Finally showing some sense, Aaron and Kai ignored the taunts and strode back to me and Ezra. Yes. Good. Let’s get out of here before things went wrong in a big way. The Keys watched the two mages withdraw—then started after them.
“Aaron Sinclair,” the old guy mused. “So that would make you the Yamada boy, wouldn’t it?”
Kai grunted eloquently.
“I’m Burke,” he introduced himself, sounding almost polite. He gestured at his comrades. “Halil and Fenton.” He waited to see if Kai would offer his name. “Anyone from the Yamada family must be a cut above the Crow and Hammer’s rejects. We’re always looking for new talent.”
“A flattering offer. You can shove it up your ass.”
The old guy smirked. As he and his pals drew closer, I got a proper look at them. Burke was bald and wrinkled, with a narrow, sinewy frame. He looked tougher than a piece of beef jerky left in the sun, and that was without the demon pendant hanging around his neck.
Halil, the middle-aged one, had cheeks so hollow he must be missing most of his molars, a look his square jaw and sunken eyes didn’t help. He was huge—taller than Aaron—with broad shoulders and thick, muscular limbs clad in leather gear. A sword with a two-hander hilt jutted over his shoulder and he wore brass knuckles on his right hand. Either a sorcerer or a mage. I was guessing mage.
The youngest guy, Fenton, was also a contractor. His arms, bared by a wife beater, were heavily tattooed, and his dark hair was greasily combed back from his face. He leered at my boobs—or at the suggestion of boobs beneath my leather jacket.
“Aw,” I said, “look at this guy. He’s never even seen a girl before.”
Fenton’s gaze jerked from my chest to my face, confusion twisting his eyebrows. “What?”
“Only a basement-dwelling loser would stare like that.”
I looked sadly at Aaron. “And he’s deaf too! Poor thing.”
Aaron shot the Key’s team a scathing look. “Go hunt the demon. We have a grid to search.”
Burke’s sneer widened as his deep-set eyes ran across me and over to Ezra. “Oh, now, don’t rush off. If you’re Sinclair and he’s Yamada, then this kid would be the aeromage—the one who survived the demon attack last night.”
Ezra watched the Keys men with an eerily blank expression—a look I knew as the most obvious tell for his temper.
Nudging Ezra to get him moving, Aaron strode in the opposite direction from the other mythics. I hastened after them, Kai bringing up the rear. The Keys watched us, their stares boring into my back.
They watched—but they didn’t follow.
I breathed a long sigh. We cut through three more alleys and down another street, and the Keys of Solomon didn’t reappear to harass us. Wherever they’d gone, it wasn’t in this direction. Crisis averted.
Now all we had to worry about was the demon.
“What’s their problem?” I grumbled. “Attacking another team? Threatening you guys? How do they get away with this shit?”
“The Keys have been picking fights with people since the search started,” Aaron replied as we trudged through another reeking alley. We were only a couple of blocks from the grid we were supposed to search. “They’re getting away with it because the demon is a bigger problem.”
“My concern is that noisy encounter might have put the demon off approaching us, assuming it’s nearby.” Kai chuffed impatiently. “I was hoping it’d show up before we reached the search zone.”
I glanced apprehensively across the dark rooftops. What were the chances the demon was nearby? Our whole plan hinged on the demon attacking us away from any witnesses. We had to kill it before anyone realized Ezra had injured it.
And by “we,” I meant “not me.” I was purely a witness protection service. That’s what my smoke bombs and mythic-style flash-bangs were for. If anyone tried to approach while the guys were dealing with the demon, my job was to dissuade them.
“Speaking of demons,” I began, “what’s up with theirs? They didn’t move at all. They were real, weren’t they?”
“Very real.” Kai turned down another street. “That’s how bound demons behave. The contractor has full control. The demon has no autonomy; it’s like a puppet. Without the contractor’s command, it can’t do anything.”
“Nothing? Like, it would drown in water if the contractor didn’t command it to swim?”
“Precisely. It’s part of the contract. The demon gives up its free will to its contractor.”
“Some contracts are looser than that,” Aaron added, “but they’re illegal. Give the demon any leeway, and it’ll find ways to kill people. It’s dangerous not only for the contractor, but for everyone in the contractor’s vicinity.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “That sounds—”
Ezra stopped. His gaze darted across the left side of the street. “Something is moving up on the roof.”
I squeezed my hands into fists, sternly commanding myself not to look.
Don’t look for the murder-happy hellion eager to rip us into pieces? Oh yes, so easy. The spot between my shoulder blades prickled, but I didn’t know if it was the demon’s eyes I could feel on me. Nightmarish flashes of my last encounter with the winged beast filled my mind, fueling the adrenaline in my blood.
“Which direction?” Kai asked. Without taking his eyes off the buildings, Ezra tilted his head in answer, and Kai swore. “That’s the active search area. Is the demon watching us search for it?”
Reaching behind me, I slipped my hand into the large back pouch of my fancy new belt. I pulled out a silver orb, covered in smooth ridges and marked with pink and aquamarine stripes.
“Hoshi,” I whispered.
The orb expanded, then unraveled into the sylph’s long, sinuous shape. Her pink eyes glowed faintly as she glanced skyward, then ducked behind me, crowding against my back. Couldn’t blame her. I wished I could hide behind the guys the same way.
“What’s the plan?” My voice was embarrassingly shrill. I felt nowhere near ready for this.
“Where is it, Ezra?” Aaron demanded.
Ezra held perfectly still as though listening. “I lost it. It’s either not moving or it’s shifted to an incorporeal state.”
“Incorporeal?” I yelped. “They can—”
Hoshi’s tail whipped around me and cool magic surged through my body. My vision blurred—and a huge dark shape barreled out of the sky at warp speed and passed right through me like I wasn’t there. Which I wasn’t, because the small fae had shifted me out of reality.
The shadowy beast slammed into Ezra.
My vision steadied as Ezra crashed into the pavement, the monstrous demon on top of him, wings arching off its back—one twisted into a mockery of the other. Hoshi had vanished. She’d drained her small well of magic to protect me.
Ezra had caught the demon by the wrists, and it pressed down, one clawed foot on either side of him, hooked talons at its fingertips straining toward his face. The muscles in Ezra’s arms bulged with the effort of holding the demon back, and tendons stood out in his neck.
I grabbed a tiny glass ball from my belt and whipped it at the back of the demon’s head from six feet away. It hit the leathery skull and burst.
Blinding light flashed and a deafening bang shattered my eardrums.
My vision went white, and by the time I could see again, the demon had lurched off Ezra, its eyes squinched painfully. It spun with shocking agility and its giant arm shot toward me. Kai drew his sword so fast the steel blurred. A bolt of lightning as thick as a tree branch leaped off the blade and hit the beast in the chest.
The force flung it backward, but it landed on its feet and snarled as it whirled on us again. Now Aaron had his sword out too. He bellowed furiously as he whipped it sideways, and a band of searing blue flame launched at the creature.
The surrounding air turned arctic cold.
The icy chill flowed out of the demon and Aaron’s flames shrank. They washed over the demon’s hide with barely a sizzle.
Frost spread out from the creature’s feet as it loosed a low, throbbing laugh. Its magma eyes gleamed malevolently, no less terrifying for its lopsided appearance—the two foot-long horns on the left side of its head broken off.
Aaron and Kai angled their swords defensively. Behind them, Ezra jumped to his feet, breathing hard with one hand pressed to his face. He stepped into the gap between his friends, eight short yards away from the demon.
The frigid air hurt my lungs to breathe. Not that I was doing a great job of breathing anyway. My panicky gaze jumped over the beast, picking out details like that would somehow help me survive—the spiky crest etched into the center of its belt armor, the shimmering texture of the cloth wound around its waist and thighs, the glint of a thin, dark chain hanging around its neck.
The demon’s pink tongue slid out, wetting its lips. Its red stare fixed on Ezra.
“Hrātir, kah udēisathē nā?” Growling words in an alien language rumbled from its throat. “Tenthʾūsanā imailatē vīsh adhʾsūv arbhʾētahthēs.”
One palm still pressed to his blind eye, Ezra bared his teeth. He extended his other arm, fingers spread, and a red glow lit across his fingertips. Crimson power raced over his hand and up his arm in twisting veins.