Home > Lost Talismans and a Tequila (The Guild Codex: Spellbound #7)(6)

Lost Talismans and a Tequila (The Guild Codex: Spellbound #7)(6)
Author: Annette Marie

“I always liked this photo,” he murmured, gazing at his parents. “Things were never easy for us, but my parents were just happy to be together. That changed after …”

I waited, then prompted gently, “After you became a demon mage?”

“No …” His hand curled into a fist. “After they joined the … group.”

He tugged the photo of his parents from my fingers and returned both pictures to the folder. Before he could stand, I touched his arm.

“Will you tell me about it?” I asked softly.

The air rushed through his nose. He stared at the folder, avoiding my gaze.

“I hate thinking about it.” His eyes closed, deep creases in his forehead. “I hate how naïve they were. I shouldn’t blame my parents, but sometimes I do. Especially now.”

I slid my hand down his wrist and entwined our fingers.

His shoulders hunched. “I was seven when my parents met some new people. My parents were poor, unregistered mythics and didn’t trust easily, but they spent more and more time talking to their new friends, and that summer, we moved. Our new home …” He shook his head. “I know now that it was a commune, but I was a kid. All I cared about was that there were a few other kids my age.”

“A commune,” I mumbled, my fingers tightening around his.

“My parents started attending … meetings every week with the other adults, and they … changed. And they wanted me to change too.”

“They were being brainwashed?”

He stared at our entwined hands. “When you’re a kid, your parents’ approval is everything. And in that place, everything revolved around the leaders and their approval. I don’t even remember if I resisted it. The leaders and my parents and the whole group said I should be honored to be chosen as a ‘protector,’ so that’s how I felt.”

“A protector? Against what?”

He sighed bitterly. “I don’t even want to tell you the twisted garbage they filled our heads with. I don’t think my parents were stupid, but they fully bought into it—how we were special and enlightened, and how the outside world wanted to destroy us.”

“Didn’t your parents realize they wanted to turn you into a demon mage?”

“Oh, they knew. But I wasn’t becoming a demon mage. I would be a ‘protector,’ wielding a demon’s magic like a weapon, empowered by the group’s moral ideology. As long as I was strong in my faith, I would have unwavering power over the demon.”

“What?” I exclaimed angrily. “They thought you could control a demon with faith? That’s—”

“Bullshit. Yeah. But even once I became a ‘protector,’ I could never admit that controlling my demon was difficult. They would’ve said the demon was testing my faith and if I was struggling, it’s because I was weak. I believed that.”

I gripped his hand so hard my fingers ached. I wanted to teleport back in time and punch every member of that group—especially their leaders.

“The group didn’t even call them demons. They were Servi.” He rubbed his thumb across the back of my hand. “It’s ironic, you know? I didn’t doubt anything I’d been taught until Eterran started poking holes in my beliefs. He’d given up on forcing control by then and was trying to break me down in a different way.”

“But you probably thought that was another ‘test,’” I guessed.

He nodded. “Everyone I knew and loved was part of the group. I couldn’t imagine life outside it, so I refused to question anything.”

“What about …” I hesitated. “… the girl?”

“Lexie,” he revealed heavily. “She saved me, in a way. After they killed her, they said she’d failed because her faith had been weak. But I knew that wasn’t true. I’d seen her struggle. She’d tried so hard. If they were wrong about Lexie, what else were they wrong about?”

I leaned against his shoulder, increasing the contact between us as old grief settled over him. “What did you do?”

“I ran away. I ended up in Portland. They were searching for me, and I wouldn’t have lasted a day on my own, but …” His jaw clenched and unclenched. “Eterran also wanted answers. He helped me, and I was desperate enough to listen. We evaded the people searching for us and found other mythics, got in with them, asked careful questions … got the answers we needed.

“It took just over four weeks. I finally knew what I was and how they’d used me, and I went back. I was going to explain everything to my parents, and we would escape. Together, we’d find a way to get the demon out of me.”

A heavy, ominous weight settled in my gut.

“I think it was my fault,” he whispered. “The people searching for me weren’t careful enough and they caught the attention of the Keys of Solomon. The guild followed the trail back to the commune, and …”

“Ezra, it wasn’t—”

“I came back to ruins.” He didn’t seem to hear me. His voice was devoid of all emotion. “Everyone had been killed. Sixty-eight people. Only ten were demon mages. I was the eleventh. Lexie was supposed to be the twelfth, but she was already dead.”

My lungs didn’t want to inflate properly. “The Keys killed everyone? How—how was that allowed?”

“Harboring a demon mage is a capital crime. There should’ve been a trial, but what did the Keys care about that? They’d gotten the hunt of their lives.”

I’d already hated the Keys of Solomon, but my hatred was rapidly transforming into white-hot loathing.

“Everyone I knew was dead,” he mumbled. “I had nowhere to go, so I went back to Portland. I didn’t know if the Keys realized they’d missed a demon mage. I couldn’t trust anyone.”

Only fifteen years old, with half his life spent isolated from society. Every mythic a potential enemy, and his worst enemy of all living inside him.

What depth of resilience did it take to lose everyone you loved in a single day and keep going? What kind of resolve did it take to suppress the demon inside you, day after day after day, and keep going? How much tenacity did it take to face a life of loneliness and secrets that would end in death and madness, and keep going?

“Those years were pretty terrible,” he admitted matter-of-factly. “Then I ran into Aaron. Saved his idiot life, actually.”

“You saved him?”

“And then he saved me. He dragged me home, made a place for me in his guild, and didn’t let me run off—though I tried quite a few times that first year. He and Kai put up with a hell of a lot from me.” Humor softened the hard lines of grief around his mouth. “I wasn’t what you’d call socially adjusted. I broke Girard’s nose once.”

My eyes widened. “You did what?”

“He came up on my blind side when I wasn’t paying attention.” He grinned. “Luckily, I don’t startle as easily nowadays.”

“You are quite difficult to startle, but I’ve managed it a few times,” I told him, puffing my chest out with pride.

He laughed quietly. “You’re highly startling, Tori, in a lot of ways.”

My amusement faltered as his gaze settled on mine. The air between us thickened, electric with things unsaid and feelings unacknowledged. My pulse drummed a slow, steady beat in my ears.

All of a sudden, I was intensely aware of his shirtless state, my arm still linked through his, our fingers tangled.

I won’t lose you. I couldn’t say the words. They would just hurt him.

I need you to survive. I couldn’t say that either. More words that would wound him.

I almost lost you already and I can’t bear it again. Still no.

Though I wasn’t speaking the words, my thoughts must’ve touched my face, because his gaze dropped. He slipped his arm free and picked up the worn folder. Crossing to the dresser, he tucked the remnants of his past at the bottom of a drawer, slid it closed, and turned to me.

Sitting on the bed, I watched him approach, my mouth dry.

He stopped between my knees, staring down at me with an unreadable expression. Hands rising, he gently cupped my jaw and tilted my face up. There were so many things I wanted to say to him that I couldn’t—and his eyes were full of unspoken words too.

He leaned down. Our lips brushed in a whisper-soft touch.

He inhaled. His mouth returned to mine. A brief, hungry press of his lips. He pulled back and breathed again as though debating, as though torn, drawn, doubting.

His mouth covered mine.

I grabbed his wrists and held on as he kissed me urgently. His mouth opened against mine, and I answered with parted lips. The hot slide of his tongue pierced me with heat, and air rushed from my lungs.

The bed dipped, his knee on the mattress between my thighs. My hands ran up his arms, fingertips dragging across taut muscles. Our mouths moved ceaselessly, lips and tongue, hard and insistent. Edged with need.

Edged with desperation.

I didn’t know I’d tipped backward until my back hit the blankets. He followed me down, elbows braced beside me, hands in my hair, mouth locked on mine. His body covered me, strong and hot and irresistible—and god, I’d wanted this, wanted to be under him so badly for so long.

I raked my hands across his bare shoulders as I pulled myself up into him. My legs wrapped around him, stronger than my arms, squeezing our bodies together.

A near-soundless groan rasped in his throat, and his weight pressed me into the bed. As his mouth closed over my neck, wet and ravenous, his hips rocked against mine, igniting my core. I tore my mouth from his to bite my bottom lip, stifling a moan. Need had reached an inferno pitch inside me, months of buildup combined with days of fear and anguish and the desperate drive to have all of him before … in case …

I dragged his face back up and kissed him again. More fiercely. More urgently. The empty ache between my legs intensified, the hard press of him through our clothes not enough—not nearly enough.

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