“So...no rings?” Axel asked, as if their conversation had never lagged.

Koldo picked up where he’d left off, as well. “One day might be today.” He walked until he reached the location Nicola had described. There! Tracks. He pounded forward and crouched in front of a pair of footprints. The soles of the boots had been spiked with serp venom, leaving the grass singed. It was a pattern he knew well. His father or one of his men had stood in this very spot and—

He sniffed. And infected the bark of the tree, as well. Frowning, Koldo studied the trunk. Several areas had been scraped and left jagged by sharpened claws. The sulfur-scented black smoke the Nefas projected covered the wood. There appeared to be hundreds of tiny bugs crawling from the damage.

Already the tree bore signs of impending death. The leaves were withering. The grass around it had yellowed. Several dead birds lay in its shade. A nearby dog had attempted to mark the tree but was now hopping around next to its owner and whimpering, its paws probably burning.

“What’s the damage?” Axel asked, stepping up beside him.

“Have you ever been exposed to Nefas smoke?”

Almost everyone still breathing. But all right. Axel knew what to expect if he allowed himself to so much as brush against the stuff. “Check all the other trees. Any bearing the taint will have to be uprooted, the entire area cleansed.”

“So you plan to be the boss in our little partnership?” Axel asked casually.

Koldo ignored the question. “Do you have a cloud?”

“Is this silly-question day? Of course I have a cloud.”

Axel nodded, and a split second later, white mist enveloped them.

“Let the humans see the park,” Axel told the cloud, “but don’t allow them to come near us.”

As the mist cleared, becoming translucent to the eye and somewhat solid to the touch, forming a bubble around them, Koldo jumped into the necessary work. The venom and smoke wouldn’t kill him, but it would weaken him. Still, he wrapped his arms around the tree trunk and, using all of his strength, ripped the roots from the ground. He tossed the entire thing into an air pocket to be burned later. He also scooped up every grain of dirt bearing the sharp, telltale aroma of the smoke. He picked up every fallen leaf, even the dead birds.

“There were five others,” Axel said, returning to his side.

They spent the next few hours on cleanup, Koldo leaving pieces of the cloud around each of the sites, preventing any humans from seeing what had been done. Tonight, when the people were tucked safely in their beds, Axel could remove the barrier. The humans would arrive tomorrow morning and assume what they would about this “travesty.”

“What do you know about the Nefas?” he asked Axel as they picked up the last of the infected leaves.

“They like to attack humans, Sent Ones, or anyone, for that matter, and they think rules, compassion and generosity are stupid. Oh, yeah, and they’re as bad as demons.”

Koldo nodded. “They’re planners. They do little things at first, to see how their opponent will react, as well as to elicit as much fear as possible, since fear confuses, weakens and makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do.”

“Your mother took your wings, but I’ll take your heart and feed it to the dogs,” his father said. The silver glint of a blade he held waved in the light. “Do you want me to take your heart, boy?”

Why not? You’ve already broken it. “I want you to die.” He sat in the far corner of his cage, dirty and blood-caked from his many failed attempts to escape.

A mocking laugh boomed. “Too bad. I’m here to stay. And I’ve given you five days to do what I commanded you to do. Now, you have five seconds to do it. Kill the human or else. One.”

“Five.” Hinges squeaked as the door to a cage he could not flash in and out of was thrown open.

Koldo jumped to shaky feet, stalked over to the trembling human that had been shoved into the cell and struck.

In the present, he ground his fists into his eyes to disrupt the sickening crimson-soaked images behind them. If he could go back... He so wanted to go back.

You have to forgive yourself, Nicola had said.

He doubted she would have uttered those words if she’d known even half of the things he’d done. He should have died rather than cave to his father’s demands. He should have—

Concentrate. Distraction killed. Right. So. An old war had now been renewed. Strike one, Nox had appeared to Nicola. Strike two, the decimation of this park. The third would happen all too soon—but it would be by Koldo’s hand.

He would bet his father had left a man behind, someone to watch the area to report Koldo’s every reaction. He gazed around, and sure enough, he spotted a tall male with a bald head and the dark eyes of a predator at the pretzel stand, buying a midday snack and peering at the right area.

Even though the contact with the smoke had left him a little shaky, Koldo stepped from the protection of the cloud, allowing the Nefas to spot him.

The male grinned a wide, toothy grin, his fangs gleaming bright white as he approached. The smoke wasn’t seeping from his pores. The bodily function was something all Nefas could control; most days they simply opted not to.

“We’re doing this, are we?” Axel asked, sounding excited. “Well, okay, then. Good thing I strapped on my big-boy panties today.”

Anticipation buzzed through Koldo. He met his enemy in the middle, studied him anew. They’d never met before. Either the male was younger than Koldo by several centuries, or his father had stolen him from another Nefas clan.

He munched on his treat, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, assuming Koldo would do nothing in front of human witnesses. “Took you long enough to gather your courage and show up,” said the Nefas in a too-deep voice. “I have a message for you, Koldo the Terrible.”

Koldo had no desire to hear the rest. All Nefas could flash and he had to act quickly. In one fluid motion, he withdrew his double-edged short swords from the air pocket he used to store his weapons and struck, crossing his wrists to form a giant pair of scissors.

“Cloud,” Axel said, as the man’s head detached from his body.

The cloud was there in an instant, shielding the happenings as both pieces thudded to the ground and a pool of black blood formed.

“Well, the pretzel’s ruined,” the warrior added conversationally. “So you weren’t curious about his message?”

“No. I knew what he was going to say.” A hello from Koldo’s father, as well as a threat to Nicola, all in an attempt to draw out Koldo’s apprehension.

“Mind sharing with the rest of the class?”

“Fair enough, since I wasn’t really interested. But I gotta say, I am so proud right now.” Axel flattened his hand over his heart. “You borrowed my patented move, proving I’m made of more than awesome. I’m awesalicious. Is that a word? It’s probably a girl word, but who cares! Seriously. Do you see a tear in my eye? Because I’m pretty sure I feel one.”

Koldo didn’t understand the man’s humor, and yet, he realized he was coming to like Axel despite that. He was strong, courageous and never backed down from a fight. He never allowed Koldo’s moods to affect his own, and he was happy to do anything Koldo asked. Or demanded.

What was the male’s history?

Koldo placed the body and the head in the air pocket with the trees and dirt, and searched for any other spiked footprints. He found none, but then, he hadn’t expected to. Had only hoped his father would have left a trail behind, thinking to lead him into a trap.

A trap you knew about wasn’t actually a trap—but a weapon.

“So, where do you want to go from here?” Axel asked.

“I need to burn the air pocket and check on the females. Let’s meet tomorrow night and go hunting for the Nefas.”

MORNING ARRIVED, sunlight seeping through the crack in the curtains covering Nicola’s bedroom window. She stretched muscles gone tight, and sat up. After she’d tucked Laila into bed, she’d reclaimed her spot on the couch and read. After a while, she’d closed her eyes, thinking to recharge, and then...nothing until now.

She hadn’t made it to the bed, but she was there now. She hadn’t covered herself up, but she was wrapped in the comforter. There was no way Laila had carried her, so that could only mean Koldo had returned. He just hadn’t woken her up.

Argh! He was too sweet for his own good. Now she couldn’t avoid him forever and pretend the kiss had never happened. Now she had to face him and thank him for his kindness.

She grumbled as she lumbered out of bed, grumbled as she brushed her teeth and showered, being careful of her new tattoos, and even grumbled as she pulled on an adorable pink top and glittery jean shorts.

The moment she looked at herself in the mirror, the grumbling stopped. She had worn hand-me-downs most of her life. Her parents had shopped at thrift stores, and then, when she had been in charge of her own finances, so had she. Now...look at her. It was... It was...amazing.

A groan bubbled from her. Once again, Koldo was responsible for something wonderful in her life. And really, for a little while during the kiss, she’d made him feel this same sense of awe. She’d made him feel special. She knew it, would never forget the way he’d trembled.

Maybe...maybe she wasn’t such a bad choice for him, after all. Yes, she’d passed out during their second intimate moment together. And yes, she could pass out next time, too. But cutting him from her life rather than facing the infirmity and the embarrassment that followed? How silly could she get?