Nick threw his hands up to counter and fight as the mortent demon came at him with its messy, sloppy jaws snapping. Was it too much to ask for his telekinesis to be left intact?
Of course it was.
Or for a napkin so that the creature could clean up after itself and stop demon-drooling all over him? It was so gross! Made him never want to have a teething child. He’d done his time in the crying room at church.
Nick slugged the demon, causing the mucus to go flying.
Gah, his mom would have a fit if this was in her house. They’d have to fumigate. Defunk and do who knew what to make it livable again. Just once, couldn’t they get an attractive succubus after him?
No. Way too much to ask of the universe at large.
Nick caught the demon a blow that slimed his whole fist and left his entire arm numb.
His stomach churning with revulsion, he felt another visit to the bushes coming on, which was definitely not something he needed to do in the middle of being attacked by demons. That would probably not work out well for him.
Them either, really.
Unless he wanted the demon to keel over laughing at him. But hey, he had the tacky shirt for that. It had happened before. There was something to be said for being a demon laughingstock.
He ducked a punch the demon made at his head and twisted away from it.
“Caleb! Stop napping!” Nick head-butted the demon. “I need a little hand over here. One not covered in demon snot.”
Sliding in from the left, a colorful blur caught the demon in front of him, and slammed it to the side. Ah, he knew that blur and never had he been more grateful for that mass of mismatched hair, and almost seven feet of immortal fury.
While Xev continued to battle in his stead, Nick turned to find Caleb on the ground, oozing his black blood all over the pavement. Pale and shaking, his friend could barely breathe.
What the heck?
Terrified, he ran to Caleb.
Kody had already peeled his shirt back to expose an ugly, jagged wound where Caleb had been stabbed in his side, to the left of his navel that she was trying to tend. She held Caleb’s balled up t-shirt to it in an effort to stave off the bleeding.
Caleb grimaced. “Demon ran in behind me while I was distracted. Stabbed me before I killed it.”
Nick scowled. “You don’t get distracted.”
Sucking his breath in sharply, Caleb gestured at this side. “You would be wrong. Apparently.”
Xev came running to their sides.
Kody looked up at him. “Did you get the demon?”
With a nod at her, he grimaced at the sight of Caleb’s injury. “This is bad.”
Yeah. It wasn’t healing and Caleb was getting paler by the heartbeat. His breathing more and more shallow as it rattled in his chest. Even his form was beginning to fade from human to demon, which meant he was losing power and getting too weak to maintain his human disguise.
Nick froze at the underlying dire note in Xev’s voice. “What’s going on with him?”
“The blade was coated. I can smell the poison. They were assassins sent to kill Caleb.”
“They can’t kill him. He’s immortal.”
Xev scoffed. “We’re not immortal. We’re just hard to kill and immune to normal human decay, and weapons. But this wasn’t a man-made weapon. This one was made specifically for Daeves.” His eyes teared up as he wiped at the blood on Caleb’s cheek. “And I’m not losing you, brother. Not like this!”
Caleb grabbed the front of Xev’s shirt in a fierce fist. “Don’t you dare!” he snarled. “Don’t you even think about it. So help me, if you do it and I live, I will kill you.”
“You’re in no position to stop me.”
“What’s going on here?” Menyara rushed from the back door of her shop. No taller than his mom, she was a tiny slip of a woman who barely came up to the middle of Nick’s chest.
Dressed in bright yellow, she had her sisterlocks twisted into a loose bun. “What happened?”
Nick would gesture at the bodies, but since the demons were self-cleaning and had burst apart at death, Caleb was the only thing that gave testament to their earlier presence. “I was attacked by demons.”
“In my courtyard?”
Nick nodded. “One came out of your shop to get us.”
“That’s not possible. Demons can’t get through my barriers to enter my store.”
“This one did.”
Nick had never seen terror in her hazel green eyes, but he saw it today. And that did nothing to alleviate his own stress level. Rather it jacked that bad boy through the roof. He also knew what that expression on her face meant, and it wasn’t a ‘hey, Nick, how ya doing?’
“What aren’t you telling us, Mennie?”
Before she could answer, he realized that her fear wasn’t over what he was saying.
It was what Kody had been doing behind his back that she’d been watching.
Quicker than he could blink, Kody shot Menyara between the eyes with her bow at the same time Xev tackled him to the ground to get him out of the firing range. They fell a few feet from Menyara’s body.
Angry, grief-stricken and a whole lot of confused, Nick shoved at the much larger being. “What the hell, man?”
“It wasn’t Menyara. Look.” He gestured toward the body that Kody was now toeing while she kept another arrow nocked and ready to fly.
A body that burst apart into ashes a moment later, showing him that it’d been a demon who’d come at them again, and not Menyara, after all. The sudden wind carried the swirling embers until they were burned out and gone.
Stunned over the deception, Nick met his gaze. “My powers are gone.” Parcipacity had been the first he’d developed and it’d been the only one to never fail him.
He’d been completely deceived. No part of him had been able to tell that wasn’t Mennie. Not even a hair on the back of his neck had raised in warning. Ah, this was not good.
I’m defenseless. That thought ran through him like a freight train and sent him reeling. And with it came a new, overwhelming fear.
If the demons had made it into her store, what had happened to her and her staff? It wasn’t like she’d have opened the door and said, ‘here demon, come on in. Make yourself at home. Pull up a chair and have tea.’
His heart rose to painfully lodge itself in his throat as he jack-rabbited for the store. He slung the door open to find a battleground of shattered shelves, destroyed merchandise and utter destruction. They had rained down a mini Armageddon in here.
“No,” he breathed. How could they have gotten to Mennie? It shouldn’t have been possible. She was a goddess. Her powers absolute.
Yet there was no denying the mess that surrounded him. There were even scorch marks on the ceiling and walls where they’d fought with god-bolts. The protection seals on the walls continued to glow as if trying to contain whatever evil had happened here.
Unable to breathe, he turned at the sound of Kody’s voice. “What did they do to her?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. But we have to help Caleb, right now. He’s in bad shape.”
“What’s Xev wanting to do?”
“Call their father.”
“I thought he was being held captive like yours.”
She bit her lip. “Not like mine. Even though he’s enslaved, their father has the freedom to come and go.”
“Then let’s do it!”
As Caleb earlier, she hesitated. “It’s not that easy, Nick. You’re talking about raising a major power. He won’t come willingly and he holds no love of either son. There’s no guarantee that he’ll do anything to help them. Not without your cooperation.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re the Malachai. Their father is subservient to you. You can control him, but he won’t like it and he will fight you every step of the way. But . . . I might know something to leverage his cooperation.”
“How can I command him when I don’t have my powers?”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t risky.”
But if they didn’t do something, Caleb would be lost. And he wasn’t willing to take that loss.
Nick glanced around at the store, and the destruction that had been wrought. Whatever had broken through Menyara’s protection sigils and burst into here to take her had incredible abilities. In the past, they’d known their foes. Known what they were up against and how to fight them.
That’s not true.
Shut-up mind, I’m trying to pep talk myself. Last thing I need is you crapping all over it, and throwing logic and truth at me.
‘Cause honestly? He was terrified about this, and getting more so by the moment. Logic and truth would only serve to scare more bejesus out of him. The less sense and facts he had, the braver he’d be.
His breathing ragged, he met Kody’s worried frown. “What do we have to do?”
“We’ll have to leverage the farm for it, but . . . I know the one thing their father wants that you can use to bargain with. The one thing he’d never say no to.”
She laughed. “Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Your soul we’d have no trouble giving him. What he wants, will take a miracle and the best Cajun charm you possess.”
Gah, what was she wanting? “My freedom?”
“Maybe. I don’t know the price. But whatever it is . . .”
Nick would pay it to save Caleb’s life. He owed him that much.
Steeling himself, he inclined his head to her. “Let’s do this.”
They’d just started for the door when Xev and Caleb came through it. Caleb was leaning hard against Xev’s side. Quickly and carefully, Xev let him slide to the floor, then used his powers to slam and seal the door.
That, too, was concerning.
“What’s going on?”
“We’ve got company.” Xev moved past Nick to sift through the debris. “Kody, I need you to help me find hematite, malachite, bloodstone, and jet or obsidian. Quickly. As much as you can.”
Caleb cursed him, but Xev ignored him as he searched until he found a bottle of black salt and sea salt. He handed them to Nick. “Seal the doors and windows.”
Nick moved to do it as fast as he could. “Do I need to say anything?”
“No. Cam’s protection will return once we seal the thresholds.”
“Is that how they got in?”
Xev shook his head. “Someone invited the evil in. Probably one of her employees who didn’t know better.” Then under his breath, he muttered. “How many times do you humans have to be told to leave evil alone, and never, ever invite it into your circles.”
“Not exactly our fault, you know? It’s all pretty and shiny. If it came in looking like Nosferatu, we’d know to run.” Nick finished pouring the salt mixture, then returned to Xev’s side.
He was laying out the crystals.
Kody frowned. “You’re summoning him here?”
“We can’t exactly leave. Not to scare you two, but you might want to peek through the blinds.”
Nick did, then wished he hadn’t as he saw the demon spectacle going on in the street. “Is that viewable to the rest of humanity or are we just cursed?”
“I think we’re cursed,” she said, stepping away from the glass as a giant demon came up and screamed at it.
Nick jumped away and let the blinds fall back into place. “Okay, the hell-monkeys have returned and are having a party on our block. All they need is a float and krewe, and they’re ready for Mardi Gras season. Have I said today how much I don’t like them?”
“I think that feeling’s mutual.” Nekoda cringed as the slammed against the glass, trying to break through.
Nick winced. “That didn’t sound like them slinging beads at us. Think if I whip my shirt off, they’ll go blind and leave?”
No one commented on his stupidity.
Instead, Kody turned back to Xev. “I didn’t think he could be summoned unless it was at an oak tree with full moonlight.”
Xev passed her an irritated grimace. “I’m not a demon. Those rules don’t apply to me.”
That was true. He’d been an ancient god, which made Nick curious. “What exactly were you a god of, anyway?”
Caleb answered for him. “He was a chaos god, Nick. The god of blood disease, fire, plagues, famine, violent death, fear and destruction.”
“Yeah,” Xev said drily. “I was in charge of all the fun stuff.”
Wide-eyed, Nick passed a concerned look to Kody that he’d been dumb enough to set Xev loose in the world again. That might have been a mistake, in retrospect.
“Don’t give me that.” Xev grimaced at him. “Through chaos, order is born. I was a balance for a goddess whose powers negated mine. And before you judge me, need I remind you of what your role is in this universe, Malachai?”
“Valid point. You’re right. But while I was born of destruction, I’m trying not to end the world in an ugly war I lead. Which is my big bone of contention. I’ve read the books and seen the movies. The guy in my role is supposed to be the Chosen One. The good guy in a white hat. The kid who gets super powers and saves the world. Not the one who eats it. Who do I have to see about an upgrade of my role?”
Xev shook his head. “We are all victims of our births, Nick. And if we’re lucky enough to survive childhood, then it becomes a race to see if we can overcome those roles we’re assigned the moment we draw our first breath by those who judge our parents, and the labels everyone else wants to place on us. The labels we use to define and hem our own destinies with. Saddest curse of humanity is the day someone teaches you how to hate. And gives you a cause for it. You come into the world a pure, unscarred soul. And your first experience is being slapped on the butt by a callous hand, supposedly for your own good, to draw your first breath.”
He winced as if some horrible memory went through his mind as he looked down at Caleb. “Sad really that people would rather focus on what makes them different than on what makes them the same . . . compassion, hope.” He glanced from Kody to Nick. “Love. For all the differences between us, we’re more alike than anyone wants to admit.”
And with that, he began a chant.
Caleb tried to interrupt him, but he was too weak. Xev ignored him and continued.
Nick fell silent as he watched the two brothers who’d been divided by a single tragedy that had ruined both their lives.
It made him want to seek out his own brother. The thought had occurred to him a lot, especially lately, but since his brother was also cursed god, he’d avoided it. There was no telling what he might end up with.
Or how his brother might feel about learning of Nick’s presence. Nick wasn’t even sure if his brother knew Adarian was his father.
Even though his brother was a god, they didn’t “know” everything. Case in point, Menyara was currently missing. And she wouldn’t have been had she known demons were at her doors.
Like everyone else, gods could be fooled, too. And if his brother didn’t know he was part destructo demon, Nick definitely didn’t want to be the one to drop that bombshell on him. Lesson learned, never be the bearer of bad tidings to an angry god. It just didn’t pay. They tended to rip the wings off and eat those messengers.
As Xev chanted a loud sound popped. A bright light flashed.
Two heartbeats later, something even uglier than the hell-monkeys outside rose up to come at Nick and Kody.
Instinctively, Nick threw his hands out to attack it, only to remember he was powerless. Kody stepped around the deflect it before Xev caught it and banished it back to whatever dimension it’d come from.
“What was that?”
“When Menyara wrote the protections for her store, she trapped a number of entities in the fields around it. That was one of the things she pissed off.” Kody sighed. “What is going on here?”
(EDITED FOR MASSIVE SPOILER)
And speaking of . . .
Nick’s pocket began to burn him. Hissing, he realized it was coming from the amulet. “Why’s the Eye hurting me?” When he started to reach for it, Kody grabbed his hand.
“Your powers keep waning. We don’t know what’s going on. If you touch that right now . . .”
It could kill him.
“She’s right. You need to get that off you without touching it.”
“Drop your pants!” All three of them growled at once.
“Flipping great!” He yelled back. “Woman finally gets me out of my pants and it’s humiliating. Only my luck!” Unbuttoning his fly, he quickly toed his shoes off and pulled his jeans down before kicking them off. Thank goodness he’d worn boxers this morning.
Worse? His mom was right. It paid to always have on clean underwear.
You just never knew.
Lesson forever imprinted on his psyche for all eternity. Especially when Kody glanced down, looked up, and started snickering.
"Ah, cher!” he snapped. “Do you mind?”
“Sorry. It’s just adorably cute.”
“Cute? Really? That is not something a guy wants to hear the first time his girl sees him without his pants on. Dang, woman. Could you make this any worse on me? You know I have no ego as it is.”
“Sorry. So sorry.” And still she laughed. Pressing her lips together in an adorable expression, she batted her eyelashes at him. “It’s just . . . how Cajun are you that even your underwear is the New Orleans Saints? Seriously? I guess I should be grateful it’s not purple and yellow with masks and beads.”
Caleb snorted. “You should just be grateful it’s clean and that he’s actually wearing some that doesn’t have holes in it.”
Nick glared at him. “Shut-up and die already! I thought you were on your last breath an hour ago! Shouldn’t you have bled out by now?”
Just as Caleb opened his mouth to retort another bright flash almost blinded Nick. He expected it to be another hell-monkey.
No, this was something far worse. Far more sinister.
Tall, dark and terrifying, this creature was something that hell itself had spawned and spat out. Forget the Malachai. This made Nick’s father look like Mickey Mouse up against Godzilla.
They had bantered the term primal power, but until now Nick hadn’t understood what that meant.
Yeah . . . if this was the good guy, he dang sure didn’t want to meet the bad ones.
His head was bent low like a vicious predator that smelled fresh meat as he met Nick’s gaze. He had one eye that was a vibrant green and the other a dark, earthy brown. That stark contrast was as unnerving as it was startling. Shockingly enough, his features were almost identical to Caleb’s whenever Caleb was in human form. Same sculpted jaw. Same aquiline nose and arched brows, tawny skin and jet black hair. They were even the same height and build.
Only difference was the height and length of hair. Whereas Caleb’s was short, his father’s brushed his shoulders. There was also something even deadlier about his father’s demeanor. Colder.
Far more sinister.
Nick wouldn’t have thought that possible.
And when their father turned to face Xev, his eyes blazed a vibrant red. The green amulet around his neck glowed with an ethereal fire a moment before he blasted Xev so hard, it lifted him from his feet and sent him slamming into the wall behind him.
“I warned you!” he snarled at Xev as he closed the distance between them. “This time, I will rip out your worthless heart and feed it to you!”