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


  His initial smile faded at the mention of his friends. “A gorgeous girl asking for my number is less exciting when she asks for three numbers at once.”

  I snorted. “I need emergency contacts.”

  “I know.” He took my phone and entered the three numbers. “There you go. One of us is always available, even if you have to call a few times.”

  “You didn’t put Ezra under ‘Cyclops,’ did you?”

  He laughed. “No, I just did that on my phone to annoy him.”

  I hesitated, then plunged in. “Does Ezra normally get a bit … strange in those sorts of situations?”

  “He’s protective of his friends,” Aaron said with an airy shrug. “Who isn’t? Take it easy until Tuesday, ’kay? And if you don’t feel up to your shift, let Clara know.”

  “I’ll be fine.”

  Once he was safely in the elevator, I returned to my apartment and surveyed the assortment of gifts. Humming thoughtfully, I carried the beer-glass vase to the end table, then unbundled the lightweight blanket and curled up on the sofa with it, the box of chocolates on my lap.

  Snuggling into the blanket, I popped another chocolate in my mouth, feeling spoiled as hell. I’d never admit it to Aaron, but I did have a favorite gift—and I didn’t plan to tell a soul which one I preferred.

  Chapter Thirteen

  Beyond the unnecessary gifts the guys had lavished on me, my Saturday-night adventure produced an added bonus. When I arrived at the Crow and Hammer on Tuesday for my shift, my entrance was met with cheers. Before I knew what was happening, a dozen semi-familiar faces surrounded me, offering congratulations on kicking mythic ass and asking how I was doing. My black eye had faded to yellow-green, but it was still too hideous to hide.

  I eventually made it into the kitchen, blinking stupidly. Ramsey looked up from the counter where he was slicing tomatoes.

  “How are you doing?” he asked. “Heard about your escapade over the weekend.”

  “How does everyone know already?” I grumbled, stashing my purse and new hot-pink umbrella in the office. “You guys gossip like seniors at a bingo hall.”

  Ramsey flicked his dark hair out of his eyes. “News travels fast. Sin told the other alchemists, who told the sorcerers, who told everyone else.”

  “Sin?” I repeated warily. “What exactly did she say?”

  “The story I heard is that Aaron was ambushed and outmanned when you saved his butt with nothing more than an umbrella and a stolen artifact.” Faint skepticism crossed his features. “Did you really attack six mythics on your own?”

  I twisted my mouth, embarrassed by all the attention. “I suppose, but what else was I supposed to do? Let them drag him off?”

  “You’re one tough cookie, Tori.” His expression grew oddly intense. “What artifact did you steal?”

  “Huh? Oh, you mean the card.” I finished tying my apron, then pulled the Queen of Spades out of my pocket. “I snatched it from a sorcerer. He used it to shoot Aaron’s fire back at him.”

  Abandoning the tomatoes and stripping off his latex gloves, Ramsey took the card and examined it. “A reflector spell?” He whistled. “That’s rare stuff. What’s the incantation?”

  “Uh. Ori repercutio.”

  “Wow. Crazy.” His eyes brightened. “I specialize in this kind of Arcana—weapons to counter other magic—and this thing is throwing off arcane vibes like you wouldn’t believe. It’s no minor trinket.”

  Frowning, I slid the card from his hands. “Throwing off arcane vibes? It feels like a regular card to me.”

  “It’s safe to say you have no latent arcane talent, then, but anyone can use an artifact like this. You don’t need magical ability.”

  “It’s not very reliable. It only worked once when I tried it.”

  “Different spells work in different ways.” Leaning against the counter, he gestured at my card. “Arcana harnesses the energies of the natural world and gives them shape and purpose. Building spells can take hours, weeks, months, or even years, depending on the complexity of the result.”

  Huh. How long had the Queen of Spades spell taken to make? “That doesn’t sound practical.”

  “It isn’t, which is why combat sorcerers rely on specific tools, the most common being hexes and artifacts. A hex is a cantrip that—sorry, let me back up. A cantrip is a single-rune spell that can be cast with a brief incantation. Here, I’ll show you.”

  He stepped into the office, grabbed a sticky note and a pen, and drew a strange symbol on the paper. Returning to the kitchen, he held the sticky note over the sink.

  “Igniaris.”

  The paper burst into fire, the hungry flames way bigger than the little paper should have produced. Ramsey snatched his hand away as the burning note fell into the sink.

  “So, that’s a cantrip. A hex is a pre-prepared one that can be reused instead of drawing it each time. If it isn’t drawn perfectly, it won’t work, so it’s not something you want to do on the fly.” He pulled a small object from his pocket and held it out—an oversized coin with a symbol etched in the center. “This is guaranteed to work every time. Hexes are the fastest magic a sorcerer can produce, but they lack power.”

  That fire spell had seemed powerful to me, but maybe that was because my standard for magical power was “zilch.”

  “An artifact is an enchanted object that contains a complex spell. Days or weeks of work goes into creating it, and it’s far more powerful than a hex. Multi-use artifacts are the most valuable, but they can’t be triggered over and over like shooting a gun. They passively gather energy to fuel the spell, and once you use it, you need to wait for the spell to recharge.”

  “Ooh, that explains why it didn’t work every time. How long does recharging take?”

  “Depends on the spell. For some, a minute or two. For others, days or weeks.”

  The sorcerer had used the Queen of Spades, then I had used it, but I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. More than two minutes, less than seven, I was guessing.

  Ramsey tapped the card. “All artifact incantations begin with ‘ori,’ which awakens the spell. Then you speak the command word or phrase. ‘Repercutio’ means to rebound or strike back.”

  “Hmm. So I just need to point this card at an incoming magical attack and speak the incantation, and it’ll reflect it no matter what?”

  “It’ll reflect incoming magic up to a point. That spell has limits, though there’s no easy way to determine how much it can handle. Still.” He straightened. “It’s valuable. If you want to sell it, let me know.”

  “You want to buy it?”

  “I couldn’t afford it, but I could find a buyer for you. Like I said, I collect this kind of stuff, so I know people.”

  “What’s it worth?”

  “I bet you could get twenty-five, maybe thirty for it.”

  I pulled a face. How broke was he that he couldn’t afford thirty bucks? “I think we define ‘valuable’ differently.”

  “You don’t think thirty thousand dollars is valuable?”

  “Eh? I thought you meant—uh, yeah, that’s a lot of money. I’ll let you know if I decide to sell it.” Controlling my shock, I stuck the dark queen back in my pocket. Note to self: do not lose card.

  “Oh, and Tori? Keep that to yourself.” He turned to the sink to wash his hands. “Humans aren’t allowed to own artifacts. Most mythics would be delighted to take it off your hands whether you wanted to give it up or not.”

  Well, didn’t that sound awesome. Was he including his fellow guild members as mythics I needed to watch out for?

  Back at the bar, Aaron and Kai had appeared, sitting on stools with their heads bent over a laptop. I offered a quick greeting as I prepped my station and served drinks to the dozen patrons waiting for service—and waiting to hear more about the goon squad attack on the weekend.

  By the time I had a breather, Sin had joined Aaron and Kai, her blue hair gleaming in the dim lights. She offered me a cautious smile when I approached, wh
ich I returned with equal wariness.

  “How are your injuries?” she asked.

  “Healing fast. That cream you gave me is amazing stuff.” As I slid a rum and coke each to Aaron and Kai, I asked her, “Do you want anything?”

  “Not right now, thanks.”

  I craned my neck to peek at the laptop screen. “Whatchya working on?”

  Aaron leaned back. “I called my parents, but their sources can’t find anything on a group of mythics aiming to exploit the family.”

  “I’m wondering if it might be related to the rogue sorcerer we took out on Saturday,” Kai said, tapping away at the keyboard. “It seems too fast though.”

  “What about the attackers?” I asked. “Can’t someone question them?”

  “They all escaped before the cops showed up. We don’t know who they are or where they came from.” Kai glanced up, a darkly amused gleam in his eyes. “So Aaron is babysitting you, and I’m babysitting Aaron until we figure out who’s after him.”

  Aaron gave a long-suffering sigh. “I don’t need babysitting here. No one would be stupid enough to waltz into guild headquarters.”

  “True.” Kai pulled the laptop closer. “But I need to get some work done anyway.”

  The evening passed quickly. Clara stopped to fuss over my eye and thank me for helping Aaron. I got more congratulations—according to mythics, a black eye was cause for celebration?—but what surprised me most was that Aaron didn’t downplay how dire the situation had been. And if I answered questions too modestly, he would correct me—making it clear that if I hadn’t jumped in to help, he wouldn’t be here. I’d expected a guy with as much ego as him to hate admitting something like that.

  When Sin came upstairs to the pub—she was working in the alchemy lab in the basement tonight—to get a soda, Aaron was in the middle of retelling the story to Lyndon the sorcerer.

  “Doesn’t it bother him?” I muttered as I passed her a coke. “Telling everyone how he needed help?”

  As she slid onto a stool, Sin shrugged. “Mages are always tough, and Aaron is one of our best. Admitting he needed help only shows how powerful and capable his opponents were. We all know he isn’t weak or stupid.”

  “Huh.” I poured myself a coke. “What about Kai and Ezra?”

  “Kai doesn’t have as much brute power as Aaron, but he was well trained and disciplined even before joining the guild. I wouldn’t want him as my enemy, that’s for sure.” She stirred her glass with the straw. “As for Ezra … he makes good use of the magic he has, but he isn’t in Aaron and Kai’s league. A lot of it is genetics. Some bloodlines are extremely gifted, others aren’t.”

  Aaron and Kai didn’t give off the impression that Ezra was a lesser mage, but when they captured that rogue sorcerer, Ezra was the only one who’d been hurt in the fight.

  Taking a gulp of my coke, I remembered Ezra’s invisible rage, the way the room had gone ice-cold and the lights had dimmed. That didn’t seem like something a weak mage could do just out of temper, but what did I know?

  “They seem like really good friends,” I murmured.

  “Best friends,” Sin agreed, resting her chin on her hand. “Aaron and Kai have been as close as brothers since they were teenagers, and they joined the guild together. Ezra showed up a year or two after and applied to join, and Aaron and Kai took him under their wing—at least that’s what I heard. They’ve been inseparable since the day I met them.”

  The last bit came out kind of grumpy and I raised my eyebrows questioningly. Sin checked no one was listening in, then bent closer.

  “I’ve never met three guys who are this ridiculously hot but so undateable,” she whispered vehemently. “Kai is always seeing like five women at the same time, Aaron only dates girls he thinks his parents will loathe, and Ezra practically runs and hides if you flirt with him. It’s not fair.”

  Rant over, she primly sipped her drink.

  I stared at her. “Aaron only dates girls his parents will hate?”

  “Maybe not on purpose, but the pattern is obvious.” She flapped her hand. “Anyway, sorry to derail. What were we talking about?”

  “Um.” I wasn’t sure anymore. Aaron wanted to ask me out, though the ambush had delayed his plans. Did he see me as a girl his parents would hate? I smiled to myself. Upsetting parents—I was good at that.

  Sin fiddled with her straw. “Honestly, Tori, I’m surprised you showed up today.”

  “You are?”

  “I expected you to ghost us. It’s not like we’ve been welcoming.” Guilt flickered across her features. “Then being followed home, seeing Aaron attacked out of nowhere, fighting rogues and getting beat up. Dealing with mythics comes with risks, especially when you don’t have magic to defend yourself, and the Crow and Hammer isn’t a safe, easy guild. I figured you’d walk away and never look back.”

  She gazed at me expectantly, waiting for a response, but I said nothing, my thoughts scrambled. Now that she’d spelled it out, ditching the guild would have been the smart reaction to a near-deadly assault by criminal mythics, but I hadn’t given the idea any serious consideration. Was there something wrong with me? Did I enjoy danger?

  A strange feeling prickled in my stomach. Maybe it wasn’t that I enjoyed danger but that I hated boredom. This place, these people—they weren’t and never would be boring.

  At the end of the night, Aaron drove me home in his old red sports car, Kai crammed in the back so I could ride in the passenger seat. We saw no signs of stalkers or would-be abductors.

  The rest of the week passed in a comfortable routine. College in the morning, walking to the Crow and Hammer after class, hanging with Aaron—accompanied by Kai or Ezra—and visiting with Sin whenever she came up from the basement lab for a drink or snack. Now that she wasn’t sabotaging my bar, she was fun to talk to. Her apology had been genuine and I’d decided to forgive her … especially since I suspected Tabitha had been the whispering devil on her shoulder.

  The biggest difference between my first week and my second, however, was the atmosphere. Putting my life on the line to protect a guild member had triggered a major shift in attitude. I wasn’t living in a magical fairytale where everyone now adored me, but the overall response to my presence was improving.

  More members smiled and made small talk. More friendly greetings. More tips. The cheer didn’t vanish off their faces when they got near me. I’d thought weeknights were slow, but now I suspected members had been avoiding the pub. It was busier, livelier, and way more fun. Laughter, jokes, lots of banter. Drunken goofing off, mythic style.

  Some people still despised me, but the number was shrinking. Any night Tabitha was on duty promised to suck. She always showed up at the worst moments, and though her cool remarks were never overtly antagonistic, by the time she vanished back upstairs, I’d be mired in bitter anger. Her subtle ability to make me feel unwelcome and unappreciated was as impressive as it was disheartening.

  Sylvia the hag and I had reached a cold truce. Liam the weaselly telepathic had apologized and hadn’t tried anything creepy since. Tom, the bookworm psychic, came in every night for a few drinks and quality reading time in his favorite corner. Alyssa, a girl with banana-blond hair, was so aloof I was surprised she hadn’t injured herself walking around with her nose in the air, but whatever.

  The jerk trio of vampire hunters, Cearra, Darren, and Cameron, had developed a real talent for insulting me whenever no one was listening, but I was coping. On the last occasion when Darren had deliberately spilled a freshly made Long Island Iced Tea across the bar, I’d spun around in the middle of pouring a drink and sprayed him in the face with my soda gun. Whoopsies.

  It was getting better. It was getting fun. I was learning who was always up for good-natured banter and who was never in a good mood. Who liked to chat, who hated small talk, who was fun and who was trouble.

  And through it all, Aaron was there with either Kai or Ezra, keeping me company and backing me up when someone was an asshole. For th
e first time in a long time, I found myself eager to go to work.

  It was a good week, and by the time Saturday rolled around again, I was in the groove. Aaron and Ezra were parked at the far end of the bar, Aaron playing a video game while Ezra cheered him on. The pub was hopping and I zoomed in and out of the kitchen, taking orders and making drinks.

  As the dinner rush died down, I carried a plate between tables. I didn’t normally deliver food, letting patrons wait at the bar for their meal, but the girl who’d ordered was sitting at a table with cards spread across the surface in a strange pattern.

  I nudged the plate onto the only free corner. “Need anything else?”

  “No, this is fine. Thank you so much.” She gave me a distracted smile and offered her hand. “I’m Sabrina, by the way.”

  “Tori. Nice to meet you.”

  Sabrina shifted in her seat, her large brown eyes emphasized with heavy makeup and fake eyelashes. “You spend a lot of time with Aaron and Kai, right?”

  “At work,” I confirmed. “Yeah.”

  “Do you have their numbers? I lost them and haven’t had a chance to ask again.”

  Something about her innocent tone made me suspicious. “Sorry, can’t help you there.”

  “Oh,” she said glumly, adjusting her salon-perfect blond bob.

  “Why don’t you just ask? Aaron’s right there.”

  When I turned to get his attention, she waved urgently. “No, no, that’s fine. I’ll ask later.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  Sweeping all the cards together, she beamed as though hoping to distract me. “Would you like a reading?”

  The cards she was stacking into a neat pile had black backs with a gold sun and moon forming an ornate yin-yang, while the fronts featured ink drawings. Tarot cards. I’d normally scoff at that kind of stuff, but I was standing in a magic guild, so … yeah.

  “You just used your cards, Sabrina.” An old woman flounced over to the table, glaring through her turquoise-framed glasses. “You must cleanse your deck before performing another reading.”

 
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