“His family can’t be bothered to keep track of every girl he takes out for dinner,” Aaron supplied unexpectedly, “so they mostly leave him alone these days.”

“Oh.” I supposed that made sense. And he did have an endless line of women waiting to date him. I’d seen firsthand how many phone numbers he received on even the most mundane outings.

As we crossed a street and entered another alleyway, I pondered his dilemma. Did his family intend to thwart him from ever having a meaningful relationship with a woman? No, wait. He’d said he was waiting for his fiancée to marry someone else. If she broke the engagement, then he’d be off the hook.

Tapping my lower lip, I wondered if there was a way to encourage this fiancée to hurry the hell up and marry some other dude.

“No,” Kai said.

“‘No’ what?”

“Whatever you’re thinking. No.”

I threw my hands up. “You don’t even know what I—”

As we stepped out of the alley and onto a sidewalk, I bit off my protest. So far, the streets had been eerily empty, but half a block away, a dozen people stood in the center of the road. It wasn’t a friendly meeting, judging by the angry shouting.

Actually, make that familiar angry shouting.

“Is that Izzah?” I asked, squinting at the group.

“Sounds like it.” Kai took a step closer. “Who are the others? What are they yelling about?”

Aaron strode past us, taking the lead. “Dunno, but we should find out.”

Kai joined him, leaving me standing there. Was I the only one of us with a fully functioning short-term memory? We were expecting the demon to attack us at literally any moment, weren’t we? And our plan hinged on having zero witnesses to said attack? I glanced questioningly at Ezra beside me.

He shook his head. “Attention span of five-year-olds.”

“I suppose we should go supervise.”

“The kids might get in trouble if we don’t.”

We hastened toward the confrontation. Izzah and Mario, plus two other Odin’s Eye mythics, stood near a quartet of men and women in a tight cluster. Across from them were three men that couldn’t have looked more villainous if they’d tattooed swastikas on their foreheads.

Ezra abruptly stopped a solid thirty feet from the group. “Uh, maybe I’ll wait here.”

“Why?”

“There are contractors. Mario, plus two more in that group of four; they’re Grand Grimoire mythics, I think. And the other three people are—”

“Let me guess. Keys of Solomon.”

He nodded. “Two of them are contractors. See their pendants?”

I squinted. He could see their jewelry from here? Then I spotted the first “pendant” and realized it was hard to miss. Each contractor had a chain around his neck with a palm-sized steel disc hanging from it, displayed on their chests like first-place ribbons.

“What are those things?”

“The demonic artifact—it’s called an infernus. The demon is bound to the infernus, and that’s where its spirit is contained when the contractor isn’t commanding it.”

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Ezra knew a surprising amount about Demonica. Was this common knowledge?

Aaron and Kai reached the terse group of mythics, and the latter’s voice rolled through the quiet street, low and steady. If anyone could defuse this situation, Kai could.

Izzah said something sharp, pointing at the Keys mythics, and Kai swung toward them.

“They did what?” he demanded loudly.

… or not.

“I warned the GMs,” Izzah yelled. “Now look!”

“We haven’t done anything but try to find a demon in all the pathetic chaos you lot have caused,” the oldest Keys member said, his smug undertone begging for someone to smack him. I’d volunteer as tribute, but I wasn’t close enough.

“You used your demon to attack the Grand Grimoire team,” Izzah accused venomously.

The Keys mythic folded his arms. “Prove it, bitch.”

“Watch yourself,” Kai growled.

“Watch yourself, mage,” the man shot back, “or you’ll get to meet my demon. Ever seen a demon before, kid? Try not to shit yourself when you do.”

Kai’s hand closed around the hilt of his katana. “You think you can call it out before I stop your heart?”

Holy shit. Was Kai even trying to defuse the situation? Maybe I should step in and bring it down a notch. I did a quick mental run-through of the possible outcomes of my intervention. Visions of screaming and fire and bodies scattered across the pavement flashed through my mind.

On second thought, I’d probably make it worse.

The Keys man snorted derisively. “We’re not wasting our time on a runt like you. We’re here for a demon.”

Ah okay, so Kai did know what he was doing. The Keys man started to back up—

“Then I’ll give you a demon!” Mario snarled, grabbing the pendant hanging from his neck.

Deep red light ignited from between his fingers. The streaks of power leaped to the pavement and coalesced into a rippling splash. It expanded upward as though the magic were pouring from the infernus into an invisible mold. The light condensed and solidified, and when it died away, a demon stood in front of the contractor.

I gulped down a surge of terror. The demon had come out of the pendant like a Pokémon out of a poké ball. Beelzebub, I choose you!

This beast was even taller than the winged one, but thinner and gangly—not that its lack of bulging muscles made it any less terrifying. Its eyes glowed like hot lava and horns lined its head, a narrow mane running from its forehead down its back to a lion-like tail. Giant claws tipped its fingers, and tusks jutted up from its heavy lower jaw.

The red light had barely diffused before more crimson power erupted from the two Keys’ pendants. A pair of demons manifested in front of their masters. One was shorter—as in seven feet instead of eight—and built like a tank, its entire back adorned with thick spines. The other was tall and thin like Mario’s, but with its limbs covered in plate scale. All three had skin in varying shades of red-tinted toffee, wore minimalistic armor, and possessed the same glowing red eyes.

With my eyes locked on the beasts, I blindly reached for Ezra. My fingers closed tightly around his wrist—and cold radiated through the thick fingerless glove that covered his arm from knuckles to bicep. The air held only a slight chill—he was containing his reaction to the demons as best he could.

But this was still all kinds of bad.

The two demons faced Mario’s, but they didn’t otherwise move. All three creatures scarcely seemed to breathe, so still and silent they could have been statues. Horrible, nightmare-spawning statues.

Aaron and Kai gripped the hilts of their swords, while Izzah clutched the handles of her narrow-bladed knives and the Grand Grimoire contractors held their pendants, ready to call their demons too.

I whipped my phone out, flipped to the camera, and yelled, “Hey, idiots!”

A dozen pairs of eyes turned toward me.

As I raised my phone, I almost forgot what I’d been planning to say. To the naked eye, the three demons looked as solid as the mythics, but on the screen, they showed up as semi-transparent, featureless shadows. Freaky.

“I’m recording you,” I called, “just so you know. Are you sure you want to kill each other? Maybe you could save this for a better time—such as never.”

“Who the hell are you?” a Keys man sneered.

I tilted the camera toward my face. “For the record,” I told the phone, “Mario called his demon first, but the prickbags from the Keys threatened to kill Kai with their demons before that. I’d call it a defensive move.”

What I’d actually call it was an idiot move, and if we came out of this alive, I planned to inform Mario of that—with significant volume and a lot of bad language.

I flipped the camera back down to point at them. “Okay, go ahead.”

The Keys shifted uncomfortably, then the oldest one barked a laugh. “Fine, girl. We’ll play your game.”

He touched his pendant. Red magic glowed across the heavyset demon’s hands and feet, and streaks of power shot for the infernus. The creature dissolved into crimson magic that whisked back into the pendant. As quickly as it had appeared, the demon was gone again.

The other Keys contractor called his demon back, and only then did Mario summon his into the pendant. Not once had any of the demons so much as twitched.

“All right, cool,” I announced. “Aaron, Kai, we should mosey on, hmm?”

Kai glanced at Izzah, and I could imagine the warning look he gave her. “Are you moving along?”

She gave a short nod and turned, grabbing Mario’s arm. Hauling him with her, she marched down the street. Her two team members hastily followed. Muttering among themselves, the Grand Grimoire group headed in the same direction, glancing warily over their shoulders at the Keys.

“Aaron, was it?” The older Keys guy looked him up and down. “You’d be the Sinclair kid.”

The youngest Keys contractor sneered. “Crow and Hammer fledglings, eh?”

The first time Aaron and I met, Aaron had introduced himself like I should recognize his name, and I’d thought he was an arrogant jerk. It annoyed me that he really was sort of famous among mythics.

***

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