AS THE DEMON SCREAMED in pain, Thane removed the horns on its head.

As the demon cried and sobbed, Thane plucked out its eyes.

As the demon mewled, Thane peeled away huge hunks of the creature’s flesh.

Black blood ran down his arms in tiny rivulets, stinging, leaving welts. The scent of sulfur coated the air. At his sides, the walls to the cavern dripped with bodily fluids from the other victims. At his feet was a pile of organs he’d removed.

“If you refuse to talk,” he said, “I’ll remove your tongue before I kill you.”

The creature babbled, but all Thane heard was, “Blah, blah, blah, please. Blah, blah, blah, better than me.”

“You think you’re better than me?” he lashed out. “Or that I’m not any better than you?” Either way...

Giving in to the rage, Thane sawed at the demon’s tongue, as promised. But that wasn’t violent enough, and he ended up sawing through the creature’s throat. The body slumped against the chains binding it.

Perhaps the next one would be— There was no next one, he realized. He’d killed them all.

He scrubbed a blood-soaked hand through his hair.

He had arrived in Auckland two days ago, tracked a path of evil to the slums and found a group of homeless men and women that had turned on each other. They’d fought over the rights to a trash can, killed each other by sheer physical brutality, and the only survivor had then turned on the patrons of a nearby coffee shop, slaying three innocents before the cops arrived and gunned him down.

Thane had shown up as the remaining patrons were being questioned. Two had displayed tempers that hadn’t fit the situation, and he’d ended up following the worst offender to an office building. The male had yelled at everyone he encountered, and the employees had huddled around the watercooler to discuss how odd his behavior was.

That was when Thane realized the truth. Demons of strife were here, infecting humans. Probably obeying their leader—one of the six that had killed Germanus.

So, Thane had gone out, hunting the minions. Within half an hour, he’d found eleven, roaming the streets like hungry lions searching for gimpy prey. He’d initiated battle and immediately killed two. One had gotten away. The other three he’d managed to injure so severely that they weren’t able to run. He’d scooped them up and brought them back here, to his cave.

He’d spent the past few hours doing things that had once been done to his friends. Terrible things. Horrendous things. The only things that brought Thane any measure of peace. But no matter what he’d done, he’d gotten no answers.

Where was the leader?

Frustrated, he flew up, up, up to the opening of the cavern, then flattened out to dart through the narrow passage. Light spilled inside, chasing away the darkness and showing the way to the surrounding forest. Within minutes, he was outside, in the air, soaring above the rushing river, the tall, lush trees and the snowcapped mountains.

The scent of sulfur dissipated and the crimson stain of blood vanished from him, his robe cleaning itself as well as his body. The heat dropped off him like a winter cloak, cool air slapping against him. But nothing could wash away the feel of defeat.

He summoned his sword of fire as he turned—but there was no one there. The sun was in the process of setting, casting rays of pink and purple, the sky a darkening blue. The clouds were thick and white, the stars just becoming visible. He hovered in the sky, wings lifting and falling slowly, gracefully, his gaze tracking the surrounding area. But...again, he found no one.

Irritated, he darted higher at top speed. Then, he leveled out and searched the clouds for any sign of movement. To his right he heard a whoosh.... He frowned. What was that? Whatever it was, the sound of laughter quickly followed. He changed course, only to find four winged warriors playing ball in the clouds. One threw the ball, while another tried to stop him. One caught the ball, while another tried to stop him.

Football. In the skies. Who would ever have thought? But...how happy they appeared. How content.

They weren’t part of Zacharel’s army, but Lysander’s. Thane recognized one of the males. Brendon was his name, and he had frequented Thane’s club on many occasions.

Thane stopped, hovering in the air some yards away. Perhaps they had heard something about the highly ranked demon that he had not. He called out a greeting.

The game paused, and all four looked over at him. At first, they smiled. But those smiles quickly faded as his identity was discerned.

“You’re part of the Army of Disgrace,” one said.

Thane was beginning to despise that name. “I am.”

“What are you doing here?” another snapped. “This is our territory.”

“Your kind isn’t wanted,” Brendon said, peering down at his feet.

The fourth remained silent, but his glare spoke volumes.

Judgment and disdain, from his own kind, when they had no idea what had shaped him into the man he was. They had no idea what he’d had to do to survive. They had no idea the pain and guilt and shame that constantly stalked his every step—even though he told himself he enjoyed his life, that he liked what he was. And he did.

He did. Because he had to.

The four closed in around him, forming a circle, blocking him in. He could have mentioned Brendon’s own proclivities and called him a hypocrite, and the others would have believed him. Like all Sent Ones, his voice possessed the ring of truth. But he remained silent. He had many, many faults, but he would never ruin another man’s standing with his friends.

He knew how important those friends could be.

“You don’t want to fight me,” he stated calmly.

“Oh, yeah?” The leader raised his chin, all aggression and assurance of success. “And why’s that?”

“I have no honor, and you won’t like what I do to you.” To prove it, he kicked out his leg, nailing the leader in the stomach and making him hunch over for breath. At the same time, he twisted his upper body and, grabbing a sword from the air pocket at his right, swung out. He clipped the bottom of one of Brendon’s wings.

The warrior dropped from the sky, forcing the others to dart after him to prevent him from ultimately going splat. Thane wanted to laugh, but couldn’t force a rise of amusement. He hated that he only received respect inside his club. He hated that everyone outside it mocked him, and drove him to such violent behavior.

As if he needed to be driven.

They’re better than you. They can do whatever they want. He couldn’t even remember what it was like to be untainted by the evils of life.

Whatever. He sped back into motion.

Any luck? he projected into Bjorn’s head. They were bonded so surely, so solidly, distance never mattered.

Any luck? he projected into Xerxes’ head.

He had to find and stop Strife before any other human lives were ruined. Unlike some of his brethren, he understood the humans. He sympathized with their weaknesses. He wanted to protect them from the very pain he had endured.

Thane increased his speed. He needed to figure out his next plan of action. To clear his head. To think. Sex was his usual method, but he was used to finding his women in the club. They knew a little about him, what he expected, and he knew they were already on the road to ruination. He didn’t have to worry about destroying their innocence.

But he didn’t have time to fly to the club and fly back here. He would have to risk going to a human club, then. Yes, he decided. He would go to a human club. He would find a woman, the wildest one, have her and figure this out. Surely.

“—CAN’T FLASH,” Nicola heard Koldo say, his voice dripping with all kinds of rage. “You have to continue the hunt on your own.”

He couldn’t flash? She’d just turned the corner into the kitchen, where the men were located, but hearing him say that, she froze in the doorway.

“I don’t mind doing that,” Axel replied. “But I gotta tell you. I’m getting nowhere. Your father leaves zero tracks.”

“He’s been planning this a long time. Before approaching us, he would have come up with a way to avoid detection.”

Neither man noticed her. They sat at the table. And how odd they looked. Two primal warriors, seated so domestically at a hand-carved table, white-and-black-checkered curtains covering the bay window behind them.

“But he’s not smarter than me,” Axel said. “Or is it ‘than I’? I always forget. Anyway. I’ll find a way to draw him out.”

Axel squared his shoulders, at attention. Koldo raked a hand over his scalp, as if he were embarrassed. How adorable.

They were wearing identical white tops and pants, the material loose, and they both looked adorable. Like best friends who had made a pact to always do everything together—even dress.

Say that aloud. I dare you. “Well?” she prompted.

“We can feed ourselves,” Koldo said at the same time Axel said, “I’m ravenous.”

“Well, my answer matches Axel’s,” she said. “Therefore, I’ll make something.” These past few days she’d spent a lot of time puttering around in the kitchen, trying new recipes brought to her by Koldo’s friends, and it had been wonderful. She’d discovered a blooming talent she hadn’t expected. Lack of time and money had never allowed her the luxury of even trying.

Axel smirked. Koldo scowled. She gathered dishes and cutlery and the appropriate ingredients for an avocado-and-strawberry salad, and all the while she could feel Koldo’s gaze on her, two white-hot pings drilling into her back.

Was he thinking about last night?

She was. With every glance, every touch, she’d felt the depths of their connection. Something deep, inexorable.

“I’d like to hire you at my place, Miz Nicola,” Axel said. “I have a benefits package I know you’ll love.”