“You gotta admit, it’s making you twitchy and unpredictable, and you’ve never been either. You’re acting like Wraith. Well, Shade, anyway.”
Eidolon removed the catheter from his arm and stanched the blood with a cotton ball. “This isn’t about my duty schedule, and you aren’t concerned about my performance. It’s about Tayla.”
“Tayla? You two so buddy-buddy that she’s not just the Aegi whore anymore?”
“Let it go, Yuri. Now.”
Yuri barked out a laugh, a high-pitched hyena yip. “See what the s’genesis is doing to you, Sem? It’s turning you into a pussy.”
“Excuse me?” Growling, Eidolon came to his feet.
“You didn’t want to turn her over to me. I get that.” Yuri moved forward, right up in Eidolon’s face. “But she wasn’t yours to turn loose. This was a matter for the Maleconcieo, and you should have taken her before it.”
The Maleconcieo, the demon U.N., a council formed of members of the most powerful of all demon species, would have salivated over the opportunity to question Tayla. Yuri was right, but that fact only angered Eidolon more. He’d told himself that he had let Tayla go so she could be watched, so she would come to them for help, but was it the truth? Had he been lying to himself and following his dick instead of his brain?
“Back off, shapeshifter. I know what I’m doing.”
Yuri grinned, his sharp teeth gleaming wickedly, but before he could say anything, the door to the lab burst open. Dr. Shakvhan, an ancient succubus who practiced Druidic medicine, gestured to Eidolon.
Yuri and Eidolon raced to the ER, where Luc was writhing on an exam table, blood flowing from various wounds as Gem and half a dozen nurses attempted to strap him down. His form kept changing from beast to human, flickering like a dying fluorescent bulb.
“What happened?” Eidolon nudged a nurse aside while Yuri ordered a vitals check and gloved up.
The nurse next to him cursed when Luc jerked his arm out of the restraints. “He came in like this. Stumbled through the ER doors and hasn’t said anything.”
Eidolon grasped Luc’s furry face, narrowly avoiding his snapping jaws. “Someone get a muzzle!” He tapped Luc’s cheek with his fingers. “Luc. Luc! Focus. Look at me, man.”
Slowly, awareness peeked through the pain in his dark eyes, and he turned human. “Aegis,” he rasped.
“Killed . . . her. My mate.”
Mate? He hadn’t known Luc was mated, but then, he didn’t know much about the reclusive warg. Eidolon used the pads of his fingers to make long, soothing strokes along the skin of Luc’s neck, which seemed to calm him. “You’re safe now. But I need you to hold human form so we can talk. Can you do that?”
Luc roared, his wail rattling the equipment. “They killed her! Fucking animals . . . they smelled like animals . . . apes. Bastards!”
Eidolon nodded at Yuri, giving the unspoken go-ahead for sedation. “Luc, I need you to tell me what they did to you.”
Luc’s body thrashed, but his eyes caught and held his. “They weren’t going to kill me,” he said, and a tremor of dread shot up Eidolon’s spine. “They wanted me alive, doc. They wanted me alive.”
Tayla didn’t bother going in to Aegis HQ the next morning. Unable to sleep in the bed that still smelled like Eidolon, she’d curled up on the couch with Mickey. As the first gloomy rays of cloudy daylight peeked through her kitchen window, the phone had started ringing.
She’d ignored it. But she couldn’t ignore the pounding on her door hours later. Kynan’s knocking had been soft at first, but had grown rapidly more violent, until he was threatening to break down the door.
She’d opened it, and immediately wished she hadn’t.
“We lost Trey and Michelle last night.”
Oh, God. Numb, she backed away from the door and collapsed onto the couch. “How?”
“They were tracking a pack of werewolves with Bleak and Cole. Got ambushed inside a house. They took out a female, but lost the others.”
Despair settled over her like a chilled blanket. With Janet’s death, that made three Guardians lost in the span of a week when they hadn’t lost even one in over a year. And Tayla . . . she’d been compromised.
“We’re losing, aren’t we? The battle. We’re losing.”
Kynan dropped to one knee and clamped a hand on her wrist. “Do not say that. Don’t even think it. The fight against evil has always been a marathon, not a sprint.” She tried to jerk away from him, but he held her in place, his grip firm but gentle. “Everyone is feeling the same way, Tay. But you’re a veteran fighter. You can lead the others and help our cell through this. Come stay at HQ, just for a few nights. It’ll be good for you. For everyone.”
For a moment she was tempted. Though she’d never been a social creature, right now, she felt more alone and out of place than ever. Still, she had a feeling that being among the other Guardians would only emphasize her loneliness. When she was by herself, no one looked at her as if she were a black sheep. No one talked through her instead of to her. Certainly, no one would look at her as if they knew what Eidolon had said and were trying to figure out for themselves if he had been telling the truth.
Join the club.
“I can’t,” she finally said. “I need to be alone.”
She also needed to be able to get up in the morning, check the mirror, and make sure she hadn’t turned into a demon overnight.
And on the subject of demons, she wondered if the tracking device she’d planted on Eidolon had led The Aegis to the hospital. Then again, if it had, Kynan would have told her by now.
“Ky . . . do you think there is such a thing as good demons?”
He blinked, taken aback. “Ah, well, there are eudaimons, benevolent spirits, but in most cases these are thought to be guardian angels.”
“But can other demons, like Cruenti, ever be good?”
“What? Tayla, what has gotten into you?”
Eidolon had. Twice.
“I guess . . . I just . . . what if they aren’t all bad?”
He felt her forehead with one hand, checked her pulse with the other, his medic training taking over.
“I’m going to take you to the hospital. You’re tachy and a little warm.”
“I don’t need to see an Aegis doctor—”
“Tayla, you’re talking crazy. And it isn’t a bad idea to have you checked out. Who knows what was done to you at that demon hospital.” She pulled away, and this time he let her, but he moved up to the couch.
“That’s what this is about, isn’t it? They took care of you. Saved your life. And now you’re feeling sympathetic.”
“This isn’t some twisted form of Nightingale Syndrome.”
But the suspicion burned in his eyes, navy fire. “I’ll give you until tomorrow, and then you’re coming into HQ, and I will take you to see Dennis.”
He’d left, and she’d spent the next several hours doing nothing but napping and pigging out on marshmallows and oranges.
Now, curled up on her couch with Mickey in her lap, she dug her nails into the skin of a tangerine, working her frustration off on the poor fruit. She didn’t need a doctor. Well, she probably did; last night on the way home from the warehouse, she’d suffered another loss of function, the episode leading to people at a bus stop calling paramedics. By the time the ambulance arrived, Tayla had recovered and was long gone.
In a moment of extreme weakness, she’d thought about calling Eidolon on the off-chance that he’d been telling the truth about his ability to help her.
She’d gone so far as to say the words on the back of the card he’d given her, but when her br**sts tightened and her thighs quivered at the mere thought of seeing him again, she’d thrown the phone across the room. If her hormones were that out of control when he wasn’t around, what would happen in his presence?
She hadn’t known her body could react like that to any man, let alone one who wasn’t human. If someone had told her a man could make her heart race, her breath catch, her sex ache, she’d have laughed, but that’s exactly what happened when Eidolon touched her. She craved him even while she hated him.
She was an addict, the same as her mom. The only difference was that Tayla’s drug of choice could be destroyed.
The phone rang, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. Mickey shot under the couch, chattering indignantly. Something cold dripped onto her leg, and she realized that at some point, she’d squeezed the hell out of her tangerine and now had juice and pulp oozing between her fingers.
Quickly, she rinsed her hands in the kitchen sink but didn’t bother drying them before picking up the phone.
“Tay.” Jagger’s voice made her tense. He rarely called, and when he did, the news was always bad. This time, though, he sounded almost giddy, which raised her alert status even higher. “Get over here.”
“I’m taking today off.”
“Trust me. You want to be here for this.” Silence stretched, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of asking about his cryptic response. “We caught your demon doc. He’s not in good shape.”
Tayla froze. Nearly fumbled the phone. “What . . . what do you mean?”
“I mean that if you don’t hurry, you won’t have a chance to watch him die.”
Tayla couldn’t afford a cab, but she took one anyway. She burst through the Aegis HQ back door, startling the half-dozen Guardians watching a movie on the big-screen TV.
Play it cool, Tay.
“Where are they?”
“Basement.” Excitement lit the expressions of everyone in the living room, a far cry from the depressed atmosphere Kynan had led her to believe had taken over. The Guardians were practically bouncing in their seats, throwing off anticipation and bloodlust.
The familiarity of it all came crashing down on Tayla. A demon had been captured and was being made to pay for the deaths of their three colleagues. They enjoyed knowing that Eidolon was being tortured. She’d have enjoyed it, too, a few days ago.
Sickened, she dashed down the stairs. Several Guardians practiced with weapons and fighting techniques in the fitness room, but their halfhearted efforts didn’t fool her. They were eavesdropping on what was going on in the Chamber—a room most, including Tayla, had never seen inside.
No, she used to hang out like the others, listening and laughing, because really, they were just demons. So what if they got slapped around a little before they were dispatched?
But the knowledge that Eidolon had been slapped around was somehow different, and she had to steady herself with a deep breath as she opened the heavy steel door.
Inside the room, which had been constructed of cement and spells from floor to ceiling, Lori and Jagger sat on stone benches, their gazes locked on the na**d, bloody body curled in a fetal position on the floor and chained to the opposite wall. She nearly cried out at the sight, caught the sound with a palm slapped over her mouth.
“You’re too late,” Lori sighed. “Jagger lost his temper.” She turned to Tay. “We didn’t get much out of him. Lies, mostly.”
“Nah. The hot poker up his ass got us some good intel.”
Oh. Oh . . . God. Tay stumbled to a corner and retched, splattering vomit all over the floor. Not slapped around. This was what they’d been doing in the room all along.
I’m so stupid. A naïve moron.
Still hunched over, her head swimming, she took in the surroundings, the glowing embers in a brazier in the corner, shelves of barbaric tools, racks of various flogs and whips, a hose, and more things she couldn’t identify.
“Tayla?” Jagger had moved to her to gather her hair and hold it away from her mouth. “You aren’t upset, are you? I mean, he was just a demon, right?”
“Yeah,” she croaked. “Demon. It’s just . . . the smell.”
The smell, the sight, the thought that Eidolon had suffered like that. What had she done? Dry heaves wracked her, twisting her gut until sweat poured down her temples.
“You’ve never sat shotgun at one of our interrogations, have you?”
She shook her head. Even if she had, would she have cared what went on? After all, demons were beasts. Evil beasts that slaughtered innocent humans for fun.
Funny how she kept telling herself the same thing over and over, despite the fact that no matter how often she repeated the “demons are evil” mantra like some sort of protective shield, it didn’t seem to make a difference.
“Let me take your jacket.” Dazed, as if she’d taken a punch to the head and couldn’t put her rattled thoughts back together, she shrugged out of it and handed it to Jagger.
“Come here,” Lori said, and, knees shaking, Tayla moved to the other woman, who was now crouching next to the body. Tayla averted her gaze as she sat on her haunches next to Lori. “He’s wearing a necklace with a strange medical symbol. Do you know what it is?”
Tayla didn’t look. Didn’t need to. It was the caduceus. The one that had tickled her skin when he was bent over her. Kissing her. Licking her.
“No,” she lied. “I don’t have a clue.”
Her stomach threatened to spill again. Her eyes did. One tear, small, easily and covertly dashed away by the back of her hand. But that one tear contained more emotion than had all of the tears she’d shed since her mom had died combined.
She exhaled slowly, needing a moment to compose herself before she could look. And she had to. Eidolon deserved as much. When she did, her breath snagged in her throat. The body before her was bloodied, bruised, mangled in places. But the right arm was bare, unmarked by the tattoo that ran from Eidolon’s fingertip to his neck. Her mind warned against too much hope, but her heart didn’t get the message, pounded as if it wanted free of her chest as she tipped the male demon’s face with her finger.