Caleb rose slowly from the chair and moved to stand in front of him. The expression on his face said that he couldn’t even conceive of real friendship. That in his world, it was the most alien concept he knew. “I don’t know what to say to that … I haven’t had a friend since before human time began. At least not one who wouldn’t hesitate to betray me to save their own skin. And with you being a Malachai…”
“I’m not just a Malachai, Caleb. I’m a Gautier first and foremost, and Gautiers take care of their family. Always. And until you give me reason to think otherwise, we are brothers.”
Caleb froze as he heard a word no one had applied to him since the day he’d buried his wife.
Family. In his world, with the exception of Lilliana, family had just meant they were the first to offer you up as a sacrifice for whatever selfish thing they wanted.
And as he stared into Nick’s sincere gaze, he realized that he considered Nick a brother, too. That he would die to protect him. Not because Adarian had ordered it.
Because he finally believed Kody was right.
Nick wasn’t like the others before him. He had a soul and a heart. He cared about other people.
Against all odds and genetics, Nick was decent.
Caleb held his hand up to him. “Brothers in arms?”
“Brothers in arms,” Nick said, taking his hand and shaking on it. “Now, what do we need to do this?”
“Honestly? One hell of a miracle.”
Nick actually laughed at that. “Hey, boy, what are you? Blind?” He tapped at the religious medallion he always wore around his neck. “I’m Catholic. Miracles are our specialty.”
Caleb wished he shared Nick’s optimism about that. But as Nick had pointed out, everything they touched together blew back on them. And while he was grateful Nick was at least willing to try, there was a really good chance that they both could die while trying to bind a Malachai’s powers.
To his knowledge, there had never been a Malachai who was half human. In the past, they had always bred with demons, gods, and other preternatural beings. Creatures who had the strength and the stamina to withstand the weight of a Malachai’s preternatural strength. At least in the beginning.
But in time, one by one, they had all gone insane with it and become the worst sort of monster.
“Nick?” Cherise called from the kitchen. “Your food’s getting cold, baby.”
“Coming, Mom,” Nick said before he turned to face Caleb. “When do we do this?”
“As fast as we can. I don’t know how soon the creature who’s draining Adarian’s power will strike. We have to kill him before they do.”
Nick swallowed at those words, especially after what Ash had told him about killing someone.
And they had been talking about strangers then.…
Would Nick really be able to execute his own father? Granted, they weren’t close, but …
It was his dad.
His doubt was swallowed by the memory of what had possessed him when he’d confronted Alan. He’d not only been capable of it, he’d been relishing Alan’s pleas and cries of pain. Something that truly sickened him.
Conceived in violence to do violence.
Afraid of the destiny he was about to willingly step into, Nick reached up to rub his mother’s St. Nicholas medallion that she’d given him for Confirmation. The saint he’d been named for. While most folks only knew St. Nick as Santa Claus, Nick’s mom had made sure that he well understood why she’d named him for the medieval bishop. The name itself meant victory of the people. And St. Nicholas was the designated patron saint and guardian of children, women, innocents, and those who sought justice, and refuge from storms, as well as safe passage home.
May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.
Through the darkest nights and most dangerous of storms, St. Nicholas guide me safely back to the light and security of my family.…
And he would find his way home. There was no way he’d allow his father’s powers to corrupt or change him.
Nick clenched the medallion in his fist. I will not fail in this. While he might be a Malachai, he was also a guardian. Somehow, he was going to defy the odds that condemned him. And he would save the lives of those he loved.
Demonic laughter filled his head. Believe your lies, Malachai. But I will feast on your heart and use your powers to slaughter the very things you’re trying to protect, starting with your mother.
You don’t stand a chance.…
“You ready for this?”
Nick jumped at the sound of Ash’s voice in his room. He’d expected Caleb to be waiting for him after dinner. Instead, it was the Atlantean. “Jeez, you scared the crap out of me! What are you doing here?”
Ash held his hand up. There was a small piece of plastic between two fingers that he wiggled back and forth. “Didn’t think you’d want to wait.”
Nick frowned. “On what?”
Laughing, Ash held the card out to him. “You don’t play this game right.”
Nick took the plastic, then glanced down. He did a double take before he gaped at Ash. “No way!”
“You’re a Squire, slick. We tend to pull a few strings for you guys, and there’s no chance on this planet that I’m going to spend hours waiting at the DMV for you to get called and then possibly fail. I’ve done my time in hell. No more.”
Still, Nick couldn’t believe it. He held the license up to check it against the light. It looked authentic.… It even had a bad picture of him in a tacky shirt. “Is this real?”
“Absolutely. But the one drawback is if your mom changes her mind about you driving, it will be revoked. Until then, welcome to the world of grown-up responsibility.”
Nick could shout he was so excited. “This is so awesome. Thank you!”
“No problem.” Ash turned as if he was going to leave, then stopped. “By the way, you probably want to meet me outside for a few minutes.”
“Okay. I’ll be right out.”
Ash vanished while Nick went to ask his mom if he could run a couple of errands.
“Don’t be gone too long.”
“Won’t. Promise.” Nick left her on the couch and headed down to the street.
It took him a second to find Ash, who was a little ways down by a set of parked cars.
“So what do you need me to do?” Nick asked.
Ash handed him a set of car keys. “Just don’t hurt yourself, or anyone else.”
Nick scowled. Ash talked in more riddles than Nashira did. “Huh?”
Laughing, Ash shook his head and stepped back. He indicated the silver Jag he’d used for most of Nick’s driving lessons. “It’s all yours, kid. Enjoy.”
No way …
Nick couldn’t have been more stunned had Ash pimp-slapped him. In fact, he’d have expected that over this. But there was one small problem.… “You know my mom won’t let me accept this, right?”
“It’s a company car, for your personal use. Kyrian’s name is on the lease, but you’re listed as the primary driver on the insurance. When you graduate, we’ll sign it over to you.”
Letting out a loud whoop, Nick threw himself against Ash and hugged him. “I love you, man! You’re the best!”
Ash clapped him on the back. “I’ll see you later, kid.” He headed for Ursulines.
He turned to look back at Nick.
“Really … thank you!”
“Anytime. Just stay out of trouble.”
A sick feeling settled in his stomach as he watched Ash vanish into the darkness. Stay out of trouble.…
That had always been his plan, but trouble kept tackling him to the ground and sitting on his chest.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
He jumped at the sound of Caleb’s voice behind him. “Ash just gave me the keys to the car he’s been training me on.” He grinned like a moron. “I can drive!”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Nick slid the keys into his pocket, along with his license. “Now I get to find out, don’t I?”
“You do, indeed.” Caleb inclined his head toward the street. “You ready to do this?”
“Yeah, just don’t kill me tonight. I’ve got places to drive to later.”
Caleb laughed, then led the way over to Royal Street. They stopped in front of a store with long green shutters. Caleb had assured him that this store would have everything they needed to bind Nick’s powers so that they didn’t overwhelm him.… Erzulie’s Authentic Voodoo. His first impression of it was that it looked incredibly pink and purple, and extremely mainstream.
Frowning, he turned his head to Caleb. “How long has this store been here?”
Caleb shrugged. “It was here when I arrived in New Orleans.”
How weird. “So it’s been here for years.…”
“I’ve never seen it before.” And it was less than a block from Bubba’s Triple B and just down the street from his school. Not to mention, it was right next door to Sean Kelly’s Royal Street Deli where he’d eaten so many times, he couldn’t even begin to count them all. He must have walked past this place millions of times. So how had he not known it was here?
Caleb’s eyes widened.
That look didn’t bode well. “What?” Nick asked as a wave of trepidation filled him.
“Just thinking…” Caleb skimmed the street and buildings around them. “If you’ve never seen this place when it’s basically on the corner of St. Ann and Royal where we walk almost every day … something had it shielded from you.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that this place will be important to you one day, and that something was trying to keep you away from it.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad one?” Nick asked.
“No idea, which is what concerns me most.”
Not half as much as it concerned Nick. Unlike Caleb, he had no doubt it would be something bad. That was just the way his luck ran. “Should we leave, then?”
Caleb shook his head. “Can’t. I have to have the right supplies for the binding, and some of the ingredients are really rare … this is the best place to get them.” He stepped past Nick and opened the door.
Nick entered with a great deal of reservation, not sure what to expect of a store the universe hadn’t wanted him to see. Part of him expected to burst into flames the minute he crossed the threshold. But somehow he got inside without dying on the spot. He’d been to several Voodoo stores over the years. It was hard to live in New Orleans and not go in one at some point, if for no other reason, mere curiosity.
And this one was both similar and, at the same time, very different. On his left was a large Voodoo altar that encompassed the fireplace and was topped by a purple mantel. On top of the mantel was the typical warning not to touch or photograph the altar as it was a real place of worship.
Over bottles of wine, candles, beads, money, and flowers that people had left on the top shelf as offerings was a huge painting of a light-skinned woman who had a purple snake crawling up her left arm. The sign below identified her as Erzulie—the lwa of love and beauty that the store was named for.
Ah … now Nick fully understood the decor. That was why the store was so girly in appearance.… The whole place that bore her name paid homage to her. Made sense.
He turned to look around more. The wall on his right was lined with shelves of merchandise. Bottles of oils, spells, poppets, perfumes, lwas, soaps, fetishes, and all other manner of ritual items. There were small round tables with more oils, soaps, and perfumes lined up in the center. The back of the store had a screen and empty table along with two chairs for those people who wanted readings or other private Voodoo services.
A tall, brown-haired woman came out of the back, carrying a corrugated box of new merchandise. Beautiful and filled with grace, she was dressed in a pair of jeans and a purple sweater with bell sleeves. Her blue eyes lit up with joyful friendship as she saw them. “Caleb … it’s been a while, sweetie. How are you doing?”
“Hey, Ana. Pretty good.” He took the box from her hands and carried it to the counter so that he could place it next to her register for her to unpack.
“Thank you so much for the help.” Ana paused at the sight of Nick. “Can I help you?”
“He’s with me.” Caleb gestured between them. “Nick, meet Ana. Ana, Nick.”
“Hi,” Nick said quietly. There was something about her that was really familiar, but he couldn’t place it.