He’d been missing for two days. Zacharel was out looking for him.
Zacharel, who had told her that Koldo had gone to procure more Water, just because Nicola had asked, and that he should have returned by the end of the first day. That wasn’t all he’d told her, of course. Even remembering the rest, Nicola shuddered.
Your man was whipped. Before that, he was commanded to give up something precious to him. His mind has to be a mess. I have asked our leader for the details, but they are not his to share.
So badly she had wanted to go back to those few minutes inside Zacharel’s cloud and stop Koldo from leaving. But that’s why he’d flashed without telling her where he was going. So that she couldn’t. He was doing this for her. Suffering for her.
I have to find him. Yet, she couldn’t leave her sister to...to... She just couldn’t leave her sister alone.
And what if Koldo had been asked to give up Nicola?
Her stomach twisted into a thousand little knots, and she had to swallow back a moan of grief.
“This is it for me, Co Co.”
Laila’s voice pierced the silence of the room, and Nicola jolted with shock. Clear gray eyes watched her, no hint of pain evident.
Inside her, hope and confusion collided with the shock, creating a heady mixture that left her dizzy. “You’re awake.”
“Just for a moment.” Chapped lips curved in a soft smile. “You have to let me go, my love. It’s time.”
No. Absolutely not! “I told you before. I can’t. I won’t.” Nicola vehemently shook her head. “You can beat this.”
A weak chuckle reverberated between them. “Always the strong one...as well as the sensitive one. I don’t want you looking back on this and blaming yourself. You did everything you could. I refused to listen. And I don’t want you afraid. I’m not. Not any longer.”
“I’m not afraid, either.” I’m just devastated. “You’ll get better. Koldo went to get you special Water. It helped you before, and—”
“No, my love, I’m ready now. I’ve been hovering between the natural and the spiritual for a while, and I got some things worked out with the Most High. He really is wonderful, you know. I asked for a chance to say goodbye, and He granted it.”
“Not goodbye. I want you to stay,” she whispered brokenly.
“I know you do, but the fear... It was ugly and I let it ruin me. At least now I’m going to a better place, and one day we’ll be together again. For now, you have a life to live. The things you’re going to teach people... Look at what you’ve done for Koldo already.”
“I love you, Co Co.” So softly spoken.
There would be no changing her sister’s path, she realized. The tears escaped, flowing down Nicola’s cheeks, one after the other, burning her skin. She reached out, took her sister’s fragile hand and linked their fingers.
NICOLA WALKED THE STREETS of her childhood neighborhood in a numbed daze. At her request, her guards had flown her here and now followed discreetly behind her. She couldn’t stop picturing the way her sister’s head had lolled to the side, the spark fading from her eyes, leaving them glassy, dull. Machines had beeped like crazy, and nurses had rushed inside. But that time, they hadn’t tried to save the girl. They’d known they couldn’t.
They’d turned off the machines, patted Nicola on the shoulder and left her alone.
Silence had surrounded her. Such heavy, oppressive silence. She had only been able to sit there, tears continuing to slide down her cheeks.
How was she supposed to go on from here?
She was shaking by the time she reached the house they’d grown up in. The house where they’d laughed and talked and played. The house where they’d read storybooks to Robby.
Located in historic midtown, the house had yellow stucco and exposed red brick. There were bushes and flowers and bright green grass, plus a cement pathway leading to the steps of a wraparound porch.
The hospital faded from her mind, replaced by a vision of Laila peering out from the window, watching for Nicola to return from the doctor. The moment she had emerged from the car, her sister had smiled at her through the glass, relieved to be together again.
Together again. Something they wouldn’t have while Nicola was down here.
Nicola’s knees collapsed. Grief was suddenly razor sharp inside her, cutting her up, ruining the numbness. For so long, Laila had been her only companion. Laila was the only one who had ever shared the many travesties of their lives. Laila had cried with her and mourned with her and hurt with her and helped rally her when she was at her lowest.
“Give me time alone,” Nicola choked out to her guards. “Please.”
A moment passed as they debated, but in the end they walked away and rounded the corner at the end of the street.
A fresh round of tears welled in her eyes and spilled onto her cheeks, one after the other, faster and faster, until she was sobbing, shaking uncontrollably, sorrow and despair rising up, consuming her. Sunlight beat down on her, but she couldn’t feel the sting. She was cold inside. So cold.
Her sister was a part of her. There’d never been a Nicola without a Laila.
Her sobs increased until she was hunched over and heaving. Had she eaten, she would have thrown up all over the driveway. But she hadn’t, and she could only gag and choke and remember and despair. The new owners and their neighbors must have been at work, because no one came out to check on her. She was glad.
Eventually, though, she calmed. She stayed there, crouched on the cement, her forehead pressing into her hands, her eyes swollen and nose stuffed. Death wasn’t the end, she reminded herself. The grave couldn’t win. She would see her sister again. She would.
But one thought arose, and refused to leave her. Things hadn’t had to end this way. Demons had poisoned her sister, yes, but then, Laila hadn’t fought back.
How many families had been affected by a similar situation, but just hadn’t known it? How many had accepted what they thought was natural and inevitable, never knowing there was another way?
She had to change that. She couldn’t let another sister end up where she was, on all fours wetting the ground with a stream of fat tears. Or a mother. A father. A friend. Koldo had taught her how to fight, and she would teach others.
Out of her pain would come her purpose.
Yes. This was war.
The first stirring of hope hit her, and she straightened. The brightness of the light had her blinking. And then...then her heart began to pound in a wild, warped rhythm, as if the organ had just been strained beyond repair. Pain radiated down her left arm, as though she were having another heart attack.
This is it. The end. Your sister is gone and you can’t survive without her.
No. No, that couldn’t be right.
But fear gobbled up every ounce of her hope, and the pain increased.
All alone. No one to help you.
No! Those thoughts couldn’t be springing from her mind. They contradicted everything she’d just realized. So where could—
Demons, she realized. She couldn’t see them, but demons must have sensed her despair and come running, hoping to poison her and feed. Well, she wasn’t going to let them.
“I know you’re lying to me. I know I’m well.” As she spoke, her heart returned to its normal beat. “I’ll never cave to your kind again.”
Two scowling demons appeared in front of her and tucked their gnarled wings into their backs. She had seen them before—one had showed up at her office and then again with Koldo’s father. One had a horn rising from his scalp and fur all over his body. The other had a horn in the center of his forehead and scales rather than skin. Their eyes were black, bottomless and pure evil, a match to their pungent scents.
“We should. We’ve been waiting for this day. For this moment.”
“Where are your friends, huh?” the other asked. “They seem to have abandoned you.”
“Then this moment isn’t as it seems.” She lifted her chin. “I always have help. And besides that, with or without them, you can’t hurt me.”
“We’ve been with you a very long time, Nicola. We know your weak spots.”
“You need us.” Uttered in a husky, seductive whisper. “If for no other reason than to keep other demons away.”
One step, two, they approached her. She held her ground. At any other time she might have experienced horror. But not now. They’d been waiting for this moment, they’d said. Waiting for her sister to die, when Nicola’s emotions would be wrecked. They’d planned this attack. Had probably strategized for days, weeks, laughing about what an easy target she would be. Well, they would get no satisfaction from her.
What do I do now? she wondered.
The thought rose from deep inside her, where instinct swirled. Yes. She’d decided to fight, and so she would.
They liked fear and despair—and so she would give them joy and hope.
She closed her eyes and thought about Koldo. Her husband. Her beautiful husband. He loved her, and she loved him. No matter what. She would hunt him down, and they would be together again. If he’d been asked to give her up, so what? She hadn’t agreed to those terms. She hadn’t promised to give him up.
They would fight this war together.
She glanced down—and watched as a sword of fire appeared in her grip. She yelped and almost dropped the weapon, so great was her surprise. But she somehow maintained her grip. The hilt was warm and light as she danced the crackling flames through the air.
Now the demons backed away from her, their big bodies trembling.