“Alleged demons.” Laila strolled into the kitchen. “All I saw were giants. And I’m the twin sister, by the way. Just so you know, I’m not quite as gullible as my darling Co Co. Sorry, honey,” she said. “I don’t mean any offense.”

Nicola offered a small though genuine smile. “I know. I also know that you’ll come to eat those words one day.”

“Demons are very real, I assure you,” Koldo said, opening the packages of ink.

“Yeah, and you’re a Sent One.” Laila anchored her hands on her waist. “Listen, you’re taking advantage of an innocent—humph!”

He’d dropped the gun and grabbed her, tugging her into the hard line of his body. With a final look at Nicola, who jumped from the chair, possibly to attempt to free her mouthy sister, he flashed to the roof of a training facility in Germanus’s realm of the skies.

The huge building was perched atop a mile-long cloud, the edges of that cloud dipping into an aqua sky, stars twinkling even during the day. Laila looked down, down, down at the earth so very far away, and screamed with bloodcurdling fear.

“Still think I’m taking advantage?” He didn’t wait for an answer but flashed the girl inside the building, to the room where Sent Ones were taught how to fight demons. Once there, Koldo remained in the spiritual realm, forcing Laila to open her inner eyes and finally see.

A young trainee swung a sword of fire as two envexa darted from floor to ceiling, ceiling to wall. The warrior had wings of white with thin strips of gold, an indication of his warrior status. Joy-bringers possessed wings of solid white. The Elite, like Zacharel, possessed wings of solid gold.

Though fully grown, the demons were the size of ten-year-old boys, with thick humanoid bodies and skin as green as toxic slime. They had hooks rather than hands, and long, thin tails with barbs.

Laila trembled against Koldo, her mouth opening and closing, small gasping sounds emerging.

“They’re real,” he said, “and they’re evil. They roam the earth, stalking humans like you, and would love nothing more than to ruin your life and cut it short. And you have been letting them.”

“Can overcome them, yes. I’m here to help you.” Taking pity on her, he flashed her back to Nicola’s living room and gave her a little push toward the hall. “You may go to your room now.”

“R-room. Yes. Thank you.” With her arms wrapped around her middle, she tripped her way around the corner. A door clicked shut.

“What did you do to her?” Nicola demanded, stomping forward and banging her fists into his chest.

As slight as those fists were, he barely registered the impact. “I proved that demons do, in fact, exist.”

“You should have eased her in. She had a tough day, and that kind of stress couldn’t have been good for her toxin levels.”

“Some people can be eased. Some must be shoved. Now we will return to the kitchen. I’ll tattoo your arms and you’ll tell me everything that happened at the park.”

“Wait. What? Tattoo my arms?” she squeaked.

He urged her forward. “For your added protection against the demons.”

A little dazed, she flopped into the chair. “I’ll tell you about the park,” she said quietly, “but first you’re going to tell me about this move. Then we’ll talk about the tattooing.”

“My home is fortified against evil.” He owned a cloud of defense, and that cloud now surrounded the property, acting as a barrier against the rest of the world. “Yours isn’t.”

“No buts. I was attacked the last time I was here. That’s why I’ve been gone. I was recovering.”

A gasp slipped from her. “You were hurt?”

“Oh, Koldo. I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” She placed her hand over his, a gesture of remorse, kindness.

A gesture that caused his blood to flash-heat to white-hot.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he said, his voice rough. He was responsible for his own distraction. “Now, what happened at the park?”

She propped her elbows on the counter, ending the contact, and he wanted to howl.

He was that needy for her?

Pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth, he finished with the ink. He’d chosen a deep, rich red that, at first glance, would cause most people to assume she was bleeding. But he didn’t exactly care what other people thought. He wanted her tattoo to match his.

She was his charge, after all. There was no more to it than that.

For the first time in his life, he thought he tasted a lie and grimaced.

“These demons...” She shuddered. “They weren’t like the monkeys. They were worse. They were snakes! They slithered from the trees and on the ground and chased after us, and—”

“With antlers! And fur! They cornered us, surrounded us, and that’s when I called out to the Most High, and He sent angels—or maybe Sent Ones. They had large blue wings. A blue like I’d never seen before, radiant and sparkling, almost like a waterfall of glitter. And their robes were the brightest white I’d ever seen.”

“There was a battle, and then, boom, the angels had won, the demons were gone and Laila and I were able to walk out of the park uninjured.”

So. The serps had returned for Nicola the very day Koldo awoke from their poisoning. That couldn’t be a coincidence.

“You’ll never regret being inked,” he told her. “What I put into your flesh will protect you, as the angels protected you today, but it will also do what they can’t. It will strengthen you when you’re at your weakest. Let me. Please.”

“Have I ever lied to you? Ever steered you wrong?”

He reached out and traced his finger along the curve of her jaw. “Let me do this,” he repeated. “Please.”

A moment passed. Finally, determination hardened her features and she removed her sweater, rolled up her shirtsleeves. “Very well.”

Relief and satisfaction collided, and he wanted to pound his fists into his chest. She trusted him fully, nothing held back. That was a first, and he would do everything in his power to earn what she’d bestowed upon him. “I wish I could tell you otherwise, but this will hurt, Nicola.”

“I had a feeling,” she said drily.

Before she could change her mind, he got to work. At first, as the needle pounded into her skin, she cringed and she gasped. Twice he almost stopped, but both times he reminded himself that this was for her good. This was necessary.

“Tell me...how you age. Or if you ever will.”

“I was a little boy once, a child to my parents.” Now, he and his mother looked to be the same age. “I matured normally, like a human, until reaching the age of thirty. After that, my appearance remained the same. And as long as I live, my appearance will stay this way.”

That was true of most supernatural races. The Nefas, however, aged to fifty before stopping. He supposed it was because the vileness of their deeds rotted their souls, and rotted souls produced rotted flesh.

Koldo was glad the characteristics of the Sent Ones were stronger than those of the Nefas, allowing him to have hair, diffusing the black smoke.

“So...one day I’ll be an old lady but you’ll still look like a young, virile Viking?”

A Viking? That’s how she saw him?

And...she was right about the age thing, he realized. He’d never given the notion any thought because he’d never imagined himself with a human. But there was a way to prevent such an outcome. Zacharel had tied his life to Annabelle’s, ensuring she no longer aged. But if one died, the other would immediately follow. Koldo couldn’t make that same commitment to Nicola. He would have to share a piece of his tainted soul, and that he would never do.

And why should he bother sorting out his feelings on the matter now, anyway? She was interested in another male.

“Yes” was all he said, and left it at that. “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

Nicola sucked in a breath as the gun glided over a sensitive tendon. “Will you do this to Laila?”

“If she will allow me.” He leaned back, studied the etchings. The scripted numbers began at her elbows and coiled all the way to her wrists.

Nicola’s head tilted to the side as she looked over the red, swollen flesh. “Is that some sort of code?”

“And what does it mean?”

“That you are protected by the Most High, and His strength is yours.”

“Very cool.” She traced a fingertip over several of the numbers. “There’s something so mesmerizing about each one, isn’t there? Almost as if they’re alive, holding my gaze captive.”

That’s because they were, on both counts. “The next time you see a demon, simply stare at the numbers as you’re doing now.”

“Stare? Really? And that will...what?”

The cinnamon and vanilla scent of her wound around him, melding with his skin, claiming his attention. “Nicola?” he rasped.

She glanced up at him, licked her lips. “Yes.”

Whatever he’d meant to say, he forgot. He found himself stalking around the counter, standing just in front of her, between her legs. His hands tunneled through her hair, the strands soft, silky, tickling his skin.

She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch.

He wanted to kiss her. But he couldn’t. Not again. Every time he neared her, the desire grew. He wasn’t sure how he would react if it grew any more.