The swords were a gift from the Most High and something every Sent One was given. Axel’s wrists crisscrossed to form a very effective scissor, chopping the demon’s head from its body in a single heartbeat of time. The pieces thudded to the floor before evaporating into ash.

Deep down, Koldo had expected to carry the weight of the battle. This was... This was...

The human sagged against the bed, his head lolling to the side. “Gone,” he sighed with relief. “It’s gone.” He closed his eyes and sank into what was probably his first peaceful sleep in months.

Axel tossed the black-stained weapons back into the air pocket. “Dang, I didn’t mean to do that again.”

“Well, yeah. Every time before. But once, just once, I’d like to only injure my opponent and get a little thrusting and parrying in before I deliver the deathblow. Well, see ya.” Axel flew through the ceiling, disappearing from view.

The man was as much a mess as Koldo. No wonder Axel had been given to Zacharel.

Just how wildly did he teeter at the edge of falling?

Good advice, and miracle of miracles, it sprang from his own mind. He meant to heed it. He did. But a single thought changed his mind. The redhead. He wanted to see her. Muscles tensing all over again, Koldo whisked back to the blonde’s hospital room.

Only, the redhead was already gone.

Disappointment hit him first, followed by a new tide of frustration and anger.

He whisked to his home hidden in the cliffs along the South African coast. A flash, the action was called. He’d learned a lot about himself and his abilities since being dropped in the middle of his father’s camp all those centuries ago.

A man will do just about anything to survive, boy. And I’ll prove it to you.

His father’s words—and yes, Nox had indeed proven them.

Just like that, the frustration and anger spilled over, and he roared. He beat his fists against the walls, over and over again, soaking his knuckles in crimson, cracking his bones as well as the stone. Every punch was a testament to a centuries-long rage, a soul-deep pain that had never gone away, and a festering wound he knew would never heal.

He was what he was.

He was what his parents had made him.

He’d tried to be more. He’d tried to be better. Each time, he’d failed miserably. Darkness constantly flooded him, banging against an already unstable dam made of tainted memories and corrosive emotions. A dam he was only able to rebuild after outbursts like this one.

The punching continued until he was panting and dripping in sweat. Until skin and muscles were shredded, and the broken bones exposed. Even still, he could have taken another thousand swings, but he didn’t. He forced himself to exhale with measured precision and imagine a cascade of darkness leaving him.

Aches and pains made themselves known, but that was okay. The banging had stopped. For now, that was all that mattered.

He padded across the living room. Along the way he fisted the collar of the dirty robe and yanked the material over his head. He dropped the garment on the floor, wind and dew whipping around him without any hindrance. He had no doors to block the gales, no windows to silence the song of nature; the entire house was open to the elements. Even better, the ceiling, walls and floor had been formed by the elements, presenting a showcase of glittering dark rock.

He stopped at the ledge overlooking a magnificent rushing waterfall pounding into the jagged stone below. Heavy sheets of mist rose from a turbulent sea, enveloping his naked body.

He came here when he desired privacy and peace. The turbulence around him had a way of making his mind seem calmer than it was. The wind kicked up, rattling the beads he’d woven into the length of his beard.

Once upon a time he’d possessed a head of hair to match. Long, thick and black, intricate beadwork woven throughout the prized strands. Now... He scrubbed a hand over the smoothness of his scalp. Now he was bald, his precious hair sacrificed in favor of vengeance.

Now he looked like his father.

Before he could stop it, his mind took him back to one of the many times he’d stood at the bottom of a deep, dark pit, thousands of hissing serp demons slithering over feet that had been flayed like fish...around a neck that had been sliced like Christmas ham.

Serps were very much like snakes, and they had continually sunk their fangs into him, all over him, dripping venom straight into his veins. But through it all he’d stood utterly still, remaining strong, refusing to so much as groan. His father had promised to remove a finger for every sign of weakness he exhibited. And when he ran out of fingers, he had been told he would lose his hands, his feet...his arms and his legs.

Back then, he hadn’t yet reached full maturity—hence the reason his wings had not grown back—and he would have been unable to regenerate the limbs. He would have suffered all of his life, and he—

Beat the ugly memory to the back of his mind, where it belonged. So his father had tortured him for eleven years. So what? He’d been rescued by Sent Ones, and had later become part of an army himself. Not the one he was currently in, but a different one, commanded by the now-deceased Ivar. Back then, Ivar had been the best of the Elite, and being under his command had been an honor.

Yet, in a fit of temper very much like the one he’d just displayed, Koldo had thrown that opportunity away, besting Ivar in front of his men.

Regret still haunted him. Such a lack of respect for such an admirable man...

Koldo had been kicked out of the army and left on his own—for a while. He’d used the time to return to his father’s camp and obliterate everyone and everything.

The single greatest day of his life.

He reached up and gripped the rock above him. Now I’m part of this new army, led by a man once known only as Ice. Tomorrow, Zacharel would have another mission for him, one far below his skill level. Koldo knew this, because his leader had sent him out every day for the past three weeks, allowing him no time to break a heavenly law and bring judgment upon his head. At least, supposedly.

He could do any number of other things their kind was not to do. But he wouldn’t.

Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to worry about being paired with Axel. Zacharel liked to assign him a new partner for every new mission, probably to keep him off-kilter.

And yet, there was one bright light, he realized. The girl from the hospital in Wichita, Kansas. The redhead. He still wanted to see her.

Surely she wasn’t as tiny as he seemed to remember. For all he knew, she possessed the long, lithe legs of a dancer. Surely her hair wasn’t the sweet color of strawberries. It had to be fire-engine red or an ordinary dark blond. Surely he’d imagined the purity of her tone. Surely.

He straightened, anticipation overshadowing all else. He had to know, the desire a living entity inside him.

First, though, he would have to hunt her down.

KOLDO SPENT THE REST of the night digging through the heavenly archives kept on every human ever to live and learned several interesting tidbits about the blonde and the redhead. The comatose girl was Laila Lane, and the other one, the one he wished to observe, was Nicola Lane. They were twenty-three-year-old twins, with Nicola being older by two minutes, and unmarried.

The two were identical. The only reason Laila had blond hair was because she’d bleached it, hoping to be “unique.” The girls had no other family, and relied only on each other. Their parents had died in a car accident five years before.

Koldo left the library and flashed to Laila’s hospital room. Once again Nicola was nowhere to be seen. But he wasn’t worried. According to the gossiping nurses, she came every day. He had only to wait.

He strode to the edge of the bed. This time, the Most High’s gift was not in operation, so, when he looked, he saw the blonde rather than the demon hiding under her skin.

The sight was almost as bad.

Her hair was dry, thin and matted. There were bruises under her eyes, and her lips were chapped. Her skin was severely yellowed, her liver obviously shutting down.

She wouldn’t last much longer.

The Water of Life was a powerful liquid capable of repairing the most damaged human flesh, and the only thing capable of saving her. It would also rid her of the demon. But her thoughts, words and actions would influence its continued success.

The grzech could return to her and try again to poison her. So, even if Koldo fed her the Water, she would have to learn to fight the forces of evil—and then actually fight. Was she willing to engage in any kind of battle?

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, Koldo wasn’t willing to suffer and sacrifice, and he would have to do so to even approach the shoreline of the River of Life. First, he would be whipped. Second, he would be forced to give up something precious to him. Last time he’d relinquished his hair. And there was no telling what he would be asked to give up next. His ability to flash? His captive mother?

The practice had not been created by the Most High, and wasn’t even supported by Him. But Germanus refused to end “a tradition that had been with their kind since the beginning,” as a means of proving the depth of their determination. So, once again free will prevailed and the practice continued year by year. Koldo saw no way around it.

The room’s only door opened suddenly, and Nicola stepped inside. Koldo straightened, and even tensed at the sight of her. He frowned. His body had only ever reacted this way before battle. Why was this happening with her?

At least she had no idea he was there. He was in the spiritual realm, and she in the natural, so he was blocked from her gaze.

He looked her over from bottom to top, then back down—far more slowly. That fall of strawberry curls was once again in a ponytail, the thick length tumbling over one shoulder. There were dark circles under her eyes, and the color in her cheeks was high. Her lips were swollen from being chewed. Despite the heat outside, a worn pink sweater draped her shoulders, the lapels pulled tightly together.