“Where did you get that?” one gasped.

“This can’t be happening,” the other cried.

They flared their wings, intending to fly away.

If I’m going to act, I have to act now.

“You picked the wrong target,” she said. With a single swing of her arm, Nicola decapitated both of the creatures. Their heads rolled, and their bodies fell. Black blood pooled at her feet—and satisfaction pooled in her heart.

Magnus and Malcolm flew around the corner, both clutching their own swords of fire.

They stopped when they spotted her.

“You’re as shocked as I am, so let’s discuss it later, all right? Do you know where Koldo is?” she demanded.

It was time to begin her hunt.

KOLDO WAS CARTED to his father’s underground nest—which had been moved to Koldo’s home in West India Quay. The walls were comprised of dark, jagged rock, the once-pure pool of water now dark in color. There were around thirty Nefas soldiers dressed in loincloths, standing around flesh-colored tents, waiting to praise Nox for Koldo’s capture.

“Strip him,” Nox commanded coldly, never one to delay the business of torture.

Eight females rushed to obey. Koldo was already shirtless, so only the bottom half of his robe had to be torn from him. Sharp nails sliced at his wounds, and humiliation burned deep in his soul.

Once again, he was reduced to a puppet, under his father’s control, helpless.

“Tie him to the boulder and whip the rest of him.”

Another command the females were happy to obey.

“But you better not like it,” Sirena snapped, her possessive streak showing.

He couldn’t go down like this. He couldn’t. His life couldn’t end in defeat.

But Koldo was too weak to fight as he was dragged to a large silver boulder and strapped down. A second later, each of the females seemed to unfold a whip and strike at him, over and over again. His arms, his legs, and yes, even his decimated back. He gritted his teeth and bore it without a word, without a gasp, even when his skin was nothing more than tattered ribbons. He knew the rules of the Nefas.

A moment of frailty would be forever exploited.

He tried to flash, and failed. But even if he’d been at his strongest, he knew he wouldn’t have been capable of the deed. During the journey, Sirena had dug her claws into many of his wounds and poisoned him, stealing his ability. “I’ll have you yet,” she’d whispered. He’d tried to project his voice into Zacharel’s mind, but he wasn’t sure he’d gotten through. There’d been no response.

At last the females finished with him. More of his strength waned, but he was determined to live. He had to live. He had to obtain more Water. Had to help save Laila. Had to see Nicola again. Had to be with her, hold her.

He’d often sensed when she was in danger, but just then, he thought he sensed...determination from her. And if that were the case, Laila had to be alive. Nicola had to be wondering where he was. Nothing else would elicit that much resolve from her.

“How do you feel, boy?” Nox asked with a laugh. “Well, I hope. But if not, no matter. Tonight, Sirena will claim you as her very own.”

“Take him to the cage.”

Koldo was untied and carried to the very cage he’d locked his mother in. Only, now it was covered by a tarp. He was flashed inside and dropped. He remained on the floor and rolled to his stomach, every inch of him aching. He looked around, but his vision was too hazed to make out more than a dark blob in the corner. A human?

His father approached, saying, “Have you learned yet, boy? You cannot vanquish me.”

Koldo pressed his lips together. He could rage, but what good would that do him? He could threaten—and amuse his father. He would rather wallow in the humiliation.

“I hear you let your mother go,” Nox said. “Did I ever tell you the story of your conception? No, probably not. I liked that you thought she loved me and still wanted me. But you see, your mother was helping defend an impoverished tribe of humans I wanted as my slaves. I captured her, too. Oh, how she fought me.”

“I soon put her in her place, of course. Underneath me.”

His mother had been raped. Koldo had been the result. He should have guessed, even when she’d claimed to want the man, probably too ashamed to admit the truth. Instead, he’d been so blinded by his hatred and his need to make her suffer, he’d taunted her about obsessing over Nox. No wonder she had spat at him.

Guilt and shame joined Koldo’s humiliation, the same toxic mix he’d dealt with most of his life. He wasn’t excusing his mother’s behavior. But she had hurt, and so she had lashed out. Koldo had hurt, and so he had lashed out. He should have broken the cycle.

“I enjoyed her over and over again, and decided to keep her,” Nox continued. “The day she gave birth I made the mistake of freeing her bonds. She escaped, taking you with her. I looked for her, but she hid very well.”

And that was probably one of the reasons she had never wanted her friends to see him, Koldo thought, not because she was ashamed of his ugliness. She hadn’t wanted word to travel and reach Nox.

He would. Whatever he had to do.

He would strengthen. He would come out of this.

Nox snorted, and even that was smug. “You can’t even protect yourself, and you think you’ll take me down? No, Koldo, that isn’t how this is going to work. You’re going to heal, and you’re going to marry Sirena. You will get her with child if I have to steal your seed myself. Once she has a son, I’ll have no more use for you.”

And he would be killed.

“Until then, meet your cell mate.” Nox gestured to the shadow Koldo had seen in the corner of the cage. “I believe you know him. His name is Axel. He’s a Sent One, just like you, and you’re going to kill him if you want your Nicola to survive what I have planned for her.”

“Liar,” Koldo tried to shout, but only managed to whisper. Nicola was safe. Axel was safe. He wouldn’t believe otherwise.

“Not this time, he’s not,” he heard Axel say calmly.

What? Koldo tried to sit up. No...no! Have to get Axel to safety. Can’t allow him to suffer. “You must escape. Now.”

“No, none of that now.” Warm hands stroked over his scalp. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”

“You know, the uze. I was strolling down an abandoned alley, pretending to be helpless, and boom, someone grabbed me.”

So...he was here on purpose?

“The Nefas had been following me for days. I just let them catch me.”

“Like I really want to break in a new partner.”

No. No, that wasn’t it. Axel cared about him. Axel had placed Koldo’s well-being above his own. And now, Koldo was supposed to harm him to save Nicola? “Shouldn’t...be here. I want you gone.”

“No way. I told you. I’m exactly where I want to be.”

“Too bad. You’re not allowed to help me. The Water...you’ll suffer.”

“Who said anything about helping you?”

Then what? What was the plan? What was the purpose of this?

“Just sit back and enjoy the show, bro,” Axel said, and Koldo heard the amusement in his tone. “I have a feeling you’re going to like this one. Your day is about to be saved, and by the most unlikely person.”

Koldo couldn’t help himself. He pulled himself into a sitting position and draped his arm around Axel. “Thank you.”

“Not afraid of a man hug, I see,” the warrior said, clearly uncomfortable.

Axel cleared his throat and wrapped an arm around him, too. “I love you, too. But I’m going to pretend that’s the pain talking—for both of us. And if you ever tell anyone you heard any kind of trembling in my voice, I’ll kill you.”

NICOLA STOOD in the center of the spacious room located in a palace high in the heavens. A lifetime seemed to have passed since she’d been brought here, but in reality, only a half hour had. Malcolm and Magnus had summoned Zacharel, told him what they’d witnessed, and the dark-haired warrior had gathered her close and flown her here.

He had yet to speak a word.

She was still raw over her sister’s death, still wondering where Koldo was—and growing more determined to find him by the second. She needed to be out there, right now, searching for him.

He was hurt. She sensed it deep, deep inside, a knowledge her concern for Laila had shadowed. But it wasn’t hidden anymore, and urgency was riding her hard. Whether he’d been hurt from the whipping or something more, she didn’t know. But she would. Soon.

“I have to leave,” she said.

Frustrating man! “Just as soon as I figure out how to land on the earth without going splat, you won’t be able to stop me.”

She gazed around the room, looking for a window without a thirty-thousand-foot—or more—fall. She saw alabaster columns, with ivy twined from base to ceiling. The floor was ebony, the walls ivory, with gorgeous tapestries hanging throughout. But no windows. The only exit was the door, now guarded by two winged warriors with metal swords.

She breathed deeply. The air smelled clean and fresh, and pure. As if it had never been tainted by evil. She looked up. The ceiling was domed, with Sent Ones painted throughout—no, not painted, she realized. Not painted at all. The dome was made of crystal and peered into a higher realm of the heavens.