Zak jerked Nadine back, his other hand rising defensively. And that’s when I realized—not whispering breath. Actual whispering.
Varvara raised her head, silver hair tangled across her face. “See you in hell, druid.”
Red light erupted across the brick circle. As it sped outward, Zak scooped Nadine under his arm, grabbed my hand, and bolted in the opposite direction. Hissing power built in the air as we sprinted away—but not fast enough.
I yanked the Queen of Spades out of my pocket and whirled. “Ori repercutio!”
Varvara’s spell erupted, the air rippled, the ground quaked—then blazing light and crushing force slammed into me. It hurled the three of us into the air. We soared for several long seconds, then crashed down in a tangle of limbs.
A painful minute passed where I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even breathe as excruciating magic crackled through my body. Pulling myself together, I realized I was lying half on top of Zak, Nadine on his other side. Holy crap, everything hurt. What would that spell have done to us if my artifact hadn’t reflected some of it?
I pushed myself upright, wincing with each movement. Zak grunted and sat up too, then turned his attention to Nadine. While he checked on her, I stumbled in the direction I’d last seen Kai.
He was sitting in the grass, propped against a tree trunk, his face ghostly-pale. “Varvara took off toward the dock. Aaron and Ezra chased after her.”
I helped Kai up and pulled his arm around my shoulders. We shuffled out of the trees and onto the lawn, the grass charred and the brick circle split open with zigzagging fissures from Varvara’s spell. Yikes.
Zak and Nadine came out of the trees a moment later. His feather tattoos were back, meaning Lallakai had rejoined him, but I didn’t see the vargs. Hopefully they were okay.
Nadine gave me a wobbly smile. She was clutching Zak’s hand with both of hers, happier than she had any right to be.
Kai scrutinized the druid suspiciously, but Zak ignored him. We stood in silence, waiting. Three minutes passed, then silhouettes appeared on the brick sidewalk that led to the shore. The two figures headed toward us—Aaron and Ezra. There was no one else with them.
“Shit,” Kai muttered.
“She escaped,” Aaron announced bleakly as he and Ezra reached our quiet gathering. His gaze shifted to Zak, and flames licked down his sword. “The night won’t be a complete waste, though. Would you like to surrender, or should we beat your ass into the ground first?”
“Seriously?” I snapped. “He saved you.”
“He’s still a rogue and a murderer. Saving lives doesn’t exonerate him from his other crimes.”
Pulling away from Kai, I stomped over to Zak and parked myself in front of him, facing Aaron and Ezra. Their expressions darkened ominously.
Zak jabbed me in the back. “Get out of the way, Tori.”
I glared at him over my shoulder. “Not you too! Is this—”
The darkness behind him rippled—then wind blasted across me. The earth shook as something huge struck it, and shimmering blue and purple light filled my vision.
I looked up—way up—until I found the dragon’s dark eyes. Wings half furled, Echo crouched behind Zak. The faint galaxy-like swirls that shifted along his scaled sides dazzled my vision in the darkness. He was breathtakingly luminescent, a specter of the heavens descended to earth.
And he was huge. Absolutely massive.
“Oh,” I said weakly. “Hi, Echo.”
The dragon lowered his nose to a few feet above my head and puffed, ruffling my hair. I focused on Zak, searching his stupid mask thing. Clutching his hand, Nadine craned her neck to take in the beastly specter.
Stepping forward, I gripped her shoulder. “You sure about this, Nadine? My guild can help you too.”
“I want to go.”
Nodding, I pulled her into a hug. She reluctantly released Zak to return my embrace.
“The druid has my phone number,” I murmured in her ear. “Let me know when you’re all settled in. And if you ever need anything, tell me.”
“Thanks, Tori.” She beamed as she stepped back. “You’re pretty cool for a guilded … what are you, anyway? A sorceress?”
“Human, actually. It’s a long story.”
Her mouth fell open, but I was already turning to Zak. With a quick glance at Aaron, Ezra, and Kai—all three staring at the dragon and seemingly afraid to move—I grabbed Zak’s shirt collar and rose on my tiptoes to put my mouth by his ear.
“You are a supreme dickhead and I haven’t forgiven you for anything,” I half whispered, half growled. “Take good care of Nadine.”
He snorted in amusement. Catching my elbow, he pulled me close again and spoke in a low murmur. “I saw Echo’s mark on your arm. I don’t recommend taking him up on any favors, but if you do, be very careful what you ask for.”
Anxiety flittered through me at the warning. I peeked at my inner wrist, but the wyldfae’s shadowy mark was invisible in the dim light.
Releasing me, Zak stepped away. I was still unscrambling my thoughts when he drew Nadine to his side. Echo’s huge foot stretched out and he wrapped the druid and the girl in his taloned digits. Wings unfurling, he leaped skyward.
The blast of wind from his wings blew me off my feet. I landed on my ass as the dragon soared into the air. The night sky rippled and the dragon faded from sight. Zak and Nadine were gone.
“He took the girl!” Aaron burst out, his voice startling me. “Tori, why did you let him take the girl?”
I got up and dusted myself off. “She wanted to go with him.”
He gawked at me. Ezra was still staring into the sky and Kai looked ready to keel over.
“But you wanted to save her,” Aaron protested, disbelief and anger competing in his voice. “You were determined to make sure she was safe!”
I glanced up. “She is safe.”
“Guys?” Ezra murmured. He pulled his gaze back to the earth and smiled vaguely. “I think … I might have lost too much blood.”
I had just a moment to spot the gash running across his chest and arm, the result of Aaron’s surprise attack, before his eyes rolled up and he crumpled to the ground.
Hunching my shoulders, I stared at my clasped hands. The silence vibrated through the office, bouncing off the bookshelves that framed the desk in the center. I peeked up at the man sitting behind it.
Darius. The guild master. The man in charge. The person responsible for every mythic who called the Crow and Hammer their guild. My boss. He surveyed me with serious gray eyes beneath expressive eyebrows. His salt-and-pepper hair was brushed back, his goatee neatly trimmed, and his aura of unquestionable authority as undeniable as ever.
Someday I would find the courage to backtalk to him. Maybe.
“Do you have anything else to say, Tori?”
“The last time we met in my office, I explained that your life is not disposable and I won’t tolerate anyone, including you, treating it that way.”
I’d known better than to expect cheering and delighted hugs from the guild master, but most everyone else was thrilled by my return. I’d been swarmed by members since arriving for my shift, all of them relieved that I was safe. Many had helped with the search after I’d handed myself over to Zak, and I was still thanking them for dropping everything on my account.
But Darius wasn’t one to miss the big picture, and his demeanor had grown more intimidating with each question about the Ghost that I refused to answer.
He sat back in his chair. “During our last meeting, I also told you that, because you are not a member of this guild, I can’t discipline you as I would one of my guildeds. I can’t garnish your bonuses or restrict your privileges. However”—I winced at the word—“it’s clear you haven’t taken the lessons I wanted you to learn to heart.”
“I have,” I mumbled.
A pause. “Have you?”
Wringing my fingers, I nodded. “I had a lot of time to think while I was gone, and when I got back … seeing how much I scared Aaron, Ezra, and Kai … feeling the same kind of fear for Nadine when she was captured …” I swallowed. “I realize I made an incredibly selfish decision when I went with the Ghost.”
“But you no longer fear for Nadine’s life now that she is again under the Ghost’s power?”
“No,” I said simply.
Darius stroked his goatee. For a long minute, we sat in silence while I waited for him to grill me about Zak again, about why the notorious Ghost had unnecessarily saved Aaron and Kai, why I’d let him re-kidnap a teenage girl, and why I wouldn’t explain anything. But he just watched me.
Finally, he steepled his fingers and rested his elbows on the desk. “Tori, independence is an admirable trait, but it can be rooted in pride, insecurity, and fear as easily as it can stem from strength, confidence, and self-reliance. Be sure you know what drives yours.”
I nodded numbly.
The intensity of his gaze lessened. “Is there anything else you wish to discuss?”
Sitting on my hands so I wouldn’t fidget, I muttered, “Varvara escaped.”