The air heated, crackled, burned.

Fire exploded out from Aaron, turning the alleyway into a wall of flame. Only the tight circle within his arms was spared the fire, but the heat—I couldn’t breathe. My head spun, my skin screaming, my clothes scorching.

The flames died, revealing the blackened alley. Ice Guy was gone, as were his companions. The downed attackers were far enough away that the lethal inferno had missed them. I glanced at my hands, relieved they weren’t blistering—just pink, like I’d turned the shower too hot.

Aaron’s skin cooled and his arms loosened, then he tipped over, catching himself on one elbow.

“Shit,” he rasped.

I gripped his arm. “Are you okay?”

“Poisoned. No idea what it does.” His arms trembled as he pushed himself up. “We have to get out of here.”

“What—” I broke off as, in the distance, police sirens echoed through the streets. Oh crap. I did not want to get caught in an alleyway with several weapons, three unconscious men, a poisoned pyromage, and a lot of fire damage.

“Okay,” I gasped, struggling to think straight. “Let’s go. Come on, Aaron.”

Shoving the Queen of Spades into my back pocket, I heaved on his arm. With effort, he staggered upright and sagged against me, almost toppling us both. I clutched him, my legs quivering as I supported his weight.

“My apartment is across the street,” I panted, dragging him past the dumpster. “Crap, my purse.”

I helped him lean against the dumpster, grabbed my purse, then pulled his arm over my shoulders again. We hobbled out of the alley and across the street. Kicking the building’s main door open, I dug one-handed in my purse for my key fob. I slapped it against the panel to unlock the security doors, then wrangled them open and limped into the lobby.

A middle-aged woman, waiting at the elevator with a wheeled suitcase, watched us approach with eyes that grew wider and wider the closer we got.

I forced a smile, trying not to crumple under Aaron’s weight. “He had too much to drink.”

Her bug-eyed stare shifted from him to me. “Good god, girl. What did he do to your face?”

Oh damn. So I wasn’t imagining that my eye felt hot and puffy. “Wasn’t him.”

Her look screamed skepticism, but then the elevator dinged and the doors slid open. I heaved Aaron inside and he slumped against the wall, groaning. His eyes were squeezed shut, his face white and shining with perspiration. If he’d been drunk and not poisoned, I would’ve been searching for a bucket for him to puke in.

The woman must have thought the same, because she backed up. “I’ll take the next one.”

Relieved, I jammed the button for the ninth floor three times. The door slid shut and the elevator glided upward.

“Hang on, Aaron,” I whispered, rubbing his shoulder. Flakes of his crisped shirt fluttered to the floor. “Almost there.”

He didn’t answer, his concentration consumed by the battle to stay upright.

The elevator dinged open to reveal a quiet, carpeted hall. I pulled him past the rows of doors to Justin’s apartment, fumbling with my keys. Unlocking the door, I dragged Aaron inside. He was staggering badly, his weight too much for me. We stumbled down the short hall into the living room and I pushed him toward the sofa. He fell, landing half on the cushions, yellow potion smearing over the blue fabric.

I rushed back to shut and bolt the door, then quickly checked myself for any poison. None of it had gotten on me, so that was one problem I didn’t have to worry about.

Returning to Aaron, I fought back a wave of panic. His clothes were charred, his elbows scraped and the knee of his jeans torn out from a fall. A long slice down his forearm leaked blood, and scary white patches on his skin warned of frostbite from Ice Guy’s power. His cheek was scraped to hell from that dickwad stepping on him and pushing his face into the gravelly pavement.

“Aaron?”

His face was slack. He’d lost consciousness.

Panicked buzzing filled my head. Aaron had been poisoned by who knew what sort of nasty magic potion. He was unconscious, possibly dying. What was I supposed to do? Hyperventilating, I dug out my phone and called Clara. It went straight to voicemail, but I called again. And again.

Giving up on Clara, I stared at my phone, my finger trembling over the 9. Did I call 9-1-1? Could human emergency services save him? What should I do?

I squeezed my eyes shut, commanding myself to focus, then threw my phone aside. Kneeling beside the sofa, I patted down Aaron’s front pockets, then wiggled my hand under his ass to check the back ones. My searching fingers found the hard rectangle of his phone. I pulled it out and swiped the screen. Locked.

Grabbing his poison-free hand, I pushed his limp forefinger against the fingerprint reader. The screen flashed awake. Thank goodness for hackable technology.

I opened his contacts and speed-scrolled past a zillion names to the Es—but Ezra’s name wasn’t there. Swearing, I zoomed down to Kai’s number and called it. The phone rang, rang, rang, then clicked to voicemail.

“No!” I yelled at the phone. “Why won’t you answer?”

On a date. Aaron had said Kai was out on a date tonight, but Ezra had stayed home. I checked his contacts again, but Ezra’s name wasn’t there. With trembling hands, I opened his most recent apps, found his messenger, and pulled it up. A conversation with Kai, and—

“Cyclops?” I hissed. “You put him in your contacts under Cyclops?”

I dialed Ezra’s number and held the phone to my ear. It rang … rang … rang—

“Hello?”

Ezra’s groggy voice was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I opened my mouth but only a whimper came out.

“Aaron?” Ezra asked, alertness sharpening his tone.

“Ezra!” I burst out, my quavering voice on the edge of tears. “Aaron needs help!”

“Tori?” His drowsiness vanished. “What—”

“We were attacked walking home,” I blurted. “There was a guy with ice magic and sorcerers—I think they were sorcerers—and one of them shot Aaron with this yellow stuff and Aaron said it was poison but now he’s unconscious and I don’t—”

“Tori, calm down.” Ezra’s level voice, meltingly smooth, soothed my panic. “Take a deep breath.”

I sucked in air.

“Is Aaron breathing?”

“Yes.”

“Is he bleeding?”

“A little.”

“Where are you?”

“At my apartment.” I rattled off the address.

“I’m coming to you. I’ll be there in ten minutes, okay? Call Kai and tell him to find an alchemist and meet us at your place.”

“I already called him. No answer.”

“Keep calling. He’ll pick up. I’ll be there soon.”

“Okay,” I whispered.

As soon as the call disconnected, my panic started to climb again. Inhaling deeply, I crouched beside Aaron to watch his chest—making sure he continued to breathe—and called Kai. The phone rang until it went to voicemail. I called again. It rang twice, then the line clicked.

“Yes?” No drowsiness from Kai—just an irritated snap.

“Kai? This is Tori.”

“Tori?” His sharp tone transformed into concern. “Why do you have Aaron’s phone?”

“He was attacked walking me home,” I said. “Ezra is on his way here, and he said you need to bring an alchemist.”

“Where are you?”

I gave him my address. “Hurry, please.”

“I’m leaving right now. Are you safe there?” As I confirmed our relative safety, his phone picked up the sound of a door slamming and footsteps thudding on a hard floor. “Tori, if Ezra arrives before me, have him wait outside until I get there.”

“What? Why?”

“He doesn’t handle it well when his friends get hurt.” Another door banged open. “Trust me on this. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Just hang tight.”

He ended the call and I lowered the phone. Don’t let Ezra inside the apartment? Ezra, Mr. Calm and Collected?

I set Aaron’s phone on the end table and shifted closer to him. His breathing was even but slow, his face still slack. I twisted my hands together, wishing there was something I could do besides wait.

After a minute, I wobbled into the bathroom to pull the first aid kit from under the sink. Back at Aaron’s side, I opened an alcohol swab and gently cleaned the slice on his arm, but blood was leaking out as fast as I was wiping it away. Whimpering, I grabbed a fat roll of gauze and wound half of it around his arm. Red soaked through it almost instantly and I whimpered again, sternly telling myself that he wouldn’t bleed to death from the shallow cut.

Under normal circumstances, I’m pretty damn levelheaded—I like to think so, anyway—but this … this had shaken me bad. Not only the ambush, but the violence of it. The fire, the ice, the magic. Guns and bullets might have been deadlier, but at least they were familiar.

Aaron’s phone erupted in a video game tune, scaring me out of my skin. I leaped to grab it and swiped the screen to answer.

“Hello?”

“I’m here,” Ezra said. “Can you let me in?”

***

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