Dull thuds echoed into the suddenly completely silent corridor as the bodies of Callan, Trevor Gale, David, and his three guards hit the dusty floor on either side of me. I let the glittering green mist swirl around me for another second before allowing it to fade out.
Across the hall, Johnson and Kane and the rest of their people gaped at me in utter disbelief.
“Y-you…” Shock bounced across Johnson’s features as he looked down at Callan’s limp form. “You turned on your own friends?”
I snorted. “I’m a dark mage. I don’t have any friends.”
“But you fought together with him before!”
“Yes. But this fight of yours clearly isn’t with me, and I have no intention of dying here today.”
“So you’re a turncoat who would—”
The wall next to them exploded.
Their bodies flew sideways from the force of the blast. Stones and jagged pieces of wood from the shattered wall shot through the air alongside them.
“No, but I’m a very good liar,” I said as I slapped my hands together and quickly pulled out the poison from Callan’s body.
He coughed and groaned on the floor while I touched my hands together again and called up another massive cloud.
Johnson and his people’s involuntary flight came to an abrupt halt as their bodies slammed into the piles of debris and the few still standing parts of the left wall. Cries of pain rang out, along with groans and gasps.
Before they could push themselves up, I threw the poison cloud.
Glittering green mist enveloped the whole space.
The other sounds stopped immediately as my magic killed Johnson and Kane and all of their people, along with whoever might have managed to survive underneath the piles of rubble.
I shook my head as I watched Jens Carlsen’s glassy eyes stare unseeing up into the broken ceiling. He really shouldn’t have put that sword to my throat outside the bakery. My gaze swept across the lifeless bodies of Johnson and Kane. And they really should have let this revenge thing go and stayed the hell away from my Callan.
“Fucking hell,” Callan grumbled while rubbing the back of his head. Narrowing his eyes, he looked up at me from where he had managed to sit up on the floor. “I hope you enjoyed that, because it’ll be the first and last time you knock me out like that.”
I laughed and leaned down to offer him a hand. “We’ll see about that, pretty boy.”
While muttering something about vicious poisoners, he took my hand and let me help him to his feet.
“Did I time the explosion correctly?” a voice said from the now damaged room on the right.
“The first two came a bit late,” I replied as I turned towards the voice. “But this last one was perfect.”
Winston snuck out into the corridor while he swept nervous brown eyes over the mess of broken stone and wood and bodies. “I know. But I had to wait before Trevor Gale was actually inside one of the rooms before I triggered them. And he stayed back at first, letting his guards fight for him.”
The two explosions that had shattered the floor earlier had been Winston’s doing. He had placed his glittering webs of magic under the carpets in the two rooms that Callan had said that Levi’s wife would be in.
“How did you even get downstairs again?” Callan asked, still rubbing the back of his head.
“The windows.” He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it himself. “We climbed in and out through the windows. Like some kind of suicidal spiders.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” a soft female voice said.
A moment later, Mi-ri walked out from the same room and into the hallway as well. She had been making sure that no one heard Winston while he moved around and planted the traps.
“Not that bad?” Winston stabbed a hand towards the upper floor. “Do you even know how high up that window was?”
Callan cleared his throat before Mi-ri could reply. “Alright, we’re about to kill these people now so if you wanna leave, feel free. Levi and all his guards are still at Old Square, so you’ll be able to get back to the north side without anyone spotting you.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Winston said as he started towards the door.
Mi-ri inclined her head slightly before following the explosion mage towards the back door that Levi had made sure was unlocked before he left.
Once they were gone, we turned towards the five people lying on the floor behind us. My poison still swirled in their bodies, keeping them unconscious.
For a few seconds, we just stood there side by side, looking down at them.
“Well,” Callan said eventually. “That went exactly according to plan.”
I laughed, shaking my head. “I can’t believe we actually pulled that off. Do you know just how many things could have gone wrong? And if even one of them had, we would be dead right now.”
“Good thing we specialize in dangerous schemes.”
Twisting slightly, we looked at each other. And another relieved laugh escaped our lips.
I hadn’t even been exaggerating. This scheme of ours had been absolutely nuts. But maybe that was why it had worked.
To my surprise, it was actually Callan who had come up with the plan.
After we had been attacked by Johnson and his people that second time, in that alley, Callan had realized that we had two enemies that we couldn’t deal with on our own. So why not let our enemies kill each other instead?
We knew that Gale wouldn’t be able to pass up the opportunity to recruit Callan, since he was the only one who had succeeded in pulling one over on Levi before. And we knew that he would eventually task us with finding the safe house. Callan and I would never have been able to kill Gale on our own since he was so damn careful and paranoid, so what we had to do was to make sure that Gale and Johnson showed up to the same place at the same time.
While we worked to convince Gale and David that we could be trusted, we also did everything we could to piss off Johnson while also telling him that he needed to get more people if he wanted to kill us. All so that the fight here today would be as even as possible. Levi’s don’t-kill-anyone rule didn’t apply to Johnson’s crew, since they were part of the scheme to take out Gale and not part of our forced attempts to mess with Levi’s reputation.
Winston and Mi-ri had already been inside the building, hiding in a secret room, when Levi left for Old Square, and even the King of Metal hadn’t known that they were there. Given that Callan was supposed to have killed them five years ago, we had to keep their involvement a secret so we had snuck them into the building well in advance. Once inside, Winston had planted the two explosions upstairs and then they had just hidden inside that secret room again and waited.
We knew that David would want to confirm that Levi had left before he sent for Gale, which would give Callan the excuse he needed to leave the building and run through the city. But we couldn’t just hope that Johnson’s crew would be lying in wait to attack Callan, so we’d also had Dennis, the reluctant shadow mage we had blackmailed, tip off Johnson that Callan would be passing through that courtyard with the fountain. And when Johnson and all of his friends spotted Callan there, they naturally chased him.
Then, Callan just had to lead them to this safe house, run in through the unlocked backdoor that we had told David was rigged with explosions, and then escape through the tunnel that ended right behind the building that David and I were waiting in. While Johnson and the others were still busy searching the house, Gale and his people snuck in.
Getting that timing right had been an absolute pain in the ass. But we had run several tests for how long it would take for messengers, as well as Gale, to get to and from the safe house. And luck seemed to have been on our side.
We knew that we wouldn’t be allowed to get within striking distance of Gale, so we had to force him to come to us. Winston’s explosions upstairs were both meant to kill as many of Gale’s people as possible, and to get the stone mage down to us since we knew he would survive the blast and the fall thanks to his magic.
However, Johnson and his friends would still be trying to kill us. So we needed to do something unexpected in order to kill both them and Gale. Which was where my little bout of friendly fire came in.
Since Gale hadn’t been expecting an attack from our side, my cloud had managed to knock him out. Callan knew it was coming but there was nothing I could do to keep the effects from him since I needed a cloud large enough and strong enough to render them all unconscious instantly.
The confusion that followed had allowed Winston time to detonate his third explosion that blew out the wall and sent Johnson’s gang flying. And now that they were dead, we just had five more kills to make.
“Take a step back,” I said as I let my hands drift closer together.
Callan obeyed without question.
Since the first cloud had only been made to knock them out, because Callan had been standing next to them as well, I would have to pull out the magic before I could send a killing dose at them.
Touching my palms together, I drew the poison from their bodies. Glittering green mist appeared above their mouths before it evaporated.
A groan came from Trevor Gale’s throat. Next to him, David stirred as well.
My heart leaped into my throat.
I slammed my hands together and shoved a lethal cloud straight at them.
Gale had only just managed to open his eyes when the poison hit him.
Instantly, everything went still and quiet. I stared down at the stone mage who had been planning to kidnap a pregnant woman and threaten her life in order to make Levi surrender. His pale blue eyes now stared up unseeing at the ceiling above. And next to him, the arrogant advisor who had been trying to order us around like common henchmen lay dead as well.
Beside me, Callan heaved a deep sigh. I did the same.
The glittering mist dissipated as I released my hold on the magic.
Callan stepped back up to my side now that the poison was gone, and then summoned a force blade. Stepping over limp legs and arms, he made his way over the now dirty floor and positioned himself next to Gale’s shoulder.
I glanced down at the vibrating sword in his hand before looking up at him and arching an eyebrow. “What are you doing?”
“Levi said to bring him Gale’s head.”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
“Not with Levi.”
Bringing his arm down in a swift motion, he used the vibrating force blade to cut the stone mage’s head clean off his shoulders.
I blew out a breath and massaged my forehead. Damn. In the insanity of this scheme, I had almost forgotten that Levi Arden was a fucking psychopath.
After letting the force blade fade out, Callan leaned down and curled his fingers in Gale’s messy brown hair. With a firm grip, he lifted the severed head. Blood dripped onto the wooden floorboards as Callan straightened, letting the head hang by his side.
“Come on,” he said, and jerked his chin. “We’re going to Old Square.”
I let out a disbelieving chuckle, but followed him back out onto the street.
To say that we drew attention while we walked through the city holding a severed head would be the understatement of the century. People stopped and stared on every single street. Most of them beat a hasty retreat when they understood what Callan was actually holding, but some of them followed us. As if curiosity got the better of them and they wanted to see what we would be doing with it. All of them did it from a respectful distance, though.
“You know we’re gonna have to put on a show, right?” Callan said as we reached the edge of Old Square.
I swept my gaze over the crowded space. Levi was sitting in a grand chair at the other end while some of his guards stood at attention on either side a short distance away. Gasps rang out around us, and people moved aside to clear a path for us as we strode straight for the King of Metal.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because people think that we have been actively working against Levi, trashing his gambling dens, blackmailing people, and all that. So we’ll need to publicly show that we were really doing all of it on his orders.”
“I really hate him and his inflated ego.”
“Yeah, me too. We’ll still have to do it, though.”
Afternoon sunlight painted the wide square with a golden glow and glittered in the jewelry and armor and glasses of the people filling it. We plowed through the crowd like a north Valdan battleship, cleaving the sea in half. Blood dripped onto the ground, leaving a red trail behind us.
Whispers and murmuring spread through the gathered audience like a sweeping wave as they looked between us and Levi. The person who had been in the middle of addressing the King of Metal cast a panicked look at us before hurrying aside.
A wide smile spread across Levi’s lips as he took in the sight of us. In the warm sunlight, his gray eyes had taken on an almost gilded hue. Deep satisfaction glittered in them as we came to a halt a few steps in front of his grand chair, but he remained nonchalantly lounging in it as if we hadn’t just dealt with the single greatest threat to his pregnant wife. But, as every dark mage knew, it was all about public perception.
For a few seconds, we just remained watching each other. Muted dripping from what remained of Gale was the only sound to break the stillness as the whole square seemed to be holding its breath.
With a casual swing of his arm, Callan released his grip on Gale’s hair. The severed head landed in front of Levi’s feet with a dull thud and rolled halfway around before stopping on its side.
“Trevor Gale’s head,” Callan said in a voice that carried across the stunned crowd. “As requested.”
Sharp intakes of breath could be heard from a few of the closest groups.
Callan brushed the back of his hand discreetly against mine, and then dropped to a knee and bowed his head. It took immense effort not to groan or roll my eyes as I lowered myself down to one knee as well and did the same.
“We infiltrated Gale’s organization and made him believe that we were on his side by pretending to work against you,” Callan continued. “Just as you instructed.”
Like hell. This had been our plan. But I managed to refrain from saying that by instead gritting my teeth.
Whispers drifted through the crowd as people put two and two together about our behavior this past week.
“And now we have brought you his head, as per your orders,” Callan went on. “So we ask that you consider our part of the deal fulfilled.”
For a few moments, Levi said nothing, as if he wanted to bask in this moment. I wanted to get the hell off my knees, so if he didn’t say something within the next three seconds, I was going to start poisoning people.
Just when my patience had reached its inevitable end, Levi spoke up.
“Rise,” he said, his voice thrumming with power and authority. “And know that your part of the deal has been fulfilled.”
I pushed to my feet immediately. Dull pain still pulsed from the cut on my arm, but at least it had stopped bleeding. I rolled back my shoulders and raised my chin as Callan and I straightened before the King of Metal once more.
The look in his eyes made me start slightly.
While the rest of his face had that lethal and imperious expression that matched his voice, from this close up, his eyes were practically brimming with relief. And something that almost seemed like gratitude.
“Thank you,” Levi said in a voice soft enough that only we could hear. While holding our gazes, he inclined his head with an almost imperceptible dip of the chin. “I will hold up my end of the bargain.”
Satisfaction washed through my body like liquid starlight.
Callan slid his hand into mine, interlacing our fingers, and gave it a gentle squeeze. I looked up at him and found him watching me with a victorious smile on his lips. We were bloody and battered and exhausted as hell, but I smiled back at him.
Because we had done it.
We had pulled off an insane scheme and killed the second biggest power player in Malgrave. And now, we had the manpower we needed to survive a war against Eldar and we had a metal mage who could destroy the Blade of Equilibrium.
Chancellor Quill thought that the war was already done. That with our mansions destroyed and our fellow dark mages on the run and Lance Carmichael back at his side, their complete victory was only a matter of time.
Oh he had no idea how wrong he was. The war was just getting started.
We were taking our empires back.
And then some.