Three Mages and a Margarita (The Guild Codex: Spellbound Book 1) by Annette Marie

  “That’s shitty.” His grin returned. “No one at the Crow and Hammer would reprimand you for defending yourself.”

  “I wasn’t defending myself when I threw a drink on you.”

  I expected him to laugh, but his expression sobered. “I was being an ass, and I deserved it. I’m no better than the others. Razzing new people is a habit that’s hard to shake.”

  “You were annoying but not cruel.” I plucked at my stained shirt. “This is crossing a line, though. Honestly, I’m not sure how much longer I can stay.”

  “If I could make them understand how awesome you are, I would,” he murmured. “They don’t know what they’re missing out on.”

  To my dismay, my cheeks flushed hot. I was not a blusher. I could count past occasions without using all my fingers.

  “I’m not that great,” I muttered, ducking my head. “You barely know me.”

  “I can tell,” he said confidently. “And even if I wasn’t sure about you, Ezra likes you.”

  “He seems like the sort of nice guy who likes everyone.”

  “He’s nice to everyone—too nice, if you ask me—but he doesn’t go out of his way for strangers.” He tilted his face skyward as though remembering something. “By the way, don’t ask Ezra why he joined the guild.”

  “Uh … okay.”

  “And best not to ask about his family either.”

  I nodded. I could understand someone not wanting past ghosts stirred awake by nosy questions, though I was dying of curiosity now, of course. “Anything else I shouldn’t ask him?”

  “Hmm … maybe don’t ask him out either.”

  I blinked. “Did it seem like I was planning to?”

  “No, but Ezra doesn’t date so he’d turn you down and things would get all awkward.” He slanted a glance at me. “Plus, I’m planning to ask you out, so I don’t want that messed up.”

  My heart gave a small flutter and I sternly told it to quit that bullshit. Still, I had to fight back a grin. “You are, are you?”

  “Damn right.”

  “And when were you intending to carry out that plan?”

  “If you’re going to say yes, then …” He squinted around. “How much farther to your place?”

  “Four blocks.”

  “In four blocks, then.”

  I laughed. “What if I’m going to say no?”

  “Then I’ll wait until I can butter you up first.” He canted his head. “Do I get a hint about your answer?”

  “Hmm.” I sauntered along, hands folded behind my back and purse bumping my side, my oversized umbrella hanging from the strap. “Do you need a hint?”

  “I mean this in the best way possible, but you’re a difficult woman to predict, Tori.”

  I gave him my best mysterious smile. “Three blocks now.”

  He grumbled. We walked in companionable silence for another two blocks, and my nerves jumped in anticipation. Was he planning to merely ask me on a date, or did he have something more in mind?

  High-rise apartment buildings closed in on all sides, a few windows still alight. As we reached the next intersection, he looped an arm around my waist and pulled me around the corner.

  “Uh, Aaron, this is the wrong way.”

  “I know,” he said in a low voice, his grim tone surprising me. “It’s just that I’m pretty sure the two guys back there are following us. We might be in trouble.”

  Chapter Nine

  My heart jumped, and not in a good way. “Following us?”

  “I noticed them after we left Water Street,” Aaron muttered. “It could be a coincidence, but I doubt it. Keep your eyes forward. I’ll check if they keep tailing us.”

  Adrenaline surged through my veins. I hooked my arm through his and we power-walked to the next intersection and turned right again. Resisting the urge to look back, I kept my focus on the sidewalk ahead, well lit by streetlamps, traffic lights, and the occasional flare of headlights as a car passed.

  We made another right turn and came out on our original street. We’d made a pointless one-block circle that no one in their right mind would walk unless they were lost.

  “Shit,” Aaron hissed. “They’re still on our tail, and they know we’ve spotted them.”

  He extended his stride until I had to jog every third step. I risked a glance back and spotted a pair of men in dark clothes a block away. They appeared normal enough but that didn’t mean anything.

  “How far is your apartment?” Aaron asked tersely.

  “Turn right at the next corner. It’s the third building.”

  “Good. Okay.” He pulled me along with him, head tilted to keep our pursuers in view. “When we get close, run to your door and get inside. I’ll wait until you’re in, then draw them away.”

  “What?” I yelped. “No way. Come inside with me.”

  “Too risky.” His eyes kept moving, scanning every shadow before returning to our stalkers. “They’re after me, not you. I’m not leading them to your apartment.”

  “I won’t leave you to—”

  “They’re mythics, Tori. You can’t help.” His arm heated under my hand. “I can take care of myself.”

  He said that now, but at the pub when he’d talked about his odds against powerful mythics, he’d included Kai and Ezra as his teammates. His mage friends weren’t here to back him up. Could he take on two mythics alone?

  “This isn’t a good plan,” I whispered as we rounded the corner and Justin’s building came into view. “Let’s figure out something else.”

  “It’ll be fine,” he said. “Tori, I fight with fire. I need you safe first so I can defend myself without hurting you.”

  “But you don’t have Sharpie,” I protested desperately.

  Shaking off my arm, he stopped at the broad sidewalk that crossed a manicured lawn to the front of the towering high-rise. His head turned as he watched our stalkers. “Run inside. Go!”

  My hands clenched. With a furious hiss, I turned and bolted across the lawn. I shoved through the main doors into the vestibule but didn’t unlock the security door. Spinning around, I squinted through the glass.

  Aaron turned on his heel and strode into the street, heading for the alleyway on the other side—getting out of sight so he could use his magic. His two pursuers broke into a jog, chasing after him.

  Then, farther up the street, two more men in black clothes ran toward the alley.

  Four? There were four?

  Gasping through my panic, I pulled my phone out—but could I call the police? Aaron and the mystery men were mythics. I was almost positive the police would make this worse. If Justin had been home, I would’ve called him and taken my chances, but he had a shift tonight. Swiping my thumb across the screen, I pulled up Clara’s number and called it. It went straight to voicemail. She was probably sleeping.

  Cursing, I ran outside. Aaron couldn’t take on four mythics at once, could he? I might be a useless, magic-less human, but I wasn’t abandoning him to an unfair fight.

  Slowing as I reached the head of the alleyway, I crept into the darkness between hulking skyscrapers. Aaron hadn’t gone far. He stood in the middle of the alley, illuminated by the flames dancing across his upraised palm. Shadowy figures had formed a loose circle around him, and as I slunk behind a dumpster and peeked out, I counted them. Then counted again.

  Not two. Not four. Six.

  “Come quietly and we won’t hurt you,” a black-clad man said in a raspy voice. “Our orders are to bring you in alive, but they said nothing about unharmed.”

  The flames on Aaron’s palm flared, gleaming across the switchblade in his other hand. “How about you get lost, and then I won’t have to hurt you?”

  The man smiled. From beneath his coat, he pulled a long dagger with a glowing inscription on the steel. Crouched behind the dumpster, I clutched my purse like a shield. Oh god. This couldn’t be happening.

  Aaron flicked his hand—hurling fire into the face of a man on his left—then launched toward the guy wi
th the dagger. The man swung his weapon in a sideways arc and a sparkling white wave swirled around it. Aaron slashed with his switchblade, a trail of flames whipping out, and the two forces collided.

  Orange sparks and white glitter exploded into hissing steam that engulfed the two men. Ice, I realized. The sparkling white power was ice.

  Fire rippled out from the steam cloud, and as Aaron reappeared, two men attacked him from behind.

  He spun, fire spiraling out of his switchblade, and the other men launched flashes of light from small objects I couldn’t make out in the darkness. Aaron dodged them, pivoted again, and cast a crackling fireball at Ice Guy, who countered with a burst of white that exploded into snowflakes.

  Aaron jumped back, fire racing up his arms and over his shoulders. He thrust his switchblade in a strange pattern and the steel glowed red. A wall of flame erupted from the weapon and surged toward Ice Guy.

  Another enemy jumped to Ice Guy’s side, something small in his hand.

  “Ori repercutio,” he declared.

  The air rippled like a shock wave and when Aaron’s fiery attack hit it, the blaze snapped in the opposite direction. The red-hot flames sloughed off Aaron’s body, his clothes singed but his skin unharmed. Teeth bared, he raised his switchblade again.

  Behind him, light flashed painfully bright. I flinched, blinded. A shout, a crunching sound, a clatter of something metal skittering across asphalt, then another flare of light. Eyes watering, I peered through the mist.

  The six men had converged in the center of the alley, and I couldn’t see Aaron’s red hair among them. Then, as a man crouched, I spotted Aaron—on the ground, Ice Guy kneeling on his back, one hand gripping his dagger and the other pressed to Aaron’s shirt, frost spreading from his fingers. Snow fluttered around them, the air sparkling with ice crystals, and Aaron’s harsh breaths puffed white.

  Another man stepped on the back of Aaron’s neck, pinning him in place, and pulled a small vial from his pocket, its contents sickly yellow. He unscrewed the top.

  I dropped my purse, grabbed my umbrella, and charged out from behind the dumpster.

  No one saw me coming until I was winding my umbrella up like a baseball bat. I swung it full force into the guy’s face, knocking him and his creepy vial off Aaron. Skidding on the ice-coated ground, I whammed my umbrella into Ice Guy’s face too. It cracked against his nose and he recoiled with a shout.

  As I swung the umbrella for strike number three, someone caught it and wrenched it out of my hands. I turned in time to catch a fist to the face. My head snapped back, my skull splitting open along my eye socket—or that’s what it felt like. As I went down, my near-forgotten taekwondo training kicked in and I caught myself without scraping my elbows open to the bone.

  Rolling over, I shot to my feet. A couple yards away, a guy went flying in a spiral of flame as Aaron launched upright. I was diving for cover when the same asshole who’d punched me grabbed my hair and yanked me back. Balling my hand into a fist, I jammed it into his stomach.

  He doubled over with a wheeze and I rammed my knee between his legs. As he toppled, something small fluttered from his hand. I snatched it off the ground—a Queen of Spades playing card, worn and yellowed like it was fifty years old.

  My attacker straightened with a hiss, his teeth bared. “Give that back.”

  I flipped the card so the queen was facing him. “Why would I do that?”

  As fire exploded on my right and someone screamed, the guy stuck his hand in his pocket and yanked out a new magic toy—another playing card.

  “Impello!” he yelled.

  “Orepecutio!” I shouted.

  A ripple of air—and an invisible force slammed into my chest like a battering ram. I flew backward and hit the ground hard. This time I couldn’t save my elbows, but I stopped my head from smacking the pavement.

  “It’s ori repercutio, idiot girl,” he snarled, advancing on me. “What kind of sorcerer are you?”

  Who said I was a sorcerer? Nice of him to correct my pronunciation, though.

  He swapped to the second card in his hand—an Ace of Hearts with a twisty rune in the center. “Ori impello potissime!”

  I thrust the Queen of Spades at him. “Ori repercutio!”

  The air rippled and a massive force struck the man. He was hurled almost straight up, crashed into a wall, then tumbled to the ground in a heap. I glanced in awe at the Queen of Spades. Wow.

  Grabbing my umbrella from a puddle, the magic card in my other hand, I scrambled up. Two other men were down, but Ice Guy and the last pair had Aaron surrounded. Flames blazed over his limbs and sparks swirled around him. The ground was on fire and steam billowed, tinted orange by the inferno.

  Ice Guy faced him from within a cloud of white, frost clinging to his clothes and lining his dagger. Where the fiery aura around Aaron met the dense cold around Ice Guy, the air sizzled and steamed.

  Aaron punched his hand out, his weapon gone but his flames undiminished. A fireball exploded from his fist and flew at Ice Guy. The other two men attacked Aaron from behind with small items like my new playing card, shouting incantations.

  As Aaron whirled on them, I ran toward the battle, my sandals splashing through ice-cold puddles. I jumped behind Aaron and pointed my card at Ice Guy.

  “Ori repercutio!”

  Nothing happened.

  Ice Guy slashed his dagger at me. I whipped my umbrella up and the blade hit it, snapping the metal rod. As the umbrella folded in half, the dagger caught in the layers of nylon fabric and I wrenched it sideways. The dagger tore out of Ice Guy’s grip, and I flung both items away.

  Unfortunately for me, Ice Guy didn’t miss a beat. He grabbed me by the throat, fingers squeezing. Agonizing cold flashed over my skin.

  Heat washed across my back, then Ice Guy threw me aside as Aaron charged in, fire rippling over his arms. He tackled Ice Guy and they went down in a cloud of hissing steam. I clambered up, my throat throbbing.

  Ice Guy broke free and scrambled backward, and my neck immediately felt better when I saw the blistering burns on his arms and face. Ha, take that!

  Aaron rolled to his feet, still on fire like it was no big deal, and I sidestepped closer, the heat blasting me like I was standing next to a bonfire. I clutched my unpredictable Queen of Spades card, afraid to rely on it but with no other weapons.

  The man beside Ice Guy stuck his hand into the back of his coat—but the weapon he withdrew wasn’t a dagger or a spell or even a playing card.

  He swung the black pistol up, and before I could move, he pulled the trigger.

  Chapter Ten

  The shot didn’t ring out, blasting our eardrums into dust. Instead, it popped like a toy gun—and something bright flashed toward us.

  Aaron jerked away, hideous yellow liquid splattered across his bare arm and sizzling from the heat of his skin. Not a pistol with bullets—a paintball gun. But that yellow liquid wasn’t paint.

  He swayed. Lurching for balance, he grabbed my arm. His hand burned and I gasped as his legs gave out. He dragged me down, hitting the pavement on his knees, and both his arms clamped around me.

  The air heated, crackled, burned.

  Fire exploded out from Aaron, turning the alleyway into a wall of flame. Only the tight circle within his arms was spared the fire, but the heat—I couldn’t breathe. My head spun, my skin screaming, my clothes scorching.

  The flames died, revealing the blackened alley. Ice Guy was gone, as were his companions. The downed attackers were far enough away that the lethal inferno had missed them. I glanced at my hands, relieved they weren’t blistering—just pink, like I’d turned the shower too hot.

  Aaron’s skin cooled and his arms loosened, then he tipped over, catching himself on one elbow.

  “Shit,” he rasped.

  I gripped his arm. “Are you okay?”

  “Poisoned. No idea what it does.” His arms trembled as he pushed himself up. “We have to get out of here.”

? I broke off as, in the distance, police sirens echoed through the streets. Oh crap. I did not want to get caught in an alleyway with several weapons, three unconscious men, a poisoned pyromage, and a lot of fire damage.

  “Okay,” I gasped, struggling to think straight. “Let’s go. Come on, Aaron.”

  Shoving the Queen of Spades into my back pocket, I heaved on his arm. With effort, he staggered upright and sagged against me, almost toppling us both. I clutched him, my legs quivering as I supported his weight.

  “My apartment is across the street,” I panted, dragging him past the dumpster. “Crap, my purse.”

  I helped him lean against the dumpster, grabbed my purse, then pulled his arm over my shoulders again. We hobbled out of the alley and across the street. Kicking the building’s main door open, I dug one-handed in my purse for my key fob. I slapped it against the panel to unlock the security doors, then wrangled them open and limped into the lobby.

  A middle-aged woman, waiting at the elevator with a wheeled suitcase, watched us approach with eyes that grew wider and wider the closer we got.

  I forced a smile, trying not to crumple under Aaron’s weight. “He had too much to drink.”

  Her bug-eyed stare shifted from him to me. “Good god, girl. What did he do to your face?”

  Oh damn. So I wasn’t imagining that my eye felt hot and puffy. “Wasn’t him.”

  Her look screamed skepticism, but then the elevator dinged and the doors slid open. I heaved Aaron inside and he slumped against the wall, groaning. His eyes were squeezed shut, his face white and shining with perspiration. If he’d been drunk and not poisoned, I would’ve been searching for a bucket for him to puke in.

  The woman must have thought the same, because she backed up. “I’ll take the next one.”

  Relieved, I jammed the button for the ninth floor three times. The door slid shut and the elevator glided upward.

  “Hang on, Aaron,” I whispered, rubbing his shoulder. Flakes of his crisped shirt fluttered to the floor. “Almost there.”

  He didn’t answer, his concentration consumed by the battle to stay upright.

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