A true nihilist, Thorn believed in nothing. And nothing believed in him.

Well, not entirely true. Caleb believed in Thorn’s willingness to kill any and every thing around him, especially if he found it or them annoying.

This can’t be good. Thorn taking a liking to you had to be the same as trying to befriend a starving bear. Sooner or later, it was going to look over at you and think, Lunch.

Yet there he was, protecting and teaching Nick.

Talk about a mind freak. It went against all natural laws as Caleb knew them. Next thing, cobras would be sleeping with mongeese. Not mongooses, ‘cause that just sounded stupid to him. LSU and Alabama fans would be having cookouts together, and one might actually put the other out if he or she caught fire.

Yeah, and the mighty war god Ares would go picking roses with a Girl Scout troop.

All of the above was much more likely than Thorn helping Nick.

And Caleb refused to believe there was some selfless reason motivating this. There had to be something in it for Thorn, or he wouldn’t do it.

But what?

Tucking his wings in, Caleb swooped down to dive bomb them through an open window.

Please don’t let Thorn be sadistic enough to have glass there.…

* * *

For the first time ever, Nick heard the voices in the ether speaking. Some were left from past spirits who’d gone on, while echoes of their life forces remained trapped. Most were from the living … the thoughts they let out into the universe, never realizing beings who were sensitive could pick them up and hear their innermost secrets. The rest were warnings from the living things people didn’t know they could communicate with.

All you had to do was listen.

It was like hearing static on a radio. Just noise at first and then above the friction, total clarity. The more carefully you tuned in, the clearer it became. And once you had the right frequency, you heard every nuance.

Thorn cupped Nick’s head in his massive paw of a hand. “That’s the source of life you hear now. Feel your place in the universe and see how vast it is. How many beings call it home.”

He was right, it was vast. But … “There’s so many people in pain.” It was overwhelming. While he’d known people suffered, to actually hear it …

Their combined pain opened his eyes. While he’d felt alone in his suffering, he realized that he was merely one of billions who felt exactly the same kind of impotent frustration that he did, that they were alone and that no one understood them, or their situation. That they had no control over the things that battered their souls, one after another, until they were reeling from shock.

Thorn narrowed those eerie green eyes on him. “Everyone’s in pain, Nick. Some just hide it better than others. As William Goldman so eloquently put it, ‘Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.’”

Nick nodded as he finally understood. “The whole point of life is learning to live with the consequences of the bad decisions we’ve made.”

Thorn scowled at him as if trying to read his mind. “Where did that come from?”

“It’s something Caleb says a lot.”

His frown deepened until he appeared to have an epiphany. “You mean the demon, Malphas?”

As if on cue, a raven cawed, then flew between them, driving them apart.

Turning around to face the raven, Thorn unsheathed his sword for battle.

With a bright flash, the crow became Caleb in his full demon form. The black armor he wore appeared to bleed from every crevice. Rivulets of red ran all over the metal and dripped silently to the floor. With long orange hair, he had yellow eyes like a serpent. If that didn’t clash enough, his skin was as red as the ooze on his armor. His black, leatherlike wings expanded and twitched as if daring Thorn to attack him.

“Dude,” Nick said drily. “We’ve got to see a plastic surgeon about your unfortunate birth defect. And the orange hair … really? We need to talk L’Oreal. Black’s a better neutral. You know? It wouldn’t clash with your skin tone so much.”

Flashing his fangs at Nick in irritation, Caleb stepped aside to give Thorn a clear path to him, and swept his arm out as if putting Nick on display. “If you want to kill him, Thorn, I won’t protest.”

Thorn laughed. “How many fools have fallen for that tactic?”

“Not enough, unfortunately. He still lives. And here I am.…” Caleb cocked his head to study Thorn intently. His gaze narrowed on the sword Thorn had yet to lower. “Are we fighting?”

“I don’t know. You plan to attack me?”

“Only if you attack the boy.”

“Well then…” Thorn sheathed his weapon and shook his head at Caleb. “I can’t believe even Adarian would waste a good daeva’s talent on babysitting.”

“Daeva” was Caleb’s demon classification. Though as a rule they were mid-level demons, Caleb’s powers were infused by something that allowed him to function much higher than that. He also had powers most daeva didn’t.

There had to be a reason for that, but Caleb wasn’t into sharing. Not even when Nick begged.

Caleb slid a suspicious stare toward Nick. “We have got to get you out of here. Immediately.”

“Good,” Nick agreed, “’cause Toto wanna go home, Dorothy.” He clicked his heels together. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

Grimacing, Caleb glanced up at the sky. “If someone drops a house on me, I’m going to be really upset at both of you.”

Thorn snorted. “That would require a good witch. Bon chance finding that here, mon ami.”

“Good point. We are in the bowels of all evil, after all, and yes, Thorn, I do include you in that category. I’ve spent enough time around you to know how deep your wicked tendencies run.”

Thorn laughed. “If you were a woman, Malphas, flattery like that would get you lucky.”

Caleb tucked his wings down around his body so that they formed another layer over his armor. “I am not even going to respond to that. Now, while your brain’s functioning, any idea how to get snot-wit out of here?”

Nick gaped at the uncalled-for insult. Snot-wit? “Excuse me?”

“Really wish I could, Nick,” Caleb said under his breath.

Thorn considered the answer before he spoke. “Other than making him regain his consciousness … no.”

Caleb manifested a mace, then took a step toward Nick, who quickly backed up.

Thorn grabbed the mace out of his hand. “I said conscious, Malphas. Not dead.”

“Oh c’mon, demonspawn. Just one little concussion … please. I’ve earned it. If for no other reason than he made me have to come here to get him.”

Nick would be offended if he didn’t know Caleb was joking. At least, he hoped Caleb was joking. “That was a joke, right?”

Caleb patted him on the cheek. “’Course it was, punkin’. Why would I want to kill little old you?”

Yeah, that sent a chill down his spine as reasons stockpiled in his mind.

But that was mild compared to the all-out panic that set in a second later when Bane appeared in Thorn’s office.

“We got a problem.” He passed a stern look from Thorn to Caleb.

“What?” Thorn asked.

“Noir has caught a scent of your little buddy and he’s about to declare war on you to get him back. He thinks you’ve found him and are planning to use the Malachai against him.”

“Of course he does. Paranoid idiot.” Thorn threw his hand out and illuminated the opposite side of the room. Images flashed until they focused on one of the walls that surrounded his fortress. There were all manner of entities headed their way. Nick could only identify a small percentage of the demons, the rest …

“Are those bugs?”

Three heads turned to give him a look that questioned his intelligence.

“Yes,” Bane said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “The baddest ass in all the universe is attacking us with big giant bugs. Help me, I’m being clobbered by a flea. Quick, Malphas, fetch the Raid.”

Nick rolled his eyes. “What are they, then?”

Caleb sighed. “You know how Greeks have a three-headed dog that guards their Underworld?”

“Yeah.”

“Those are what Noir uses to guard his. Basically, they’re bloodhounds with exoskeletons so that certain classes of demons can’t hurt them or escape them.” He flashed an evil grin at Nick. “For the record, kid, you happen to be on that list.”

Oh. And the bug-dogs could climb straight up a wall, as was proven when they reached Thorn’s territory and, without hesitation, walked straight up it.

Caleb looked at Thorn. “How much fire can you conjure?”

“Not enough to take all of them out. It would drain me too fast and leave me at Noir’s mercy.”

Nick’s heart raced. “We’re dead, aren’t we?”

“No, Nick,” Caleb said in a deceptively calm voice, “we’re worse than dead.”

Nick widened his eyes. “What’s worse than dead?”

Smiling, Bane clapped him on the shoulder. “Lucky you, you’re about to find out.”

* * *

Kody!

Nekoda literally jumped where she stood in Nick’s hospital room as Caleb screamed in her head.

What? she asked, projecting her thoughts to him so that the other people in the room wouldn’t think she’d lost her mind.

Which she most likely had, but she didn’t want to be confined to one of the mental floors for it.

Wake Nick up.

She glanced over to Menyara and Cherise, who were talking in a low tone to Dr. Burdette on the other side of Nick’s bed. I can’t, Caleb. Not exactly alone here.

Yeah, well, if you don’t get him conscious, he’s about to be enslaved to Noir.

Terror consumed her. That was all they needed. Are you serious?

Do I sound like I’m kidding?

No, he sounded panicked. Which made her blood race even more. Caleb didn’t panic as a rule. He was always eerily calm no matter the threat. If he was rattled, it was bad.

But how could she get Cherise, Menyara, and Bubba’s mama out of the room?

If she set it on fire …

That would be bad. And it’d most likely get her banned from the hospital.

C’mon, Kody, think.…

Caleb’s voice was even more insistent. Nick’s about to die, Kody. We can’t hold them.… His sentence ended in a sound of anguish.

Glancing around, she tried to find something to use to distract the women so that she could wake Nick. But the hospital room was about as bare as anything could be. Drat!

If she went over there and started shaking him while he was hooked to all that equipment, they’d think she’d lost her mind. Her luck, they’d call security.

I have to do something.

Fast.

With no choice, she focused on Cherise and pushed her thoughts into Cherise’s mind.

His mother shook her head, then scowled. “You know,” she said to Menyara and Bobbi Jean, “I think I’m hungry all of a sudden. Why don’t we grab a quick bite downstairs in the cafeteria while he’s still sleeping?”

Both women looked at her like she’d lost her mind. Especially since she’d insisted the entire time that she be near Nick.

“You sure?” Menyara asked.

Cherise nodded. “We won’t go far. We can rush back if something changes.”

Menyara and Dr. Burdette exchanged frowns, since that had been their argument for hours as Cherise refused to leave in case Nick needed her.

Kody prodded them. “I’ll stay with Nick and let you know if he wakes.”

Cherise smiled. “Thank you, Kody.”

Kody waited until they were gone before she rushed to the bed. “Nick?” She shook him gently. “C’mon, baby, wake up.”

But he wasn’t responding at all.

She shook him more vigorously. And still he didn’t move.

Caleb? She tried to reach him again.

He didn’t answer, either. Panic consumed her. What was going on?

Was she too late? Had Noir already captured them?

No, it couldn’t happen. It didn’t bear thinking on.

Her heart racing, she kept trying. She was the only hope they had.

I won’t let you guys down. I promise.

* * *

Nick was quickly learning that on the paranormal food chain, he was kibble. And everyone else above him on that chain wanted a bite out of his hide.

That being said, Bane, Caleb, and Thorn were taking the brunt of the fight so that they could keep him from being dragged off by one of the others.

If only I’d brought my sword with me.



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