And with that, he quit the room.

Acheron returned to their previous discussion. “So, is there any demon you wanted to know about in particular?”

Don’t do it.

But before his common sense could prevail over his stupidity, he blurted out the one thing he wanted to know most. “Ever heard of a Malachai?”

Acheron’s jaw went slack, thus confirming he had more than a working knowledge of Nick’s species. “Where did you hear that term?”

Yeah, okay, it was a touchy subject for Acheron, too.

“The demon at my school mentioned one. You know anything about them?”

“More than I want to.”

“Meaning?”

Ash did what he did best—he diverted a personal question into a generic one. “A Malachai is one of the oldest demons in existence. There’s only one left, so it’s not likely you’ll ever come across him.”

If only he was that lucky.

Now to test exactly how much knowledge Ash had of Nick and his father. “Do you know where he is?”

Acheron shook his head. “No one does. He escaped from his master centuries ago and has been in hiding ever since.”

Nick had to give his father credit. He might be a first-rate jerk, but he knew how to shield himself.

“Do you know how he came into being?”

Ash frowned. “You seem to be a little more than just passingly curious.”

“I am. I want to know why the demon was talking about him. Is there something really special about a Malachai?”

“Yeah, if you want to seriously mangle people or end the world as we know it, he’s the one to summon. He was the first of the demonic destroyers and his breed fathered many of the subsequent and best-known evil demons. Luckily, none of the children possess the powers of their fathers. Rather, they’re all watered-down versions of the Malachai.”

“Really?” That wasn’t what Nick had been told.

Ash nodded. “The only exception is the original Malachai bloodline. The firstborn alone can father a child even more powerful than he is.”

All right, that explained Nick’s powers and why they were so dangerous.

“Do you know why?” Nick asked.

“Not really. But I suspect it has to do with the fact that he, unlike the others of his kind, was born from a goddess who had an affair with a Sephiroth.”

“What’s a Sephiroth?” Nick already knew, but if he didn’t ask, Acheron might become suspicious again.

“They were consorts and soldiers of the primal gods. But they were never supposed to breed with them.”

“Then why did they?”

Acheron shrugged. “The goddess wanted a baby and she wanted it to be powerful, but not torn by pantheon politics. So, she conceived a child with her Sephiroth, who was also a demigod.”

“What made the Malachai evil?”

Ash paused before he answered. “While he was born from a mother who wielded dark powers, his father was born of light. So he had a fifty-fifty shot as to which side he’d fall on. Some say he was decent enough until the first war of the gods. To end that war and save the world, the original gods forged a truce that required both the light and dark powers to destroy what remained of their armies. Unwilling to kill her own son, the goddess struck a bargain to spare one Sephiroth and one Malachai. So all of them were put to death, except the Sephiroth who had betrayed his people and her son. Then her son became infused with hatred and turned psychotic when he was ordered by the light gods to kill the Malachai female he’d hidden from execution.”

“He loved her?”

Acheron nodded.

That gave Nick hope. “I didn’t think they could love.”

“You can’t really hate without it. And Monakribos worshiped his beloved Rubati. But when he refused to end her life, the gods tricked him into it. As she lay dying in his arms, she confessed to him that she was pregnant with his child and that by his own actions, he’d killed them both. He begged the gods and, in particular, his mother, to save them, but she couldn’t do it without restarting the war they’d just ended. Instead, she made it so that he could have more children. But if they were born with his Malachai abilities, to keep with the truce she’d agreed to, he would have to die by their tenth birthday or whenever they came into their powers.”

Man, it sucked to be a Malachai.

I am never having kids.

“How did he become a tool for evil?”

“He was tricked into killing the woman he loved, Nick. And his unborn child. The guilt and grief drove him mad and poisoned his blood with hatred and venom. And that’s how you know a Malachai when you come across one. Unless they’re using their powers to conceal what they are, they don’t bleed red. A full-blown Malachai bleeds black.”

That was something to remember. So far, he was red-blooded.… Good. There was still hope for him.

“Does it only turn black when they go evil?”

Ash nodded.

Now Nick knew what to look for. That actually helped a great deal. “Next question. Do they have to go evil?”

“That is the question, isn’t it? Are we pawns to, or masters of, our own destinies? Every being has to make that choice for him or herself.”

“So it’s possible for a Malachai to be good?”

“In theory. As with all other species, it depends on his strength of character, and the decisions he makes.”

For the first time in months, Nick had real hope. Ambrose was right. He could avoid the destiny that awaited him. He didn’t have to become a cold-blooded killer, after all.

Awesome!

“But,” Acheron continued, “it’s not easy to go against your nature. Especially when you’re a creature of destruction. One bad temper outburst, and you lose all humanity. You say and do things you don’t mean to and it’s too late to undo them. Creatures like the Malachai have a harder time than others keeping their noses clean and not giving in to the darkness that’s forever seducing them.”

Nick scowled. “You sound like you have personal experience with that.”

“We all have demons inside us, Nick. The Tsalagi have an old saying—every heart holds two wolves. One is the white wolf, who is made up of love, kindness, respect, decency, compassion, and all the things that are good in life. The black wolf is born of jealousy, hatred, pettiness, prejudice, vindictiveness, and all the poisons of the human personality. The two constantly war with each other for dominance. And one day, one wolf will overtake and devour the other.”

“Yeah, but which one?”

“Always the one you feed, kid. You feed good to it and the white one grows. You feed evil and the black wolf devours. But in the end, you alone make the choice of which wolf you nurture. And that’s true of every species and race.”

Nick nodded. I can overcome.

No, he would overcome. His father and birth didn’t have to define him, after all. He was the one in control of himself. No one else …

“Thanks, Ash. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“No problem. If you have any other questions, you know how to reach me.” Ash turned to leave.

“Wait.” Nick stopped him. “I do have one more. Have you ever heard of a harvester?”

“As in someone who pulls vegetables out of a garden?”

Nick rolled his eyes. “No, like something that goes after demons?”

“Not per se. There are all kinds of creatures who hunt demons for different reasons. It really depends on the demon and its country of origin, as well as that of the hunter. And of course, you have the bounty hunters, which are a separate species entirely.”

Nick didn’t like the sound of that. “How so?”

“If a demon breaks a law from its pantheon or another, or if someone or something wants to own it or control it, they can offer up a reward for either the demon’s capture or death. At which point the bounty hunters come out in force.”

Great. Just what he wanted to hear. More creatures out to kill him. Yee-flippin’-haw.

“Would someone ever hunt a Malachai?”

“Oh yeah. Everyone hunts the Malachai. He is the grand prize of all time. There’s not a demon in existence that carries a heftier price on its head than he does. Not to mention, if you enslave the Malachai, you have absolute evil at your disposal, and there’s nothing you can’t conquer.”

Oh great, slavery? And here Nick thought being Kyrian’s Squire was inhibiting and degrading.

“How do you enslave a Malachai?” he asked, wanting to know what to avoid.

“With a really big army.”

“I’m serious, Ash.”

He flashed a taunting grin. “You’d have to weaken him first.”

“And you do that, how?”

Ash scowled. “Why are you so intent on this?”

Nick didn’t dare tell him the truth. “Scholarly curiosity. You talk about the ultimate evil. I want to know how to defeat it. ’Cause you know how my luck runs. And in case it goes south one night when you’re not around to help me fight, I’d like to know how to hurt it.”

Ash arched a shocked brow. “Well, since scholarly curiosity is such a novelty for you…”

Nick ignored his sarcasm.

“Easiest way is if he has a son destined to inherit his powers, put them together. The younger Malachai starts sucking the power out of him immediately. But the drawback to that is, once the father’s dead, the child will then have his powers and his father’s. So if you’re smart, you’ll kill one and enslave the other before the child develops fully. You might not have as strong a Malachai that way, but you will have one, and not die in the process.”

Yeah, that definitely wasn’t appealing. So whatever he did, he couldn’t let anyone get him in the same room with his father again. No matter what.

“And the hardest way?” Nick asked.

“You go full-on and try to collar him. And good luck with that.”

Nick frowned. “I don’t understand. Collar him, how?”

“The three primal gods who once controlled him have a special collar that restricts his powers and it keeps him from harming them. That was the slavery he escaped. You get the collar, which the gods who own it have to allow you to do, and you place it on his neck before he kills you. That’s definitely the hardest way.” Acheron paused. “So are you writing a book with all of this?”

Nick laughed nervously. “No. But I think I will use it for my next D&D quest. How cool would that be, huh?”

Acheron shook his head. “Happy dragon hunting, kid. Don’t get lost in the labyrinth.”

As Ash left, Nick headed upstairs to install the RAM in Kyrian’s computer while his thoughts churned over Ash’s information. It was a lot to chew on and made him wish he had Acheron’s knowledge base. What would it be like to have the brain of an encyclopedia?

Live long enough and you’ll have that answer, too.

True. Ambrose was just like Acheron. He knew everything—past, present, and future.

As Nick reached the staircase, he hesitated. An odd electrical sensation went through him. It felt like someone was watching his every move.

“Rosa?”

She didn’t answer, which meant it wasn’t her.

“Kyrian?”

Again, no answer.

Nick took a step, then paused. “Harvester?”

Deep in his mind, he heard a sinister laugh that made him jump.

Yeah, okay, creepy didn’t even come close to describing what he felt. There was a chill to his blood that rushed through him and made the hair on his arms stand up again.

“What are you?” he breathed.

Death. The whisper was so faint that at first he thought he imagined it.

“Yeah, right. I happen to be on a first-name basis with Death, and you’re not him, buddy.”

He’s not the only one, and he’s not the one who’s come for you. Your life will be mine soon.

Instead of scaring him, that threat set fire to his temper. No one threatened Nick Gautier.

“I’m not afraid of you. You want to fight … bring it.”

Something struck the wall by his face. Hard. It was so close to him that whatever it was grazed his nose.

In spite of his bravado, that actually scared him blind. Hard to fight something when you couldn’t see it … Jack-rabbiting up the stairs, he went into Kyrian’s training room instead of his office.

Nick slammed the door and threw himself against it, arms wide to keep it shut.

Kyrian looked up from his punching bag with a curious brow. He stepped away from it. “You all right, kid?”

No. But he had too much dignity to admit that out loud. “Question. Is this house haunted?”



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