Because you're like Rain Man with numbers,
and you don't laugh at me 'cause I'm not.
Jag älskar dig för alltid
My heartfelt thanks go out to the Gibson Hall Grid. You know cryptography, so I don't have to. And much love to the usual suspects: Gena, Boo, Beth, and Rocki. All fabulous authors and amazing friends.
Rothkalina, the Kingdom of the Rage Demons
In ages long past
Cadeon Woede came upon the headless bodies of his foster father and brothers first, the three slain in a desperate defense of their home.
Their remains littered the ground near a demolished section of the barricades around their farmstead. Cadeon recognized the merciless slaughter as the work of revenants, corpse creatures dispatched by Omort the Deathless, their kingdom's most dreaded enemy.
He shuddered in stunned disbelief, his mind refusing to accept this...
The girls -
Like a shot, he charged up a hillock to the smoldering shell of the family's house. His foster sisters might have escaped into the forest. Heart thundering, he searched the ruins, praying to find nothing within. Sweat rolled down his face and into his eyes, mingling with the swirling ash and soot.
In the area where the hearth used to be, he found what was left of his younger foster sisters. They'd been burned, and while they were still alive. Their muscles had contracted in the heat, their little bodies curling up on the floor.
He lurched outside, retching until his throat was raw. No one had survived.
Running his forearm over his face, he staggered to an old oak, sinking down against it. In the space of a day, everything he'd loved in the world was dead.
The threat of Omort had hovered idly over the land for decades, yet the dark sorcerer had chosen this time to attack. Cadeon feared he knew why.
Mine own fault. He buried his head in his hands. All of this is my doing.
To most who knew him, Cadeon was a simple farmer, with few cares. But he'd been born a prince and was his brother's sole heir to the throne. He'd been ordered to return to Castle Tornin to defend the capitol.
Cadeon had disobeyed. The one who controls Tornin controls the kingdom....
Cool steel suddenly pressed against Cadeon's neck. He glanced up without interest. A demon had hidden behind the tree, and now had drawn on him. A rage demon.
"My master said you would return," the swordsman said. By the look of his weapon and tunic, he was an assassin dispatched by Omort. A traitor to his own kind.
"Be done with it," Cadeon whispered as a stream of blood welled at the edge of the sword. He had no cares now. "What do you await - "
Without warning, an arrow embedded itself into the assassin's neck; he dropped his sword to futilely claw at it, ripping at his skin while Cadeon watched dispassionately. As the bastard slumped to his knees, still digging at the arrow, a troop of cavalry neared.
The leader, clad in light armor, wore a fearsome black helmet - a notorious one. It was King Rydstrom, leader of all the rage demons. Cadeon's true blood brother.
Rydstrom removed the helmet, revealing his battle-scarred visage. Most saw this sight and grew weak with fear.
Resentment boiled in Cadeon's veins. His mind flashed to the last time he'd seen Rydstrom - when Cadeon had been only seven. As his brother's heir, he'd been separated out of the royal family twelve years ago, sent to live hidden in anonymity far from the oft-targeted Tornin.
The memory of his banishment rushed over him.... As Cadeon's carriage had rolled away, Rydstrom - who'd once been more like a father to him - had stood with his shoulders back, his face expressionless.
Cadeon remembered wondering if his brother had cared at all that he was leaving.
Now the king wasted no breath on greetings to his younger brother, nor did he bother to dismount. "I'd commanded your presence at Tornin."
To sit as regent while Rydstrom had journeyed off to defend against the aggressing Vampire Horde.
"Yet you refused to return with my guard?" Rydstrom said harshly. "And then you evaded them like a coward?"
Cadeon hadn't evaded the guards out of cowardice. His foster family had his first loyalty, and they'd needed his help. Because he could read and write and teleport, Cadeon was the natural choice to go afield and seek help for the blight on the area's crops.
And no one had ever suspected that Omort would truly attack. "Have you come to kill me for that?" Cadeon asked, his tone indifferent.
"I should," Rydstrom said. "I've been advised to." Cadeon's gaze flickered over Rydstrom's trusted officers, staring down at him with thinly veiled hostility. "You've been branded a coward. And not only by our enemies."
"I'm no coward. It wasn't my life - I hardly know you or that family."
"None of that mattered. It was your duty to be there," Rydstrom said. "The castle had no leader within. Omort seized on that and launched his rebellion, sending this scourge across the country. He has wrested control of Tornin. He possesses my crown."
"I did not lose your crown because of one decision. 'Tis not so simple a thing," Cadeon said, though he suspected otherwise.
"It is. The tides of war can be swayed by a word, an act, even the absence of a leader in the stronghold of a kingdom."
If true, then Cadeon's loved ones would still be alive.
"Let me explain this to you," Rydstrom bit out. "A childless king goes off to defend a surprise attack, and his sole heir, the last male of their line, repudiates his responsibilities. We couldn't have signaled our vulnerability more clearly."
Cadeon swiped at the blood on his throat. "It was not my crown, nor my concern."
With his fangs sharpened in aggression, Rydstrom dismounted. He drew his sword as he strode toward Cadeon, raised it - and seemed surprised when Cadeon refused to back up.
But his brother didn't understand; Cadeon should've died here. He had nothing to lose.
Cadeon didn't flinch, didn't blink, when the sword sliced down. A flicker of interest arose in Rydstrom's eyes as he beheaded the assassin behind Cadeon.
"Do you want to avenge the deaths of these people, brother?"
Rage filled Cadeon's chest at the idea, determination welling inside him. He grated, "Yes. I want to kill Omort."
"How do you expect to do that without training?"
Cadeon's peaceful existence had left him ill-prepared for war. "If you train me, I won't stop until I have his head," he vowed. "And once I do, I'll pluck your crown from it and return it to you."
After a lengthy silence, Rydstrom said, "A life driven by revenge is better than a life driven by nothing." He turned for his horse, saying over his shoulder, "We camp in the forest this eve. Tend to your dead, then find me there."
Cadeon would, because he wanted to destroy Omort. But he also wanted to atone for his failure.
Because of his decision to turn his back on his blood kin, Omort controlled Rothkalina - and Cadeon's foster family was dead.
Revenge and atonement. Cadeon couldn't do one without the other.
Yet as Rydstrom mounted his stallion, his soldiers gazed at Cadeon with an expression of hatred, tinged with disgust. They clearly thought Cadeon should die.
I had best get used to that look, he thought. Even at his young age, he knew he'd be seeing it for the rest of his life.
Or until I get that crown back....
Stupid...safety lock," Holly Ashwin muttered as she fiddled with the nozzle of the pepper spray in her bag.
With her free hand, she pushed up her glasses, casting another nervous glance over her shoulder. She'd thought she heard footsteps behind her in the night. Was she being followed - or paranoid?
For months, she'd had the sense that someone was watching her. Yet strangely it hadn't bothered her before. She couldn't explain it, but there had been an almost soothing quality to the presence she'd felt.
Tonight, all that had changed.
She sensed raw menace, and wished she hadn't made the walk from the parking lot to Gibson Hall by herself. Usually her boyfriend escorted her to class, but Tim was at a symposium presenting their latest paper - alone, because her condition made it nearly impossible for her to travel.
The manicured lawns on the way to her classroom were unusually empty. No doubt there were widespread parties tonight celebrating the full moon, which hung heavy and yellow in the black sky.
There was enough light that she could see the bushes behind her trembling. In a growing panic, she broke off the nozzle of the spray.
"Crap." She hastily abandoned her one weapon, tempted to snag one of the pill bottles in the pocket beside it for a dose of relief. Instead, she increased her pace toward her destination, the math building, brightly lit like a beacon.
Almost there. Her heels clicked along on the sidewalk - though they never landed on a crack, even in her rush. Apparently, obsessive-compulsive disorder was panic-proof....
She checked her watch. She was on time, of course, but she was late enough that her Remedial Math 101 students would be in the classroom already.
A few yards left. Almost to safety....
Once she'd made it up the six stone steps to the doors, she exhaled in relief. Inside, the hall was ablaze with fluorescent light. Made it.
Her class was in the second room on the right and would be filled with thirty-three very large and very loyal Tulane football players. Anyone thinking to frighten her would soon learn how a tackle dummy felt at season's end.
Holly's colleagues believed she'd drawn the short straw to have to teach Digits for Idjits, as some of the instructors called it. But Holly had actually volunteered for jock duty.
If she was to teach math, then why not instruct the ones who had exponentially more to learn?
And in truth, they were on their best behavior ninety-nine percent of the time. Though each Tuesday and Thursday night, some of the players always got there early to scribble sprawling messages for her on the blackboard. A fellow instructor had related to Holly that "the boys" - who were all of five or six years younger than she was - enjoyed watching her erase things in "those skirts."
Holly wore old-fashioned pencil skirts with hemlines past her knees. Would she never catch a break?
She wondered what she'd be erasing tonight. Some of the past offerings included "Got it bad, sooo bad, I'm hot for teacher," "I've been a naughty boy, Ms. Ashwin," and "Professor + Ginger = Holly Ashwin." They'd crossed the l's to make them t's.
So far she didn't think any of them had noticed her need to erase every millimeter of writing on the board, or to arrange the chalk in the tray into perfect trios, even breaking a stick to achieve a multiple of three....
Outside the door to her room, she took a calming breath and smoothed her tight chignon. After ascertaining that the clasp of her strand of pearls was directly in the center of the back of her neck, she tugged each sleeve of her twinset sweater until the ends perfectly hit her wrist-bones. She checked the backs of her earrings, then opened the door.
Empty. Every chair sat empty.
CLASS IS CANCELED was scrawled across the board. They'd gone too far this time.
Or maybe it wasn't them? She swallowed, whirling around.
Rough cloth covered her face, reeking of fumes, drowning out her scream.
Just as her eyelids slid shut and her body went limp, she heard the unholy roar of a man in the distance.
Rogue demons have my female.
As Cade's old Ford truck tore through traffic to yet another demon lair, he grappled to control the rage his breed of demon was known for.
They've taken Holly....
Almost one year ago, Cade had crossed paths with Holly Ashwin and had recognized the human as his own fated female. Unable to claim a mortal, he'd had to content himself by following her, guarding her.
Which was the only reason why he'd been there when a group of demons had traced her, teleporting her to gods knew where. But they'd hunted on the campus; surely their lair would be near.
Why would they want her? Because she was an innocent? Then they'd picked the wrong virgin - Cade would hang them by their own entrails and watch them dance if they touched so much as a hair on her head.
His phone rang just as he surged past a visibly drunk driver. When drunks drove slowly, it was exactly like they whispered - noticeably.
"What?" he barked in answer. Tonight he was supposed to receive the details of his latest job. It'd be the most important one he'd had since becoming a mercenary centuries ago.
"I've just left the meeting," his brother Rydstrom said. "I have the information we need."
Riding the bumper in front of him, tempted to give it a tap, Cade asked absently, "So who's the pay?"
"The client is Groot the Metallurgist."
Normally that would have had Cade raising his brows. Groot was the half brother of Omort the Deathless. "He intends to help us against Omort?" Cade's truck overtook another car, nearly trading paint with it.
"Groot's crafted a sword that can kill him."
Then it would be the only one in existence that could. Omort the Deathless didn't come by his name without reason. "What's the job?"
"He wants us to find the Vessel and deliver her to him before the next full moon."
The Vessel. Every Accession, a female from the Lore would come into sexual maturity. Her child would be a warrior of either ultimate evil or of ultimate good - depending on which way the father leaned.
A car weaved in front of Cade. "Son of a - "
"What are you doing?" Rydstrom demanded.
"Traffic." He didn't want his brother to know anything was off. Cade had told him that he would stop watching Holly. Though they both suspected she was his female, a future with her was impossible.
Humans were forbidden to demons. Because they never survived the initial claiming.
But Cade hadn't been able to stop himself from watching her from afar, studying her, growing more and more fascinated with the young mortal. Becoming more convinced that she was his.
He knew it was ridiculous. He was an ancient immortal, a brutal mercenary, head of a crew of soldiers of fortune. And yet Cade looked forward to nothing - except seeing her.
Holly went through her life having no idea that she was the highlight of a millennium-old demon's disappointing existence....
This new job was supposed to be the last chance for him and Rydstrom to reclaim the crown. If Rydstrom found out Cade wasn't "on," the two of them would be heading for another of their infamous house-killing brawls. Cade used to enjoy working off his anger. Now the idea wearied him.
"How are we supposed to find the Vessel?" Cade asked.
"I was told it's a Valkyrie this time around."
"Handing over a Valkyrie for the use of an evil sorcerer - you're not worried about our alliance with them?"
"I'm going to take a page from your book and say that what they don't know won't hurt them."
"They will know. Nïx will be able to see this." Nïx, the half-mad Valkyrie soothsayer, had helped Rydstrom and Cade in the past. In fact, she'd put together this deal, though she'd given them no indication who they'd be working for.
Cade had talked to her less than a week ago about Holly. Nïx had revealed nothing about tonight.
"If Nïx didn't see that the Vessel would be one of her own before, she might not now. Besides, it can't be helped," Rydstrom said. "Nothing is more important than this job. It was Nïx herself who vowed this was our last chance to defeat Omort."
"Do you have a location on the target?"
"Groot's oracles have been searching for her. As expected, she's here in this city."
The coming Accession was already pushing and pulling all the factions together in mystickal hotspots like New Orleans.
"And we're not the only ones who want her," Rydstrom added. "Oracles, witches, and sorcerers are all scrying for her."
Cade could imagine. "You got a name?"
"No name on her. But we have her last known whereabouts, a place called the Hall of the Son of Gib. I know it sounds like typical soothsayerese, but it's a lead."
A chill slithered up Cade's spine. No. No way. The Hall of the Son of Gib. Or Gibson Hall - the mathematics building on the Tulane campus.
Holly wasn't a Valkyrie; yet those demons might have seen her in the predicted location and mistaken her for one. She had the right delicate features and slight build. They could have assumed she was the Vessel.
Only one local demon faction would have had the resources to determine the Vessel's location before Cade and Rydstrom - the Order of Demonaeus.
"We go for the Valkyrie tonight," Rydstrom said. "I'll be back at the house in two hours. Meet me then."
Two hours. Even if Cade was tempted to ask his brother for help with the Demonaeus, there wouldn't be time to wait for him. "Yeah, will do." Click.
The wide wheels of his truck screeched as Cade cut across three lanes of traffic, careening over the median to speed back in the other direction.
He knew where the Order of Demonaeus was located, had been forced to convene with their kind on more than one occasion.
Cade had even seen their ritual altar. Was the sweet, impossibly innocent Holly stripped atop it even now?
The steering wheel bent under his grip.
Her eyelids were too heavy to open, and she didn't know if she wanted to see anyway. A quick mental survey of her body revealed terrifying things.
She was lying on what felt like a stone slab, naked except for her jewelry, and with her long hair hanging down over the end, snagging on the rough edges. The stone seeped a deep chill into her body, so cold her teeth were chattering.
They'd taken her glasses from her face, ensuring that everything within ten feet would be a blur.
Deep-voiced chanting sounded all around her, in a bizarre language she'd never heard.
Holly finally cracked open her eyes. No man had ever seen her completely naked before. Now a dozen indistinct figures leered down at her.
One pinned her arms, another her legs. With a cry, she struggled against their grip. "Let me go!" This is a dream. A nightmare. "Release me! Oh, God, what are you doing?"
The meds were messing with her brain. Surely she was hallucinating.
When they didn't answer, only continued their chanting, she pleaded, "Don't do this," but she didn't know exactly what "this" could be.
Though no electric lights were on in this dank chamber, black candles sat all around and moonlight shone through a skylight of some kind. She squinted around her and could see that the men were wearing robes and...costume horns?
In their chanting, one word seemed to be repeated: Demonaeus. This must be some kind of sicko, demon-worshipping cult.
Yet they weren't wearing masks to conceal their identities. She was certain that meant one thing - they didn't plan to let her out of this place alive.
"My family will be looking for me," she lied. Her parents were dead. She had no siblings. "I'm not the one you want for this...this sacrifice." Tears pooled, then spilled down her temples. "I'm not special in any way."
A couple of them gave harsh laughs at that.
"This isn't happening," she whispered to herself, trying to stem her panic. "This isn't happening."
She gazed up at the glass dome above her. The moon had risen almost directly over an unusual etching in the center of the glass, depicting what looked like the face of a horned demon.
The shadow from the etching would slide directly over the altar, over her, when the moon hit it. It was a gnomon, a shadow maker, like that of a sundial.
The men seemed to await the shadow's advent, glancing up every so often. Await it for what?
As the moon continued to ascend, their chanting grew louder. She struggled harder, kicking her legs and thrashing her arms.
Lightning flashed across the sky. She vaguely noted that the more she strained to get free, the more frequently the bolts flickered overhead.
The largest of the men slid between her spread legs. When he removed his robe, comprehension hit her. She couldn't see below his waist but knew he was naked. "No, no, no...don't do this!"
The whites of his eyes were...flooded with black? He clamped her thighs, dragging her over rough stone to the edge of the altar.
She shrieked. All hell broke loose.
The men slapped their hands over their ears; the glass above them splintered into ominous forks through the etched demon's face - then the whole of it shattered, raining heavy shards all around the untouched altar.
A lightning bolt jagged down through the opening to spear her squarely in the chest, tossing the men away.
She screamed from the impact, arching with her fists clenched. The bolt was a physical force continuing on and on.
Unimaginable heat sizzled through her veins. Her two rings melted off her fingers, her earrings from her ears. Her necklace and watch were seared to liquid, dripping from her body.
She was unharmed - because her skin was somehow hotter than the boiling metal.
The pressing weight of the electricity filled her with power, with...comfort. When it ended, Holly was changed. She didn't feel alone in this place.
Punish them, a voice seemed to whisper in her mind. They dared to hurt you....
Her earlier terror was strangled by a fresh rage. Her fingers were suddenly tipped with razor-sharp claws. Her eyesight was keener than it had ever been even in the darkness. Fangs grew in her mouth.
Though she felt no ill effects from the lightning, the demons looked dazed, blinded. They were bleeding from the falling glass.
But they quickly regrouped. She rose, crouching on the altar, waiting as they stalked closer. One had a club - her eyes fixed on it.
A club. To beat her unconscious so they could continue their sick ritual.
Red covered her vision. When one lunged for her, she snatched him by the horns. They were...attached to his skull. Not a costume. Which meant real demons?
Which meant hallucination. This couldn't truly be happening. She laughed as she twisted the demon's head, assured this was some kind of nightmare.
And in her nightmare, the instinctive drive to kill with her new strength and fury overwhelmed her.
When the others attacked, Holly was unafraid.
She knew how to kill them as if she'd been hunting and slaughtering them for thousands of years. She knew to wrench their heads from their necks, to slash out with claws that would rend through skin and arteries as they would tissue paper.
When the blood began to spray, lightning scored the sky above her as if in encouragement.
"I understand," she murmured as she aimed for one's jugular and severed it. "I see." Yes, their last sight on earth should be my laughing face.
"Easy, female," Cade soothed as he crept closer to where Holly huddled naked in a corner.