“I’m pleased with you, Koldo. You have placed another’s well-being before your own.” Clerici closed the distance. “You have no idea of the outcome, and yet still you do this.”

Koldo closed his eyes and said not a word, asked not a single question.

“What you’re doing is a true expression of love,” Clerici said, “and I commend you.”

“This is your last chance to walk away.”

A pause...and then the first blow fell.

Leather against decimated flesh, and leather won, sending bits of skin, muscle and blood flying. Koldo locked his jaw. The second blow fell. The third. The fourth. His jaw hurt so badly from trying to contain his screams he was certain he’d popped the bones out of place.

This time, he imagined Laila rising from Zacharel’s couch and shedding the sickness as if it were an unwanted winter coat. He imagined the two sisters hugging, laughing, then discussing spiritual laws, learning and growing and putting demons in their place—beneath their feet.

The fifth blow. The sixth.

He had no flesh left, he was sure. Every muscle in his body was tight, shaking, burning. Black spots winked through his vision.

Finally Koldo could hold back no longer. A cry of agony burst from him.

He breathed in through his nostrils, short, gasping pants, and breathed out through his mouth. The whip continued to fall. He couldn’t pass out. He had to be able to get himself through that gate on his own. Had to get to the Water and back through the gate. Otherwise, all of this would have been for nothing.

After thirty blows, the whip at last stopped.

Koldo’s head lolled forward, his cheek resting on the stump.

“Never forget the Most High has girded you with strength,” Clerici told him before stalking away.

The gate in front of him opened with a whine. Girded him with strength? Yes, that was true. The code was in his heart, burning as hotly as his back.

He could do this.

He crawled forward, black still winking through his line of sight. Once he passed the iron, dirt gave way to grass, cushioning his hands and knees. Yes, he could do this.

The sound of rushing water greeted his ears, and he forced himself to keep moving. Ruined skin pulled taut. Mutilated muscle tore further. One yard, two...he plodded along, flashing several feet when he could. Mist soon saturated the air.

There were two rivers. The River of Life and the River of Death. Everyone who entered the gates had a choice. Life or Death. Blessing or Cursing. One soothed with a cool breeze, the other smoldered with a stinging wind. One was clear and pure, the other dark and murky. There were those who had actually chosen death, deciding to sever their connection to the Most High. Willingly falling, wanting no part of the heavenly laws.

At the edge of the River of Life, Koldo withdrew a small vial from an air pocket and filled it to the brim, his hand shaking. Can’t drop it. If he tried to take more than the allotted vial, even if he spilled the contents before leaving this area and sought only to replenish, the Council would know and he would lose everything he’d already sacrificed, plus the Water—and he would never again be allowed to this point.

He fit the cork in the center. The moment it was secure, he placed the vial in an air pocket and breathed a sigh of relief.

Now, to get the vial to Zacharel’s cloud.

He couldn’t manage great distances, would have to take this a little at a time. First, he crawled to the gate. Then, he flashed to the edge of the cloud. Then, he flashed to the next cloud over, then the next, hopping along, getting closer and closer to Zacharel’s.

No, he realized a short while later. He wasn’t. He was going in circles around Clerici’s temple, ending up only where his gaze led him. Frustration joined a cornucopia of other emotions.

He pictured Zacharel’s cloud. I can do this. Flashed—

And appeared in the middle of the sky, nothing to anchor him. He plummeted toward the earth, wind beating at him, and oh, did that hurt. If he landed at this speed, he would burst into too many pieces to put back together.

He pictured Nicola’s home. It was closer, more manageable. If he could just get there, he could summon Zacharel. Not to help him, but to claim the Water and take it to Laila. Before it was too late.

Come on. One more time. He flashed—

Was still in the sky, only lower.

This time, he appeared in Nicola’s living room and landed on his stomach with a heavy thump. He raised his gaze. There was the couch he’d left behind, the dark brown carpet with frayed and tattered edges. Oh, thank the Most High. Struggling to breathe, he reached up with a quaking hand and removed the vial from the air pocket.

Zacharel, he tried to project. As weak as he was, he couldn’t quite manage it.

A shadow fell over him. “I wondered how long it would take you to fight off my poison and find us,” a voice said—a voice he recognized. “I just didn’t know you’d already be in the condition I wanted you.”

Dread shot through him. Not her. Anyone but her. He tried to hide the vial, but he wasn’t fast enough. Sirena stepped on his wrist, holding him immobile.

“I’m part Fae, and as you know, some Fae possess special abilities. I can block the power of others for short periods of time. That’s why you couldn’t flash—and why you couldn’t find us.” The container was ripped from his hand, and a stiletto was dug into the wounds in his back, making him hiss. “What do we have here?” A moment passed. She laughed heartily. “The Water of Life. How wonderful.”

“Let me see that,” another voice commanded.

No. No, no, no. Not anyone but Sirena, he corrected. Not his father.

Another shadow. Another laugh, this one deep, rumbling. “It certainly is. His woman must be sick. He must be trying to save her.”

Pop. The cork fell to the floor and rolled just in front of him.

“Please,” Koldo said, willing to beg.

“Oh, how I like that word on your lips,” Nox said—just before pouring the precious liquid on the floor.

No. No! After everything he’d suffered—everything he would soon suffer at his father’s hand—Laila’s chance was wasted. He squeezed his eyes closed. He could do this again, and he would, but it might be too late.

The Water splashed over Koldo’s face, cool and soothing, but he pressed his lips tightly together, not allowing a single drop into his mouth. He wasn’t to partake of the Water until his back was totally healed. To do so now was to suffer, unhealed, for all eternity.

Nox dropped to his knees, anchored his hand under Koldo’s chin and forced him to look up. “We’re going to have fun, you and I.”

THANE LEFT THE HUMAN he’d just pleasured slumped on the floor of the bathroom stall and entered the nightclub. The things he’d just done to her...the things she’d asked him to do... She was his third female that night. His eighth in the past three days. Usually he could control his desires. But here, this week, the more females he’d bedded, the more he’d wanted, even needed. Sex had become all he could think about.

Something was wrong with him—and yet still he wanted another female. He wasn’t sure his body could take it, however. His head was fogged, his limbs trembling.

A strobe light cast colorful rays over the dance floor. Loud, pounding rock music blasted from speakers, and bodies writhed all around, blurring together. Multiple perfumes and colognes scented the air, creating a sickening collage. He stalked from the building and the heat and into the cool of the night.

Pebbles along the sidewalk caused him to trip. The moon was a mere sliver, the sky dark, and only a few stars were visible. There were streetlamps, but the beams were weak, highlighting only small circles.

Currently, his wings were hidden in an air pocket. His robe conformed to his body in the shape of a T-shirt and pants, both black. A wave of dizziness hit him as he continued to surge forward, and he had to lean against the side of a building to remain upright.

Bjorn, Xerxes, he projected. He hadn’t spoken to them since...his first few days in Auckland, he realized with a frown. That wasn’t like him. That wasn’t like them. Why hadn’t they at least tried to converse with him?

They would come here and they would pull him out of this spiral. The three of them would track the demons together. Fight together. Win together.

His frown deepened. They would never ignore him. They loved him.

Something had to be wrong with them, too.

He stopped at the entrance of a back alley and turned only because he recognized the voice. It was the woman he’d left in the bathroom. She looked different vertical. Her clothes were mussed, wrinkled, and her dark hair in the same condition. Brown eyes sparkled with excitement. Color was bright in her cheeks.

A sense of foreboding hit him as he struggled to concentrate on her.

“You left something behind,” she said, almost within reach. She held out her arm, her fist closed.

Slowly her fingers uncurled. But...nothing rested on her palm.

A smile curved the corners of her lips. “Your pride.”

Anger slammed through him. He had been judged one too many times lately. “What of yours? I spoke only five words to you before you went to that bathroom stall with me.”

Her amusement only increased. “Want to know a closely guarded secret of the Phoenix, Sent One? We can become anyone.” As she spoke, her countenance morphed. Dark hair became gold and scarlet. Brown eyes became green. Rounded ears developed points at the end. Human teeth grew fangs.