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But as he looked, everything slowed down like some replay footage. The pendulum in his pocket heated up at the same time he felt Mark’s necklace vibrate.
His ears buzzed, and some noxious smell filled his head.
“That better not be you again, Mark.” He was in no mood for it.
No sooner had those words left his lips than the lights in the school went out. The screams of his classmates were deafening and thick … slowed down to match their current snail speed.
Out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning shot through his chest, picking him up from his feet and throwing him down the hallway.
Nick couldn’t breathe. It felt like his lungs had collapsed. He hit the wall above their lockers so hard, he wasn’t sure how he didn’t break through the concrete and crush every bone in his body. With nothing to catch him, he fell from the top of the wall, straight to the floor.
Dazed and tasting blood, he lay in a heap until something seized him by the shirt and shoved him against the wall. It pinned him there in an invisible fist that left him dangling.
“Are you the one?” The thick, monster voice wasn’t speaking English, and yet he understood it somehow. “Are you?”
The one for what?
To bleed on his shoes? Check.
To dent the wall? Check.
To kick his demon butt …
Nick clapped his hands over the creature’s claw, trying to pry it away from his body. It was useless and rated right up there with stepping on Clark Kent’s glasses. “Let me go!”
It pulled him closer to its nasty-smelling, bulbous body so that it could examine him. Then it slid him against something wet and slimy. What was that?
Oh yeah, the thing was definitely sniffing him.
“Uh, gah! Get off me! What are you?”
“It’s something ugly. Nick, get down.”
He barely had time to duck in the thing’s grasp before Caleb in full demon gear attacked it. The moment he did, the creature lost all interest in Nick as it turned to face Caleb.
Nick shot across the floor, to an area of relative safety so that he could figure out what was going on.
Walking backwards like a total badass, Caleb circled it, making it turn around to keep him in his line of sight. Dressed in gold battle armor that covered all but his glowing, evil snake eyes, Caleb made quite an impressive sight. Especially with the wingspan he had on his back. Two sheathed swords were crossed over his shoulders, but by his movements, Nick could tell Caleb could have those drawn and in the beast faster than anyone could say Liu Kang. Yeah, okay, so he looked more like Kano. But …
Liu Kang sounded cooler.
“Malphas…” The creature slurred his name into an insult. “I heard the Malachai had a lapdog. Who would have ever dreamed it was you?”
Caleb flinched. “Now, that just hurts me in my tender place, Bricis. Really? Was it necessary to add that insult?”
Ignoring him, Bricis jerked his chin toward Nick. “Is he the one?”
Caleb hit his breastplate twice to draw the creature’s attention back to him. “Right now, I’m the only one you need to concern yourself with.”
Bricis went for Caleb’s throat. Caleb caught his hand, then kicked him into the wall. Holding on to its arm, Caleb twisted it and drove its head into the wall, then the lockers. Growling, it twisted out of his hold and backhanded him hard.
The two went at each other like Jet Li and Jackie Chan in a historical death match, slashing, punching, lunging, and dodging. It was a beautiful, macabre dance to a tune only they could hear. Nick was awed by their skills.
Man, to have a little bit of that …
At least that was his thought until Caleb stabbed Bricis, slicing open its arm. The moment that stanky blood fell to the ground, it manifested into demonic helpers who went for Caleb.
He wasn’t about to let his friend go down for protecting him. Time to get your hands dirty.
Yeah, right. What was he thinking? This wasn’t like facing down a human coach. You’re about to get your butt kicked back to the Dark Ages. Maybe even the Stone Age. Them things got teeth like piranha. And they were chewing on Caleb.
Man or a mouse, Nick?
As if. Cowardice wasn’t in him. With a deep breath to brace himself for the additional pain he was about to be in, Nick ran at them. He caught the first one with fist to the gut.
It laughed like he’d tickled it.
Ah, snap. This was going to hurt, real bad.
But when it lunged at him, something miraculous happened. The same force that had taken control of him when he’d fought off the Mortents came back with a vengeance.
“No, Nick! Stop!” Caleb shouted.
Easier said than done. Whatever the power was, it radiated through him, raising his hair on end and washing him in a soft warm blanket of light. It was as if a part of him craved it and suckled on it the same way a baby craved his bottle. He needed this … whatever this was.
Caleb spoke in a language he couldn’t decipher. Suddenly a cloak appeared in his hands.
One second, Nick was hovering in the hall, beating off the sprout demons; the next, he’d been shoved into a locker. “Hey!” he shouted at Caleb. “I’m not Madaug! Why did you do this?”
Outside, he heard Caleb continue fighting Bricis and his blood minions.
“Where did he go, Malphas?” Bricis asked, as if he couldn’t hear Nick calling out to them.
Caleb drew his swords and twisted them around his body in a beautiful and flawless display of power and skill. “He’s no concern of yours. He’s not what you think.”
Bricis snorted a denial. “You wouldn’t defend him unless he was.”
“You don’t know me. At all.”
Bricis laughed as it and its offshoots pummeled Caleb with everything they had.
Nick struggled to get out of the cloak and rejoin the fight, but the harder he fought to escape, the tighter it wrapped itself around him. When he tried to call out to Caleb again, the cloak covered his mouth and stifled him.
Angry and desperate, he had no choice except to eat this degradation while Caleb fought alone.
I have to do something. Wait. He knew.
I know what you want, Nick, and I can’t interfere.
Even though he knew it was futile, Nick continued to struggle. “What do you mean you can’t interfere?”
There are rules, and if I intervene for Caleb, it would endanger you more. No offense, but you mean a lot more to me than he does.
“I don’t care about me. Caleb’s my friend. I don’t want to see him hurt for trying to help me.”
Ambrose snorted. Caleb is not your friend. Never, ever make that mistake, or you will be sorry.
Nick didn’t buy that for a second. He knew better. “How do I know you’re not the one lying to me?”
He could feel the presence of Ambrose’s disgust with him. Do we have to play this game again? I’m tired of it. No wonder Kyrian was always losing patience. Now I’m surprised he never killed you over it.
That sent a shiver over him. “What do you mean?”
Patience, Nick. Patience. Caleb can hold his own. Believe me. He’s fought much bigger and badder and meaner.
It didn’t sound that way to him. It sounded like a bloodbath.
Nick leaned forward so that he could look out the metal slits. There was blood all over the hallway and on the walls. It poured out over Caleb’s armor from numerous wounds.
Look, kid, I can’t stay here. The longer I do, the more dangerous it becomes.
“Coward!” But it was too late. Ambrose was already gone. “Yeah, run. You’re just like your brother, you worthless scum! Leave a friend to die for you. You sicken me!”
Still Ambrose didn’t answer.
Fine. Not like he meant anything to Nick, anyway. His uncle was cut from the same wicked cloth as his father. They deserved each other.
All of a sudden, it was quiet again outside. Leaning forward, he had to squint to see what was happening.
A giant green blob sizzled against the far wall, smoldering against the light blue cinder blocks. Between Caleb’s bleeding form and the blob, purple stains marred the tan tiled floor. Panting and clutching a bloodied sword, Caleb looked straight at him. He tucked his wings in as his armor melted into clothing. His scales flipped back over into human skin. The last things to change were those eerie serpentine eyes that glowed bright.
Caleb ran his hands through his hair before he closed the distance to the locker and opened it.
Nick fell out at his feet.
With a sound of disgust, Caleb stared down at him. “Was that really necessary?”
Nick tried to respond, but the cloth was still in his mouth.
“I know I’m going to regret this, but—” He snapped his fingers and Nick was released.
Nick came to his feet ready to choke him as he shoved the cloth away. “What do you think—?” He broke off as he realized Caleb was badly wounded. “Dude, you all right?”
“Need a minute to push the pain down before I free the others.”
“Free—?” Again, Nick hesitated as he realized the students around him were moving so slowly now, you could barely detect it. They appeared caught in a time warp of some kind. “What’s going on?”
“It’s the same concept that will one day allow you to fly. You can manipulate time and move through its stream unseen. I slowed them so that we could battle and they wouldn’t freak and be hurt by it.”
Nick was aghast at what he described. They could really do that?
Except for the stain on the wall. He inclined his head to it. “What was that thing?”
Caleb leaned back against the wall. “Fringe Hunter. Nasty one, too.”
“He wanted me?”
“No.” Caleb wiped a hand across his damp forehead. “He was after another.”
“That’s not what he said. He kept asking if I was the one.”
Caleb squinted at him. “That was something else that was aside from you. He wouldn’t have gone after you at all had you not exposed yourself to him.”
Excuse me? I do believe I kept it in my pants. “Meaning what?”
Caleb gestured toward the remains. “You cannot use your powers unless you’re around someone who can shield you. Dammit, Nick! You could have died. Do you not understand that? When I tell you something, you have got to listen. You idiot.”
He remembered what Ambrose had said about Caleb’s loyalty. “Why do you care?”
Caleb curled his lip into an expression that was purely demonic. “I don’t. Really. You die and I walk free. To me, that would be a great day.”
“Then why protect me?”
Caleb looked away from him as if the sight of Nick sickened him.
But Nick wanted answers, and he wasn’t going to stop until he had some. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“It’s like a bad movie, Nick. You were born the most cursed and blessed of any creature. An abomination that should never have been created, and yet, here you are. Like an unprotected infant who has no understanding of the world that created it. No understanding of the power and destruction you’re capable of. That you’re destined to kill everyone who loves you. Everyone you love.”
His heart pounded at what Caleb described.
No, it wasn’t true. He refused to believe it. He would never kill the people he loved. It wasn’t in him.
“You’re lying to me,” he accused Caleb.
“It’s true. You’re a plague, Nick. A pox on the—”
“Stop it, Malphas! Don’t you dare.”
Nick gaped at Kody’s outraged tone. Astonished beyond belief, he turned to see her approaching them from the south hallway.
Why wasn’t she frozen like the rest of their school? Instead, she was moving every bit as freely as they were.
Caleb sneered as she joined them. “I would suggest you leave us. This doesn’t concern you.”
She scoffed at his curt dismissal. “Of course it does. What are you trying to do?”
“He needs to know the truth. Not glossed over and prettied up. The pure, unvarnished truth of what he is and what he will do. If we were smart, we’d kill him now and do the world a favor.”
She gestured at Caleb. “Do you hear yourself?”
“Like you wouldn’t cut his throat if you were told to do so? Go ahead, Nekoda. Tell him who you work for.”
Panic darkened her eyes as she refused to meet his gaze.
This wasn’t good. Just when he thought he could trust someone, they turned out to be …
“Kody? Are you a demon, too?” Nick asked, desperate to know what he was dealing with now.