“Drink up!” Miles commanded. “I don’t care what you think it tastes like.”
Ezra swallowed the last of it with effort, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “What if it tastes like Brussels sprouts and burnt engine oil?”
Miles asked Ezra a few questions about pain or stiffness, then patted him on the shoulder. “You’ll feel better once you’ve washed up and changed. Aaron and Kai, help him downstairs to clean up and make sure he stays on his feet.”
Kai pulled Ezra’s arm over his shoulders and drew him up. Ezra leaned on his friend, limping as they walked toward the basement stairs. Aaron started to follow, then reached back and grabbed my hand. Uh, okay. I’d figured “cleaning up” would involve showers and things, but I guess I was still invited.
The basement staircase was situated underneath the one to the upper level, the door tucked out of sight of the main pub floor. I’d only been in the basement a few times. The main room consisted of exercise equipment and a sparring arena, with shelves of gear lining the far wall. Behind one door was a large alchemy lab, and behind another was a heavily reinforced room for spell testing.
Eighties action movie posters covered every spare inch of wall space, and Sylvester Stallone’s crazy Rambo stare followed me as we passed a row of treadmills. Kai pulled Ezra into the men’s showers, the door marked with an alien face instead of a men’s room stick figure, and I sat down on the nearest workout bench to wait. Aaron hung back with me.
I scrubbed my face. “I’m so tired.”
“Yeah,” Aaron agreed, sitting heavily on the mats beside me. “What a day.”
My throat constricted and I whispered, “How bad is it?”
“I think we’ll be okay,” he answered, understanding what I was asking. “Your story is believable, and they’re attributing the damage in the alley to the demon showing off its strength to frighten you two. It’s already proven that it enjoys ambushing and terrifying its victims.”
I swallowed back the sick feeling in my stomach. “What about the horns?”
In the few minutes I’d gotten alone with Aaron and Kai before they had to go back out, I’d whispered a high-speed rendition of the real fight and warned them I’d hidden demonic body parts in a garbage bin—evidence that would shatter my fragile explanation of my and Ezra’s survival.
Aaron shook his head. “We tried to search when no one was looking, but the place was crawling with mythics from multiple guilds. It was safer not to draw attention to it. No one has any reason to search the trash.”
“This is all my fault.” I pressed my hands together. “Kai told me to keep Ezra inside the guild, but I thought he meant I had to keep Ezra from following you two. I thought it was safe to go to Gastown. Even Felix said it was safe.”
“It’s not your fault. No one could have predicted the demon would be there and attack you.”
Though he said it sincerely, I wondered if he was being honest. I almost felt like he and Kai had been fearing something like this would happen …
A few minutes later, Kai and Ezra walked out of the showers, the aeromage limping but steady. His hair shone wetly and he wore a clean t-shirt and black sweats. Every guild member kept spare clothes and a full set of gear at the guild; after becoming a member, I’d been assigned a locker in the women’s shower room. Come to think of it, I should probably make use of those resources.
They sat on the mats with Aaron, Ezra leaning wearily against the weight bench I was perched on, and I slid off it to sit cross-legged between him and Aaron.
“So,” Kai said, “we need a plan.”
I squinted one eye dubiously. “A plan for what?”
“Oh, nothing important,” Aaron replied breezily. “Just luring out and killing a demon without involving any other mythics.”
“Uh … what?”
Ezra pushed his damp hair out of his eyes. “I’ll try not to bleed as much next time.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I pointed accusingly at Aaron. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Kai propped himself up on one arm. “Your story is good, Tori, but the whole thing will fall apart if anyone sees the demon with half its horns ripped off. It was sighted multiple times with its horns intact, and if anyone discovers its newly injured state, they’ll start asking questions.”
“They’re already asking questions,” Aaron added. “We don’t want any more.”
“So we have to find the demon and kill it first,” Kai concluded.
I looked between them, waiting for someone to yell, “Gotcha!”
“You want to find the demon,” I clarified, “which thirty teams of mythics haven’t found yet, and then you want to kill it, when it’s already butchered four combat mythics.”
“Yeah,” Aaron agreed darkly. “But the demon’s already gone for Ezra once. If he goes outside again, the demon should come after him a second time.”
My gaze swung to Ezra. He looked away, avoiding my eyes.
“But it could be anywhere,” I protested, unable to believe we were having this discussion. “It can fly.”
“Not very well … not anymore,” Ezra muttered reluctantly, as though worried he was causing us even more trouble. “I broke one of its wings.”
“See?” Aaron said. “It’s gotta be nearby.”
I squeezed my temples. “Okay, fine, maybe that would work. But what about the second part? You know, the part where the demon tore up Ezra once already and how it almost ripped the both of you apart too. The three of you going up against this thing by yourselves is suicide.”
The three mages exchanged glances as though wordlessly debating something. The silence stretched for a full minute, and I considered closing my eyes and humming loudly so they could speed things up with an actual discussion.
Finally, Aaron shrugged. “We should bring her.”
“No,” Ezra snapped.
“The area is crawling with teams and we can’t risk any witnesses. She can help by delaying or distracting anyone who approaches. She’ll run interference while we handle the demon.”
Ezra pressed his lips together. “No.”
I glanced at him, his jaw flexing and arms folded, then back to Aaron. Secrets hung between us like ghosts and half-formed suspicions filled my head, but the handful of puzzle pieces I held didn’t form a complete picture. The broken glimpses they offered, however …
My questions died on my tongue. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know how Ezra had survived the demon, why it had gone after him, or why they thought it would attack him again.
“So, we’re going to hunt the demon,” I said slowly.
Ezra’s jaw tightened until it threatened to crack his teeth. He wouldn’t look at me.
“We’re going to kill a demon,” Kai clarified. “And we’re going to do it before anyone else gets the chance.”
“But first,” Aaron added, stifling a yawn with one hand, “we’re going to sleep. I’m so tired I’d lose a fight against a poodle.”
My stomach sank. Was this really happening? Were we going after the demon ourselves? No guild support. No backup. Aaron, Kai, and Ezra would face that deadly beast, all on their own.
“Guys.” I stared at the three of them. “This is insane.”
Kai shook his head. “No, Tori. This is survival.”
There are two kinds of girls: those who’ve fantasized about a threesome with a pair of hot guys, and liars.
I’ll be honest here. I was a hot-blooded woman without a boyfriend, and my three best friends were excessively attractive. All else aside, they had the hard-muscled bodies of professional athletes, and I’d seen enough of their skin to fuel my fantasies until my ovaries turned to dust.
That didn’t mean I intended to act on my fantasies, but come on. How could I resist a few steamy daydreams? In retrospect, I really should’ve resisted—because now every one of those inappropriate thoughts was parading through my stupid brain. Every. Single. One.
Heaving a sigh, I stared at the ceiling and focused on the uncomfortable mat beneath me. If I thought extra hard about the way the waistband of my sweatpants was pressing unpleasantly against my lower spine, I might forget about Ezra’s warmth on my left, and Aaron’s warmth on my right.
Kai was asleep on Ezra’s opposite side, and I was still trying to figure out exactly how this had happened. Yes, we needed rest, and yes, the only available place to sleep was on the second level, which was crowded with a mixture of tables, cots, and sleeping mats, plus a lot of mythics—four of whom were snoring.
But how had I ended up having a slumber-party foursome with the guys?
Another sigh slid from my lungs. Of course I knew. They weren’t about to leave me all by my lonesome in a corner.
The guys were my best friends. Aaron and I hadn’t made a compatible couple for some stupid reason, and I was damn lucky our friendship had emerged unscathed. Aside from some awkward moments in the first few weeks after the breakup, nothing had really changed between us. He was still the same fun, teasing, supportive troublemaker as before, which only confirmed we weren’t meant to be more than friends.