Horrified by her tirade, Nick cut his eyes to Acheron, who was swathed in black from head to toe and whose hair fell to the center of his back. Not to mention the earring in his left lobe and the small stud in his right nostril.
Ash was the poster boy of what his mom had just condemned.…
His mom’s entire face flamed as she realized what she’d inadvertently said and implied about his friend. She turned to face him. “I didn’t mean it that way, Ash.”
Ash gave her a kind smile. “No offense taken, Mrs. Gautier. I’ve been called a lot worse and that was just a couple of hours ago.”
Still, his mother was mortified by her insensitive comments. “I have never, ever thought that about you. I know you’re a good man and I did not mean to imply otherwise.”
“Really, it’s fine. I’m not offended in the least,” he reiterated. “I dress like I do because I want people to leave me alone and cross the street when they see me coming. Everything you said to Nick about other people’s perceptions is correct and I back you one hundred percent.”
“It was still thoughtless and cruel, and I would never hurt you that way, Ash.”
Her features sad, she reached up and pulled Ash’s face down to hers, then kissed his cheek. “I think the world of you, and I’m glad you’re Nick’s friend.”
“Thank you … and on that note, I’m going to make myself scarce so that you can finish reaming your son without worrying about feelings I don’t have.” He grinned at her, then looked over to Nick. “I’ll see you tomorrow, slick. Try not to get into any more trouble between now and then.”
His mom didn’t speak until after Ash was gone, then she turned on him with a look that made him want to hold a crucifix up in front of his face to banish the evil coming toward him. “Now explain those clothes, boy, and what’s this I heard at work from Alex Peltier about you joining a band? A band, Nicky? Really?”
He shrugged. “It’s harmless, Mom. I thought I’d try something new.”
“Then try taking out the trash without me having to nag you for it. Make up my bed for me in the morning. Scrub out the tub and lower the toilet seat. I can think of a thousand things new you can do that wouldn’t make me want to spank you even though you dwarf me.”
“Mom … c’mon. I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re really overreacting to this. You know Alex and his entire family. He’s as clean-cut and upstanding as they come. I’m just playing the drums for him. It’s no big deal. As for my clothes … I hate those tacky used Hawaiian shirts, and I’ve told you that for years. Ash, Caleb and Kyrian, and Dev and dozens of other people wear black all the time. No one thinks anything about it. Really.”
She narrowed her gaze on him. “I want better for you, Boo. I spent my entire youth with people looking down on me and calling me trash.”
“I was there with you for it, Mom. I heard them, too. And I know exactly how you felt, and I promise you that those god-awful shirts you’ve forced me to wear have not spared me the wrath or insults of my fellow morons. If I have to be insulted, please let me do it in Dolce and Gabbana, and real suede loafers, rather than backyard tacky wear.”
Biting her lip, she nodded. “Okay. You’re right. You’re sixteen, and you have your own job that pays good money you work hard for. As much as I hate it, you are a man and not my little baby boy boo anymore. I just…” She broke off into a small sob.
He pulled her into his arms and held her tight. “It’s okay. I’m still your baby boy boo, but I don’t want the rest of the world calling me that. Just you.”
She laughed and squeezed him tight. “We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
“Two peas, you and me, as snug as bugs in a rug,” he said, quoting one of her favorite sayings from his childhood. Anytime he’d been sick or had felt bad about something, she’d scooped him into her lap and whispered that to him while she made him feel better.
God, he loved his mom so much.…
She sank her hand in his hair, then let go. “Have you eaten anything?”
“No, ma’am. I was on my way for food when…” He stopped as he realized what he was about to say. The last thing he wanted to do was start her crying again.
To his relief, she held it together. “I’ll go warm up something good for you.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll be in there in a second. First, I’m going to change into something without bloodstains.”
She growled at him. “You’re not funny.”
Without commenting on that, he returned to his room to find Caleb standing just inside his closed window. Sucking his breath in sharply, he quickly shut the door before his mom caught a glimpse of their home invader and had another hissy. “What are you doing here, C?”
“Checking on you.”
Nick scowled. Surely Caleb didn’t know about the mugging … did he? “Why?”
Caleb pushed himself away from the window and went to Nick’s desk. He pulled out the chair and straddled it. “Something weird is happening.… Your father’s dying.”
While he didn’t have a lot of feelings for his dad, that news shocked him. “What?”
Caleb nodded slowly. “He’s in bad shape. Are you the one killing him?”
“No!” he said emphatically. “What kind of fool question is that? Why would you let that thought even enter your head? Jeez!”
Caleb leaned forward to prop his arms across the back of the chair. “Because the only thing I know that can kill him is you.” He paused and then frowned as he noted Nick’s rumpled clothes. “Why are you covered in blood?”
“Real swift on the uptake there, Sparky. Glad I wasn’t hemorrhaging on the floor, needing help. With those keen powers of observation you possess, I’d have died ten minutes ago.”
Caleb snorted. “Don’t worry, punkin. I’d have cauterized the wound for you long before you bled out.”
“And you’d probably enjoy it, too.”
Caleb flashed a grin. “Not as much as I’d enjoy drinking your blood, but…” He sobered. “What really happened?”
“I got mugged at the Riverwalk.”
He let out a low whistle. “By a demon? A Daimon? Couch potato?”
Nick shook his head. “Humans. Alan and Tyree. They didn’t recognize me until after they had dropped a bead on me.”
Both of Caleb’s eyebrows shot north. “Are they still alive?”
“Alan is. Not sure about Tyree. I shot at him with Alan’s gun, and he ran off.”
After rising from the chair, Caleb closed the distance between them and grabbed Nick’s jaw in a fierce grip.
“Hey!” he snapped, trying to push him back.
He wouldn’t loosen his hold at all. After a minute, he sighed in relief and let Nick go. “He’s alive.”
Yeah, okay, that was a little creepy.
Nick rubbed at his now sore jaw. “How do you know?”
“You’re still yourself. If you’d killed a human, even by accident, and especially with malice, the Malachai would be in the process of devouring all your humanity.”
Nick gaped. “You’re just now telling me this?”
“It hasn’t been an issue until now. But with your father weak, it wouldn’t take much to convert you over.”
Nick was sickened by the thought. But at least it clarified one thing that had worried him. “So that’s why my blood turned blackish in the fight.…”
Caleb snapped to full attention. “What was that?”
Nick lifted his hand to show him his busted knuckles. “While we were fighting and I wanted to kill Alan, my skin changed and my blood darkened. It was really creepy and gross.”
Caleb cursed under his breath. “We have a bad situation here.”
He saw the hesitation in Caleb’s dark eyes. After a minute, he let out a slow, tired breath. “I’m not going to lie to you, Nick. Your father has royally screwed me, and I have no idea why I’m surprised by it.… But you remember when I told you that I’d have my freedom when he dies?”
“He’s bound me to his powers.”
Bemused, Nick wondered why Caleb was so upset about that. “I don’t understand.”
Caleb returned to his chair. “When a demon is enslaved, we are tied to our master’s life force. But a Malachai is a different kind of beast. Unlike others, their powers and life force are two separate, living things, so a Malachai can bind a demon to his lifetime or to the life of his powers. When he does the latter—”
Nick sucked his breath in sharply as he caught up to Caleb’s ire.”You will be enslaved to whatever takes over my father’s powers.”
Caleb touched his finger to the tip of his nose in a silent salute to Nick’s correct answer. “And because he has charged me with watching over you these past few years, I know who you are and where you live and sleep.”
“Nick … Think about it for a second. Go that extra step, past the obvious. If my next master bids me to bring you to him so that he can drain you, too, I will have no choice but to follow his orders and hurt you.… I will never again be free, and so long as I live, I am a huge threat to you. Now do you get it?”
He considered Caleb’s predicament a second, then came up with another alternative. “But if I take my father’s powers, I can free you, right?”
Caleb shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. Because of what Adarian did, I am and will forever be enslaved … unless the creature holding his powers is utterly destroyed.”
“Even if you die first?”
There was no missing the thick bitterness in Caleb’s dark eyes. “You know how Dark-Hunters turn into Shades when they die and live in eternal hell and misery?”
Caleb inclined his head. “Bingo. They’re not the only ones.”
Nick groaned in sympathetic pain for him. How awful. “Why would he do that to you? What’d you do?”
“He’s the Malachai, Nick. He’s completely incapable of caring about anyone or anything. I’m his tool and he did this to motivate me to find whatever is weakening him and kill it so that I won’t become their property.… But if you kill him while he’s weak, I won’t stop you from it.”
He made it sound so easy, but Nick knew better. “Caleb—”
Caleb lifted his hand to cut his argument off. “I know, Nick. It’s a risk for you. But either way, we’re both screwed. You cannot afford for whatever is killing him to get his powers and then come after you. You won’t be able to survive their attack.”
Raking his hands through his hair, Nick tried his best to think of something else, but he couldn’t. More than that, he kept coming back to one simple truth. “I’m not ready to be a Malachai.”
Caleb laid his head down on his folded arms. “We could try to bind your father’s powers as he dies. To lock them down so that they don’t hit you all at once. That way, we could take our time training you and expose you to them individually.”
Nick was highly suspicious. “Can it be done?”
He let out a high-pitched half laugh. “Theory, Caleb? Are you high? I don’t like that word. What if something goes wrong?”
“What if it goes right?”
“Oh yeah, that’s helpful … thanks, Cay. Throw some optimistic possibility into my face, why don’t you? ’Cause as we both know from much experience, nothing I try ever goes wrong.”
“Cut the sarcasm, Gautier.” Caleb sighed. “You’re right. Everything you touch goes nuclear in ways we never foresee.”
Nick nodded in agreement. But in the end, he knew that Caleb was right. If, God forbid, something else took control of Caleb’s slavery, Nick wouldn’t stand a chance against him.
And it wasn’t just that. Caleb was his friend. The demon had bled for him, multiple times. There weren’t many people Nick would put at his back.
Caleb was about it. And he wouldn’t hesitate to trust him. Ever.
“All right, Cay. Let’s say we try this your way. What would we have to do to bind my powers?”
A light of hope shined in Caleb’s dark eyes. “Don’t play with me, Nick. Not about this.”
Nick was aghast. “You know, we are friends. At least that’s how I think of you. Do you honestly believe I would be able to live with myself if I let someone hurt you after all you’ve done for me? Gee, thanks for the love, Malphas.”