Violently she shook her head, saying, “Feed her more of the Water.”

“I cannot help her if she will not help herself.”

“I’ll talk to her. I’ll make her understand.” She shook her sister, trying to wake her up. “Listen to me, Laila, okay? You have to listen to me.” Nicola shook her harder, her desperation evident.

Though an agonized moan was Laila’s only response, Nicola began to talk, telling her sister everything she’d learned about spiritual warfare and overcoming demons. She talked and she talked and she talked, but Laila’s condition never improved.

Eventually Nicola’s voice cracked. Big, fat tears rolled down her cheeks. She twisted, looked to Koldo. “Tell me what to do,” she croaked. “Please, just tell me what to do to help her, and I’ll do it.”

Spiritually, Laila was no stronger than she’d been the day he’d found her in the hospital. “Nicola—”

“No. Don’t say it. Don’t say there’s nothing you can do.” She swiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand. “There has to be something.”

He hated seeing her like this, so broken, so sad. Losing hope. He couldn’t bear it.

And he hadn’t tried everything within his power to force Laila to listen, had he? He’d concentrated his efforts on Nicola. He had allowed life to distract him, every spare moment spent with his mother or chasing after his father—even when he’d known the peril Laila faced.

If he didn’t try one last time, a wall could be built between Nicola and him. Oh, she would forgive him for any wrong she thought he’d done. If she even blamed him at all. But every time she thought of this moment, he would be cast in the role of failure.

He would have given up too soon.

He wouldn’t have done all that he could.

And she would be right to think so.

Dread filled him, but still he looked to Zacharel. “I must go. Guard the females.”

“What are you—” The answer must have come to his leader, because the male nodded. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

A nod of that dark head. “Will you come here afterward?”

“Only to give you the vial. If I stay, she’ll try and take care of me.” And that would only negate what he was about to do.

Again, Zacharel understood. “I see your essentia all over her. You have claimed Nicola.”

He gave Koldo another sage nod. “I’ll keep the females safe.”

“Thank you. And...thank you for the gift,” he said, flaring his wings. He turned to Nicola. “I must go, but I’ll return with the Water of Life. It will buy her another few weeks, and we can try again to teach her the truths she needs to fight and win.”

Hope sprang in her eyes and he gave her a quick kiss before flashing to the realm of the Council. There was no time to waste.

An opulent palace made from silver stone appeared just in front of him, the tiered structure rising from a steep cliff, each layer topped by a dark red steeple. Snowcapped mountains were spread out behind it, mist falling from each of the peaks.

Last time he was here, he’d lost the hair on his head and the skin off his back.

Today, he would probably lose his wings.

Koldo pounded up the steps leading to the double doors in front, his boots thumping against the cobbles. Inside, the walls were painted with scenes of the victories the Most High had won. Battles against demons, human lives saved. Battles of good against evil, right against wrong, love against hate. For once, Koldo understood why the Most High had fought so valiantly to save the humans. There was nothing more precious than a devoted human heart.

Two guards were posted at the entrance to the tribunal chamber, their wings a rich cerulean. Angels aided Sent Ones and humans alike. Both males held a sword across the door, the lines of metal crossing in the center.

Koldo paused in front of them and offered his name, as was custom.

“Grata,” they called, and clanged the swords together before flicking their wrists and twirling the metal behind them, creating an opening.

Koldo soared forward, pushing open the doors. An azure carpet stretched to the center of the spacious room. Above him arched a domed ceiling, angels and clouds visible through the crystal. The walls were draped with white velvet, and the floor polished ebony. The only furniture was a half-moon desk, and seven chairs. Seven council members peered at him expectantly, each wearing a decorative robe of a different color. Red, blue, green, yellow, cyan, magenta and violet. A rainbow of luxury. The Most High blessed His people with abundant wealth.

Four males, three females, and each appeared to be at the end of a human life—and Koldo wasn’t sure why. No one was, though they were certain it had nothing to do with rot, as with the Nefas. As with Germanus, these beings had silver hair and heavily wrinkled skin.

Even still, they were powerful in ways Koldo could not fathom.

He inclined his head in greeting.

“So soon you return to us,” Dominicus said.

“I have need of the Water of Life,” Koldo announced.

Adeodatus tilted his head to the side, pondering him. “And you wish to give it to a human, rather than a comrade.”

He wasn’t startled by the fact that they knew his purpose. They always knew. “Yes.”

Koldo gave them the entire story. How he’d met Nicola, what had happened with her, what had happened with her sister.

“One listened, and one did not,” Benedictus said. “Interesting.”

“Because she deserves it? No,” Koldo said. “Because she desires it for herself? No. But because I, a servant of the Most High, am asking.”

A slow smile lit Dominicus’s entire face. “You have gained confidence since last you were here. I approve.”

Last time, he’d come for Zacharel and Annabelle. Last time, he’d come with anger and hate in his chest, determined to do whatever was necessary to capture his mother. He had kept his head bowed, his voice low, too afraid of being turned down.

Today, he knew he would not be turned down. He knew his rights. Knew he was in good stead with the Most High, his anger released, his past wiped away. There were no obstacles in his path. What he wanted, he wanted out of love. And it was always the Most High’s will to heal. Never did He want a person to suffer, not even to learn a lesson.

“We have no need to convene and discuss. You are approved,” Christa said with a nod.

As he’d known he would be. Now, to hammer out the details. “What must I sacrifice? I will give whatever you ask, but I wish to remind you that this is not the Most High’s way. He doesn’t require anything but the respect of His laws.”

“But we require this, wanting our traditions to stand,” Benedictus said sternly. “Do you still wish to proceed?”

No need to think about his answer. “I do.”

A pause as the members looked to each other. In unison, they nodded.

“We could ask you to stay away from the human, Nicola,” Katherina said.

His stomach twisted. No. Not that. Anything but that.

“But we will not,” she added, and he breathed a sigh of relief. “We will take your wings. Leave them here. Then, you may go to Clerici’s temple, where you will be whipped. Afterward, he will escort you to the river gate. Do you agree?”

Nicola’s tearstained face flashed before Koldo’s eyes. “I do,” he said.

Koldo sat on a backless chair, leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table.

“You are a brave man, Koldo,” the council member said. And then, as Koldo’s mother had done all those centuries ago, he began the agonizing process of separating wing from muscle.

Metal pierced flesh. Warm blood trickled. Pain arced through Koldo’s entire body. He gnashed his teeth and endured stoically. He’d gotten by without wings for a lifetime. He would get by again. But he mourned the fact that he would never again fly Nicola through the air. He would never again fly beside a fellow soldier. Once again he would be an oddity among his kind.

Better an oddity with love, than “normal” without it.

From the corner of his eye, he watched as one wing was placed on the floor, the beautiful feathers soaked in crimson, the muscles and tendons nothing more than raw meat.

“And now, the other,” Kafziel said.

Koldo kept his mind on Nicola. Her beautiful, smiling face. Her storm eyes, twinkling. She hugged him, overjoyed. She kissed him, thankful.

It wasn’t long before the second wing joined the first, and Koldo was helped to his feet. His legs shook, and what was left of his back pulled and stretched and ached and stung—a back that would next be whipped.

“The human could spurn this gift,” Isabella said sadly. “She could refuse the Water, fight its effects.”

He knew that, but he couldn’t regret his choice. He would give Laila a chance. That was all he could do. He would never have to look back and wonder what would have happened if only he’d tried.

“To Clerici you go, then,” Adeodatus said with a nod.

“Many blessings upon you, Koldo,” the members announced in unison.

With what little strength he possessed, Koldo flashed to the river gate at Clerici’s temple. Already his eyesight was hazing. He knew the area by heart, however. There was no grass, only dirt. No trees, no flowers. Only more dirt and a fat stump that acted as the whipping post. In front of him stretched an iron gate he would soon bypass—if he could walk.

He expected a guard to be there, whip in hand, but it was Clerici who stepped forward to greet him.

His knees buckled just in front of the whipping post, and he hit the ground hard. His breathing was choppy, but he could make out the scents of cinnamon and vanilla—a combination that sprang from his own skin. As much as he’d marked Nicola, she had marked him.