, build the circle’s southern half. Nyanti, help me build it from the north.”
The others agree with a scatter of “ayes” and kneel down, chanting in a low murmur and tracing the edges of the circle with their enchanted hands. Erany and Ren mate their forefingers at the southern apex of the undrawn circle, while Nyanti and Gyrax take the opposite side. White chains of runes form around their fingers and knuckles, trailing up their wrists and elbows. Everyone chants low and steady, running their charged fingers in their respective directions and carving sizzling grooves into the stone tile floor.
“TEN SECONDS, MORTALS!”
Four incomplete curves shine from the deck—they’re about eighty percent done. Transparent script floats up from the lines, disappearing once it reaches our ankle height.
I grind my teeth as the lines inch toward each other. Lucky and Elier exchange uncertain glances.
The lines meet, completing the circle. A reassuring flash runs along the circumference—the arcane version of a green light or a double thumbs-up. At the four points where they’ve joined their lines, a quartet of runes—a little like Mandarin, a lot like Gothic—materialize a foot above the floor, spinning twice before they brighten and vanish.
I tense up, waiting for Arinia to call ONE, but it doesn’t come. Instead, she straightens up and draws a giant breath, kindling a sear-bright shine in her star-shimmer core. A high-pitched keen builds around us, pressurizing my ears and the backs of my eyes. Whatever she’s planning, it’s gonna be pretty damn—
And then she howls into the full-moon sky, burning with terrible, unfiltered light. Ephemeral energy whiplashes off her, slashing the Iguar with long tendrils of weaponized brilliance. Waves of Orc-men erupt with renewed fury, filling gutters and drains with bones and slime. The carnage slops onto nearby windows, frosting them over with tissue and flesh.
Lucky is unfazed. “That’s right!” He bares his teeth in a ferocious grin. “Rip the skin off their cursed bones! Ha! This almost makes my injury worth it!”
Then one of the translucent tendrils drifts toward us, sending a flush of panic racing through me. “Oh shit!” I dive to the floor and curl into a ball.
As the appendage sweeps across our protective structure, it becomes momentarily visible—we’re not just sheltered in a two-dimensional circle, we’re inside a half-dome made of staticky red lightning. When the tendril slides across the forcefield, a grinding buzz sounds through the room. But as soon as the tendril whips past the circle, the red lightning half-dome becomes invisible once again.
“Very courageous,” Erany remarks dryly. “You may be the Traveler, but you may also need a change of pants.”
“Easy, Jon.” Gyrax lends me a hand and hauls me up. “So long as we remain within the circle, we need not fear Arinia’s magic.”
“Oh yeah, for sure,” I say bluffly, trying to hide the tremor in my voice. “I knew that. I was just testing my uh…you know—it was just a test. Yeah.”
The others chuckle. Erany, however, laughs out loud. She screws up her face into an idiotic expression, repeating my words in a deep, oafish voice: “It was just a test. Yeah.”
I blush and grin, but I’ll count this as a win. Got some smiles, and also managed to get some good-natured teasing out of Erany. (maybe she’s flirting? Fingers crossed. Jesus, Jon—you’re in a life-or-death situation here. Stop thinking about your half-Elf crush.)
Arinia’s tendrils whip into a circular storm—a fantastic vortex made of light and wind. I can barely see the remaining Iguar; they’re dim little shadows, exploding and bursting in rapid fire time. Hell, I can barely see Arinia—she’s the dazzling eye in the heart of the storm, an awesome nexus of power and death.
But then she begins to dim and fade. A vague imprint of her face and body remains in the air, frozen in place against the moon-lit city. She turns transparent, allowing the stars to shine through her faerie-light contours…
And then she’s gone.