It wasn’t every day you learned that you were the son of a ferocious demon and that your destiny was to end the world. Or that the guy you thought was your whacked-out uncle was actually you from the future trying to prevent not only your death, but that of basically everyone else.…
All in all, being that he was only fourteen years old, Nick Gautier was handling it pretty well.
Yeah, not really. Stunned into complete silence, which very seldom happened, Nick couldn’t breathe as brutal reality sucker-punched him. Hard. Mercilessly.
Right where it hurt most. Well, not physically there. But mentally it felt like his gonads had been stomped straight into the ground. His head swam from nausea.
Trying to get a handle on everything, he clutched at the broken stones on the stoop where he sat outside his new apartment building on Bourbon Street. Ambrose—the future him—stood to his left, towering over him with a pitiless sneer.
How was it possible that he was Ambrose?
Or more to the point, Ambrose was what he would become.…
How could he, an average kid roaming the backstreets of New Orleans, be the ultimate evil? He didn’t feel particularly evil. Most days, he didn’t feel anything except stressed out by school, or tired of his mom nagging at him about everything from the clothes he wore, to the length of his hair, to how late he stayed up. Some days, it felt like she was looking for a reason to be ticked off at him.
Boy, if she knew this about him, he’d never hear the end of it. She’d probably ground him until he was at least three or four thousand years old. Yeah, it sounded ludicrous even to him, until he looked at Ambrose standing all bad ass and tough at his left.
Ambrose is me from the future.…
He glanced around the section of Bourbon Street where his new apartment was located. Everything looked the same. The broken sidewalks that made up the French Quarter. The cars parked in a line on both sides of the street. The row of shotgun houses that led to stores and restaurants …
But nothing was the same.
Most of all, he would never be the same again.
I am a demon.
“No, no, no,” Nick repeated as he tried to come up with some other explanation. One that made a little more sense and that didn’t leave him as a tool for the darkest forces in the universe.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t one. Not that any of this made sense. It was all pretty farcical when you thought about it.
Him. Nicholas Ambrosius Gautier—smart-mouthed, streetwise kid. Typical teenager. Gaming guru. Anime and manga obsessed otaku. Socially awkward around any girl his age.
Dang, his principal had been right all along.…
He really was demonspawn. Too bad Peters had gotten eaten by zombies before he found out the real truth of Nick’s parentage. Old fart would have been proud to be proven right.
Nick really was destined for a life of total destruction.
Even though he wanted to, he couldn’t deny it. Ambrose had the same exact blue eyes and dark brown hair he had. The same sneer that he often wore when things ticked him off—the one that got him grounded every time his mom saw it. More than that, Ambrose had the identical scar on his palm that Nick had been given when Xenon cut his hand for blood. A scar that hadn’t been on Ambrose’s hand the last time he’d seen him.
I’m in a flippin’ Twilight Zone episode.
He had to be. Nothing else made sense.
So where was his voice-over, telling the audience how he’d screwed up and taken a wrong turn down some suburban street or some such crud? C’mon, Rod Serling. Don’t let me down. I need you to come in and tell me that I’m in a nightmare. Tell me about this new dimension of sight and sound.
But there was no reprieve. Not from this skewed reality.
And not from the fact that he was the hated and hunted son of a demon …
“I’m evil.” He tried to accept that and still he couldn’t. If it were true, how could he go to Mass all the time with his mom? Shouldn’t he burst into flames when holy water touched him? Feel a burning sensation or something when he took communion? For that matter, he’d been an altar boy for years.
But he’d never once experienced the slightest bit of discomfort from any of that. The worst thing that had ever happened to him in church was when the priest had fallen asleep during his last confession—which said it all about how boring his life had been prior to all of this.
Yeah, okay, and then there was the time when he’d tripped going down the center aisle and spilled incense all over the place. But that hadn’t been a result of his birthright, unless you counted clumsiness and the fact his thrift store shoes had been too big for his feet.
“I am evil,” Nick repeated one more time.
Ambrose shifted his weight to one leg as his dark scowl intensified. “No, Nick. We’re evil. We were bred to be soldiers for the darkest of powers.” He said that so lackadaisically—Like, Hey, the sun’s shining. Look, the neighbor’s dog is in your trash again. Dude, you’re wearing one ugly shirt.
Oh, and by the way, you’re a demon in human form.
Much like the tacky Hawaiian shirt Nick was wearing, it just didn’t fit.
“Then why are you trying to help me?” he asked Ambrose.
Ambrose snorted. “I ask myself that every day, and I have no answer. Part of me wants to tell you to just embrace your birthright and go with it. To let the evil have its way and carry you to the Nether Realm for your enemies to use as they see fit. God knows, fighting it never gave me any peace or comfort. Not once. Just a giant sized ulcer. You want the honest truth? Caring about others has made my entire life suck from beginning to end. When you don’t care about anyone or anything, nothing can hurt you. When you do…”
Your enemies had you by your stones. He’d already learned that lesson.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Ambrose sighed. “Because I don’t have an answer, kid. Contrary to what you think, we’re all mice lost in a maze. No one really knows what they’re doing. You go left for whatever reason, but you don’t know if it’s the right direction or not until you’re either electrocuted or you get the cheese. By the time you find out which it is, it’s too late to turn back. You’re either dead or you’re fed. There’s no third option.”
“I have to say then, that I prefer fed over dead.”
Ambrose laughed bitterly. “So do I. Some days, anyway.” He glanced skyward as if looking for divine guidance of some kind. “I seriously hope I’m not about to make another mistake.” He rubbed his hand against his forehead as if he had a pain there, then leveled a piercing stare at Nick. “Fine. I’ll tell you the truth. All of it. For better or worse. Let’s put the cards on the table and see how we screw things up this time, shall we?”
Nick wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. But either way, he wanted to know exactly what was going on and what he was up against.
Ambrose faced him. “This isn’t my first rodeo, but it is most definitely the last. You, Nick, are the only hope I have of getting it right. I’ve tried three times before this and each one was worse on the outcome than the last. When I started tampering with our lives, I had more humanity in me. I’ve all but lost it now. My last attempt burned out something inside me, and I’ll be honest, it scares me. And I don’t scare. Ever. Not after everything I’ve been through. But the degree to which I don’t care anymore—about anything—is a frightful thing. At times, I want it all to end. Because when it does, my pain will stop and I’ll have some degree of peace. Finally. It’ll seriously suck for everyone else. But like I said, I’m to the point where I really don’t care anymore. I’m holding on to my humanity by the thinnest thread imaginable, and any day now, I expect it to break. God help us all when it does.”
A chill went down Nick’s spine. He didn’t want the bleak, lonely future Ambrose described. Most of all, he didn’t want to become Ambrose. While he was jaded and suspicious by nature, there was still a part of him that honestly believed people were good and decent. Most of them, anyway.
He glared at Ambrose as he absorbed those words. “Then why should I listen to anything you tell me? For all I know, you’re setting me up so that you can have your peace and end the world.… And what do you mean you’ve tried three times? How?”
“I forgot how ADD I once was.” Ambrose shook his head. “No wonder Kyrian was so sharp with me so many times.” He took a deep breath before he answered Nick’s question. “I’ve mentored three different Nicks before you. Four if you count my original childhood.”
“Ooooriginal?” He dragged the word out as that thought played through his mind. Did that mean…?
Ambrose let out another bitter laugh. “My life was slightly different from yours. Not much. Little things. But it’s those little things that can make a huge difference in what happens to us later.”
Yep, it was exactly what he’d suspected. And that truthfully terrified him.
Never underestimate a man’s ability to screw up the best laid plans—that was one of his friend’s favorite sayings.
“Such as?” Nick asked.
“The first attempt I made at correcting the past, I had Nick tell our mother about the Dark-Hunter world as soon as he was dragged into it.” He winced as if the memory was unbearable. “I really thought that was the perfect solution. I did. All these years, I kept telling myself that if only she’d known about the paranormal, she’d have been wary of it and not—” He broke off to curse under his breath. Then he turned back to Nick. “But she couldn’t handle it or believe it … It was a total disaster. Because of our father, she thought it was a mental defect—schizophrenia to be precise. That first Nick ended up medicated in an asylum with no one to protect him from our enemies. I’m still scarred by what was done to him. Worse, without us living at home, Mom never stopped working at her club and she was shot dead during a robbery.”
Nick wanted to vomit at the mere thought. “Are you serious?”
Ambrose nodded. “There’s nothing like watching multiple outcomes play out before your eyes and then live in your memory. I now understand why Savitar sits on his island, away from everything.”
Who? Nick had never heard of such a person. “Savitar?”
“A being you’ll meet one day. For now, it’s not important. Just remember, you can’t talk to your mother about any of this. She doesn’t want to know, and she’ll never accept the fact that she had the son of a demon.”
Who could blame her for that? He personally couldn’t think of any woman who would welcome that news. Hey, hon, guess what? Your son that you nurtured in your body for nine months and then sacrificed your life and dignity to raise is destined to end the world. Aren’t you proud?
Yeah, that just didn’t work.
All right then, he wouldn’t tell his mother about himself, his father or his Dark-Hunter boss Kyrian. Truthfully, he’d been tempted to let her know why Kyrian was different, why he worked so late at night and wasn’t around in the daytime. But every time he’d thought about it, his gut had kept him silent.
Score one for the gut. Too bad his brain wasn’t as smart.
For the very reason Ambrose had named, he’d been afraid of how she’d react. There were times when he felt like his mother was looking for a reason to have him committed or institutionalized. Like she feared him becoming his father so much that she was itching for some sign to confirm that he was every bit as violent and awful, and lock him up before it was too late and he hurt someone.
“What happened with the other attempts?”
“Next we were sucked into the Nether Realm at age seventeen where…” His voice broke off and he visibly cringed as if that memory was even worse than the one before. “Whatever you do, kid, stay away from Azmodea. Don’t believe any demon who tells you lies about how great it is. Because for you, it’s not, and I can’t stress the not part enough. Whatever you do, avoid creatures named Azura and Noir. Only slavery waits for you there. A slavery so brutal, you can’t even conceive of it. And it would give even Quentin Tarantino nightmares.”
That was an impressive thought and he took Ambrose’s warning to heart. “Never heard of that place, but will add it to my ‘under no circumstances’ list.” Like eating broccoli, doing laundry, or feeding Mark’s “dog” that was actually a thirteen foot gator with a nasty attitude and a taste for Cajun. “And the Nick after that?”
He let out a slow breath. “Suffice it to say, it didn’t go well either.”