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Ambrose wasn’t most people, and it’d been centuries since Savitar had frightened him even a little. Stepping away from his desk, he went to pour himself a drink.
Not wine or water, but rather the chilled blood of a perityle demon. Vintage age and packed full of the nutrients he needed to live.
That was if anyone was dumb enough to qualify his current existence as living.
Ambrose took a drink and savored it. Not quite as satisfying as when the demon had begged to have his life spared, but still fresh and heady. A slight smile quirked his mouth as he remembered killing the demon. He’d never understood how creatures who were so brutal and merciless to others expected someone else to show them the pity they’d been unable to dispense to their victims. A peculiar hypocrisy, to be sure. “Since when do I answer your questions?”
Savitar’s expression would have terrified the gods themselves. But since Ambrose was their scourge, it had no effect on him whatsoever. “You are tampering with powers you don’t understand.”
Ambrose raked a glare from the top of Savitar’s windswept hair to the bottom of his bare feet. “I find that funny as hell coming from you.”
“Yeah, and when I did it, I almost destroyed the world.”
The irony here was that Ambrose was actually trying to save it. He already knew how the world would end. The date, the moment. The screams of the humans as they realized it was all over and everything they’d once valued was now completely worthless …
That no amount of begging or bartering could help them.
Time was drawing close. He could feel the last of his humanity leaving him with the tick of every passing second, and when it did …
The world was doomed. There was no longer anyone who could stop him.
Not even Savitar.
“I know what I’m doing.”
Savitar ground his teeth. “No, Nick, you don’t.”
Nick. Savitar was the last of those who used his real name anymore, and the Chthonian did so only when he wanted to get Ambrose’s full attention.
Ambrose glanced back to where his black mirror lay covered, and he remembered how things had been when he was a boy. If he could just go back …
For one tiny nanosecond.
The smallest decisions made had such profound repercussions. One ten-minute wait could save a life.
Or end it.
One wrong turn down the right street or one seemingly unimportant conversation, and everything was changed. It wasn’t right that each lifetime was defined, ruined, ended, and made by such seemingly innocuous details. A major life-altering event should come with a flashing warning sign that either said ABANDON ALL HOPE or SAFETY AHEAD. It was the cruelest joke of all that no one could see the most vicious curves until they were over the edge, falling into the abyss below.
As Ambrose started away, Savitar grabbed his arm and pulled him to his side. His lavender eyes flared to a deep red. “You are awakening powers and bringing new players into your past. Players whose actions none of us know. You asked me yesterday about Nekoda.… You don’t remember her, because she wasn’t originally in your past. It’s your meddling now that took her to your door when you were a kid. And she’s not the only one. Don’t you understand? Your father was supposed to die before you hit puberty. That is the natural order, and that event was imperative for your growth and safety. Now he’s alive when he shouldn’t be, and you’re amassing powers at an age when—”
“I wasn’t supposed to have an older brother either. Was I?”
Savitar looked away.
Life-altering events. Unseen disasters. Little things that became …
Best not to go there.
Ambrose curled his lip. “You, Acheron, Artemis, my father … all of you kept your little secrets from me. Now I am trying to repair your mistakes.”
“And in the process, you’re making entirely new ones. Ones we can’t foresee yet. I can’t foresee yet. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
He did. And there was one thing he saw clearest of all. “Then you don’t know if what I’m doing is wrong.”
Savitar cursed. “You can’t rewrite the past. No one can. Not without terrifying consequences.”
“I am the Malachai.” Nick sneered at him. “I don’t take orders from you, Chthonian.” Designed to be the police of the natural order and protectors of man, Chthonians had been bestowed powers that would allow them to kill a god if need be.
But those powers didn’t work on creatures like Nick. Born of the darkest part of the universe, the Malachai were immune to all but one.
And that one wasn’t here to stop him from the destiny he’d been born to.
Tick … tock …
Savitar took a deep breath. “Fine. Hang on to that ego.” He pointed to Ambrose’s mirror. “What you’ve done is tapped your powers at an age when you were most vulnerable. Why do you think they were hidden in the first place? What you have done is unleashed the hounds of hell all over a young kid who’s incapable of fighting them.”
But Nick would learn. He knew himself and his survival instincts. Nick wouldn’t go down. Ever. “I sent him a protector.”
“Yeah. Good luck with that. Ask Acheron what happens when people tamper with the fates of others, even when all they were trying to do was protect them.… Oh, wait, I forgot. You can’t do that anymore, can you?” Savitar’s gaze seared him with an accusation he didn’t even want to contemplate. “Right now, in New Orleans, a fourteen-year-old kid is being stalked.”
“You know the answer. They’re there to shut you down and make you bleed. You think you’ve suffered now? Just wait and see what you’ve unleashed on yourself. And this time, you have no one else to blame. You did this with all of us trying to stop you.” Savitar flicked at the talisman around Ambrose’s neck. “You think you understand those powers because of what you are and the centuries you’ve lived. You don’t understand shit.”
He was wrong about that. Ambrose understood fully. Most of all, he knew what was about to happen if he didn’t change it.
Honestly, would it have been so bad had he died as a kid?
Part of him wondered if that was all it would take to stop the wheel from turning. To keep the end from coming.
Saddest of all was that every time he’d tried to kill himself, something had prevented it.
Except for the one time that was most important. Nothing he’d tried yet had prevented that from happening.
And all because of Acheron’s curse.
There had to be some way to break that.
He stroked the medallion. This was his last chance. After centuries of mistakes and miscalculations, if it didn’t work this time, it was over for all of them. He didn’t care that his life would end. As far as he was concerned, his life had ended when he was twenty-four.
It was all the others who would pay. They were the ones he was trying to save. The ones he’d once loved. The innocent who didn’t deserve what was coming to them.
He was slipping, and it was getting dark. Cold. Terrifying. Right now, he didn’t see an alternative ending. Not even with his meddling. Every road seemed to lead him back to this time and place.
Back to what was coming.
A war the world wouldn’t survive.
Trying not to think about the future he saw so clearly, Ambrose poured himself another drink. “You never answered my original question. Who and what is Nekoda?”
Completely stoic, Savitar shrugged. “The truth? I don’t know.”
I don’t know. Those words echoed in his head. The one thing he’d learned over the centuries of dealing with Savitar. Whenever the Chthonian said that, it meant one thing.
And it was never good.
Batten down the hatches. Things are going to get even bloodier.
Caleb let out a deep sound of supreme annoyance as he tried to keep Nick from wetting on the floor. “Calm down. I’m a demon, Nick. Hematite doesn’t like my genetics. It doesn’t mean anything other than I have really bad parentage.”
“Then why am I having flashes of you killing me?”
“What’d you eat this morning?”
Nick didn’t care for that answer. Not one little bit. “I saw it happen. You were choking the life out of me.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah. That is definitely a figment of your overactive, over-Hollywood-stimulated imagination. I assure you. I don’t kill people that way. Takes too long. I’m not into torture. I prefer a quick death so that I can move on to something more satisfying.”
Strangely enough, that he believed. Patience wasn’t a virtue Caleb practiced. “You sure?”
“Dude, look at me. You think I’d have let the demons pound all over me last night so that you could escape if I had any intention of killing you? Really? I’ve had enough pain in my existence. At this point, I’d like to avoid any more. Get your head out of your sphincter, and use your three brain cells to think it through.”
Nick raked his hand through his hair as he finally calmed down. Last night, Caleb had gone above and beyond. He was right. Nick had no reason to doubt his loyalty. “Sorry. I don’t know what to think anymore. I have all this weirdness inside me.”
“It’s called puberty.”
“Besides that,” Nick said drolly. “Actually, I miss that being my only problem. I just don’t know what to think anymore.” ’Cause every person around him wasn’t who or what he thought they were.
“It’s all right. I don’t blame you for not trusting me. I’ll be honest. I’m not above betrayal. However, if I betray you, I don’t want to face that demon. So you’re safe until I figure out a way to get out my slavery.”
Well, that said it all about their relationship. “Appreciate the honesty.”
“You should, since it’s a rarity for me.” Caleb yawned. “Glad to see you’re still breathing.”
“Glad to be breathing.” Especially since he’d spent the last hour before Caleb’s arrival entertaining Death. Not too many people could make that claim.
Caleb chucked him on the arm. “Don’t forget about your sling.”
“No need in my being here. You’re not under threat, and I’m still exhausted. I’m gonna rest. Not as young as I used to be.”
“How old are you?
Caleb laughed. “That many zeros and you just get tired of counting. Old enough to know better. Young enough to do it anyway.” He winked at him. “Catch you later.” He literally vaporized in front of him.
“I have so got to learn those powers.” What would it be like to do anything he wanted? To have all the money and time and powers he could dream of? He couldn’t imagine anything more awesome.
Closing his eyes, he conjured an image of himself as an adult. Only he didn’t see him. He saw Ambrose in his mind. And he didn’t look happy.
Weird. Ambrose stood in front of a giant ornate hearth, where a huge fire blazed. The flames flickered in a pair of eyes that were inhumanly green. With one hand braced against the stone mantel, he stared into the fire looking lost and sad. Heartbroken.
Don’t become me, Nick.
It wasn’t Ambrose’s voice he heard. It was deeper, sinister, and it sent a chill down his spine.
I’m losing my mind. He had to be. There was no other explanation.
“Hey, Nick. Need a hand.”
He blinked at the sound of Mark’s shout. Pushing everything out of his mind, he went to help them.
Hours went by as they put everything back and repaired the plaster walls. Just after three, Nick left them to walk over to the Café Du Monde. Nekoda had promised to meet him there after school. Even though school had been canceled, he hoped she’d show, and in case she did, he didn’t want her to think he’d stood her up.
It didn’t take long to reach the covered pavilion that was bustling with tourists and a few locals. World famous and a New Orleans tradition since the mid nineteenth century, the Café Du Monde was a must-see for everyone. Open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week except on Christmas and during hurricanes, this was one of Nick’s favorite haunts. The menu was reasonably priced (okay, it was cheap, which was why he could afford to come here for a rare treat) and extremely limited—basically water, milk, soft drinks, orange juice, and chicory coffee. But the real reason to be here was for the powdered sugar beignets. French doughnuts that didn’t have holes in them. Messy as all get-out, they were the tastiest thing he’d ever eaten. Forget cookies. Beignets ruled.