“Why did he do it?” I whispered. “Why did he choose to become a demon mage?”
Darius slid his hands over the steering wheel. For a long moment, he was silent as he concentrated on the drive.
“Ezra,” he finally said, his voice a low murmur, “didn’t understand that he had a choice.”
My breath caught. “What do you mean?”
“He’ll tell you when he’s ready, but don’t blame him for it, Tori.”
How could a person fail to grasp that they could choose not to summon a bloodthirsty monster out of a hellish realm and permanently embed it inside their body? I didn’t understand, but for now, I would take Darius’s word on it.
“What’s special about Enright, Oregon?” I asked.
“Enright is an abandoned railroad town deep in the Oregon Coast Range.” Darius rubbed his salt and pepper beard as though to relax the sudden tension in his jaw. “It’s significant to the mythic community, and demon hunters in particular, because eight years ago, on private property near the town, a well-hidden group of demon mages was discovered and eradicated. It was the largest congregation seen in about a century.”
Ezra’s mug shot. He’d been arrested in Portland, Oregon, four months after the demon-mage purge, looking sick and homeless. Combined with his lack of history prior to joining the Crow and Hammer, I could understand why the Keys considered that police report to be definitive proof of Ezra’s origins.
I wanted to know more—if Ezra had been part of that group, how he’d ended up there, how he’d escaped the extermination—but I figured the demon mage himself should be the one to answer those questions. I fidgeted with the splint on my arm. “What now? Is it safe to take Ezra back to the city?”
“I don’t believe Burke told anyone outside his team about Ezra. If he had, more teams would have been on your tails tonight.”
I watched Darius’s profile closely. “Then Ezra’s secret is safe?”
For now. Well, that was something, at least. “What about … Burke and Fenton … and Halil? Their bodies …”
“I’ve already called some trusted mythics to clean up the location, and we should pass them heading north soon. You can guess why I don’t want to involve the MPD.” He glanced at me, an eyebrow arched. “Alistair and I would’ve taken care of the cleanup ourselves if not for two reasons. First, I thought it best to get all three boys to our healers as soon as possible.”
I finally allowed myself to look into the backseat. Aaron, Kai, and Ezra almost appeared to be sleeping peacefully—except for their torn, dirty, bloody clothes and various bandages and splints.
“The second reason?” I prompted as I settled back into my seat and adjusted Hoshi in my lap.
“I need to return immediately. Alistair, Girard, and I are in the middle of something.”
Seriously? I shook my head. “Do you ever rest? The unbound demon was just slain earlier tonight, and I figured everyone would be heading straight to bed for a nice, long sleep.”
Darius smiled faintly, but something dark and mean hardened his features. “Our task is tangentially related to the unbound demon … and the ones who set it loose.”
My mouth popped open in a silent “oh.” The Crow and Hammer’s deadliest team was no longer hunting the slain demon—they were hunting the ones responsible for it.
“Well,” I said airily. “We definitely don’t want to keep you from that.”
“Most appreciated, Tori.”
We drove in silence for a long time. At one point, a single pair of headlights appeared on the road, driving in the opposite direction, and Darius flashed his hazards in greeting. I stirred out of my doze, exhausted but kept awake by my throbbing injuries. Darius didn’t reveal who the cleanup crew consisted of.
Finally, hazy lights appeared in the rain—the northwestern tip of the city, bright and cheerful and undimmed by the trauma of the night. I sank into my seat, relief rolling through me.
“Tori,” Darius murmured, his voice startling me after so long in silence. “You made a choice tonight that few would make. And you repeated that rare choice over and over throughout the night.”
I stared blankly, too tired to puzzle out his meaning. “Huh?”
“You chose to stand by your friends despite the terrible danger.”
“Oh … right.”
An amused smile twitched his short beard. “Should I praise your bravery or your stubbornness?”
“Either way,” he continued, his amusement fading, “it’s past time for you to take your own safety seriously. I’ve warned you repeatedly that your wellbeing is as crucial as anyone else’s, and my tolerance for your poor attitude toward self-preservation has reached its limits.”
My displeasure melted into a guilty cringe.
“Since you clearly have no intention of sitting on the sidelines, that means you must learn how to defend yourself. Properly,” he added when I opened my mouth.
How had he known I was about to protest? I mean, yeah, I’d taken a beating, but I’d gotten through it all alive. Then again, if I hadn’t avoided Aaron’s every mention of training over the last two months, maybe I could’ve done better. Maybe I could’ve spared Ezra from a life-threatening injury.
“I will be speaking to Felix about a training regime.” Darius glanced at me, and there was no hint of compromise in his tone. “He’ll coordinate with Aaron and Kai, and I’ll expect regular reports on your progress.”
I gulped, understanding the unspoken warning that consequences would follow if I failed to meet his expectations. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. And my final instruction …”
I straightened attentively. “Yes?”
“Ask Ezra to teach you everything he knows about demon mages—everything he knows about how his power works.” Darius’s mouth thinned. “I think it’s knowledge you’ll need … sooner or later.”
A chill crept through me, and my eyes were drawn to the back of the vehicle where Ezra leaned lifelessly against the window, his pale face streaked with dried blood and his cheek marked by an unknown demon’s claw.
“Are you ready yet?” Aaron shouted from the second floor.
I shot a glower toward the stairs as I hastened into the living room with my arms full.
“Almost,” I shouted back. “Quit nagging!”
“We’re going to be late.”
“I know!” I snarled as I rushed across the kitchen, only to find the main bathroom’s door closed. Kai must be in there, finishing his own preparations.
Growling, I whipped around the corner and loped down the stairs. The basement was dark and cold, the sparring mats empty, and the bathroom door hung open. I hurried inside, used my hip to swing the door most of the way shut, and dumped my armload on the counter.
My reflection frowned back at me, and I paused to tilt my head. Faint pink lines marked my neck—the remnants of Ezra’s demon claws, which had come so close to opening my jugular. I’d almost rather face his demon again than what I had coming tonight. My gaze inadvertently dropped to my outfit.
Correction: my costume. Ugh.
Nose wrinkling, I gave my hair a final check, ensuring my curls were the right mix of tidy and sexily mussed. But not frizzy. Frizzy was not sexy. And my hair was about the only sexy thing I had going for me with this getup.
I glared mutinously at the last pieces of my costume, then picked up a crinkly package containing a black wide-brimmed hat with a feather plume. I ripped the clear plastic open with more violence than necessary, then lifted the whole package and upturned it over my head, intending to drop the hat right onto my crown.
The hat fell out, bounced off my head, and landed in the sink. What did land on my head was a grenade’s worth of colorful confetti.
“Argh!” I yelped in furious dismay.
The plastic packaging crinkled merrily, and I belatedly noticed the bold yellow text in the corner—Free pirate confetti with every hat! Snarling my favorite bad words, I carefully shook my hair. Dislodged confetti showered the counter and floor, but even more shiny bits sank into my curls.
With a light rap, the bathroom door opened. Ezra stood in the threshold, scanning me with concern.
My frustration evaporated. In the week since our battle with the Keys, I’d scarcely seen him. I was pretty sure he would’ve skipped all socialization tonight too, but Aaron and Kai had bullied him into it.
He’d bounced back from his demonic healing faster than Aaron or Kai had recovered from their injuries, but a hollowness lingered in his face. A tiny new scar marked the edge of his jaw just below his right ear.
His worried gaze flicked down me and back up, searching for the cause of my yelping and swearing. I knew the moment he spotted the confetti—he blinked, then smiled, then quashed the smile.
I huffed and turned back to the mirror—but that didn’t help, as I could now see his reflection. And that was a problem because he was in costume too, and sexiness was not an issue for him. Heat slid through my core, my hormones completely ignoring my stern admonishments.