The small twister picked up two mages and flung them before angling back, clearing the way for the vampires, who continued to crowd into the yard, fangs and claws working. The twister dissipated as it left the front yard.
“Is it magic—” More lightning, two bolts at the same time, hit behind the house. Then four more. A woman walked down the middle of the street, her arms raised and fire-red hair whipping around her. A mage, previously running in her direction, away from the vampire-created carnage, came to a sudden stop and held out a casing.
The woman’s hands barely moved, her fingers flicking. Lightning shot down in front of her, piercing the top of the mage’s head. His casing fell safely to the ground.
The scene slowed around us. Monsters stilled. Bodies lay strewn across the carefully manicured lawn.
Emery heaved, staring down at the Baron. A tear leaked out of his eye, and he wiped it away. “That was for Conrad,” he said in a hoarse voice.
I ran to him, not knowing what the heck was going on with the red-haired woman, but thankful to her, since she seemed to be on our side, and thankful to the vampires.
I slid my hand down his arm and fit my palm into his. He took his hand back before pulling me into his body.
“I knew the pain wouldn’t go away,” he said, resting his cheek on my head. “But I didn’t expect it to get worse.” He crushed me to his chest.
“You’ve reopened the wound,” came Darius’s eloquent voice. He moved up beside me in human form, and I got an eyeful. He hadn’t a stitch of clothing on him. “And you can finally let it heal. Now, why don’t you introduce me to your Elemental friend.” It was worded like a question but not stated as one.
“Elemental?” I said softly, trying to remember if I’d ever heard of that. It sounded vaguely familiar.
“They control the elements,” Darius said, walking beside us. “They range in power, like mages, and usually specialize in one main element, and possibly a few sub-elements. They can be quite useful, as we’ve seen.”
The woman shifted and stuck out her hip when we neared, a hard gaze directed at Darius.
“Since when are you in league with vampires?” she said with heat to her voice.
“That’s the way it had to go.” Emery stopped in front of her. “Solas, this is Darius. He’s helped us survive the last couple of nights. Darius, Solas is an acolyte. She hopes to rank in the next Placement Games.”
“Is that right?” Darius studied her face. “I am heavily active in the sponsorship of those games. I thought I knew all the big players.”
Solas lifted her chin and a fierce expression crossed her face. “Outside gamblers”—she spat the word—“know only what they are told. It has no bearing on actual talent.”
I grinned despite my fatigue. I liked her fire.
“Clearly.” Darius glanced around the yard, his gaze flicking to the blackened spots and the uprooted areas. “Well, Solas.” He offered her a bow. “It was a pleasure.” He turned to Emery and me. “I will let you chat for a moment, but as the human police will soon arrive, we don’t have much time. I’ll see to Penny’s mother.”
And with that, he was gone, striding away.
“You’re going to have a vampire meddling in your affairs,” Emery told Solas, and from the ease with which he spoke to her, I could tell they knew each other well.
She shrugged. “If he wants to sponsor me, he can be my guest. There is paperwork for a reason. He won’t own me.”
“Keep your wits.” Emery grinned, but the sentiment didn’t reach his eyes.
Solas’s eyes widened. “What’s this? A smile?” She turned her crystal-clear green eyes on me, and I got the feeling I was being measured somehow.
“How did you know to come?” Emery asked, glancing behind him at the others preparing to leave. The sirens blared in the distance.
“You move through the world like a minotaur through a crowd of fairies,” Solas said. “I stayed in the area and listened. Traveling into the guild compound was too dangerous, but a sleepy neighborhood in this rainy town? Perfect.”
“But why? We were even.”
She shook her head and took a step back. “We weren’t even. You were trying to brush me off, and I had too much honor to let you. Now we are even.” Her eyes flicked to me again. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to the one who has cleared away the clouds of your disposition?”
Emery squeezed me again. “This is Penelope Bristol. She has recently learned she’s a natural.”
Solas turned to me and offered a deep bow. “A pleasure. You are a lucky woman, Penelope Bristol. Because now you know me.” Her smile made her eyes sparkle. She turned to Emery. “What? Did you think I meant that she was lucky for landing you?” She laughed and playfully pushed him. “My, no. You are the lucky one, clearly.” Solas smiled at me again and stepped back. “If either of you want to swap favors, please remember me. I’d love to have a natural in my pocket.”
“I am aware,” Emery muttered.
“There it is.” She pointed at his surly expression. “There’s the frown I remember. Now that is the Emery I know.” Her laughter followed her down the street.
“She’s lovely…while also being nuts,” I said, letting Emery turn us in the opposite direction.
“Yeah. It’s what will make her sensational in the Placement Games. She’ll charm the crowd and then destroy her opponents. She just needs to get there. Hopefully Darius will take an interest and make it happen.”
“Huh.” I was too tired to ask more about it.
Up ahead I saw Veronica huddled, wrapped in a blanket. I was running before I knew it, pushing through vampires trying to make her comfortable and wrapping my arms around her.
“Are you okay, are you hurt?” I asked, rifling through her blanket to get at her fingers. Eight, with two thumbs. “Oh good, they didn’t chop anything off.”
“I’m okay. I’m fine. My family is really shaken up, but we’re okay.”
I hugged her again before I heard the wail of the sirens getting louder. It was almost time to leave.
I had to release my death grip on Veronica so they could hasten her toward her family, who were being hastened away by the vampires. Her mother needed her more than I did, and since I was responsible for all this, I wasn’t welcome at the moment.
“How did Darius find us?” I asked as we made our way toward my house. “I mean, remind me to thank him for saving the day and everything, but we snuck out the window in that house for a reason.”
“I left a note. I knew he’d want to protect his interests.” Emery started to jog, my hand clasped in his. My mother was on her lawn, gun in hand, more bodies on the grass. Beautiful naked people lingered in the street, waiting for Darius. The wail of the sirens rode the breeze.
“You see? I knew you were crazy. Well, you’ve gone too far this time,” Lewis shouted across the street. “I’ve called the cops. And tell your naked friends to put some clothes on, for God’s sake.”
“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, Lewis,” my mother shouted back.
“Mother, come on, we have to go!” I patted her arm as I passed her before running inside and grabbing her car keys. “The cops are coming.”
“I did not want that old goat to get the last word, that’s all.” My mother gave Lewis a hard stare.
“What sort of person yells at their neighbors about naked people when there was a magic fight outside of his house half an hour before?” Emery asked, staring in that direction.
“Don’t try to wrap your head around it,” I said. “He and my mother make no sense.”
After I hugged Veronica within an inch of her life, then pushed her and her family toward their vampire handlers, who would take them to safety, we loaded into the car. Darius and the rest of the vampires were running toward their hearses at the end of the street. I’d thought those vehicles were full of mages when they’d pulled up, but it had been the vampires the whole time, waiting for enough darkness to go outside. Clearly he had human workers to help him. Darius had certainly wanted to protect his interests, and while I was pretty sure that would be a very bad thing down the road, it was totally welcome in the moment. If it hadn’t been for him and Solas, Emery and I would probably be dead. There had been too many mages, and my hail Mary spell at the end wouldn’t have saved the day. I owed Darius one, and he surely knew it.
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