He saw his own horror mirrored in Caleb’s eyes, and while Caleb hadn’t seen the abuse, there was something Nick picked up on that said he’d either seen or experienced something very similar in his past.
“I can’t believe you stumbled onto an Aamon.” A tic worked in Caleb’s jaw. “They’re even less people- and demon-friendly than a Malachai.… And there weren’t that many of them to begin with, and even fewer of them who could still be alive today. Amazing.”
“I’m assuming from your tone of voice, they weren’t on your side of the war.”
“No. They were definitely on yours and I’m lucky I got away from him intact tonight. He must have wanted you badly to let me go before ripping my throat out.”
Nick laughed nervously. It was so much fun being the brass ring for hellmonkeys and jerks. “Here lately, everybody does.” Except for supermodels and hot babes.
Dang, if he had to be pursued and locked up, couldn’t it at least be by people he wanted chasing him? Women whose beds he wouldn’t mind being chained to for eternity?
Oh well. Life sucked and then they billed you for it. Kind of like how airlines charged you money before you got on a plane so that in the event they screwed up and killed you, they were already paid, and they wouldn’t have to give you a refund.
Nick sighed, then jerked his chin to the mess in his house. “So what happened here? Where’s my mom?”
Caleb visibly cringed. “You know as much as I do.”
And he should have cringed for giving that answer. Nick’s vision darkened as his fury coursed through him, and demanded Caleb’s heart for not protecting his mother. “What have you been doing while I was gone?”
His lip curling, Caleb raked him with a sneer. “Watching soap operas and picking belly lint out of my toes.… What the hell do you think I’ve been doing? I was making preparations to keep your sorry butt alive.”
“And to the devil with my mother and her safety?”
“Yeah, Nick. That’s exactly what I was thinking.” Caleb’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “’Cause I knew just how unhinged my lack of action would make you. My whole entire thinking process was how I could piss you off and make you go Malachai sooner rather than later. Ah, man, you so busted me.” With a grin that should be worn by a psychotic clown, Caleb clapped him on the back. “So tell me, Nick, did my brilliant thinking work?”
“You better be glad I don’t know how to Force choke you.”
Caleb actually took a whole step back from him. His anger wilted under a wave of actual fear. Now there was something Nick had never seen on Caleb’s face before. At least not where he was concerned.
“What happened to you?”
Nick calmed at the wary note in Caleb’s voice. What was he seeing when he looked at him? “I have to find my mother.”
“And you’re the only one who can.”
Nick scowled. “What do you mean?”
“It’s why I didn’t try to find her, Nick. She’s been taken out of this realm.…” He shot back another step as Nick lunged for him, then turned sideways, out of Nick’s immediate range. “She’s not dead. Sheez!” Caleb raised his hands and put an energy shield around himself to keep Nick from beating him. “Calm down and listen. She’s not my mother. I have no connection to her, which means no way to track her. Just as I couldn’t track you into Helheim. But now that you’re back, we can get her.”
Nick smacked his fist against the invisible wall protecting Caleb—who should be on his knees in gratitude that Nick couldn’t reach him right now. “Swear to me you’re not lying.”
“If I didn’t think we could get your mother back alive and whole, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be on my way to another hell realm ’cause I know her death would send you off into a massive piranha-style killing frenzy. And the longer you keep trying to rip my head off, the longer she’s staying gone.”
That succeeded in calming him. “Okay. How do we find her?”
Caleb visibly cringed.
Nick’s gut tightened instantly. “What?”
“Take a deep breath. Ride herd on your temper and don’t freak.”
Yeah, that really helped his temper. Like a kick in his head and a stomp to his stones. “What?”
“We need help to do this.”
The sick knot in his stomach twisted even tighter. “I’m seriously not going to like it, am I?”
“Nope. But we have to do it.”
Growling deep in his throat, Nick raked his hand through his hair. “Fine. What is it?”
Caleb’s gaze went over Nick’s shoulder to focus on something behind him.
Curious and suspicious, Nick turned, then froze. Dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans, Kody stood there, holding a small vial. His stomach shot south as bile went north.
“Oh hell to the no!” Nick snapped as he faced Caleb again. Furious, he gestured toward her. “She’s here to kill me. That is your solution? You’re like one of those generals who wants to put a house fire out with a nuclear bomb, aren’t you?”
“Don’t you Nick me, Malphas. You’re not my mother. I—”
“Nick!” Kody shouted, interrupting him.
Enraged over a tone of voice only his mother could get away with using, Nick spun toward her. “What!”
She closed the distance between them. “Breathe,” she said with a calmness he couldn’t fathom. “You have to let go of everything negative inside you. If you want to find your mom, you have to track her with your heart. You can only track her with your heart. Hatred destroys everything it touches—it will never allow you to build any kind of bridge from this realm to whatever one she’s been taken to. Your love of her is what will allow you to connect and find her.”
He looked back at Caleb.
“I don’t know how to use those powers, Nick. Like you, I was born for malice. It’s what feeds me.”
Nick swallowed as he finally brought his emotions under control. For his mom alone, he was willing to trust his enemy. “What do I need to do?”
She held her hand out to him.
His first impulse was to slap it away and curse her. But his mother was more important to him than his hatred of Kody. Forcing himself to stay calm, he took her warm hand. The sensation of her flesh touching his sent a heated wave through him. He’d forgotten how soft her skin was. How much she smelled like sunshine and roses.
Kody smiled up at him.
That and her touch succeeded in driving out his hate and anger. The loss of it was so sudden that it left him exhausted. Drained.
Kody pulled him against her and sank her other hand into his hair. Even though he wanted to hate her for what she’d come to do, he laid his head on her shoulder and allowed her to hold him against her. Ever so slowly, she rocked with him in her arms.
“Pax tecum,” she whispered in his ear, sending chills all over his body. Peace be with you.
“Et cum spiritu tuo,” he responded automatically. And with your spirit.
And when she placed a light, tender kiss to the side of his head, he found a realm of warm serenity that he’d never known before. It was like all was right in the world. Like nothing could harm him or upset him.
She stroked his back. “Ora pro nobis…”
With those words a dam inside him burst open. In one instant, he could see the fabric of the entire universe and everything in it. He heard the voices of millions of people who had lived and who were alive. It hit him so hard and fast that had she not been holding him, he would have fallen. Instead, her strength kept him balanced while her warmth kept him anchored firmly right here.
The ether screamed out as it did anytime he tried to access it for information. But where it was normally too overwhelming for him to navigate, tonight he fully understood how to find his way through it all. How to focus until he only heard the one voice he sought.
And yet he couldn’t find her. Nowhere … She was completely silent to him. His anger and panic started mounting, but Kody tightened her arms around him.
“Shh,” she breathed against his ear. “Stay calm. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.” As it was in the beginning, it is now and will be to the ages of ages.…
Once more, his anger dissipated. He heard the sounds of horrendous fighting coming hard and fast at him.
Afraid for his mother, he followed it. Only it wasn’t a battle for or about her.
He saw himself in his demonic form. His armor glistened in the dull light of a fading sun while he fought against an army that was determined to destroy every last bit of him and his troops. His soldiers pulled back to protect him. But it was too late.
He was about to be defeated.
Dumbfounded, he couldn’t understand how this had happened. No one had ever equaled him. Not even the Sephiroth. He’d killed his archenemy in a matter of minutes.
And then he saw his true nemesis. The one who had bled him and his men the most …
Their leader emerged from the midst of their number. Drunk on his impending victory, he called out to rally his soldiers and push them forward for the last attack.
Nick knew instinctively that if he killed their leader, they would scatter like frightened roaches. The humans would fall.
His eyes flashed red, then the same swirling silver as Acheron’s before he launched himself at the fool who’d left the safe shelter of his army. Focused solely on him, Nick ignored everything else.
He came down on top of the leader with his sword raised. Their weapons rang out as they clashed against each other. His enemy rained acid blood and fire down on Nick, who used his own powers to drive his enemy back. He met him stroke for violent stroke. To his credit, the man stood strong and he fought longer than anyone else had ever lasted.
The man might have even defeated him, but for one thing …
A sudden feminine cry of pain. His enemy’s attention turned from their fight to the smaller soldier several yards away. He kicked Nick back, then ran to her.
Assuring him she was safe, she ordered him to return to their fight.
He refused to go. “There is nothing I will not do to protect my family,” he said with a determination so raw, it reverberated all the way through the Malachai.
Fascinated by it, Nick watched the leader cradle her in his arms as if she were unspeakably precious … as if she weighed nothing at all. He picked her up and carried her, trying to get her far away from the danger. She clung to him as her blood ran down both their armored pieces.
It’d been so long since Nick had loved someone like that, that he tried to remember the emotion. But while he watched the two of them, it ignited his fury. How dare his enemy turn his back when there was a war to be fought!
Nick headed for him, dodging through the combatants around him, slaying any who dared to charge his path.
Unaware that Nick was coming for him, the soldier handed her off to another of his men. “Get her to safety. Do not let her die!”
He turned back to fight, but it was too late. Nick was already on him. He stabbed their leader straight through his worthless heart and drove him to the ground, where he planted his enemy with his sword pressed all the way through his weak human body. His enemy kicked and squirmed, but there was nothing he could do except die.
The woman screamed out as she fought against the man holding her. Stunned by it all, the soldier released her. Disregarding all danger, she ran to the fallen soldier.
“No!” she sobbed over and over again as she exposed his face. She laid her hand to his cheek and wept as if her entire world had been shattered.
He was dead and there was nothing she could do.
With the battle cry of a thousand Furies, she took the leader’s sword and ran at Nick to kill him.
He raised his arm and caught her blow, then shot a blast at her that knocked her helmet free.
Dazed but undaunted, she jerked her head back to glare at him. A pair of sharp, green eyes telegraphed her hatred from a bruised face he knew all too well.
Nick pulled back, wanting to flee a war he didn’t want to see anymore. Was it past or yet to be fought?
He didn’t have enough control of his powers to know for sure.
I killed what she loved.
Turning back to the scene, he looked down at the soldier he’d stabbed, and total shock floored him.
He’d killed himself.…
He was their leader. It was his face.…
Panic tore through him as he began to hyperventilate from the images that made no sense whatsoever. How could he be both people?
Safe in the present, Kody held him fast while her voice continued to offer him comfort and warmth. She laid her cheek against his. Her breath teased his ear and electrified his body.