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A small spark was the only sign he’d been accepted. He put his hand out slowly and his finger passed through the plane.

“Did you put this up?” Emery asked, putting his hands where the ladies could see them and stepping toward the door.

“Her father did, many years ago,” Ms. Bristol said. “He was looking toward the future, though I don’t think even he could’ve known how bad it would get. He moved us here without disclosing the address to the guild. Their recordkeeping was limited to handwritten files at that time. Easy to misplace. These days, with computerized recordkeeping, that wouldn’t have been possible.” Ms. Bristol stepped back and brought up the gun, the black holes in the barrels staring at his chest. “I’ve kept the ward active. The first ward used to be just a warning, but I amplified it last night as another line of defense. I’m not nearly as good at this type of magic as he was. My gifts lie…elsewhere.”

“Wise,” Emery said, almost missing Penny’s mumbled “Great, more secrets.” He grinned. “Direct me where you want me.” He walked slowly, keeping his hands up, until he reached a plush recliner in a cozy living room. He glanced around him, taking in the large, decently furnished house. This family had money, though they didn’t spend it lavishly. “Was Mr. Bristol employed in a magical field?”

“He was a top-level Sheriff, set to carry out the decree of the Regional, though that title would make a lot more sense if they had expanded like they’d planned.” Ms. Bristol sat opposite Emery on the couch, the gun resting on her lap, but at such an angle that she’d still put a hole in him if she pulled the trigger. “Penny, sit farther away.”

Penny, who had been lowering herself onto the other end of the couch, straightened and moved to the recliner next to it.

Emery swallowed, the prolonged focus of the gun starting to get to him. “He was pretty high up. If I may ask, how did he die?”

“On the job. That’s all they would tell me. I wasn’t in the guild. My craft is too lowly for the likes of them. They don’t release their secrets outside of the organization, not even about a family member’s death.” Ms. Bristol’s face was so hard it could cut granite. “But he’d said things before he died. He was uneasy about some of the laws he was told to uphold. Then he put up these wards and told me to hide our daughter if he should die. Hide her away and never let the guild know of her existence. That was before the accident. He wasn’t a man to get easily riled up. He was mostly calm and placid, like Penny. The most important thing to him was his daughter, so I didn’t hesitate. I did exactly as he asked, but I kept an ear out for any whisperings. The guild grew more corrupt, and I grew more watchful over Penny.”

“My brother was a Regional, trying for a promotion to Baron,” Emery said, the pang of loss cutting him.

Ms. Bristol shifted, and he could see the surprise in her eyes. “That would’ve put him just a step down from the High Chancellor, correct?” He nodded. “He must’ve been powerful.”

“He was a natural. As am I… As is Penny.”

Ms. Bristol sucked a breath through her teeth. It didn’t come back out.

“How did your brother die?” Penny asked into the sudden hush, her voice deep and soft, the pain of loss evident. “Do you know the details?”

“No. Just like you, I only know he died on the job. It’s the details I intend to find out. That, and who ordered it. I know who killed my brother, and he’ll see his judgment, but I want the initiator as well.”

“You don’t think it was the High Chancellor?” Ms. Bristol asked.

Emery shook his head, rage burning in his gut. “I’ve ruled him out. He wants to bring me in alive. He wants my power at his disposal, though he’d try to reset my mind through torture or shock therapy. I can only guess he would’ve wanted the same from my brother. No, he wouldn’t have ordered my brother killed.”

“So who does that leave with enough clout?” Ms. Bristol asked.

He ran his fingers through his hair. “A Baron or a Regional would’ve had the power to order it. And only they could’ve prevented an in-depth investigation afterward.”

“My late husband didn’t get an investigation at all,” Ms. Bristol spat out. A few seconds of concentrated blinking cleared the sudden gloss over her eyes.

Emery nodded solemnly. “He is far from the only one. He had some status, but that only goes so far.”

She nodded, blinking quickly again. The sudden emotion didn’t show in her voice when she said, “You want to find those responsible. Fine. If I didn’t have a daughter, I might’ve fixated on revenge too. But then what?”

“I kill them.”

Her lids drooped and her eyes turned dull, indicating she’d known that, and he was wasting her time. She was a hard woman. “How will that change your future? Anyone you kill will simply be replaced with someone just as corrupt. And it will increase their motivation to bring you in.”

“They’ll never find me.”

“And you’ll never have any peace knowing that they won’t stop looking.”

He stared at her with an open mouth. She was right. He’d been so focused on avenging his brother that he hadn’t thought much of the life beyond.

“You are shortsighted and ill-prepared. You plan to march right into the demon’s nest, without an exit plan, or even a plan at all, and you think you’ll somehow protect my daughter at the same time?”

Each of her words felt like a bludgeon to his head. He had no idea how she did it, but it was extremely effective.

A very hard woman. He felt a little sorry for Penny.

He tried to find a better answer than “Yes?” but failed. He half wished she’d just pull the trigger now and put him out of his misery.

She shook her head and sighed, her body bowing in the process. “I wish you well in your journey, but you’re an idiot and no way will I trust you with my daughter.”

Black fog drifted through the space between them, showing him what danger was to come: Ms. Bristol would put her gun aside and stand. While she showed him out of the house, Penny would stand behind her mother, her eyes pleading. Her voice mute.

The fog cleared, and the scene was as before.

He couldn’t leave Penny behind. It would kill him. Or maybe kill her? He couldn’t tell.

“Okay…” Ms. Bristol said, glancing at Penny. Goodbye was in her tone.

The fog rolled through again. The scene played out a second time, just as it had a moment ago. This time, a weight settled in his gut.

They’d both die. He could feel it. Penny had to go with him, or neither of them would see this through.

Ms. Bristol put her gun to the side and stood.

Chapter Seventeen

“Please, Ms. Bristol, she has to go with me,” the stranger said, his eyes tight. He clutched the arms of the recliner. “My chief gift is that of sight as it pertains to danger. Penny must go with me. It is the safest option.”

“For you, or for her?” my mother said, her fists digging stubbornly into her hips.

“For both of us, but I don’t know specifics. I just know what situation will cause me damage, and leaving without her will. I mean, in this case, it will cause us damage, obviously.”

“Yes. Obviously.” My mother motioned him up.

He stood and clenched his fists, his arms rippling with muscle. “You would let your daughter die from your own ignorance?”

My mother shifted and a challenge sparkled in her eyes. “My ignorance? You are a hotheaded young man with a vendetta against a large, corrupt organization and a half-baked plan to bullheadedly sprint at danger with nothing more than a natural gift you don’t have the life experience to truly master. My husband was not as powerful as some, but with his training and experience, he often rose above his more powerful counterparts. Still they took him down. Your brother was a natural, yet they took him down. You’ve willfully ignored all of that, and yet you wish to challenge my ignorance? You would do better not to confuse ego with intelligence.”

The stranger’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head. “I’m missing something. The scene changes little by little, but it always ends the same. Even if I force her to come, we’ll both die. If I stay here, we’ll both die. There is something…missing. Something that needs to happen to change our fate…”

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