As we file in, I try not to gape.
There’s a luminescent, rainbow-sheened pool in the center of the chamber—it’s gotta be at least twenty feet across. The water is ringed by eight rocks, all mounted on six-foot poles, set about twenty feet back from the edge. They’re each 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. “They’re crafted from 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.” Gyrax shrugs. “If not…” He shakes his head.
“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, prompting us to stop looking around 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 try and navigate an interplanar summons.”
They both give each other a cursory glance, then look at Nyanti and shake their heads.
“That’s what I thought,” she says. “Calling Arinia will require unwavering focus. While we’re casting, we’ll all be vulnerable to outside attack.”
Elier dips into a sweeping bow. “We shall ensure your safety, milady.”
Nyanti cracks a smile. “My thanks, Duelist.”
I look between them, eyebrows raised. Am I missing something, or are these two flirting?
Nyanti clears her throat. “Jon, be ready to assist. 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 “abilities” are—seems like something along the lines of magic storytelling, or maybe imagination-based spellcasting)
“Good. Mages, draw in close. I’m going to detail the finer points of our Aglecktian focus…”
The casters huddle together, leaving me, Elier, and Lucky standing off to the side. After a couple minutes, I try to spark some conversation. I can’t think of anything witty, so I go with a time-tested silence-breaker:
“So…how ’bout them Knicks?”
Lucky and Elier give me a puzzled look, then shake their heads in mild bafflement. Pay no mind—just Jon being Jon. What a derp.
The others are almost ready, judging by their body language. My suspicions are confirmed when they spread out along the pool, surrounding the water in an equidistant circle.
“As we discussed,” Nyanti calls. 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 gradually increases in volume. 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—like the canine version of a Himalayan monk.
One by one, the orphic polestars erupt into 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 respond in kind—their 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. The mist coalesces 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 we last spoke.”
Nyanti bows. “Arinia D’Sae. The honor is mine.”
“As it should be.” Arinia’s watery lips curve into a smile, then curiosity arises in its place. “What is 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 Iguar, it cannot be. What do you offer?”
“As a 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 your offer.”
Nyanti traces a circle to her front, marking the air with an orange corona. It sizzles and hisses, leaking ember-bright sparks into the waters. Then—slowly, deliberately—she writes a light-woven rune in the center of the circle: a lurid 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 promise aid and combat as restitution.”
“So it is. So shall it be.”
The circle and rune break apart into glittering sparkles. Arinia’s watery face grows a body and limbs, then morphs into a lustrous silvery humanoid figure. She doesn’t have clothes, but the R-rated parts aren’t visible—like she’s a naked Barbie doll, only 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 and streams out of the chamber. 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!”
Right as I catch up, Arinia surges into the foyer, crashes through the double-door entrance, and reassumes form outside the temple.
Arinia’s fighting style is casual and indifferent—lazy backhands, sometimes even a flick of her fingers. Whenever she connects, a gunpowder bang sounds from the contact, lighting the air with a brief, violent flash. Sometimes she’ll throw a lazy kick, but mostly she swats the Iguar with her explosive flesh, sending them flying dozens of feet. A couple of times, I see her grab one by the throat. The prolonged touch sets off a series of angry detonations, charring an Iguar’s neck with black powder burns before its head pops off and rolls across the ground.
Gyrax says, “Get ready to support her.” Then he 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. Your choice, mortal.”
Gyrax looks at Nyanti. Nyanti shrugs.
“Do it!” Gyrax yells.
The shine in Arinia builds to a peak, then a rippling orange wave jets out from her midsection, charring dozens of Iguar to a blackened crisp. Some see it coming and shriek in alarm, but it’s too late—before they can run, the deadly magic sweeps through their ranks.
“There!” Gyrax shouts excitedly. “That’s our opening!”
We pour outside in a frenzied sprint. Right as we emerge, Iguar burst out 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 lustrous torso. As I run past her, she lowers to a knee and a ringing note sounds from her mouth. I chance a look back, just in time to see her grow fifty feet tall in less than a second.
“TAKE SHELTER, MORTALS!” Arinia booms. “THIS WILL BE CATASTROPHIC!”
“In there!” Ren points at a nearby townhome. “GO!”
Gyrax gallops ahead of us, picking up speed. When he’s ten yards from the door he leaps into the air and rams it with his shoulder. It flies off its hinges and he collapses into a roll, coming up on a knee while swinging his great axe into guard. Four Iguar immediately attack; he blocks two and decapitates them both. Ren and Erany rush inside and kill the other two.
After I make it inside I turn around. Fifty-foot Arinia opens wide, blasting white-cored energy out of her mouth. As it rips ragged trenches into the street, I see Iguar silhouettes caught in its blast before they collapse to the ground as charred 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 the air being drawn into her lungs. Hell, I can feel it—a slight rush of cold and a tickling sensation deep in my ears. The Iguar unleash ear-splitting cries, running at Arinia 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 funhouse mess, sparking random crackles of rich blue lightning. All around her, Iguar explode. It reminds of those guns from District 9, the ones that blasted their targets into a gooey mess.
“Shaddock’s breath,” Lucky whispers.
The pressurized death flickers outward, detonating Iguar a dozen at a time. Pretty soon, the streets are covered in chunky gore and crispy corpses. The ones within fifty yards of her are instant splatter, but everyone beyond that just gets sick, vomiting like crazy or collapsing on to their sides and curling into a ball.
Oh shit—her spell. It’s heading right for us.
I open my mouth to shout a warning, but before I can speak, the blurry wave slams into the building and envelops us in energy. The inside of my ears, nose and throat instantly swell. Adrenalized jitters deluge my body, threatening to loosen my bowls and twist my guts. I gasp and moan, clutching my belly and doubling over.
God, it feels like knives are cutting through my stomach…
From what I can see in the edges of my sweat-blurred peripherals, everyone else is in the same predicament—gritting their teeth, trying desperately to recover from the unintended feedback of Arinia’s spell.
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, it felt like my organs and tissues were going to pop.
“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 southern half of the circle. 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 edge of the circle with their magically charged hands. White chains of runes form around their fingers and knuckles, all the way up to their wrists and elbows. Erany and Ren mate their forefingers at the southern apex of the undrawn circle, Nyanti and Gyrax do the same on the opposite side. Everyone chants low and steady, running their charged fingers in opposite directions and carving sizzling grooves into the stone tile floor.
“TEN SECONDS, MORTALS!”
Four incomplete curves glow from the floor—they’re about eighty percent done. Transparent runes float up from the lines, disappearing as they reach 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. At the four points where they join together, four white 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 the light of an exploding sun. Ephemeral energy whiplashes off her, slashing the Iguar with long tendrils of weaponized brilliance. Massive waves of armored Orc-men erupt in the streets, filling gutters and drains with their bones and slime. The carnage lands heavy on nearby windows, frosting them over with tissue and flesh. Arinia’s magic is beautiful, no doubt, but the horrifying result is undeniably vile.
Lucky is unfazed. “That’s right!” He bares his teeth in a ferocious snarl. “Rip the skin off their cursed bones! Ha! This almost makes my injury worth it!”
My stomach turns at his unabashed glee, but the others don’t seem to share my disgust. They watch intently, eyes ticking from side to side. When one of the translucent tendrils sweeps toward us, panic races through my body.
“Oh shit!” I dive to the floor and curl into a ball.
A grinding buzz leaps off the tendril-to-forcefield contact. As the appendage sweeps across us, our protective structure becomes momentarily visible—we’re not just sheltered in a two-dimensional circle, we’re in a half-dome made of staticky red lightning. As soon as the tendril whips past the circle, the red lightning half-dome abruptly disappears.
“Very courageous,” Erany says dryly. “You may be the Traveler, but you may also need a change of pants.”
“Come on, Jon.” Gyrax lends me a hand and hauls me up. “No need to fret. So long as we remain within the circle, we need not fear Arinia’s magic.”
“Oh yeah, 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 with the exception of Erany—she laughs out loud. Then she screws up her face into an idiotic expression and imitates me in a deep, oafish voice: “It was just a test. That was all.”
I blush and grin. 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-elven crush. You’re facing liquidation, for God’s sake.)
I look up just in time to see Arinia glowing with supernova brightness. Her tendrils whip into a circular storm, creating a fantastic vortex of light and wind. I can barely see the Iguar; they’re reduced to 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.
And just like that, she’s gone.
A fading 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 contours…
And then she’s gone.