He knew better than to let that out of his sight. It was one of the few things he’d been given that never let him down. The sword always worked the way it was supposed to. Pointy end went into his enemies and made them bleed.

Simplicity of design and dependability were beautiful things.

Oh, wait a second …

A weird thought occurred to him as he bashed one of the demons over the head with the book in his hands.

Could he summon his sword into this realm? It was infused with part of his DNA. Supposedly it was in tune with him, and he’d been working for months on the ability to summon his sword when he needed it. It was supposed to come to him on his command.

Nothing else worked the way it was supposed to, why should the sword obey him? Especially since he was in another dimension.

Still, it was worth a try. An effort wouldn’t cost him anything.

Not trying was a guaranteed failure.

Closing his eyes, Nick did his best to imagine the sword in his hand, its ornate hilt filling his palm. Just as he started feeling the heft of it in his hand, he was struck in the chest.

Nick staggered back as something else hit him and pain exploded through his entire body. He opened his eyes to see mortent demons right on top of him. Ah now, that was just rude. And he was tired of dealing with mortents. They smelled and they were just plain old obnoxious.

Other demons had Thorn on the ground. Caleb was bleeding profusely and Bane was pinned into a corner.

Man or mouse …

Time to be judged and he better not be lacking.

Nick opened himself up to the ether and let it whisper to him, at the same time he called for his sword. Light exploded all around them. Half the demons hissed, shrinking back from it.

Holding his hand up, Nick continued to whisper even as he was forced to avert his eyes from the light to keep from going blind.

The other half of the demons renewed their fight to reach him. And as they drew so close that he could feel their fetid breath on his skin, a clap of thunder rang out in his head. One second, they were nipping at his heels, in the next, he drove them back with a booming blast that sent all of them tumbling.

Nick started to laugh, until he realized that he couldn’t turn whatever it was off. Worse, it was building up, faster and faster, trying to take control of him. He cried out as pain rushed through his veins. It felt like he was burning from the inside out.

Caleb shouted something at him, but he couldn’t hear it.

I’m dying.

And there was nothing they could do to stop it.

CHAPTER 10

Nick felt his life force draining out of him. Then, just before the darkness took him under completely, he fell back into nothing. Desperate, he tried to grab on to something to stop his rapid descent. Anything.

Still, he fell.

Until he hit a sharp object that stabbed him so deeply, he was surprised it wasn’t protruding through his chest. He waited for …

He didn’t know. Disoriented and sick, he only wanted to wake up at home and have everything back to normal.

But that was easier said than done.

I have to face whatever it is.

Opening his eyes, he went rigid, unable to believe his sight. For once, it wasn’t something from a horror movie. Instead, he stared into the face of heaven and it was smiling brightly at him. “Kody?”

She clutched his hand. “I thought I’d lost you.”

“So did I.” He tried to move, then groaned as absolute misery pierced him. “Did you beat me?”

“I didn’t, but someone did.”

Bristol.

How could he have forgotten? The worm had jumped him on his way to Liza’s.

All of a sudden, Caleb appeared in human form on the opposite side of the bed. Thank goodness, he lived, but the peeved light in his eyes said he wanted to finish what Bristol had started.

Then, he glared at Kody. “Could you have cut that any closer?”

She gestured to Nick. “Talk to your friend here. He was the one who wouldn’t wake up.”

“Yeah,” Caleb breathed, turning his vicious glare back to Nick. “What was that you did?”

He scowled. “What do you mean?”

“Do you recall the Nether Realm?”

Duh. Not exactly something you’d forget without massive amounts of electroshock therapy. “Of course I do, and I never want to go there again.”

“That makes two of us.”

Kody glanced back and forth between them. “So what happened?”

Caleb jerked his chin toward Nick. “Your boyfriend turned into a human torch and annihilated a number of demons before you yanked him out of there.”

She appeared impressed by his description. “A torch? Really?”

Caleb nodded. “So what happened, Gautier? What’d you do?”

Shrugging, he tried to remember. “What always seems to happen when I’m under attack. I was trying to summon my sword and then something from deep inside me grabbed ahold of me. Next thing I know, you’re yelling at me to not use those powers. I kill a bunch of stuff and then you yell at me again for not listening to you.”

Caleb didn’t appear nearly as amused by his explanation as Kody did. “You need someone to yell at you.”

Nick snorted. “Got plenty of volunteers for that job. Really don’t need any more.”

Caleb made a sound of supreme annoyance.

“Is he awake?”

Kody stepped back so that his mother could run to the bed and throw herself over him.

Nick grunted as his mother struck one of his sore ribs. “Ma, you’re killing me.”

She lifted her head to glare at him. “Good, I want to kill you. I swear, Nick, you’re going to be the death of me.”

A stab of pain lacerated his heart at her words. It was a bad reminder of why Ambrose was doing this.

To keep his mother alive from whatever he’d done that had gotten her killed.

Guilt gnawed at him. Not just over what he’d done in the past to hurt her, but over whatever future stupidity he was going to commit. He’d put her through enough. He didn’t want to do anything else to make her cry. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

“No, baby. I’m the one who’s sorry. When I told you not to fight, I didn’t mean for you to not protect yourself. I never, ever meant for that.”

Her words confused him even more. “But Mom, all my fights are me defending myself. I never throw the first punch.”

She grimaced at him. “Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”

His indignant anger begged him to lash out at her for that comment. But he held it back. “I’ve tried, repeatedly, and all you do is ‘don’t but Mom, me, Nick’ and then you refuse to hear anything I say.”

Sniffing, she swallowed hard. “I’m sorry about that, Boo. I’m going to try and do better. I promise. And you can fight anytime you want, okay? Just don’t let them hurt you like this ever again. I’d much rather bail you out of jail than put you in a cemetery.”

“Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” Dr. Burdette said from behind her. “That’s always been my motto. And it’s the one I raised Michael on. I told him that I would never get on to him for defending himself, but if I found out he backed down from someone out of fear, his back porch was gonna be pink.”

“Michael?” his mom asked.

Nick snickered. “Bubba.”

Dr. Burdette made a painful moan. “Please, don’t call him that. I cringe every time I hear it.”

His mom frowned. “Why do you hate it so? I’ve known a lot of good Bubbas.”

Dr. Burdette made an irritated sound in the back of her throat. “Lucky you, Cherise. My animosity goes all the way back to my first day of school. Bubba Clark, may he roast his tenderloins in the devil’s hottest pit. There I was, all pristine in my white handmade dress my mama had worked so hard on. I felt like a fairy tale princess. Had my little pale yellow hat, and a matching patent leather purse. I thought I was the cat’s meow and felt all pretty and girly. Next thing I know, I get shoved from behind and fall, scuffing my purse, my shoes, and putting dirt on my dress. Even worse, that little rat refused to apologize for it. Being the child I was, I laid into him with everything I had. And I might have been a little girl in a frilly pinafore dress, but I had three older brothers who taught me how to lay a man low, and sister, that day I did. I had him on the ground, crying like a baby after milk. Therein started a rivalry that goes on to this day. Bubba Clark has made me miserable any time he can, right down to pretending to be a policeman when I was on dates with Michael’s father. Anytime we kissed, he’d shine his light in our windows—until the day Bruce beat the tar out of him for it. So I cringe whenever I hear the name, and the fact that Michael would use it … I’m going to start calling him Mickey again just to watch him make the faces. That’ll learn him.”

Nick laughed, then groaned as a stabbing stitch went through his middle.

“You all right, hon?” Dr. Burdette asked before placing her hand over his abdomen.

“Yeah. I got kicked pretty good a few times.”

“Yes, you did. Do you know who did this?”

Instead of answering that question, Nick found a new fascination with the ceiling.

“Baby,” his mom said, brushing his hair back from his forehead. “Answer Dr. Burdette’s question so that we can file a police report.”

While he wasn’t happy with what Bristol had done, he didn’t want him to go to jail over it, either. Bad things happened whenever kids from his school got locked up. Besides, he could handle this on his own. Had he not been so sore from his mother’s reaming, this wouldn’t have happened anyway. He and Bristol would have tossed words, maybe a few punches. In the end, they both would have walked home. So no, he didn’t want to see Bristol in jail for this.

“I don’t remember.” Gah, how he hated lying, especially to his mom.

“Nick…”

He cringed at her tone, which said she knew he wasn’t being honest. “I just can’t, Mom.”

She narrowed her gaze at him before she sighed. “Fine. I can’t force it out of you. But I think you’re making a mistake. You let someone get away with this and they’ll keep hurting people until someone stops them.”

And normally, that someone would be he.

Squeezing his hand, his mother stepped back. “By the way, I’ve been told that you’re the most popular patient on the floor.”

“How so?”

“There’s a herd of folks outside, wanting to see you. And all of them worried about you. The nurses said that they get calls day and night asking about you and that if you think this—” She pointed to the all-out florist in his room. “—is a lot of flowers, you haven’t seen anything. They had to store some of them in the staff offices.”

Wow. It was a lot of flowers. “You sure they’re not thinking I’m dead and sending them to the funeral home?”

She scoffed. “You’re so bad.”

Yeah well, he hated to see all of the flowers go to waste. Just what was against one wall would fill up their apartment. “Seriously though, would you make sure that the nurses take the ones they want?”

“I knew you’d feel that way. I have the cards collected so that we can send out thank-you notes to everyone.” That was the thing about his mother, hard times might have caused her to live on the streets for awhile, but she was always polite.

And always a lady.

He realized she hadn’t been exaggerating about the number of people asking about him once she started letting his visitors in. Dang, it was impressive. He’d never known before how many people cared about him. Funny, huh? Most of the time he felt like an outsider, sometimes even in his own home. But mostly at school and around other people. Looking at the visiting crowd coming in, maybe he wasn’t as alone as he thought.

Even Kyl Poitiers and his dad came for a visit, as well as Casey Woods, and Amber Cassidy, who’d been one of Brynna’s best friends since kindergarten. And then the half of the football team that wasn’t in Stone’s pocket. It really stunned him. Especially since they hadn’t visited him in the hospital after he’d been shot. But then, he’d interacted with them a lot more over this last year. Strange how much could change in only a few months.

After they were all gone, Aimee, Dev, Alex, Kara, and Mama and Papa Bear Peltier all came in together and brought him a chocolate chip cookie basket. Yeah, not to be rude, but folks could keep the flowers. Choco-chip … Now we’re talking.

Load me up till I burst. Then bury me behind the Chips Ahoy factory.

Dev tsked at him. “Next time you want to play ping-pong, I suggest you use a ball and not your head. Slim, you look awful.”



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