Considering us with a steely gaze, the guild master folded his arms. I shifted uncomfortably, wondering again how much Darius knew about Ezra’s secrets.
I jumped at my name.
“This is an extremely dangerous endeavor, and you’re not combat trained. Do you understand the risks of joining their team?”
Gulping back my nerves, I straightened my spine. “Yes, sir.”
Darius nodded and told Aaron, “I won’t have you wandering the streets unaccounted for. You’ll register your new team and join the grid search under the MPD’s direction. If you encounter the demon, you will follow procedure. Understood?”
“Be careful and don’t put yourselves in harm’s way. I expect all four of you back in the same condition as when you left.”
With a nod from the GM, we saw ourselves out. I huffed, not sure if I was relieved or apprehensive. Part of me had hoped Darius would forbid us from going out.
“Now what?” I asked as we headed down the stairs.
Aaron cast me a tight smile. “Now we gear up.”
I was used to the guys gearing up for jobs—decking themselves out in everything from protective clothing to weapons to communications equipment. I was always a little jealous of how badass they looked with their dark clothes and leather baldrics and big, scary swords.
I hadn’t expected to be gearing up too.
Thirty minutes later, I was standing in the pub, dressed for combat for the first time in my life. Sturdy black leather clung to my legs, and a long-sleeved shirt with a texture reminiscent of Kevlar covered my torso. On top of it, I wore a leather jacket with padded elbows, lots of zippered pockets, and several hidden compartments.
Around my waist was the most unusual piece of my outfit. The custom belt, made from wide, polished leather, had several quick-access pouches for my sorcery artifacts, and clipped along my hips were six alchemy “bombs”—glass spheres the size of billiard balls. Three were smoke bombs, and three were alchemic flash-bangs.
Aaron circled me, checking my new outfit. He was already dressed for battle in similar protective clothing and with Sharpie strapped to his back.
“All fits.” He tugged my belt, ensuring it wouldn’t slip down my hips. “The pants aren’t too tight?”
“No, they’re perfect.” I shifted my weight, feeling more silly than badass. “Where did all this stuff come from?”
Kai joined us, slipping knives into the pockets of his armored vest. “We started putting it together a couple months ago. We planned to surprise you on your first job, whenever that happened.”
“We might’ve mentioned it,” Aaron added, “except you’ve avoided all references to training, and without training, you can’t take jobs, so …”
I hid my guilty wince. It wasn’t that I was opposed to going on jobs with the guys. It was just that, well, they were already so accomplished—and powerful. In comparison, any attempt I made to train would seem like a kindergartener learning to tie her shoes.
Felix joined us, his expression bleakly disapproving. He handed me my phone, an earpiece clipped into it. “Your phone is all set up. Press this button to activate the mic.”
After hooking the earpiece into place, I slipped my phone into a front pocket of my new jacket. I was already sweating under the leather. No wonder some guildeds had been written up over the summer for skipping their leather gear.
Felix gave me a few more instructions on following the grid and reporting our movements, then scowled deeply at Aaron. “You keep her safe.”
“Are we ready?” Kai asked.
“We just need—”
Ezra walked out from the basement. He was dressed all in black and a thick strap crossed his chest, holding his two-part pole-arm that could be used as a baton, dual short swords, or a double-bladed staff. Long gloves ran up to his biceps, the knuckles and elbows reinforced with steel, and he wore a knitted black hat over his hair. Without the soft brown curls to soften his face, intimidating severity sharpened his features. His pale eye gleamed dangerously.
“—Ezra,” Aaron finished. “You ready?”
Felix looked across us. “You’re starting on Grid 132. Head southwest.”
With no more ceremony than that, the four of us trudged to the door. I could feel eyes on my back—Miles and Sanjana at the healers’ station, half a dozen members of other guilds, and scattered Crow and Hammer mythics. They watched us go, and as we filed outside, I couldn’t shake the feeling of a funeral march.
Walking through the empty streets was neither exciting nor mentally engaging, and that was leaving my brain with way too much time to dwell on what was coming.
As the four of us strode along dark sidewalks, I mentally cast about for less terrifying topics. The first one to jump to mind? Why, my chat with Izzah, of course. But there are appropriate times for delicate conversations about sensitive topics, and then there are excessively inappropriate times.
I can tell the difference. Really, I can.
Smiling brightly, I fell into step with Kai. He squinted at me with instant suspicion.
“Whatever you’re planning to ask me. No.”
Our quiet steps tapped against the damp pavement, but the rain had let up. Empty shops stared with blank windows as we passed. It was four in the morning, and the city wouldn’t wake for another couple of hours.
That was how long we had to lure out the demon and kill it.
I squashed my kindling fear and bumped Kai’s shoulder with mine. “Oh, come on. You don’t even know what I want to ask.”
“I know that snoopy look.”
A pout pushed my lips out. “I’m not snoopy. Ezra, I’m not a snoop, am I?”
His gaze shifted away from the nearest alley. He smiled at me. “Of course not.”
“Snoopy is a mean word,” Ezra added. “You’re persistently inquisitive.”
My victorious grin faltered. “Wait—”
Felix’s voice buzzed in my ear, reporting Keys of Solomon activity in our area. I swallowed my retort and passed on the warning. As Kai led us into an alley, the comforting glow of the streetlights dimmed, and my gaze crept toward the rooftops. We didn’t need to go through alleys, but the whole purpose of this mission was to tempt the demon into attacking Ezra again.
Was the creature really waiting for Ezra to reappear? I tried not to think about the possible explanations for why the demon was so intent on murdering the aeromage. I might be “snoopy” about Kai’s love life, but when it came to Ezra’s secrets, I had no desire to pry.
Desperate for a distraction, I poked Kai in the arm. “Why did you dump Izzah?”
“I knew it would be something like that.”
“You broke her heart.”
His casual acceptance sparked my anger. “Do you enjoy being a complete douche-canoe to women?”
“Tori,” Aaron cut in with sudden irritation. “Lay off.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it, feeling torn. On one hand, I should respect Kai’s privacy and not freak over his romantic decisions, which had nothing to do with me. On the other hand, I had a hard time ignoring his shitty playboy habits.
Kai glanced at me, surprised I’d fallen silent. His mouth twisted. “I broke things off with her because of the death threats.”
His flat words took a moment to register. “Death threats? Against Izzah?”
He nodded, dark eyes fixed straight ahead. “From my family.”
Aaron and Ezra showed no surprise at this revelation, so they must know all about Kai’s roots—the runaway son of the mythic world’s largest crime syndicate. His two best friends must also know he was engaged to marry a woman his family had chosen.
“But you left,” I said quietly. “Don’t they realize you’ll never go through with the engagement?”
“They still consider me their property. Property has value, and they’ve promised it to another family. Even if a wedding never happens, anything that threatens the arrangement is unacceptable.”
In the eyes of his family, Kai’s relationship with Izzah must have threatened the engagement. So they, in turn, had threatened Izzah, and he’d ended things to protect her.
“That’s bullshit!” I burst out. “They can’t prevent you from dating anyone for the rest of your life!”
Kai snorted. “Actually, they can.”
“But—” I bit off my protest. Kai knew what his family was capable of better than me. “That’s completely unfair!”
“Life’s not fair.”
I struggled to control my helpless outrage. “Okay, I get why you ended things with Izzah. But … why do you date a zillion women, then?”
His eyebrows rose. “A zillion?”
“At least I didn’t say a bazillion women. So? Why?”
I peered into his face as though I could activate my laser-beam vision and see what he was thinking. His mouth curved in a half smile but he said nothing more.
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