“I’m so glad I’m not you.”

He blinked at Brynna’s dire tone as she opened her locker beside him. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah, but I caught the look on Kody’s face when she saw Casey molesting you, then reversed course and headed the other way. Oooo, Nick, it wasn’t pretty. Kody gonna have her some deep-fried Cajun mountain oysters for dinner … probably breakfast, too.”

Nick let out a tired breath as his pain returned … with friends. “Nah, she won’t. We broke up.”

“Since when?”

“Ten minutes ago,” Caleb answered for him.

“No!” Brynna gasped. “Say it ain’t so, Gautier. You two were perfect together.”

This wasn’t helping his mental state. What next? Would some sappy breakup song start playing over the intercom to torture him? “Not perfect enough.”

Brynna growled low in her throat. “What did you do?”

Her question offended him. “It wasn’t me. Why does it always have to be the guy’s fault?”

“’Cause it usually is.”

Well, that was insulting. “Thanks a lot, Brynna. And for the record, I’m the victim.”

“Then I’m sorry.”

Nick inclined his head to her, grateful that she’d at least tried to sound sincere. “I appreciate it.”

Rubbing his arm, she offered him a sympathetic smile. “For the record? I hope you two get back together.”

“For the record, we won’t.”

She shook her head sadly and closed her locker door. “Well, if you need a friend, you have my number. I haven’t forgotten what you did for me when I needed someone. You really are a great guy, Nick.”

“Thanks.”

“Any time.” Brynna headed off to class.

Nick turned away and walked toward his next period. Thankfully, it was with Caleb and not Kody.

Caleb picked up his pace to walk beside him. “You do know Brynna was hitting on you just now.”

Yeah, right. Caleb was shy a few bricks on his wall if he really believed that. “No, she wasn’t. She thinks of me like a brother.”

“You sure?”

“Positive. I tried to hold her hand once when I first started going here and she read me the riot act for it. I got the full we-are-just-friends-so-don’t-make-me-call-my-older-brother-out-on-you-to-beat-you-to-a-pulp speech from her years ago.”

Caleb laughed. “And that’s why I only hook up with women who have sisters or, even better, no siblings at all.”

“Got your butt whipped once, huh?”

“No.” Caleb sobered. “But I know what I’d do for my sister if some idiot broke her heart.”

That news floored him. Caleb never really talked about his family, and he’d never before made any kind of declaration of love toward them. “You have a sister?”

“Not full-blooded. But yeah, I have a number of them.”

“Are they around?”

Caleb shook his head. “Even though I’d kill for them if they needed me to, we’re not that close.” He opened the classroom door for Nick to enter first.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not. I don’t like personal entanglements or obligations. Gets you into too much trouble. But blood is blood. End of the day, if one of them needed me, I’d be stupid for them.”

And that was why, even though Caleb was a demon, Nick respected him and called him friend. Caleb spent a lot of time denying his better nature, but Nick had seen it up close and personal enough to know that Caleb was cold-blooded decent. No matter how much the demon protested, you could always count on him in a fight.

Taking his seat, Nick pulled his book out and opened it to the day’s assignment. Still, he couldn’t get Kody out of his mind. Now that they were officially broken up, she would be coming for him for sure. The only question was, when?

* * *

Belam?

Nekoda looked up at the whisper of her real name that no one in the human realm used anymore. In the far corner stood the shimmery image of her guide, Sraosha. Only she could see him and he was definitely summoning her.

Could this day get any better? Really? Why couldn’t Nick have set her on fire and ended her misery?

Sighing, she got up and walked to Mr. Raney’s desk. “Mr. Raney? May I please have a pass to the restroom?”

“You know we don’t—”

She lowered her voice and chose the one topic her male math teacher wouldn’t argue with. “Sorry, but it’s that time of month and—”

“Enough!” he snapped, reaching for the pad of passes on his desk. “I don’t want to hear about anything that personal.” He quickly scribbled in the form, then tore the sheet off. “Don’t be long, Miss Kennedy.”

“Thank you.” Taking the pass, she ducked out of the room and headed for the bathroom. She would vanish immediately, but didn’t want to take a chance on being caught by one of the school’s hidden cameras. Though she knew where most were located, she wasn’t sure about all of them, and her powers didn’t play well with electronics.

Better safe than sorry.

She went into the bathroom and entered the first stall, then locked the door and flashed herself to Sraosha’s less than friendly office.

Dark and dismal, it was a sad study in grays and browns. Not appealing in the least. But he seemed to like it that way.

Unlike his office, Sraosha was a thing of absolute beauty as he stood waiting next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto nothing. Literally. It was absolutely dark … like they were lost in space. The only light came from the edges of a dim amber-colored tray overhead.

Tall, lithe, and extremely graceful, Sraosha was so beautiful it was hard to look straight at him. His long blond hair flowed around a body that was pure perfection. Every feature appeared to be carved with extreme precision to render him angelic and breathtaking. And for once, he allowed her to see his eyes. They were an eerie, iridescent green. Dressed in ancient battle armor, he commanded attention and respect … even from her.

“You summoned me?”

Sraosha blinked slowly before he answered. “It is time.”

Those were the three words she’d been dreading most. Her final order. “We can’t kill him. Not yet.”

Sraosha arched a commanding brow that questioned her sanity for daring to contradict him. “What is your excuse today?”

“The senior Malachai still lives. If I kill Nick, Adarian will have no weakness whatsoever, and no reason to hold back, since nothing other than Nick can weaken him. And we both know I can’t defeat Adarian on my own.” She had the scars to prove it. “So unless you’re harboring a weapon I know nothing about, or are willing to give me a hand in the fight, we have no choice except to wait for Nick to fulfill his destiny and kill his father.”

“And then he will have his father’s strength and powers in addition to the ones he already has. You think you can defeat him then?”

No. She’d be even more ineffectual against him than she’d been against his predecessors.

But death wasn’t her only option. “He’s not beyond redemption.” Unlike his father and the others, Nick had a heart that felt and understood real love. Personal sacrifice.

Loyalty.

No Malachai before had even known those terms existed.

Sraosha sneered. “You’re letting your feelings blind you. Just as you did before.”

It was true. She’d had a perfect chance to slaughter Adarian when he’d first escaped the Nether Realm, and rather than take the shot, she’d felt too sorry for him to kill him. Even now, she could see his wretched state. His master, Noir, had tortured him well. Weak and battered, Adarian had barely been able to stand on his own, and she’d refused to kill in cold blood.

Like the warrior her father had trained her to be, she’d given him the chance to recover before they battled.

Her vital mistake.

Had she taken him out when he’d emerged, her brothers would still be here.…

Alive and whole. And she would be at home with her family, in her own time period. Not stuck in this purgatory.

“I’ve learned well and I won’t make that mistake again.”

Sraosha scoffed. “No? From where I stand that’s exactly what you’re doing. You think I can’t feel the love you hold for a demon?” He spat that last word at her.

Ashamed, Nekoda looked away. “I have not forgotten my duties.” How could she? She’d forsaken her real given name and taken on her sacred title so that she would never again be tempted by her emotions. Nekodas were marked servants who had no family ties to distract them. They lived for no purpose other than to serve the higher order and keep the balance of power intact. Unlike the Chthonians who had the ability to kill gods and were charged with overseeing them, nekodas weren’t born to their positions.

They were chosen.

And unlike the Chthonians, they had very strict rules they had to follow, and beings they had to answer to.

She wasn’t allowed to second-guess her guide, and yet, Sraosha was wrong about Nick. She could feel it with every part of herself. Nick wasn’t their enemy.

Not yet anyway.

Sraosha stepped forward to tower over her. An act of supreme intimidation that might have worked on her had she been human or born of lesser stock. “Are you refusing to kill him, Belam?”

She faced him without flinching or cowering. “I’m refusing to unleash the senior Malachai onto this world, especially when we don’t know if he’ll ever father another child. Nick is the only one who can weaken him. And the only other being capable of killing Adarian at full strength is imprisoned in a place we can’t free him from. Not without starting a whole ’nother fire that neither of us is ready to ignite.”

Sraosha sucked his breath in sharply between his teeth. The expression on his face said that he was barely one second away from striking her. “Fine then. Get him to his father, then kill them both. Those are your orders.”

Gah, he made it sound so simple.

“But—”

“No buts!” Sraosha snarled. “I am well aware that you no longer hold sway over the younger’s emotions. Someone else is manipulating him. We can only assume that they work for the Atramentaceous Order, and before they take complete control of their weapon, we must destroy it.”

Those words set her fury on fire. “Nick is a boy. He’s not an it.”

Sraosha cocked a disbelieving brow. “Is that insubordination I hear?”

“No, sir.” It was indignation and extreme aggravation that he was being so obtuse about this. She’d been raised that you didn’t slaughter the innocent on the chance that they “might” do something wrong.

“It better not be, and you’d do well to remember your place, nekoda. I took you in when you had nothing and no one. Have you forgotten how I found you?”

She swallowed the tears that rose up to choke her as they always did whenever she looked at the past. “I have forgotten nothing.” Especially not the demon who had destroyed her entire family and left her alone in the universe. She’d vowed over her parents’ graves that she would find the demon Malachai and destroy him before he had a chance to kill them.

No matter what, she would stop him.

“I will do my duty.”

“Then you better hurry before Nick grows any stronger.”

Nekoda lowered her head and pressed her fist to her heart in salute to her guide. But as she returned to the stall she’d left at St. Richard’s, she couldn’t stop the rush of emotions that tore her apart.

Sraosha was right. She’d fallen for Nick in the worst sort of way and now he wanted nothing to do with her. And judging by the look he’d given her earlier, he hated her passionately. And that hurt her a whole lot more than it should.

Who could have possibly told him what she was? She hadn’t breathed a word to a single soul. She had no real friends. No family left.

No one should have known her true identity.

Someone was working against her. If she could find out who, then perhaps she could spare Nick from his death sentence.

Don’t be stupid. You know Sraosha is right.

Sooner or later, Nick would go Malachai. The demon in him would devour every part of the human heart she treasured, and leave him nothing but a killing machine who had no mercy or compassion for anyone. He would become the monster they’d written legends about.

Reaching up, she touched the heart necklace he’d given her.

He was such a kind, giving soul. Respectful. Gentle. Things his father had never been.

Our births and bloodlines don’t define us. The paths we choose to follow do. None of us have to be what we’re born to be. We have more courage and power inside us than we know. Trust in yourself, kitten, and stay true to your own convictions, no matter what others say or do. They don’t matter anyway. People will come and go from your life, but you will walk hand in hand with yourself forever. Whatever you do, don’t choose to be something you hate. I walked that path for far too long, and it’s an ugly place to live. I want you to be better, because I know for a fact that you are better than I ever was. Her father’s words haunted her.



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