The witches exchanged apprehensive looks.
Aaron heaved a duffle bag out of his trunk and unzipped it. “Ezra?”
The aeromage held out his arm, revealing the claw marks that raked from his wrist to elbow. Blood streaked his skin. Aaron slapped on gauze from the first aid kit, then roughly taped it over the cuts.
“That’ll do until we get back.” Sorting through the spare clothes, Aaron offered me a sweatshirt. “Here.”
“Thanks.” Taking it, I fumblingly unzipped my jacket.
“Tori,” Kai said. “What did you do with my phone?”
I paused, about to pull my jacket off. “Uh … I broke it. Sorry.”
“Broke it? How?”
“I punched Olivia in the face with it.”
He rolled his eyes, but I swore his lips quirked into a smile.
“Mine is soaked,” Aaron said as he peeled his wet shirt off. It was a testament to my exhaustion that I only ogled his muscles for a couple seconds. “Ezra, don’t suppose your phone survived the …”
He trailed off. As I tossed my drenched coat in the trunk, I looked at him curiously. He was staring at me. So was Kai. So was Ezra. Their expressions were identical mixtures of confusion and dread.
I looked down at my top, soaked with stinky sea water. No surprise there. But …
Gaping in disbelief, I stretched my right arm out. A bright azure rune was emblazoned on my palm and glowing merrily. Coiling lines and spiky runes spread out from it, climbing my arm to my shoulder. Luminescent sigils spiraled over the right side of my chest above my shirt.
In a panic, I dragged the hem of my shirt up. The markings ran all the way down my side and disappeared under my pants. I shoved my jeans down a few inches. Runes wrapped across my hip.
“You!” Olivia shrieked, pointing at me with a shaking hand. “You took the familiar bond for yourself!”
I gawked at her. “But—but I freed him—”
“Those are fae runes! You’re a lying—”
“Olivia!” Odette grabbed her sister’s arm, forcing it down. “It must’ve been an accident.”
“Shit, Tori,” Aaron whispered. “What did you do?”
“I—I don’t know.” My frantic gaze flashed from the markings to him and back. “I thought the fae—he said—I didn’t mean to. It was an acci … dent …” My eyes narrowed as my panic morphed into suspicion. An accident? Maybe not.
Jerking away from the car, I spun in a circle, searching. “Echo? Echo!”
“She’s lost it,” Aaron observed, not quite managing his usual flippant tone.
“Tori, this place doesn’t echo,” Kai said cautiously.
I threw my head back and bellowed, “Echo! Show yourself, you oversized salamander!”
Not my best insult, but I was at my wit’s end here.
“Such insolence, brazen one.”
The air shimmered above Aaron’s car, and the wyldfae materialized out of nothing. Wings spread, he hovered a few inches above the vehicle.
Aaron swore and backpedaled, his hand shooting to the hilt of his sword. He grasped it but didn’t draw. Kai made no sound but took three swift steps backward, as shocked as I’d ever seen him. Ezra didn’t move, his mismatched eyes locked on the fae and his expression eerily blank.
I pointed accusingly at Echo. “You lied! You said if I took the relic from the witch, the sea lord would be saved!”
“Saved from enslavement by the witch, yes.” Echo smiled, showing his fangs. “Indeed, you delivered him from a humiliating fate.”
I gestured violently at the glowing marks all over my body. “Then what is this?”
“The bond forged between your soul and Llyrlethiad’s.”
“Then you did lie about—”
His tail lashed. The barbed end hit the car’s back window and shattered the glass. Aaron twitched like he’d been electrocuted, a croak escaping his throat. My eyes darted from the casual destruction back to the fae, and a healthy dose of fear cooled my temper.
“I spoke no lies.” The fae’s dark eyes appraised me. “You, and not a witch, hold the vile bond. You, who have no power to command him.”
My hands clenched. “You tricked me.”
“I spoke no lies,” he repeated in his lilting accent. “Llyrlethiad was already bound by the ensnaring spell. It could not be undone. Someone had to claim the magic.”
So Echo had sent me, a human with “no power to command” the sea lord.
I bared my teeth. “You’re a treacherous—”
His wings flared wide. He swept down from above the car and stopped with our noses almost touching, his midnight blue eyes filling my vision.
“You are but an infant to the ways of my kind,” he crooned softly. “Out of respect for the druid, I will gift you with this moment of instruction. Do not disparage my name or slander my character, or I shall have no recourse but to carve my honor into your flesh.”
Swallowing hard, too frightened to utter a sound, I nodded.
His fingers closed around my wrist and a spark of tingling heat imbued my skin. “My debt is paid. I will answer your call no longer.”
I gave another mute nod.
His unnerving smile reappeared with a flash of fangs, then he swept his wings down. As he soared skyward, the air rippled and danced. His body darkened, lost in the shimmers. For a bare instant, the shape of the massive dragon, galaxies swirling across his dark sides, was silhouetted against the stars, then he faded from sight.
I pressed a hand to my forehead, feeling dizzy. “You know, I really don’t like fae.”
“How could you be so disrespectful?” Odette asked in a quavering whisper. She and her sister were clutching each other like they’d just witnessed the descension of an angel. “Do you have any idea how powerful that fae is?”
Nope. Didn’t know, didn’t care.
“Holy shit,” Aaron exclaimed. He gazed despairingly at his car’s broken window. “That’s the same dragon fae that flies the Ghost around, isn’t it?”
I said nothing. Stupid oath spell.
“Can’t explain,” I muttered.
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” Kai muttered dryly. “We need to call Darius.”
“My phone is in my purse.” I hobbled wearily toward the car. “I left it under my seat.”
Aaron caught my elbow, and only then did I realize how badly I was listing to one side. “You okay?”
“You’re white as a sheet.”
“I’m fine.” I pulled free and opened the car door, the simple movement causing me to stagger. The marks glowing down my arm blurred as my eyesight lost focus.
“Tori—” Aaron reached for me again and I stubbornly stepped away from him, ignoring the way the ground shifted erratically under my feet.
“She’s going to faint,” Kai said.
“Don’t be stupid,” I snapped, pulling myself together. “I’ve never fainted in my life.”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than my vision darkened and I pitched toward the pavement.
On the bright side, I was back at the Crow and Hammer. It felt like returning home after an unpleasant vacation, and I had the strange urge to wipe counters.
On the not-so-bright side, it was god-awful early. Six a.m.? Seven a.m.? Whatever the time, it was too early for consciousness. Also, I was still covered in fae markings. And on top of that, I was mostly naked in front of a bunch of people I didn’t want to be naked in front of.
I stood in the center of the room, arms held away from my sides, wearing nothing but my bra and undies. And seventeen people were staring at me.
To be fair, two of them weren’t paying attention to my near nudity. In one corner of the second-level workroom—filled with long tables, whiteboards, and computer desks—Ezra was sitting on a chair while Sanjana, the guild’s apprentice healer, treated the gouges in his forearm.
But the other fifteen people were staring at me. Or, more precisely, at the markings that started on my right palm, ran up my arm, covered most of my chest, coiled down my side and hip, then petered out at my right knee.
Off to one side, Aaron was pacing while Kai leaned against a table, his open laptop beside him. He watched me and the mythics—all of whom he’d called in at this ungodly hour to examine me.
Tabitha, her porcelain skin flawless and jaw-length brown hair neatly styled, observed like a queen overseeing her court. She was only here because she was the on-duty officer, and she’d already graced us with an icy lecture on involving me in guild work. Oddly, her chilly anger was threaded with worry, which irritated me. I wanted to despise her, not consider that her resistance to my presence was partly motivated by her concern for my safety.
Then again, the other part was her elitist desire to keep the guild human-free, so I wasn’t changing my opinion of her anytime soon.
Felix, the guild’s third officer, was also present. Kai had called him because he specialized in the detection and dispelling of magic. The other sorcerers included Andrew, an experienced team leader, and Lyndon, a counter-magic specialist.