Just how much should she tell her? Nicola wondered. How much could Laila take right now, when she had believed nothing else Nicola had said on the matter?

Did the answers really matter? If Koldo was going to teach Laila how to survive, and he was, the two would have to come to an arrangement.

Nicola drew in a deep breath. “What do you know about angels and demons?” she asked.

KOLDO FLASHED TO the cave where he’d stashed his mother, remaining on the outskirts of the door to the cavern. He listened. Along with a drip and flow of water, he could hear Cornelia muttering about how much she hated him.

“—rotten to the core, just like his father. Lives only to make me suffer.”

He ground his teeth together. How could she see him that way? Not now—she had every reason now—but before, when he’d been such an innocent little boy, so desperate for her affection. After all these centuries, he’d still never figured it out.

He’d made the mistake of asking her only once.

Everything about you disgusts me! You’re evil. An abomination. But you know that already. I’ve told you.

A thousand times or more. But I’m innocent. Blood of your blood.

You carry my shame, nothing more.

His hands curled into fists. What would Nicola think of him now, standing here as a woman suffered at his hands? Nicola, who had enjoyed touching him. Nicola, who had looked at him as if he were worthy. Nicola, who had kissed him with such passion and asked for more.

He’d had her in his arms. He’d had her body pressed against his and her scent in his nose. He’d felt the thunderous pound of her heartbeat. Need had created a wild tempest inside him, undeniable, nearly uncontrollable.

His hands had begun to burn just as fiercely as his blood, as if coming to life for the first time. Rather than sinking into a pit of despair—bloodstained hands on a woman who deserved better—he’d reveled in the knowledge. Sent Ones produced essentia, a fine powder that waited underneath the surface of their skin. Koldo’s had never broken free.

Soon, that would change. If he continued along this path, it would soon seep through his pores, leaving a bright glow on whatever he wished, a gold only those in the spirit realm would be able to see. It would be a warning to demons. Touch what’s mine, and suffer.

Had her sister not interrupted...

Well, he wouldn’t think about that now. He flashed to Nicola’s home, landing in the backyard. His mother had enough food and water to last a week. He wouldn’t abandon her that long, but he would give her another few days to herself. How many times had she left him in the palace, taking the servants with her? Countless. At six years old, he’d had to hunt and kill his own food to survive. She deserved this abandonment and more.

And he wouldn’t feel guilty for the way he was treating her. He wouldn’t!

He searched the yard for any sign of thieves—either human or demon—and thankfully found none. As he walked past the bedroom window, a crack in the curtains allowed him a peek inside. He paused.

Nicola and Laila were sitting on the bed. Both females had their hair wound into a thick bun, and green goop covering their faces. They were talking and laughing and painting each other’s toenails. They paused every few minutes to pick up a pillow and smack each other.

The males he’d overhead throughout the years had been right, then. Every time two human females got together, they had a pillow fight.

Such a circumstance had never before intrigued him. Now his attention remained riveted on Nicola. She was as relaxed and happy as he needed her to be. And she was utterly enchanting. The storm had settled in her eyes, leaving a bright morning light. A perfect, cloudless sky.

He’d held her tiny waist in his hands. He’d come close to fisting her hair. To taking everything she was willing to give. Perhaps he would one day. How would she react, though? As eagerly as she had tonight? Or would a little time and thought convince her of the truth—that she deserved someone better?

The rattle of a snake’s tail reverberated behind him, claiming his attention. A sulfur-scented waft of smoke filled his nose.

Dread pricked at Koldo as he spun and drew a sword of fire. Two serp demons had closed in on him, one at the left, one at the right, and sank their fangs into his thighs. In less than a blink, an undiluted surge of venom shot through his system, valiantly attempting to weaken him.

You’ll have to do better than that.

He released his sword, causing the weapon to disappear, and latched on to the creatures.

Koldo tied the two together and tossed them to the ground. They were long and thick, like snakes, with gnarled antlers growing from their heads, glowing red eyes and fur interspaced throughout their scales. There wasn’t a more hideous creature. Their bodies writhed as they fought to escape each other—and thereby him.

Too late. He reclaimed his sword long enough to slice, slice, removing both of their heads. Then he stood there, dumbfounded.

His father had said hello?

His father had said goodbye?

Serp demons were his father’s allies, yes, but Nox couldn’t have ordered an attack. He was dead. Koldo was sure of it.

They had to have lied. Demons always lied. Perhaps they’d hoped to distract him. Because...why? They had friends nearby?

And sure enough, they did. As he straightened, two other serps flew from the shadows. The two were followed by another. And another. And another. Each converged on him.

The creatures had been following him, he realized. They had known where he would come, had left no tracks and had waited for the perfect moment to act.

Koldo grabbed as many writhing bodies as possible and tossed them into the grass. Once, twice, three times. Yet all the while still more came at him, biting him, shooting more venom inside him.

He formed the sword of fire. Hisses erupted at the first flare of light, and the vile creatures backed away from him. He stepped forward, prepared to give chase...only to stop. His knees collapsed, his legs no longer able to support his weight. He watched, horrified, as the demons slithered toward the house.

They would attack Nicola and her sister, and the girls, weak as they were, would crumble.

Can’t let that happen. Koldo summoned every ounce of his strength and labored to his feet. He’d never used his ability to send his thoughts into the mind of one of his fellow soldiers. He hated the idea of mental contact, a link, someone able to breach the barriers in his mind, as Zacharel often did, and perhaps read his innermost musings. But, to protect Nicola...

He expected a thousand questions. Instead, the reply was simple. Where are you?

He rattled off Nicola’s address, even as he struck out, flaming two demons to ash. Others crawled up the bricks, some branching left, some branching right, others going straight up. Koldo flashed one way, then the other, then to the roof, always striking out with his weapon.

Axel landed in the front yard, his wings snapping against his back. He ran forward, drew his sword of fire and hacked, hacked, hacked at the enemy. Demons darted away from him, but he followed, spinning and striking, not allowing a single enemy to escape. He moved up, he moved down, he moved all around...all around... The world was spinning, spinning, spinning so quickly, Koldo thought. Faster and faster.

Panting, weakening still, he flashed to just behind Axel and fell to his knees. He would guard the warrior’s back.

“Dude! I thought you needed help scoring a chick,” Axel said, patting him on the shoulder and nearly drilling him neck-deep into the grass. “I think that was the last of ’em but I’ll do a double check around the perimeter.”

Or just wait here. He ached terribly.

Hours later, or perhaps minutes, Axel returned and loomed over his prone form—I must have tumbled the rest of the way to the ground—his electric blues glowing with a strange, otherworldly light. “You stalking Chesticles or something? ’Cause, dude, this is totally her house.”

“No, and don’t call her that.” His throat was swelling, and he could barely force out the words.

She was his charge, but had he staked a claim, even though he had yet to cover her with essentia? Maybe. He despised the idea of another male thinking about her, looking at her, or touching her.

“No problem. I was just doing someone unimportant.”

Sadly, that was the last thought Koldo had before his mind went blank.

“You hesitated over a kill today,” his father growled. “You must be punished.”

Love me. Why can’t you love me?

“I wish you had never been born!” His mother.

“I’ll make you regret the day you were born.” His father.

Be proud of me. I just want you to be proud of me. For once.

“You’re not a Sent One. You don’t deserve to breathe the same air as me.” Again, his mother.

“I’ll make a soldier of you yet.” Again, his father.

Koldo came awake gradually, his head a heavy block, his muscles sore and knotted. When full light at last dawned, he blinked rapidly, then gazed around. A barren cave with jagged, bloodstained walls greeted him. The air was cold, the warmth of his breath creating a thick haze in front of his face. He lay upon a stone dais, no blanket beneath him.

This wasn’t one of his homes, he thought, jerking upright. Dizziness struck him, but he pushed through it, inhaling, exhaling.

Axel. Familiar. He relaxed, but only slightly, his attention cutting through the gloom and finding the warrior crouched in the corner, razing a stone against a short, broad stick to create dangerous spikes at the ends.