Tayla jammed her fists on her h*ps and scowled. “What are you guys doing now?”
Cole grinned. “I’m testing a new explosive that’s odorless and practically invisible. Really cool. Works with electronic devices.”
“Stephanie must have developed it,” Tayla said, and Cole nodded. Steph was their cell’s chief spellcaster, but because her specialized talents worked best—or only—with electronics, they’d had to adapt.
“We just blew the hell out of that mannequin with an MP3 player.”
“Why do we need an explosive like that?”
“In case we ever get into a situation we can’t get out of.” He shrugged. “Take out a lot of scum with us. And obviously, we can remotely detonate.”
Tayla grimaced. Sounded a little too suicide bomber to her.
“Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather go down swinging a sword.”
She mounted the steps to the rear deck and entered the house without knocking. Laughter met her, the usual playful banter that filled the three-story house twenty-four-seven. An outsider would see a disciplined, happy group of teens and young adults living in the well-kept facility, but Tayla knew better, knew everyone here could turn into focused, deadly warriors in an instant.
As usual, someone was baking. Lori, fondly nicknamed June Cleaver, taught everyone to cook and assigned baking days to ensure healthful treats would always be available. Even now, the mouthwatering aroma of banana bread nearly had Tayla detouring to the kitchen. Instead, she cut through the living room that was as large as her entire apartment. Four Guardians looked up from playing video games, and one, a high-strung eighteen-year-old named Rosa, jumped to her feet.
“Tayla! Lori and Kynan have been worried.”
Tay strode past the TV, ignoring the curious faces. “Where are they?”
“In the library, I think.” Rosa tagged along. “Where’s Janet?”
Tayla supposed she should feel bad for being so blunt, but the answer had the desired effect; Rosa stumbled to a stop in the hallway, and Tayla sped up to escape the shock and questions. She pounded down the stairs to the giant multiroom basement. It had, sometime before Tayla became a Guardian, been expanded from a small, unfinished cellar to an underground facility complete with its own security systems and escape tunnels. Should anything attack the house, Guardians could shut themselves in the basement indefinitely, and could use the two exits as well.
Two Guardians were sparring in the brightly lit workout area, their bare feet thumping softly on the padded floor, and two more lifted weights near the rock wall. She hurried past them, through the darkened lab, which was empty except for the mystical relics, weapons, and magic supplies. The door to the library was closed.
She opened it and immediately wished she hadn’t. Inside, Kynan had his wife bent over the arm of the couch. He drove into her from behind, his jeans bunched around his thick thighs, one hand playing between her legs. Lori whimpered, digging her nails into the cushions Tayla would never sit on again.
Quietly, Tayla closed the door and sagged against the wall to wait. The sounds of their lovemaking made her wince in remembrance of the noises she and Eidolon had made, though what they’d done had been anything but making love.
No, their romp had been raw and rough, sex born of anger, hormones, and wicked magic. Because what she felt for him when he was near had to be a result of some sort of incubus enchantment. Now she could sit back and be disgusted to the point of wanting to kill him, but when he touched her, heck, when he looked at her, she fell under his spell.
Yeah, he was a poster boy for hot doctors, but the memory of her mother, writhing in pain beneath the demon that raped and killed her, raked her brain like the back end of a claw hammer. She pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes and shook her head, willing the memories away.
Only to have the fresher memories of being na**d with Eidolon crash into her head.
Stop. She could tell herself that his incubus sorcery was still affecting her, but a tiny part of her, the part that had come closer to finding the ultimate pleasure with him than with any man, didn’t care why she kept thinking about him. In any case, she needed to be stronger.
Eidolon had to die.
When the door finally opened, Kynan stepped out, graced her with one of his killer smiles, though his blue eyes darkened with concern. He didn’t miss much, always appeared to be reading a situation about ten seconds into the future. Before she’d laid eyes on Eidolon, she’d thought Kynan was the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen.
“Sorry,” he said, his voice a gravelly mix of Afghan battlefield vocal cord damage and sexual afterglow.
“We sometimes forget to lock doors.”
Sometimes? Lori had once confessed that when she and Kynan got into it, things ignited so quickly that they’d started up while people were in the room with them. Only when they’d finished and found the room empty did they realize how carried away in each other they had become.
Tay couldn’t even imagine being so into someone. Especially not someone like Eidolon, who wasn’t even a someone. He was a something.
He held the door wider and motioned for her to come in. “Where have you been? Where’s Janet?”
Tears unexpectedly stung her eyes. Guardians died all the time. But guilt over Janet’s death plagued her
. . . if only Tayla had come clean months ago about her strange symptoms. If only she’d taken herself off active duty status. If only, if only, if only.
Her self-lashing was pointless, but it was a family trait, an addiction as powerful as any other. When she’d been clean, Tayla’s mom had beat herself up daily for the things she’d done while under the influence.
The self-abuse had been as damaging as the drugs.
Tayla collapsed into one of the two overstuffed chairs, glad to rest the shaky noodles that were her legs.
“Janet and I ran into some problems.”
Lori hurried over, squatted at her knee. “Tell us,” she said gently, her comforting, maternal presence at odds with the warrior-woman who could wipe out a den of man-sized Croix vipers with nothing more than a hatchet.
Her nickname, June Cleaver, definitely had its roots.
Kynan ran a hand through the spiky brown hair she knew from pictures hadn’t changed since his Army days. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
“Goddammit.” He sank onto the couch and sprawled backward, legs spread, head back as he stared at the ceiling fan that spun in lazy circles. “Where? We need to retrieve what we can.”
“We went into the sewers at the Aspen entrance. She’s a few blocks north of that.”
Her stomach churned. The Guardians wouldn’t find much, if anything. Janet’s body had probably been taken or eaten by now. Every Guardian knew and accepted the risks of dying in demon territory. But it was the survivors who suffered when their comrades fell.
“We’d flushed out two Cruenti doing the nasty behind a Dumpster. We killed the female, but the male tucked tail. We gave chase, tangoed with a Croucher demon, and the Cruentus ambushed us.”
Lori and Kynan exchanged looks. It didn’t take a Velma to figure out what they were thinking. A Cruentus shouldn’t have been able to take out two experienced fighters. No way could she mention the truth of what had happened, how she’d lost the use of the right side of her body during the battle. The Aegis had doctors in their service, and Kynan, a former Army medic, performed most of the patch-up work, but despite her feelings of guilt, deep down she knew she had to keep her strange symptoms a secret. If the truth came out, she might be taken off the streets and relegated to training or paperwork. Or worse, kicked out of The Aegis altogether.
This was the only family she had left, and she wouldn’t lose it. Couldn’t. An ex-Guardian with no job prospects and without the tools and protection of The Aegis could measure her life expectancy in days. No, she’d keep her condition to herself, and she’d continue to hunt, but from now on, she was a solo act. No way would she risk another Guardian’s life.
“I’m not sure how it all happened,” she said, “but I saw her die. The Cruentus attacked me. That’s all I remember until I woke up in a hospital.”
“Hospital?” Kynan shot forward like he’d hit a brick wall doing ninety in his Mustang. Tayla half-expected him to rub his neck from the whiplash. “What hospital? We’d have heard.”
Lori stood, and ice formed in the room. “You know, Tay, you don’t look worse for wear.”
Yeah, as family-oriented as The Aegis was, a healthy dose of suspicion kept everyone alive. Tayla understood that, but the Regents’ reactions stung. The Aegis was all she had, and she’d felt secure in the knowledge that she soldiered on a team where everyone relied on each other, where everyone put aside personal differences while in battle. You might hate your partner on a personal level, but at least he or she was human, and in a fight with a demon, that was all that mattered.
But now a crack had formed in the brittle bubble in which she’d been living, and a frisson of insecurity shivered through her veins.
Slowly, Tayla lifted her shirt, revealing her well-healed scars and the one wound that still festered. “It was a demon hospital.”
Lori and Kynan said little as Tayla told them what she knew about Underworld General. She left out the fact that she’d knocked boots with a demon.
And a niggling sense of . . . something . . . told her to, for now at least, leave out how said demon was tied to her bed, his big body dwarfing the twin mattress.
“That’s just what we need,” Kynan said, as he pushed off the couch. “Demons treating the wounds we give them. Infiltrating our medical schools. Learning our physiology and weaknesses.”
“We’ve got to destroy it.” Lori paced the hardwood floor so quickly Tay expected to see sawdust fly.
“We can appeal to the Sigil for help. They won’t ignore something this big. Maybe they can ask the government for assistance, as well.”
The government might help, indirectly, of course. From what Tay had gathered, officials in very high places knew of the underworld threat and worked closely with the Sigil, twelve Aegis members who prevailed over all cells worldwide. And in every city, ex-Guardians and Aegis sympathizers could be found working as doctors, cops, taxi drivers . . . all willing to lend a hand.
“We can try appealing to them.” Scowling, Ky ran his hand over his hair, his frustration evident in the abrupt move. The Sigil was famous for refusing requests for assistance, forcing Regents to contact other Regents from nearby cells for help. “Tayla, can you hazard a guess on a location for this hospital?”
“New York, maybe. But really, it could be anywhere. Another realm for all we know, with the parking lot exit at a gateway between our world and theirs.”
Kynan cursed and checked his watch. “You two hammer out a battle plan. I’m going to assemble a team and retrieve Janet’s remains before it gets dark.”
He gave Lori a peck on the lips and left, and Lori continued to pace. “How did you get out of the hospital?”
Well, a demon doctor gave me a lift to a vampire nurse’s apartment, where we fought demons together, and then he took me to my place, where we had sex and chatted like old friends. Yeah, that would go over well. She thought she’d been prepared to give up Eidolon to them, but the truth could only go so far, and until she knew she wasn’t going to be shipped off to the Sigil for interrogation, she was going to keep the fine details—and Eidolon—to herself.
“I convinced one of the doctors to let me go.”
“And this doctor just . . . let you?”
Tayla fought the urge to squirm. “I told him I was a Screamer, that if they killed me, my spirit would call out to all Guardians until they found the hospital and destroyed it.” She licked her dry lips and hoped Lori bought the story. “You know how stupid demons are. He believed me. Figured it was safer to let me go than keep me and risk my death.”
To her relief, Lori nodded. “Good thinking. They can’t know how rare Screamers are.” She pivoted in midstride. “What was the doctor’s name?”
Tayla didn’t think it mattered, but what the hell. “Eidolon.”
“And do you know what kind of demon he was?”
No way was she going to reveal that little detail. Lori would assume, and rightly so, that an incubus would use its powers on a weaker human, and Tayla couldn’t afford to be thought of as compromised. Even though she had been.
Her body heated, because yeah, she’d been very compromised.
“Some sort of corporate hellspawn, looks human. But he gave me a way to get in touch with him. He was stupid, but smart enough to try to gain my trust,” Tayla said, knowing neither was true. “I’ll bet he thinks I’ll give him info.”
Lori’s bright green eyes grew brighter. “Excellent. You’ve done great, Tayla.”
The door opened, and Jagger, a life-hardened Guardian with an extraordinary number of kills under his belt and a string of demon teeth hanging from said belt, sauntered inside.
Her gaze locked with his dark one, the battle of wills never-ending. They had been rivals for years before either one of them had even heard of The Aegis, bumping into each other in the revolving doors of the foster care system and then later, on the streets where they’d lived like rats. A police raid on one of their mutual hangouts had sent them scurrying into an alley together, where demons had ambushed them. Fortunately, Kynan and two other Guardians had been there, and Ky’d taken Jagger and Tayla back to HQ, later saying that he’d seen promise in their lack of fear and their fighting abilities. She and Jagger had been sworn in as Guardians together, but nothing had changed. She trusted no one, but him least of all. Damned Scorpios.