It was close to four in the afternoon when Nick rounded the corner of the Pedestrian Mall and caught sight of Ash standing outside of the Corner Cafe, waiting for him. The Atlantean was leaning back against the red-brick wall with his arms folded over his chest and one leg bent and braced on the wall in a way that looked nonchalant, and yet Nick knew Ash could launch himself into action at the slightest provocation.
Dressed in black leather pants, a black T-shirt, and a long, pirate/Colonial style coat, Ash was watching the tourist crowd cut a wide berth around him.
A lethal, dark aura surrounded him. An aura like the one around a wild predator that was both graceful and attractive to behold, but one that let a person know that at any minute they could wind up as lunch.
No one was ever sure how to approach the oldest Dark-Hunter and so most people treated Ash like a visit to the dentist.
In all honesty Nick felt sorry for him. It must be hard to wield so much power and not have anyone to confide in. Ash kept a big distance between him and anyone who would get close to him-both physically and mentally.
Nick tried to treat him just like he would any other guy he hung with and he suspected Ash liked that.
At least he seemed more relaxed around Nick than he did the other Hunters or Squires.
"Look, Mommy, a giant!"
Nick turned to see a little girl around the age of five pointing up at Ash.
Her mother took one look at Ash, gathered her daughter into her arms, and hurried across the street toward the cathedral as fast as her legs would carry her.
Ash waved at the little girl who was still telling her mom to look at him. Poor guy.
Nick closed the distance between them. "You know, if you dressed a little less scary, people might not do that to you."
Pulling his sunglasses low on the bridge of his nose with his forefinger, Ash gave him a wry smile. "Trust me, Nick, it's not the clothes."
He was probably right. Ash had a way about him that was unnaturally intimidating and lethal-kind of like you knew something about Ash wasn't quite human.
Nick noticed Ash had changed hair color. Again. This morning when he'd been at Kyrian's, Ash's hair had been purple. "Back to being black-haired, eh?"
"Back to being annoying, eh?" he quipped.
Ash pushed himself away from the wall and picked his black backpack up from the ground. Nick had never known Ash to leave it behind and he'd always been curious about what it contained.
However, he wasn't suicidal enough to try to find out. Ash guarded that bag like a treasured jewel.
"So, how was your test?" Ash asked.
"It sucked. I could have used my microscopic two-way communicator with you. I'm taking Classical Greek civilization with Julian Alexander and he's kicking my ass. That man is one tough drill instructor."
"Yeah, he was never one for nepotism."
Nick inclined his head toward the restaurant, which was only about half full. "Do you mind if I eat while we have this meeting? I skipped lunch to study and now I'm starving."
"Sure," Ash said, then held the door open for him to enter first.
Now that Nick thought about it, Ash did that a lot. He never let anyone get behind him. He always stood with his back to something or kept the crowd in front of him.
His mother would call that a gunfighter's itch. That nervous twitch of someone who expected at any moment to face an unseen attack.
Nick sat at the far end of the bar counter while Ash straddled a stool and kept his back to the wall so that he could watch the diners and the door.
A burly, older bartender came over to them. "What can I get the two of you?" he asked in a deep, hoarse voice.
"Give me a Bud Light," Nick said.
The bartender nodded, then turned to Ash. "What about you?"
The bartender narrowed his eyes and gave Ash a thorough once-over. Nick clenched his teeth to keep from smiling. He knew what was coming before the bartender spoke. "You got any ID on you, kid?" he asked Ash.
Ash kicked Nick's stool as he fished his mock ID out of his back pocket and handed it to the bartender who studied it very carefully.
"No offense," the bartender said at last, "but with those sunglasses on I can't tell if this is you or not. If you want a beer, kid, you'll have to take them off."
His jaw muscle ticcing, Ash removed his sunglasses.
The bartender cleared his throat as soon as he caught sight of the eerie silver color. "Man, I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were blind. Here's your ID."
Nick laughed even harder as the bartender took Ash's hand into his and put the state-issued ID card into it. Ash was the only Dark-Hunter who ever got carded.
As the bartender walked off, Nick couldn't resist teasing Ash. "So, does this make you visibly challenged?"
"No," Ash said, putting his ID back into his pocket, "but if you don't lay off me, I'm going to make you breathing impaired."
Nick sobered. Slowly. "Sorry, it's just funny as hell to me. I love that ID Jamie made for you. Born 1980. Yeah, right. What year were you really born, anyway?"
Ash rubbed his forehead. "9548 B.C."
"Whoa," Nick breathed, impressed by the date. He'd known Ash was old, but this was the first time he'd been told the exact year. "You really are older than dirt."
The bartender returned with their beers. "Are you eating anything?" the bartender asked.
Nick ordered red beans and rice, then returned to their conversation as the bartender ambled off again. "How old does that make you?"
Ash took a drink of beer before answering. "Eleven thousand five hundred and fifty-one years old, and yes, I feel every day of it."
"Wow, I had no idea. Hell, I didn't even know we had people back then."
"Yeah, I was part of the original Bedrock crew who worked in the quarry on the back of dinosaurs and ran with the Flintstones. Barney Rubble was short, but he played a good game of stone-knuckle."
Nick snorted, then laughed. He really did like Ash even though the guy was extremely strange. "So, why am I here?"
"I wanted to talk to you in a place where I knew Kyrian couldn't overhear us."
Before Ash could answer, a tall brunette knockout with long, shapely legs and wearing a very short black skirt walked up to the bar beside them. She glanced at Nick disinterestedly, then she placed an elegant, manicured hand against Ash's chest, stood on her tiptoes and whispered in Ash's ear.
He gave her a kind smile. "I appreciate it, love, but I'm involved with someone."
The brunette pouted and handed Ash a business card. "You change your mind, let me know. I promise, I don't bite."
"Yeah, but I do," Ash said under his breath as she walked off.
Nick wasn't sure he'd heard that so he chose to ignore Ash's hushed comment as the bartender brought his food.
"You know," he said to Ash, "that's so not fair. I don't understand how it is you dress like a freak and still women want to do you."
Ash turned his head and gave him an amused smirk. "When you got it, you got it."
"Yeah, but it's seriously annoying to those of us who want it. The least you could do is share." Nick took a bite of food. "Who are you involved with anyway?"
Ash didn't answer. He never did. "Back to our discussion. The reason you're here is that I need your help to break the news to Kyrian that Valerius is in New Orleans."
Nick choked on his bread. "Oh, like hell."
"Nick, this is serious. Sooner or later they will cross paths and I want both him and Julian prepared for it. If, Zeus forbid, one of them kills Val, Artemis will have free rein to go after them. I don't want to see either one of them suffer or die. They have wives and kids who need them."
Nick wiped his mouth and swallowed. "What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to back me up. Help me convince Kyrian that he doesn't need to extract revenge on Valerius."
Nick let out a tired breath as he raked his plastic fork through the beans. That was something that was much easier said than done. "You're asking a lot of me, Ash. Personally, I'd like to help him beat the crap out of that arrogant bastard."
"Nicholas Ambrosius Gautier, you watch your language!"
Nick jerked around at the sound of his mother's melodic Cajun drawl. She stood behind him with the Nick-you're-in-trouble-buster scowl on her face. At forty, she looked a lot younger and had her long blond hair put up in a bun. Dressed in jeans and a blue sweater, she would have been very attractive if she weren't his mother.
Ash moved Nick's beer closer to him.
His mother clucked her tongue at Ash. "Now don't you be covering for him, Ash." She wagged her finger at Nick. "Are you driving?"
"No, Mom, I'm sitting."
"Don't get smart with me. You know what I mean."
He offered her his charming smile that usually worked to get his butt out of trouble. "It's my first, and I won't drive if I have any more."
She turned to Ash with the same motherly scowl that managed to be both peeved and loving. "What about you? Are you on that motorcycle of yours?"
"Mom," Nick said, annoyed by her interruption, "what are you doing here?"
"I was walking to work and saw you two in here. I just wanted to stop in and say hi since I won't be home until late and you busted out of the house at dawn without so much as a goodbye to me." She gave him a hurt look. "Can't a mother spend five minutes a day with her son without it being a criminal offense?"
Now he felt like a total heel. "I'm sorry, Mom. I had to do a few things for work this morning and I wanted to get it done so I could have more study time."
She ruffled his hair. "It's okay, I understand."
Then she looked Ash up and down, opened his coat and sighed in concern. "I swear you're even thinner than you were the last time I saw you." She motioned the bartender over and ordered red beans and rice for Ash. "You want anything else?" she asked him.
"No, thank you."
She wagged her finger at Ash. "You're going to eat all of it, right?"
Nick pressed his lips together to keep from laughing at Ash's Eddie Haskell impersonation and his mom trying to mother an eleven-thousand-year-old warrior. Only Cherise Gautier would have that kind of gall. "Mom, he doesn't need you to baby him."
She straightened the collar of Acheron's coat and smoothed it with her hand. "Trust me, Nick, he needs someone to watch out for him, just like you do. You boys just think you're all grown-up and ready to take on the world."
If she only knew...
"Now," she continued, "why don't you bring Ash over to Sanctuary tonight and let me make him some strawberry shortcake and Cajun hash browns to put some meat on those lean bones of his? You can study in the back room if you need to and keep me company while I work."
His mother would never accept the fact he was grown. To her, he would always be five years old and in need of her to watch out for him. Still, he loved his mother.
"Yeah, okay. If I don't have to work, I'll stop by."
"Good boy." She reached into her purse and pulled out two twenties, then handed them to Ash. "You can pay for the red beans and rice with that, and if you have another beer, you better take a cab home too. Got me?"
"Will do, Mrs. Gautier," Ash said as he took the money. "Thanks."
She smiled, then kissed Nick on the cheek and squeezed Ash's forearm. "You boys behave and try to stay out of trouble."
Nick nodded. "We will."
Once she was gone, Nick turned back to Ash. "Man, I'm sorry about that. Thanks for being so cool with her."
"Nick, never apologize for your mother. Just be damned grateful you have her." Ash handed him the forty dollars.
"Believe me, I am," Nick said as he pocketed it. He smiled at his mother's loving nature. She'd always had this insane need to mother the world, but then, she'd been thrown out of her father's house at age fifteen when they had learned she was pregnant with him. So, she tended to have an affinity for anyone she thought was another abandoned or neglected youth.
The bartender returned with Ash's red beans and rice.
Ash took one look at it and slid it over to Nick. "I hope you're hungry."
Nick was, but two orders was more than even he could handle. Suddenly, it dawned on him that he had never once seen Ash eat food. "Do you ever eat?"
"Yeah, but what I need isn't on the menu."
Not wanting to pursue that one, Nick frowned. "Now that I think about it, why are we meeting in daylight? How can you be out in the sun and not go up in flames?"
"Ahhh, so we're back to the visibly challenged thing, huh?"
Ash shook his head.
As Ash reached for his beer, he noticed the TV out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head, he felt his body go numb in disbelief as he saw Zarek's picture on the early news.
A waiter turned the sound up.
"... believed to be the same man who murdered a woman in the Warehouse District earlier last night..."
Nick cursed. "Is that who I think it is?"
Ash could only nod as he watched the webcam pictures that had captured Zarek's fight with the Daimons and the arrival of the police.
"... the police department is offering a reward for any information on the suspect."
Nick and Ash cursed in unison as they showed a perfect sketch of Zarek's face.
"We're screwed," Nick breathed.
"Screwed blue and tattooed," Ash snarled. He pulled his cell phone from his coat and left the bar to call Zarek. The last thing he needed was for anyone to overhear this particular conversation.
Nick followed him outside. "What are we going to do?"
Ash hit the cancel button. "His phone is off. He must still be asleep."
"Are you ignoring my question or did you not hear it?"
"I heard you, Nick. I don't know. We have to keep him hidden. With those pictures, he's as good as convicted."
"Can you monkey with them?"
"I don't know. My powers are iffy at best with modern electronics. The best I can do is blow them..." His voice trailed off as he saw something even more gut-wrenching than Zarek's face on the news.
Ash let out a disgusted sigh and looked up at the darkening sky. "Are you bored up there, Artie, or what?"
"Huh? What's up?"
Ash inclined his head down Chartres Street to the two figures who were headed straight for them. Almost equal to him in height, the brothers moved like two dangerous predators, slowly, rhythmically. They looked to the left and right, scoping out everyone they passed as if sizing them up as an opponent, a conquest, or a victim.
Dressed in black, both of them wore long leather coats that swirled around their biker boots. They each had one hand tucked into the folds of the coat as if concealing a weapon.
Oh yeah, these were two of the most dangerous creatures Ash had ever known. More so because they would kill anyone who threatened them without a moment's hesitation.
"Who let the dogs out?" Ash snarled.
Nick frowned. "What?"
"We have two members of the Katagaria moving in," he explained to Nick.
Katagaria were animals who could take human form and pass through society to procure victims or anything else they craved. Like any other wild animal, they were extremely lethal and unpredictable.
"Oh God," Nick breathed, "don't tell me they're Slayers."
"That depends on who you ask."
"What do you mean?"
"The Arcadians would call them Slayers. But to their Katagaria brethren, they're Strati."
Nick frowned. "Strati means what?"
"It's the correct term for Katagaria soldiers. Slayers kill indiscriminately anyone and anything that crosses their paths. Strati kill mostly to protect themselves, their pack, and their territory."
"So, they belong here?"
Ash shook his head as the two wolves drew closer. They slowed as they caught sight of him.
"Acheron Parthenopaeus," Vane said, stopping in front of him. "It's been a while."
Ash nodded. It'd been at least a couple of hundred years since he had last seen them. They had been on the run then from the human Arcadians who hunted their unique species through time. The two brothers had been trying to find someplace safe to hide their sister from their enemies.
Vane was the older of the two brothers; he had shoulder-length dark brown hair with reddish highlights. His feral green eyes never missed anything. Fang was about an inch taller than Vane and had short black hair and hazel eyes. Either one was dangerous when alone-together, they were damn near invincible.
"Vane. Fang," Ash said, inclining his head to each in turn. "What brings you two to New Orleans?"
Vane cast a suspicious look to Nick, then must have decided something about Nick wasn't too threatening. "We're denning."
Ash grimaced at the term, which meant the Katagaria wolves had a pack here, and were planning on settling in New Orleans for a while. "That's a real bad idea. It's Mardi Gras and we have a lot of Daimons who tend to party then. You need to take your pack-"
"We can't," Vane said, cutting him off. "We have six females in our group about to give birth."
"And another one who gave birth this morning," Fang added. "You know our laws. We're stuck here until the pups are old enough to travel."
This was getting better and better. Pregnant Katagaria were Daimon magnets due to the strength of their souls and the psychic powers their breed carried. Not to mention the fact that New Orleans was home to three groups of Arcadians who would love nothing more than to claim the skins of Vane and Fang.
"You do know there are three groups of Arcadian Sentinels here?" Ash asked.
Vane's eyes darkened threateningly. "Then you'd best tell them to back off. We have young, and if I catch them anywhere near our den, I will rip them to pieces."
Ash took a deep breath and would have laughed at the absurdity of what he faced had he not felt ill. This just wasn't his day.
He had a horny, pissed-off goddess to contend with. A Celt who was MIA. A Roman general in a city with three men who wanted to disembowel him. An uncontrollable Dark-Hunter the police wanted for murder. And now a Katagaria wolf pack that was popping out seven litters of pups right in the heart of their enemies.
Yes, it was good to be in charge...
Nick sniffed the air and looked around. "What is that? Do I smell gumbo?"
Vane and Fang stiffened as Nick moved closer to them.
In spite of the fact that Vane was growling under his breath, Nick pulled back a corner of Vane's coat to display a bright pink box that he had hidden in his left hand.
"What is that?" Nick asked.
"Gumbo," Vane said, his voice low and gravelly.
"Since when do werewolves eat gumbo?"
Ash cringed at Nick's question.
Fang lunged at Nick, but Ash caught him and forced him back before he could reach Nick's throat.
"We're not werewolves, cattle-boy," Fang snarled. "We are wolves. Period."
Nick looked bemused by the insult. "Cattle-boy?"
"Slang term," Ash supplied. "Stemming from the fact that they view humans as food."
Nick took a step back.
"Pink boxes, huh?" Ash asked, amused at the thought. No wonder they were hiding them.
Vane passed a menacing glare from Nick to him. "Anya had a craving for gumbo and chocolate. And she wanted it from the Flamingo Room and nowhere else."
Ash felt the corners of his lips twitch. "I can't believe you would run this errand for your sister."
Fang snorted. "Yeah well, remember, the term bitch was invented for our females."
Vane growled at him. "She's our littermate, Fang. Show her respect."
Fang's eyes flared, but he tilted his head down in submission to his older brother.
Vane handed the pink box to Fang, then pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote down a number. He handed it to Ash. "That's my cell. You need help with the Daimons, let me know. We have a dozen Strati in our pack and the last thing we want are Daimons sniffing around our females and pups."
Ash took the number and put it in his pocket. He'd barely concealed it when he noticed the rest of the Strati moving in.
They moved stealthily around the street corner like a herd of wild dogs. Fanned out and dressed in black, they looked very much like the lethal killers they were. Everyone on the street rushed away from them, and eyed them nervously.
So much for being low-key. But then, the Were-Hunters had never cared who or what knew they existed. If anyone gave them trouble, they ended up as lunch.
The Strati surrounded him and Nick.
"Dark-Hunter," Stefan growled. Standing even in height with Ash, he was the Strati leader and Vane's mortal enemy. The two of them fought together when they had to, but otherwise couldn't stand each other. "What are you doing with our filos?"
Ash noted the way Stefan's lips curled as he used the affectionate term for a male pack member. There was no love lost between Vane and Fang and their packmates. Still, Ash was an outsider and the pack always presented itself as a unified whole to any outsider.
"I was sharing information," he said.
Stefan narrowed his eyes on Vane. "Did you acquire our supplies?"
Vane snorted as he glanced at Nick. "It's a sad day when cattle can smell it and you can't."
Stefan started to attack, but the steely look on Vane's face set the older man back. Stefan was leader because of his age and experience. Vane was subordinate only because he had yet to challenge him. Should Vane ever choose to challenge Stefan for supremacy, there was no doubt who would win.
"Later," Stefan said to Ash before he led the bulk of the Strati away.
Vane and Fang stayed behind.
"Use the number if you need us, Ash," Vane said.
They joined the rest of their pack and mounted the motorcycles they had parked on the street behind them.
Ash didn't move until they were gone from his sight.
"Now that's a scary bunch of folks, ain't it?"
"No, Nick," Ash said slowly. "They're not folks. They're animals. They might walk in human form for a short time, but at the end of the day, they are all wolves."
His cell phone rang.
Ash answered it. It was Talon, his voice filled with pain and rage.
"I need your help, T-Rex. I'm at Club Runningwolf's. They took Sunshine."
"Who took Sunshine?"
"The Celtic god, Camulus. As soon as the sun sets I'm going after him."