Had Eidolon been anywhere but the hospital, he would have killed the guy pleading for his life before him.
As it was, he’d have to save the bastard.
“Sometimes, being a doctor blows,” he muttered, and jabbed the demon in a human suit with a syringe full of hemoxacin.
The patient screamed as the needle passed through mangled thigh tissue, releasing blood sterilization medication into the wound.
“You didn’t numb him first?”
Eidolon snorted at his younger brother’s words. “The Haven spell keeps me from killing him. It doesn’t prevent me from dispensing a little justice during treatment.”
“Can’t escape your old job, huh?” Shade pushed aside the curtain separating two of the three ER cubicles, and stepped fully inside. “The son of a bitch eats babies. Let me wheel him outside and waste his sorry ass.”
“Wraith already offered.”
“Wraith offers to waste all the patients.”
Eidolon grunted. “Probably a good thing our little brother didn’t go the doctor route.”
“Neither did I.”
“You had different reasons.”
Shade hadn’t wanted to spend that much time in school, especially since his healing gift was better suited to his chosen field, paramedicine. He was all about scraping patients off the street and keeping them alive long enough for the Underworld General staff to fix them.
Blood dripped to the obsidian floor as Eidolon probed the patient’s most serious wound. A female Umber demon, the same species as Shade’s mother, had caught the patient sneaking into her nursery, and had somehow impaled him — several times — with a toilet brush.
Then again, Umber demons were remarkably strong for their petite size. The females were especially so. Eidolon had, on several occasions, enjoyed the application of that strength in bed. In fact, when he could no longer resist the final maturation cycle his body had entered, he planned to make an Umber female his first infadre. Umbers made good mothers, and only rarely did they kill the unwanted offspring of a Seminus demon.
Putting aside the thoughts that plagued him more frequently as The Change progressed, Eidolon glanced at the patient’s face. The skin that should have been a deep reddish-brown was now pale with pain and blood loss. “What’s your name?”
The patient groaned. “Derc.”
“Listen, Derc. I’m going to repair this unsightly hole, but it’s going to hurt. A lot. Try not to move. Or scream like a cowering little imp.”
“Give me something for the pain, you fucking parasite,” he snarled.
“Doctor parasite.” Eidolon nodded at the equipment tray, and Paige, one of their few human nurses, handed him clamps.
“Derc, buddy, did you eat any of the Umber’s young before she caught you?”
Hatred rolled off Shade’s body as Derc shook his head, sharp teeth bared, eyes glowing orange.
“Today isn’t your lucky day then. Didn’t get a meal, and you aren’t getting anything for the pain, either.”
Allowing himself a grim smile, Eidolon clamped the damaged artery in two places as Derc screamed vile curses and struggled against the restraints that held him on the metal table.
Paige handed him the instrument, and he expertly sliced between the clamps. Shade crowded close, watching as he shaved away the shredded artery tissue and then held the newly clean ends together. A warm tingle wound its way down his right arm along his dermal markings to the tips of his gloved fingers, and the artery fused. The baby-eater would no longer have to worry about bleeding out. From the expression on Shade’s face, however, he would have to worry about surviving more than two steps outside the hospital.
It wouldn’t be the first time he’d saved a life only to have it taken once the patient had been released.
“BP’s dropping.” Shade’s gaze focused on the bedside monitor. “Could be shock.”
“There’s another bleed somewhere. Bring up his blood pressure.”
Reluctantly, Shade placed his large palm over the bony ridges in Derc’s forehead. The numbers on the monitor dipped, raised, and then stabilized, but the change would be temporary. Shade’s powers couldn’t sustain life that wasn’t there, and if Eidolon couldn’t find the problem, nothing Shade did would make a difference.
A rapid assessment of the other wounds revealed nothing to explain the drop in vitals. Then, just below the patient’s twelfth rib, a fresh scar. Beneath the razor-straight mark, something bubbled.
“Hell’s fires,” Shade breathed. His gaze snapped up as he raked his fingers through nearly black hair that, at shoulder-length, was longer than but identical in color to Eidolon’s. “It might be nothing. It might not be Ghouls.”
Ghouls. Not the cannibalistic monsters of human lore, but the term for those who carved up demons to sell their parts on the underworld black market.
Hoping his brother was right but not ripped from the womb yesterday, Eidolon pressed softly on the scar.
“Derc, what happened here?”
“This is a surgical scar.”
UG was the only medical facility in the world that performed surgery on their kind, and Derc hadn’t been treated here before.
Eidolon caught the pungent stink of fear. “No. It was an accident.” Derc clenched his fists, his lidless eyes wild. “You must believe me.”
“Derc, calm down. Derc?”
Monitor alarms beeped, and the baby-eater convulsed.
“Paige, grab the crash cart. Shade, keep his vitals up.”
An eerie wail seemed to leak from every pore in Derc’s skin, and a stench like rotting bacon and baby powder filled the small space. Paige lost her lunch in the garbage can.
The heart monitor flatlined. Shade removed his hand from the patient’s forehead.
“I hate it when they do that.” Wondering what had frightened Derc so badly he’d felt the need to stop his own bodily functions, Eidolon opened the scar with a smooth slash of a scalpel, knowing what he’d find, but needing to see for sure.
Shade dug through his uniform shirt pocket and pulled out his ever-present pack of bubble gum. “What’s missing?”
“The Pan Tai sac. It processes digestive waste and returns it to the body so his species never has to urinate or defecate.”
“Handy,” Shade murmured. “What would someone want with it?”
Paige dabbed her mouth with a surgical sponge, her complexion still greenish, though the patient’s death stench had largely dissipated. “The contents are used in some voodoo curses that affect bowel movements.”
Shade shook his head and passed the nurse a stick of gum. “Is nothing sacred anymore?” He turned to Eidolon. “Why didn’t they kill him? They’ve killed the others.”
“He was worth more alive. His species can grow another organ in a matter of weeks.”
“Which they could harvest.” Shade let out a string of curses that included some Eidolon hadn’t heard in his hundred years of life. “It’s gotta be The Aegis. Sick bastards.”
Whoever the bastards were, they’d been busy. Medics had brought in twelve mutilated bodies over the last two weeks, and the violence had escalated. Some of the victims showed evidence of having been carved up while still alive — and awake.
Worse, demons as a whole could care less, and those who did wouldn’t cooperate with other species’ Councils in order to organize an investigation. Eidolon cared, not only because someone with medical knowledge was involved, but because it was only a matter of time before the butchers nabbed someone he knew.
“Paige, have the morgue fetch the body and let them know I want a copy of the autopsy report. I’m going to find out who these assholes are.”
# # #
“Doc E!” Eidolon hadn’t taken more than a dozen steps when Nancy, a vampire who’d been a nurse since before she was turned thirty years ago, shouted from where she sat behind the triage desk. “Skulk called, said she’s bringing in a Cruentus. ETA two minutes.”
Eidolon nearly groaned. Cruenti lived to kill, their desire to slaughter so uncontrollable that even while mating they sometimes tore each other apart. Their last Cruentus patient had broken free of his bonds and destroyed half the hospital before he could be sedated.
“Prepare ER two with the gold restraints, and page Dr. Yuri. He likes Cruenti.”
“She also said she’s bringing a surprise patient.”
This time he did groan. Skulk’s last surprise turned out to be a dog struck by a car. A dog he’d had to take home with him because releasing it outside the ER would have meant a fresh meal for any number of staff members. Now the damned mutt had eaten three pairs of shoes and taken over his apartment.
Shade seemed torn between wanting to be irritable with Skulk, his Umber sister, and wanting to flirt with Nancy, whom he’d already bedded twice that Eidolon knew about.
“I’m going to kill her.” Clearly, irritability won out.
“Not if I get to her first.”
“She’s off limits to you.”
“You never said I can’t kill her,” Eidolon pointed out. “Just that I can’t sleep with her.”
“True.” Shade shrugged. “You kill her, then. My mom would never forgive me.”
Shade had that right. Though Eidolon, Wraith, and Shade were purebred Seminus demons with the same long-dead sire, their mothers were all of different species, and of them, Shade’s was the most maternal and protective.
Red halogen beacons rotated in their ceiling mountings, signaling the ambulance’s approach. The light splashed crimson around the room, bringing out the writing on the gray walls. The drab shade hadn’t been Eidolon’s first choice, but it held spells better than any other color, and in a hospital where everyone was someone’s mortal enemy, every advantage was critical. Because of that, the symbols and incantations had been modified to increase their protective powers.
Instead of paint, they’d been written in blood.
The ambulance pulled into the subterranean facility’s bay, and Eidolon’s adrenaline shot hotly into his veins. He loved this job. Loved managing his own little piece of hell that was as close to heaven as he’d ever get.
The hospital, located beneath New York City’s bustling streets and hidden by sorcery right under the clueless humans’ noses, was his baby. More than that, it was his promise to demonkind — whether they lived in the bowels of the earth or above ground with the humans — that they would be treated without discrimination, that their race was not forsaken by all.
The sliding ER doors whooshed open, and Skulk’s paramedic partner, a werewolf who hated everyone and everything, wheeled in a bloodied Cruentus demon that had been securely strapped to the stretcher. Eidolon and Shade fell into step with Luc, and though they both topped six feet three, the were’s extra three inches and thick build dwarfed them.
“Cruentus,” Luc growled, because he never made any other noises even while in human form, like now. “Found unconscious. Open tib-fib fracture to the right leg. Crush wound to the back of the skull. Both injuries are sealing. Nonsealing deep lacerations to the abdomen and throat.”
Eidolon raised an eyebrow at that last. Only gold or magically enhanced weapons could have caused nonsealing wounds. All other injuries closed up on their own as the Cruentus regenerated.
“Who summoned help?”
“Some vamp found them. The Cruentus and—” he cocked one long-nailed thumb back toward the ambulance, where Skulk had rolled out the secondary stretcher “—that.”
Eidolon halted in his tracks, Shade with him. For a moment, they both stared at the unconscious humanoid female. One of the medics had cut away her red leather clothes that lay like flayed flesh beneath her. She now wore only restraints, matching black panties and bra, and a variety of weapons sheaths around her ankles and forearms.
A chill went up his double-jointed spine, and fuck no, this would not happen. “You brought an Aegis slayer into my ER? What in all that’s unholy were you thinking?”
Skulk huffed, looked up at him with flashing gunmetal eyes that matched her ashen skin and hair. “What else was I supposed to do with her? Her partner is rat chow.”
“The Cruentus took out an Aegi?” Shade asked, and when his sister nodded, he raked his gaze over the injured human. Average humans posed little threat to demons, but those who belonged to The Aegis, a warrior guild sworn to slay them, weren’t average. “Never thought I’d thank a Cruentus. You should have turned this one into rat chow too.”
“Her injuries might do the job for us.” Skulk rattled off the list of wounds, all of which were serious, but the worst, the punctured lung, had the potential to kill the fastest. Skulk had performed a needle decompression, and for now, the slayer was stable, her color good. “And,” she added, “her aura is weak, thin. She hasn’t been well for a long time.”
Paige drifted toward them, her hazel eyes gleaming with something close to awe. “Never seen a Buffy before. Not a live one, anyway.”
“I have. Several.” Wraith’s gravelly voice came from somewhere behind Eidolon. “But they didn’t stay alive for long.” Wraith, nearly identical to his brothers except for his blue eyes and shoulder-length, bleached blond hair, took control of the stretcher. “I’ll take her outside and dispose of her.”
Dispose of her. It was the right thing to do. After all, it was what The Aegis had done to their brother, Roag, a loss Eidolon still felt like a hole in the soul. “No,” he said, grinding his teeth at his own decision. “Wait.”
As tempting as it was to let Wraith have his way, only three types of beings could be turned away at UG, according to the charter he himself drafted, and Aegis butchers weren’t among those listed, an oversight he intended to correct. Granted, as the equivalent to a human hospital’s Chief of Staff, he had the final say, could send the woman to her death, but they’d just been handed a rare opportunity. His personal feelings about slayers would have to be put aside.
“Take her to ER one.”
“E,” Shade said in a voice that had gone low with disapproval, “catch and release in this case is a bad idea. What if it’s a trap? What if she’s wearing some sort of tracking device?”
Wraith looked around as though he expected Aegis slayers — “Guardians,” they called themselves — to pop in from nowhere.
“We’re protected by the Haven spell.”
“Only if they attack from the inside. If they find out where we are, they could go Bin Laden on the building.”
“We’ll fix her and worry about the rest later.” Eidolon wheeled the human into the prepared room, both paranoid brothers and Paige on his heels. “We have an opportunity to learn about them. The knowledge we could gain outweighs the dangers.”
He removed the restraints and lifted her left hand. The silver and black ring on her index finger looked innocent enough, but when he removed it, the Aegis shield engraved on the inside of the band confirmed her identity and sent a chill through his heart. If the rumors were true, any jewelry bearing the shield was imbued with powers that bestowed slayers with night vision, resistance to certain spells, the ability to see through invisibility mantles, and gods knew what else.
“You’d better know what you’re doing, E.” Wraith whipped the curtain closed to shut out the gawking staff.
Judging by the number of onlookers, they’d probably been paged. Come see the Buffy, the nightmare that lurks in our closets.
“Not so scary now, are you, little killer?” Eidolon murmured as he gloved up.
Her upper lip curled as though she’d heard him, and he suddenly knew he wouldn’t lose this patient. Death despised strength and stubbornness, qualities that radiated from her in waves. Unsure if her survival would be a good thing or a bad one, he cut away her bra and inspected the chest lacerations. Shade, who had been hanging around while waiting for his medic shift to start, managed her vitals, his gifted touch easing her labored, gurgling breaths.
“Paige, type her blood and get me some human O while we’re waiting.”
The nurse set to work, and Eidolon widened the slayer’s most serious wound with a scalpel. Blood and air bubbled through damaged lung and chest wall tissue as he inserted his fingers and held the ragged edges together for fusion.
Wraith folded his thick arms over his chest, his biceps twitching like they wanted to lead the charge to kill the slayer. “This is going to bite us in the ass, and you two are too stupid and arrogant to see it.”
“Ironic, isn’t it,” Eidolon said flatly, “that you would lecture us on arrogance and stupidity.”
Wraith flipped him the bird, and Shade laughed. “Someone got up on the wrong side of the crypt. You jonesing for a fix, bro? I saw a tasty-looking junkie topside. Why don’t you go eat him?”
“Shut up,” Eidolon snapped. “Both of you. Something isn’t right. Shade, look at this.” He adjusted the overhead light. “I haven’t been to med school in decades, but I’ve treated enough humans to know this isn’t normal.”
Shade peered at the woman’s organs, at the tangled mass of veins and arteries, at the strange ropes of nerve tissue that wove in and out of muscle and spongy lung. “Looks like a bomb went off in there. What is all that?”
“No idea.” He’d never seen anything like the mess that had scrambled the slayer’s insides. “Check this out.” He pointed to a blackened blob that resembled a blood clot. A pulsing, morphing blood clot that, as they watched, swallowed healthy tissue. “It’s like it’s taking over.”
Eidolon peeled back the gelled mass. His breath caught, and he rocked back on his heels.
“Hell’s rings,” Shade breathed. “She’s a fucking demon.”
“We’re fucking demons. She’s some other species.”
For the first time, Eidolon allowed himself a frank, unhurried look at the nearly naked woman, from her black-painted toes to matted hair the color of red wine. Smooth skin stretched over curves and lean muscle that even in unconsciousness conveyed coiled, deadly strength. Probably in her mid-twenties, she was in her prime, and if she weren’t a murderous fiend, she’d be hot. He fingered her ruined clothing. He’d always been a sucker for women in leather. Preferably, short leather skirts, but tight pants would do.
Wraith tipped the woman’s chin back and inspected her face. “I thought Aegi were human. She looks human. Smells human.” His fangs flashed as his tongue swiped at the bloody punctures in her throat. “Tastes human.”
Eidolon probed a peculiar valve bisecting the transverse colon. “What did I say about tasting patients?”
“What?” Wraith asked innocently. “We had to know if she’s human.”
“She is. Aegi are human.” Shade shook his head, making his stud earring glint in the light from the overhead. “Something’s wrong here. It’s as if she’s infected with a demon mutation. Maybe a virus.”
“No, she was born this way. She’s got a demon parent. Look.” Eidolon showed his brother the genetic proof, the organs that had formed from a human-demon union, something that occurred more frequently than most knew, but that human doctors diagnosed as certain “syndromes.” “Her physical abnormalities could be a birth defect. Or maybe these two species aren’t compatible genetically. She was probably born with some unusual traits, ones she’s been hiding or that haven’t been blatantly noticeable. Like better than average eyesight. Or telepathy. But I’ll bet my stethoscope this is causing problems now.”
“Could be anything. Maybe she’s losing her hearing or pissing herself in public.” Excited, because this kind of thing made his corner of hell interesting, he glanced up at Shade, who palmed her forehead and closed his eyes.
“I can feel it,” he said, his voice rough with the effort he expended to go deep into her body at the cellular level. “Some of her DNA feels fragmented. We can fuse it. We could–”
Wraith let out a disgusted snort. “Don’t even think about it. If you fix her, you could turn her into some sort of uber assassin. That’s all we need hunting us.”
“He’s right,” Shade agreed, the glossy black of his eyes going flat. “Depending on the species, it’s possible that we could turn her damn near immortal.”
Sedating and medicating could also prove difficult, given the unidentified demon DNA. Something as seemingly innocent as aspirin could kill her.
Eidolon studied her for a moment, thinking. “We’ll take care of her immediate injuries, and deal with the rest later. She should have the choice about whether or not she wants the demon half to be integrated.”
“Choice?” Wraith scoffed. ” You think she gives her victims a choice? You think Roag had a choice?”
Though Eidolon often thought about their fallen brother, hearing his name out loud was a punch to the gut. “Do you give your victims a choice?” he asked softly.
“I have to feed.”
“You need to drink blood. You don’t need to kill.”
Wraith pushed away from the wall. “You’re an asshole.” Lashing out with one arm, he sent a tray full of surgical instruments flying and swept out of the room.
Shade crouched to help Paige pick up the mess. “You shouldn’t provoke him.”
“You’re the one who brought up the junkie.”
“He knows I was yanking his chain. He’s been clean for months.”
Eidolon wished he could share Shade’s certainty. Wraith liked to escape his life now and then, but since their species was immune to drug and alcohol highs unless the substances had been processed through human blood, eating a human druggie was Wraith’s only path to blotto.
“I’m tired of coddling him,” Eidolon said, pulling another tray of instruments to him. “Let alone constantly pulling his ass out of trouble.”
“He needs time.”
“Ninety-eight years isn’t enough time? Shade, in two years he’s going to go through his transition. He’s not ready. He’ll get us all killed.”
Shade said nothing, probably because there was nothing to say. Their brother was out of control, and as the only Seminus demon in history to have been conceived by a vampire female, he was alone and had no idea how to handle his urges and instincts. As a male who had been tortured in the most horrific ways imaginable by the vampires who’d raised him, he had no idea how to live life at all.
Not that Eidolon had room to judge. He’d spent the last half-century concentrating on nothing but medicine, but unless he found a mate, in a few months his focus would shift and narrow until he became a mindless beast that functioned on instinct alone.
Maybe he should let the Buffy kill him now and get it over with.
He looked down at her, at the deceptively innocent face, and wondered just how easily and remorselessly she’d take him down.
Before she could do that, though, he’d have to fix her.
# # #
Awareness came slowly, in a haze of black blotches punctuated by points of light. Warm, elastic darkness tugged at Tayla, luring her toward slumber, but pain prodded her into consciousness. Every inch of her body ached, and her head felt heavy, too large for her neck to support. Groaning, she opened her eyes.
Fuzzy, shadowy images swirled and pulsed in front of her. Gradually, her vision came into focus, and whoa…she must be in another realm, because the dark-haired man staring down at her was a god. His lips, glistening sensuously as if he’d just licked them, were moving, but the buzz in her ears drowned out his words.
She narrowed her eyes and concentrated on his mouth. Name. He wanted her name. She had to think about it for a second before she remembered. Great. She must have hit her head. Which, duh, explained the headache.
“Tayla,” she croaked, and wondered why her throat hurt so much. “Tayla Mancuso. I think. Does that sound right to you?”
He smiled, and if she weren’t dying on some type of table, she’d have appreciated the sexy curve of his mouth and the flash of very white teeth. The guy must have a fab dentist.
“Tayla? Can you hear me?”
She could, but the buzzing lingered. “Uh-huh.”
“Good.” He put a hand on her forehead, allowing her a glimpse of one muscular arm adorned by intricate, swirling tribal tattoos. “You’re at a hospital. Is there anything I need to know? Allergies? Medical conditions? Parentage?”
She blinked. Had he said “parentage?” And could eyelashes hurt? Because hers did.
“This is a waste of time.” The new speaker, an exotic-looking man, Middle-Eastern, maybe, glared down at her.
“Go handle your own patients, Yuri.” The hot doctor with the espresso eyes shoved Yuri aside. “Can you answer my question, Tayla?”
Right. Allergies, parentage, medical conditions. “Um, no. No allergies.” No parents, either. And her medical condition wasn’t something she could share.
“Okay then. I’m going to give you something to help you sleep, and if it doesn’t kill you, when you wake up you’ll feel better.”
Better would be good. Because if she felt a little less like she’d been run over by a truck, she could jump on Dr. Hottie.
The very fact that she wanted to jump Dr. Hottie told her more about the state of her head trauma than anything else, but what the hell. The pretty nurse had just injected her with something that totally rocked, and if she wanted to think about boinking a bronzed, tattooed, impossibly handsome doctor who was so far out of her league she needed a telescope to see him, then screw it.
Screw him. Over and over.
“I’ll bet you could make a woman throw out all her toys.” Had she said that out loud? The cocky grin on his face told her that yes, she’d verbalized her runaway thoughts. “Drugs talking. Don’t get excited.”
“Paige, push another milligram,” he said, in his rich, smooth doctor voice.
A warm, burning sensation washed through her veins from the IV line in the back of her hand. “Mmm, trying to get rid of me, huh?”
“That’s already been discussed.”
Damn, this guy was saying some weird shit. Not that it mattered. Her eyes wouldn’t open anymore, and her body wouldn’t work. Only her ears still seemed to function, and as she drifted off, she heard one last thing.
“Wraith, I already told you. You can’t kill her.”
Aww. Her hot doctor was protecting her. She’d have smiled if her face hadn’t frozen. And clearly, her hearing had gone too, because he couldn’t have tacked on what she thought he tacked on.