“I will. Thank you.”

“Anytime.” Kyrian knuckle-bumped Nick. “Take care, Cajun, and if you don’t stop getting hospitalized, I’m going to start docking your pay.”

“Yeah, and I’ll start scratching your car paint.”

Kyrian laughed. “You know I value my cars over your life, right?”

“I don’t believe it for a minute,” Nick called out as he left.

But Kyrian didn’t respond.

His mom patted his hand. “You know, this got me thinking, Boo. You do need to learn to drive. If you’d been in a car going to Liza’s, none of this would have happened…”

Joy rushed through him. “You’re going to teach me?”

She visibly cringed. “Yes,” she said in the most pathetic tone ever.

Acheron laughed. “Would you like me to teach him?”

She cringed even more.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Gautier. I don’t care if he bangs up my car, and I’m really, really patient when teaching people. Especially those with hot heads. I’ve been training folks for years.”

Man, that was an understatement. It was all Nick could do not to burst into laughter.

His mother scanned Ash with a doubting stare.

“You don’t look old enough to have been doing anything for years.”

If his mom only knew the truth.

“Please, Mom?” Nick begged. “No offense, but I think I’d rather have Ash do it, too. He won’t be screaming or grounding me if I make a mistake.”

She opened and closed her mouth as if she wanted to argue, but she knew the truth as well as he did. “Fine. But if I had a Porsche, there’s no way I’d ever let a fifteen-year-old in it, never mind drive it.”

Acheron scoffed. “He won’t be learning in my Porsche. It’s a standard. I think it’d be best to teach him in an automatic. Let him get used to the feel of the car and traffic rules before we complicate it with a gearshift. Last thing King ADD needs is one more distraction.”

“Hey!” Nick protested. “I’m not that—hey, did you see that?” He pointed to the wall as a joke.

“Ha, ha,” Ash said.

“So whose car will you use to train him in?” his mom asked.

“One of my others.”

His mom quirked a brow at that. “Others? How many cars do you own?”

“Ummmm…” Ash stroked the side of his face with his fingers. “A lot.”

“You don’t know?” she asked, aghast.

“Not really. Most are kept in storage and I have them delivered when I want to drive them.”

She pinned him with that suspicious look that meant she thought he was a drug dealer or a car thief. “What do you do again for a living?”

“Wrangle people.”

Her eyes widened. “You work in the sex trade?”

“No!” Ash practically roared that word.

Nick sucked his breath in. There was one of Grim’s trigger words. Wow. That was a violent reaction. He’d never seen Ash explode like that to anything.

His breathing labored, Ash clenched his teeth, then seemed to get ahold of himself. “Sorry. That’s a subject I take very seriously. Children should be protected, not…” His nostrils flared. “Anyway, I train and consult personal security personnel.”

Nick was impressed with Ash’s spin on what Dark-Hunters did. Personal security personnel.

For the whole world.

“Why do you call it wrangling?”

Ash shrugged. “My people get moved around a lot. The logistics can get hinky at times. I have several coming into town for Halloween, in fact. And it’s why I’m not always here. I travel a lot to different cities and countries where we have staffs.”

His mother’s jaw gaped. “That’s so impressive. Especially for your age. How old are you exactly?”

Nick arched his brow, waiting to see what Ash would come back with.

“Older than I look, Mrs. Gautier. Much older than I look.”

Yeah, he looked like he was in his late teens. No one would believe he was an ancient Atlantean who was over eleven thousand years old.

She smiled. “I understand. I don’t like giving out my age either. Sorry to be so personal. But I feel even better having you here now that I know what it is you do. Have you ever had to deal with someone as … special as Nick’s father?”

Acheron burst out laughing. Hard. “Uh, yeah. All the time. My people specialize in the truly unruly.”

“Good.” She stepped away from the bed. “If you two will excuse me, I’m going outside to make a call to Menyara. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Take your time, Mrs. Gautier.”

“Call me Cherise,” she said with a smile. “I think we all know I was never married. But I appreciate the gesture. Thank you.”

“Any time, Cherise.”

After she left, Acheron sat in the recliner. “So what went down?”

“With my dad?”

“No, the mugging.”

Nick sighed. “I don’t know. There’s some weird crap going around my school.”

“Please tell me it’s not zombies again.”

Nick laughed. “No, Madaug’s been banned from making games. If his brother Eric ever finds one again, he has a giant magnet he’s going to set down on Madaug’s prized computer.”

“Ouch.”

“Exactly. Not that Madaug needed the threat. He learned his lesson quite well.”

Acheron nodded. “I imagine so. Anyway, back to school. What’s going on?”

“Someone has set up a Web site and they’re posting garbage about my classmates. Mostly made up, but enough truths to make it look authentic. Now students are going at each other’s throats over it.”

“Echrichta.”

“Bless you.”

Ash laughed, this time giving Nick a flash of his elongated fangs. “In Atlantean the Echrichta were the children of Pali, the god of strife, and Diafonia, the goddess of discord. Their grandfather was Misos, the Atlantean god of war and death. Before wars broke out, the Atlantean gods would unleash the Echrichta to stir up emotions and get the people ready to attack each other.”

That had to be the coolest accent in the world. There was nothing to compare it to, but in spite of the fact that Acheron was male, Nick loved to hear him speak his native language. “How do you say that? Ecka—encha—Encharada … Enchilada?”

“You have to catch and roll the uvula in the back of your throat on the r’s. So it’s heck-RAH-ta.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna quit before I embarrass myself. So were they human in appearance? Ugly snot monsters? Or what?”

“They were extremely beautiful. At least on the ouside. Inside … Echrichta literally means ‘she who stirs excrement.’”

Nick burst out laughing. “What? Are you serious?”

Acheron nodded. “I swear. In my day, in Atlantis, men were respected. Women were feared … and for good reason. Hell hath no fury.”

Nick agreed with that. Women and girls carried a grudge like nobody’s business. Sue Tilling was still mad at him for bumping into her on the playground in kindergarten. “I have to say they scare the crap out of me most days. Kody can render me speechless with the raising of one eyebrow.”

“Exactly. Men can beat each other to a pulp and still walk away friends. With a woman, once an enemy, always an enemy. Women will sit like a spider, for years, waiting for the chance to strike. They never forget and seldom forgive.”

Nick cringed. “You’re scaring me, Ash.”

“Sorry. But just remember this. No woman has ever killed a man while he was washing dishes.”

Nick scowled at him. “What?”

“It’s another Atlantean saying. If you keep the woman happy, she’s less likely to cut your throat.”

“Man, y’all were whacked. So what did these troublemaking, excrement-stirring goddesses do?”

“The kind of stuff you’re talking about at Your School. They’d go in and tell someone’s secrets and claim they’d heard them from someone else, usually a friend. Or they’d just make things up to break apart friendships and homes. It was what they lived for. They’d go to humans and whisper in their ears, playing off their fears. Sometimes it was overt and other times it would be as subtle as saying, ‘Hey Nick, I saw Kody this afternoon when at the mall. Man, she’s looking really happy these days. And her friend Tom she was with … wow. You could tell he was loaded. Expensive clothes. Rolex. He was so impressive and smart.’”

“How would that upset me?”

“Let’s say that Kody had told you she couldn’t be with you that same afternoon because she had to study.”

“Yeah, okay, that would not make me happy.”

Acheron nodded. “And you’d probably fight with her over it, especially if she hadn’t done it. You’d think she was lying about it, and she’d think you didn’t trust her.”

Nick let out a low whistle. He could see where that would get ugly fast. “It’s kind of like an evil silkspeech.”

Ash stiffened for a second. “How do you know what silkspeech is?”

Nick let his Cajun accent out in all its glory. “I be hanging with me some Goths.”

That placated him. “Silkspeech isn’t just the tool of demons and gods. While it’s potent in their hands, it’s deadliest when in the hands of a human who’s incapable of feeling happiness. Or worse, one who takes happiness by hurting others. Jealous people who trade in gossip and who feel the need to take someone down a notch so that they can feel superior.”

“Oh, I know people like that.”

“Sadly, Nick, we all do.”

Yeah. And it was sad.

The nurse came in to glare at Nick. “Those men got away. But I will find out who they were. What were they doing in here anyway?”

“Protecting me.”

“From what?” she asked, arms akimbo.

Acheron arched a curious brow.

Nick didn’t want to tell her or Ash about the demon part, so … “There’s an escaped felon trying to kill me.” There. The truth with vague details. The Echrichta might excel at lies, but Nick excelled at creative truth. Something that was a talent in and of itself.

“I’ll warn security about this.” She checked his IV bag, then put a needle into it.

Acheron cocked his head. “What are you giving him?”

“Just a small sedative.”

One that was already kicking in. Man, it was strong. The room blurred. He heard Acheron saying something, but he couldn’t make it out at all.

Freaky weird. It was even making him hallucinate. Instead of seeing the nurse, he saw his father.

No, wait …

That was his powers kicking in. The nurse was his father.

Nick tried to speak, but couldn’t. All he could hear was the sound of him coding as he passed out.

CHAPTER 12

“Come home, child, and be rewarded.”

Nick heard that tender voice. It was feminine, but not his mother’s. Warmth suffused him as he tried to find that unseen woman through the darkness that enveloped him.

“Fight her, Nick.” That was Kody. “Think of me, baby, and come toward my voice.”

Nick hesitated. It wasn’t in him to blindly follow anyone. “How do I know it’s you?”

“You know me, Nick.”

Yeah, but he wasn’t stupid. Any more than he was trusting. “If you’re really Kody, tell me where we met.”

“In school.”

That was a vague and safe bet. “Where in school?”

“In class, silly.”

He made the sound of a warning buzzer. “And for the million-dollar question … you’re absolutely wrong. No Nick for you, jerkweed!”

Now he was being cursed by a man’s gruff voice. In the back of his mind, he wondered if that might be Noir, but there was no way to know for sure. And he wasn’t about to ask since the last thing he wanted was for the dark god to get any kind of boost to his powers.

“Nick?”

He jumped at the sound of “Kody’s” voice right behind him.

A dull greenish light flared so that he could see her. Only …

His mind locked up over the way she was dressed. Her brown hair was pulled back from her face and held high on her head in an intricate braid, with the majority of her hair falling down her back. She had a leather halter with fringe hanging down the front and back. Her short leather skirt was also fringed and leather bands that held sheaths were wrapped around her arms and thighs. Along with another sword and sheath that she wore diagonally across her back.



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