Halil pressed in close on Ezra’s other side. “He didn’t just survive, Burke.”
“No,” Burke mused, his feigned thoughtfulness as obvious as his cruel delight. He reached under his coat. “I’d say he did more than that.”
With a flourish, he dropped something on the bar top. It hit the polished wood with a hollow thunk that echoed through the room. Under the red and orange lights strung behind the bar, the ridged black horn, splattered with long-dried blood, looked even more monstrous than when it had been attached to the demon’s head.
“Look what we found in the alley where you fought the demon,” Burke crooned. “Hidden in a trash bin. How strange, eh?”
“Very strange,” Halil repeated, shifting even closer to Ezra, hemming him in. “So, we asked ourselves, who is this mage who can fight off an unbound demon all alone? He must be someone really special.”
Fenton snickered nastily.
Ezra’s expression was unnervingly blank—he was fighting not to react. I could feel a faint chill in the air, almost unnoticeable, but that wouldn’t last. If I shouted for help now, I was liable to send him over the edge and into violence; I’d done it once before by screaming hysterically during a tense encounter.
“You three must be really special,” I sneered in a low voice. “I told you to get out of here or—”
“We were curious about you, Ezra,” Burke said right over me, “so we looked you up. Fascinating stuff, your history—what exists of it.”
My options were running out. Should I slap him? No, that could trigger Ezra too. He had to keep his cool. If he lost it now … I wasn’t sure what would happen, but it would be bad.
Burke withdrew a printout from his coat and waved it like a wad of cash.
“Isn’t this interesting? Your registration paperwork.” Angling the top page toward himself, he read, “‘Ezra Rowe, registered as an aeromage at eighteen years old.’ Eighteen. A mere six years ago! Young mages who fall through the cracks are almost always discovered in early puberty when their magic first manifests.”
“Very interesting,” Halil echoed nastily.
Burke shoved the paper in Ezra’s face. “Says here: ‘six feet tall, one hundred and thirty-five pounds.’ One thirty-five. You musta been skin and bone at eighteen, but it looks like you’ve put on weight since then. At least forty pounds of muscle, I’d guess. Am I right?”
He grabbed Ezra’s bicep and squeezed. Ezra jerked his arm away. Panic kindled in my chest. I had to stop this, but I had no idea how.
“Were you sick, Ezra? That why you were so skinny back then?” Burke gave a leering smile. “Weird thing, though. We did a bit more poking around and … you have no medical records older than six years. No immunization records. No school records. Nothing until six years ago.”
“It’s almost like …” Halil paused dramatically. “Like you didn’t exist until six years ago.”
“At least, not in any government system.”
“Very weird.” Burke leaned closer, getting in Ezra’s face, and whispered, “What’s your real name, Ezra Rowe? Who were you before all these forged documents?”
Ezra’s lips pulled back, baring his teeth, and I couldn’t afford to play it safe anymore. If someone was going to lose their shit, better me than him.
I grabbed the bar top and jumped over it. Having flubbed the move with embarrassing results before, I’d practiced it on quiet nights when no one was around to witness my failures. I had the move down pretty good now—but, as it turned out, not good enough to pull it off while equal parts panicked and furious.
Instead of landing neatly beside Burke, I slammed both feet into his chest.
He pitched backward off his stool and I stuck my landing without even a wobble. As he hit the floor, I pretended that’s exactly what I’d intended to do.
Burke launched to his feet, but Ezra was up even faster, kicking his stool out of the way and pivoting so we stood side by side. The air had chilled even more, but no crimson magic yet.
“You three and your fugly asses can get the hell out of my bar,” I growled, whipping out my Queen of Spades threateningly, “or you’ll regret it.”
Lips contorting in a sneer, Burke stepped backward. “You attacked me. I have no choice but to defend myself.”
A crimson glow lit Burke’s infernus pendant, then magic whooshed out of it. The light ballooned in the tiny space between us and solidified into a stocky, scaled demon with glowing eyes in an emotionless face. Stocky but huge—over seven feet tall with limbs like tree trunks.
A shiver of silence, then someone screamed.
Terrified cries erupted from the mythics in the room, most of whom had probably never seen a demon. Half of them backpedaled, knocking over chairs, while the rest held their ground, uncertain what to do but ready to help if they could.
Beside me, Ezra was rigid, his face as empty as a mannequin’s. I mentally begged him to hold it together. He couldn’t let Burke provoke him. The demon hunter wanted to test Ezra—to see what the aeromage could do, to see how he’d survived the first demon attack. What better way to find out than to attack him with another demon?
I couldn’t allow Ezra to fight it.
The demon’s arm swung up, claws shooting toward us.
“Ori repercutio!” I yelled, pointing the Queen of Spades at the creature.
Air rippled and the demon’s arm bounced back like it’d punched a wall. Whoa. The demon must be so magical that the artifact could reflect its physical body.
Unfortunately, knocking its arm away did as much to stop it from attacking again as shouting boo would have.
It grabbed the front of my shirt, its claws tearing through my brand-new, combat-ready leather jacket. It lifted me off the floor like I weighed nothing.
As fast as the demon, Ezra jammed his fist into the beast’s gut. Wind boomed, blowing over all the chairs and tables around us. The demon staggered backward, its grip loosening. Ezra grabbed the back of my jacket and yanked. Leather tore and I dropped onto my feet.
He shoved me behind him as the demon stepped closer. Halil and Fenton hovered on either side of us, blocking any escape, and Burke was grinning like a madman.
His grin suddenly faltered, replaced by shock. Between one instant and the next, a shining blade had appeared, the point pressed neatly against Burke’s jugular.
Holding it was Darius. He stood between Burke and Fenton, and the long dagger in his other hand dug into the younger man’s throat.
Then Halil hit the floor with yellow magic crackling over him. Girard stood behind the Keys champion, a polished baton in his grasp, the wood carved with runes. His normally sparkling eyes were flat with anger, his expression blacker than a thundercloud.
On the stairs, more movement—Aaron, Kai, and half a dozen combat mythics from the second level were clustered on the steps, alert and waiting. I gripped Ezra’s arm, channeling calming vibes into him. His skin was ice cold, all his freezing power contained within.
Holding both contractors at knifepoint, Darius smiled pleasantly. “Gentlemen. It would appear you’re breaking protocol.”
Standing as stiffly as his demon, Burke swallowed. His throat bobbed and a trickle of blood ran down the side of his neck from the dagger’s point.
“Well, if it isn’t the Mage Assassin himself,” he grunted. “I thought you gave up your blades, Darius.”
“Those glory days are long behind me,” Darius agreed conversationally. “In my sleepy retirement, I’m but a lowly GM pushing paperwork and destroying anyone who threatens my guild.”
Burke paled. “Your bartender attacked me. I was defending myself.”
Darius twisted his shiny dagger and more blood ran down Burke’s neck. “Call your demon back.”
Teeth gritted, Burke turned his gaze to his unmoving demon. Red light lit across its hands and feet, streaking toward his infernus, then the light swept over the demon. It dissolved into an eerie red power that was sucked into the pendant.
“Excellent,” Darius said. “Now, listen carefully. If you or any member of the Keys of Solomon set foot in my bar again, you won’t leave alive. Understood?”
“You’d kill us for walking into your guild? If the MPD hears—”
“What the MPD hears or doesn’t hear won’t be your concern, because you’ll be dead.” Darius flicked his knives up, spinning the hilts in his palms. Burke and Fenton both clapped hands over their necks, stanching the flow of blood from newly opened cuts. “Now, on your way. And take your large limp friend with you.”
Furious and silent, Burke and Fenton picked up Halil by the arms and dragged him to the door. While everyone watched their pathetic retreat, I peeked behind me. The broken demon horn sat on the counter, forgotten. I nudged it off the edge and it fell into the garbage bin on the other side, the thump lost in the door bell’s jangling. The Keys were gone.
Darius tossed both knives in the air and caught them by the points. “How unpleasant,” he remarked to the room.
A nervous titter ran through the mythics, and they uneasily righted the disturbed furniture. As Girard joined them, asking if everyone was all right, the people on the stairs descended to the pub level. Aaron and Kai flanked Ezra, standing close.