Those words startled him. Ash rarely spoke about his past to anyone. “What was that like?”
Ash shrugged. “It was like being raised by strangers … People who don’t care what happens to you and who never have your best interests at heart. Mostly, it was really lonely.”
Yeah, he supposed it was. “So you never saw your parents at all?”
“Did they die?”
Ash snorted. “It’s a long story, Nick, and not a happy one, which is why I try not to talk about it. And it’s why I have a hard time whenever you bitch about a smothering mother I’d have sold my soul to grow up with. I know Cherise is hard on you at times, but there’s a difference between someone who’s genuinely worried about you and your future, and someone who’s punishing you for their own interests and perverse pleasure. Trust me.”
He’d never thought of it that way. “I’m sorry, Ash.”
“Don’t be. No matter how bad you think your life is, there is always someone out there with a story to make yours look grand in comparison. At least the people who were cruel to me weren’t really family. In my opinion, it would’ve been a lot worse if they had been the people who were supposed to love and protect me from harm.”
Nick nodded. “Sometimes, Ash, you irritate me. But honestly, I really appreciate the way you put things in perspective. It helps, you know?”
“That’s the one good thing about living so long … it definitely gives you time to reflect and see things you miss when you’re being assaulted with problems and are trying to get through a very finite life span.” Ash stepped back. “So where’s her car?”
Ash fell in beside him as they walked over to the parking lot where he and Casey had left the car.
“This was not the way this was supposed to turn out,” Nick said as he unlocked the car doors.
“That’s true of most days. So are you driving or me?”
Nick laughed. “I’ve had enough excitement for one day, Ash. I don’t think my heart could handle a trip through evening traffic with you behind the wheel.”
Grinning, Ash folded himself into the car while Nick got in and started it.
As he drove toward Casey’s house, the day’s events kept replaying in his head. But the one thing that he fixated on was how close he’d come to really killing Alan and Tyree. Yeah, he’d killed zombies, but they weren’t living people, and he’d banished demons, but …
“What’s it like, Ash?”
“What’s what like?”
Nick swallowed hard as he forced himself to ask what he needed to have an answer to. “Killing someone.”
Acheron hesitated as if reliving something brutal in his own past. “It sucks. For both of you. Especially the first time.” He paused for a second before he continued. “Savitar has a saying…”
Nick had never met Savitar, but from the way Acheron talked about him, he assumed the ancient being had been some kind of mentor to Ash over the centuries. And an extremely powerful one at that.
“When you first take someone’s life, two people die. The person you just killed and the human being you used to be. You’re never the same after that—it changes you forever and not in a good way—and no matter how hard you try, you can’t go back to the innocence you had. Ever.”
Nick turned left as he considered that. “So who was your first?”
Nick gasped at that most unexpected answer. Ash? Fratricide? Had he heard that correctly?
Surely not. Ash was a good guy. He would never take his own brother’s life. Would he?
No, not unless there was a really good reason for it.
“What was that?” He glanced over to Ash, whose face was completely stoic. “Why? How? Was it an accident?”
Ash let out a long, tired sigh. “Not an accident at all. Purely and ruthlessly meditated. I stabbed him while he was asleep in his bed.”
That hit Nick like a punch to his breadbasket. “How old were you?”
“Not much older than you are … Just a baby with a bad temper.”
Chills ran over him at the harshness of killing someone while he slept. Man, that was cold, and it was so out of Acheron’s character. “Why would you do something like that?”
Ash made a bitter sound before he answered. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.… Luckily, even though he died, they brought him back. But it didn’t matter. What I did was inexcusable. And in my heart, I knew I had killed my own brother for what was basically my own selfish reasons and jealousy. That I had looked right into his eyes when he awoke in pain, and I saw the shock, fear, and horror he felt as his life drained out of him and his warm blood covered my hand. I can still feel it sometimes … along with the shame and disgust I had as I realized I wasn’t the person I thought myself to be. In that one awful moment, I saw myself for what I really was—a heartless animal who deserved nothing but hatred. The reasons didn’t matter. They still don’t. And death, even when necessary and justified, will haunt you forever.”
Nick tried to imagine the emotions Ash was talking about, but really he couldn’t. And honestly, he was grateful for that mercy. There were some experiences no one needed to have.
“What about the Daimons you kill?” They were the demons who stole human souls to elongate their lives. If a Dark-Hunter didn’t find and kill the Daimon, the stolen human soul would die and be lost forever, giving their victim eternal torment. The only way to save the human soul was to kill the Daimon before they totally devoured it. “Surely you don’t care about killing them.”
“Nick … they are still living, breathing people and they don’t deserve the curse Apollo gave them over something their ancient ancestors did. They have families and friends they love, who love them back. People who will be torn apart by grief when they’re gone. Every sentient creature has plans and hopes for their future. And every one of them will look at you with terror in their eyes as they realize that the life they cherished is over and that they will never again see the people they love. It doesn’t matter how warranted their death is, you will still feel like shit afterwards, and wonder what kind of monster you are for doing what you did.”
Ash ground his teeth. “Whatever deserved hatred or indignation you hold toward them, or the heady rush of adrenaline that comes when it’s self-defense and you have no choice … it will wither beneath the tsunami of your guilt and self-loathing. In time, if you’re lucky, you will make peace with your actions, and while you’re awake, you might even convince your conscience that your actions saved others and were completely justified and sanctioned. But at night, when you’re asleep, or any time your unguarded thoughts travel without you, you will be haunted by their eyes and faces, and by the knowledge that your life was bought at the expense of theirs.… And that, little brother, will eat at you forever.”
“Is that why Kyrian seldom sleeps?”
“It’s why none of us sleep for very long.”
Nick gripped the wheel as he tried to come to terms with everything he’d learned and everything that had happened tonight. But what disturbed him was the fear that he wouldn’t always have the same humanity Acheron spoke of once the Malachai took him over. He just couldn’t see his heartless father being haunted by anything. “Do you think that’s true of demons, too? Of the Daimons who kill humans?”
“I know it’s true, Nick. And while there are rare exceptions of barbaric creatures who are truly without conscience or compassion, most are not.”
“But what if you’re born broken? What if your genes are so tainted that you have no choice except to be a killer?”
Ash shook his head wearily. “You have got to quit fixating on this, Nick. We all have a choice. Believe me. I was born out of the darkest corner of hell and inside me lives a vengeful beast that wants to lash out and destroy everything it touches, without hesitation or prejudice.”
That news floored him. Was it true?
“But you’re always so calm and relaxed.”
“I’ve learned to hide it well. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not there, just below the calm surface, salivating for the nearest jugular.… You are not your father, little brother. You will never be like him.”
If only he could make Ash’s conviction his own. “You’re the only one who thinks that.”
“It doesn’t matter what other people think. The only opinion that really matters is yours. We are all the writers of our lives. We can make our stories comedies or tragedies. Tales of horror, or of inspiration. Your attitude and your fortitude and courage are what determine your destiny, Nick.… Life is hard and it sucks for all. Every person you meet is waging his or her own war against a callous universe that is plotting against them. And we are all battle-weary. But in the midst of our hell, there is always something we can hold on to, whether it’s a dream of the future or a memory of the past, or a warm hand that soothes us. We just have to take a moment during the fight to remember that we’re not alone, and that we’re not just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for the people we love.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Ash laughed bitterly. “Most of the time. But, admittedly, there are many other times when I think I’m as full of bullshit as you do.”
Nick grinned even though he hated the way Acheron could see into his thoughts. “I appreciate the honesty.”
He paused as he let Ash’s words play through his thoughts for a minute. But for better or worse, he kept coming back to one basic fear.… “Ash, do you know what keeps me up at night?”
“At your age, I’d imagine thoughts of scantily clad women.”
Nick snorted. “How very stereotypical of you.”
“Hey, I was your age once, and I’ve known a lot more of us over the centuries. But honestly, I do know what you’re thinking. And I know what you hide from others. Deep inside, in places we don’t want to admit to owning, those of us who have sperm donors instead of fathers wish that once, just once, they would look at us like a father is supposed to look at his kid. That they would be proud to call us their children. And alongside that bitter desire we hate ourselves for feeling comes the fear that we’re going to be just like them one day, and that our children will hate us the way we hate them.”
“Yeah. Exactly. I don’t want to be my father.”
“You don’t have to be … there’s a scene in The Iliad that—”
“I weep at the modern educational system,” Ash said under his breath. Then louder, “It’s a story written by a man named Homer about the Trojan War.”
“Oh, I know that.”
Ash inclined his head to him. “There’s a scene in The Iliad when Hector is about to leave for battle where he’s talking to his wife, Andromache, and he reaches for their son, Scamandrius, who recoils from him because he doesn’t recognize his father while Hector is dressed in his armor. Hector laughs, then removes his helm and puts it on the ground so that Scamandrius can see his face. Then he soothes his son and prays aloud for him.…
“‘Zeus, all you other gods, grant that this child, my son, may become, like me, preeminent among the Trojans, as strong and brave as me. Grant that he may rule Troy with strength. May people someday say, as he returns from war, ‘This man is far better than his father.’
“That, Nick, is what everyone should strive for … not to be the same as our sperm donors, but better. Your father has shown you what you don’t want to be. Now it’s up to you to take the lessons he’s taught you and use them to do better. We should all try to leave the world a better place than what we found when we got here.”
Nick fell silent at those words for several minutes. That was what he wanted. When he died, he didn’t want the world to be glad to have him out of it. “Is that what happened with you?”
“That is for the world to decide. But I can tell you this. I try and I do my best every day. In the end, that’s all we can do.”
Nick considered that for the rest of the way as he navigated traffic.
He parked the car in front of Casey’s house. There wasn’t a light on inside the sprawling mansion at all. It looked completely deserted. “Do you think her parents have been notified?”
Ash went still as if he were listening to the ether. After a few seconds, he nodded. “They’re on their way to her.”