The chamber is built around a rainbow-sheened pool. About twenty yards in diameter, if I had to guess. Eight rocks ring the water, all mounted on six-foot poles. Each boulder is roughly as big as a circus strongman stone, rough and craggy with unpolished color and coarse, shiny juts. Their cradles, however, are the exact opposite: rich twists of gold and silver, mingled with streaks of ocean-blue metal.
“Whoa,” I whisper. “What are those?”
“Orphic polestars,” Gyrax says. “Cut from anexium and infused with fae-shine. They serve as an amplifier for those who know how to tap their 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 it’s a mere shadow of its former self,’ then yes.”
“Could’ve just stuck with ‘fall down go boom.’ ”
“Lend me an ear,” Nyanti calls.
We stop dawdling 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 that would be me, Erany, Gyrax, and Ren.” She looks at Elier and Lucky. “Unless you want to participate in an interplanar summons.”
They both shake their heads.
“As I thought,” she says. “Calling Arinia will require unwavering focus. During the summons, we will be physically vulnerable. It is unlikely that anything will breach the walls, but it is best to be prepared just in case.”
Elier dips into a sweeping bow. “I shall ensure your safety, milady.”
Nyanti cracks a smile. “My thanks, Duelist.”
My gaze bounces between Nyanti and Elier. Am I missing something, or are these two flirting?
Nyanti clears her throat. “Jon, be ready to help. I doubt we’ll need you, but I want you to be ready just in case. You and your…” She struggles to find the words, then: “abilities might come in handy.”
“Yep.” I give her a double thumbs-up. “No problem.” (Little confused as to what my “abilities” are, exactly—they seem to be along the lines of magical storytelling)
“Good. Mages, draw in close. Our first design will be the nine-angled star of an Aglecktian Dial…”
The casters huddle together, leaving me, Elier, and Lucky standing off to the side. After a couple minutes of uncomfortable silence, I decide to strike up a conversation—my idiot teenage brain goes with a time-tested icebreaker.
“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.
The others seem ready—they break from their huddle and surround the water in an equidistant circle.
“As we discussed.” Nyanti 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 just my imagination, but my doubt falls away when Nyanti raises the pitch. A second later, the others join in. Gyrax downshifts, underscoring the melody with a resonant growl—a canine version of a Himalayan monk.
One by one, the polestars erupt with colored flames. Nyanti, eyes still closed, drops her voice a couple of octaves. The polestars’ fire dims and fades, leaving a pulsing glow in their craggy hearts.
The pool starts to roil and bubble. Steam rises off it, filling the chamber with hot, fragrant vapor. Gaseous curls appear in the mist, coalescing into a woman’s face—distinctly African, with proud cheekbones and an attractive haughtiness in the cast of her eye.
“Nyanti Eldara. It has been a day and an age since last we spoke.”
Nyanti bows. “Arinia D’Sae. I am honored by your presence.”
“As you should be.” Arinia’s foggy lips curve into a smile. A second later it fades away, replaced by faint puzzlement. “What is happening outside this temple? It sounds dreadful…” Realization blooms in her transparent eyes. “Iguar. Hordes of them.”
“Aye, milady. It is why we summoned you. And perhaps your husband, if he is willing to help.”
“My heartmate is occupied—as much as he would love to blast apart goblins, it cannot be. What do you offer?”
“I have temporary agency of Elerica Nye, and so I offer you your fill of these enchanted waters.”
Doubt and skepticism twist Arinia’s features. “That won’t buy much—five minutes of aid, no more.”
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 pool. Then—slowly, deliberately—she inscribes a light-woven rune in the center of the circle: a blood-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. I pledge aid and combat in return for your tribute.”
“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, morphing into a glossy humanoid. She isn’t wearing clothes, but the R-rated parts are nowhere to be seen. It’s like standing in front of a naked Barbie doll (life size), 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 from the chamber in a fluid twist of quicksilver light. It’s hypnotic to watch: curving flourishes of airborne shine, twisting and winding toward the—
“Jon!” Ren is already running, looking back at me over his shoulder. “Come on!”
I catch up a moment later, right before Arinia smashes through the doors. She reassumes form, only to be swarmed by ravenous Iguar. The Elemental’s strikes are 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. Iguar fly dozens of yards back, portions of their body burnt to ash. Occasionally, she’ll grab one by the throat and lift it up off its feet. The prolonged touch triggers an angry series of detonations, charring their necks before their heads pop off and roll across the ground.
Gyrax says, “Get ready to run.” Then he cups his mouth and yells, “Arinia! We need a path, dammit!”
She continues wading through the legions of Orc-men, blasting them apart with firecracker pops. “Their numbers are vast—I do not think I can kill them all. I will kill them faster if I amplify my presence, but it will halve my time as a physical being. Your choice, mortals.”
Gyrax looks at Nyanti, who responds with a noncommittal shrug. What do we have to lose?
“Do it!” Gyrax shouts.
The glow in Arinia builds to a peak, cohering into an orange flux that jets from her midsection. It crashes through the Iguar with jaw-dropping force, burning them down into fine particulate. Some see it coming and shriek in alarm, but for the majority, it’s way too late. Before they can run, the deadly magic sweeps their ranks.
“There!” Gyrax points at a break in their decimated lines. “That’s our opening!”
We pour outside in a feverish sprint. As we emerge, Iguar burst from the alleys and windows, doorways and corners. Thankfully, Arinia has another trick up her extradimensional sleeve.
A halo of light winks into existence around her body, then shrinks into a dot inside her torso. I run by, right as a ringing note sounds from her mouth. I chance a look back—in the span of a second, she grows a hundred feet tall, dwarfing the city with her luminous form.
“TAKE SHELTER, MORTALS!” Arinia booms. “THIS WILL BE NOTHING SHORT OF CATASTROPHIC!”
“Inside!” Ren sprints toward the nearest townhome. “GO!”
Gyrax drops to all fours and gallops ahead of us, surging into a powerful leap and ramming the door with his shoulder. It breaks off its hinges and flies inward. He follows behind, collapsing into a roll, then coming up on a knee while twirling his great axe into guard.
Four Iguar are waiting within. He decapitates two with a single swing; Ren and Erany rush through the doorway and kill the others. The rest of us pile in behind them.
Hundred-foot Arinia opens wide, blasting white-cored energy out from her mouth, ripping ragged trenches into the street. Jesus Christ, she’s killing thousands of them.
“LAST ONE!” Arinia bellows. “GET READY TO RUN!”
She rears back and inhales mightily, backlit by the glare of the cloudless moon. I can hear—no feel—the air being drawn into her lungs. A rush of cold shivers my skin, tickling the deep-down space between my ears. The Iguar unleash head-splitting cries, crawling up her ankles and onto her calves…
Then she bows forward, craning her neck like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Terrible sound pours from her mouth, warping the air into a distorted mess. All around us, random crackles of rich green lightning spontaneously appear and fill the air with blazing energy. The Iguar around her contort and explode, as if they’d been shot by a weapon from District 9.
“Shaddock’s breath,” Lucky whispers.
Pressurized death swoops outward, detonating Iguar by the dozen. The ones closer to Arinia are instantly transformed into slime and splatter, but everyone beyond that just gets sick, falling onto their sides and vomiting forcefully. This is incredible. I never thought I’d ever see anything like—
Oh shit—the wave. It’s heading right for us.
I open my mouth to shout a warning, but before I can, the discharge envelops us in blurry haze. My ears, nose and throat instantly swell. I’m awash in pain and a feeling of absolute, total fullness. God, it feels like everything inside me is about to rupture…
Everyone else is in the same predicament—gritting their teeth, desperately trying to regain their bearings. Luckily, the effects begin to quickly fade; the lump in my throat shrinks and dwindles, 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 pivots toward us, her eyes glaring with a cruel white gleam. “THIS NEXT SPELL WILL BE MY LAST! IF YOU WOULD KEEP YOUR GUTS INSIDE YOUR 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 spread out accordingly. Erany and Ren mate their forefingers at the southern apex of the undrawn circle, Nyanti and Gyrax take the opposite side. Chains of runes form over their knuckles, twining up their wrists as they carve sizzling grooves into the floor.
“TEN SECONDS, MORTALS!”
Four separate curves shine from the deck—they’re about eighty percent done. Transparent script floats up from the lines, disappearing at roughly ankle height.
I grind my teeth as the curves inch toward each other. Each second seems like an eternity.
The lines meet, completing the circle. A reassuring flash runs along the circumference—the arcane version of a double thumbs-up. At the four points where the lines have joined, a quartet of characters—a little like Mandarin and 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 sear-bright shine in her transparent 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 tails of weaponized brilliance. Waves of Orc-men split and erupt, filling gutters and drains with bones and sludge. The carnage slops onto nearby windows, frosting them over with tissue and flesh.
Lucky isn’t fazed; he’s downright joyous. “That’s right!” He bares his teeth in a ferocious grin. “Rip the skin from their cursed bones! Ha! This almost makes my injury worth it!”
A tendril 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 our protective shield, it becomes momentarily visible—we’re not just sheltered in a two-dimensional circle, we’re contained in a half-dome made of staticky red lightning. When the tendril slides across its curvature, a grinding buzz assaults my ears, but as soon as the tendril clears the edge, the red lightning half-dome goes back to being invisible.
“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. “We need not fear Arinia’s magic.”
“Oh yeah, for sure,” I reply 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 and echoes my words in a deep, oafish tone: “It was just a test. Yeah.”
I blush and grin, but I’ll count this as a win. Got some smiles and good-natured teasing out of a beautiful Princess. (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 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 glaring eye in the heart of the storm.
But then she begins to dim and fade. An imprint of her body remains in the air, frozen in place against the moon-lit city. She turns transparent, the stars shining through her chimeric outline…
And then she’s gone.