“Trouble konon?” she repeated, amusement in her smoldering brown eyes. “What a thing to say.”

“It is trouble, isn’t it?”

“Of course. But nothing as bad as … you know-lah.”

Aaron and Kai exchanged looks like they were remembering their last visit to the local torturer.

“Better not be,” Aaron groaned. “How many hearings did we have to sit through?”

“I lost count.” Izzah sighed as though the thought alone exhausted her. “How many hearings can you fit in six months?”

Kai rolled his eyes up in thought. “Is that how long it took?”

“Well, it was kind of a big deal,” Izzah pointed out. “MagiPol interrogated us for breaking and entering, fraud, theft, damage to international treasures—”

“I didn’t mean to destroy those artifacts—” Kai interrupted.

“—millions in insurance claims, people panicking in the streets—”

“That wasn’t my fault,” he muttered. “It was just a power outage.”

“—and it made international news, so there was a major cover-up—”

“All right,” he burst out. “Stop reminding me. That whole thing was a nightmare.”

As he glowered, Izzah’s face lit up in a triumphant grin. Oh man. She was needling him on purpose. She knew how to push cool, collected, unflappable Kai’s buttons.

I liked her already.

“So, what kind of trouble are we looking at this time?” Aaron asked.

I silently cursed him for derailing the cute moment.

Izzah’s good humor faded. “Have you heard anything about the Keys of Solomon?”

The what now?

“Nothing recently,” Kai replied.

She nervously tapped her fingernail on the stem of her martini glass. “They’re in town.”

“That’s never good news,” he murmured, his expression darkening. “How many are we talking?

“Most of the guild is what I heard. Four or five teams.”

Kai swore under his breath. “Any idea why?”

“Why else?” She lifted her martini and took a long sip. “Demons.”

Oh goody. Demons, i.e. Demonica, i.e. the magic class only ever mentioned in tones of grudging respect, repulsion, and fear.

Not knowing what to ask first, I muttered to Aaron, “What are the Keys of Solomon?”

His lip curled in disgust. “They’re a nomadic guild that specializes in demon hunting. It’s all they do. They travel around, following rumors of demons and contractors they can kill.”

My mouth made a gulping motion like a fish out of water. “I’m sorry, did you say kill? They go looking for people to kill?”

“Har, what else?” Izzah asked, confused by my reaction.

“Tori is new,” Kai told her. “Very recently discovered.”

She offered me an apologetic smile. “Sorry-lah. Welcome to the fold.”

Though I’d been “discovered” as a witch two months ago, it was all a big fat lie. But despite being entirely human, I was now registered in the MPD database as a bona-fide witch. My phone number was in the mythic phonebook and there was no hiding it.

“Are they a rogue guild?” I asked as I pulled out two rocks glasses, unable to believe the Keys of Solomon guild was allowed to run around killing people.

“In everything but name.” Izzah took another sip of her martini. “Officially, they’re a legal guild, though they trample the line whenever it suits them. They only choose targets with DOD bounties.”

“Dead or Deceased,” Aaron explained. “As opposed to Dead or Alive.”

I pulled a face. Mythics. They had the weirdest sense of humor.

“An untethered demon is automatically ‘kill on sight,’” Izzah explained. “And contractors who screw up badly enough to get tagged with a bounty … well, those are always DOD bounties, because how else do you stop their demon?”

“It’s a game to them,” Mario rumbled unexpectedly.

Surprised, I turned to the second Odin’s Eye mythic, a bottle of rum in my hand. I’d forgotten he was there. For such a beefy guy, he did an excellent impression of a stone statue.

“They collect kill points as much as bounty payouts,” he continued. “It’s all about ego and battle lust. There are stories about the Keys provoking a contractor into a fight, killing them, then claiming the contractor attacked first.”

“Mario is a contractor,” Izzah informed us. “Contractors keep close tabs on the Keys. They have to, when the Keys are so dangerous.”

I stared at the dude, my ears buzzing. He was a contractor. A Demonica mythic. I’d never met one before, and I squinted suspiciously as though he might morph into a demon at any moment. Not that I had any idea how Demonica magic worked.

“Why would the Keys come here?” Kai asked. “Aside from the Grand Grimoire, the city has few contractors and none of them have bounties.”

Izzah leaned closer to him and lowered her voice. “There are rumors of an underground summoning operation, right here in the downtown area.”

“Why haven’t we heard about this?” Aaron asked tersely.

She shrugged. “Your guild has no Demonica mythics, so the rumors pass you by. Now you know-lah.”

“Thank you for sharing the information,” Kai murmured. “I appreciate it.”

Her dimples reappeared. I passed him a rum and coke, then slid the second one several spots down the counter. “Hey, Aaron, I want your opinion on a costume.”

“Huh? Oh, okay.” He joined me down the bar. “Change your mind about dressing up?”

I passed him his drink and whispered, “Of course not. I want to give Kai and Izzah some space to see what they do.”

They sat side by side, deep in murmured conversation and completely ignoring Mario a seat away. Were Kai and Izzah sitting closer than platonic acquaintances would?

“Look how focused he is on her,” I added in amazement. “Who is she?”

Aaron snickered at my reaction. “She’s an Odin’s Eye hydromage. I don’t know her well, but she’s smart and tough.”

“Is she his ex? She seems to like him too much for him to have dumped her.”

Aaron shrugged.

“Where did Ezra vanish to?” I asked, changing the subject. Guys sucked at gossiping about their friends.

“He went upstairs. Bathroom, maybe?” Another shrug.

Hmm, well, I’d have to investigate his disappearance later. For now, I braced my arms on the bar top. “Tell me more about this Keys of Solomon guild.”

Aaron grimaced. “Them showing up is always bad news. First, it means there’s illegal Demonica activity nearby. And second, it means shit is about to get ugly. The Keys don’t let ethics or discretion get in the way of a kill.”

“They’re gladiators,” Mario said, walking over to join us, “who only care about winning. Can I get a water?”

“Sure.” I scooped ice into a glass and filled it. “Are they morally opposed to demon summoning or something? Is that why they’re so bloodthirsty?”

“Half the Keys are contractors.” Mario perched on a stool beside Aaron. He probably didn’t want to watch Izzah and Kai flirt. “It takes a demon to kill a demon.”

“And it takes even more to kill an untethered demon,” Aaron added. “Though the Keys claim they’re good enough to do it with a three-man team.”

I frowned. “Untethered demon? What does that mean?”

“A contracted demon is under the contractor’s complete control.” Mario rubbed his fingers across his knuckles. “An untethered demon is one that escaped its summoning circle without a contract. It’s stronger, faster, and has full command of its magic. Demon magic is the stuff of literal hell.”

“Unbound demons do only one thing.” Aaron tossed half his drink back in one gulp. “They slaughter every living creature that crosses their path. They kill nonstop until they’re killed. It’s the biggest reason summoning is so heavily regulated.”

A shiver of fear ran through me. “Why doesn’t MagiPol ban it?”

“Because some people will do it anyway. By making it legal but regulating it, MagiPol ensures most summonings are done under their supervision. Illegal summoning is rare nowadays.”

Mario glanced impatiently at Izzah, but she and Kai were still talking. “The laws are strict. A summoner caught performing without permits can face the death penalty. A contractor without proper registration is always put to death.”

I swallowed. “That’s harsh.”

“It has to be. Once a demon is bound in a contract, killing the contractor is the safest way to eliminate the demon. Summoners are punished almost as harshly because illegal summoning is how you end up with untethered demons, and every one of those results in a body count.”

Aaron noticed my disquiet. “Don’t freak, Tori. Unbound demons are so rare you don’t need to worry about it. MagiPol tightened a few laws ten years ago, and I haven’t heard of a demon on the loose in about—”

The clamor of twenty phones chiming at the same moment interrupted him.

***

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