“Nickaboo? Hurry, child! You’re about to be late for school!”
Nick Gautier dropped the towel from the damp hair he was drying as he glanced to the clock on his nightstand to confirm the fact that his mother was still the most vigilant and accurate timekeeper in the history of all mankind. At least when it came to his home, school, and work schedules.
But how odd . . . he’d had almost forty minutes just a heartbeat ago when he’d left the bathroom.
How long did it take to pull on a pair of jeans and one really foully ugly Hawaiian shirt, anyway?
Apparently thirty-five minutes.
"Dang, I do move slow in the morning." Good thing his mortal enemies didn’t know that. He’d be Cajun hashbrowns.
Tossing the towel into the bathroom, he rushed to the kitchen and almost tripped over their newest furry addition.
Xevikan, who let out a nasty hiss in protest before he scurried to the corner to arch his back against the wall.
Nick started to return the cat’s growl, but since his mom didn’t know their new pet was actually a shape-shifting ancient Nick and his friends had freed from a hell dimension and taken in, he refrained. His luck, she’d think he had distemper or something, and take him in for shots. “Sorry, Mr. Fuzzy Boots.”
Xev glared at him before he mentally projected his ire at him. -I really hate that name you gave my feline incarnation, Gautier.-
Nick flashed a grin at the large white Egyptian Mau staring up at him indignantly. -Why you think I use it?-
Xev spread his claws for cleaning, but Nick caught the one he aimed directly at him.
Laughing good-naturedly at the single-finger insult Xev had picked up from Caleb, Nick started to reach for the bacon only to realize his furry houseguest had beat him to it. Again. Yeah, it was a good thing he felt sorry for Xev.
And he did. For thousands of years, the ancient being had been imprisoned in a realm without friend or family. Now Xev was extremely gun-shy of a world he didn’t understand, nor did he play well with others, which was why they’d decided the best thing was to leave him here in Nick’s house to sleep while Nick went to school and work. All of them were much happier that way. And since Xev had severe PTSD mixed with extremely frightening powers and not a lot of patience or tolerance, the world was a lot less likely to end violently if Xev stayed out of events that elevated his stress levels, and tempted him to mass homicide.
“Really, Nick? Really?”
He turned to find his petite, blond mother glaring up at him. Man, he’d never understand how a woman as tiny as Cherise Gautier could be so terrifying when riled. But then, his girlfriend, Nekoda Kennedy, had those same testosterone-sucking powers, too.
And all Kody had to do to wield hers was pout in his general direction.
Closing the fridge door, his mom wiggled the milk container at him. “First, why did you drink all the milk last night after I went to bed? Second, why did you put the empty container back in the fridge?”
He clamped his jaw shut and slid his gaze to the real culprit, who’d probably drunk out of the container without a glass on top of it all. But his mom would think him nuts if he blamed the empty milk jug on the cat lacking opposable thumbs. So he manned up and took the fall for his friend.
“Blatant stupidity? I find it to be responsible for the vast majority of the evil I unintentionally do.”
She rolled her eyes and tossed the milk carton into the garbage. “Go on before you get another tardy. Love you, even when you make me crazy.”
“You, too.” He grabbed his backpack from the floor, kissed her cheek, and glared at the cat. “Later, Fuzzy Boots.” -And don’t defile my bedsheets!-
It was too late. Xev was already beelining to Nick’s room to take his shift in the bed.
Sighing at the uselessness of warning Xev off anything, Nick glanced back at his mom. “I’ll grab more milk on my way home from work.”
“Thank you, Boo. Have a good day.”
“You, too. Don’t work too hard.” Nick headed out the back door and crossed the condo parking lot to the brick wall that separated it from the school yard. Even though there were storm clouds gathering in the distance, and headed in from over the river, he took a moment to appreciate the day.
Zipping his jacket, he inhaled the familiar smell of beignets and coffee that wafted on the breeze, coming in from the Market and restaurants. Honestly, he was grateful to be home in the French Quarter, and among his friends and family.
To be standing here, in the most beautiful city in all the world.
Yeah, it was a good day to be alive. His friend, Acheron, who was an ancient Atlantean, was right, every day should be met with purpose and lived with gratitude. Having been forced against his will to live as someone else for a brief time, Nick had decided that as screwed up and dangerous as his real life was, he much preferred it to anyone else’s.
This existence and world might not be perfect. But they were perfectly his. The only thing he’d change at this point was the number of paranormal creatures who wanted him dead.
Yeah, it would be nice to be off a few hit lists for a while. That he wouldn’t complain about.
Eh, ca c'est bon. That was life. Some days you ate the rougarou. Some days the rougarou devoured you.
And in this city, and in his particularly screwed-up life, that phrase seriously had significance.
Sprinting up the steps of St. Richard’s High School, he entered the two-story redbrick building and headed for his locker to change out his books so he could start his day right, and with as little drama as possible. Which would be a really nice change of pace.
“What are you smiling about, Gautier?”
Nick grinned even wider as he shut his locker and turned to face his recalcitrant demon bodyguard. “It’s almost 8 A.M. and nothing’s tried to kill or eat me yet. Dang good day, if you ask me.”
Rolling his eyes, Caleb stepped around him to open his own locker. “I really hate chipper morning people. Thinking I should have hand-fed you to your enemies last night.”
Nick laughed. “But you didn’t,” he teased against all common sense, in a singsongy voice he’d learned from a very special Charonte demon named Simi, while Caleb pulled books out and shoved them into his expensive designer backpack. “Which means you think I’m all cute and fluffy. Besides, you’d miss me if I were gone.”
With a rude snort, Caleb zipped his bag shut. “Careful, Cajun. I wouldn’t test that theory, were I you.”
Nick leaned up against the locker bank and tried not to envy Caleb his dark, perfect Hollywood good looks that made every female in their school pass a longing gaze at him as she walked by. Student and teacher. “That would hold more weight if you weren’t here.”
“You said if my demonic overlord of a father were dead, you wouldn’t be in high school anymore to guard me. Now he’s gone, and yet here you remain . . . ever my faithful, handsome protector.” He batted his eyelashes playfully.
Ignoring Nick’s feigned flirtations, Caleb shut the locker and brushed his hand through his stylishly coiffed jet-black hair. His dark eyes flashing orange, he gave Nick a harsh, unamused stare. “Yeah, well, my self-preservation and common sense kicked in. If something eats you, they inherit my servitude and soul. As annoying as you are most days, I’d rather deal with you than one of my other possible choices. ’Cause let’s face it, my luck and past experiences say it would never be a sexy succubus who spends her days working as a supermodel in a bikini, but rather some scaly elderly male exhibitionist who likes to pull the wings off daeves and stick us in jars . . . or nail us to walls.”
He shoved a chemistry book at Nick. “Been there. Done that. Reloop’s a bitch and whoever designed it should be relegated to the lowest level of Thorn’s special pit.”
Nick tsked at him. “Poor Caleb. Thousands of years old and still in high school. Dude, you seriously need to speak to a guidance counselor about your transcript.”
“Don’t push it, Gautier. My maternal instincts don’t kick in till noon.”
Laughing, Nick stepped away from the lockers so that LaShonda could open hers. Dressed in a J-pop-style navy suit, she had her newly done sisterlocks pulled back into a matching bow.
“Morning, Miss Sunshine.”
LaShonda scowled at him as she pulled books for her first period. “Someone’s in a good mood this morning.”
Nick winked at her. “What can I say? The sight of your beautiful face can cheer my most soured mood.”
“Better not let her boyfriend or your Kody hear you speaking to her like that, Gautier, or they’ll be having a pair of fried Cajun nuggets for lunch.”
Smiling, Nick stepped aside for Brynna Addams, LaShonda’s best friend, and one of the few people he knew he could count on whenever it mattered. Unlike LaShonda, with her daring style, Brynna was much more sedate in her wardrobe choice, with tan pants and a white shirt. “Morning, my other Miss Sunshine. Ever a pleasure to see you.”
“You are in a good mood.” Brynna started to scowl until her gaze went past him. By the shift in the air, his instincts told him someone with the highest level of supernatural abilities approached him from behind. Someone who was lethal and could kill him in a heartbeat. And without looking, he knew exactly who it was. A gifted celestial being whose qualities he was more than well acquainted with.
His heart even lighter, he turned and, blatantly ignoring the PDA laws of his school, wrapped his arms around Nekoda so that he could breathe in the light vanilla scent that was uniquely hers. Her brown hair was twisted up into a messy braid that framed a beautiful face. A face that held a pair of bright green eyes that never failed to set his blood on fire. Even though she’d originally been sent here to assassinate him before he fulfilled his prophecy of doom, and Caleb still had his doubts about trusting her loyalty to them, Nick couldn’t help his feelings for her.
She was his first love.
Honestly, he couldn’t imagine ever feeling like this about anyone else. And if he had to die, he’d rather it be by her hand than that of an enemy. His heart would always be hers, and no one else’s.
He gave her a tight squeeze. “And here’s the brightest part of any day. Good morning, cher.”
With a fierce frown, Nekoda brushed the dark hair back from his face. “You okay?”
Brynna smirked as she opened her locker. “Girl, he’s in a strange, strange mood. I’m wondering if Madaug’s been programming games again.”
Nekoda laughed nervously at the reminder of the Zombie Hunter game Madaug St. James had created that had accidentally turned half their football team into mindless zombies and caused their former coach to eat their previous principal.
“He hasn’t, has he?”
“No. Definitely not. He hasn’t even played Solitaire on his PC since that night.” Nick took Kody’s backpack from her hand so that he could carry it for her. “I’m alive. In New Orleans, where I’m supposed to be. Here with you, the most beautiful girl in the entire universe.” He kissed her cheek before he jerked his chin toward Caleb. “And we have King Grump scowling at us and plotting my death and dismemberment. All is right in this world. And I’m just really glad to be at this school, in this time where I belong, with all of you thinking I’ve lost my ever-loving mind.”
Caleb scoffed. “For the love of all that’s holy, would you stop saying that crap?” he ground out between clenched teeth. “Personally, I wouldn’t tempt the Fates, kid. They have a nasty way of ramming those pleasant thoughts down your throat and making you weep for them.”
Nick considered that for a moment. Then, closing the distance between him and Caleb, he couldn’t resist whispering the question that comment most begged for, “In a fight between the Malachai demon and the Fates, who would win?”
Placing a hand on Nick’s shoulder, Caleb gently shoved him back. “Beware of arrogance, Gautier. It’s a foul, fatal thing.”
“I was only postulating a question.”
The look on Caleb’s face was intense and chilling. “Pray you never find out the answer. The price of war is always a lot higher in the end than you think it will be when you go in for that first battle.”
Okay then . . .
Suddenly, a shiver went down Nick’s spine. Something he couldn’t quite identify. For a moment, he wasn’t in the hallway of his high school.
Rather, Nick stared down at himself as he stood inside the ruins of a Greek temple. A temple he remembered visiting one time before when he’d saved Nekoda’s life after she’d almost died in an attack on him.
Home of the enigmatic Artemis, goddess of the hunt.
Only the Greek goddess wasn’t here this time. He knew without being told that this was another glimpse of the horrific future to come.
The post-Apocalyptic future where he destroyed everything and everyone. Where he and his army laid waste to the entire world.
All of Olympus was on fire around him, and each temple had been leveled. Nick, in his true demonic form with black and red marbled skin and glowing eyes, stood defiant and strong, his wings tucked in at his back. His army hovered nearby, awaiting more orders from him. Blood from the ancient gods dripped from their armor.
Time slowed down as he watched himself searching the ruins, looking for something he seemed to have lost.
All sound stopped. He only heard his heartbeat. Fierce. Strong.
"Ambrose . . ."
He flinched at the unfamiliar voice in his head.
Well, crap. Unknown voices in his head was never a good sign. Especially when they wanted his undivided attention and used a name they weren’t supposed to know. And as fast as it started, it ended.
Like a sped-up video file, everything around him caught up to real time. He was back at his school, in his hallway with Caleb, Brynna, Kody, and LaShonda staring at him.
He opened his mouth to respond to Kody and couldn’t. Again, he had that frightening surreal feeling as everything in the hallway slowed down to a crawl.
Suddenly, he heard the strange eerie drumming of hooves rushing toward him. The sound of a horse screeching. It drowned out all other high school noises. Against his will, Nick turned in the hallway to see a rider in white billowing robes racing down the north hall on the back of a black horse as it passed through students and faculty. Snorting fire, the horse had blood-red eyes, searing with their hatred.
The rider held a set of old-fashioned scales in its hands. “Ambrose!” The voice was neither male nor female. It was strictly demonic and cold. Terrifying. Without pausing, it came straight at him in a dead run.
Unable to move, Nick was frozen as horse and rider tore through him and left him completely breathless and cold.
Blinking at Kody, he shook his head to clear his vision as the main doors were blown open by the rider only he could see. Not even Kody or Caleb had detected it. They stared at him with duplicate frowns as teachers rushed to close the doors they thought the wind had caught.
How was that possible? They always saw things like that when he did. Usually before he did.
He opened his mouth to answer Kody at the same time the bell rang.
What the . . . ?
Nick blinked as he glanced around at everyone in the hallway, now scrambling to get to their rooms. He’d had fifteen minutes to class a heartbeat ago.
He glanced to the hall clock that confirmed it was time for school to start. That can’t be right.
“Gautier?” Caleb barked from the door of their homeroom. How had he gotten there so fast? Surely he hadn’t teleported in front of the humans. “You shooting for another tardy?”
A big negatory on that. He spent enough of his teenhood in this building. Last thing he wanted was to donate any additional time to it, especially when he didn’t have to. Shrugging off his delusions that he attributed to some kind of weird Nintendo-induced flashback, Nick headed into the room where Nekoda, Brynna, and Caleb were taking their seats.
Still, something seemed off. Like he was walking through heavy, thick foam . . . He leaned over to whisper to Nekoda. “I’m where I’m supposed to be, right?”
Her scowl matched his. “Are you my Nick?”
God, he hoped so. Why else would he be dressed in this fugly orange trout Hawaiian shirt? Last time he’d been in another dimension and body, he’d had a much better wardrobe. He’d also been a lot shorter than his normal, gangly, six-foot-four, bang-my-knees-into-everything stature.
He hesitated. “Are you my Kody?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she dragged the answer out. “Why are you asking?”
Nick rubbed at his neck. “Don’t know. Got a weird feeling all of a sudden.”
“It’s called detention, Mr. Gautier.” Richardson ripped off the paper with times and a room number for said punishment, and set it on the desk in front of him. “See you after school.”
Nick wasn’t sure what ticked him off more. The detention or the fact that the troll still couldn’t pronounce his name right. She always said “Gah-tee-ay” when she knew it was Cajun and pronounced “Go-shay.”
-Don’t say a word.-
He grimaced at Caleb’s voice in his head. Normally, he wouldn’t have listened. But for once, he was too grateful that this was typical of his luck, and decided to heed Caleb’s good advice. No need to antagonize the establishment.
Today, anyway. He just wanted the rest of the day to settle down and return to normal. No more freaky ghosts in the hall. No more unknown voices in his head.
-Please, for the love of God, let my day be normal for once . . . -
“What?” Richardson snarled. “No smart retort, Mr. Gautier? Cat swallow your tongue?”
Nick gave her a charming grin he didn’t really feel. “No, ma’am. A gator named Sense Formerly Known as Common.”
Sneering at him, she tottered her way to her desk so that she could insult someone else and ruin their day.
Caleb let out an annoyed breath. -Great,- he projected to Nick. -Now I have to get detention, too. I really hate you, Gautier.-
Nick batted his eyelashes at Caleb. -But I wubs you, Caliboo.-
That succeeded in wringing a groan out of Caleb.
“What was that, Mr. Malphas?” Richardson asked.
“Severe intestinal woe caused by an external hemorrhoid that seems to be growing on my right-hand side.” He cast a meaningful glower toward Nick.
The class erupted into laughter as Richardson shot to her feet. “Enough!” She slammed her hands on her desk. “For that, Mr. Malphas, you can join Mr. Gautier in after-school detention.”
Caleb let out an irritated sigh. --More quality time with my hemorrhoid. Just what I wanted for Christmas. Yippee ki-yay.--
Nick forced himself not to react to the sarcastic words only he could hear. If not for the fact that he knew the truth behind Caleb’s feelings where he was concerned, he’d be hurt by that animosity. But while he’d been trapped out of his body in another dimension, he’d seen and heard firsthand what Caleb really thought about him.
They were family.
Brothers in arms.
Yes, they fought and sniped. Yet at the end of the day, they would kill or die for each other. It was something each of them had proven. Of that, he had no doubt.
So he took the acerbic demon in stride and tried to keep in mind how hard life had to be for Caleb. He’d lost everyone he cared about. Had seen his wife brutally slain by his enemies and had spent centuries enslaved to a cruel, demonic master who’d hated his guts. One who hadn’t hesitated to abuse and mock him every chance he could. Yeah, Nick’s father had been a rank dog to everyone around him. Caleb had every reason in the universe to hate Nick, and instead, he was the best friend Nick had ever known.
-Hey, bud,- Nick mentally projected to Caleb. -Thanks.-
Caleb scowled. “For?”
Nick smiled as Caleb spoke out loud. -Not letting me die. Fighting by my side whenever I need you to, and for getting up this morning when I know you’d rather sleep till noon or later.-
His frown deepened. -You’re so weird.-
Given the fact that Nick was the hated son of a demon whose sole purpose was to one day end the world—and had been born the lead rider of the Apocalypse, Conquest, to be specific, and he was currently dating the ghost of a warrior he would kill in their future—weird was a massive understatement.
For that matter, if there was a primer for normality, Nick would be the first in line to buy it. His life was ever a case study of Murphy’s Law to the utter extremes.
Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. And in the worst way possible, at the worst possible time.
Yeah, that summed up his average day. Sad thing was, he was getting really used to that.
Just as the bell rang, Caleb sneezed.
Then sneezed again. And once more.
Nick froze at the startling sound he’d never heard before. Ever. Especially given the fact that Caleb’s features instantly paled.
“You all right, buddy?”
Caleb brushed his hand against his brow in a way that said it was not a good day to be Malphas. “I don’t feel well all of a sudden.”
“You don’t look so good either.”
“Sheez, Nick! You’re so blunt!” Kody chided as she stepped around him to check on Caleb. She placed her hand on Caleb’s forehead. “Gracious, hon. You’re burning with a fever.”
Caleb shook his head. “No. Can’t be. I don’t get sick.” He started coughing. Hard.
Wide-eyed, Nick stepped back. “While I’m no medic or nurse, that sounds pretty sick to me. And not the good kind of sick. The sick kind of sick. Like call-my-mama-I-need-soup-and-Kleenex sick.”
Kody patted Caleb on the back. “You okay, sweetie?”
Nodding, he drew a ragged breath. Then he started coughing again.
Richardson came over to them with an irritated sneer. “Is there a problem?”
Nick exchanged a worried glance with Kody before he answered. “I think Caleb’s illin’.”
Scoffing, Richardson curled her lip. “He looks fine to—”
Her words broke off as Caleb hurled at her feet. Shrieking, she jumped back, but not before he scored on her ugly brown ortho shoes.
Nick wrinkled his nose. “Dude, that’s so gross!” But awesome as all get-out! Nice to know Caleb had great aim in all things. “Man, what’d you eat for breakfast? That don’t look right. Is that small kitten bits or something?”
Turning bright green herself and retching, Richardson cursed them in a way that would have them suspended if the principal overheard one of them say that. “Take him to the office. Now!”
“Yes, ma’am.” Nick pressed his lips together to keep from laughing over the nasty retribution as he pulled Caleb’s arm around his shoulders and led him toward the front of school. Kody followed behind them.
As soon as they were clear of the room, Nick paused to whisper. “You want me to take you to the bathroom so you can teleport home?”
Caleb wheezed. “I-I-I can’t teleport.”
Nick went cold with dread. “What?”
Stark cold terror filled Caleb’s dark eyes. “My powers are gone, Nick. I’m human.”