Emery smiled in approval and gave me a small nod. He only had one file, I noticed.
“You are not so naive as you seem,” Darius said, adjusting the straps of the netting over his shoulders. “How unfortunate.”
“Oh no, I’m horribly naive. It’s annoying and I hate it. But I’m not stupid. Now let’s go. I may or may not have set a building on fire.”
We sprinted out of the records building. Smoke coughed out of the opened door a ways up. Flames flickered in the windows. No denying that. I’d definitely set fire to it.
A jet of magic came at us. Emery shot something back before I could even blink.
I collected up my power stones and whatever handfuls I could of the natural items. I stuffed them into my belt and strapped it on as the vampires converged around us.
“Stay near me,” Emery said, grabbing my arm and pulling me close. Our bubble flared to life almost immediately, our power instantly amping up.
We jogged out the way we’d come. Movement caught my eye from the right, a pulsing beacon of death flaring to life in front of us.
“They’re creating a nasty spell that way.” I pointed in front of us.
“Exit strategy. Go left,” Darius commanded.
Like a flock of birds, everyone turned, the vampires gliding along effortlessly, seemingly untroubled by the weight and bulk strapped to their backs. Emery dropped a hazy shield around us, similar to the spell I’d used against the mage attack on our first visit. He could say what he wanted, but his brain was clearly just fine at quickly picking up and remembering spells.
We picked up the speed until Emery and I were flat-out running. The boxes bounced on the backs of the vampires. Evil sparked behind us.
“Incoming,” I hollered, whirling another heat ball into existence, then bowling it behind us.
“You have a very creative imagination.” Emery created a weave above us, perfectly done regardless of how fast we were running. “And a very scary one.”
“You literally have no idea.” Movement caught my eye to the right and I sent a red zapper that way. Someone shrieked. Marie sprinted away and the sound cut off.
“Left,” Darius said.
Emery and I turned together, moving into a part of the compound we hadn’t seen earlier. We passed between shabby buildings with black windows and sickly trees with bare branches. Marie caught up to us before stalling and drifting behind. I felt a surge of aggression, spiky and hot, ready to be realized.
“Oh no.” I jumped to the side so the vampires could pass me and sprinted back toward her, my heart in my throat. She was terrifying, but she had helped me. I didn’t want to see her die.
“Penny,” Emery called out, chasing after me.
The spell loosed, hurtling in roughly our direction. Marie ran in front of us, right at it. It would slice her in pieces. Even superior healing would not help her.
White-hot fire rose through me. I clapped my hand on Emery’s wrist, closed my eyes, and opened up to my intention. Blast away that spell.
My center exploded out, my power acidic. I staggered, clutching at my chest. Emery wrapped his arm around my shoulders, supporting me as my spell sailed right above Marie’s head. It hit the spell five feet before it reached her. An explosion of heat and light blasted Marie off her feet. She flew backward at us, her hair burned away and her clothes smoking.
Her body hit mine, throwing me back. My head smacked against the ground and my vision swam.
“Get Penny,” Emery yelled, his voice hard. Hexes exploded through the air, firing out from Emery faster than I could think. Energy boiled and frayed around us.
Screams pierced the darkness. Agonized groans filled in the gaps. Movement came from the right. Emery gracefully turned his upper body to shift his aim, his file at his feet and his magic rising around him like he was some sort of God. He flung the spells every which way, aggressive and powerful, cutting out the enemy with cool efficiency.
A hairless, gristly-green monster yanked me up off the ground and threw me over its shoulder. Black filled its eyes, fangs dropped down from black gums surrounded by black lips, and jutting cheekbones with hollowed cheeks made me cringe.
“Am I hallucinating?” I tried to hold my hands away from touching its half-scorched, half-swampy back. My head pounded and simultaneously felt like it had been stuffed with feathers, but I could still make out the greenish-white skin dipping between the creature’s ribs, the bony butt, and stringy, bowed legs.
And we were running. So fast I couldn’t focus. Legs churning and air whipping my face. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them again, thinking of Emery. He had been left behind to deal with the mages. Alone.
“Let me down. I can help,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“He comes,” the horrifying monster said through a mouthful of fangs.
I arched, looking back. Sure enough, Emery was sprinting, his file safely in hand. We turned a corner and the sight of him cut out. I was about to roll off the bony, extremely uncomfortable shoulder of the swamp thing, when Emery came around after us.
“He and I leave together,” I said, pounding a fist on the back of the monster. “Did you hear that? I don’t leave this compound unless it is with him.”
Miracle of miracles, the swamp thing listened, slowing as we ran up to the ward leading out of this hellhole. Emery caught up with us, his eyes anxious, glimmering in the moonlight. As a unit, we ran out together, our magical key from previously entering enough to get us back out again.
Thoughts dizzied after that. We ran up a small hillside and to a small road where a line of cars and trucks awaited us. The others.
“Dawn is fast approaching. Let’s get to the safe house,” Darius said, thrusting a finger in the air.
I ended up in an SUV on Emery’s lap, my head still pounding and a huge lump on it to show why.
“Did you get it?” I asked.
“I think so. I need Darius or Clyde to read over a couple pages to be sure, but I really think so.” His eyes held relief and sadness. “I never would’ve guessed. It wasn’t the person I’d suspected. But one document in particular…” He shook his head and grazed my forehead with his lips. “It just goes to show how conniving that bunch really is. They’re almost a match for the vampires.”
“So you can get closure.”
He gave me a squeeze. “After trading with the vampires for information, yes. Clyde has all the details I need to end it. Finally.” He looked down on me, his eyes deep and soft. “I couldn’t have done it without you. You have more courage than combat-trained men. You went in there knowing next to nothing, but you never once balked. I am in awe of you, Penny Bristol.”
“It’s easier to have courage when you don’t know what’s coming. You’re the courageous one, not me.”
His lips were firm and insistent on mine, fluttering my heart. “Thank you for helping me,” he said. “I will never forget it.”
His heavy tone sent a tendril of fear worming through my heart. “Is that an invitation to constantly remind you of my heroics?” I asked, keeping it light.
A flash of sadness and regret rolled across his expression, there one moment and gone the next, so fast I wondered if I’d imagined it. Before I could press the point, because if he thought he was walking away after all this, he was sorely mistaken, the procession of vehicles slowed.
“Wait…where are we?” I asked, straightening up and looking out the window. Lush greenery lined both sides of the narrow road. Ahead of us loomed a large house nestled into the trees, mostly obscured by the natural surroundings. “We got him what he wanted, so now the vampire is going to kill us, is that it?”
The light came on as we stopped beside the road. “Do not be absurd.” The dark gaze of the driver flashed into the rearview mirror. “You are much too valuable to kill.”
“Well there you go. See?” Emery opened the door. “And you were worried.”
“Okay, but where are we?”
The driver was next to the door in a flash, his hand outstretched to help me. Judging by the grumpy expression on his face, this was the last thing in the world he wanted to be doing. “We are at a friend’s estate. The guild does not know of it. You’ll be safe here.”
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