Jasna’s cry choked off as the beast man’s great paw clamped over her throat. She kicked, to no avail. Even without its arm extended all the way, her feet came nowhere near to connecting.
“Let her go!”
Brynne launched herself at the brute, but it slapped her away with its other arm, sending her splashing through the mud a good yard away.
That snapped Katarin from her daze, and she tugged at the threads she’d already woven, drawing deeper on the currents of Thought, wrapping them round and round the creature’s wrist, pulling them taught with a flick of her fingers.
The gnoll brought its arm up, the weave dissolving around it, and threw Jasna at the weaver, sending them both sprawling. Jasna rolled, using the momentum to regain her feet, and she leapt over Katarin, thrusting the spear out ahead of her.
The gnoll reached for its waist, drawing the sword and bringing it up across the shaft, shearing the tip away. Jasna scrambled back, ducking as the blade whistled over her head.
It brought the blade down again, but the metal rang, raining pale blue sparks as it skipped off the air just in front of Jasna’s nose.
“Behind me!” Katarin gasped. She and Jasna both shuffled backwards, the gnoll hammering at the weaver’s shield of air, its strokes coming faster as it grew more frustrated.
A ring of steel came from behind them, and the gnoll’s next swing rained yellow and orange sparks as its blade skittered down the length of Justin’s sword.
“What are you doing?” Jasna cried.
“Buying you time!” Justin panted, through gritted teeth. He deflected another attack, but nearly lost his footing in the process. “You have to wake the camp!”
The gnoll reared back and howled, wrenching to one side. It brought the broad blade down, and Brynne cried out as she tumbled away, dropping the flint-tipped spear as she clutched at her bleeding arm.
Justin leapt at the opening, but his blade struck more sparks as it grated across the gnoll’s chest.
“Armor?” he gasped, leaping away as the brute struck back.
“Let me see!” Katarin hissed, pulling at Brynne’s fingers.
“It’s fine, just a scratch. Don’t worry about me. Can’t you do something to wake up the village?”
“They can’t hear us,” Jasna said. “You didn’t… unravel the thing you did to the air.” She waved her fingers.
“The weaves are knotted,” Katarin said. “I--”
“Well un-knot them!”
“It’s not that simple!”
“A little help here?” Justin called. He caught the gnoll’s slice right at the crosspiece of his sword, nearly spinning around.
“We need reinforcements!” Brynne said.
“Light! Fire! Do something!” Jasna shouted.
Katarin clutched at her head, and then shoved Jasna away, closing her hand over the red gem hanging at her breast. The stone burst to light, the red even deeper as it shone through the blood, still wet between her fingers.
Far above, lightning rippled through the clouds, first one bolt, and then another, followed by three more, then six, then nine. They bent, curving, twisting one among the other, each chasing the tail of another until they began to turn a circle, drawing in other smaller stray bolts.
The girls stared, as did Justin and the gnoll, each awaiting the crash of thunder.
It never came, but the night rang like a great golden bell, and motes of gold and silver light began to collect, swirling and fusing into bigger and brighter points within the circle of lightning that hissed and spat overhead.
The night rang again, the lightning ring pulsing brighter, and a column of brilliant white light flooded down, some miles off but bright as Matera when she shone full.
Another, and another pillar of light lanced from the brilliant spot in the clouds. Jasna counted nine of them.
Brynne, though, trying to count the hulking, shadowed forms that the columns of light had illuminated, skulking among the camp’s perimeter. Another rose from a nearby tent, its dull iron blade slick with blood, painted brilliant red in the pure white light.
When it turned to look towards the village, they all saw the bloody crescents shining at the bottom rim of the gray-green flash of its night-adapted eyes.
“That’s more like it!” Jasna shouted, jumping up and down and clapping her hands.
“But… I didn’t….”
A howl of pain interrupted Katarin. Justin had scored a hit, while the hulking gnoll was distracted. It leaned heavily on one leg, the other darkening with blood. The monster lunged at the young man, but he danced back, angling off to the gnoll’s injured side. It howled again, its own turn slower.
“Stop playing with that thing and get over here, Stableboy!”
Justin risked a glance past the hulking gnoll, where Jasna stomped her foot, spattering mud everywhere and pointing towards Petra’s cot. He ducked as the gnoll took another swipe, backpedalling, forcing it to turn, again, on its wounded leg. Its howl sounded more annoyed than pained, though.
He dodged two more swings of the thing’s great sword before being able to back closer to the girls. He braced to block another overhead chop, but the beast’s blade spat brilliant blue sparks as it smashed into the air above Justin’s head.
“Don’t just stand there, grab a corner and move!” Brynne called, hefting one end of the camp bed. Jasna was there, heaving at another corner, and Justin fumbled his sword into his other hand, lifting the last corner.
“Just get back into the camp!” Katarin hissed, her frown deepening as she twitched her fingers just before another blow sent a fresh shower of blue-white sparks cascading over the shell of air she held in place.
She closed her eyes, slowed her breathing, concentrated on the candle flame in her mind’s eye. It guttered, barely alight. She didn’t have much power left to draw. She heard the jabber of her friends as they hurried Petra away, Jasna and Brynne each giving orders to the poor brave Stableboy. She heard the slosh and slurp of their feet in the mud. She heard the murmur of the villagers, though it must have been shouting, outside the sound warding she’d woven.
She heard the beastly snarl, the whistle as the sword fell in another deadly arc. Would her shield of air hold together? Already, the weaving of it frayed at the edges, the threads barely held in place, and slipping, slipping…