"Cadeon!" The ghosts. It had to be them. "Oh, God, they're real."
"Stay down!" he roared.
She crouched, but she hadn't been touched. Why hadn't she been?
When he tried to reach her, invisible hits struck him from every direction until he was flung down the entire long length of the bridge. Furious, he bolted to his feet.
Again and again, he grappled to reach her, each time propelled back. "Get to the car! Drive off!"
When they lifted him once more, he struggled to fight back but couldn't. His foes weren't substantial.
Realization hit her. She shot to her feet, charging through the mist for him.
His eyes went wide as she neared. "Holly, no! Get the fuck away - "
"Wait!" she cried out to the night. "He's not hurting me."
At length, the force dropped him to the ground.
Holly knelt beside him, helping him sit up. She sensed they were surrounded, menace seething all around them. "He's with me!" She took Cadeon's hand and placed it against her face. He cupped her gently, as she'd known he would.
The attack abruptly stopped.
"What the hell's going on?" he grated, running his sleeve over his bleeding lip. His cheek was cut deeply, his shirt nearly ripped from him.
"I think they believed you were hurting me, or forcing me to the bridge," she said. "They're probably sensitive about aggressive males dragging females around out here."
He surveyed the area warily. "Thanks for the save, pet." When he tried to stand, he gritted his teeth in pain, his hand clamping his ribs. "But with that big brain of yours, you couldn't have figured this out sooner? Preferably, before they broke a slab of my ribs?"
"Oooh! I should have let the ghosts - the female ghosts - spank you like a moppet some more!"
An arrow lodged into the iron between them, vibrating there with a loud twang. Their heads whipped around in the direction of the car. But she couldn't see who'd fired it -
"Go! Into the fog!" Within a split second, Cadeon had her hauled up and running in the other direction, putting himself between her and the enemy.
"I thought some more factions would want to breed with me!" she cried as she ran. "Where are they, Cadeon? Huh? Because it seems like most just want to kill me!"
"If they'd wanted to kill you, they wouldn't have missed!" A torrent of arrows flew at them. Two plugged into his back.
"Keep - running!"
Just before they reached the other end of the bridge, two more hit him. He tossed her behind a boulder on the side of the road, then ducked down with her.
Twisting around, he gave her his back. "Pull them out!"
"Oh, God." They were so deep. She grasped one of the shafts as far down as she could. With a swallow, she yanked until it tore free. Blood dripped down from the wound, and for an instant, she thought there was a bluish cast to it. She blinked her eyes, and it was gone. "Who are they?"
"I thought they were the good guys," she said, pulling the next arrow free.
"They are." He glanced out from behind the rock, then jerked his head back just as an arrow whizzed by his face. "And they believe we're the bad guys. Remember? You're possibly the source of the ultimate evil, and I'm a demon mercenary."
She wrapped her fist around the third arrow and yanked. Nothing. "Cadeon?"
"It's stuck in the bone. Pull harder."
Glancing out again, he murmured, "How the hell did they find us?" He craned his head over his shoulder, giving her a narrow-eyed look. "You took off your pearls, didn't you?"
"I'm not an idiot." She wrested the arrowhead free, and blood welled.
With his jaw clenched in pain, he grated, "Not sayin' you're an idiot. But how else would they find us? No one's followed us."
Arrows began to hit the boulder - some bouncing off, others actually implanting into the solid rock.
"Just fess up, halfling. You made a mistake. It happens. Even to the best of us. But I need to know if - "
"I didn't freaking take them off!"
If possible, his expression darkened even more. "Then you called your fuckwit tosser of a boyfriend and told him where we were going!"
She took hold of the final shaft. "If I was going to reveal that to Tim, I would have told him in our own code."
Sounding gruffly hurt, Cadeon said, "You two have a code?"
"Maybe your female, Imatra, threw us under the bus. Huh?"
"Imatra's not my female!"
"Hmm. You sound pretty sure of yourself. Yet you said you couldn't be one hundred percent certain unless you attempted her. Finally, you come clean!"
"I did not attempt her! Finally, you're jealous."
She pulled on the arrow shaft - nothing. "Not jealous, just sick of you lying to me. What else would you have been doing in there for an hour?"
"Damn it, Holly, to the gods, you frustrate me. She bloody slowed time!" he bellowed so loudly, even the shots paused before resuming. His fangs were lengthening, his eyes darkening.
"Awfully convenient! Just admit it." When she snatched the fourth arrow free, a plug of skin came out with it, making him growl in pain. "You're so sure because you gave her a try - "
"I know she's not my bloody female - because you are!" He turned to her.
"Oh, like I'm..." She trailed off at the look on his face.
The volley continued. Bow strings sang in the distance. The fog swirled, and yet she and the demon stared at each other.
"Cadeon?" He was being serious. "When...how...You've known this?"
He exhaled and gazed away. "From the day I first saw you. Been watching over you ever since."
As if a final puzzle piece clicked into place, her mind saw the whole picture clearly. He was the comforting presence she'd felt for so long. He'd been jealous of Tim right from the beginning. The first night when Cadeon had saved her, his big fingers had patted her face, comforting her as he'd taken bullets for her. "Shh, female," he'd said.
"I don't know what to say." This immortal warrior's wanted me for a year? Holly could scarcely believe it.
And he hadn't been with Imatra.
An arrow sailed from above, plummeting down to jut from the ground between their legs.
"Bugger this. It's about to rain them." His eyes and horns grew darker, his fangs shooting longer. "Listen to me. You're going to follow directly behind me. I'll push the archers back so you can reach the car - then you get the hell out of here!"
"What are you going to do?"
He stood, looking brutal - like a demon backed into a corner. "Going to protect my female."
As Cadeon loped forward into the thick fog, she ran behind him, flinching at the thunk sound the arrows kept making as they hit him. Again and again, he pulled them free of his body, casting them away to clatter on the wood.
With each second, he was turning more demonic, those corded muscles growing larger. Though he was injured, he was still using his body to shield hers, just as he'd done that first night.
Not merely for money. But because he believed she was his.
He motioned for her to break away and dash for the car. She would get it started, but there was no way she could ever leave him behind -
With an unholy roar, Cadeon charged the archers. Just as he was about to lunge over their boulder cover, Holly heard a female cry, "Cade?"
He skidded to a stop, and a woman popped up, demanding, "What exactly are you doing with the Vessel?"
Cadeon knew this female, too? She had long, flowing brown hair, pointed ears, and a trim, perfect figure. She was ethereal, her face luminous.
And they knew each other. Again, a preternaturally lovely woman was linked to Cadeon in some way. Nïx, Imatra - wait, not Imatra...
What is it with him and gorgeous women?
He snapped, "What the hell were you shooting me for? After what we went through, I'd expect different, fey!"
"I didn't see it was you!"
They'd gone through something together. How special.
Cade glowered at Tera, who raised her chin unrepentantly.
"Who is she?" Holly asked from behind them.
Never taking his eyes from Tera - her bow was still drawn with a nocked arrow - Cade said, "Tera of the noble Fey. In the last Talisman's Hie, I saved her life at least a dozen times."
Tera raised her brows. "I believe I had your back as well, demon."
"You competed in the Talisman's Hie?" Holly said, sounding admiring, which meant his shoulders decided to go back of their own accord.
And clever Tera noticed.
"How've you come to be here?" he grated, frowning when a wave of dizziness hit him. He shook it off.
Tera answered, "I'll feel more comfortable speaking about that when we know what you plan to do with her - "
"Switch to Demonish," he interrupted in that tongue.
Tera knew all languages, and answered him in the same. "You're taking the Vessel to an evil sorcerer, Cade. Factions are going to take notice."
He narrowed his eyes. "Will you kill me to take her?"
"What is she to you?"
Tera's eyes briefly widened. "I told you to give up on the witch! Didn't I tell you?"
"Yeah, yeah," he said, wondering why his tongue felt thick in his mouth.
Tera cast a studying glance at Holly. "Hmm. I sense she's a much better fit for you anyway. Well, you must have a plan up your sleeve - it would be impossible for you to relinquish her."
So it would seem. Why did all these chits keep thinking that he'd be unable to turn Holly over? Nïx, Imatra, and now Tera.
Because they didn't know how far his back was against the wall.
Instead of answering her question, he said, simply, "I've waited nine hundred years for her, Tera."
"I remember," she said. "And am happy your wait is over. Is it possible your female could already be carrying your babe?"
Those words made his body go still, even as his heart began to thunder. His female carrying his babe. "She could be," he lied.
Tera visibly relaxed, motioning the four bowmen behind her to stand down. "Then the warrior will be for good."
He couldn't help but ask, "You really believe that?"
"You've done some...questionable things, and you can be menacing and violent. But you're not evil. So what's your plan for Groot?"
"I can't divulge it. Not when it could put my female in jeopardy."
"Very well," the fey said. "Do you need our aid?"
"Yeah, get the word out to the good guys that Holly's not fair game."
"I will, gladly."
"And you can tell me how you knew to come here."
"We had an informant at Imatra's bar," she said.
"Could others have gotten the information you had?"
"Probably. Our contact wasn't fey. His loyalty was to currency."
Cade ran his hand over his forehead, frowning to find it dripping with sweat. "I've got to get Holly out of here." He would return alone at midnight tomorrow. Switching to English, he said, "Come on, halfling. We're leaving!"
Guardedly, she made her way toward them.
To both Holly and Cade, Tera said, "Then we part ways here, hopefully with peace still between us."
Cade shrugged. "What's a few arrow wounds among friends, yeah?"
With a wince, she said, "About those arrows, Cade. They were dipped in poison - "
"Poison!" Cade bellowed. "Ah, come on, Tera!"
Holly gave a cry behind him. "What poison? You're poisoned?"
Cade turned to her. "No, I'll be fine. It'll just hurt like - "
From out of nowhere, fire hurtled down at him with the force of a rocket. Flames engulfed him as the impact sent him flying.
Just as Holly screamed, "Cadeon!" one of the archers yelled, "Fire demons on the cliffs!"
The blast that hit Cadeon looked like a cannonball shot from a flamethrower. His burning body slammed into a ridge, crushing solid rock before falling to the ground still ablaze.
At once, she sprinted for him, yanking off her coat.
"Bows up - shoot to kill!" Tera ordered, her delicate voice now booming as her own bow joined the salvo.
As Holly ran, she chanced a glance at the cliff above the bridge. Through the wispy mist, she saw four demons. Liquid fire danced in their palms.
When she reached Cadeon, Holly spread her coat over him, shoving the material against the flames. Once she'd put them out and drew her coat back, she stared in shock at the damage to his upper body.
His hands were...gone, melted to stumps from where he'd tried to ward off the flames. On the right side of his head, his face and hair were burned completely away. That eye was missing, and she thought she could see bone.
Tera yelled to her, "Get out of here!" A stream of arrows flew at the demons, the fey launching them with supernatural speed. "We'll stall them!"
Holly nodded, even as she had no idea how she'd get Cadeon to the car. She stooped down to drape his damaged arm over her shoulders as she'd seen people do on TV, then heaved upward.
What the...? She'd easily lifted him to his feet.
Cadeon grated something that sounded like "Can't touch me."
"Poison - "
"We'll talk about this later!" She'd heard what Tera had said and was aware that they faced a subset of problems - but she really couldn't think about that right now!
At the car, she slung him into the passenger seat, then stuffed his long legs in, trying not to freak out about all the damage he'd sustained.
As she yanked open her own door, she spied the fey's truck just around the bend, parked sideways, blocking the road between rock faces.
Holly swung her head in the other direction. A flimsy roadblock, a questionable bridge, and a demon-filled ridge awaited.
Reasoning trail? This car can fly. Bust through the roadblock, gain more speed on the bridge, then jet right under the demons....
If the bridge held. Hadn't Cadeon said this car was heavy as a tank?
Don't hesitate...follow instinct. Inside the car, she pushed the start button. Need momentum to hit the roadblock. Oh, God, oh, God... She shifted into reverse, then floored the gas.
"I'm going to get you out of here, Cadeon. We're going to lose them."
Another blast landed just behind them. The demons were on the run from the feys' arrows, but still firing from their vantage. She slammed on the brakes, skidding to a stop inches from the new column of flames.
Cadeon flew forward, cracking his forehead on the metal dash - but this actually seemed to rouse him. "Fuck! What're you doing?" he yelled.
"Trying to get us out of here!" Holly shifted into first gear, then stomped the gas again. The tires peeled as the car surged ahead. Never looking away from the road, she said, "Hold on!"
"Watch the roadblock - "
The front bumper crashed into it, torpedoing the wood. Pieces of lumber bashed the windshield like baseball bats. A split second later, the car ramped down onto the deck of the bridge, the entire structure wobbling dangerously beneath and around them.
Another demon blast struck the bridge's roof. Streams of fire sieved through the gaps, or oozed from the roof, dropping in her path...She steadied the wheel, righting the car. Almost out, almost to the gauntlet below the demons. I can do this!
The car stalled.
As she gaped in disbelief, they crawled to a stop in the middle of the bridge, a mere hundred feet from where she'd initially started.
"No, no, no!" She hastily shifted to neutral, pushing the start button again. Nothing.
"Battery's out..." Cadeon rasped. "No juice."
"Why?" she cried.
"Don't know. Run, Holly! Get to the forest...follow the river back."
"I'm not leaving you."