The huge sword slammed down on Ezra’s blade—and the powerful impact barely shifted his arm. Ezra thrust the blunt hilt of his other weapon into Aaron’s unprotected stomach and a blast of wind hurled him off his feet.
Aaron slammed down on his back a yard in front of me, stunned and unmoving, fire still racing over his arms and shoulders.
Before he could move, I jumped on his chest, slapped the red crystal against the exposed skin of his neck, and shouted, “Ori decidas!”
The crystal shimmered and Aaron went limp, the flames on his body snuffing out. I didn’t react to the searing pain in my hands from reaching through the fire. My attention jumped straight to the dark splotch on Aaron’s cheek—a glistening substance like sticky black gel. In the center, something glowed green. I didn’t touch it, afraid of what would happen.
Clutching his swords, Ezra stepped between us and Varvara, who was observing from across the garden. Nadine knelt behind her, bound in magic, and as the garden quieted of all sound but the crackling flames that had taken hold of the grass around us, I heard her quietly weeping. Fury burned through me, almost as strong as my fear.
But my fear was stronger. Aaron was down. Ezra was wounded. Kai was dying. And all I had was my Queen of Spades card. For one insane moment, I considered calling Echo the dragon, but he was a wyldfae and I had no way to know if he would help me—or make things infinitely worse.
The grass rustled. Kai staggered through the flames and dropped to his knees beside me, his gasping breaths hoarse and wet.
“You idiot,” I hissed. “I told you to stay put!”
“I don’t follow orders … any better than you.” He wilted sideways and I pushed my shoulder against his, keeping him upright.
“Kai.” Ezra’s voice was soft, quiet, and possessed that unshakable calm that always soothed my fear. “I have no choice.”
Kai’s throat moved as he swallowed. “I know.”
Ezra’s hands tightened on his swords. The air around him went eerily still, then burst outward like a silent detonation. Wind more frigid than the arctic circle swept over us, extinguishing the fires across the garden and coating everything in a layer of white frost.
Varvara, who had observed the mages’ battle with a satisfied smirk, narrowed her eyes. Her smile melted away.
Ezra took a slow step toward her, and for the first time, fear tightened her regal features. Head jerking up, she hissed an incantation and slashed her hand in a strange, urgent gesture. For a moment, nothing happened.
Then low growls filled the darkness.
From the far corner of the property, shadows appeared. Thick, stocky Rottweilers prowled out of the trees, a white rune etched into each dog’s forehead—literally carved into their skin. They gathered around the sorceress, a dozen in total. Nadine cowered, trying to inch away from the beasts without drawing their attention.
Varvara pointed at Ezra and spat a Latin command. With deep barks and rumbling howls, the dogs charged us. I leaped up, empty hands grasping the air as though I could summon a weapon to defend myself—and Aaron and Kai, who were helpless.
Ezra extended his arms, blades outstretched as the temperature plunged to freezing—and kept dropping. The dogs flew toward him, too many for a single person to fight. They would swarm him in seconds.
The darkness deepened all around us, then the dogs burst into a frenzy of howls. Very different howls.
Two canine shapes charged into their midst—shadowy black wolves far larger than the Rottweilers. Their black fur rippled and danced as they tore into the dogs, red eyes glowing like beacons of death. The dogs’ ferocious attack morphed into panicked chaos, the garden filling with terrified yelps and deep, ethereal snarls.
As Ezra took two shocked steps back, his head snapping side to side in confusion, I spun around.
He was already standing beside me. Shadows coiled around him, the black tattoos that covered his arms shifting eerily, and the runes on his inner forearms gleamed with unnatural radiance.
The Ghost had arrived.
“You’re late!” I shrieked hysterically.
Combined terror and relief left me feeling loopy, and I had to sternly remind myself to be careful what I said—my oath was still in effect.
“We almost died!” I added in case he hadn’t grasped the near-catastrophic consequences of his tardiness. I’d texted him ages ago, and I was in no mood to consider how much of a miracle it was that he’d beat the Crow and Hammer team here. Plus the bigger miracle—that he’d come at all.
Without so much as a glance in my direction, he flashed past me, a red glow coalescing in his hand. It formed into a curved blade of light, and he slashed it at the nearest dog. Pivoting with inhuman agility, he tore through another canine as the vargs circled the pack, driving the terrified beasts into the druid’s fae blade.
With a high-pitched squeal, the last dog died. Zak faced Varvara, his shimmering saber casting a sinister scarlet glow across the garden.
He’d abandoned his usual trench coat in favor of a fitted t-shirt and black pants that did nothing to hide his belt of alchemic vials, the blades strapped to his thighs, the assorted crystal artifacts hanging around his neck, and the tattoos running down his arms. A frightening black mask covered his head, leaving only shadowy eye holes. Though his face was covered, other identifiers—like his tattoos—were on full display.
“Ah.” Varvara’s lips curled into a delicate, disdainful sneer. Behind her, Nadine stared at her hero with wide eyes. “You came, druid. I thought you too wily to show yourself.”
Zak pointed his crimson blade at Varvara. “Release the girl.”
“She belongs to me, as she has since she was an infant. You are the thief, druid.”
I gulped. The dark druid versus the dark sorceress—and I had no idea who would come out the victor.
At my feet, Kai sagged against my legs and my heart lurched. Whoever won the battle, by the time it was over, Kai would be dead.
“Druid!” I yelled desperately.
Smiling venomously, Varvara began to chant. Zak hesitated, then cast his hand out. The two vargs charged the sorceress while Zak backtracked toward me—causing Ezra to bring his swords into a defensive stance. Abandoning Kai, I leaped over Aaron’s prone body and grabbed Ezra’s gloved wrist—so cold it burned my skin.
I flinched but my voice was steady. “He’s here to help, Ezra.”
His unnervingly blank stare snapped to me. I squeezed his wrist.
“Trust me,” I whispered.
Varvara’s chant stuttered, then she barked a different spell as the vargs circled her, lunging and snarling without attacking. While she was distracted, Zak crouched beside Kai and Aaron, his red saber dissolving away. He swiftly examined them, then pulled a vial off his belt. He tossed it to me and I caught it with fumbling fingers.
“Pour that on his face,” Zak ordered as he leaned over Kai.
“Tori,” Ezra growled warningly.
“Trust me,” I told him again as I knelt beside Aaron. Pulling the cork out, I dumped the tangerine potion over the dark gel blob stuck to his cheek. Black smoke boiled off the substance, and the gel melted away. A small metal disc—the source of the green glow—slid off his face and thudded in the grass.
Aaron gasped, blinking rapidly as his eyes focused. “Holy f—”
I plucked the red crystal off him and he sat upright so fast he almost head-butted me. Gulping down air, he lunged to his feet, Ezra instantly at his side. Together, they faced Zak, whose attention was locked on Kai.
I planted myself between the two mages and the druid. “Just wait.”
“That’s the Ghost,” Aaron snarled, like I’d somehow failed to notice.
“Duh.” I rolled my eyes. “And he just freed you from the mind-control splat. Let him help Kai.”
Varvara was chanting again but I didn’t look to see what she was up to. I glared at the guys, silently demanding their cooperation. They’d told me to trust them. Now it was their turn to trust me.
Zak stepped to my side and held out a tiny glass vial filled with clear liquid.
“I don’t know what poison is killing him, but this is a universal antidote. Make him swallow every drop.” As I took the vial, he snapped a larger one off his belt. “Then have him drink this. It’ll keep him alive until you can get him to a healer.”
I clutched them both. “Thank you.”
“We can talk about a payment plan for that antidote later.”
My mouth hung open. “Uh …”
Her voice rising to a shriek, Varvara flung her hands into the air. The vargs were nowhere in sight—nothing impeded her incantation. With a final screamed word, she pointed imperiously at the two decorative suits of armor standing at attention on either side of her.
Or … not so decorative.
Glowing runes lit up across every inch of steel. With creaking groans, the suits shuddered, then stepped off their pedestals. Clattering with every motion, they stomped toward us and lifted their broadswords.
“Do have fun, druid,” Varvara called over the racket. “I will enjoy hunting you down at a later date.”
She’d stuck around to watch Aaron and Ezra fight, but she wasn’t keen to take her chances with Zak. Dissolving the magical binding on Nadine, Varvara hauled the girl up and marched her toward the property’s edge and the waiting yacht.