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

  “Without a doubt,” Felix said, raising his voice over the shocked muttering. “Our top priority is finding out who the other party is and why they’ve targeted Aaron. I haven’t been able to reach Darius, but I sent him a detailed message. Same for Girard—he’s in Seattle. For now, it’s just us.”

  I counted the assembled mythics. Twenty-six. Just over half the guild.

  “What do we know about the group who captured Aaron tonight?” Lyndon asked.

  Felix, Ezra, and Kai looked at me.

  I cleared my throat nervously. “Three people came in through the back door. One was Tom. He mocked me for figuring out he was eavesdropping on conversations so the rogue guild could attack Aaron while he was vulnerable, but—”

  “How is Aaron vulnerable?” Cearra interrupted, her tone suggesting I was an idiot for thinking Aaron could be exposed to danger.

  “Anytime Ezra and I aren’t with him,” Kai answered shortly.

  “I think Tom was passing his tidbits along to this other group, and they were giving it to the rogues.” I tugged nervously at the hem of my shirt. “The two other people with him were a telekinetic man and a woman who can … control people.”

  “A mentalist,” Ezra added. “A powerful one with a touch-dependent gift. She forced Aaron to leave with them.”

  “Including Tom, that’s three Psychica mythics,” Zora pointed out. “Do we know of any rogue guilds with a heavy inclusion of psychics on their roster?”

  “I can think of a few,” Andrew responded grimly. “But I don’t know why any of them would go after Aaron. They have no reason to—”

  “Revenge.” Tabitha’s cool voice preceded her out of the kitchen. She pushed through the saloon doors, her jaw-length bob perfectly smooth and her ice-queen expression undisturbed.

  “What?” Zora snarled. “Who wants revenge on Aaron? For what?”

  “Not for anything Aaron has done, but revenge on the Crow and Hammer.” Tabitha stopped beside Felix and held out her phone. A green call symbol glowed on the screen. “Go ahead, Darius.”

  “Good evening, everyone.” The deep, vaguely familiar voice of the guild master echoed from the phone’s speaker. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

  Felix’s wide eyes darted from the phone to Tabitha and back.

  “A few minutes ago, I received a call,” Darius continued. “The caller demanded I present myself at a specific address in two hours. If I fail to arrive, or do not arrive alone, he will kill Aaron.”

  Lightheaded terror swept through me and I clutched the table for balance.

  “Unfortunately, the caller did not give me the opportunity to inform him I’m three thousand miles away. I can’t meet his demands, so we’ll need a different approach.”

  “Who the hell are these guys?” Sin yelled, her hands balled into fists as she glared at the phone.

  “Thank you, Sin. I was just getting to that,” Darius replied dryly. “Six months ago, I instructed Girard, Tabitha, and Alistair to investigate the activities of a local guild—Kirk, Conner & Qasid.”

  At the guild’s name, faint recognition pricked me.

  “Ostensibly a law firm, the guild’s membership is composed entirely of Psychica mythics. Though they present as a legitimate guild, their activities behind closed doors are distinctly unsavory. In short, it’s a guild of predators, cheaters, and conmen. Over the past half year, Girard, Tabitha, and Alistair have done an admirable job of catching their members in numerous illegal activities. The MPD has cracked down on them, banning members and levying destructive fines. Any further charges and the guild will risk dissolution.”

  Darius paused as though gathering his thoughts. “The reason I assigned this task to our most experienced officers and most powerful mage is because of the threat KCQ presents. It was not a task I wanted other members involved in. Though psychics are often underestimated, KCQ has attracted some dangerous individuals. Tabitha?”

  The second officer raised her chin. “Four weeks ago, Alistair and I tagged one of KCQ’s most promising new recruits—an empath with a frightening ability to influence the emotions of everyone around him. He’s now in MPD custody. After his arrest, all activity from the guild went quiet.”

  Her dark eyes flashed to me. “The moment I heard what had happened tonight, I knew who was behind it. We took a gifted and powerful young member from KCQ—and now they’ve taken our most gifted young member in turn. But that isn’t the extent of their revenge. Aaron is Darius’s protégé, and they’re using him as bait to lure Darius into the open.”

  “They don’t just plan to punish us by killing Aaron,” Lyndon growled. “They want to kill Darius too.”

  “I believe that is their goal,” Darius agreed, his voice calm but deepened by intensity. “We will not allow them to accomplish either goal. They will deeply regret every moment of their supposed vengeance.”

  A silent, restless shiver ran through the gathered mythics. I could taste the impending violence in the air.

  “Tabitha has the address my caller provided, but we can assume that location is a trap. They are likely holding Aaron elsewhere. KCQ has two offices, one registered and one not.” His tone shifted, becoming more businesslike. “Tabitha, in my and Girard’s absence, you are in charge. Aaron’s life is in your hands.”

  “I’ll get him home safely,” she promised.

  “Good. I’ll await your update.” The line clicked.

  Tabitha slipped her phone into her pocket. “We have no time to waste. Taye, contact all our Psychica members who aren’t already here. Delegate others to go to their homes if you can’t reach them by phone. Felix and Kai, pull up all the information you can find on the three addresses we’ll be targeting. I already texted them to you. With one office downtown, one in the West End, and the shipping yard where they told Darius to go, we’ll need to coordinate our movements carefully.”

  Felix and Kai sped toward the stairs to the second level.

  “Andrew and Zora,” Tabitha continued, “organize the combat mythics present into three teams. Sin, get a hold of our healers. Ezra, print off the profiles of every known KCQ member, six copies each.”

  Giving my hand a quick squeeze, Ezra hastened upstairs as well. Sin disappeared downstairs for a quiet place to make calls, and Zora herded the other mythics to the far end of the room. As the purposeful bustle consumed the pub, I squeezed my hands together.

  No one protested the perils of the mission. No one questioned or complained about their assignments. They moved with determination, with anger burning in their faces. Every person here had come to help Aaron, and not a single one showed the slightest hesitation about going up against a guild Darius had deemed too dangerous for regular members to tackle.

  Tabitha turned to me. “What happened this evening when Aaron was captured? I need all the details.”

  Stumblingly, I described every moment of the encounter, every word I could recall. When I finished, Tabitha nodded.

  “Very well,” she murmured. “You may leave now.”


  “Your home is the safest place for you.” When I started to argue, her cold stare silenced me. “You are a liability, and I will not put any more lives at risk to protect you.”

  My whole body went cold, the chill sinking even deeper than hours in a refrigerator could inflict.

  “Consider your employment terminated,” she added without sympathy. “You were brave, but allowing you to set foot in this building was a mistake from the start. All else aside, I will not see you hurt or killed on my watch.”

  I glanced around desperately, but Kai and Ezra were upstairs and Sin was in the basement. Not a coincidence. Anyone who might have come to my defense was busy elsewhere.

  Tabitha noticed my searching look. “Do you plan to distract them at such a critical time? Go home, Miss Dawson. You do not belong here.”

  My throat constricted so tightly it hurt to swallow. She was right. I didn’t belong here. Even if I wanted to argu
e with her, I couldn’t do it now. I couldn’t distract Kai and Ezra from saving Aaron, who had less than two hours to live. Giving Tabitha my information about tonight’s attackers was the extent of my usefulness. The best thing I could do was get out of the way.

  Forcing my tight fists to open, I nodded and stepped away from the table. No one noticed as I walked around the bar and into the kitchen. The saloon doors swung shut behind me for the last time.

  Working hard to ignore the splatters of blood on the floor, I got my purse from the office, then picked up the hot-pink umbrella Aaron had given me. My hands clenched around it, tears burning my eyes. Determinedly blinking them away, I marched through the back door. A black van was parked crookedly right outside, and a half dozen other vehicles were crammed into the small lot, including Aaron’s red sports car in the corner.

  The cool night air washed over me as I joined the sidewalk and headed away from the Crow and Hammer, my heart heavy and my lungs hurting. In my mind, I watched Aaron’s face go blank as the mentalist woman took control of him. Two hours before they would kill him in retaliation against Darius.

  I scarcely noticed the dark road, the boarded-up windows, the graffiti-marked walls. Normally, I would’ve been nervous as hell walking these streets alone at night, but I didn’t care. All I could think about was Aaron. Had Ezra and Kai noticed I was gone? Even if they had, they didn’t have time to waste on me tonight, not when Aaron’s life was ticking away with each minute.

  My shoulders drooped, my steps sluggish. My thoughts and fears were focused on Aaron, but at the back of my mind, pain throbbed. Another job, gone. Just like that, I’d been fired again. Even though my position had been temporary from the start, this one hurt more than any job I’d lost before.

  Trying not to think too hard, I hurried my pace. My mind spun, jumping from topic to topic with lightning speed, wondering where Aaron was, how the Crow and Hammer mythics would get him back safely, how long it would take them to plan their attacks on three different locations. How—

  I stumbled on a nonexistent crack in the sidewalk. Three locations …

  Stopping beneath a flickering streetlight, I yanked my purse off my shoulder and dug into it. My sunglasses spilled out and hit the pavement, one lens shattering.

  “Come on,” I hissed.

  I squirmed my hand through a tangle of receipts, then pulled a crumpled paper free. On it, three job listings were printed. One for a bartending position. One for a bank teller position. And one for a receptionist position at a law firm—Kirk, Conner & Qasid.

  The psychic guild’s name had sounded familiar. Now I knew why.

  I tilted the page toward the streetlight, reading the address. Clark Drive. That was east of here, whereas the downtown and West End offices Tabitha had mentioned were in the opposite direction. This address was for a different office. A third office. And if I was remembering correctly, at the north end of Clark Drive was a gargantuan quay where ocean-going cargo ships loaded and unloaded their freight. Could that be the shipping yard where Darius was supposed to surrender himself?

  The dark text on the page stared back at me. A third KCQ office, almost on top of a shipping yard. A location Darius and Tabitha didn’t know about.

  I whipped out my phone and pulled up Kai’s number, then hesitated. What if they already knew about this address and it was a dud? Or worse, what if they didn’t know—and they split their limited resources even more thinly to investigate it? What if Aaron died because they sent a team out to a meaningless address from a random piece of garbage I’d picked up?

  But there was a chance, however slim, that it was a real location. Probably not a secret one, since they’d put up a public job posting for it, but maybe it was a new office—one so new it wasn’t registered in MagiPol’s database yet.

  Turning on my heel, I strode in the opposite direction of home. Since I was otherwise unneeded for Aaron’s rescue efforts, I would make myself useful. I’d check out the location from my printout and determine if it was worth alerting Kai to its existence.

  No need to distract them. A quick investigation on my own, nothing dangerous—I wasn’t an idiot, I knew I was no match against mythics—and then I’d either call a cab and go home, or I’d call Kai and tell him what I’d discovered.

  I couldn’t save Aaron, but if there was something I could do, no matter how small, then I would do it—even if it meant going alone to stick my nose in the business of a guild so dangerous even other mythics steered clear.

  Chapter Twenty

  Beneath a claustrophobic concrete ceiling, I crouched in a deep patch of shadows. Above me, a low bridge slanted upward, spanning a wide set of train tracks.

  It had taken me almost twenty minutes to get here, and if I hadn’t been busy fearing for Aaron’s life, I would’ve been fearing for my own. Strolling through a slummy commercial area in the middle of the night wasn’t the smartest thing I’d ever done. I was at the far end of the Downtown Eastside, the bustling city core thirty long blocks west.

  I squinted across the road at a rundown two-story building with the address from my printout. Just north of it, the access street ended in a chain-link fence where the train tracks ran parallel to the quay beyond. The bridge above my head connected to the shipping yard. Assuming it was the same shipping yard Tabitha had referred to, I was ridiculously close to the “hostage exchange” location.

  My stomach turned sickeningly as I scanned the formerly white office building that was now a dull piss yellow with tattered siding. Scaffolding occupied one ugly wall, and a section of siding had been stripped away. The windows on the lower level were brand-new, stickers and labels stuck to the pristine glass, and sturdy plastic barriers were taped over the square openings on the upper level.

  Lights glowed through the plastic coverings. It was the only building on the block that showed any signs of life.

  I flinched as a lone tractor trailer drove down the bridge, rattling the concrete above my head. Pressing deeper into the shadows, I pulled my phone out to check the clock—forty-five minutes until the two-hour time limit was up—and saw messages from Kai and Ezra blinking on my screen. My thumb hovered over them.

  If I called Kai or Ezra now, they would try to include this new location in their plans. But how much would that throw off their current strategy? Did they have enough people to investigate a fourth building? If I was wrong—if KCQ wasn’t using this building yet, if Aaron wasn’t here, if the lights were from squatters or something—Aaron might die because I’d messed up their plans. I couldn’t risk it. I’d check the location myself.

  Slipping my phone back in my pocket, I focused on the building. Heavy metal gates barricaded the recessed front entrance. If I’d been a mythic, maybe I could’ve blasted them open, but I was a lame-o human with no magic. I considered the scaffolding, but it was set up against a window-free stretch of wall. No good.

  Slipping out of my hiding spot, I jogged across the street to check the building’s other side. Around the corner, a one-story welding shop butted against the office. On its far side, behind a chain-link gate, was a small lot littered with junk.

  I eyed the scrap metal piled against the wall, then strode to the fence. Time for some good ol’ breaking and entering.

  Slinging my purse over my shoulder—maybe I should invest in a fanny pack—I hauled ass over the chain-link gate and dropped down on the opposite side. Keeping to the shadows, I climbed onto a rusting metal barrel, scrambled across a stack of rotting wood pallets, then used the top of a heavy-duty pipe to propel myself high enough to grab the edge of the rooftop.

  I dragged myself up, groaning quietly. I needed to work out more. Lots of pull-ups. Biceps are sexy, right?

  Rolling onto the rooftop, I scampered across it to the office wall. The four windows were covered in plastic and, unlike the others, devoid of light. I pulled my keys out of my purse, jammed one through the plastic, and tore a long opening. Parting the edges, I peered into the dark room on the other side. That
was easy. Look at me, trespassing like I did this shit all the time.

  I slid inside, my shoes landing on something crinkly. Faint light leaked through the half-open door, illuminating the plastic laid across the carpet. The empty room reeked of plaster and fresh paint.

  With a deep, calming breath—my heart totally wasn’t racing out of my chest—I stuck my head out the partially open door, discovering a short hallway carpeted in utilitarian beige. Somewhere ahead, quiet voices murmured.

  I pulled out my phone, checked it was on silent, then crept down the hall one terrified step at a time. This wasn’t my first experience with breaking into a building, but the delinquent phase of my youth was way behind me. I didn’t remember being this jumpy back then, and I could have used some of my teenaged overconfidence as I crouched at the end of the hall and peeked into the room beyond.

  The moment I saw what waited for me, I whipped back out of sight, shaking from head to toe.

  The good news: I’d found Aaron.

  The bad news: everything else.

  Beyond the hall was a large-ish room with two rows of cubicles, brand-new and still wrapped in plastic, with an open space in the center. In that opening was a metal folding chair, and in the chair was Aaron, hands tied behind his back, blindfolded, his mouth duct-taped, and dried blood streaking his face. The mentalist woman stood beside his chair, her hand on the back of his head.

  Aside from them was, oh, about a dozen other people. Probably psychics. Probably scumbags. At least three for-sure scumbags—the mentalist, the telekinetic, and Tom, his hands and neck covered in gauze.

  Hands trembling, I withdrew my phone one more time. Why oh why hadn’t I called Kai sooner? Thirty-five minutes until Darius was supposed to show up at the shipping yard.

  I minced down the hall, moving farther from the psychics, and opened my messaging app. Barely seeing Kai’s recent texts—asking where I was and promising to call after Aaron was safe—I typed into my phone and sent the same message to him and Ezra: the address of the office, and three words.

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