Oh, thank you, thank you, God. Intense relief sapped her strength with such force that she fell back onto her butt. A smile flitted at the corners of her mouth, hidden by a hand placed as though her stomach had rebelled once more.
It wasn’t Hellboy, but this demon wore the same dagger caduceus. They must have worked together. Yes . . . recognition sluiced over the surface of her mind, not quite penetrating . . . She could see him, his face fuzzy.
This is a waste of time. The words rang in her ears, and then she remembered where she’d seen him. At UG when she’d first awakened. What had Eidolon called him? Yuki? No, Yuri. That was it. Yuri. But why was he here instead of Eidolon?
Another voice droned in her ear. Lori’s. She was jabbering away about all the ways they’d hurt him, and now that the grief and worry had cleared out of Tayla’s brain, Lori’s bragging took on new significance. Especially with the way she kept sliding Tayla curious glances as though trying to gauge her reaction to what they’d done. But what kind of reaction was she hoping for?
Tayla’s energy returned with savage intensity, as if she’d freebased a bowl of adrenaline, and now she wanted answers.
“I don’t care what you did. How did you catch him?”
There was a tense silence. “Our losses have affected us all,” Lori finally said, as though Tayla’s snappish tone could be so easily explained. Her smile was brittle as she answered Tay’s question. “Stephanie latched onto the tracking signal you placed on him, but she lost it for a couple of hours. She picked it up again, exactly where she lost it. Now we know approximately where the entrance to the hospital must be. We traced the signal to a residential neighborhood and picked this demon up in his house. He was a shapeshifter.” She sat down next to Tayla, never taking her eyes off the body. “What was his name again? He told us, but by then, Jagger had broken his jaw, and it was hard to understand anything.”
She didn’t have the luxury or even the desire to feel sorry for the creature on the floor, but she did feel relief that at least it wasn’t Eidolon Lori was so casually talking about. She also didn’t have the luxury of the truth. If they knew the dead demon wasn’t Eidolon, they’d want her to get to him again. Taking out the hospital was one thing, but torturing Hellboy was another. So, as though she were overjoyed that he was dead, she smiled and said, “Eidolon.”
“And that’s him, right?”
“No doubt. Did you get any hospital information out of him?”
Lori shook her head. “He denied its existence no matter what we did to him. So what we need you to do is get back into the hospital. You said he gave you a way to contact them, right?”
“Yes,” she said slowly, wary of where this was going. “But I’m not sure what you expect me to do once I’m inside. You said you lost the tracking signal, so we can’t find the hospital that way.”
“You’ll call us from inside.”
Tayla gaped. “You’re kidding, right? Do you think hell has its own cell towers?”
“Of course not. Jagger will explain when he gets back.”
That’s when Tayla noticed that Jagger had gone, but when, she had no idea. The door opened, and he entered, carrying her leather jacket.
“All set?” Lori asked, and Jagger nodded, reached into the coat pocket.
He pulled out a cell phone and held it up. “This, Tayla, is your secret weapon. Did Lori tell you about it?”
“She said I’m supposed to call from inside the hospital. But what if there’s no signal?”
Jagger grinned, and she supposed most women found him attractive, but there’d always been something off about him, something that had never allowed her to look at him with physical attraction. Then again, very few men had ever done it for her. The one who did do it for her wasn’t a man at all.
“That’s the beauty of this little device. All you have to do is flip it open. There will be a countdown on the screen. Before it gets to zero, dial one-one-nine.” He stuffed the phone into her coat pocket.
“Yep. When you dial, it’ll blast out a tracer spell. Everything within a hundred-yard radius will be contaminated, and as the demons leave the hospital, they’ll leave trails that’ll be visible to our diviner for days.”
“Kinda like ants,” Lori said. “And if the hospital is in this realm, we should be able to see it with the spell almost instantly.”
Jagger handed Tayla her jacket. “Once the countdown is activated, it can’t be stopped, and the phone will self-destruct if the number isn’t dialed.”
Man, this was crazy. The words “suicide mission” kept flashing in her head. Shuddering, she shrugged into her jacket. She had to get out of here, get some fresh oxygen into her lungs and into her brain so she could think.
Lori nodded at Jagger, a tiny motion Tayla almost missed, and Jagger came at her as if he’d been launched from a cannon. Before Tayla could get her arms free of her coat sleeves, he grabbed her, slammed her back into his chest, and kept her immobilized.
Lori’s foot crunched into her torso, and Tay’s breath exploded from her lungs with such force she couldn’t even groan at the searing agony. Jagger released her, and she sank to her knees, cursing herself for being so weak as to show pain, but cursing Lori and Jagger even more.
She clasped her hands over her stitches, felt warm, sticky blood flow into her palms. The wound itself stung, but the pain radiated deeper, so deep it felt as if her organs were shifting and imploding.
Lori knelt beside her, all fuzzy pinks and blues through Tay’s watery vision. “I’m sorry, hon. I figured faster was better. Like pulling a tooth.” She stroked Tay’s arm gently. “I know this seems excessive, but we’re at war. War means sacrifice. We’re all that stands between humans and hell on Earth. Are you willing to do whatever is necessary to take these beasts down? Are you willing to give your life if it comes down to it?”
Her life, yes. Her spleen, no. She didn’t have enough breath to say any of those things, so she jerked her head in a nod.
“Good. I think we all feel the same way.”
Yeah, she doubted that. Lori wasn’t the one with the lacerated liver. Which reminded her that someone was stealing demon livers—and other parts. Eidolon was convinced The Aegis was behind it. But he also claimed Tay was half-demon. If he was wrong about one, maybe he was wrong about the other. Oh, please let him be wrong about the other.
“Lori,” she croaked. “Speaking of war, do you know anything about the demons that are being captured and chopped up for their parts?”
Lori’s gaze slammed into hers. “What are you talking about?”
A twinge of pain made her suck air before she could speak. “Eidolon. He told me The Aegis was capturing demons. Selling their parts on the underworld black market. Is it true?”
“You’re taking the word of a demon?” Lori asked, her tone putting a chill in the air.
“I’m trying to get to the truth.” Of everything. “I don’t care if it’s happening, but the demons think it is, and it’s put them on the offensive instead of the defensive. If The Aegis isn’t involved, it makes sense that we should find out who is, before more Guardians die.”
“If The Aegis is involved,” Lori said, “it isn’t through our cell.”
Jagger snorted. “Great idea, though. We should get in on it. We could make a shitload of money.”
Lori shot him a dirty look. “Jagger, have Scott take Tayla to Queens and leave her near that restaurant we’ve been staking out. She can contact the demon hospital from there, say she was injured in a fight.”
“Okay, you know, screw that,” Tayla said tightly. “I’m not comfortable with this plan.” She didn’t know if her hesitation came from a reluctance to see Eidolon again or if she didn’t want to face what he’d said about her parentage, but in any case, something was niggling at her, something she couldn’t put her finger on. But she’d learned to trust her gut, even when it was bleeding out.
Jagger bent over her, and when he started to stroke her hair, she shoved him away. Still, he leaned close, so close she could smell the sausage pizza he’d had for lunch on his breath. “You said you’re willing to do what’s necessary, Tay. Did you change your mind? You getting chummy with the demons?”
“I just don’t think this is the way to go.” She stood, forcing him to straighten and back up. “And don’t you ever question my loyalty again.”
“I guess we could send someone else,” Lori sighed.
Yeah, that was straight out of Manipulation 101 class, but even knowing that, Tayla took the bait. “It has to be me. They know me, even if they want to kill me.”
Limping, she followed Jagger out of the room, Eidolon’s words from days ago ringing in her head.
Brainwashed lemmings following orders without question.
“Have you found a mate yet?”
Eidolon pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand and held the cell phone a couple of inches away from his ear with the other. “No, mother.”
“You don’t have a lot of time, you know.”
“I know, mother.”
“Your uncle Chuke knows a fiery little Oni who hasn’t mated. And you know how gluttonous they are, always eating and drinking and having too much sex. She’d be perfect for you. She’d certainly give you a heads-up when disease or disaster was about to strike the human population.”
Eidolon’s head was starting to hurt. Good thing he was at the hospital, where he had access to plenty of pain medication. “Thanks, but I’ll find my own mate.”
“Be sure you do. I don’t want to lose you to that horrible change. I won’t stand by and watch you be hunted by every male in the underworld. I’ll kill you myself. Do you understand?”
“Come by for dinner this weekend if you have a chance. Ravan is bringing home her first suitor. We thought we’d put him on the spike and interrogate him before the appetizers.”
“Sounds fun. I’ll see if I can make it.”
Eidolon snapped the phone shut and jammed it into his scrub pants’ pocket.
“Your mom harassing you about a mate?”
Wraith stood at the ER entrance, arms crossed, shoulder braced against the sliding glass door. He’d pulled his blond hair back and tied it with a leather thong that matched his jacket, an Indiana Jones replica that suited him, given that his job at UG was to hunt down ancient relics and magical artifacts, often from hazardous locations.
Eidolon nodded. “She threatened to kill me again.”
“Yeah, my mom did that a lot. Only she meant it. Tried, that one time . . .”
Eidolon shot his brother a troubled look, not knowing how to respond. Wraith said shit like that just to get a reaction, and it was sometimes hard to tell what kind of reaction the guy wanted. Fortunately, Wraith shifted the focus when he held up a vial of green liquid.
“Think fast.” Grinning, he tossed the vial to Eidolon, never mind that the priceless potion, taken from a lactating acid sprite, wouldn’t be available again for another thousand years. “Busted my balls to get that. Had to seduce a Charnel Apostle and kill three of her knights, but hey, all in a day’s work.”
The ER doors slid open, dislodging Wraith. Shade strode in, dressed in black BDUs and ready for his medic shift. He clapped Wraith on the back.
“How was Mongolia?”
“Cold. Bad food. Mongolians taste like yaks.”
“Didn’t take long to get the Neural Mana,” Shade noted.
“Twenty-four hours. You so busy with—what’s that human’s name? Runa? That you didn’t notice I was gone?”
Eidolon cocked an eyebrow. Shade was rarely with any female long enough to discuss her, so this was interesting. Interesting, too, that Eidolon hadn’t known about her. Then again, Shade and Wraith had always shared a deeper connection than what Eidolon shared with his brothers.
“Nah. She walked in on me when I was with Vantha and Ailarca.” Shade shrugged. “I asked Runa if she wanted to join us, but she freaked and took off. I have a feeling she won’t want to see me again.”
“Imagine that,” Eidolon said.
Wraith rolled his eyes. “Oh, look. E’s moral values rear their ugly heads.”
“We’re all cursed in one way or another,” Shade drawled. He turned to Eidolon. “Have you heard from Gem?”
“Not a word.” And he was starting to worry—and not just because the twenty-four-hour deadline Gem had given was nearly up and somehow he had to convince her to give him more time.
He hadn’t heard from her or Yuri since they left together after Luc had come out of surgery. Nor had he heard from Tayla, though he hadn’t expected to. Still, her genetic issue would only worsen. Her lab work had come back, leaving more questions than answers. The DNA hadn’t been identifiable, something that torqued him beyond belief. He’d been adding to the hospital’s genetic database for years, requiring that every species, breed, and race of creature that came through the doors be catalogued. But there were thousands of species in the underworld, and only a fraction had been seen at UG. Obviously, none of Tayla’s sire’s species had been treated.
One thing had been conclusive, however. The demon genes were aggressive, and if she didn’t address the issue soon, it would be too late.
“Wraith,” he said tiredly, “you missed a lot.” He gestured for his brothers to follow him, and they ducked into the empty break room.