Shaking off my arm, he stopped at the broad sidewalk that crossed a manicured lawn to the front of the towering high-rise. His head turned as he watched our stalkers. “Run inside. Go!”
My hands clenched. With a furious hiss, I turned and bolted across the lawn. I shoved through the main doors into the vestibule but didn’t unlock the security door. Spinning around, I squinted through the glass.
Aaron turned on his heel and strode into the street, heading for the alleyway on the other side—getting out of sight so he could use his magic. His two pursuers broke into a jog, chasing after him.
Then, farther up the street, two more men in black clothes ran toward the alley.
Four? There were four?
Gasping through my panic, I pulled my phone out—but could I call the police? Aaron and the mystery men were mythics. I was almost positive the police would make this worse. If Justin had been home, I would’ve called him and taken my chances, but he had a shift tonight. Swiping my thumb across the screen, I pulled up Clara’s number and called it. It went straight to voicemail. She was probably sleeping.
Cursing, I ran outside. Aaron couldn’t take on four mythics at once, could he? I might be a useless, magic-less human, but I wasn’t abandoning him to an unfair fight.
Slowing as I reached the head of the alleyway, I crept into the darkness between hulking skyscrapers. Aaron hadn’t gone far. He stood in the middle of the alley, illuminated by the flames dancing across his upraised palm. Shadowy figures had formed a loose circle around him, and as I slunk behind a dumpster and peeked out, I counted them. Then counted again.
Not two. Not four. Six.
“Come quietly and we won’t hurt you,” a black-clad man said in a raspy voice. “Our orders are to bring you in alive, but they said nothing about unharmed.”
The flames on Aaron’s palm flared, gleaming across the switchblade in his other hand. “How about you get lost, and then I won’t have to hurt you?”
The man smiled. From beneath his coat, he pulled a long dagger with a glowing inscription on the steel. Crouched behind the dumpster, I clutched my purse like a shield. Oh god. This couldn’t be happening.
Aaron flicked his hand—hurling fire into the face of a man on his left—then launched toward the guy with the dagger. The man swung his weapon in a sideways arc and a sparkling white wave swirled around it. Aaron slashed with his switchblade, a trail of flames whipping out, and the two forces collided.
Orange sparks and white glitter exploded into hissing steam that engulfed the two men. Ice, I realized. The sparkling white power was ice.
Fire rippled out from the steam cloud, and as Aaron reappeared, two men attacked him from behind.
He spun, fire spiraling out of his switchblade, and the other men launched flashes of light from small objects I couldn’t make out in the darkness. Aaron dodged them, pivoted again, and cast a crackling fireball at Ice Guy, who countered with a burst of white that exploded into snowflakes.
Aaron jumped back, fire racing up his arms and over his shoulders. He thrust his switchblade in a strange pattern and the steel glowed red. A wall of flame erupted from the weapon and surged toward Ice Guy.
Another enemy jumped to Ice Guy’s side, something small in his hand.
“Ori repercutio,” he declared.
The air rippled like a shock wave and when Aaron’s fiery attack hit it, the blaze snapped in the opposite direction. The red-hot flames sloughed off Aaron’s body, his clothes singed but his skin unharmed. Teeth bared, he raised his switchblade again.
Behind him, light flashed painfully bright. I flinched, blinded. A shout, a crunching sound, a clatter of something metal skittering across asphalt, then another flare of light. Eyes watering, I peered through the mist.
The six men had converged in the center of the alley, and I couldn’t see Aaron’s red hair among them. Then, as a man crouched, I spotted Aaron—on the ground, Ice Guy kneeling on his back, one hand gripping his dagger and the other pressed to Aaron’s shirt, frost spreading from his fingers. Snow fluttered around them, the air sparkling with ice crystals, and Aaron’s harsh breaths puffed white.
Another man stepped on the back of Aaron’s neck, pinning him in place, and pulled a small vial from his pocket, its contents sickly yellow. He unscrewed the top.
I dropped my purse, grabbed my umbrella, and charged out from behind the dumpster.
No one saw me coming until I was winding my umbrella up like a baseball bat. I swung it full force into the guy’s face, knocking him and his creepy vial off Aaron. Skidding on the ice-coated ground, I whammed my umbrella into Ice Guy’s face too. It cracked against his nose and he recoiled with a shout.
As I swung the umbrella for strike number three, someone caught it and wrenched it out of my hands. I turned in time to catch a fist to the face. My head snapped back, my skull splitting open along my eye socket—or that’s what it felt like. As I went down, my near-forgotten taekwondo training kicked in and I caught myself without scraping my elbows open to the bone.
Rolling over, I shot to my feet. A couple yards away, a guy went flying in a spiral of flame as Aaron launched upright. I was diving for cover when the same asshole who’d punched me grabbed my hair and yanked me back. Balling my hand into a fist, I jammed it into his stomach.
He doubled over with a wheeze and I rammed my knee between his legs. As he toppled, something small fluttered from his hand. I snatched it off the ground—a Queen of Spades playing card, worn and yellowed like it was fifty years old.
My attacker straightened with a hiss, his teeth bared. “Give that back.”
I flipped the card so the queen was facing him. “Why would I do that?”
As fire exploded on my right and someone screamed, the guy stuck his hand in his pocket and yanked out a new magic toy—another playing card.
“Impello!” he yelled.
“Orepecutio!” I shouted.
A ripple of air—and an invisible force slammed into my chest like a battering ram. I flew backward and hit the ground hard. This time I couldn’t save my elbows, but I stopped my head from smacking the pavement.
“It’s ori repercutio, idiot girl,” he snarled, advancing on me. “What kind of sorcerer are you?”
Who said I was a sorcerer? Nice of him to correct my pronunciation, though.
He swapped to the second card in his hand—an Ace of Hearts with a twisty rune in the center. “Ori impello potissime!”
I thrust the Queen of Spades at him. “Ori repercutio!”
The air rippled and a massive force struck the man. He was hurled almost straight up, crashed into a wall, then tumbled to the ground in a heap. I glanced in awe at the Queen of Spades. Wow.
Grabbing my umbrella from a puddle, the magic card in my other hand, I scrambled up. Two other men were down, but Ice Guy and the last pair had Aaron surrounded. Flames blazed over his limbs and sparks swirled around him. The ground was on fire and steam billowed, tinted orange by the inferno.
Ice Guy faced him from within a cloud of white, frost clinging to his clothes and lining his dagger. Where the fiery aura around Aaron met the dense cold around Ice Guy, the air sizzled and steamed.
Aaron punched his hand out, his weapon gone but his flames undiminished. A fireball exploded from his fist and flew at Ice Guy. The other two men attacked Aaron from behind with small items like my new playing card, shouting incantations.
As Aaron whirled on them, I ran toward the battle, my sandals splashing through ice-cold puddles. I jumped behind Aaron and pointed my card at Ice Guy.
Ice Guy slashed his dagger at me. I whipped my umbrella up and the blade hit it, snapping the metal rod. As the umbrella folded in half, the dagger caught in the layers of nylon fabric and I wrenched it sideways. The dagger tore out of Ice Guy’s grip, and I flung both items away.
Unfortunately for me, Ice Guy didn’t miss a beat. He grabbed me by the throat, fingers squeezing. Agonizing cold flashed over my skin.
Heat washed across my back, then Ice Guy threw me aside as Aaron charged in, fire rippling over his arms. He tackled Ice Guy and they went down in a cloud of hissing steam. I clambered up, my throat throbbing.
Ice Guy broke free and scrambled backward, and my neck immediately felt better when I saw the blistering burns on his arms and face. Ha, take that!
Aaron rolled to his feet, still on fire like it was no big deal, and I sidestepped closer, the heat blasting me like I was standing next to a bonfire. I clutched my unpredictable Queen of Spades card, afraid to rely on it but with no other weapons.
The man beside Ice Guy stuck his hand into the back of his coat—but the weapon he withdrew wasn’t a dagger or a spell or even a playing card.
He swung the black pistol up, and before I could move, he pulled the trigger.
The shot didn’t ring out, blasting our eardrums into dust. Instead, it popped like a toy gun—and something bright flashed toward us.
Aaron jerked away, hideous yellow liquid splattered across his bare arm and sizzling from the heat of his skin. Not a pistol with bullets—a paintball gun. But that yellow liquid wasn’t paint.
He swayed. Lurching for balance, he grabbed my arm. His hand burned and I gasped as his legs gave out. He dragged me down, hitting the pavement on his knees, and both his arms clamped around me.