Nick flinched at the question. Dina Quattlebaum had been Brynna’s best friend since they started school together. They’d always been close and inseparable until Dina got her feelings hurt over something ridiculous, and had conjured a demon that had wreaked havoc on the entire school. Dina had maliciously ruined several students’ reputations, including Brynna’s. But worse than even that, Dina had accused Nick of attacking her—something that had landed Nick in jail and then caused her father to go Babe Ruth on him … which was what Dr. Burdette had referred to earlier when she talked about patching him up. The man had almost killed him.
Luckily, the truth had come out before any real harm had been done, but the fallout was still a nasty thing they were all having to deal with at school. As the old saying went, lies traveled much faster than the truth and the truth never caught up with a lie. He was finding that out in a wicked way.
“She gave her apology first thing this morning, and then they took her to jail for all the stuff she did.”
Dr. Burdette shook her head. “That’s a darn shame. I hate to see someone so young ruin their life for something as stupid as jealousy.”
“Yes, ma’am. Me, too.” Nick paid for the RAM. But as he reached to take it, something painful stabbed him right between his eyes.
He sucked his breath in sharply.
Bubba frowned. “You okay?”
Nick nodded, then shook his head. “Got a weird feeling all of a sudden.”
Dr. Burdette stepped around the counter to look at him. “What kind of feeling?”
“Dizzy and … I don’t know. Just weird.”
She cupped his chin in her hand and angled his head down so she could study his features while she pressed the back of her other hand against his forehead. “When was the last time you ate something?”
“And a bag of chips about an hour ago,” Caleb added. “Nick doesn’t ever miss a meal or a snack.”
Without responding to Caleb’s dry tone, she pulled a penlight out of her pocket. “Come on to the back and let me take a better look at you.”
“Ma, he’s fine.”
She cast Bubba an evil glare. “Michael, I have noticed that none of them fancy MIT doctorates you hold are in medicine. So if you don’t mind … I don’t tell you how to fix computers and do quantum physics or explain string theory, and you don’t tell me how the body works and what I need to be looking at when a former patient goes pale for no apparent reason.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bubba said, standing down.
Nick started for the back, then stumbled.
Bubba caught him and all but carried him to a chair. “Hey, boy? You all right?”
Nodding, Nick tried to get his bearings, but everything spun with a vicious frenzy. It was like time had slipped out of sync or something. Everything moved slow and fast at the same time. He heard the voices of the ether whispering all around him. Some were threatening and some were shrill. Together, they made a cacophony so confusing that it only made his dizziness worse.
All of a sudden, through the spinning haze, he smelled something absolutely foul. It was so bad, he choked and coughed. Hard.
But it brought everything into sharp focus. Bubba, Caleb, Dr. Burdette, and Mark were huddled around him.
Mark pulled his hand back from Nick’s face. “See! Duck urine isn’t just zombie cover, it doubles as smelling salts.”
Nick coughed even harder, then cleared his throat. “That’s the nastiest crap on the planet, Mark. Please don’t ever do that again. I’d rather you shock me … or shoot me, even.”
“Yeah,” Mark said with a twisted laugh, “but it worked, didn’t it?”
Nick screwed his face up in distaste while Dr. Burdette tilted his head back and passed the light over his eyes.
“You’re a little clammy. What did you have for lunch?”
“Same thing Caleb did. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, two bags of corn chips, a fruit roll-up, chocolate ice cream, and a Pop-Tart.”
He was pretty sure she had the same exact expression that he must have worn when he smelled the duck urine. “I’m not even going to comment … oh yes I am. Boy, are you out of your ever-loving mind? What kind of boneheaded lunch is that? Is there anything even remotely nutritious in that lineup?” She looked at Caleb. “And you joined him with that?”
“It was good, Dr. Burdette.”
“It was nutritious,” Nick said quickly. “We had something from each food group.”
She was aghast. “How you figure?”
“Meat loaf for protein. Fruit roll-up, the strawberry in the Pop-Tarts, and mashed potatoes for my fruits and veggies. Corn chips for my grains and ice cream for dairy. It’s all good stuff.”
“I shudder at what they’re teaching the youth of today. I can’t believe the stuff you call food.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s as bad as the time I caught Michael poking holes in all my biscuits and pouring syrup in them for dinner, and drinking a six-pack of Coke while he did it.”
“Hey, now,” Bubba said defensively. “That was one of the best meals ever.”
“Only if you want to go into a diabetic coma.”
Nick laughed, then sobered the moment Dr. Burdette narrowed her gaze on him. “Sorry, ma’am … but I feel a lot better now.”
She appeared less than convinced. “Are you just saying that so I’ll leave you alone?”
“No, ma’am. I really do feel normal again.”
Doubt clouded her eyes. “Let me call your mama to come get you. You don’t need to be walking around right—”
“I can drive him, Dr. Burdette.”
She frowned at Caleb. “You sure?”
He nodded. “I’ll be glad to. That way Mrs. Gautier won’t have to leave work and get upset.”
“All right.” She turned back toward Nick. “But if you start to feel anything abnormal again, call me immediately. Understand?”
Nodding, she patted Nick on the shoulder and stood back so that he could get up.
Bubba handed him the small bag with Kyrian’s RAM chip in it. “You sure you all right?”
“A’ight, then. Be careful.”
Caleb led him out of the store and back to the sidewalk. The moment they were alone and the door was firmly closed, he faced Nick. “What didn’t you tell them?”
Was that a trick question? “You know what I didn’t tell them. It felt like something was clawing inside me, trying to get out and make a Nick-kabob. Kind of like when my powers take hold of me and I can’t control them. But it wasn’t the same as that. Not really … Ah heck, I don’t know. It was just weird. You got any idea about what caused it?”
Caleb shook his head. “Could be a lot of things. Maybe a shift in the time sequence.”
A chill went down Nick’s spine as he thought about Ambrose, who occasionally came from the future to help him. “How you mean?”
“Unlike most of us nonhuman entities, the Malachai can sense whenever someone tampers with time. While we have no clue it’s been altered, Malachais will know.… Or it could be the manifestation of competing powers. Like a warning system to let you know that something’s in town, and it has the ability to bleed you. Think of it like a Spidey sense.”
Yeah, but he didn’t want to think about that at all. “That’s not comforting.”
“Not supposed to be.” Caleb started forward.
Nick caught his arm and pulled him to a stop. “Is that it? Are those the only two things it could have been?”
“No. It could be Noir trying to summon you to the Nether Realm. Or a Fringe Guard or other bounty hunter entering this plane, or walking past Bubba’s store. It could have been a god popping into Sanctuary for a bite to eat … or a million other such things. Whatever it is, it’s your powers attempting to charge so that you can face whatever threat might be heading your way.”
Oh, goody. Just what he wanted. Someone else out to get him.
“Do your powers do that, too?”
That gave him hope. “Then did you feel it a few minutes ago?”
“Nope, but all that means is whatever’s after you isn’t after me. Or it could be that it’s not strong enough that I need to charge my powers to fight it. The warning system only goes off when you need to prepare yourself for battle.”
The moment Caleb finished, another foreign wave went through Nick and with it came clarity about his friend. Something he’d never known.
It was the reason Caleb’s powers hadn’t charged just now.…
“You’re a demigod.”
His features paling, Caleb stepped back. He narrowed his gaze in warning. “What did you say?”
Nick paused as he sought the source of that revelation. But there was nothing more tangible than a feeling of certainty deep in the pit of his stomach. He knew for a fact that Caleb was part ancient god, and a major one at that. “You are, aren’t you? That’s why you’re stronger than other mid-level demons. It’s why you were a general in the First War. You can siphon off your father’s powers.”
A shield came down around Caleb, preventing Nick from sensing anything else about him, even his mood. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, right. You know better than to lie to me.” Lie detection was about the only power Nick had that never failed him.
Caleb’s eyes flashed bright orange in warning. “Drop the subject, Nick. Now.”
Why? Why would that bother him? If Nick had the blood of a god in him, he’d dance around the block and tell everyone and their chickens. Loudly. Heck, he’d probably tattoo it to his forehead.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to,” Caleb growled.
And in that instant, Nick saw the trigger of Caleb’s rage in his mind as clearly as he saw the anger on Caleb’s face.
Deep in the past, Caleb stood before his father, who looked so much like him that it was hard to tell them apart. But Nick knew Caleb’s black battle armor that appeared to bleed on its own as camouflage so that no one would ever know if Caleb had been wounded in a fight. Caleb’s black hair was longer then and fell in waves to his shoulders. A short, well-groomed beard dusted his cheeks as he confronted the god who had fathered him.
“What have you done?”
His father ground his teeth in an anger that rivaled Caleb’s. “It’s not what you think.”
“Isn’t it? You’ve sold out all of us … including me.”
“I had no choice.”
Caleb laughed bitterly. “We all have choices, old man.” He raked his father with a sneer. “At least I finally know for sure where I fall in your affections. Not that I didn’t before … Thanks for the rectal confirmation.” With those words, his human skin transformed to that of a demon—as if Caleb no longer wanted to claim that part of himself at all. He jammed his helm down over his head and started away, but his father caught his arm.
“I do love you, murahn.”
Caleb snatched his arm free. “I am no son of yours,” he snarled between clenched teeth, “so don’t pretend otherwise. I was nothing more than an unwanted byproduct of your lust for a demon who had no maternal instinct at all. You should have let her devour me the instant I was spawned. But don’t worry. I won’t shame you again by claiming you. As far as I’m concerned, I was born an orphan.” With that, Caleb unfurled his wings and took flight, leaving his father behind to wince in pain.
Nick wanted desperately to know what his father had done to harm him, but his powers wouldn’t cooperate. All he had was that tiny snippet of Caleb’s past.
And if he understood anything, it was paternal conflict. His relationship with his own father made Caleb’s appear normal.
But in the end, one thing was clear. He hated hurting his friend in any way. And nothing hurt worse than bad memories.
“I’m sorry, Caleb. I won’t go there again, okay? Whatever is between you and yours is between you and yours. It’s none of my business.”
Caleb drew a ragged breath. “You’ve only just discovered what it’s like to be born hybrid. To feel torn between two cultures and two warring parts of yourself. That’s a battle I’ve had my entire existence, and honestly, it sucks. It’s exactly like being torn between two women. The best thing to do, kid … decide which one you want to be and ignore the other.”