After a few seconds, the beast entered through a small opening in front of the cave. Black as the darkness around them, it was a giant wolf. And the moment it turned to look at him and Nick saw its luminescent purple eyes, he realized it was the same one that had attacked Caleb.
Oh, this can’t be good.…
Limping and bleeding, it approached his cage so that the beast could sniff it. Worried about Caleb, Nick bit his lip. While it appeared Caleb took a chunk out of the wolf, the fact that it was here and alive, and Caleb wasn’t, didn’t bode well for his friend.
It bared its bloodied, sharp teeth, then growled and snarled at Nick as if trying to reach him through the bars.
“Get back!” A loud whip cracked across the wolf’s back, causing it to recoil and howl, then snap at the leather cord. “Back, I said!” Two more lashes landed on it before the wolf backed down and limped over to a steel post that was embedded into the cavern wall.
Nick stared at the trail of smeared blood staining the ice in the wolf’s wake. He’d feel bad for the creature had it not eaten Caleb.
At least that was his thought until the wolf collapsed and then turned into a guy who didn’t look all that much older than him. He had thick, wavy dark hair that fell to his shoulders and a couple days’ growth of beard. Completely naked, he lay with his back to Nick. Scars marred almost every inch of him. Most were from a whip, but many others were bite marks, knife wounds and bullets.
Ignoring Nick and his cage, the woman who’d beat the wolf down approached the wolf slowly as if expecting him to get up and attack her. When she was almost within arm’s reach, she transformed her whip into a long, bladed staff. A blade she used so that she could poke him. She even went so far as to lift his face up with it.
He didn’t move.
Finally satisfied that he wasn’t playing opossum, she raised her hand toward the post. A chain materialized and then crawled over the ice to the man and looped itself around his neck to keep him there.
Only then did she turn to face Nick.
His breath caught in his throat. Around his mother’s age, she was exquisite and ethereal. Long, white-blond hair fanned over a body that should be gracing magazines that would have him grounded for life if his mom ever caught him reading them. But from the waist down, she had the legs of a rotting corpse. One that came complete with the smell of the back end of an unwashed yak.
“So you are the Malachai.…” She sounded disappointed.
Good. Maybe she’d let him go. “Who are you?”
Not quite afraid of her, but rather apprehensive, he arched a brow. “Isn’t it a little cold to be hell?”
She laughed at that. “Not your hell, moron. I am the goddess Hel and this is my realm, Helheim.”
Helheim he knew from playing Dungeons and Dragons with Madaug and his friends. Hel … he’d never heard of before. But Madaug would probably be able to recite an entire dissertation on her, her family, and any insect she’d ever met. Even better, Madaug would most likely know what, if any, weakness she had. Remind me to never make fun of him again for his bank of useless information.
Nick stood up to face her. “Why am I here and what have you done with my mother?”
“I know nothing of your mother. I care nothing about your mother. Just as I care nothing for you. You are only a means to an end for me. And as soon as I get what I want, I don’t care what they do to you.”
He threw one of his fireballs at her.
She stopped it with a blast of ice that shattered it midair. “Instead of attacking me, boy, you should be grateful.”
“Grateful for being locked in a cage?”
“Grateful you’re alive. According to my hound, you were almost dead when he pulled the harvester off you.”
Nick’s pulse quickened. Finally someone who knew what one was.… Though to be honest, he’d have rather found the definition online. “Harvester?”
“Soul-eaters. They are sent to destroy anyone who is born of evil.” She walked a small circle around his cage. “Hard to believe something as puny as you is worth the life of a captive god.”
Before he could respond to that, she vanished.
“I’m not puny!” Nick shouted after her. While he might be thin and gangly, he was over six feet tall. Not puny by any standards.…
Sitting down, he turned his attention to the passed-out wolf, who was still bleeding all over the place. So the thing that ate his best friend had saved his life.… Nick wasn’t sure what to think about that.
Not that he really cared. While he didn’t like the thought of Caleb being hurt or dead, the one thought that scared him the most was his mother. What had happened to her?
Maybe Kyrian had made it in time and was now keeping her safe. It was his only hope, and he intended to latch on to it with both hands.
And his teeth.
* * *
Hours went by as Nick tried every power he could to escape his cage. Nothing worked. As usual, the universe mocked his attempts with a dose of ineptitude that made him wonder why the heck he kept trying when he should just lie down and think of porn princesses like a normal teenage boy.
Dang you, Caleb, for your twisted pep talks. They kept him going even when it was stupid.
Frustrated, he fire-blasted the door again with both hands. The flames hit it, then rebounded back and singed both the hair on his head and that on his arms.
Beautiful. I smell like a burned sewer rat.
Hey, Casey, want to go eat dinner with me now?
“You’re wasting your time.”
Nick jumped at the deep, heavily accented voice. Turning, he saw that the wolf was awake and staring at him with those luminescent purple eyes.
“I thought you were dead.”
Ignoring Nick’s comment, the wolf lifted up a corner of the thick, warm blue blanket that covered him. “You?”
“Yeah, I was going blind from the sight of your naked hairy butt.”
One corner of his mouth twitched as if he started to smile then caught himself. “And the pillow?”
Now it was Nick’s turn not to comment. No need in letting him know that even though he’d most likely eaten Caleb, Nick had felt sorry for him. Not to mention, the wolf was really lucky Nick’s powers had worked and not turned him into a goat or something.
But now that the wolf was awake, there was one question Nick was desperate to have an answer for. “Did you kill Caleb?”
“The daeve you were with?”
Nick’s relief came out as a sharp burst of breath. He hadn’t realized just how upset he’d been at the thought of Caleb dying while protecting him until just this second. “Looks like he got a pretty good chunk of you.”
The wolf glanced away, then ran his hand through his dark, wavy hair. He grimaced as he saw the blood on his hand from an injury he must have had on his head. To his credit, he was handling the pain really well.“I’m Nick, by the way.”
The wolf wiped the blood off on his leg. “I know.”
He waited for the wolf to offer his name in turn, but after a few minutes he realized that the wolf had no intention of it. “You have a name?” Nick prompted.
“I don’t remember it.”
Scowling, Nick snorted. “You’re joking, right?”
He shook his head, killing every last bit of Nick’s humor. Wow … Did he have amnesia or something else?
A really bad suspicion went through him. “How long have you been here?” Nick asked.
He cast an irritated frown in Nick’s direction. “Why do you talk so much?”
The deepened scowl on his face said that he had no idea what Nick was talking about. Which meant he’d been trapped here for a minimum of several hundred years.
“You don’t get out much, do you?”
That went right over the wolf’s head. Without a word, he dragged himself over to the wall and licked at the ice.
Yuck. Nick shuddered. “What are you doing?”
He licked for a few more seconds before he wiped his hand over his mouth. “I’m thirsty.”
“Dude, really? Couldn’t you have just waited until they brought us water?”
“They don’t bring water to us in here. You get what you scrounge for.”
Nick’s jaw went slack. “They don’t bring us food?”
He shook his head.
Uh-uh. No way … He refused to believe what the wolf was telling him. “Dude? Seriously?”
“We are immortal. We don’t have to eat.” The wolf’s rumbling stomach denied that. It was so loud, Nick could hear it from across the room.
It made his own stomach cramp for food. “Oh no, no, no, no. This ain’t gonna work. I have to have three squares a day. Comprends?”
“I don’t know that language.”
Nick frowned. It’d been English but for one word. “Food. I’m talking about food. What do we do when we’re hungry?”
“Sometimes animals wander in. If they get close enough, we have food.”
“Dude, why you live there, then? Tell you what … You get me out of here and I’ll buy you the best meal you’ve ever had. We’re talking etouffee, andouille, and gumbo so good you’ll slap ya mama for it.”
“Do you think I’d be here if I had a choice?” the wolf snarled viciously.
That baffled him. The wolf had been free in New Orleans and no one had been holding his chain when he came in here earlier. “You were out of here and free, why on earth would you come back?”
He scowled at Nick as if he didn’t understand the question.
But his confusion enlightened Nick, who finally understood. “Oh … you’re like Caleb. You’re enslaved.”
“No. Not enslaved. I made a bargain. I am here so that my sister is not.”
“Then get up and leave, and take my butt with you.… Please.”
The wolf shook his head. “My sister would have to serve in my stead, and she is not as strong. She wouldn’t last a week here.”
“While I admire your devotion, that is whacked, and it makes me really glad I’m an only child. But since you love her so much, then you’ll understand that I have to get out of here and find my mother, okay? I’m pretty sure she’s in bad danger.”
The look on his face said that he had no idea what Nick was talking about. It was like the concept of a mother was completely alien to him.
A deep, frightening level of ferocity came over him at the male shout that cut through their cavern and rebounded off the walls. He immediately transformed back into the wolf. Crouching low, he backed up against the wall, ready to pounce on whatever was coming toward them.
“Where is he?” another male voice demanded.
Nick frowned as a giant man came storming into their corner. He drew up short the instant he saw Nick. “Who are you?”
“Balder? What’s taking so long? I have a wager to win.”
“Coming.” Balder went to the chain that held the wolf captive and jerked it from the wall.
The wolf went crazy, snarling and fighting against him as Balder jerked and dragged him toward the entrance. “Save your energy for the ring, dog.”
Nick wasn’t sure what they were about to do with him, but he had a pretty good idea. And judging from the way the wolf did everything he could not to be dragged out of here, he knew exactly what was waiting for him.
Poor guy. It had to be terrible.
But the one thing that event rammed home with vicious clarity was what would be done to Nick if Noir ever got ahold of him, and what Caleb’s fate could be in the hands of another master.
It was a sobering thought. And it spurred Nick to renew his fight to get out of this cage as fast as possible. These people were nuts and the last thing he wanted was to be a part of their sick, twisted world.
“I’ve got to get home…” Nick glanced around, then decided to go for broke. “Ambrose!” he shouted, trying to summon his future self. “Boy … answer me! I don’t care how crazy you are. I need your help and I need it now!”
Always in the past, Ambrose had come when he called. If not physically, he’d talked to Nick in his head. But Nick hadn’t heard from him in days.
What the heck was going on?
The distant future
Terrified and shaking, Artemis hid in the same crevice she’d once used to play hide-and-seek with her brother Apollo, countless centuries ago, when they’d been young and naive.… Back when theirs had been the most powerful pantheon that ruled. Never in those long-ago days had she dreamed that she’d be hiding here to save her own life.