Home > Damned Souls and a Sangria (The Guild Codex: Spellbound #8)

Damned Souls and a Sangria (The Guild Codex: Spellbound #8)
Author: Annette Marie

Chapter One

I’d never seen the Crow and Hammer this packed yet this silent.

Fifty-one members sat around the pub tables or on stools at the bar, and every face was turned toward the east wall. For some, a fearful shadow lurked in their eyes—the non-combat mythics. In others, a bright spark of expectation—the adrenaline-loving fighters. And in a few, a cautious worry—the wiser, older members who knew this wasn’t normal.

This wasn’t just a meeting. It wasn’t just a job.

Like the rest of my guild, my gaze was fixed on Darius, who stood facing the men and women for whom he’d created a home.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice.” His somber words carried across the room. “We have an urgent matter to discuss that will affect every member of this guild.”

Bracing my elbows on my knees, I searched for a hint of his usual quiet amusement. I couldn’t find any.

“Many of you are familiar with the incident eight years ago known as the ‘Enright extermination,’ where eleven demon mages were discovered in Oregon and wiped out by the Keys of Solomon. The Enright demon mages were part of a larger organization called the Court of the Red Queen. For lack of a better term, it is a cult—a demon-worshipping cult.

“Just over a week ago, an investigation undertaken by several of our members uncovered more.” His gaze swept across the room. “The Court of the Red Queen survived the Enright extermination and has been active for the last eight years. Furthermore, the cult has now taken up residence in Vancouver.”

A buzzing whisper sputtered through the room but fell silent as he continued.

“This group is extremely dangerous. Not only are they adept at hiding in plain sight, but their members include summoners and contractors with no regard for MPD regulations. And as demonstrated in Oregon, they know how to create demon mages. If the cult is in Vancouver, that means, in all likelihood, there are demon mages in Vancouver too.”

I expected another wave of whispers, but no one so much as cleared their throat. I understood why.

Demon mages were the most universally feared type of mythic. A human possessed by a demon, with access to the demon’s magic and a high probability of slipping into violent madness—yeah, they were nightmare fuel of the worst kind.

An unbound demon was more destructive, possessing greater magic on top of beastly strength and a nearly unkillable body, but demon mages were more feared because their danger was hidden behind a human face. You could spend years in the company of a demon mage and unless he drew on his demonic power, you’d never know.

My gaze slid to the mythic sitting on the stool beside mine. Ezra watched Darius with his usual poker face.

“After a week of careful investigation,” the GM continued, “we’ve identified eight suspected cultists. Though we haven’t uncovered their stronghold yet, we suspect their numbers are much higher, and an unknown percentage of them could be demon mages.

“Tomorrow morning, I’ll submit our investigation to the MPD, at which point their agents will take the lead. Multiple guilds will be involved—including, most likely, non-local demon hunters like the Keys of Solomon. But Vancouver isn’t a remote location like Enright, where the casualties of the battle were limited to cultists and guild combatants.”

My hands curled into fists. Cultist casualties … including Ezra’s parents. It turned out the Keys of Solomon hadn’t murdered innocent families at Enright, but between their excessively anti-demon members who’d tried to kill Ezra and their unexpectedly pro-demon members who’d tried to kill me, I wasn’t a fan.

“The Crow and Hammer has called Vancouver home for over fifty years.” Darius’s gaze speared each guild member, one after another, as he spoke. “And we will allow neither a demon cult nor an outside guild seeking bounties and glory to destroy it. Protecting our city will require every single one of you, whether you’re a psychic, alchemist, scholar, apprentice, or combat mythic who’ll step onto the battlefield.

“To defeat demons and demon mages, we need weapons. We need artifacts. We need potions. We need to analyze the cult’s past activities, their possible resources, and effective strategies for killing demons. Everyone here can contribute their time, energy, resourcefulness, and unique talents.”

He flipped open his folder. “We have prepared teams, which our officers will lead. We won’t demand anyone enter combat if they prefer not to, but we expect you to support your guildmates in every way you can while we face our most dangerous mission in decades.

“Our first team, led by first officer Girard, will source and build an arsenal of weapons, artifacts, and alchemy to use against the cult. Our second team, led by Tabitha, will gather and analyze past research, combat technique, and case studies involving demons and demon mages. Our third team, led by Felix, will handle non-magical supply logistics and communications.

“And our fourth team”—a corner of Darius’s mouth lifted—“will be led by our newly promoted fourth officer, Aaron Sinclair.”

A beat of surprised silence rang through the room, then cheers and applause erupted at top volume as everyone turned toward the copper-haired pyromage sitting on my other side. He grinned and waved, and I laughed at the uncharacteristic self-consciousness in his expression.

“Aaron,” Darius called over the noise, “will oversee combat training, which will incorporate strategies and weaponry provided by the other teams.”

Clapping enthusiastically, I looked past Aaron to the spot beside him, eager to know what a certain dark-haired, cool-headed electramage thought of this. The sight of his empty stool punched me in the gut. Aaron had finally gotten his promotion, and thanks to Makiko, Kai wasn’t here to congratulate him.

“My role,” Darius said, “will be overseeing the officers and coordinating with other Vancouver guilds. Tomorrow, I will visit Odin’s Eye, the Pandora Knights, the Grand Grimoire, and the SeaDevils to speak with their GMs. Together, we will protect our city. Time is of the essence.”

Darius summarized our next steps, then read off the assigned members of every team. I was assigned to Felix’s team. Ezra—and pretty much every combat mythic, which was almost half the guild—was assigned to Aaron’s team.

I hoped Darius had let Felix know that I wouldn’t be available to help. Protecting Vancouver from the Court of the Red Queen was high on my to-do list, but my top priority was saving Ezra from his soul-binding contract with Eterran. After that, we could help our guild take down the cult—and their leaders, Xanthe and Xever. The mentalist who’d lured Ezra’s family into the cult and the summoner who’d turned him into a demon mage both deserved to be roasted on an open-flame spit.

As the meeting ended and conversations broke out across the room, I whirled toward Aaron.

“Um, a promotion?” I smacked his shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It only happened yesterday.” He smirked. “But I’d have kept it a secret anyway, just to see the look on your face when Darius announced it.”

“Congrats, man,” Ezra said, leaning around me. “Knew it’d happen sooner or later.” His expression turned thoughtful. “Kai owes me fifty bucks.”

“For what?” Aaron asked suspiciously.

“I bet him you’d become an officer before you turned thirty.”

“Thirty?”

“But Kai figured it’d take you another five to ten years to really get a knack for thinking before you light things on fire.”

Aaron snorted, and as Ezra grinned in response, my diaphragm cartwheeled across my stomach.

You’d think, after eight months of exposure to Ezra’s grins, I’d be desensitized by now, but I was going through a process here. Namely, the Ezra I’d gotten to know over those past eight months was changing—evolving, or … maybe awakening?

As though sensing my thoughts, his mismatched gaze turned to me. My stomach did another round of acrobatics.

“Aaron!”

Laetitia swept over, followed by half of Aaron’s team.

“So you’re an officer now, eh?” The tall hydromage gave him a flinty once-over—probably remembering a few past incidents that, somehow, had all ended with Aaron drenched in water—then cracked her knuckles. “What’s the plan for training?”

“Step one is forming teams with the right balance of strengths and weaknesses for combat against contractors and demon mages,” Aaron answered. “We’ll focus on defense first, then practice the most efficient ways to kill them so we don’t exhaust ourselves and our magic.”

“What, you can’t just incinerate demons with your unstoppable fire?” Cearra, my least favorite blond apprentice sorceress, muttered.

Andrew shot the younger woman a quelling look. “We’ll want to inflict as much damage as possible, and fire is a good option. We could ask the alchemists to make us firebombs.”

“And some nasty-ass smoke bombs,” Gwen added with her usual sprinkling of vulgarity. “Blind the bastards so the demons can’t spit us like damn pigs.”

“But we need to be able to see what we’re doing,” Darren countered. “Bleeding them out would be better. We should be planning the easiest ways to slit some veins.”

Aaron held up a hand, calling for silence, and everyone obeyed instantly—but before he could speak, another voice trickled in from the back of the group.

“Those tactics … they probably won’t work.”

The gathered mythics looked around in confusion, searching for the source of the light alto voice, then parted to reveal the young woman standing behind them, so petite she’d been invisible.

Robin Page blinked owlishly as everyone looked at her.

“What do you know?” Darren asked, keeping his sneering tone subtle enough that no one would call him out for it—no one except me.

I angrily opened my mouth—

“I’m a demon contractor.” Robin nudged her glasses up her nose. “But I’m sure your experiences are valid too, Darren.”

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