Kody.

He stared at the note as a wave of emotion overwhelmed him. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him. The box was filled with games for it, from classics to strategy to shooters.

What an incredibly nice thing for her to do. It really touched him.

Picking it up, he held the system in his hand. For some reason, it made him feel weirdly close to her. Systems were personal. They were an extension of yourself. From the color to the stickers ... It all came from within and it was something that you kept close to you. Something you guarded and protected.

And she'd loaned him hers.

Not many people would do that. Especially not someone as hot as Kody. The girl was crazy. Maybe she likes you.

That thought made his blood race like fire through his veins. Could it be possible?

She's dangerous to you. Avoid her.

He scowled at the deep, scary voice in his head. It sounded almost demonic. WTH?

"I am going crazy from boredom." Only a lunatic would want to avoid a girl as nice and pretty as Kody.

Did he take it?"

Nekoda tensed as she felt the air around her stirring. The power was palpable and it was one she was intimately familiar with.

Sraosha. Her guide and mentor.

Nekoda locked the door of the storeroom to keep anyone else in the hospital from innocently coming in and seeing Sraosha's form. Tall and graceful, he was so beautiful that it was hard to look straight at him. His powers were so great that they manifested as an ever-moving aura that illuminated his skin with a bright yellow glow. His long blond hair flowed around his shoulders as he narrowed his gaze on her ... a gaze that had no eyes. Only a smoky black cavity that was as frightening as it was peculiar.

"I left it for him," she whispered. Nick had no idea that her Nintendo allowed her to keep an eye on him so long as he was around it.

Sraosha nodded. "What do you think of this one?"

He was younger than the other Malachais she'd fought. More innocent. Sweet even.

Dont let him seduce you.

That was the last thing she could afford to have happen. "He seems ." She had to choose her word carefully. "Different." "Do you think he's the one?"

"I don't know." Since the dawn of time, they'd hunted for the right Malachai. The one who could turn against the dark forces that had sired it and fight with them against the Source so that she could free her brothers.

But to date, they had lost every Malachai they'd tried to save. The darkness within each one was more than they could resist. And who could blame them?

All of their bloodline was born to cause pain. Born to wield the darkest powers imaginable. Just as Nekoda had been born to the light.

Nick was still a kid who had no idea who and what he was. But she knew exactly the kind of violence he'd been bred for.

And he terrified her.

"Menyara swears we can save him."

Sraosha scoffed. "She's too close to this one. She's blind to what he really is."

Perhaps that was true, but Nekoda had no such attachment to him. "Have no fear. I'm not blind to him. His glamour doesn't charm me."

"Make sure you don't fall victim to it. Remember, that's only one of many powers he'll possess. Powers that will work on all mortals and immortals alike. As you've seen, evil is already beginning to tempt him and that will only worsen as he matures."

Nekoda swallowed as she saw in her mind the events that led up to his being shot. "He pulled back before hurting them."

"This time. But that single act of drifting toward violence against another has unleashed his Cimmerian Magus. The dark powers are uniting now to train him. Can't you feel it?"

Yes. It permeated everything here and it sent a feral chill down her spine. There were ten lessons that had to be taught to every Malachai. Every one of them would make him stronger.

More corrupt.

It would shape him into a tool of evil that would come for her and her people and wreak absolute misery on everyone who came into contact with him.

The first lesson was necromancy. But not just communication with the dead. Reanimation and control.

No matter how hard Nekoda tried, she couldn't see Nick becoming like the others. Surely he wouldn't embrace such a cold power.

You made the mistake of that thought before. She winced as she remembered his father and how wrong she'd been then. Had she struck when she'd been told to, she would have saved countless lives.

It's the light inside of you that wants to believe in the goodness of other people. Even the Malachais. She'd shown the elder Malachai mercy and he'd spat in her face and embraced his own brand of evil.

No matter what, she wouldn't be so stupid again.

"Have no fear, Sraosha. I've learned from my mistake. This time, I won't fail. If we can't turn him, I will kill him."

"You better remember that. Because this one is even stronger than his father and now he's being embraced and trained by the Dark-Hunters. If we don't turn him, he will be the one who finally destroys us all."

And she would be the one to blame for the death of humanity.

CHAPTER 4

Welcome home, Nicky!"

Nick opened his eyes to find himself in their crappy living room with Aunt Menyara standing in front of him, holding an actual store-bought chocolate cake with the same happy words written on it that she'd just uttered. He was stunned by the small crowd around her who shouted her words at him.

Wow .

Petite like his mother, Menyara had smooth chocolate-brown skin that glowed in the flickering candlelight. Her sisterlocks were held back from her beautiful face by a wide yellow scarf she'd tied around her head that trailed down her back, just past her hair. The yellow was mirrored in her peasant blouse that was tucked into a bright orange skirt that fell all the way to her ankles.

Skinny silver bangles lined both of her arms and they jingled as she angled the cake for him to see her beautiful handwriting. "It's your favorite, cher. We're so glad you're home."

Nick blushed as his gaze went from her to the rest of the dancers who worked with his mom who'd come over for his party. Even John and Greg, two of the bouncers from the club, were here.

They were clapping and smiling at him, making him extremely uncomfortable with the attention as they congratulated him on being a hero.

Funny, he felt more like a fraud.

Menyara put the cake down on the counter for him. "C'mon,

cher, and blow out the candles before they ruin your beautiful cake."

He always loved the lilt of Menyara's Creole accent whenever she spoke. A voodoo priestess and midwife, Aunt Mennie, as he called her, was also his godmother and his mother's best friend.

She'd been the one who'd brought him into this world and who'd taken his mom in after her parents had tossed her out. When he'd been too young to go to the club with his mom, Mennie had been the one who kept him. For that alone, he'd do anything in the world for her.

"Thanks, everyone," he muttered as he went to the cake and blew out the candles.

His mom stood behind him with her hand on his uninjured shoulder. "We're all so proud of you, baby."

"That's right." Greg, a huge bear of a man with long brown hair and pockmarked skin, stepped forward to hand him a box. "We took up a collection for you at the club. Hope you like it."

Their kindness touched him. It felt more like a birthday than a return home from the hospital.

Ripping the box open, he found a Street Fighter video game and a T-shirt that said: nick gautier. superhero of the day.

Nick didn't have the heart to tell them that he didn't have a gaming system here. Any more than he could tell them that he hadn't been a hero. He'd only been trying to make something right that he'd let go terribly wrong.

"Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate it."

Tiffany stepped around Greg and pulled an envelope out of the box. "You forgot this."

Nick handed the box to his mom before he took the envelope, but since his left arm was still in a sling, he couldn't open it.

"Here, child." Menyara took it and opened it for him.

He gaped as he saw five twenty-dollar bills in her hand. "What's that for?"

Tiffany smiled. "Your college fund. We know it's not much, but it'll cover most of the days of work you missed while you were in the hospital."

He looked at his mom, who was smiling in gratitude. But he didn't feel grateful. He felt weird about it, especially knowing how hard all of them worked for it. "I can't take this."

John snorted. "Take it. Don't make me have to whup your butt and put you back in the hospital, snotwad. Just be grateful for it and don't ever spend it on drugs or cheap women 'cause I know what I'd have done with it at your age and we're all raising you to be better than that."

Nick didn't know what to say. "Thanks, guys. I really appreciate it."

Then someone turned up the music to play Aerosmith's "Walk This Way and the party started even though it was hard to move in their small condo. Then again, the dancers were used to being up on the thin catwalk in the club so they did what they did best and made his face so red with their dance moves that he was sure it glowed neon.

Nick took the money to his jar they kept under the kitchen sink and dropped the twenties inside while his mom and Menyara cut the cake and handed out slices to everyone.

"You okay, child?"

He nodded as Menyara handed him his cake and a plastic fork. "Just tired."

There was something in her gaze that made him wonder if she could read his mind. It was eerie.

"Your mom told me that you'll be working for a man named Kyrian Hunter. Is that so?" "Yeah. I gotta pay him back for the hospital bills." "Then I want you to watch yourself, Nicholas. This man, he's

When she didn't finish the sentence, he finished for her.

"Evil?"

She laughed and brushed her hand through his hair. "No, not evil. But working for him will change you, I think. Hopefully for the better. I just wanted to say that you should be very careful with what you learn from others and who you let into your life."

Her emotionless tone gave him pause. Mennie knew things, lots of things, before they happened. Her clairvoyance was unrivaled. "Is that your wicked psychic powers talking again?"

"Maybe it's my wicked overprotective ways." She kissed him on the brow. "You be a good boy for me, Nicholas. Always.

"Yeah, okay." He wasn't intending to be a bad one, since the last time he'd done that hadn't gone well for him. As it was, his shoulder was on fire and he had months of painful therapy ahead to get his arm to work right again.

Believe me, I'm done with this. Next time he saw Alan and group, they were the ones who were going to be limping. ' Cause I'm gonna put my foot so far up their butts they're going to burp shoe leather.

Or in the case of Nick's cheap shoes, man-made material, whatever that was.

He frowned as she stepped away to join his mother and Tiffany. There was something cold in the air that made his neck tingle.

Dismissing it, he ate his cake then joined the others, who kept playing old seventies songs. Gah, could we please move the music forward to the correct decade? What is it with old people and their music? Well, at least it wasn't disco.

The party didn't last too long, since his mom was afraid of making him too tired. One by one they left until it was just him, his mom, and Mennie.

At his mom's urging, Nick headed to his bed while they cleaned up. He was on the verge of falling asleep when his mom disturbed him.

"You ready to go back to school tomorrow?"

Hardly. He'd really like a few more decades before he had to go back and face the mutant idiots. ...

But he didn't tell her that. Man up, Nick, and take it. "I guess so."

"Okay, but if you don't feel like it, let me know. You're still healing and I don't want you to do anything to stress yourself."

Yeah, but he was already so far behind he wasn't sure if there was a shovel big enough to dig his way out of his back work. Any more days and he'd have to repeat a year.

Kill me first.

She brushed the hair back from his forehead before she tested his brow for a fever. "Mr. Hunter said that he'd have a car waiting to pick you up after school and take you to his house. He promised me that it was just an introduction for you and that he wouldn't make you do anything too hard. You okay with that?"

He reverted to his standard answer. "I guess so."

She rolled her eyes. "All right then. I'll let you get your rest. You let me know if you need anything. Oh, and I had to put those flowers your friends Bubba and Mark sent to you in the hospital out on the front porch. They didn't really fit in the house. Leave it to them to overdo it."



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