“I don’t think an enemy sorcerer would drink a potion just because I asked nicely. What if it looked like candy? Think they’d eat candy?”
“I doubt it.” She flipped to the next page. “Intelligence elixir. Also no.”
“Would it make me smarter? I’ll take it.”
“It will make you smarter, but it’s addictive with terrible withdrawal symptoms. You don’t want to go there.”
“Maybe some healing spells? I have ones to stop bleeding, replenish lost blood, boost endurance to survive an injury, counter shock, induce a recovery coma, halt burn damage—oh, hey.” She stopped on a new page. “A dizziness draft. That could be useful.”
“Yeah. I learned it to prank a high school bully, but it would mess up a mythic with a hands-on combat style like a mage. It requires skin contact—a lot, in fact, so you wouldn’t need to worry about splashing yourself.”
I nodded. “Sure, that could work.”
“I’ll ask the other alchemists for ideas too.” She smiled. “Defensive alchemy isn’t my forte, but I like learning new transmutations.”
“Battling mythics isn’t my forte, but I guess I should—”
I caught a glimpse of movement and forgot what I was saying. Still in combat gear, Ezra walked out from the corner where the basement stairs were hidden, his baldric hanging from one hand. My attention narrowed to him alone, everyone else in the pub forgotten.
His mismatched eyes, dull and tired, flicked to mine and he paused.
Our stares connected, and something close to panic buzzed through me. Visions of crimson magic, both his and the demon’s, flashed through my mind. His secrets, closer to the surface than ever before, hung in the space between us like an impenetrable wall.
Fear skittered along my nerves—fear of him. Of what he might be.
I gulped, then shoved off my stool. Straightening my spine, I strode toward him.
As I marched toward Ezra, wariness ghosted across his face. His shoulders tensed as though he were bracing himself for whatever I planned to do.
I had no idea what I planned to do. All I knew was I couldn’t sit there while fear needled my core. Jaw tightening with determination, I swooped down on him.
Even though I’d had nothing specific in mind to say or do when I got up from my stool, as soon as I got close, instinct took over. Between one step and the next, I reached for him.
He stumbled back a step as I clamped my arms around his neck. Catching his balance, he hesitated, then wrapped me in his arms. I pressed my face to his chest. My spinning anxieties quieted, and the frightening questions faded to the background of my thoughts.
Nothing had changed. He was still the same guy as yesterday. The only difference was that I knew more about what he kept hidden. I’d gone this long without answers, and I didn’t need them now. I didn’t want them. Whatever his crimson magic was, whatever its connection to demons, I’d rather never know.
He crushed me to his chest, then his arms relaxed. I tilted my head back to meet his cautiously questioning stare.
“Are you okay?” I asked softly. “Where have you been?”
“I just needed time.”
My hands tightened on his shirt, then I forced myself to release him and step back.
Hands sliding away from my waist, he searched my expression. “Are you … okay?”
I nodded. We were dancing awkwardly around the truth, around the questions he expected me to ask.
After a final sweeping assessment of my face, he asked, “Where are Aaron and Kai?”
“Still sleeping, last I checked.”
He glanced at the stairs. “I’ll go see if they’re up. Be right back.”
As he hastened to the second level, I turned around—and found Sin gawking at me from her spot at the bar. Er, right. We’d had an audience.
“What,” Sin whispered emphatically as I returned to my seat beside her, “was that?”
“What was what?”
“That embrace. You practically jumped him!”
“It was just a hug.”
“Sure. Your face is flushed, by the way.”
Scowling, I reached over the bar, grabbed a cloth, and started wiping the counter. “It wasn’t what it looked like. We hug all the time.”
Arching her eyebrows skeptically, she leaned closer. “That looked a lot more heartfelt than just—”
“It was a hug, Sin. Would you drop it already?”
Her expression cooled at my acid tone. “Fine.”
I scrubbed the bar in angry silence until Ezra reappeared. Setting his baldric and pole-arm on the counter, he slid onto the stool beside Sin.
“They’re dead to the world,” he informed me, then added, “Hi Sin. How are you?”
“Not bad. How are you after that fight?”
“A bit banged up, but nothing terrible.”
“Glad to hear it.” She glanced at me as I aimlessly folded and refolded my cloth. “I need to get back to work. See you.”
She grabbed her grimoire and tub of potions, then stalked away. I threw the rag onto the back counter, more angry at myself and my temper than her. I should do something productive. My laptop waited at the other end of the bar, the menu proposal open on the screen, but I had no concentration to speak of.
Puffing irritably, I slid off my stool and walked behind the bar, distractedly thinking I should clean something.
I turned to Ezra, the bar between us. The intensity in his eyes surprised me. “What is it?”
Throat shifting in a swallow, he seemed to hang on something. He opened his mouth—then the bell above the guild door jangled merrily. His gaze darted away, the interruption breaking his fragile resolve. I glanced crossly at the entrance.
Three men walked across the threshold—and cold alarm blazed through me.
Silence rippled across the pub, all eyes turning to the three mythics. Their ugly-ass faces were easy to recognize: Burke, the old contractor; Fenton, the young contractor; and Halil, their hulking champion.
“The Keys of Solomon,” I ground out through gritted teeth. “What are they doing here?”
Ezra said nothing, his shoulders stiff as he watched the men out of the corner of his eye. The previous times a contractor had appeared in the guild, Ezra had disappeared almost as quickly as Darius could vanish, but this time he didn’t move, and I knew why. The moment they’d stepped through the door, the Keys team had fixed their dark, mean eyes on us.
Seemingly enjoying the unwelcome glares coming from all directions, the Keys strolled across the floor, smirking and sneering at the mythics they passed. The three Keys stopped behind Ezra’s stool.
“Oh dear,” I sighed with snide sarcasm, breaking the soundless power they held over the room before they could do it. “Some trash has blown in off the street.”
Burke’s deep-set eyes gleamed under his scraggy eyebrows. “Is that how you greet all your customers?”
“This isn’t your guild. Get lost.”
“This guild is a rest point for everyone participating in the demon hunt. That includes us.” Burke slid onto the nearest stool. “I want a drink.”
Halil took the stool on Ezra’s other side. “Me too.”
Fenton stood behind Ezra, grinning nastily. “Count me in.”
I met Ezra’s terse stare. He was surrounded—and he didn’t like it. If he lost his temper in front of the Keys … if they saw his crimson magic …
“We’re under full prohibition until the alert is over.” I pointed at the door. “So too bad, find another bar.”
Burke tsked. “We just want to wet our whistles alongside our mythic compatriots. What’s wrong with that?”
“You can wet your whistles in a puddle outside. Try one near the dumpster.”
Smirking, Burke turned on his stool. “Ezra, isn’t it? All recovered after your demon encounter yesterday?”
Ezra said nothing, his jaw tight and eyes fixed on me like I was the only safe place to look. I really didn’t like the way Burke was watching the aeromage—like a crocodile about to ambush a gazelle on the riverbank.
I slapped a hand on the counter to distract the old man. “What part of vamoose don’t you understand?”
Burke cocked his head in arrogant challenge and lowered his voice. “Make us leave, girl. Go on. Try.”
My teeth clenched so hard my jaw creaked. I scanned the Crow and Hammer members scattered around the pub, but not a single experienced combat mythic was present—they were either upstairs sleeping or out hunting the demon. Felix had taken Sabrina upstairs before the Keys came in, and the only person at the healers’ station was the apprentice Sanjana. No one stood a chance at intimidating the hardened demon hunter team.
Should I shout for help? What might the Keys do in the minute it took someone to get down here?
While I hesitated, Burke angled toward Ezra again. “You sure you’re doing all right, boy? No further injuries? It’s quite the miracle you survived the attack, eh?”
Shit. Slipping my hand into my pocket, I felt for my phone, but all I had on me was my Queen of Spades card. My phone was over by my laptop, out of easy reach. I didn’t dare walk away and leave Ezra alone with the Keys men.