“Oh, but don’t you realize?” His sunken eyes glinted. “We’re going to kill you all anyway. You’re defending a demon mage. Your fate is the same as his.”
He swung his huge sword and a wall of flame surged at us. I ducked behind Aaron and the fire broke over him like a wave over stone, charring his clothes but not harming him. As the fire died, Hoshi poked her nose out from the pit where she was hiding.
“You’re good, Sinclair.” Halil smiled hungrily. “It’s been a long time since I fought a pyromage I couldn’t burn.”
Aaron drew Sharpie. “Then why don’t we see if I can burn you?”
He planted one hand against the flat of the blade, then whipped his weapon through the air. An inferno roared out of the steel and the white-hot fire crashed over Halil. The man reappeared, his clothes smoking and a smirk on his thin lips.
“In that case,” Aaron snarled, “I’ll just have to run you through instead.”
He set his feet, then he and Halil charged each other.
I retreated as they collided in an earsplitting clang of steel. More fire burst over them as they sought to overpower the other with either magic or brute strength. Aaron slid backward, outweighed and probably out-muscled by the larger man.
They slammed their swords together again, fire bursting everywhere. The flames formed flickering patterns as though the mages were trying to summon more complex attacks, but they were too evenly matched and disrupted the other’s attempts over and over.
Breaking apart for an instant, they clashed again, steel ringing. Swinging their weapons, they parried violently and Aaron gave way. Halil drove him backward and Aaron stumbled on the uneven floor.
In that instant of distraction, Halil took one hand off his sword hilt, fingers balled into a tight fist. His brass knuckles gleamed.
He punched Aaron in the side—and Aaron flew backward like he’d been hit by a speeding car. He crashed to the floor, and his sword slid away with a clatter.
My whole body froze in panic. Halil had used that same artifact on Ezra with no effect aside from a boom of air—but Ezra must have countered it with his own magic. Aaron didn’t have that ability, and Halil’s hit had thrown him ten feet. He was clutching his side, unable to rise.
Grinning, Halil strode toward Aaron, flames rippling over his broadsword.
I launched forward, my hand scrabbling at my belt. My fingers closed around a smooth glass sphere and I locked my focus on Halil. The mage looked up, smirking in cruel amusement at the thought of me trying to fight him.
Six feet away, and just before I entered the reach of his sword, I whipped the sphere at his face.
He whacked it out of the air, but it shattered against his hand. I squeezed my eyes shut against the blinding flash as an earsplitting bang pierced my eardrums. Eyes flying open, I lunged at him, my fall crystal in my other hand. All I had to do was touch it to his skin and he would go down.
I reached for him—and his fist swung out. I whipped my arm up and his knuckles struck my forearm, throwing me backward. The fall spell flew out of my hand as agony flared through my wrist, but adrenaline numbed the pain. I staggered for balance, relieved the punch had lacked the power of his brass knuckles’ spell.
I coiled to leap at him again, but he pointed his hand at me. Fire flared over his palm and launched for me in a boiling wave.
Hoshi dove in front of me. Wind swirled in a mini tornado around us, and the fire was swept into the spiral. Everything turned red. The heat blasted my skin, but the flames didn’t touch me.
Halil burst through the fiery whirlwind, blade swinging. The flat side caught Hoshi in the chest, hurling her out of the air. Then his other hand flashed out and grabbed me by the throat. His skin, hot as a stovetop, burned my neck and I screamed. I scrabbled at his scorching fist and brass knuckles.
He drew his sword back to strike. Snatching wildly at my belt, I grabbed my second-last glass orb and smashed it against his face.
With a shout of pain, he let me go. I fell, my nails dragging over his hand and catching on his brass knuckles. They came off in my grasp as I crumpled to the floor amidst a rapidly expanding cloud of smoke that hid everything more than three feet away.
Fire ignited above me—Halil, readying a new attack. Gasping, I rolled away from him as a second inferno erupted.
Aaron appeared out of the fog, a fiery wraith with a sword—his torso wreathed in white flames and rippling heat. He slammed his blade into Halil’s and a cannon blast of white-blue fire leaped from him, hitting the Keys man in the chest.
Halil howled in agony. The flaming assault died, but the remains of Halil’s shirt were still burning. His skin was black and blistering, his face streaked with blood and peppered with shards of glass.
He stumbled back a step, then bared his bloody teeth. “You think this will stop me?” he snarled, raising his sword again. “You think after the demons I’ve fought you could ever—”
He jolted forward, then twisted to look over his shoulder. A small silver knife stuck out of his lower back.
Leaping out of the pit directly behind him, a bolt of lightning struck the knife. Crackling white power engulfed Halil’s body. Convulsing, he collapsed backward, hit the edge of the pit, and tumbled into it.
The lightning dispersed as Halil hit the ground with a crunch.
Trying not to whimper, I crawled to the edge and looked down, but I couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Faint silvery light bloomed. Hoshi undulated over to me and her softly glowing body illuminated the interior of the hole.
Drawn sword in hand, Kai leaned against a bank of machinery, sneering at the pyromage crumpled on the ground a few feet from him. I didn’t know if Halil was unconscious or dead, and I didn’t care.
Panting harshly, Aaron hobbled to the edge too. “You okay, Kai?”
“Fine.” He still wasn’t putting any weight on his leg. “Hurry!”
Aaron straightened with a pronounced wince, his hand pressed tightly to his ribs.
“Hoshi, stay with Kai,” I said breathlessly, reinforcing the words with a mental image of what I wanted.
As she drifted down into the pit and Aaron sheathed Sharpie over his shoulder, I stumbled to my feet and raced to retrieve Ezra’s pole-arm. When I grabbed it, agony speared my palm and it fell from my grasp.
Shards of glass were sticking out of my bloody hand. Teeth gritted, I pulled out the big pieces, then grabbed the pole-arm again, ignoring the pain. A deep, worrying throb filled the wrist I’d used to block Halil’s punch, but I ignored that too.
Red glinted on the dirty floor. I grabbed my fall spell and stuffed it back in my belt, along with Halil’s brass knuckles.
Aaron conjured a small flame to light our way. As he limped behind me, holding his chest, I hurried deeper into the abandoned factory. Half my attention was on spotting more booby traps, while panicked questions consumed the other half. How long had that battle taken? Was Ezra still alive? Was he still fighting? Was he—
A deep boom rattled the walls, and directly ahead, a brief crimson glow illuminated the pillars and equipment blocking our path. I ran forward, then stopped to scan the machinery for a way past.
“There,” Aaron panted, pointing with his palmful of fire. Off to the side, a metal ladder connected the ground level to the steel mezzanine twenty feet above.
I darted to the ladder, stuck Ezra’s pole-arm through the back of my belt to free my hands, and started to climb. The rusted rungs bit into my palms and scraped the bloody cuts.
A loud clang below me. I stopped short and looked down.
Aaron wasn’t on the ladder. He stood on the ground, clutching his side and wheezing. Gulping for air, he grabbed a rung with one hand, the other braced against his ribs. He stepped onto the ladder, only to drop back to the floor with a stagger.
“Tori,” he panted. “I can’t … Go. Don’t wait for me.”
My throat closed. Go? Alone?
“I’ll follow,” he added, unnaturally winded. “I’ll be right behind you.”
I stared down at his white face and knew he couldn’t follow. He couldn’t climb the ladder, and even if he’d been able to, he was hurt too badly to fight demons.
Unable to find my voice, I nodded. My heart shuddered beneath my ribs and panic coursed through me like acid, but I started to climb again—leaving first Kai and now Aaron behind.
I clambered onto the mezzanine, a platform of heavy steel beams with metal grating as a floor. Flickering light from Aaron’s fire lit my way as I jogged across the platform, my steps clanging. The farther I went, the darker it grew, until the rotting pallets and half-manufactured machinery stacked along the wall were no more than black shadows.
Aaron’s warm light glowed behind me, calling me back. Ahead was nothing but darkness. Slipping Ezra’s pole-arm out of my belt, I pushed onward. Ezra was somewhere ahead. He must have lured the Keys as deep as possible to buy his friends time to escape.
I slowed to a trot, one hand stretched out blindly. Crimson light flared in a thin, rectangular shape—the outline of a closed door set in a blank wall that cut across the mezzanine. Breaking into a run, I reached it just before the guiding light vanished. I shoved the rusted metal door open.
A stack of pallets blocked my way forward, but more white light glowed dimly beyond it. I scooted around the stack and burst out on the other side.
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