“Hmm. So I just need to point this card at an incoming magical attack and speak the incantation, and it’ll reflect it no matter what?”
“It’ll reflect incoming magic up to a point. That spell has limits, though there’s no easy way to determine how much it can handle. Still.” He straightened. “It’s valuable. If you want to sell it, let me know.”
“You want to buy it?”
“I couldn’t afford it, but I could find a buyer for you. Like I said, I collect this kind of stuff, so I know people.”
“What’s it worth?”
“I bet you could get twenty-five, maybe thirty for it.”
I pulled a face. How broke was he that he couldn’t afford thirty bucks? “I think we define ‘valuable’ differently.”
“You don’t think thirty thousand dollars is valuable?”
“Eh? I thought you meant—uh, yeah, that’s a lot of money. I’ll let you know if I decide to sell it.” Controlling my shock, I stuck the dark queen back in my pocket. Note to self: do not lose card.
“Oh, and Tori? Keep that to yourself.” He turned to the sink to wash his hands. “Humans aren’t allowed to own artifacts. Most mythics would be delighted to take it off your hands whether you wanted to give it up or not.”
Well, didn’t that sound awesome. Was he including his fellow guild members as mythics I needed to watch out for?
Back at the bar, Aaron and Kai had appeared, sitting on stools with their heads bent over a laptop. I offered a quick greeting as I prepped my station and served drinks to the dozen patrons waiting for service—and waiting to hear more about the goon squad attack on the weekend.
By the time I had a breather, Sin had joined Aaron and Kai, her blue hair gleaming in the dim lights. She offered me a cautious smile when I approached, which I returned with equal wariness.
“How are your injuries?” she asked.
“Healing fast. That cream you gave me is amazing stuff.” As I slid a rum and coke each to Aaron and Kai, I asked her, “Do you want anything?”
“Not right now, thanks.”
I craned my neck to peek at the laptop screen. “Whatchya working on?”
Aaron leaned back. “I called my parents, but their sources can’t find anything on a group of mythics aiming to exploit the family.”
“I’m wondering if it might be related to the rogue sorcerer we took out on Saturday,” Kai said, tapping away at the keyboard. “It seems too fast though.”
“What about the attackers?” I asked. “Can’t someone question them?”
“They all escaped before the cops showed up. We don’t know who they are or where they came from.” Kai glanced up, a darkly amused gleam in his eyes. “So Aaron is babysitting you, and I’m babysitting Aaron until we figure out who’s after him.”
Aaron gave a long-suffering sigh. “I don’t need babysitting here. No one would be stupid enough to waltz into guild headquarters.”
“True.” Kai pulled the laptop closer. “But I need to get some work done anyway.”
The evening passed quickly. Clara stopped to fuss over my eye and thank me for helping Aaron. I got more congratulations—according to mythics, a black eye was cause for celebration?—but what surprised me most was that Aaron didn’t downplay how dire the situation had been. And if I answered questions too modestly, he would correct me—making it clear that if I hadn’t jumped in to help, he wouldn’t be here. I’d expected a guy with as much ego as him to hate admitting something like that.
When Sin came upstairs to the pub—she was working in the alchemy lab in the basement tonight—to get a soda, Aaron was in the middle of retelling the story to Lyndon the sorcerer.
“Doesn’t it bother him?” I muttered as I passed her a coke. “Telling everyone how he needed help?”
As she slid onto a stool, Sin shrugged. “Mages are always tough, and Aaron is one of our best. Admitting he needed help only shows how powerful and capable his opponents were. We all know he isn’t weak or stupid.”
“Huh.” I poured myself a coke. “What about Kai and Ezra?”
“Kai doesn’t have as much brute power as Aaron, but he was well trained and disciplined even before joining the guild. I wouldn’t want him as my enemy, that’s for sure.” She stirred her glass with the straw. “As for Ezra … he makes good use of the magic he has, but he isn’t in Aaron and Kai’s league. A lot of it is genetics. Some bloodlines are extremely gifted, others aren’t.”
Aaron and Kai didn’t give off the impression that Ezra was a lesser mage, but when they captured that rogue sorcerer, Ezra was the only one who’d been hurt in the fight.
Taking a gulp of my coke, I remembered Ezra’s invisible rage, the way the room had gone ice-cold and the lights had dimmed. That didn’t seem like something a weak mage could do just out of temper, but what did I know?
“They seem like really good friends,” I murmured.
“Best friends,” Sin agreed, resting her chin on her hand. “Aaron and Kai have been as close as brothers since they were teenagers, and they joined the guild together. Ezra showed up a year or two after and applied to join, and Aaron and Kai took him under their wing—at least that’s what I heard. They’ve been inseparable since the day I met them.”
The last bit came out kind of grumpy and I raised my eyebrows questioningly. Sin checked no one was listening in, then bent closer.
“I’ve never met three guys who are this ridiculously hot but so undateable,” she whispered vehemently. “Kai is always seeing like five women at the same time, Aaron only dates girls he thinks his parents will loathe, and Ezra practically runs and hides if you flirt with him. It’s not fair.”
Rant over, she primly sipped her drink.
I stared at her. “Aaron only dates girls his parents will hate?”
“Maybe not on purpose, but the pattern is obvious.” She flapped her hand. “Anyway, sorry to derail. What were we talking about?”
“Um.” I wasn’t sure anymore. Aaron wanted to ask me out, though the ambush had delayed his plans. Did he see me as a girl his parents would hate? I smiled to myself. Upsetting parents—I was good at that.
Sin fiddled with her straw. “Honestly, Tori, I’m surprised you showed up today.”
“I expected you to ghost us. It’s not like we’ve been welcoming.” Guilt flickered across her features. “Then being followed home, seeing Aaron attacked out of nowhere, fighting rogues and getting beat up. Dealing with mythics comes with risks, especially when you don’t have magic to defend yourself, and the Crow and Hammer isn’t a safe, easy guild. I figured you’d walk away and never look back.”
She gazed at me expectantly, waiting for a response, but I said nothing, my thoughts scrambled. Now that she’d spelled it out, ditching the guild would have been the smart reaction to a near-deadly assault by criminal mythics, but I hadn’t given the idea any serious consideration. Was there something wrong with me? Did I enjoy danger?
A strange feeling prickled in my stomach. Maybe it wasn’t that I enjoyed danger but that I hated boredom. This place, these people—they weren’t and never would be boring.
At the end of the night, Aaron drove me home in his old red sports car, Kai crammed in the back so I could ride in the passenger seat. We saw no signs of stalkers or would-be abductors.
The rest of the week passed in a comfortable routine. College in the morning, walking to the Crow and Hammer after class, hanging with Aaron—accompanied by Kai or Ezra—and visiting with Sin whenever she came up from the basement lab for a drink or snack. Now that she wasn’t sabotaging my bar, she was fun to talk to. Her apology had been genuine and I’d decided to forgive her … especially since I suspected Tabitha had been the whispering devil on her shoulder.
The biggest difference between my first week and my second, however, was the atmosphere. Putting my life on the line to protect a guild member had triggered a major shift in attitude. I wasn’t living in a magical fairytale where everyone now adored me, but the overall response to my presence was improving.
More members smiled and made small talk. More friendly greetings. More tips. The cheer didn’t vanish off their faces when they got near me. I’d thought weeknights were slow, but now I suspected members had been avoiding the pub. It was busier, livelier, and way more fun. Laughter, jokes, lots of banter. Drunken goofing off, mythic style.
Some people still despised me, but the number was shrinking. Any night Tabitha was on duty promised to suck. She always showed up at the worst moments, and though her cool remarks were never overtly antagonistic, by the time she vanished back upstairs, I’d be mired in bitter anger. Her subtle ability to make me feel unwelcome and unappreciated was as impressive as it was disheartening.
Sylvia the hag and I had reached a cold truce. Liam the weaselly telepathic had apologized and hadn’t tried anything creepy since. Tom, the bookworm psychic, came in every night for a few drinks and quality reading time in his favorite corner. Alyssa, a girl with banana-blond hair, was so aloof I was surprised she hadn’t injured herself walking around with her nose in the air, but whatever.
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