“And what about two through four?” Kai asked.

Zak shrugged. “Four means we can probably win in a fight, but avoid taking a direct hit at all costs. If the fae attacks, he’ll go for me first. You three should get behind him. I’ll keep his attention, and you strike from the flanks and rear.”

“How likely is a fight?” I asked nervously.

“Depends on his temperament. Since this fae regularly deals with humans, probably low. He’ll want to see what he can get from us.” Zak pointed at me. “You and the fae lord need to stay out of this. If the darkfae is too powerful for us to handle, then Llyr would cause you serious damage fighting it. You and the witch should back up—way up—and stay there.”

He gave me a meaningful look and I nodded in understanding. I grabbed Olivia’s arm and hauled her through the trees until we were well away from the clearing. She complained the whole way, but I ignored her. Zak wanted me to keep her from screwing things up. That I could do.

Aaron and Ezra, positioned on either side of Kai, moved out a few steps and drew their weapons. Aaron rested the point of his broadsword on the ground, while Ezra split his polearm and reattached the ends, forming a double-bladed staff. Leaving his throwing knives sheathed, Kai drew his katana, the polished steel gleaming.

Zak’s voice drifted through the trees in a soft chant that verged on a song. I crouched behind a shrub and pulled Olivia down with me.

“Dealing with darkfae,” Olivia hissed angrily. “No better than Red Rum.”

“Which is worse?” I hissed back. “Dealing with this darkfae or letting me die? Witch ethics aside, I’d rather live.”

Zak crouched to open the pet carrier. As he pulled the chicken out, I glimpsed ruffled brown feathers—and the gleam of a knife in his other hand. His body blocked my view, but whatever he did, he was quick about it. The fire in the center of the circle puffed black smoke, and the ritual lines lit with glowing magenta power.

He resumed his chanting song. The circle’s eerie glow grew brighter, and Olivia fidgeted with impatience and discomfort. I pinched her arm to make her hold still.

Falling silent, Zak stood, unmoving. Aaron, Kai, and Ezra held still too, following the druid’s lead. We waited, the night gradually deepening. My legs ached from crouching awkwardly, but I didn’t move.

Olivia sucked in a sharp, trembling breath.

The air above the glowing circle shimmered. A shadow darkened the glow of the fire, then the shape stretched upward and solidified. My stomach clenched.

The fae called the Rat towered over Zak, twice his height. The creature stood in a hunch, his immensely long arms braced against the ground, his powerful shoulders bulging like a hyena’s. A bald, rat-like tail lashed behind him, and his brownish-gray skin shone dimly in the sputtering firelight.

His large head was vaguely human, with a heavy brow and deep-set eyes, but jutting tusks stuck up from his lower jaw. A tangled black mane sprouted from the top of his skull.

“Bhardudlin,” Zak said, his tone neutral. He put his hand behind his back and signaled a number to the mages. Even from fifty feet away, I could see his hand spread wide in warning. Five.

The darkfae’s head dropped a few inches as he examined Zak with ebony eyes.

“Druid.” The deep, bone-rumbling bass of his voice rolled through the quiet night. “The Crystal Druid, no less. I give my respects to the lovely Night Eagle.”

Zak inclined his head. “Would you care to bargain, Bhardudlin?”

“Hmm.” His giant head lunged down, far faster than such a huge creature should be able to move. He flung his head into the air, caught the dead chicken in his mouth, and swallowed it in one gulp. “I did not travel so far for a measly bird.”

A few scraggily feathers drifted to the ground.

“As we have not had the pleasure of meeting,” Bhardudlin continued, the baritone words slurring past his tusks, “I shall illuminate my preferences for you. I do not enjoy games of word, or plays of strength or strategy.” His black stare slashed across the three mages. “You summoned me with a goal, so speak it. Then we will bargain.”

“I seek an enslavement relic. I believe you have traded these to humans before.”

“I have. Not a tool I expected you to desire, Crystal Druid.”

“My use for it is irrelevant.”

A cackling laugh. “A straightforward creature you are. I like that.” He growled thoughtfully. “I demand the highest price for these relics. I accept the three warriors.”

“They are not bargaining chips. I will give you no lives.”

“What else can you offer? I have no use for trinkets.”

“I own a variety of rare artifacts and relics. Tell me where your interests lie and I can offer you something of value.”

“Hmm.” The fae bobbed his head in consideration. “I seek only tools of power, druid.”

“Would the Carapace of Valdurna interest you?”

A strange dark light ignited in the fae’s eyes. “You do not have it.”

“I do.”

Lips parting, Bhardudlin ran a thick, slimy tongue across one tusk. “A good offering to start. What else would you give?”

“A grimoire of Hindarfur.”

“What does it contain?”

Zak shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t read it.”

“Then it may be worthless.”

“Or it may be priceless.”

Another ugly laugh. “Bold, druid, so bold. Tell me of your other treasures. How much of the Wolfsbane Druid’s collection did you steal when you killed him?”

“All of it.”

“Ha! I would expect no less.”

Olivia grabbed my arm, her fingers digging in. “Tori!” she hissed. “Look at the trees!”

“Huh?” I squinted around the clearing as Zak listed more of his fae treasures to Bhardudlin’s greedy delight. Everything looked normal …

Olivia pointed. The trees surrounding the clearing were difficult to make out in the darkness, but I caught a flutter of movement. Falling leaves? But there was no wind. I squinted harder.

Just beyond the clearing where the four guys and the darkfae stood, the trees were dying. Their leaves were shriveling and falling, their thinnest branches melting like they’d been rotting for months.

“Is the darkfae doing that?” I gasped.

“He’s building up his magic.” Olivia tightened her grip on my arm, her face ghostly white. “He’s preparing an attack—a powerful unleashing.”

Zak had said a fae this powerful could kill us all no problem. But they were negotiating, weren’t they? Why was the fae preparing an attack?

My hands clenched into fists. I wasn’t letting the guys die on my account. No. Way. In. Hell. I had no power to fight, but I was tied to a fae with enough magic to defend us—even if I became the collateral damage.

Better me than all of us.

“Stay here,” I told Olivia.

I crept into the undergrowth, but instead of obeying, Olivia followed. Growling under my breath, I kept moving.

The spreading wave of death reached us: the ferns turned brown and their fan-like leaves curled; the bushes shrank and their foliage shriveled; tree bark turned black; and dead leaves rained softly on my head. Bhardudlin was sucking the life out of the surrounding forest to fuel his magic, keeping it hidden from Zak and the mages.

“Impressive, impressive,” Bhardudlin rumbled. “I confess I am torn as to what I want most from you, druid.”

“I think we can come to an agreeable exchange.”

“Perhaps.” His tusks gleamed in the shrinking firelight. “Perhaps not.”

Zak tensed. “Is there a problem, Bhardudlin?”

“Only that I desire everything you offer—and more. I do not want a handful of your toys, Crystal Druid. I want you.”

His dull pink tongue slid out from between his lips, then faster than a blink, he grabbed Zak in his massive hands. Bhardudlin lifted Zak into the air, thick fingers spanning his chest.

The fae dragged his fat tongue up the side of Zak’s face. “A pet druid of my own.”

Black wings flared off Zak’s shoulders and shadowy blades surged out of him, lashing Bhardudlin’s face.

The darkfae dropped Zak. He fell six feet and landed on his knees, phantom wings still spread. He shot to his feet and retreated rapidly, forcing the three mages to back up with him.

“You would betray the barter truce?” Zak demanded.

Bhardudlin heaved a guttural laugh. “I follow none of the rules of my pathetic kin. You should have realized that before calling me. Nothing you offer is as tempting as claiming you.” He clacked his tusks. “Come out and play with me, beautiful Lallakai. I will battle you for your beloved consort.”

Her wings flared wider but she didn’t emerge from Zak’s body.

“A shame, a shame.” Bhardudlin opened his huge hands, fingers curled like he held an invisible beach ball between his palms. “Then I will force you out—unless you and your druid die first. If you do, I will know he was not strong enough to make an entertaining pet.”

Dark power sparked in the space between the fae’s hands. The crackling ebony light expanded, growing larger and larger—the magic he had killed an acre of forest to fuel.