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“No,” Caleb said in a breathless tone. “She’s something that makes us look kind.”
Nick swallowed hard with that realization. There was something worse than a demon? That thought was highly sobering. “What are you, then?”
Caleb raked her with a smirk. “Humanity doesn’t have a word for her. She’s absolute agony.”
Kody glared at him. “And what are you?”
“In a word? Damned.”
Nick had heard enough. “And I’m gone.” Before he could move, they both threw their hands out and froze him in place.
This feeling of being a fly trapped on flypaper was getting really old. If they kept this up, he’d start charging them rent for the time of his they were eating alive with nonsense.
Kody shook her head. “This is not how I wanted him to find out about me. I was supposed to be incognito. Thanks for outing me, Malphas.”
He gave her a fake bow. “My pleasure. Anything to ruin your day.”
She cast a meaningful glare at his groin. “Yeah and I’m about to ruin your nights, lover boy. For eternity.”
Caleb snorted. “What else is new? Not like I have free time, anyway.”
“I don’t understand where your head is,” she said in a disgusted tone. “How can you be so cold after everything?”
“I’m tired, Nekoda. Unlike you, I don’t get a break from my hellish existence. And I don’t see why we’re doing this ridiculous dance when we both know how this play ends. Prophecy is prophecy. Nothing ever changes it. Nothing.”
She disagreed. “And human will is the strongest force ever created. There are those born to succeed and those who are determined to succeed. The former fall into it, and the latter pursue it at all costs. They won’t be denied. Nothing daunts them.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Do you really believe what you’re spouting?”
“Look me in the eye and tell me that you’ve never once had a single doubt.”
She screwed her face up. “Of course I have. Without doubt there can be no faith.”
Shaking his head, Caleb stepped around her. “And I grow sick of your pithy little sayings. Really. Change your tune, hon.”
Kody didn’t try to stop Caleb from walking away from them.
“What’s going on, Kody? Who are you? What are you doing here?”
She appeared heartsick. “Think of me as a guardian.”
“I can’t tell you that. It’s forbidden.”
Like everything else seemed to be these days. It was really getting old to have no real answers. “Are you here to kill me?”
She shook her head. “I’m an observer who reports your progress to others.”
“It’s true, Nick. Like Caleb, I’m here to watch over you, but for a whole other reason. We have to make sure that you stay human and that your feelings don’t wither and die.”
“Because when you stop caring about anyone or anything, Nick, you will become a pawn and a slave to some of the darkest powers ever created. When that happens, you will destroy the world.”
It wasn’t every day you found out that you were destined to destroy the world. And as those words slammed into Nick, he felt as sluggish and lost as the people barely moving in the air around him. Like he was going in slow motion, attempting to catch up.
“What are you saying?” he asked Kody, trying to get a handle on this moment.
“It’s true, Nick. It’s why so many creatures are after you right now. If they can capture you while you’re weak, they can harness your powers and use them for their own gain.”
“I won’t let them do that.”
She inclined her head to him. “That’s what we’re here to ensure. Caleb and I are your protectors. He for your body and I for your mind.”
Huh? Other than the fact he was insane, there wasn’t anything wrong with his mind. Why would it need its own protector. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Of course it does. Think about it for a second. Your goodness and your free will are all that keep you from breaking and becoming apathetic. You have to hold on to that part of yourself always.”
“And if I don’t?”
“You know the answer.”
He would kill everyone, and all the people around him would cease to exist. He shook his head. “I don’t think I like this. I don’t want this power. Take it away from me.”
“I can’t. No one can. And right now, you don’t have the power either. You’re just an embryo.”
Maybe there was time. Maybe …
“Then I won’t learn it.” If he never embraced his powers, they couldn’t be used by anyone, not even him. That should protect everyone.
Kody gave him no reprieve. “You have to. If you refuse, your hand will be forced one way or another, and everyone you love will pay the price. You have to become strong enough to protect yourself and those around you. It’s the only hope any of you have. It’s the only hope any of us have. Don’t you understand, Nick?”
“No. I don’t understand.” He felt like the entire world was caving in on him. He had a principal dying to send him to jail. A coach out to kill him. A boss who was an immortal vampire slayer. His two best friends were certifiable, and a pseudo girlfriend who’d just told him he was the ultimate bomb that would end the world.
I’m not old enough to cope with this.
He was just a kid.
Unable to breathe, he met Kody’s gaze. “I want to go back and be normal again. Forget all this. I want to spend mindless hours playing video games and—”
“Nick, you’ve never been irresponsible, and you know it.”
It was true. But …
He could learn. He was willing to.
Stop it. Since the moment he’d been born, he’d had to take care of his mother. Watch out for her.
The spell on his classmates broke. In the blink of an eye, everything went back to normal with a loud, angry rush. None of them the wiser for the battle that had been fought right in the middle of them while they scurried along, trying to make class before the next bell. None of them seeing the remains that had already faded to nothing more than his bad memory.
Nick knew, and he’d never be normal again.
It’s a lie. She’s messing with you.
But deep down inside, he knew better. This wasn’t a lie. It felt like the truth.
I won’t do it. I won’t.
You said that about stealing, and what are you doing?
Given the right stimulus, anyone was capable of anything. Bubba had hammered that thought into him repeatedly. Even Mother Teresa could be moved to violence if the right buttons were pushed.
Nick had never been too sure of that analogy, and yet …
“I need a break for minute.”
Kody moved toward him. “You want me to stop—?”
“No!” he snapped, terrified of what she might do. “I don’t want any kind of hocus-pocus or anything else. I just want to sit here for a minute and think.”
The bell sounded.
He needed to get to class and start his day. He had a list of things to steal for his coach.…
That was laughable, given everything else going on. “Can I be killed?” he asked her, wondering exactly who and what he was.
“What happens if I die?”
“Honestly, we’re not completely sure. Other than your father’s powers will continue to grow until—”
“Wh-wh-whoa-what? My father?”
She nodded. “Where do you think all of this came from? You were born to be your father’s replacement. Once you are safe, he will have to surrender.”
“Surrender or die?”
“If he doesn’t yield his title willingly, he will be killed.”
Well, that explained why the man hated him so badly. Why he couldn’t stand to even look at him. Out of everything else he’d learned, that actually made him feel a little better. For the first time in his life, he understood his father.
“The stuff my dad told the police about demons attacking him—”
“All true, and those forces will now be after you, too.”
“Move, Gautier, you worthless hobo.” Stone shoved him hard as he passed by.
Nick started after him, only to find Kody in the way. “That’s the kind of reaction that will cause you to fail. It will lead your enemies to your door. Is Stone really worth that?”
“What about my mom?”
“You already know the answer.”
He was her protector, too. Always the man of the house. “If I died—”
“Your father would have another child. That one won’t have your humanity. Your mother is what makes you special, Nick. Adarian’s next woman wouldn’t be her. His child wouldn’t be you. All of us are a culmination of vital parts of our parents and their pasts. A vital part of the circumstances we were raised with. Everything that happens to us, good and bad, leaves a lasting impression in our souls. You take one part of that out, and you can completely rewrite something crucial about us. By and large, we’re not shaped by the big things. It’s the little, day-to-day moments that make us who we are. Who we’re going to be.”
His head was pounding from trying to digest all of this.
“I’m so overwhelmed.”
“Most of us are, Nick. Even though we look calm and peaceful on the outside, most of us are barely hanging on by our fingernails. You know why Bubba watches Oprah every day?”
She shook her head slowly. “It was his wife’s favorite show, and she died while watching it.”
That news floored him every bit as much as the news of who he really was. “Bubba was married?”
“Bubba was a father.”
He gaped. Bubba a dad? How was it possible he didn’t know this? “Did she leave him?”
“Not willingly. She was home sick from work, tending the baby when someone broke into their house and killed them. Bubba came home from work to find them, and he had a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter. He quit his high-tech, high-paying job and opened his store so that he could provide the world with the security and arms they needed to protect what they loved. It’s why he prowls the night, looking for other predators out to take innocent lives. It’s why he can’t sleep and why he seems so obsessed. He is.”
And that explained the free classes he taught at night on how to survive. The self-defense classes where he recruited as many women and kids as he could get. The reason why he kept everyone at a distance at times.
Everything made sense now.
Nick felt sick over what she described. “None of that was a small decision. It all looks pretty major from here.”
“You’re looking at the big picture that’s made up of tiny little dots. Like that painting of a picnic on the beach. From a distance, it looks like a well-defined picture, but up close you can see all the tiny pinpricks that give the bigger illusion. Bubba’s wife decided to leave work early and go straight home and not to the doctor. She decided to pick up their baby from the sitter and to wait to go to the grocery store for supplies. She’d asked Bubba to come home early, too, but he’d decided that he needed to work. Had just one of those tiny variables changed, his entire life would be completely different.”
“Or would it?”
Kody arched a brow.
“If she’d left the baby with its sitter, she’d still be dead. How would that change anything?”
“With an infant to feed, Bubba wouldn’t have dedicated himself to his store. He would have wrapped himself around the child, and that would be the focus of his world.”
“How do you know that?”
“Look in your heart, and you know the answer.”
He did, but he wasn’t ready to accept it yet.
Kody leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “Had you not gone to see your mother the night you were shot … had you headed home as you were supposed to after work, you wouldn’t have met Kyrian. Your mother would still be—”
“I get it.” Had he not stood up to Alan, Kyrian wouldn’t have saved his life either. Kyrian would have thrown him in with the rest of the riffraff.
One little decision.
One life-altering event.
“How will we ever know when those important moments come?”
“That’s why you have to learn your powers. You’ve heard the sayings, and they’re absolutely true. Forewarned is forearmed. Knowledge is power. By understanding the nuances of the world around you and how to survive the temptations, you can rule anything. Even yourself.”