“No!” Rigel’s hoarse cry cut through the quiet. He pulled himself off the ground, his clothes still smoking from the last lightning attack, and lifted the gun he’d somehow held on to. He aimed the barrel at Kai.
Faster than should have been possible, Ezra veered toward Rigel. His pole arm twisted apart, one half in each hand, and light gleamed down the foot-long steel.
Then Ezra, soft-spoken Ezra with the gentle smile, rammed both blades into Rigel’s back.
I propped my chin on my palm. “Are you sure you don’t need help?”
“I’m good,” Justin muttered distractedly. “I’m—oh, shit! Shit shit shit!”
He grabbed the pot lid as starchy water boiled over, spilling across the stovetop. Swearing, he scooped noodles into the sizzling wok full of chicken and vegetables. As he reached blindly for the bottle of teriyaki sauce, I nudged it into his hand.
“I’ve got this,” he said, upending the bottle over his concoction. “This is my world-famous teriyaki stir-fry. You love it, remember?”
I remembered eating it, not loving it, but I nodded noncommittally while saying a silent prayer for the poor vegetables drowning in sauce. Rest in salty peace, carrots and broccoli.
Setting the bottle aside, Justin cheerfully tossed the contents of the wok. “This is great. I haven’t made this recipe since you moved in.”
“That’s because I usually cook,” I pointed out. “I don’t mind.”
His enthusiasm dimmed. “You cook for me even when I’m not home and leave me leftovers in the fridge, clean the kitchen, and keep the apartment spotless.” His hazel eyes, twins to mine, assessed me. “And you pay half my rent and utilities on top of that, even though you’re sleeping on the sofa.”
I shifted on my chair, a twinge of pain running through my calf where I’d been shot. Not that Justin knew about that. He dished stir-fry into two bowls and slid one to me. I reached for the chopsticks but he grabbed them first, holding them hostage.
“Tori,” he said seriously, “don’t worry about rent this month, okay? Just let me help you out this one time until you find a new job.”
Looking away from his earnest stare, I heaved a sigh. “Okay. Just this one month, though.”
He handed me a pair of chopsticks and I dug them into my meal. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too saucy and the vegetables were crisp. Not bad.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he went on, standing at the counter with his bowl in hand. “But I’m honestly relieved you aren’t working at that bar anymore. The place was nothing but trouble.”
My chopsticks paused, a piece of chicken hovering over the bowl. “I’ll find something soon. Maybe another bartending position.”
Justin slowly chewed his mouthful. “You liked that job, didn’t you?”
I flapped one hand dismissively. “They were a bunch of kooks. Good riddance.”
“I’m sorry, Tori.”
Biting my lip, I fought back the gloomy shroud that had clung to my thoughts for most of the week.
After defeating the psychic guild five days ago, the rest of that night had passed in a whirlwind of activity as more Crow and Hammer members showed up to restrain the psychics and treat injuries. Aaron and I were rushed away to a fancy house in a snazzy neighborhood where I met the mysterious healer Elisabetta.
Unfortunately, I sort of passed out so I missed all the cool stuff and woke up with my leg already fixed, the gunshot wound replaced by a circle of smooth, pink skin. Literal sorcery. I didn’t even know how bad the injury had been. All that was left was a slight twinge in the muscle, which Elisabetta assured me would pass within a week.
Since then … life had gone back to normal. As in, pre-Crow-and-Hammer normal. I hadn’t heard from Aaron, Ezra, or Kai, and even Sin had ghosted me. Was I surprised? Not really. I was just a human, after all. Non-magical nobody here. Why would they bother keeping up with me after I’d been given the boot?
I wasn’t surprised … but it still hurt. It hurt a lot.
As Justin piled dirty dishes into the sink, I slipped my hand into my back pocket, feeling the worn edge of a playing card. The Queen of Spades. My only souvenir of a vacation from reality that had come to an abrupt end.
I tried to help Justin clean up, but he shooed me away, reiterating that the meal had been his treat and he wasn’t letting me lift a finger. After freshening up in the bathroom, I grabbed the folder I’d prepared that morning and called a goodbye as I headed out.
The early afternoon sun blazed in my eyes as I stepped onto the baking-hot sidewalk. My purse—recovered from the battlefield and painstakingly cleaned but still smelling of smoke—hung off my shoulder, and I missed the weight of my pink umbrella, lost in the fire.
As I walked into the Sunday bustle, I dejectedly flipped my folder open to the stack of résumés with my spotty employment history. I hadn’t bothered including the Crow and Hammer on it. What was the point? I’d lasted less than three weeks.
Tucking the folder under my arm with my purse, I extended my stride. Before I started dropping off applications, I had one stop to make.
The only person to reach out since that night was Clara. She’d texted yesterday asking me to come in. That was it. Just to come in. She probably needed termination paperwork signed or something. And I needed to pick up my final paycheck.
The closer I got to the guild, the more my steps slowed. My stomach twisted, compacting my lunch into a queasy ball. I didn’t want to go back. I just wanted to forget about the insane magical world I’d entered. Walking in there and seeing that everything and everyone had moved right along with their magical lives without me … it was going to suck hardcore.
Mentally pulling up my big-girl pants, I marched onward.
I didn’t hesitate again until I reached the guild door with the painted crow, perched on its hammer. Revulsion and the need to run away swept through me, triggered by the spell on the door, but I shoved it open and stepped into the dark interior, momentarily blind after the dazzling sunlight.
I caught a glimpse of Sin’s blue tresses before she swept me into a crushing embrace. After squeezing all the air from my lungs, she stepped back and laughed at my expression, her hair in a wild tangle.
“I’m so glad you’re back!” she exclaimed, linking our arms. The pub was comfortably busy, most of the faces familiar. Mythics called out as we passed, but Sin towed me straight to the bar. “How’ve you been? How’s your leg?”
“Fine,” I said dazedly, setting my folder and purse on the bar top. “Um …”
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you.” She perched on a stool. “MagiPol was investigating us. They were all up in our business, snooping around, checking records of everything.”
“They were? Why? The psychics were the psycho kidnapping murderers, not you guys.”
“Yeah, but we have a reputation and MagiPol wanted to be sure we hadn’t provoked KCQ.” She shrugged. “They were prying into everything. Clara made us delete your contact info and conversation history from our phones in case MagiPol checked them.”
My eyes widened. Was that why I hadn’t heard from anyone all week? I glanced around the pub but a certain trio of mages was nowhere in sight.
“Liam will be happy to see you. He went home yesterday—full recovery.” Sin smiled tentatively. “I’m glad you’re back, Tori.”
I didn’t point out that my return would be short-lived. “MagiPol didn’t find out about me, did they?”
“Nope, you’re good. Everyone was really careful to keep mum about your involvement. It wouldn’t have been good for the guild or for you.”
Feeling weak in the legs, I sat on a stool. The bar was unmanned; Cooper must be in the kitchen.
“I can’t believe everything that happened.” Sin smirked gleefully. “You saved Aaron’s life again. He owes you big time. Make sure you rub it in his face as much as possible.”
I opened my mouth, unsure I wanted to explain all the reasons that wouldn’t be happening, when Clara rushed out of the kitchen in her usual the-world-is-ending frenzy.
“Tori! You’re here.” She dropped a stack of folders on the counter. “Come with me.”
I expected her to lead me to the back office. Instead, she headed for the stairs. Chewing my lower lip, I followed her past the second level work area and up to the third story. Just like my one and only visit to this level, we entered the shared workspace of the three officers, but their desks were empty.
At the back of the room was another door, and Clara knocked before opening it. Inside was an airy office with a single desk and two large bookcases on opposite walls, framing the space. Three chairs were lined up on one side, occupied by the guild officers: Girard with the magnificent beard, ice-queen Tabitha, and blond and bespectacled Felix.
Behind the desk, a vaguely familiar man sat—older, salt-and-pepper hair, a short and neatly groomed beard, and distinguished features. Darius, the guild master.
He gestured at the chair in front of his desk. “Welcome back, Tori. Please have a seat.”
I minced forward and perched on the chair, my gaze darting from face to face as Clara took a spot behind Darius’s right shoulder. Was I in trouble? They’d already fired me, but maybe Darius was going to turn me over to MagiPol for punishment.