No. No! “Don’t, Momma. Please, don’t.” He couldn’t lose his wings. He just couldn’t. He would rather die. “Please.”

“I told you not to call me by that wretched name!” she screeched.

Panic caused little crystals of ice to form in his blood. “I’ll never do it again, I promise. Just...please, don’t do this. Please.”

“You can take my legs. Just take my legs!”

“And make you dependent on me the rest of your life? No.” A slow grin lifted the corners of her lips. “I should have done this a long time ago.”

A second later, she struck.

Koldo screamed and screamed and screamed...until his voice broke and his strength drained. Until he saw his beautiful wings on the floor, the feathers now soaked in his blood.

Until he could only close his eyes and pray for death.

“There, now. Hush. It’s done,” she said almost gently. “You lost what you did not deserve.”

This was a dream, surely. His mother was not so cruel. No one could be so cruel.

Soft, warm lips pressed into his tearstained cheek, and the jasmine and honeysuckle of her scent overshadowed what remained of the coconut. “I’ll hate you forever, Koldo,” she whispered into his ear. “There’s nothing you can do to change that.”

His mother was far worse than cruel.

“I don’t want to change it,” he said, his chin quivering. Not anymore.

A tinkling laugh escaped her. “Is that anger I hear? Well, well. You’re already more like your father than I knew. Perhaps it’s time you met him.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “Yes, in the morning, I’ll take you to your father’s people. You’ll realize just how good I’ve been to you—if you survive.”

In a world of darkness, the smallest light is a beacon.

KOLDO STALKED DOWN the ICU ward of the hospital. He and the warrior with him were hidden from human eyes and protected from human touch. The doctors, nurses, visitors and patients misted through them, completely unaware of the invisible world playing out alongside theirs. A spirit world that had given birth to this natural world, the human world.

A spirit world that was the true reality for all creation.

One day, these humans would discover just how exact that statement really was. Their bodies would die, their spirits would rise—or descend—and they would begin to understand the natural world was fleeting, the spiritual eternal.

Eternal. Just like Koldo’s irritation seemed to be. He didn’t want to be here among the humans, on yet another silly mission, and he really didn’t like his companion, Axel. But his new leader, Zacharel, wanted him busy, distracted, for he suspected Koldo teetered on the verge of breaking a heavenly law.

After everything Koldo had endured in his father’s camp...after escaping and spending centuries searching for his mother, Koldo had finally found her—and locked her inside a cage in one of his many homes.

So, yes. Koldo teetered. But he wouldn’t ever cause the woman irrevocable harm. He wouldn’t even lower himself to break one of her nails. For now, he simply hoped to teach her the horror of being trapped by circumstance, as she had taught him. As she was still teaching him.

Later, he would... He wasn’t sure. He no longer liked to consider the future.

Because of his abhorrence of Cornelia, Koldo had landed in the Army of Disgrace. It was a terrible name for such a choice defensive force, but it was one that fit nonetheless. The members were the worst of the worst, the baddest of the bad...male and female Sent Ones who were in danger of damnation.

For various reasons, all twenty soldiers had ignored prized heavenly laws. They were meant to love, but they hated. They were to help others, but they really only hurt. They were to build up, but they only ever tore down.

Three months ago, the members had been given one year to mend their wicked ways, or they would be stripped of their abilities and kicked into hell.

Koldo would do whatever was necessary to keep that from happening—even deny himself true vengeance. He refused to lose the only home he’d ever known.

Axel grabbed him by the arm, stopping him. “Dude! Did you see the meat bags on that girl?”

And there was reason number one why Koldo had a problem working with Axel. “Could you be any more disgusting?” He jerked from the warrior’s hold, contact with another not something he enjoyed.

“Yeah,” Axel said with an irreverent grin. “I could. But someone, and I won’t say your name, K, my man, needs to get his mind out of the gutter. I wasn’t talking about her chesticles.”

Koldo ran his tongue over his teeth. “What, then?”

His gaze slid to the room at his right. The door had been in the process of closing and now clicked shut, blocking the occupant from view. “Too late.”

“It’s only too late when you’re dead. Come on. You gotta see this.” Axel strode forward and ghosted through the entrance.

Koldo’s hands curled into fists, and he battled the urge to punch a wall. They had a mission, and distractions only extended their time in a place crawling with demons laughing at the pain the humans suffered and whispering into the ears of anyone who would listen.

Can’t survive, they said. There’s no hope. And these many were puppets, with clawed hands tugging at their strings. If they failed to fight back, they would become casualties in a war between good and evil, either in this life or after death. One way or another.

That’s just the way things worked.

The Most High ruled the heavens. “He” was actually a sacred trinity consisting of the Merciful One, the Anointed One and the Mighty One, and He was the King of kings, His word law. He had appointed several underlings throughout the skies. Germanus—or Deity, as some of Koldo’s kind called him, referring to a title, nothing more—was one of those underlings. A king answerable to the King.

Germanus led the Elite Seven—Zacharel, Lysander, Andrian, Gabek, Shalilah, Luanne, Svana—and each of those seven led an army of Sent Ones. Zacharel, for instance, led the Army of Disgrace.

Sent Ones looked just like angels, but they weren’t actually angels. Not in the sense the world knew, at least. Yes, Sent Ones were winged. Yes, they waged war against evil and helped humans, but in actuality, they were the adopted children of the Most High, their lives tethered to His. He was the source of their power, the essence of their very existence.

Like humans, Sent Ones battled the desires of the flesh. They experienced lust, greed, envy, rage, pride, hate, despair. Angels, in actuality, were servants and messengers of the Most High. They experienced none of those things.

Koldo straightened his spine. Zacharel had tasked him and Axel with killing a specific demon here at the hospital. The demon had made the mistake of tormenting a patient who knew about the spiritual world around him, a male who had called upon the aid of the Most High.

The Most High was love personified, willing to help anyone who asked. Sometimes angels were dispatched, sometimes Sent Ones. Sometimes both, depending on the situation and the skills needed. This time, Koldo and Axel had been chosen. They had been nearby, headed to a training session, when Zacharel’s voice had whispered through their minds, imparting instructions.

Axel peeked his head through the center of the door and said, “Dude! You’re missing it!”

“The person in that room is not our—”

Grinning, the warrior once again disappeared.

“Assignment,” Koldo finished to no one but himself. His anger intensified.

He could move on and fight the demon he was supposed to fight, no problem, but according to Zacharel’s orders, he wasn’t to proceed without his partner.

Grinding his teeth, he marched forward. He slipped through the iron obstruction without any difficulty, stopped and glanced around. The room was small, with multiple machines attached to the motionless blonde female on the bed. A redheaded female sat next to her, chatting easily.

The redhead had no idea there were two demons standing behind her, pretending not to see the Sent Ones in the room.

“Two of the guys in my office got to arguing about who could run faster,” she said, “and soon bets were flying.”

Her voice had a whispery quality, as if filled with smoke and dreams, and it settled over Koldo like warm honey. And yet, with the soothing came a tensing. Every muscle in his body knotted up, as if preparing for war. He...wanted to fight such a delicate human? But why? Who was she?

“I felt as if I was standing in the middle of a stock exchange or something.”

Laughter bubbled from her, such beautiful laughter, pure, with nothing held back. The kind he’d never experienced himself.

“They decided to race in the parking lot instead of have lunch, and the loser had to eat whatever’s in the plastic bowl in the break room fridge. The one that’s been in there for over a month and is now black. I heard the cheers as I was pulling out of the lot, but I didn’t get to see who won.”

“You would have voted for Blaine, I’m sure. He’s only five-nine, so he wouldn’t tower over you too badly, and he has the cutest blue eyes. Not that his looks have anything to do with his speed, but I know you, and I know you would have wanted him to win regardless. You’ve always been a sucker for baby blues.”

He could only see the top half of her, but judging by the fragility of her bone structure, she was a tiny thing. Her features were plain, her skin as pale as porcelain, and her eyes as gray as a winter storm. Her mass of strawberry hair was pulled into a high ponytail, the ends curling all the way to her elbow.

There was an air of fatigue surrounding her, and yet, there was a sparkle in those winter eyes.

A sparkle the demons behind her would soon snuff out.