“Oh, never doubt that he tried.” Many times.
Koldo thought back to the day Cornelia had flown him over his father’s camp and dropped him. As weak and agonized as he’d been, landing had hurt more than the brutal removal of his wings.
A huge, bald man with more muscles and scars than Koldo had ever seen stomped toward him. Cornelia called, “Meet your son, Nox—may you destroy each other,” before flying away.
Koldo had blacked out seconds after that, only to awaken on the floor of a spacious tent, the bald man looming over him, grinning widely, his eyes as black as his name implied.
“You’re my son, are you? Raised by a do-gooder angel.”
“I’m betting you’re filled with silly notions about right and wrong,” Nox had continued. “Aren’t you, boy?”
Concentrating on the words had proven difficult—everything inside Koldo had been screaming at him to run and never look back. But he’d been trapped inside a body too weak to move or flash. All he could do was watch as thin curls of smoke wafted from the male’s pores, scenting the air with sulfur.
That’s when realization had slammed into Koldo with collision force. A bald head, bottomless eyes and black smoke could mean only one thing. Nefas. His father hailed from the most dangerous, vile race in existence. A race that sneaked up on humans, poisoned slowly, painfully...destroying utterly. A race without a conscience.
A race just like the demons.
The age of their victims never mattered. The gender of their victims never mattered. They lived to inflict pain. They killed. And they laughed while doing it.
“No worries,” the man had said. “You can unlearn.”
Nox had wanted Koldo to embrace the Nefas way of life, and Koldo had resisted...at first. But every time he’d tried to escape, flashing away, his father had been right on his heels, easily finding him and dragging him back—punishing him. Once, Nox had tied him down and poured acid down his throat. The time after that, Nox had plucked out one of his eyes and nailed it to the bar of his cage, so that he could watch himself watching himself. Koldo had had to win the eye back—and stuff it back in. By then he’d been a little older and had been able to partially heal it. Still, his sight had never been the same.
Bitterness and hatred had taken root inside him. Why him? Why had no one saved him? How much more would he be forced to endure?
Finally, he’d lost his will to fight. He’d given in. He’d raided villages. He’d helped his father and the other soldiers fit their mouths over their victims’ mouths and suck out innocent souls, leaving only lifeless shells.
A man will do just about anything to survive, boy.
It was the only one of his father’s lessons that he’d taken to heart.
Now, Koldo was certain he’d passed the point of redemption. He could have fought harder. Should have fought harder. That he hadn’t... Guilt would always ride him, and shame would always fill him.
He had too many memories. The dark kind that never went away. Each one made him long to pluck out his eyes, just to blank his line of sight, or cut off his ears, just to quiet the screams.
Over the years he’d earned a big-enough name to draw Germanus’s attention. An army of Sent Ones had swooped into his father’s camp to destroy Koldo, had seen the scars on his back and mistakenly assumed he wasn’t Nefas, for Nefas could not grow wings, and Koldo had obviously had them at one time. So, the soldiers had captured him instead.
That had been the beginning of his new life.
Germanus—a name meaning “brother”—could have and probably should have slain him despite his origins. Koldo had been feral. He had snarled and cursed and attacked anyone who neared him. After all the things he had done, after all of the people he had killed, he was supposed to forgive himself and adopt the “do-gooder” approach? Impossible!
But Germanus had looked deeper than the surface, had seen the shame and guilt in Koldo’s eyes. Emotions raw and intense, even back then.
The king of the Sent Ones had spent the next several years coaxing Koldo from his rages, doing his best to comfort a young male with such a damaged past, ensuring Koldo was trained to fight the right way, that he had a safe, comfortable place to sleep, that he always had a proper meal to eat.
It had been Koldo’s first taste of actual caring and concern, and he’d soon grown to love Germanus—would still die to protect him.
“Why did you mate with Nox?” he asked his mother as he stalked around the cage.
“Why not? He was a very beautiful man.”
Some women would find such a dangerous male attractive, Koldo supposed. Despite the bald head and dead eyes, he’d had a face far lovelier than any Koldo had ever seen. A purity of features, a radiance most beings could only ever dream about.
“Did you hope to tame him? Did you think you would be the one to change him?”
Cornelia pushed to her feet, always keeping her gaze on him, never permitting him to have her back, where her beautiful white-and-gold wings lay. She expected him to remove them. She was right to do so. It was one of his biggest temptations.
“Evil cannot be changed,” she said.
“Did he betray you for another? One of his own kind, perhaps? A female better suited to his particular tastes? Or, perhaps he turned to many other females.”
But he couldn’t. He was closing in on the truth. Even as sickness churned in his stomach, he said, “He used to laugh about you, you know. Said you loved him, begged him to be with you, to stay with you. Said you sobbed when he left. Said you—”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” she shrieked, racing to the bars where Koldo stood. She shook with so much force he was surprised the reinforced metal held steady.
The ferocity of her reaction should have pleased him. This was what he’d always wanted from her, after all. Rage, frustration. Helplessness. Mirroring what he’d felt for so many years. But the sickness intensified. How could he do this to a female? Any female?
How could he hurt another of his kind?
She spit on his boots. “I hate you. I hate you so much I can barely breathe past it. I hate you so much I’d rather rot in this cage than pretend I love you or say I’m sorry for the way I treated you. I’m not! I never will be. You were an abomination then and you’re an abomination now. The day you die is the day I rejoice.”
Hurt and fury joined the collage of other emotions, the darkness in his mind thickening, once again banging at the dam. He stepped back, away from her, lest he lash out and end her—becoming just like his father. The scent of jasmine and honeysuckle followed him.
Even here, she carried the despised fragrance with her.
What had an innocent little boy done to elicit this kind of rejection? How could she blame Koldo for his father’s treatment of her?
How could Koldo still hurt, after all this time?
“If ever I die,” he said, “you won’t be the cause. You’re too weak. You’ve always been weak, and that’s why Nox let you go.”
Again she spit on his boots.
Hands fisted, he flashed to his home in South Africa. He had sixteen residences throughout the world, each tucked securely away from prying human eyes, but more and more this was the one he preferred, the one where he spent most of his free time.
Before he even manifested, he was beating at the walls, tearing the newly healed skin on his knuckles. Blood splattered. Bone snapped.
This time, the rage failed to drain as quickly.
Hours seemed to pass before he was shucking his clothing, ripping the material in his haste. The shirt and pants hit the floor and drew together of their own accord, the tears and halves forming a perfect robe. Cool water droplets splashed against his bare skin as he peered out at the turbulent waterfall.
He punched the side of the wall, dust and debris ghosting through the air. Always she reduced him to this, to a man who felt as if his heart had been cleaved from his chest, stomped on, sliced, kicked around and burned to ash. He had to gain the upper hand with her.
Otherwise, he would kill her.
When Cornelia breathed her last, her spirit would leave her body. But she would not go up, would not spend the rest of eternity with the Most High in the Heavens of heavens. She couldn’t. To die with hatred blazing in her heart was to go down, down, down. It was a spiritual law no one—not even a Sent One—could supersede.
Devilish things could not coexist with divine things.
Reason number one Koldo was in such danger himself.
Cornelia deserved such a fate, yes. She deserved to suffer for all eternity. But he wasn’t going to be the one to send her to an early grave. He wasn’t like her—if he had to remind himself every day, he would. More than that, he wanted...what he could never have. Answers. Her love.
He gritted his teeth. No, he wasn’t like her—and he no longer wanted those things. A taste of vengeance was all he craved.
The thought hit him, and he paused. There was no way someone like him could help a female as fragile as Nicola, was there?
He should have stayed away from her, he realized. But he hadn’t, and now it was too late. He’d flashed away from her to prove the existence of supernatural activity, hoping to force her to accept it and take the first step toward fighting the demons. Now she knew.
Now she would ask questions.
If she asked the wrong people, they would give her the wrong answers.
He scrubbed a hand over the smoothness of his scalp. He had to stick to his plan.
And that wasn’t such a bad thing, he told himself. Nicola intrigued him. Her voice, so soft, so sweet...so addictive, a caress his ears already craved again. Her wit. Her resilience. Her bravery. He’d snipped at her, yet she hadn’t sobbed and begged for mercy.
Throughout her very short span on earth, one disaster after another had befallen her. Perhaps the demons were responsible, or perhaps the imperfect world. Perhaps both. Whatever the reason, he wanted better for her. The better he himself had found with Germanus.