So, yes, he had to let his mother go. He couldn’t look back anymore. He could only look forward.
As the thoughts formed, the hole widened, widened still more, allowing the light to brighten and spread, eliminating the darkness altogether.
Koldo kissed Nicola softly, gently, and she welcomed him. But he knew now wasn’t the time to reveal his plans. Their emotions were too high. And he hadn’t yet romanced her as was proper.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
He helped her to her feet before crouching beside Laila and scooping her into his arms. Her slight weight barely registered. “Tuck yourself into my side,” he told Nicola, “and wrap your arms around me.”
She obeyed, and he flashed to Zacharel’s home in the heavens. The mist swirled at their sides as he called, “Zacharel? Annabelle?”
The mist parted, creating a dreamlike walkway as he surged forward.
Nicola gasped, reached out. “What is this place?” Several tendrils of mist twined around her fingers, but he knew she also encountered a solid wall.
“The usual home for a Sent One,” he said.
Annabelle was in the living room, once again perched in front of the coffee table, with books covering the entire surface. She glanced up, golden eyes soon catching and staying on Nicola.
“And who do we have here?”
“My female,” he said, with a bloom of pride in his chest. “The one in my arms is her sister. They need a place to stay for a bit.”
A grinning Annabelle spread her arms. “Well, welcome to the home of Zachy the Delightful.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. No questions. No scrambling for answers.
“We’re not interrupting anything, I hope,” Nicola said hesitantly.
“Not at all. I’m studying the ways of the Sent Ones, and could use someone to bounce around a few ideas. I mean, I’m the wife of an army leader, and I need to know their laws, their strengths and weaknesses.”
“I’ve been studying, too,” Nicola said, and eased beside the Asian beauty. Her gaze remained on her sister. “I’m Nicola, by the way.”
“I would say nice to meet you, but that would fail to convey my happiness. You’re the first human female to enter this cloud in...ever. I’ve been starved for decent conversation. And besides that, anyone who can take on Koldo and live, well, I like her already.”
Koldo placed Laila on the couch. A slight moan parted her lips, and she shifted to her side, but other than that, she remained in her sleeping state. He straightened.
“She’ll be all right, yes?” Nicola asked.
Rather than answer, and spoil her mood, he said, “There’s something I must do.”
“You’ll be safe here,” he said, sidestepping this question, as well. “Annabelle is just as much a warrior as Zacharel.”
With that, he flashed to the cavern in South Africa. Though Cornelia was chained to the far wall, the thick sheet of moisture in the air had left her drenched. The dirty, human-made robe was plastered to her skin.
Her head lolled to the side in an attempt to rest on her shoulder. There were bruises under her eyes, her cheeks were gaunt and her skin wrinkled. Her lips were chapped.
He stepped in front of her. Despite the still-churning anger he had for her, he suddenly felt sympathy for her state—and remorse for being the one who put her in it.
She blinked open her eyes. The moment his presence registered, she spit at him.
He wiped the spittle from his cheek.
“All my hard work destroyed,” she said, still fuming about his wings. “You’ve been given a gift you’ll never deserve.”
How right she was, though they weren’t talking about the same thing. “I know.”
“I’ll pray every day that someone takes them from you.”
And I’ll pray every day you find a way to forgive me for whatever wrong you think I’ve committed. “I’m going to start a new life, Mother.”
Her nostrils flared as she drew in a sharp breath. “Oh, well, good for you. I hope it kills you.”
“You’re not included in that life.”
Her lips curved into a vile grin. “Finally decided to end me, have you? Well, well. It’s about time. You’ll be kicked from the heavens. You’ll be disgraced, humiliated, forgotten. You’ll be hunted by demons the rest of your life, but you’ll be powerless to stop them. You’ll suffer, and eventually, you’ll die. You’ll spend eternity in hell—where you belong.”
All that hate, he thought. It lived inside her. Traveled with her, ate with her. Probably conversed with her. She was never without the faithless companion. And she never would be, as long as she nursed it at her breast. It hurt her, not him, just as his hatred had hurt him and not her.
Nicola was right. He’d been a prisoner.
But now he would be free.
He drew a dagger from the air pocket beside him and reached out. She raised her chin, stoic, waiting, ready. Rather than slicing her neck, as she expected, he slammed the tip into one of the cuffs at her wrists.
“Seeing to your liberation. I threw the key to your chains in the farthest ocean.” He had to work at the metal, grinding the dagger through the cylinder, but finally the two sides split. He did the same to the other wrist, then her ankles.
“Why are you doing this?” she demanded.
A tense pause, her confusion saturating the air as surely as the water. “This doesn’t change anything.”
“I know that, too,” he said.
The moment the metal fell away from her, she shoved him. She was too weak to put much power behind the move, so he stepped back on his own. Her gaze locked on him, as though she expected this to be a trick, and she hobbled to the ledge of the cave. She spread her wings.
The action must have pained her, because she grimaced. “When I’m stronger, I’ll come for you.”
“I’ll be ready. But if you try to hurt me by hurting the girl, I will end you. I won’t give you another opportunity to strike at her.”
“As if I would hurt an innocent.” With that, she leaped from the cave, falling down, down, down. He wasn’t sure she would have the strength to pull herself up, until, a second later, he caught a glimpse of her rising. Her glide was stiff, slow, but still she managed to stay in the air.
It was done, then. Over.
He waited for regret to overwhelm him. He experienced only...peace. Such sweet peace. He’d done the right thing. He’d taken the matter out of his hands. He’d turned away from the temptation.
Now, for his reward.
THE CHANGE IN KOLDO confused, delighted and electrified Nicola.
Only half an hour ago, he’d arrived at Annabelle’s to pick up Nicola for “a date.” He’d given her a pink angel robe and waited for her to change.
Before they left, Nicola had gone to check on Laila, who had awoken from her faint, thrown herself at Nicola and sobbed. Eventually she’d calmed and promised to listen to everything Nicola had to say about good and evil, joy and fear—in the morning. She’d wanted a night to herself, to relax. To forget, if only for a little while.
Grateful for the change, Nicola had agreed and allowed Koldo to gather her in his arms and take her away.
And so here she was, out on her date. Part one? Flying. Koldo held her as they soared through the sky, the wind in her hair, caressing her skin. The scent of the clouds, morning dew and sunshine inundated her very being.
He was behind her, holding her tightly. The air pressure kept her legs glued to his, rather than dangling below. And the world... The world was lush and alive and glorious. Vibrant greens and blues melded earth and sea. Mountains rose, and valleys dipped. Winter here, summer there. A veritable feast for her senses.
“Everything is so beautiful,” she said.
“There was a time I saw only the ugliness.” He kissed the back of her neck, and she shivered. “But not today. Today is a new day, a fresh start. I...I freed my mother.”
She tried to twist around and look at him, but couldn’t quite manage it. “Oh, Koldo.”
“You were right. I could keep her and worsen, or let her go and heal.”
She wished she could hug him. “It was difficult, wasn’t it?”
“The most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and yet, somehow the easiest.”
She patted his hands, joined as they were over her middle. “I’m pleased,” she said, as he’d often said to her.
“You’re about to be more so.” He angled their bodies, and began to descend.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, breathless.
Already she could make out...a jungle safari? A river wound through lush trees and patches of dirt. A lioness chased a pack of gazelles. Birds of every color scattered in the wind. Elephants drank at a pond.
He straightened just before landing and placed her feet gently on the ground. Familiar scents layered the air. Scents she’d encountered at the zoo, the few times her parents had taken her, but also things she hadn’t encountered. Exotic flowers and flourishing ivy. Damp vegetation, and a startling purity.
“You’re in the spirit realm with me. They can’t see you,” Koldo said. “Go on. Get close.”
In answer, he gave her the gentlest of pushes.
Nicola moved forward hesitantly. Despite what Koldo had said, she expected the magnificent creatures to bolt. Instead, they continued to suck water through their trunks and spray drops into their mouths. They even bathed themselves and splashed each other.
A laugh bubbled from her, but still the elephants remained in place.
Koldo stood off on the side, watching.
Finally she moved beside one of the few babies, an adorable thing that weighed more than she and Laila combined. His gaze lifted, seemed to lock on her. But...he couldn’t see her. Could he?