He forced his attention on the pair. One was posted at her left and one was posted at her right, and both had a proprietary hand on her shoulder. They were Koldo’s size, with dark, pupilless eyes that reminded him of bottomless pits. Lefty had a single horn protruding from the center of his forehead, and crimson scales rather than flesh. Righty had two thick horns rising from his scalp, and dark, matted fur.

There were many different types of demons, and they came in all different shapes and sizes. From the first of their kind, the fallen archangel Lucifer, to the viha, the paura, the násilí, the slecht, the grzech, the pică and the envexa. And sadly, many more. Each sought the destruction of mankind—one man at a time, if necessary.

Amid the types of demons, there were ranks. Righty was a top-of-the-line paura, and all about fear. Lefty was a top-of-the-line grzech, and all about sickness.

Demons liked to attach themselves to humans and, through whispers and deceit, infect them with a toxin that caused their anxiety levels to spike, in the case of the paura, and the immune system to weaken, in the case of the grzech. Then, the demons fed off the ensuing panic and upset, weakening the humans further and making them easy targets for destruction.

The girl must have been a veritable buffet.

Just how sick was she?

Lefty gave up trying to ignore Axel and glared at him as he danced around, slapping his face and saying, “I’m hittin’ you, I’m hittin’ you, what’re you gonna do about it, huh, huh?” in the good-ole-country-boy accent he sometimes liked to use.

Koldo despised demons with every ounce of his being. No matter their type or rank, they were thieves, killers and slayers, just like his father’s people. They left chaos and confusion in their wake. They ruined. And this pair wouldn’t leave the girl unless forced—but even then she could welcome others.

His chest burned as he switched his focus to the girl on the bed. But...his gaze lasered through the wrinkled cover, the thin hospital gown, and even skin and muscle. What he saw astonished him.

To him, the blonde was now as transparent as glass, granting him a glance at the demon that had wormed its way inside her body. A grzech, different from the one plaguing the redhead. This one had tentacles that stretched through the blonde’s mind and into her heart, draining the life from her.

The Most High often blessed Sent Ones with specific supernatural abilities during difficult situations, things like this X-ray vision, as he’d heard others call it. Until now, Koldo had never experienced anything like it. Why here? Why now? Why this girl and not the other?

The questions were overshadowed a second later, when, in the blink of an eye, Koldo learned exactly how this had happened to her, the information seeming to download straight into his brain.

Born at twenty-six weeks, the blonde and her redheaded twin had struggled to survive the heart defects they’d been born with. Multiple surgeries were needed, and both almost died countless times—each time nullifying any progress made. Throughout the years, their parents had become fond of saying, “You have to keep yourself calm or you’ll have another heart attack.”

Innocent words meant to aid the pair—or so it seemed.

Words were one of the most powerful forces known—or unknown—to man. The Most High had created this world with His words. And humans, who had been fashioned in His image, could direct the entire course of their lives with their words, their mouths as the rudder on a ship, as the bridle on a horse. They produced with their words. They destroyed with their words.

Eventually the blonde had come to believe the slightest rise in her emotions would indeed cause another painful heart attack, and with her belief, fear had sparked to life.

Fear—the beginning of doom, for heavenly law stated that what a person feared would come upon them. In the blonde’s case, the fear had come upon her in the form of the grzech. She’d caught his notice, and she’d been such an easy target.

First, the demon breathed his toxin into her ear, whispering destructive suggestions.

Your heart could stop at any moment.

Oh, the pain...it’s unbearable. You can’t live through that again.

This time, the doctors may not be able to revive you.

Demons knew human eyes and ears were a doorway to the mind, and the mind was a doorway to the spirit. So, when the blonde had entertained the terrible suggestions, constantly rolling them through her mind, the fear had multiplied and become a poisoned truth, causing her defenses to crumble, allowing the demon to slink inside her, create a stronghold and destroy her from the inside out.

She had indeed had another heart attack, and the necessary organ had weakened beyond what human medicine could repair.

Did the Most High want Koldo to help her, even though she wasn’t his current mission? Was that what this unveiling was about?

Sighing, the redhead leaned back in her chair, returning Koldo’s attention to her. Once again, he saw flesh and blood rather than spirit. The Most High’s gift hadn’t extended to her.

He didn’t have time to wonder why. A waft of cinnamon and vanilla hit him, quickly followed by the sickening scent of sulfur. A scent the girl would not be able to shed, as long as the demons stayed with her.

“It’s about time for me to go,” she said, rubbing at the back of her neck as if the muscles were knotted. “I’ll let you know who won that race, La La.”

Did she have any idea that evil weighed her down and stalked her every move?

Did she know she was full of demon toxin, just like her sister? That, if she didn’t fight, she would end up in the same circumstance, the demons worming their way inside her body?

Koldo could kill Lefty and Righty, but again, other demons would sense what easy prey she was and attack her. As unknowledgeable as she clearly was, she would surrender again.

For any kind of long-term success, he would have to teach her to wage war against the toxin. But to do so, he would need her cooperation and time. Cooperation she may not give. Time she may not have. But...maybe she was the one the Most High wanted him to help. Maybe Koldo was to save the redhead from the blonde’s fate.

Either way, the choice to aid her—or not—was Koldo’s. Germanus and Zacharel might issue orders, but not the Most High. Not even when He revealed a truth. He never overrode free will.

“You want in on this, buddy?” Axel asked him, continuing to slap at the now-snarling demons behind the redhead. “’Cause I’m about to take things up a notch.”

“A notch above annoying is merely irritating,” he said, inwardly fuming because he already knew he was going to pick the mission. Survival always came first.

Why was he fuming, anyway? He liked the sound of the girl’s voice—so what? Who was she to him? No one. Why should he care about her and her future?

“We have a duty,” he added. “Let’s see to it.”

Immediately guilt attempted to rise. No matter who she was—or wasn’t—he was cold and callous to leave her to such an evil end, wasn’t he? His father would have made the same choice. His mother would have— He wasn’t sure what she would have done. She still seemed to love everyone but Koldo.

“Ah, come on, hoss,” Axel said. “Stop and play, that’s my motto.”

“You come on,” he called to Axel. “Now!” Before he changed his mind.

“Sure, sure.” Axel worked his way behind the demons and kicked one in the back of the knees. The other twisted swiftly to bat the side of Axel’s head with a meaty fist, sending the warrior propelling through the far wall.

Koldo stepped in front of his brethren when he returned to the room, preventing him from springing into a full-on attack. “Touch him again and you’ll discover my talent with the sword of fire,” he told the demons.

Loyalty mattered to Koldo. Deserved or not.

“Yeah.” Axel didn’t sound upset or even winded. He sounded happy. “What he said.”

Koldo threw him a glance, saw that he’d raised his fists and was hopping from one foot to the other. He could not be thousands of years old. He just couldn’t be.

“You’re the intruders here,” said the demon that had pretended Axel’s head was a baseball. His voice was as jagged as broken glass. “The girl is ours.”

He struggled against the urge to hurt and maim the demons as he reached back, grabbed Axel by the collar of his robe and tossed him through the only door into the hall. “I pray we’ll see each other again,” he told the fiends.

They hissed as Koldo stalked from the room.

Axel stood in the middle of the walkway, black hair shagging around a face he loved to claim women saw in their fantasies—because he saw it in his own. His electric blues glared holes in Koldo. “Dude! You wrinkled my clothes.”

They were back to “dude,” rather than “hoss.” Clearly the warrior had no idea just how volatile Koldo’s emotions were. Every step farther away from the girl darkened his mood. “What do you care? We’re to engage in battle, not model the current fashions from the skies.”

“Duh. But a guy’s gotta look his best, no matter the occasion.” An orderly walked by, wheeling a cart piled high with trays of food, snagging Axel’s attention. He followed, tossing back a delighted smile. “I smell pudding!”

How sublime. I got stuck with the only winged warrior with ADD.

THE FUN AND GAMES ENDED the moment Koldo and Axel closed in on the targeted demon. The human the creature tormented was restrained to his bed, and drugged, too, if the drool leaking from the side of his mouth was any indication.

A slecht hovered in the air at his right, whispering vile curse after vile curse.

“G-go away,” the male managed to gurgle. He could see the demon, but not Axel and Koldo. “Leave me alone!” The more he spoke, the stronger he became...but not yet strong enough.

You couldn’t slay a dragon if you had not yet learned to slay a bear.

Axel shocked Koldo by surging forward without a word, his wings shooting from his back. The demon only had time to look toward him and gasp before the warrior unsheathed two double-edged short swords from an air pocket and struck.