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 yards across. Eight rocks ring the pool, all mounted on six-foot poles. Each rock 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, intermingled with the occasional streak of ocean-blue metal.
“Whoa,” I whisper. “What are those?”
“Orphic polestars,” Gyrax says. “Crafted from anexium and infused with fae-shine—they serves 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 little more than a 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 Jelian mages. But we are short on luxury and long on peril, so we’ll need to make do with what we have, which is me, Erany, Gyrax, and Ren.” She looks at Elier and Lucky. “Unless you want to assist in an interplanar summons.”
They both shake their heads.
“As I thought,” she says. “Calling Arinia will require unwavering focus. During our spell, we will be physically vulnerable.”
Elier dips into a sweeping bow. “Worry not. 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’d prefer to have you at the ready just in case. You and your…” 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 “abilities” are, exactly—they seem to be along the lines of magical storytelling)
“Good. Mages, draw in close. Our first concern will be the nine-angled focus of our 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 little conversation. Nothing witty comes to mind, so I go with a time-tested ice-breaker.
“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 seem ready. My suspicions are confirmed 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 just my imagination, but Nyanti opens her mouth and raises the pitch.
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 different-colored flames, causing me to take an involuntary step back. Nyanti, eyes still closed, nods in apparent satisfaction, then 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 we last palavered.”
Nyanti bows. “Arinia D’Sae. The honor is mine.”
“As it should be.” Arinia’s watery lips curve into a smile. A second later it fades away, replaced by faint puzzlement. “What is happening outside the temple? It sounds dreadful…” Realization blooms in her transparent 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 blasting apart 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 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. 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—she’s morphed into a glossy humanoid figure. She doesn’t have clothes, but the R-rated parts are nowhere to be seen; 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 in a fluid twist of quicksilver 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, right before Arinia smashes through the barred entrance. As she reassumes form, she’s swarmed by a horde of ravenous Iguar. Her impending peril doesn’t seem to concern her. 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.
But 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 hold it in place. The prolonged touch triggers an angry series of frenzied detonations, charring their necks with black powder burns before their heads pop off and roll across the ground.
Gyrax says, “Get ready to run.” He cups his mouth and 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 an orange flux that jets from her midsection and crashes through the Iguar, ripping them apart and burning them down into fine particulate. Some see it coming and shriek in alarm, but it’s way too late—before they can run, the deadly magic sweeps their ranks.
“There!” Gyrax declares, pointing at a break in their decimated lines. “That’s our opening!”
We pour outside in a feverish sprint. As we emerge, Iguar burst from 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 brilliant dot of light inside her torso.
As I run by, 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 his 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 twirling his great axe into guard. Four Iguar are waiting inside; 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.
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 dazzling light.
“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 feel—the air being drawn into her lungs. A brisk rush of cold shivers my skin, tickling the deep-down space inside my ears.
The Iguar unleash head-splitting cries, running straight at her in a frenzied sprint. They’re crawling up her ankles and onto her calves…
She bows forward, craning her neck forward like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Terrible sound pours from her mouth, warping the air into a distorted mess. All throughout, random crackles of rich green lightning spontaneously ignite and set the night ablaze. Nearby Iguar contort and explode, as if they’d been hit by a gun from District 9.
“Shaddock’s breath,” Lucky whispers.
Pressurized death whooshes outward, detonating Iguar by the bloody dozen. Pretty soon, the streets are covered in chunky gore and smoking corpses. The ones within fifty yards of her are instantly transformed into slime and splatter, but everyone beyond that just gets sick, falling onto their sides and vomiting like crazy.
Oh shit. The wave—it’s heading right for us.
I open my mouth to shout a warning, but before I can, the blurry discharge slams into the building and envelops us in haze.
My ears, nose and throat instantly swell, awash in pain and an alarming feeling of total fullness. Adrenalized jitters deluge my body, twisting my innards into a Gordian knot. I instinctively gasp and clutch my belly.
God, it feels like knives are cutting me from the inside out…
Everyone else is in the same predicament—gritting their teeth, desperately trying to recover their bearings. Luckily, the effects begin to fade almost immediately. 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 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 spread out across from each other. Erany and Ren mate their forefingers at the southern apex of the undrawn circle, Nyanti and Gyrax take the opposite side. White chains of runes form around their knuckles, trailing up their wrists as they chant low and steady, carving sizzling grooves into the stone tile 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 once it reaches ankle height.
I grind my teeth as the curves inch toward each other. Their pace is steady and sure, but each second seems like an eternity.
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 the lines have joined, 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 translucent 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. “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 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 shield, it becomes momentarily visible—we’re not just sheltered in a two-dimensional circle, we’re standing in a half-dome made of staticky red lightning. When the tendril slides across our enclosure, a grinding buzz assaults my ears, but as soon as the tendril clears the edge, 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. “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 sneer and echoes 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 along with some 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 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 glaring eye in the heart of the storm.
But then she begins to dim and fade. An imprint of her form remains in the air, frozen in place against the moon-lit city. She turns transparent, the stars shine through her chimeric outline…
And then she’s gone.