“No, Nadine!” I snarled. “Don’t you dare!”
Varvara gazed thoughtfully at her desired apprentice, then lowered her hands. The spears evaporated. “If that is your wish. Come, devushka.”
I gritted my teeth. Nadine cast me a pained look as though pleading for my understanding, then walked to Varvara. Placing a gold-clawed hand on Nadine’s shoulder, the sorceress smiled sweetly at me. Her other hand slipped into her pocket, and as she guided Nadine into the hallway, she flicked a small object back into the room before slamming the door shut.
A dark pellet rolled across the carpet. The moment it stopped moving, blackness oozed out of it. The mist roiled across the floor in waves, spreading steadily.
I pivoted toward Kai. Braced against the wall as though standing required his full concentration, he jerked his shoulders, suppressing a cough. Something dark ran down his chin from the corner of his mouth. Blood.
He was coughing up blood.
His unfocused eyes met mine, and I knew his time was running out—and that wasn’t even counting the evil black mist spreading implacably toward us. It spanned the floor in front of the only exit, and I wasn’t dumb enough to walk into it. That’s exactly what Varvara wanted us to do.
I grabbed Kai’s arm and pulled it over my shoulders, but I had no idea where to go. My Queen of Spades card was at least three minutes away from recharging, and the mist would reach us before then. I didn’t think it would work on an alchemic substance anyway.
The fog flowed closer, only two feet away. Kai sagged against me, breathing way too fast.
A cool draft danced through the broken window, carrying with it a teasing hint of a scent. I inhaled sharply through my nose, wondering if I was insane. But no. The guys had told me again and again to trust them. To have faith. To believe in them.
So I hauled Kai to the windowsill, and as the black mist reached for our ankles, I shoved him through the opening and leaped out after him.
The wind swept upward, slamming into me like a tornado, and then I crashed into a body. We went down in a tangle of limbs and my head smacked into someone’s shoulder. Owww.
“Shit, Tori!” Aaron gasped. “We weren’t ready for you. Wait for the signal next time, okay?”
Raising my head, I met Aaron’s anxious blue eyes. Beside us, Ezra had both arms around Kai, supporting him as he hacked bloody saliva across the white terrace.
“What happened?” Aaron demanded as we scrambled up.
“Kai was poisoned by Russian dolls,” I babbled at top speed. “Nadine went with Varvara to save us. Where the hell were you two?”
“We triggered a trap and had to bail,” Ezra growled.
“We were circling around the house when we heard you break the upstairs window,” Aaron said. “Where’s Varvara now?”
“She and Nadine are still inside the mansion.”
“Not for long,” Kai panted. “She’ll take Nadine to the boat now.”
With one arm still curled around my waist, Aaron raked his other hand through his hair. “Damn. This has gone all kinds of sideways. How long until reinforcements arrive?”
Ezra checked his phone. “Twenty-five minutes.”
Varvara would be long gone with Nadine by then—but as my gaze shifted to Kai, blood running from his mouth as he rasped for air, panic seized my heart. Kai didn’t have twenty-five minutes. He was halfway to drowning in his own blood. Even if we ran for the car right now, we might not get him to a hospital in time.
He raised his head. “Aaron … Ezra …” he panted. “Go save her.”
“I’ll hold it together … until help arrives.”
Aaron and Ezra exchanged glances—and seeing the blankness in Ezra’s stare, I abruptly noticed how cold it was. My breath puffed white.
Aaron swore quietly, then squeezed my waist. “Stay with Kai. Text the team and make sure they’ve got a healer and an alchemist on the way.”
Ezra eased Kai to the ground. Releasing me, Aaron cast Kai one final look—anguish flaring in his eyes—then he and Ezra raced toward the doors that led from the terrace into the house’s second level. Ezra kicked the door open and they disappeared inside.
I crouched to extract Kai’s phone from his pocket. He unlocked it for me and I typed rapid-fire messages to Girard, updating him on the situation. His response popped up—30 min out.
Thirty minutes? That was too long! Kai would be dead by then. I started to type just that when an orange blaze lit the night—followed by a girl’s scream. My head snapped toward the railing at the edge of the terrace. Beyond it was the garden.
Varvara and Nadine were outside, and the guys had reached them.
“What’s happening?” Kai asked breathily. “Let’s get closer.”
Nodding, I pulled his arm over my shoulder and levered him to his feet. He sagged against me, his steps weaving as we lumbered to the terrace edge. Gripping the balustrade for support, I peered across the manicured backyard. A wide brick pathway cut through a long rectangle of grass, surrounded by shapely bushes and trimmed trees. In the center was a round patio of patterned brick, guarded on either side by polished suits of medieval armor on pedestals.
Varvara stood in the brick circle, Nadine kneeling behind her with eerie red light crisscrossing her torso—the same type of restraint from the coffee table spell in the Rivers’ living room. Aaron, his sword drawn and coated in flames, faced the sorceress. Ezra covered his left flank, a Twin Terror in each hand, both blades gleaming in the firelight.
Aaron lunged for the sorceress, his sword whipping through the air. She gestured and Aaron flew backward. Landing on his feet, he launched into motion again, casting a band of fire at Varvara’s face. He rushed in behind the flames, blade drawn back for a lethal strike.
The air around Varvara rippled. Purple smoke erupted around her, then Aaron’s flames exploded everywhere. I flinched as he and the sorceress disappeared in a maelstrom of orange flames, red sparks, and purple fog.
Wind gusted, blowing the colorful mist away.
Varvara had her arm outstretched, her metal-coated hand gripping the side of Aaron’s face. He stood rigidly, sword pointed at the ground instead of his enemy. She shoved him away and he stumbled, shaking his head side to side, the movements slow and stunned. I clutched the railing. Was Aaron okay?
He staggered backward until he’d opened ten feet between him and Varvara. She watched him withdraw, her scarlet smile visible even from the terrace. Ezra hastened toward the pyromage, ready to take over.
With another shake of his head, Aaron raised his weapon to resume the fight. A chill skimmed down my spine, dread closing my throat.
Aaron took two steps sideways, drew his sword back, and cut Ezra down in one swift stroke.
I screamed as Ezra fell. Kai made a noise between a gasp and moan, his hand biting into my arm hard enough to bruise.
Varvara’s cruel laugh rang through the garden. Aaron drew his sword up and adjusted his grip, preparing to drive the point into Ezra’s chest.
“No!” I cried.
The blade flashed down—and Ezra rolled, barely evading the strike. He heaved onto his hands and knees, then sprang up, clutching his weapons as he faced his friend. With stilted, robotic motions, Aaron swung his sword again.
Silver steel struck black blades as Ezra caught the weapon on his own. Fire burst off Aaron’s sword, but wind swept it away before it could engulf Ezra. As the fiery light flared, it illuminated something dark covering the side of Aaron’s face—the spot where Varvara had touched him.
“Tori,” Kai wheezed, his voice a shadow of its usual crisp tones. “You have to … stop them …”
Aaron slammed his sword down on Ezra’s blades again, driving the aeromage back several steps. Flames raced over Aaron’s arms and shoulders, and the grass around them caught fire. Wind spun around Ezra, barely holding the fire at bay.
“You have to.” Kai’s fingers dug into my arm. “Before Ezra … kills Aaron.”
For a second, his words made no sense. I’d expected him to say “before Ezra is killed.” Aaron had already sliced Ezra open, though I couldn’t tell how badly, and I really didn’t think it was the pyromage who was in trouble.
Not bothering to share my assessment, I pulled my arm free from Kai and grabbed the railing.
“Don’t you dare die on me, Kai,” I growled at him. “Stay right there.”
I leaped over the railing and dropped off the terrace. The fall was only a few yards, but even remembering to roll on the landing—thank god for those taekwondo lessons—it still hurt like hell. Gasping, I sprinted toward the fight.
Everything was on fire. I gritted my teeth and charged through the scorching flames, closing in behind Aaron. My hand went into my pocket, fingers closing around a leather tie as I squinted past Aaron’s back to Ezra. Firelight gleamed across his eyes, turning the pale iris to burning crimson.
Ezra caught sight of me and surprise flickered over his face. He snapped his focus back to Aaron as the pyromage brought his two-handed weapon down in a strike that would cleave Ezra in two. The aeromage flipped the short sword in his hand so the blade lay against his forearm and thrust it up.