Her precious Nick was completely lost now. There was no part of him or Ambrose left. After all this time of his fighting his true nature, only the monster Malachai inhabited his beautiful body.
Tears streamed down her face as she fought for self-control. She couldn’t make a sound or he’d find her and kill her, just as he’d done the rest of her family.
Pressing her trembling hand to her lips to keep herself silent, she wanted to scream in horror and grief as her guilt mounted. She was a goddess. Why hadn’t she been able to help him maintain his control?
She gasped at the low whisper of someone she’d thought was long dead. She glanced behind her to see an ancient god of Order. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to save the world.”
“You’re too late.”
“In the most hopeless of hells, there is always one thing that remains. One thing that cannot be killed unless it decides to die on its own and is surrendered by the one who possesses it.”
The indomitable human spirit. Mankind’s greatest gift and its worst curse.
It was the only thing that not even the gods could defeat.…
Order offered her a smile. “So long as one human has it, we can stop any evil. No matter how strong and powerful we think it is.”
Artemis wanted to believe that … she wanted to have hope again, but she knew better. “There are no humans left.”
“Never underestimate the survival of man or his capacity to sacrifice himself for what he loves most.” Order held a hand out to her. “We still have one small chance to stop the Malachai. Are you with me, little sister?”
Artemis hesitated. The one thing Acheron had taught her … Even the most minuscule of chances could be turned into a great victory. All you needed was to find the courage inside to try for it.
But she was so scared. What if she failed? Right now, she was alive. If she stuck her head out of this hole, she could die.
She could lose everything.
No, she’d already lost everything. What she had in this hole wasn’t living. And while survival had its place, sooner or later every creature deserved to have more than just meager, fearful survival.
They deserved to live.
If only it was as easy as it sounded, but life took courage. And I am not courageous. She’d never been such. Acheron had been right about that. She had always put her own well-being over those she loved. And what had it gotten her?
You are alive.
Yes, she had her life, but at what cost? She couldn’t even face herself in mirrors anymore, because every time she met her own gaze, she knew what she’d done, and she couldn’t hide from her conscience.
You can’t change the past. But she could change the future. And she could change the present.
For the first time in her existence she found the one thing she’d never known she had.
Taking Order’s hand, she nodded. “Let us undo what has been done.”
* * *
Nick growled as he tried again to break free. “I won’t be held by you!” he screamed out, hoping Hel could hear him. And he meant every word.
Gautiers didn’t back down. They didn’t give in.
And no one would ever defeat him. Not even a goddess.
He kicked the bars even though it bruised his feet and legs and jarred every inch of him.
“Shut up,” he snarled at himself. “I don’t want your negative crap! If you can’t help, get out of my head.”
All of a sudden, he heard someone approaching. Crouching low, he prepared himself to fight who or whatever it was.
“Bring it, punk.”
A huge dark something lumbered slowly into his jail, casting a massive shadow on the wall. That was enough to make a half-grown demon wet his pants.
Nick backed up, tense and alert.
As quickly as it’d grown to the size of the Empire State Building, the shadow shrank down to show it was the wolf returning. Nick expected him to head for his post. Instead, he limped on three legs, dragging his forward left one, toward Nick’s cage.
Panting hard and covered in foamy white sweat, blood, and scratches, the wolf paused outside the door to stare at Nick. There was a gash above his left eye and the pain in his gaze was searing. It held Nick spellbound. And as they continued to stare at each other, the wolf turned back into his human form. Nick grimaced at the depth of the cut that ran along his brow. He needed stitches. Badly. The entire left side of his face was horrifically bruised, and his nose and lips were bleeding like crazy. His left arm was broken and twisted. He appeared so worn-out and defeated that Nick couldn’t understand how he kept from collapsing on the floor again.
Before Nick could recover from his shock at seeing him like that, the wolf opened the door.
“Go,” he whispered, gesturing toward the back side of the cave. “There’s a small, narrow path that will lead you through the mist of shrills. They cannot hurt you unless you listen to them. Ignore whatever it is they say and stay on course. Move as quickly as you can. At the end of the path, you will emerge into a room that contains several doors. There you’ll have to choose your way home. But beware, the easiest is the hardest and the hardest isn’t as bad as you think.… And one of those doors will lead you to your death.”
“How will I know which is death?”
The wolf winced as if a wave of pain went through him. “The paths are different for each of us. And you won’t know if you’ve picked the right one until it’s too late. But only you can decide which one takes you home.” He stepped back and fell to the floor.
Nick went to him, but the wolf shoved him away with a snarl.
“Why are you helping me?” he asked, trying to understand the wolf’s sudden turnaround.
“I have no idea. I guess Hel and the others are right. I am stupid.”
No, he was a hero. “C’mon,” Nick reached for his right arm, “we can get out of here together.”
He shook his head. “You have to travel alone. It’s the only way you’ll make it. Besides, if I go with you, I can’t hold Hel and her hounds back from your trail.”
“Bud, no offense, but you don’t look like you could hold a caterpillar back in your current condition.”
He met Nick’s gaze and the fire in those purple eyes belied the pain that also burned there. “I’m stronger than I look. Now go before it’s too late.”
“What will happen to you when she finds out you’ve freed me?”
He laughed bitterly. “Look at me, kid. What more can she do?”
Kill him. Torture him. With the gods, there was no telling.
Guilt reared up and bit Nick hard. “I can’t leave, knowing you’re going to be punished for helping me. What kind of dickhead do you think I am?”
“Sometimes we have to make hard choices, and I am nothing to you.”
“You’re not nothing. You’re a hero to me. The man who saved my life.”
The wolf scoffed. “Definitely not a man. I’m just a stranger and you have family who needs you. Go save your mother, and remember, so long as you follow your true heart, you will never make a bad choice.”
Just as the wolf stayed here to save his sister. He understood family the same way Nick did. “Thank you.”
The wolf didn’t respond.
Reluctantly, Nick headed for the small opening. Just as he reached it, the wolf called out, “Nick?”
He paused to look back to see the wolf lying on top of the blanket. “Yeah?”
“Thank you for your gifts.”
“Anytime.” Inclining his head to the wolf, Nick wedged his body through the narrow slit.
As he stepped onto the path, he considered their last exchange. The wolf was right. He was a complete stranger. Nick knew almost nothing about him.
Except for one all-important thing.
The wolf had given Nick a chance when no one else had. For that, he would always owe him. And he wouldn’t squander the wolf’s sacrifice. He promised himself he would make the most of this.
More determined than before, Nick started down the dark, terrifying path. The air here was so cold that it set his teeth to chattering. It was so freezing even his bones ached. Who would have thought that there was something that could make his cage look desirable?
Leave it to Hel …
Closing his eyes, Nick used his powers to set fire to his hands.
It didn’t work. Not even a tiny spark …
Ah, man, this sucked. For one heartbeat, he actually considered going back so that he could at least see something other than the oppressive darkness that made his eyes ache. But he knew what waited for him there. And it was neither pleasant nor desirable.
Yeah, and what’s in front of you might eat you.
True. If his standard luck held, it would most likely be a whole lot worse. Whoever had come up with the saying “out of the frying pan and into the fire” had definitely met him in a former life. They must have been best friends.
With the hardest challenges go the greatest rewards. He scoffed at that thought. Caleb’s words offered about as much comfort right now as a good eye-gouging. And yet as stupid as they were, Nick clung to them and trudged forward, hoping with everything he had that Caleb hadn’t been lying about that.
That maybe once, just once, fate would work in his favor and not against him with a grudge match that seemed to take every breath he drew as a personal insult. Holding his hands out in front of him, Nick tried to feel for a wall or something solid, but the only thing was the ground beneath his feet.
As the wolf had warned, he was completely blind about where he was heading. He could see nothing at all. Just an unending hall of darkness that smelled like the underbelly of a turd monster. There was also a strong popping sound that he couldn’t identify.
Suddenly, something caught against his toe and tripped him. Nick belly flopped on the ground so hard that it knocked the breath out of him. For a moment, he couldn’t move as the pain racked him hard.
When he went to stand, his foot slipped on the ice and he slid sideways.…
Into absolute nothing.
Nick grabbed on to the ground as hard as he could while his body dangled over a cliff. Crap! His right hand slipped and he almost lost his left-hand grip. Terrified, he scrambled to get both of his arms on the correct side of the ledge. Finally he managed to stop sliding, but he was still dangling over the edge of … sudden death?
The wolf had neglected to warn him about this.
His heart thumped against his breastbone so hard it felt like it might come through it. He knew he needed to pull himself up, but honestly he was terrified to even try. What if he slid again and couldn’t catch himself?
How far away was the ground?
A few inches, not so bad. A few feet, doable. A few yards?
His arms ached from the strain of holding his body’s weight. He wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer. Scared or not, he’d have to try.
Bracing himself, he remembered the chant for strength Nashira had given him from his grimoire.
Give me strength …
Beyond my sight.
He whispered the words, over and over, focusing on those instead of his fears and doubts. Grinding his teeth, he swung his leg up and caught the edge of the path with his heel. It took every bit of strength he had to lift his body up and roll back onto solid ground.
Weak, panting, and shaken, Nick lay on the walk and listened to the darkness while his heart continued to pound hard in his chest. That had been a lot closer to death than he’d wanted to come. Determined not to repeat that fall, he felt along the darkness until he found a small rock. At least he hoped that’s what the smooth round object was.
Crossing his legs to make sure he didn’t accidentally stumble, he remained seated and threw it over the edge where he’d fallen.
For several minutes he heard nothing.
Not until it finally hit the bottom. The instant it did, lightning flashed all around, illuminating the entire cavern. Holy mother of God …
He was sitting on an extremely narrow ice walkway with giant stalactites suspended over him by the narrowest of bases. Bases that were melting fast and cracking …
That was the source of the popping sounds he heard. If one of those were to fall, it would impale him like a sharpened stake.
In the water far below were ugly, humongous reptilian sea monsters that glided along the black surface. Nick couldn’t breathe as he realized just how much danger he was in, from everything around him.
“I’m going to die.”
You didn’t really think the journey would be easy, did you? Nick cringed at his mother’s favorite taunt whenever things got bad for them.
“Get out of my head, Mom. I don’t have time for your lectures right now.”