"How much farther?" Connor asked.

"Just keep driving south, and when you see Highway 375 turn onto that," said Silas.

To say that Connor's and Silas' relationship had been complicated through the years was an understatement. Silas had requested Connor's help on quite a few cases since the fire mage turned 18 and legally became an adult.

The Foundation gave Silas quite a bit of free reign to handle his cases as he saw fit, and his strategy of teaming up with a sorcerer to take down another magical threat was well documented. Connor was his sorcerer of choice mainly because of his raw power but also because he didn't ask a lot of questions.

With an abundance of magical power and a lack of fear and guilt, the fire mage made a potent partner for Silas as he worked to keep humans safe from the threat of rogue sorcerers and paranormal problems.

Connor saw the sign for Highway 375 and turned Marlow onto the road.

Silas adjusted his red tie. He looked out of place in an old pickup truck like Marlow with his black three-piece suit. His slick black hair combed back and clean shaven face hid his true age well.

He was just five years older than Connor when he was assigned to the missing Remmie case by the Foundation. Although he'd been unsuccessful in locating her in the 18 years since he started, he never quit. Connor appreciated his loyalty, and it was one reason he rarely turned down case work from Silas.

The other reason was money. Fay could only give so many horseback riding lessons, so Connor occasionally took offers from Silas. The Foundation was loaded, so Connor's pay was pretty good.

This particular case was worth $20,000, which Connor desperately needed to save his ranch.

The threat of losing his only home was what drove Connor to accept his deadliest case yet.

"Did I mention that I've only encountered one demara in my entire life?"

"Well I've only seen their handywork. That means you've got one up on me," Silas said calmly pulling his wakizashi out of his suit coat and unsheathing the small blade to polish it.

The enchanted blade had a smooth black hilt and scabbard. Carved into the blade were a handful of runes that gave the weapon its enchantment, designed for magical disruption.

The wakizashi's primary function was to protect Silas against sorcery while simultaneously providing a concealable weapon he could use to do battle with foes.

Polishing his sword, Silas was the epitome of cool. Connor had never seen him panicked through their years of cases together. He always had a plan.

With his suit and hidden blade, Silas looked the part of a suave assassin. His attitude matched. He was never without a tie, and Connor had never heard the man raise his voice.

"Maybe you'll understand me better when I say that I didn't kill the demara I came in contact with," Connor said.

Silas looked over at the fire mage and raised an eyebrow.

"I came to you for your raw power and expertise, Connor. I offered you a whopping $20,000 because I thought you'd be capable of helping me slay this elusive beast," Silas said with a slight mock in his tone.

"I'm going to help you, but I want you to understand what we're up against. This isn't the usual case where we hop out of Marlow, kill something in 10 minutes, and get on our way," Connor said.

Silas raised one of his thin brown eyebrows, puzzled.

"I thought you hadn't been capable of fear since the age of 19. Is your personnel file incorrect?"

"First, you have a personnel file on me? Gross. Second, I'm not afraid. I can't be. I'm just trying to get you to understand maybe you should have called in the cavalry on this one. Did you know that no sorcerer has ever managed to kill one before?"

"Oh? More research from dear Fay?"

"Yeah, and my brilliant sister knows that every time a sorcerer has gone after a demara, they've ended up with their soul sucked out and their body a pile of ash," Connor said.

"Interesting. The Foundation knows little about demara. We're sure there are only four or five on Earth. Any more, and we'd have a more serious problem than we currently do," Silas said, going back to polishing his blade.

Marlow bounced along the two-lane highway heading further south into the Ouachita Forest.

The pair drove past the Mena Airport and into the small town of Dallas.

"Other than that, we're sure they're not of this dimension. The Foundation isn't quite sure how the few ended up in our world, but we speculate they come from a world filled with darkness and black fire," Silas said.

Connor sighed. He remembered the black fire demaras produced. The otherworldly burning it caused when it met his flesh was among the worst pain he'd ever felt.

"So, how did your encounter with the demara go?"

The fire mage looked over at Silas and began his tale.

"Fay was researching them. I'm not sure how she came upon them, probably an old journal she picked up somewhere. She informed me of how powerful they were and speculated one was feeding in rural Iowa. A string of mysterious disappearances and burnt properties led her to this conclusion. With a little more research, she hypothesized demaras popped up about once every five years to feed on human souls. They'd kill about a dozen people and then go back into hiding."

"Go on," Silas said.

"Well, we got into a fight about just how powerful these creatures were, and my pigheaded self headed out to track the beast down. I got stubborn like I always do and wanted to prove to her there was no one stronger than Connor the Red."

Silas rolled his eyes.

"Yes, your arrogance is potent to say the least," the agent said.

"Anyway, I managed to track it down in southwest Wisconsin. I charged into the fight and gave it all I had, expecting to overpower the beast quickly, but it proved to be so powerful I was actually forced to go on the defensive," Connor said.

"Wow. I've never seen you use a defensive tactic. That must have been a tough fight," Silas said, still unimpressed.

"I can't describe to you how tough it was. It was the most difficult battle I've ever faced. The demara I fought made all the Dover Lights conquistadors look like straw men," Connor said.

Silas looked over at the fire mage a little more impressed.

"You cleared out the Dover Lights ghosts?"

"Yeah, it's a long story. Fay and I took care of them a couple days ago," Connor said.

Silas pulled out his phone and opened some sort of app.

"What are you doing?"

"Updating the Foundation's records to reflect one less magical problem in the world," Silas said.

"Hey, that's gotta be worth $20,000, right?"

"Nice try, but I didn't hire you for that job. I hired you to help me kill a demara. Congratulations on destroying those ghosts, though. I'd say that's worth at least a free drink back at Jack's Place," Silas said, putting his phone away.

The fire mage scowled.

"So, get back to telling me more about this fearsome demara you fought in Wisconsin. How'd you survive?"

"We fought for a solid three hours, and I was drained. I was throwing everything I had just to make my escape, and it wouldn't let up. Stupid thing didn't have any eyes, but it also had no trouble finding me every time I managed to slip away. Eventually it chased me all the way up a ridge and had me backed up against the edge of a cliff."

"You make it sound like a movie," Silas said.

Ignoring Silas, Connor finished his story.

"The black fire was too much for me to handle, so when it blasted me for the 50th time, I leapt off the cliff and fell a couple hundred feet into the river below, losing consciousness. Eventually, when I woke up, I'd been washed downstream several miles and fished out of the water by a couple of kind campers. I tell you this so you don't underestimate what you've asked me for help with. Silas, do you understand?"

"Yes, Connor. I get it. I won't underestimate the demara. But you need to understand something yourself."

"And that is?"

"This thing has fed on and killed four different farmers outside of Mena, and the Foundation has tasked us with making sure it doesn't get to number five. Your mother's disappearance is the only case I have on my docket unfinished, and I have no intention of adding this to the queue."

"At least consider the fact that we may not be enough to handle this thing, and we may have to retreat and regroup."

"What you see in this stupid truck is what we get to finish this mission. So strap on your fire mage testicles, and understand me when I say we're not leaving until we have a demara corpse in the bed of this vehicle," Silas said, showing some aggravation with Connor's increased warnings.

"Fine. What I see is what we have, but there's one last point I need to make before we get to this demara," Connor said.

"And what is that?"

"Never. . . ever insult Marlow. I've warned you about this precisely three times since we met. Final warning. I will roast you and that little dagger of yours if you do it again," Connor said, his red eyes glowing.

Silas said nothing. The agent did not want to fight Connor. He didn't know if he would win.

"Save your rage for the demara, Connor. I meant no ill will toward this. . . truck. Though I'll never understand your strange attachment to it," Silas said, running a couple fingers across the dashboard.

He clearly expected to find some dust, but he found none. Connor kept Marlow spotless.

Connor saw a little sign for Polk County Road 360.

"Turn here," Silas said.

The fire mage did as he was instructed.

They went a few more miles down the road with no light except for that generated by Marlow's headlamps.

When they saw a sign the Bradley Quarry down a little dirt road, Silas pointed.

Connor parked Marlow at the start of the dirt road and started to get out when Silas asked what they were doing.

"You don't know how much damage this fight is going to cause. I'm assuming you want to lure the demara into the quarry. Well this quarry will be two or three times its original size by the time we get done, assuming we don't end up soulless ash heaps," Connor said.

"And?"

"I'm not risking Marlow getting destroyed. It's all I can really leave Fay if I die tonight," Connor said.

Silas sighed, which he didn't do often and put his sheathed blade back into his black suit jacket.

They walked down the dirt road leading into the quarry. The quarry was carved into the side of a mountain, and an expanse of stone and rock piles filled the man-made valley before them.

In the middle of the quarry was a little pond. It reflected a full moon hanging over them.

"How do we lure it out?"

"Its last kill was on a farm just south of Dallas. Based on the areas of its other kills, we've calculated that the demara has been hiding in the woods around this quarry. So, we just make enough noise, it'll sense two souls available for dinner, and arrive at this location," Silas said.

"And what did you have in mind for noise?"

Silas reached inside his jacket and pulled something out. Connor didn't realize what it was until he saw the agent pulled out a pin and jerk his right arm back.

"Jesus! Is that a grenade?" Connor yelled

Silas let the grenade fly, and the two dove for cover. It landed just short of the pond when it detonated with a resounding BOOM.

Rocks and dust flew everywhere, and the pond shook vigorously.

When Connor and Silas rose from the ground, the fire mage let his temper fly.

"What the Hell were you thinking? Did you really expect that to work? I thought you were supposed to be the man with the pl-"

Connor was interrupted by an otherworldly shriek. The emotion of fear may have technically been impossible for the fire mage to register, but that fact didn't stop his gut from defying logic and sinking down to Connor's knees.

Silas did not look pleased that his plan had succeeded when he saw the demara leap from the top of the mountain and land about 100 feet from the agent, shaking the very stone beneath them.

More dust flew up as the beast landed.

As it stood up, the demara revealed its form to Silas and Connor. At full height, the beast was about 10 feet tall, though it was always hunched over. The creature's flesh was gray and shriveled in some areas. In others, it boasted massive muscle. It had no eyes, and when it shrieked, its mouth opened into four different pieces, revealing six different rows of teeth.

Its razor claws consisted three "fingers," and its feet were of a similar design.

The beast was capable of leaping hundreds of feet in any direction, and it could do so often faster than the human eye could detect.

As the creature shrieked again, black fire inexplicably lit some of the area while producing more darkness in other parts of the quarry.

The black fire surrounded its body in an animalistic cloak of some kind.

"Well, you wanted to see a demara. You saw one. Now what?" Connor asked.

"I didn't just want to see it. I wanted to see it in a Foundation laboratory being dissected. Now close your gaping jaw, and light that monster up," Silas said, pulling a second grenade from his coat.

"Are you going to keep throwing those? Because if so, I'm going back to Marlow and getting the Hell out of here," Connor said.

"Listen, I don't need this weak ass imitation of a fire mage! I need Connor the Red, master of wanton destruction. Bring out the fire, now!"

Pulling the pin and hurling the grenade at the demara, Silas tackled the fire mage, bringing them both behind the cover of a nearby boulder.

The explosion was temporarily deafening, and Silas wondered if the silence that followed meant their foe had bit the dust.

Connor knew better.

As the two looked where the grenade landed, there was just a small crater and no demara.

"Did that do it?"

"You didn't put a scratch in it," Connor said.

"How can you be sure?"

"Get down!"

Connor summoned energy to his right hand as fast as he could.

"Mortala Globos!" he yelled, and a small orange fireball quickly spun to life. He hurled it into the air just in time to see it make contact with the demara that was flying down upon them.

The fireball exploded and blew the creature down about 20 feet short of Silas and Connor.

"Your grenade didn't touch it. It jumped up to avoid the blast at the last second," Connor said.

"That thing is smarter than it looks," Silas said.

"You see what my fireball did to it?"

Silas looked closely as the dust settled.

"I don't see any change," Silas said.

"Exactly. Its black fire is three or four times stronger than my normal fire. It's nearly impossible for me to break through that cloak. Now do you see what I warned you about?" Connor said.

The creature rose and opened its mouth to return Connor's favor.

Before the sorcerer could react, the demara launched its own black fireball at Connor.

Just before the black fireball made contact with Connor, Silas dove in front of the sorcerer with his blade drawn. Using both hands, he blocked the fireball and struggled with its intensity. The runes on the blade lit to a bright purple as Silas held the blast at bay.

With all his strength, the agent swung the fireball to the left, and it exploded into a nearby rock pile.

Breathing heavily Silas muttered, "Damn. That's a potent attack."

Connor looked at the wakizashi as it smoked. Even its magical dispersal seemed limited against the black fire.

The battle repeated itself for the next few minutes, with Silas doing everything he could to deflect fireball after fireball.

Connor did his best to launch counterattacks, but the demara's black fire cloak proved impenetrable.

"Damn, this blade is getting hot. I don't know how much longer I can hold onto it," Silas said, switching hands.

"I hope you've had time to make a plan," Connor said.

"This blade is all that seems to be able to handle black fire. I've got to get close enough to inflict a killing wound. So far the creature seems to have kept its distance," Silas said.

"What are you thinking?"

"We bring the fight in close," Silas said.

"Say the word."

"We're gonna charge with you in front. Dodge anything it throws at you and use your exploding spell on the ground right under the demara. In the confusion of the blast, I'll approach and stab it in the chest," said Silas.

"Rinse and repeat?"

"I'm hoping the wound will be serious enough that you can finish it off with your magic," Silas said.

"Don't get your hopes up. When do we go?"

"Now!"

Like the crack of a whip, Connor charged forward at the demara. It stood its ground and prepared a fireball. Connor knew if he wanted to get close, he had no time to dodge. He'd have to take one for the team. He could withstand a few black fireballs, but they burned like Hell.

When Connor was ten feet away, the demara launched its fireball at the sorcerer. He clenched his right fist and bit down hard, raising his left hand.

"I said dodge!" Connor heard Silas say before he took the blast.

As the fire engulfed Connor, it took everything he had to charge through the blast and continue toward the demara. The familiar burning sensation of black fire hit every nerve, and Connor winced.

His eyes started to water, but he knew he had to press forward.

Grimacing, he pumped more energy into his tight right fist. His eyes glowed a bright red, and he came out of the fireball right in front of the demara's face. As it went to bite the fire mage, Connor instantly dove for the monster's feet.

Just missing a deathly chomp, Connor yelled, "Disploda," and slammed his right fist into the ground right under the monster.

All 300 pounds of otherworldly flesh flew up into the air, and Silas took the opportunity to strike.

Using Connor's shoulder, he leapt through the dust and up at the monster. With his momentum, he couldn't stab the beast, so he just slashed it vertically across the abdomen. It was a good cut, several inches deep.

The monster shrieked and increased the size of its cloak with a roar.

With black fire expanding quickly in Silas' direction, the agent could do nothing but attempt a last second block with his blade.

The pitiful defensive maneuver did little to save him as the black fire singed his legs and sent him flying down at a sharp angle.

Connor watched as the agent hit the ground and then skidded back several feet.

The fire mage ran over to his partner and did what he could to extinguish the black flames.

After using a blue fire to eventually dispel the black fire, Connor sighed.

"I'm now open to a temporary retreat and regrouping," Silas muttered.

He dropped his wakizashi.

It was at that point Connor saw severe burns covering Silas' hands.

"I hate to say I told you so, but retreat isn't an option at this point. I got lucky falling into that river, but if I tried to limp back to Marlow with you in tow, this beast would be on us instantly. We're not walking away from this thing until it's six feet under," Connor said.

"Understood," Silas said, accepting the facts with a surprising calm given the situation.

He struggled to get up, but he quickly fell back down with a shriek of pain. His legs were garbage, and he'd likely dislocated a shoulder with that landing.

"Stay down. I'll finish this," Connor said.

"How?"

"You tell me. I'm not giving you a pass just because you can't walk. Use that brain and give me a strategy," Connor said.

Silas was one of the few people Connor trusted to give him orders. He knew the agent was smart. They'd fought together long enough for Silas to earn Connor's begrudging respect when it came to intellect.

The agent looked down at his blade and back at the demara, which seemed to be examining its own wound.

Its bleeding wasn't too apparent because whatever slimy life fluids were leaking out of the beast were translucent.

"If your magic won't do the trick, then you're going to have to use the wakizashi. Throw all you've got into a couple distracting explosive spells and then get in close to stab it again. Rinse and repeat until dead," Silas said.

"I've got a spell you haven't seen yet," Connor said, smirking.

"Reveal it," Silas said.

Taking off the shreds of his trench coat that had survived the initial black fireball, Connor covered Silas' bleeding legs with it.

Grabbing the blade, Connor's hand smoked.

"Right. . . enchanted weapon" Connor muttered as his left hand became engulfed in purple flames.

That sure does sting a little, Connor thought, remembering that enchanted weapons were designed to be used by normal humans. They'd burn sorcerers that attempted to use them.

It may not have been much pain when compared to the feeling of black fire, but it was far from a tickle.

As he stood up and turned to face the demara, Connor's right hand began to glow.

"It's time to end this. I'm starting to hate this ugly thing," Connor muttered, his eyes glowing red again.

Raising his fist to the sky, Connor summoned a large chunk of life force. This wasn't an attack he did often because of just how much energy it used.

"Mortala Bothynas," Connor shouted looking into the sky.

At first, nothing seemed to happen. Then, large globes of orange light started to appear in the sky.

As the demara looked up, each glob had grown to the size of a basketball. When they grew a little more in size, beads of sweat started to form on Connor's forehead.

When they were about double their initial size, Connor brought his fist down toward the demara.

At this point, the globes, about 100 feet in the air, were revealed to be fireballs, and they rained down upon the demara in a brilliant show of lights and deafening explosions.

The monster shrieked as it was blown from one spot to another by the sudden outbreak of detonations.

Its cloak of black fire thinned from taking so much damage.

"But wait, there's more!" Connor yelled.

Spending another chunk of his life energy, Connor summoned forth three wolves made of fire akin to the ones he used against the conquistadors, only these were made with orange fire.

They weaved through the explosions and each grabbed onto one of the demara's limbs. It hissed and attempted to fling them off, but their jaws were locked in place.

"Good boys," Connor said, rushing the now pinned demara.

Thrusting the wakizashi forward, he pierced the thinning black fire cloak and sank the blade a few inches into the beast's belly, causing more translucent slime to ooze out.

Displeased with the latest developments, the beast roared back to life with a blast of black fire just as Connor's meteor shower ended.

"Hell's bells," Connor muttered, seeing what was coming and being unable to do anything about it.

The demara's aura roared forth with an intensity unseen thus far in this battle.

Connor's fire wolves dissolved into the black fire, and the sorcerer was launched backwards about 20 feet, slamming into a rock pile.

He dropped the blade and screamed in agony as the black fire consumed him. By the time it died out, his clothing was pretty much nil, save for his boxers, which were covered in a design of stegosauruses holding rocket launchers.

Covered in fresh burns, Connor rose slowly. He had more rage, sure, but little energy to match it.

"Connor!"

The fire mage looked over at Silas in time to see him throw a tiny bottle with his remaining good arm.

Connor caught the small pill bottle with one tablet inside. It was a small white circle with "N-57" written on it.

"It's a prototype. I didn't want to give it to you because I don't know what side effects it'll have, but we're out of options," Silas yelled.

"What'll it do?"

"It temporarily boosts you life force, sending your sorcery skyrocketing."

"And the downside?"

"Your energy will crash within minutes, and you won't have any magic for at least 12 hours while your body replenishes itself. There may be other side effects too. We haven't had time to test it yet," Silas said.

"Down the hatch," Connor said, swallowing the pill and tossing the bottle behind him.

"How do you feel?"

At first, Connor felt no different. Then, his heart skipped a beat, and he screamed. Power like he'd never felt before coursed through him. His blood boiled and raced at 500 miles per hour from vein to vein.

Screaming from the amount of pressure building in his body, Connor's eye were a brighter red than they ever had been before. His body started to put off so much heat that the very rocks around him caught fire.

The ground under Connor began to blacken.

The demara seemed to notice and was planning what to do next. It looked over at Silas, kneeling down to leap forward and devour the collapsed agent.

Connor intercepted the monster halfway with an uncanny speed. Grabbing the creature's arms, he once again became engulfed in black fire, but this time a new spell came to him.

His head began to tingle as the new words were revealed to him.

Connor's nerves began to scream from what was becoming an all-too-familiar pain.

This time would be different, though. He roared as the energy inside of him demanded to be released.

Silas screamed for Connor, but the noise was lost in the heat of battle.

The fire mage knew he shouldn't be up close to the beast without the enchanted wakizashi, but he wasn't thinking at this point. He was pissed stupid, and intelligence was actively being traded for rage-induced strength.

"Mortala Lacernae," Connor said, speaking his new spell.

At once, an intense orange flame wrapped around Connor, and he had his own cloak. Sparks flew everywhere lighting up the darkened quarry as the two fire cloaks struggled for dominance, each of their wearers pouring every last bit of strength they had into them.

As the demara shrieked, Connor roared again.

He squeezed the creature's arms until he could feel bone, and that bone began to bruise from the amount of pressure being exerted on it.

Both combatants knew they'd have to end this quick to win.

The demara decided to go for its thus far under-used jaw, again revealing several rows of pointed teeth. Its very breath seemed to raise the humidity in the quarry by several points.

With the creature's jaw inching toward Connor, he decided to reveal his own pearly whites.

Feeling his throat heat up, Connor prepared to show this demara what a dragon looked like.

An orange spark appeared for a moment outside of Connor's teeth, and within moments he was unleashing a torrent of flaming breath upon the demara.

The creature may have previously towered over Connor, but with his magnified abilities, the mage held it in place with his strength. He then roasted its opened jaws with an ungodly amount of orange fire.

This continued for a solid minute until Connor's fire finally faded.

Connor's flames had melted the insides of the demara, and at last the creature had all it could take.

The fire mage let go as the creature slowly fell backwards and hit the ground.

Connor's body began to shake, and for the first time in a long while he felt cold, like a track runner who just crossed the finish line sprinting at full force.

He kneeled there for what seemed like an eternity until his body finally stopped shaking.

Then, he slowly rose and walked over to Silas.

"Hell of a pill. You should mass market that thing," he muttered.

"Yes well. . . I'll contact the FDA first thing in the morning," Silas said.

The fire mage kneeled down and put what shreds remained of his coat back on. Fishing through the one pocket that remained intact, he pulled out the matchbox of Birch Butch toothpicks. He was down to two.

Putting one in his mouth to chew on, he said, "I gotta get some more of these things."

Connor extended a hand to Silas, and the bloodied agent accepted it.

Wrapping Silas' arm around his neck and helping him up, Connor saw some bandages wrapped around the agent's legs where the black fire had burned him.

"How the Hell do you fit everything in that suit jacket of yours?"

"Nonsense. I merely carry the essentials," Silas said as the two started the trek back to Marlow.

"Sword, grenades, first aid kit. What's next? You got a beer cooler in there?"

"Afraid not. Though you've more than earned a few free drinks from Jack's Place," Silas said.

"More like a year's worth of free drinks," Connor said, grunting as he worked to help his partner up a steep dirt road back to Marlow.

"I think I can sweet talk them into a month's worth of free drinks," Silas said.

"Fine, but they gotta throw in wings too."

"Done," Silas said, sealing Connor's bonus.

Connor started to shake again as he opened Marlow's passenger door for Silas.

"Hey, why am I shaking so much?"

"Your body just burned through so much amplified life energy, it's suffering withdrawals. It'll be that way for the next 12 hours while your life energy replenishes. It's a big boost in power, but it comes at a price," Silas said.

"Excellent," Connor said, sliding into the driver's seat. He was panting and sweating like mad.

"I suppose throwing that thing into the truck's bed is beyond your current strength?"

Connor frowned and looked at Silas.

"Sorry, I'm just a little beat after the last thing you asked me to do," he said.

"And while I'm grateful for your assistance, we can't very well leave that thing's corpse there for people to find," Silas said.

Connor grunted in response and angrily opened Marlow's door. Fishing through the bed of the truck, he found a large amount of rope.

"I'm charging you an extra $5,000 for corpse disposal," Connor said, angrily pointing a finger Silas.

He slowly walked back down the road into the quarry and out of sight. Silas waited for about an hour without hearing from Connor again.

At last, the sorcerer limped back up to Marlow. He was drenched in sweat and sat in the driver's seat for five minutes before responding to inquiry from Silas.

"What did you do?"

"I. . . tied it up with rope and attached several large rocks. Then, I dragged its ass into that pond. That demara is now sitting under about 10 feet of water where it'll stay. If you want to come back and get it, feel free," Connor said, still breathing heavily.

"I guess that'll do," Silas said.

"I'm glad it meets your standards," Connor said, pushing the clutch and bringing Marlow to life.

They drove home, and Connor did not speak. Silas watched his health increasingly deteriorate. He pulled out his phone and made notes about the effects of the pill.

When they reached the outskirts of Fayetteville, Connor was barely clinging to consciousness. When they reached the ranch, Connor pulled into the barn, turned the key and stopped Marlow's engine.

He used the last of his strength to open the door before collapsing onto the floor in a mix of sweat, dust, and straw.

Fay and Patricia came running into the barn.

Inside they found Connor collapsed and Silas struggling to limp over to his own car.

"What the Hell happened?" Fay yelled checking Connor's pulse.

Patricia touched Connor's forehead and gasped.

"He's cold! Connor is a fire mage. Why is he cold?"

Silas' explanation did little to satisfy the women.

"Connor helped me with a difficult case. He depleted his strength and took an experimental drug to ensure our victory. Its side effects are a bit. . . devastating," Silas said.

Fay stood up and stomped over to Silas as the agent got into his car.

"You better be a little more specific than 'devastating' effects, or I'm going to shove this boot so far up your ass-"

Silas cut her off by reaching into his glove box and tossing her an envelope.

"What is this?"

"Connor's agreed fee. It's the $20,000 you need to pay off your ranch's delinquent property taxes. The county tax collector's office will be open in a couple hours. I'd get there to avoid having this place seized," Silas said, shutting his car door and starting the engine.

Fay banged on the window.

"Hey! What the Hell is wrong with my brother? You're not leaving until I get some answers. What was the case? What do we do about this experimental drug?"

Silas rolled down the window with an annoyed glance. He didn't care much for Fay's antics.

"The case is classified Foundation information. You'll have to ask Connor when he wakes up if you want to know more. As for the drug, he'll be fine. He's merely in an extreme state of debilitation drained of his magic and strength. Just toss him into bed and let him sleep it off for 12 hours," Silas said.

With that, he rolled up his window, backed out of the garage, and left. The agent was clearly not attached to Connor and saw him as little more than an investment for cases. He'd see to it that Connor didn't entirely die while on missions, but he wasn't going to wait at the fire mage's bedside until he woke up.

Their relationship wasn't emotional. It was merely one of convenience, and Fay never understood why her brother was okay with that.

It showed every time Silas approached Connor and left him when a mission was completed. He was always indifferent to Connor's health beyond making sure his heart was still beating. That was Silas' minimum requirement of safety for the fire mage on every case.

Patricia and Fay worked hard to drag Connor to bed. He didn't stir once.