“Why?” Laila said, turning her back on him to concentrate on Nicola. “What’s wrong?”
“Do you see that man over there?”
Laila glanced to the right. “Baldy? Yeah. So?”
“What about his pet snake? Do you see it?”
“Uh, he doesn’t have a pet snake. Or a dog or a cat or a bird. Honey, are you okay? You’re pale and shaky.”
Her sister still couldn’t see the demon, then. “Come on.” She pivoted and quickened her pace, dragging Laila with her.
“I’ll tell you later.” The park was crowded with moms and their kids, dads and their dogs, as well as businessmen and women out on their lunch break like her, hoping to soak in a little sun before crawling back inside the shadows of the daily grind. She maneuvered around them, but wasn’t quite at her best and ran into a few.
She heard “Hey!” and “Watch it!” multiple times, and had to mutter a few hasty apologies. Her blood chilled to a dangerous level, even as her skin threatened to overheat. Sweat rolled down her spine.
She cast a glance behind them. The man was still there, still grinning at her, and still stroking the demon. But he wasn’t following her. Relieved, she slowed...slowed...and finally halted.
Panting, Laila pressed her palm over her heart. “Can you tell me what that was about now?”
She opened her mouth to do just that—only, another demon slithered from the tree beside her, baring long, sharp fangs with dripping ends, and the words formed a jagged knot in the center of her throat, only a few gurgling sounds escaping.
Nicola stumbled to the right, tugging Laila with her.
A woman stepped from around the thick trunk, and Laila closed her mouth. The newcomer was bald, just like the man. Her skin was as pale as milk, which was a striking contrast to the black mist seeping from her pores.
“Do you see that?” Nicola demanded of her sister. “The mist?”
The corners of the woman’s lips lifted in a slow grin...revealing fangs of her own.
Nicola’s heart skipped a beat as she once again launched into motion, heading in another direction. “They’re after us,” she rasped. “We have to get out of here!”
“Who...are they?” Her sister could barely get the words out. Neither one of them was used to this kind of activity. “What...do...they...want?”
Nicola glanced back. The woman remained just under the tree, but the demon had opted to follow Nicola and was closing in fast, its scaled and furry body dragging over the ground, its antlers shaking.
What did it want with her? What would it do to her if it caught her?
Another bald man stepped in her path, grinned evilly, and she screamed. She jerked Laila to the left, heading in the only uncharted direction. A second...third...fourth demon followed this time, slithering, slithering so quickly, as if they’d just scented the afternoon meal: two gimpy mice.
She wanted her sister to see what was happening around them, to finally believe, but she also didn’t want her sister to see. Fear would probably consume her, and fear would do her no good right now.
No one else seemed to realize what was happening. People went on with their day, smiling and laughing and flying kites, completely unaware of that other realm currently teeming with malevolence.
“I can’t...” Laila ripped from her hold and hunched over, gasping for breath. “You have to...”
Nicola backtracked, leaped in front of her sister and spread her arms, expecting the demons to attack. But they surprised her. They skidded to a stop a few feet away, gravel and twigs settling around them. Vile red gazes locked on her.
She fought a wave of dizziness, her eyesight dimming. Not now. Please, not now. The creatures circled her, but she couldn’t move with them and continue protecting Laila’s back; there were too many of them to watch all at once.
One hissed at her. Another spit at her, spraying whatever dripped from its fangs. The others flashed razor-sharp teeth stained crimson, as though blood was a morning obsession.
“Go away or...or...I’ll ask the Most High for help.” Yes. That’s what Koldo had said to do.
To her utter shock, the hissing and the spitting morphed into whimpering, and the creatures began to back away from her.
Already, it was working. “Most High,” she shouted, hit by a sudden wave of confidence. “If you can hear me, I could really use your help right now.”
The demons froze in place—before slowly backing away from her.
It was working, she realized.
“Most High,” she repeated more loudly, and terror fell over the creatures. They quickened their pace, desperate to get away from her. But they weren’t fast enough. Two warriors unfamiliar to her shot from the sky and swooped into the park. Their wings were the color of cerulean and they wore robes of the most brilliant white.
Nicola threw her arm around her trembling sister, who was still hunched over, gasping for breath. “Everything will be okay now. I know it.”
“Just breathe in...out... Good girl.” She watched, wide-eyed, as the Sent Ones—angels?—unsheathed double-edged swords and attacked. The demons darted in different directions, too many for the two warriors to contain. But she should have known they would find a way. They flashed to one and hacked, then to another and hacked, then to another and another, their opponents swiftly decreasing.
“Do you see them?” she asked.
Well, that answered that.
At last the battle was over, and no one on the other team was spared.
The warriors returned their weapons to their sheaths and looked to Nicola. They inclined their heads in greeting, flared their wings and, without a word, shot back into the sky.
THE FRONT DOOR of Nicola’s home swung open, the hinges moaning in protest. The two females marched inside.
Koldo rose from the couch, the only piece of furniture he’d left behind since he’d had no room for it. A little while ago, he’d sensed that Nicola was in trouble. But he’d flashed to the park and she hadn’t been there. He’d flashed to all the other places she liked to visit, but had had no luck.
He’d returned to her house, where he’d waited. And waited.
Now, relief failed to overshadow his anger. Where had she been? What had happened to her? He needed to know. Not because she was his charge. Not because he would be penalized if something happened to her. But because. Just because.
He searched her in a single glance. Her color was higher than usual, and worry glazed those storm-darkened eyes. Her hair was a mess, tangled and sporting several pieces of grass.
Nicola ground to an abrupt halt, and Laila slammed into her from behind.
“Koldo,” Nicola said, exasperation giving way to nervousness. She ran a hand down the length of her ponytail. “You’re here.”
A moment passed in silence. He wanted to demand answers, but he held his tongue. He would shout, and she would fear him, and that would only strengthen the demon toxins.
“You’re Koldo?” Laila asked, her tone incredulous. She had zero color in her cheeks, and fatigue dulled her eyes. “But you look just like—uh, never mind. There’s no way I can say that and not insult you. And I’m rambling. I’m sorry. It’s just that you’re so big and...well, never mind.”
He had been mentioned by name. He wondered what all had been said.
“Wait. Hold everything.” Frowning, Nicola turned in a circle. “I think I was robbed. My pictures are gone. And so are my vases and blankets and pillows. Everything but my couch.”
I can have a conversation without raising my voice. I can. A tiny human female could not anger him more than his mother and his father ever had. “You weren’t robbed. I moved everything to my house in Panama. Now, I want you sitting at the kitchen counter in the next two minutes. Or else.” He didn’t wait for her reply, just stomped into the desired room.
To his surprise, she dogged his footsteps, even caught his wrist. He could have easily tugged from her grip. Instead, he reveled in his first contact with her in three days. Far too long. He had to feel this soft, soft skin, and those hands—no longer cold, but warm—every day or he would not be content.
“Or else, what? And what’s going on?” she demanded. “Why did you move my stuff to Panama?”
He swung around and anchored his hands onto her waist. He lifted her up, swung back around with her as she yelped, and placed her on the nearest chair. There. He had her where he wanted her, the tattoo equipment on the counter and ready to use.
As he put the pieces of the gun together, he said, “I don’t want you living here any longer. It isn’t safe.”
She searched his face, and sighed. “Apparently, it isn’t safe anywhere.”
Not the reaction he’d expected. “Why do you say that?”
“We were at the park and several demons chased us.”
His instincts had been right. She had been in danger. And he had failed to protect her. He could have lost her. Stupid, foolish, unwise, ignorant man! Yes, that’s what he was. He should have searched more diligently. Should have done something. Anything. “Did they hurt you?”
“No,” she replied, and he was able to relax. “You told me to call upon the Most High, and I did. He sent in the troops. Whoever was closest, I guess, just like you promised.”
Thank You, Most High.