Stunned to silence, Caleb couldn’t move as those words sank in. It wasn’t possible. How could Nekoda be …
“You’re her daughter?”
And then he saw it. Before his eyes, Kody changed from her current pink tee and jeans into the leather armor the women of her mother’s army wore. Her hair was lighter than her mother’s and she was shorter. But the features were the same. Especially the shape of her eyes and lips. The shapely build of her body.
No wonder Kody had been so fearless in their fights. Her mother was the original goddess of Order and Justice.
Clasping his fist to his shoulder, he fell to one knee before her and lowered his head. “I pledged my eternal troth to your mother … and I would die for you.”
Kody felt tears sting her eyes at Caleb’s sincerity. “Out of my mother’s generals, you were the one she prized above all others. The one she trusted most.”
He rose up to tower over her again. “Then why didn’t you trust me?”
“Too many centuries have passed. You’ve spent a long time in captivity to a monster who still holds sway over you. Both of those can change even the strongest and most steadfast heart.”
“It hasn’t changed mine.”
“I know. I should have told you sooner. But I didn’t dare. Not while my orders conflicted with yours.”
Caleb turned suspicious at that. Bathymaas had always been about right and justice over murder. She would never condone the murder of even an innocent Malachai. “Your mother sent you to kill him?”
“No. The powers I serve did. It is because of my mother that I haven’t.”
That made sense. “You’re judging him.”
She nodded. “I don’t see the monster yet. Therefore I can’t justify taking his life.”
“And your love of him has nothing to do with it?”
Her face turned bright red.
“Don’t deny it,” he said, cutting her off when she opened her mouth to speak. “I can see it as plainly as a flare over an open sea at midnight.”
She sighed wearily. “When I was sent to kill the Malachai before he took all of his father’s powers, I wasn’t expecting to find Nicholas Gautier.”
“Yeah, me neither.” Caleb narrowed his gaze at her. “So what do we do?”
“Right now? We find him and save him. Then we will see.”
Such sweet ambiguity with life, death, and fate …
Kody was definitely not her mother.
* * *
Instinctively, Nick threw his arms out as he was about to slam into the ground. The moment he did, his wings came out and spread themselves wide, lifting him up and away from the pavement.
Oh my God …
Forget driving, this was the most incredible thing he’d ever done. Until his wing clipped a wire and he careened sideways. He caught himself an instant before he stained the side of a building.
“This is awesome!” he shouted, then glanced around to make sure no one had seen his outburst. The last thing he wanted was to look stupid while doing something so very badass.
Ah yeah … this was living.
“Come get me now!” he dared his enemies.
The words had barely left his lips before someone shot a ball of fire at him. He jerked away from the blast, too fast and too far. Unused to his wings, he didn’t have the best control. So he ended up slamming into another building.
Yeah, that was going to leave a mark.
I’ve got to get away from these things.
Nick headed out for the Mississippi River. There, he’d only have to avoid bridges.
Why do you choose to suffer?
Nick slowed as the voice rang out in his head. “I don’t.”
“Then why do you not join us? You are a Malachai. You don’t have to put up with anyone insulting or belittling you. Ever. You have the power to be anything you want. To have anything you want.”
“Fine, then. If that’s true, there’s only one thing I desire. I want to go home!”
“Why? Explain to me the mind of someone who chooses to go where no one wants them. I have seen how they treat you. What makes you desire that?”
Nick slowed even more as those words hung in his head. You know, the freaky voice has a point. Why did he want to be put down by others? Was he not abused enough as a kid?
But that was childish, he suddenly realized. There are two sides to everything.
It was Ash’s wolf story.…
“What you are focused on are my nuisances,” Nick told the voice. “And I have no desire to see them.”
“Then stay and never be insulted again.”
Nick laughed as he finally understood the point of this journey … and the way home. The wolf had given it to him.… “You know the answer. You wrote it in my notebook.
“It can be stolen, but never bought.
“It can be given, but never taken.
“It can be stepped on, but cannot walk.
“It can fly, but has no wings.
“It can sing, but has no voice.
“It can be broken, but still it works.
“It can be left, even while it follows.
“And though it’s easily commanded, it can never, ever be demanded.”
The shadow fluttered in front of him with an arched brow. “Do you know the answer?”
Of course he did. “My heart.”
The shadow appeared impressed. “In all these centuries, you alone have learned our riddle.”
“Does that mean I can leave?” Nick asked hopefully.
The scenery faded until they were again in the dark cavern. But this time, there was only the one door that had no window. The phantom lowered itself to the ground to tower over him. “When you are ready, you may go.”
Nick headed straight to it. “Don’t have to tell me twice.”
Hesitating, he looked back at the spirit. I seriously hate that word. “Yeah?”
“You can stay here where you will be respected and feared by all. Where no one will ever dare to mock or belittle you. The choice is yours.”
“I already gave you my choice. I want to go home.”
The door opened. But instead of being elated, Nick was duly cautious.
Was it another trick?
With your luck? Why should you doubt it?
Yet for once, he decided to go with faith and to follow his heart like the wolf had said. Bracing himself, just in case, he walked through the door and ended up right where he’d started.
Outside his condo.
You’re messing with me, right?
Nick scanned the street. It was a lot darker now and so quiet it was downright spooky. But that didn’t matter. He had to let his mom know he was safe.
Opening the iron door to his building, he rushed in and sprinted up the stairs. When he got to their condo, the door wasn’t quite pulled to. A wave of furious fear rushed through him.
His mom would never leave the door ajar. Not for anything. She was so paranoid, she even locked her bedroom and bathroom doors.
“Ma?” he called, pushing it open cautiously.
Stopping dead in his tracks, he surveyed the damaged living room. But it was the blood on the floor and ceiling that he couldn’t stop staring at. Was it his mother’s?
That very thought terrified him.
“Mom!” he called, running to her bedroom, hoping she might be safely locked in there.
She wasn’t. It was as empty as his heart. And it was just like Ambrose had warned him. He had put his mother in harm’s way and when she needed him most to protect her, he hadn’t been here.
How could I do this to her?
Unable to stand the pain and guilt, he turned with the intention of finding Caleb and then hunting down his mother’s whereabouts so that he could kill who or whatever had taken her.
Summoning Caleb to his side, Nick knew he’d changed somehow. He could feel it with every molecule of his body. He was stronger and more confident now. More sure about his powers. That cave and his walk home had done something strange to him. Like some inner cosmic switch had been flipped into overdrive.
But he didn’t have time to investigate it. Not while his mother was missing.
“Caleb!” he shouted.
To his relief, Caleb finally appeared in Nick’s living room by his side.
His gaze suspicious, Caleb raked a slow stare down his body. “It is you. Right?”
What kind of question was that? “Who did you think was calling you?” Nick asked sarcastically.
Caleb shrugged. “Had no idea. I knew it wasn’t your father, and though I suspected it was you … you’ve been missing, I didn’t want to pop into a bad situation, blind. So I dragged my feet a little.”
Nick could forgive him that, especially after having seen the wolf and what real captivity could mean for demonkyn. Caleb had a right to be cautious.
Sliding closer to him, Caleb cocked his head as he gave Nick a piercing stare. He looked like he was ready to bolt or fight if Nick made any wrong or sudden move. Part of Nick wanted to say “boo” to see how high the demon would jump in fear. Only respect for Caleb’s quick and deadly overreactions kept his impulse under control.
“What has happened to you?” Caleb asked.
Had his skin turned green? While Nick could feel an inner change, he wondered what Caleb saw on him that made his friend so skittish and hesitant. “What do you mean?”
Caleb took Nick’s chin in his hand and turned Nick’s head so that he could examine him carefully. “You look the same, but you’re different. I can feel it in my gut. You’re more powerful than you were before. Where did you go?”
“Hel,” Nick said bitterly.
Caleb started to roll his eyes, then caught himself as if he realized Nick wasn’t being a smartass for once. He let go of him immediately. “You mean Helheim?”
“You know it?”
“Not personally, but I’ve met a few of its residents over the centuries. Wonderful creatures … if you don’t mind lunatics and serial killers.”
“Yeah. Definitely not a place I’d recommend for a vacation, unless you’re into gruesome and royally screwed up … kind of like high school, only colder.”
Caleb ignored that last bit. “Why were you there?”
“Hel had me Nicknapped so that she could use me as a bargaining chip. Good to be me, eh?”
Caleb ignored his thick sarcasm. “With whom was she bargaining?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t say, and I wasn’t there long enough to find out. I figured it didn’t matter who wanted me, it was better to get away and think about the other later.”
Caleb laughed. “Wise choice. But how did you get free? And don’t you dare tell me it was because you’re too cute to keep.”
He’d been around him too long when he started knowing Nick’s stock sarcastic retorts. But Caleb was right, they didn’t have time to waste on it. “One of her servants let me go.”
Caleb frowned. “Why would one do that?”
“I really don’t know. Didn’t care. Wanted to get home, but if I had to guess, I think it was more an act of defiance on his part to get back at her and to piss her off.”
He laughed. “Then he must have been a demon.”
“Why?” Nick asked.
“We’re the only ones stupid and strong enough to defy our masters so blatantly.”
That explained a lot about Nick’s congenital birth defect—smartmouthitis. Thanks, Dad.
“You might be interested to know he was the same loup-garu who attacked us earlier on Royal.”
Both of Caleb’s eyebrows shot up as his face drained of all color. “I wasn’t attacked by a loup-garu, Nick. That, I would have killed. What I fought was an Aamon.”
Just what Nick loved most. More vocabulary to learn. And unlike the crap from school, not knowing these words could get him killed. “A what?”
“One of the first and highest order of warrior demons.”
That didn’t sound good. “As in one of the few who can kick your ass?”
Caleb gestured toward the bruises on his face and neck that said the wolf had cleaned the street with him. “I assumed he was after your father’s powers. I had no idea someone had sent him to kidnap you. Did he give you his name?”
“No. He said he couldn’t remember it.”
“What do you mean?”
Nick shrugged with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “From what I gathered, he’s been locked in Hel for a number of centuries. And I think they cock fight him. But the only thing I know for certain is that they don’t hold him with any kind of regard. They have him tied down like a rabid animal and treat him like one.”