I couldn’t do it. It was too much.
A scrape of metal against metal snapped me back to the present. I lifted my tear-streaked face and squinted through the darkness. I couldn’t see anything, and suddenly, I was terrifyingly aware of the two dead bodies so close and now unseen.
The darkness lifted.
I stared in confusion. The room had brightened, but it wasn’t light as I’d ever seen light before. There was no spell, no lamp, no flare or glow or beam. The darkness simply … lightened. The source-less luminescence came from everywhere and nowhere, as omnipresent as the darkness had been before.
A man stood just inside a gap in one of the overhead doors, his hand raised, palm upturned as though he had physically lifted the darkness and cast it away. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Surely I was hallucinating.
“Darius?” I whispered.
He strode forward. The ground crunched reassuringly under his feet, the splashing puddles proving he wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Sweeping to my side, he knelt and leaned over Ezra, two fingers finding the pulse in his neck. Then Darius’s solemn gray eyes turned to me and his warm, solid hand settled on my shoulder.
A dozen questions spun through my head, but I couldn’t speak. My voice had disappeared along with the darkness—darkness the guild master, the rare luminamage, had banished.
But I didn’t need to speak. My questions didn’t matter. We were safe now.
I sat in the passenger seat of Darius’s SUV and listened to the rain.
Behind me, the guild master was arranging a blanket across Kai. The electramage was slumped in the seat, already buckled in, his broken leg splinted and wrapped in tensor bandages. Darius had fed him a healing draft, and he’d dozed off within seconds of finishing it.
In the middle was Aaron. Darius and Alistair had given the pyromage the initial round of first aid, and he was also comatose from a powerful healing potion. Ezra was tucked in the third seat, still deeply unconscious. He wouldn’t be waking, either, because Darius had dosed him with that same yellow sleeping potion mythics kept shooting at me in paintballs. I couldn’t fault Darius’s logic; it wouldn’t be good for Ezra to wake up trapped in the back seat of a vehicle with no idea where he was.
I looked down at my wrist, splinted and tied against my chest in a makeshift sling. My hand and arm were tightly wrapped in gauze and tape, bandages pulled on the skin of my neck, and a cooling salve was slathered over my burns. It was nice that I wasn’t bleeding anymore, but the first aid treatment had done nothing to dull my pain.
Crunching gravel mixed with the sound of the downpour. Darius tucked in the last corner of the blanket, ensuring all three mages were covered, then straightened.
“I found it.” Alistair’s deep, gravelly voice carried through the open door of the vehicle. “Scratched up but seems to be working just fine.”
I craned to look through the open door. The sturdy volcanomage, his leather jacket zipped tight and the collar turned up against the cold, wet breeze, stood beside Kai’s recovered motorcycle.
“Can you ride it?” Darius asked.
Alistair grunted, but it sounded more amused than grumpy. “I’d prefer my Harley, but I can make do with this little crotch rocket.”
“Good. Let’s get moving, then.”
Closing Kai’s door, Darius got into the driver’s seat. The engine was already running, and heat pumped from the vents. He unbuckled the weapons belt around his waist and tucked the sheathed daggers under his seat, then turned on the window wipers and shifted into drive.
Kai’s bike snarled to life, its headlight flaring, and Alistair pulled out first. The SUV rolled out of the lot after it, gravel grinding noisily under the tires. As we pulled onto the secondary highway, I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see the road again, not when my last view of it had ended in such disaster.
If Darius and Alistair hadn’t shown up, I didn’t know what I would’ve done. Kai, it turned out, had called for help after the Keys had driven him off the road. Darius and Alistair had come to our rescue, but it had taken them almost an hour to reach us. Still, I wasn’t complaining.
“How are you doing, Tori?” Darius asked softly.
I reluctantly opened my eyes. We were approaching an intersection, and Alistair had just turned Kai’s bike onto a new road—the area where Aaron had taken a wrong turn. If we hadn’t gotten lost in the town, would any of this have happened?
“I’m okay,” I whispered.
“Tell me about it,” Darius said. The words weren’t a command, but a gentle suggestion.
We turned onto the Sea to Sky Highway, the high beams sweeping across glistening pavement, and our speed picked up significantly. What did the darkness look like to Darius’s eyes? As a luminamage, was anything ever too dark to see? I swallowed against the dry soreness in my throat and adjusted the nearest vents to blow hot air into my face. Hoshi, back in orb form, was nestled in my lap.
“Do you know?” I asked abruptly.
“About Ezra?” Darius didn’t look away from the road. “Yes.”
“For how long?”
“Since the very beginning. He told me during our interview for his membership.”
My eyes widened. From everything I’d seen, Ezra guarded his secrets more carefully than his life. But he’d straight up told Darius? And Darius, knowing the truth, had allowed Ezra into the guild?
“But …” I protested in disbelief. “But Ezra is …”
“An illegal demon mage? A danger to everyone around him? A walking, talking crime so severe that the MPD would imprison me, Aaron, and Kai simply for knowing him?” He nodded. “Yes, he is all those things, but during our interview six years ago, he was also a scared, scarred eighteen-year-old who’d never known a normal life.”
Scarred. Somehow, I knew Darius wasn’t talking about Ezra’s physical scars.
“I’ve watched Ezra very closely,” Darius added. “As have Aaron and Kai. If Ezra had ever seemed like a danger to anyone in the guild, we would have taken the necessary steps.”
I opened my mouth but didn’t speak. I didn’t want to know what the necessary steps were.
My jaw clenched as I caught myself in the thought. No, I couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to face and understand the ugly truths. “What would you have done?”
“Exactly this,” Darius replied. “I helped Kai and Aaron with their escape plan years ago. If Ezra needed it, they were ready to run with him at any time.”
I eyed the guild master. That wasn’t all. There was another “step” he wasn’t sharing.
“So, you now know what he’s been hiding,” Darius continued before I could ask. “What do you think?”
“Are you afraid of Ezra?”
Startled by the question, I considered it for a long moment. “I’m afraid of his demon.”
“Good. You should be.”
“I—” I inhaled shakily. “I talked to his demon.”
Darius’s head snapped toward me. He quickly looked back to the road. “Did you?”
With another unsteady breath, I told Darius first about the winged demon and the amulet it had tried to give Ezra, then how I’d used the amulet to free Burke’s demon, and finally the request Ezra’s demon had made.
“His demon wanted the amulet,” Darius murmured, more to himself than to me. “Tori, I would hazard to guess that anything the demon wants is unlikely to be good for Ezra.”
“That’s what I thought too.”
“The amulet is an immensely dangerous artifact. Under no circumstances should Ezra ever touch it. He could lose all control over his demon, and an out-of-control demon mage is even more volatile than an unbound demon.”
I frowned. “Why’s that?”
The glow from the console cast eerie shadows over Darius’s face. “An unbound demon kills in a desperate attempt to find a way home. The demon trapped inside a demon mage, however, can never go home. It’s bound to the mortal flesh. When Ezra dies, the demon will die with him. It’s the reason his demon is so motivated to keep Ezra alive and has gone to the effort of healing his injuries.”
Oh. I hadn’t thought about why the demon would heal Ezra, only how shocking its magic had been while doing it.
“The demon within a demon mage is highly invested in the survival of its host. It wants the body for itself, perhaps so it can live the longest life possible, perhaps to seek revenge on the humans it blames for its fate, perhaps to search for a way home.” Darius smiled grimly. “It’s difficult to unravel the thought processes of a demon, but regardless, it makes the demon extremely dangerous.”
I still wasn’t sure I understood what made a demon mage’s survival-minded demon deadlier than an unbound one on a killing spree, but I didn’t argue. Hidden in my pocket, the dark amulet weighed against my hip. I’d collected it, along with all my other artifacts and Halil’s brass knuckles, before leaving the building.
The winding road flew beneath the SUV’s headlights, Alistair speeding ahead of us. I watched the wipers slashing back and forth, resisting the urge to look at Ezra.