“And spoil the fun?” Burke replied gleefully. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this. After Enright, we thought there were none left. If he wants to work himself up first, I’m happy to wait.”
“Ezra,” Aaron tried again.
The aeromage whirled on Aaron, bared teeth glinting in the headlights’ glare. “I’m leaving. This time I’m leaving and you can’t stop me.”
I couldn’t breathe. That furious, snarling rasp sounded nothing like the Ezra I knew.
“You’re not going anywhere—” Burke began.
“You should have let me leave the first time!” Ezra shouted at Aaron. He pointed at the Keys. “Now I have to kill them! The one thing—I swore I wouldn’t—now I have to because you wouldn’t let me go!”
Aaron raised his hands placatingly. “Calm down, Ezra, before you—”
“Why?” he growled. “Why calm down? Why stop? I don’t want to kill again. Let him do it.”
“No, Ezra.” Urgency tinged Aaron’s protest. “No, you can’t. You have to stay in—”
“Go ahead,” Burke taunted. “Show us, boy. Give us all you’ve got.”
Paleness gleamed around Ezra’s feet—the grass had frozen to sparkling white ice in a two-foot radius around him. He pivoted toward the contractor and hissed, “You want to see?”
“No, Ezra. You don’t have to do this.” Aaron stepped toward him. “Trust me—”
Wind erupted from Ezra. The force threw Aaron backward off his feet.
“Stay away,” Ezra snarled.
Burke stepped forward instead. “Show us,” the old man commanded haughtily. “Show us what you really are.”
Ezra lifted his arm and stretched his hand toward the Keys. “If that’s what you want, then so be it. It’ll be the last thing you see.”
“No!” Aaron roared, shoving to his feet.
Red light lit across Ezra’s palm, then raced up his arm in snaking veins. Lungs seizing, I jerked forward against the car’s open door, but I was too far to stop this—too far and too late to do anything.
My sudden movement caught Ezra’s attention. His gaze shot to me, and for an instant, the rage contorting his features splintered into shame.
But red magic was still surging up his arm. He hunched forward, head bowed. Crimson light burst out of his shoulder and solidified into semi-transparent spines. Veins of power climbed up his neck and the side of his face, and two curving crimson horns formed on the left side of his head.
He lunged for Burke.
He was across the distance in scarcely a blink, but Halil was ready. Sword in one hand, he cut in front of his comrade and swung his fist, brass knuckles gleaming. “Ori amplifico!”
Ezra caught the blow in his palm—and a concussion of air detonated around the pair, knocking Burke and Fenton back. Whatever Halil’s spell had done, it hadn’t slowed Ezra down. He held Halil’s fist as crimson power lit his hand. It rippled off his fingers and condensed into shadowy crimson claws that curled over Halil’s wrist.
“Finally!” Burke crowed, grabbing his infernus. “Finally, a demon mage!”
Red power swept over his pendant as he called on his demon, and Fenton grasped his pendant as well.
One thought jammed itself through my shock: I couldn’t let the contractors summon their demons.
I had no magic—no artifacts or weapons that could stop them—so I leaped into the running car, jammed the gearshift into first, and dropped the clutch. The car shot forward, open door flapping, and I cranked the wheel toward the men. In perfect unison, the three Keys mythics and Ezra looked at the oncoming vehicle.
When Ezra looked up, my brain froze.
Luminous power laced the side of his face, and his left eye, normally pale as ice, glowed crimson. The demonic red, deep and cold and gleaming with sinister hatred, was identical to the winged demon’s magma eyes.
Shock rippled over his face, then he jumped clear—but the Keys mythics, lacking his inhuman reflexes, weren’t as fast.
The car hit Burke like a wrecking ball and threw him backward into Fenton. They tumbled across the grass. Their taller champion crashed onto the hood, slid halfway up the windshield, and fell off the side.
Clutching the steering wheel, I realized my foot was planted on the brake pedal, but I didn’t remember moving it. Aghast, I gawked at the car’s unmoving nose. Holy. Freaking. Shit. Had I just done that?
Halil’s pained groan floated through the open car door. Ezra, glowing crimson eye and all, stared at me through the windshield like I was the one who’d sprouted demonic features. Aaron and Kai stood a ways back on either side of the vehicle, equally stunned.
Fenton, who’d been hit by Burke instead of the car, staggered upright. He didn’t seem badly hurt; I’d only had thirty feet of slippery grass on which to accelerate and I wasn’t sure when I’d hit the brakes.
Eyes bulging with fury, Fenton grasped his infernus. Aaron and Kai leaped toward the car.
“Pop the trunk!” Kai yelled at me.
I flailed at the dash, found the latch, and pulled it. A clunk from behind told me it had worked. In the side mirror, I saw Aaron throw Kai his katana. Ripping the sheath off Sharpie, Aaron ran back toward the nose of the car.
Out the windshield, Fenton’s demon had taken form. Burke was on his feet, and his demon was emerging from its infernus, red magic glowing over its extremities. Both demons faced Ezra, who stood alone, lit by his own demonic power.
Aaron and Kai rushed to help him, but they were behind the demons, their contractors, and Halil. The contractors’ champion turned to cut off the mages, fire rippling over his sword and his brass knuckles gleaming. Ezra would have to fight two demons all on his own.
Laughing, Burke pointed imperiously at Ezra. “Now, demon mage, let’s see what you can really do.”
Ezra tensed, his left eye flaring with crimson light. Barehanded, he waited for the attack. The two demons crouched, preparing to leap.
The air thudded with a rhythmic beat scarcely audible over the car’s rumbling engine. Ezra’s head snapped back, his terrifying stare scouring the dark sky. Burke and Fenton looked up too.
A shape dropped out of the darkness and slammed into the ground beside Ezra. Rising to its full height, two horns missing from its head, the demon spread its curved wings and turned its glowing magma eyes on the Keys contractors.
The winged demon had returned.
It stood beside Ezra, glaring hatefully at the Keys men and their pet demons. Ezra’s eyes, the left one lava red, were wide with shock as he faced the beast beside him.
Aaron and Kai stood frozen, seemingly unable to react. The Keys didn’t know what to do either. The demon was standing beside Ezra. Not facing him. Not attacking him. Beside him. As though …
As though the demon and Ezra were not enemies, but allies.
But the demon had attacked Ezra twice now. It had wounded him, almost killed him. It wanted to rip him apart. It—
The demon turned to Ezra. “Kah kirritavhʾathē hhʾainunthēs tempisissā?”
Its harsh language filled the night, and I remembered: during both their encounters, the demon had spoken to Ezra. But he had attacked the demon without responding.
He lurched backward, his face contorted with disgust as though he couldn’t bear to hear the demon’s hoarse, growling voice. A malevolent smile twisted the demon’s lips, and with its good hand—the other damaged by Ezra in their last confrontation—the demon hooked a clawed finger through the long chain around its neck.
The beast lifted the chain. Hanging from it was a round piece of dark metal—an amulet. The demon held it toward Ezra. An offer.
Ezra looked at the amulet in confusion.
His glowing left eye blazed—and he went rigid. Arching like he’d been skewered on an invisible spear, he gasped. The red veins on his arm writhed and brightened. Then his warm brown eye, wide with panic, flashed to deep, burning red. He lurched back onto his heels, the sudden tension leaving him.
Both eyes glowing like magma, he reached for the offered amulet.
“No!” Aaron shouted.
The instant before Ezra’s red-veined fingers touched the dark metal, Aaron tackled him around the middle.
They slammed into the ground. Ezra’s crimson claws flashed, barely missing Aaron’s throat. Kai burst past the Keys and raced for his friends. With a roar, the winged beast surged toward them too.
Fenton’s tall, scaly demon leaped onto the winged demon’s back. The winged beast whipped in a violent circle, throwing the Keys demon off, then pounced on its fallen opponent. It ripped its talons across Fenton’s demon, slicing easily through its protective scales. The Keys demon made no sound, but its eyes bulged in agony.
A few yards past the battling demons, Aaron broke away from Ezra and rolled clear. Tossing his katana aside, Kai jumped on top of Ezra, slammed his palms down on Ezra’s chest—and unleashed a bolt of lightning into his friend.
Ezra convulsed, crackling electricity racing across his body. My heart stopped, and my hands gripped the car’s steering wheel so hard it hurt. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, as Ezra thrashed and jerked under the onslaught. It went on and on, and Ezra was dying, surely he was dying, Kai was killing him—