“Aaron,” Kai said in a low voice. He swung his leg over his bike. “We need to go. We don’t want to be here when the MPD arrives.”
As Aaron muttered his agreement, I dipped my fingers into the lukewarm puddle of thickening blood. Yeeeuch. Teeth gritted, I pulled the small metal object out and peeked at it. It was the round amulet the demon had offered to Ezra, separated from its host when the demon’s head had parted ways with its body.
Aaron stepped in front of me, and I quickly shoved the slimy pendant into my pocket. Taking his offered hand, I let him pull me up, then I jumped into the car. He shut my door and jogged around to the driver’s side. Kai’s bike started with a snarl.
Through the windshield, I watched the young woman. She made no move to stop us or even call out as Aaron dropped into his seat, slammed the door, and shifted the running car into reverse.
As he backed off the grass toward the street, Kai following on his motorcycle, my gaze shifted to the creature beside her. Its eyes glowed faintly, then the car turned. As the headlights shifted away, darkness swept over the girl and her demon.
The drive back was eerily quiet. I sat in the passenger seat, afraid to look anywhere but through the windshield. A few times I peeked at Aaron. His expression was the bleakest I’d ever seen it.
When he drove straight through an intersection instead of turning to go home, I broke the silence. “Where are we going?”
“Your place,” he replied roughly. “The Keys might go to my house.”
“Oh,” I whispered.
We didn’t speak again until Aaron had parked at the curb in front of my shabby bungalow. The headlamp of Kai’s bike glared through the back window as he parked behind us.
Aaron threw his door open, jumped out, then folded his seat down.
“Hey,” he said softly.
I twisted to look behind me, surprised to see Ezra sitting up on the back seat. I hadn’t realized he was awake. He hadn’t made a sound.
Aaron helped him climb out. Ezra moved stiffly, like he was hurting in every muscle and bone—which he probably was, considering what Kai had done to him. Gulping, I slid out of the car and grabbed my purse from under the seat. As Kai joined us, I led the way through the yard.
I unlocked the exterior door, then the door to my apartment. Stepping aside, I let the guys go in first. Not one of them looked at me as they passed.
After locking both doors, I followed them down. Aaron helped Ezra limp into my bedroom, and Kai went in with them. They murmured, their voices too low for me to make out any words. I stared around my apartment like I was seeing it for the first time—my sofa with a new coffee table in front of it, an equally new small flat-screen TV, and two metal stools at the breakfast bar. The crawlspace door, recently replaced, was closed, and I didn’t expect Twiggy to make an appearance. He always hid whenever Ezra was nearby.
I’d wondered why, but I’d never asked. I hadn’t wanted to know.
Kai and Aaron exited my room and closed the door, leaving Ezra inside. Silently, they walked to the sofa and sank into identical poses—hunched forward, elbows on knees, chins braced on their hands, shoulders slumped. Grim defeat rolled off them as they stared at the floor.
“We should’ve listened to him,” Aaron finally said, his voice hoarse. “He wanted to leave.”
Kai exhaled slowly. “I doubt Burke would’ve given up even if we’d made a run for it on Halloween. You heard him—he’s been waiting for this. Searching for one …”
My throat tightened as Burke’s triumphant cry echoed in my head. Finally, a demon mage!
I’d heard the term only once before. Alistair, the guild’s toughest mage and top combat mythic, had described a demon mage as the “ultimate opponent.” None of the Crow and Hammer’s other combat mythics had ever faced one.
“What we should have done,” Aaron muttered bitterly, “was gotten Ezra out of the city the moment the alert went out.”
Kai grunted in agreement.
I slunk to the sofa and stopped beside it, my heart contorting with each beat. “Guys?”
Kai straightened out of his slouch. “Sorry, Tori. We won’t stay long.”
“Huh?” I mumbled.
“Once Ezra recovers more, we’ll get out of here.”
“Get out of … where are you going?” When neither mage answered, my chest tightened with the beginnings of panic. “What are you planning?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kai said.
“Of course it matters!” My voice went shrill, volume rising. “Tell me what’s going on!”
“You don’t need to know.”
Aaron twitched his head in a faint shake. “A little late for that, don’t you think, Kai?”
“No,” he replied coolly. “Not yet.”
My hands balled into fists. “Don’t you dare cut me out. I want to know—”
Kai shoved to his feet, his dark eyes blazing. “You don’t want to know!”
My voice dried up, his sudden anger stealing my protest. Kai almost never shouted—but he was damn close to it now.
“You’ve never wanted to know, Tori. You’d rather pretend everything is fine and normal and easy. You’re the queen of delusion, an ostrich with your head in the sand, and that’s how you like it.”
His sharp words hit me like physical blows. Aaron glanced up at us, then looked away, his face pained.
“You had every chance to face this, and you chose not to. So, no,” Kai concluded tersely, “we won’t tell you anything.”
Angry denials built on my tongue, but I couldn’t speak them. I’d had dozens of opportunities to get answers, but I’d never tried. I could’ve asked Twiggy why he was terrified of Ezra. I could’ve asked Zak what he knew. I could’ve asked Alistair what a demon mage was.
But I hadn’t, because I was too scared of the truth. I didn’t want to know, because once I knew … everything would change.
“You two have done everything you could to hide the truth about Ezra from me,” I said, fighting to keep my voice level. “You didn’t want me asking questions.”
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that you didn’t,” Kai replied. “I’m saying there’s no reason to change that now. You don’t want to know, so you don’t need to know.”
“Tori,” Aaron said, getting to his feet too. “We’ve pulled you into a lot of messes over the past several months, but you always had the option to walk away. Even now, you can transfer to a sleeper guild and go back to living a human life if you want.”
“I don’t want to—”
“I know, Tori. I know. My point is you have the option, and we’re not taking that away from you.” He rubbed a hand over his lower face. “You’ve stuck with us, but you can’t anymore. You need to take care of yourself and your future. That means”—pain darkened his eyes—“this is where we go our separate ways.”
A bolt of panic ruptured my chest. I gasped in a breath, staring from him to Kai.
They were ditching me. That’s what he and Kai were saying. I didn’t need answers about Ezra because they were leaving me.
Deep-rooted pain, embedded by every excruciating rejection from my past, flared through my core. My eyes burned and I tried to summon anger instead, but it wouldn’t come.
My jaw clenched. I glared at them through blurred vision, fighting the tears. “Tell me the truth.”
Kai was right. I was good at ignoring unpleasant realities. It was a skill I’d learned in my childhood: pretending everything was fine even though my father was an abusive drunk; pretending I was okay after my mother had abandoned me; pretending I could handle it when Justin ran away, leaving me alone with my father for six terrible years.
I was so good at pretending that I’d rented an apartment even when, deep down, I’d been expecting to lose my job at the guild any day.
Denial was my coping mechanism, but that wouldn’t work anymore. I’d done too much damage by pretending everything was a happy fairytale with no bad monsters … or demon mages.
Now, I needed to understand. If I didn’t understand, then I couldn’t stop them from abandoning me.
Aaron and Kai said nothing. Then—
My head snapped up. Ezra stood in the open bedroom doorway. His arms hung at his sides, his shoulders were bent with pain and exhaustion, and his eyes were dull.
“Tell her,” he repeated. “She deserves to know.”
He disappeared back into the bedroom. The door closed with a soft thump.
Aaron and Kai hesitated, then Aaron sank onto the sofa. He grasped Kai’s wrist and tugged him down too. I perched on the coffee table facing them. The two mages were silent again, but this time, they appeared to be gathering their thoughts.
“In the Demonica class,” Aaron began, choosing his words carefully, “summoners and contractors are the two legal orders. But those aren’t the only orders. Ezra belongs to a third order, an illegal one.”
I nervously licked my lips. “He’s a … demon mage?”