He squinted at her with his remaining eye. "Why not?"
"Because...because I'm just not! So tell me how to get this thing started - "
Another explosion above them. Fire had eaten through most of the wooden roof, leaving the skeleton of rusted trusses. A glance at the churning river below, and she knew their next move. Her stomach roiled along with the water. "Cadeon, our only chance is the river..."
She trailed off as writing began to appear in the fogged glass on her side window. One of the ghosts was communicating with her! Holly swallowed, whispering, "Cadeon, are you seeing this."
"Still have...one eye."
"Numbers? It looks like latitude and longitude." They had to be the directions to the next checkpoint! She quickly memorized them, then asked Cadeon, "You ready to swim?"
"We'd never make it down," he rasped with a jerk of his chin toward the end of the bridge. A demon had appeared. He raised his flaming hand, about to shoot at them dead on.
Her gaze flew up to the rearview mirror. A second blocked the other end.
Now there was no way to escape, nowhere to run...
Suddenly the demon's neck snapped to the side, his head at a right angle to his body; he dropped to his knees, then fell face down, the flame in his hand snuffed.
The one behind them suffered the same fate. The ghosts!
"Thanks for that!" Holly said to the unseen entities, then tried the start button once more.
Timber began to whine beneath the car, unable to bear the weight. One board snapped, then another. The burning structure shuddered and pitched all around them.
More writing on the window, quick and shaky. EXORCIST. Free us.
"Oh, God, of course," Holly said, nodding frantically. "Yes, I'll bring one back here as soon as I can!" she vowed.
At once the engine purred to life. Her eyes widened. In gear. "Hold on, Cadeon!" Floor the gas.
They didn't move an inch.
She shot a glance to her side-view mirror. The back tire was spinning at the edge of an iron underpinning. In the other side-view mirror, she saw the back wheel was spinning furiously - on nothing.
"More gas," he grated.
"You said this has all-wheel drive!" She flattened the accelerator. Smoke billowed from the front peeling tires.
"That's why we're...not in the drink yet."
Traction caught; they were thrown back against their seats as the car lurched forward over booming, cracking supports.
A wall of flames appeared at the exit.
"Oh, God, oh, God," she muttered, clenching the wheel.
"Cadeon, if you're the praying type," she murmured, "now would be a choice time."
Fire buffeted the car, roaring all around them. Then came a split second of clear night before the next two blasts landed.
Holly swerved around one, drove through another, then floored it, unbridling the engine on the curving road.
She chanced a glance at Cadeon, but almost wished she hadn't. Panic hit her hard. He was burned over most of his upper body, some of the wounds so severe, there was no physical resemblance to whatever feature had been there before.
Most of his visible flesh looked as if it had melted.
A minute passed. "They're not giving chase." Another minute. "They must have parked on the other side and can't get across the bridge. Or maybe the archers got the last two?"
A noxious smell arose, like burning rubber. Was smoke rising from the back rear tire? She couldn't tell in the fog.
Four minutes passed. "We did it, Cadeon!" she said, determined to keep talking to him. "My God, that was wild! Did you feel the bridge shaking? The deck collapsed like a line of dominoes behind us!"
Headlights shined from down in the basin.
"They're coming again! Why won't they die?"
"Outrun...them. You can do it..."
"On it!" She downshifted for speed up a straight section. "Let's see what this baby - "
A loud bang sounded. The car wobbled. "What - just - happened?"
"Blown tire. Now...will you please...fucking leave me?"
Ditching Cadeon was simply not an option. She kept her foot on the gas, fighting to steer the car, fighting for inches...All those criminals on Cops could go for miles with a busted tire!
Think, Holly, think!
She'd just driven on a considerable straightaway and a sharp bend lay up ahead. The road was flanked with ridges on both sides. A nebulous idea arose.
"Cadeon, whose car is this?"
He rasped, "Not...ours."
From his position, propped up against a birch above the ridge, Cade watched Holly snagging the last of their gear from the car, finalizing her trap.
Surely, this couldn't work. But it had to...her life depended on it.
Because for some reason, she refused to leave him. And he was helpless to protect her. The poison from those arrows was eating away at him inside, and when his body tried to sweat it out, the chemicals were like acid on his burns, keeping them from healing.
Dizziness was constant. Black spots swarmed in front of his eye as he struggled to stay conscious. Every movement was grueling.
She trotted up the rise, dumping their stuff to the ground except for his sword, which she unsheathed. Crouching beside him, she laid the weapon over her knees. In readiness.
Could she consciously kill a demon, or possibly more? Could she mindfully make the decision to take a life?
"What are our chances?" she asked.
He grated, "One in fifteen. Don't know if...I'd take them."
"You would if there's zero chance otherwise."
The truck was flying up the winding road, headlights going from visible to concealed to visible once more. Tires screeched around the hairpin curves before falling silent when the driver reached the straightaway and gunned the engine.
"Here they come," Holly murmured. "Five...four...three...two...one."
The driver slammed on the brakes at his first glimpse of her improvised Veyron roadblock.
With nowhere to turn, the truck t-boned the heavy car; the sole demon catapulted through the windshield, hurtling through the air.
On his landing, bones cracked audibly, then the momentum sent him scraping over the skin-eating pavement. Eventually, he stopped, sprawling unconscious.
"And that's why even immortals need to wear seat belts." As lightning began to fire all over the valley, Holly rose, wielding Cade's sword. He heard her absently say, "Sit tight. I'll be right back."
Holly advanced to where the fire demon lay, looking like a boneless lump of tissue on the road.
She was about to kill a defenseless being, but there was no help for it. He was already beginning to heal, had ignited the tiniest flame in his lacerated palm.
She quickened her pace. Now she could see why Cadeon had taught her to finish an adversary without mercy. Within moments, this mangled being could be a threat again.
Once she stood over him, she raised the sword above his neck. Don't hesitate! With a yell, she swung it down, sending up a shower of sparks against the pavement as she severed the head.
Done, then. That's behind me.
Forcing herself not to look back, she ran for the demon's truck, praying that it might be drivable. Through the smoke from the collision, she saw that it was still running! The engine had been protected by a weighty winch attached to the front bumper - the winch that had cleaved the Veyron nearly in two.
But now it was locking the vehicles together in a tangle of jagged metal. She set down the sword, then grasped the contraption to see if she might budge it.
She pulled up on it with all her might, bewildered to see that she was raising the freaking truck -
The winch tore free in a rush. Pain lashed across her arm as she dropped it. "Damn!" Her gaze shot down. The serrated metal had sliced her arm to the bone.
She tore off the hem of her sweater, knotting it over the wound. She'd definitely need stitches, but couldn't worry about that now....
When she returned for Cadeon, he was unconscious. Her heart lurched, even when she knew he couldn't die like this.
Or could he?
Had some immortal out there actually tested poisoned fey arrows for a contraindication with limb-melting burns?
After she'd gotten him and their things into the truck, she climbed in. Putting it in reverse, she eased back, extricating them from the frame of the million-dollar-plus car.
Without the prop of the truck, the Veyron folded in on itself like one of Cade's Red Bull cans....
Taking the demon brew away from the demon when he was burned, poisoned, and laid out naked in a bathtub was clearly ill-advised.
"Give me back my goddamned flask!" he bellowed, his words echoing in the motel room's tiny bathroom.
Wringing another wet cloth over him, she said, "You don't have any fingers to hold it with anyway."
Like a little boy, he shoved the two wrinkly fingers he'd managed to regenerate in front of her face.
"Fine," she sighed. When she handed the flask over, he snatched it to his chest. "You had better be careful," Holly began in a serene tone, "I've heard that stuff takes a while to hit."
"Bugger - off."
She let that slide, knowing it had to be killing a proud male like Cadeon to be vulnerable like this.
"You should've left me...in the goddamned truck."
"You are officially the surliest male I've ever met."
"And you're treating me like I'm really hurt," he said, an inane statement, considering that half of the flesh from his waist up was still gone.
On the way to find a nondescript motel where she could hide the stolen truck, Holly had noticed that his skin would seem to be on the path to regeneration, but then he would sweat out more poison. His waxy flesh would well up again.
Once she'd secured a room, she'd ignored his grumbling as she'd removed what was left of his burned clothing, then led him to the bathtub.
After filling the room's ice bucket with both ice and water to dip a cloth in, she knelt beside him, gently wringing the chill water over his skin. She kept her eyes averted from his privates - almost without fail.
The poison had a bluish tint to it that rinsed away easily enough. If only it didn't keep coming back.
The pain must be agonizing.
"Why're you being...so nice to me?" he asked gruffly, raising the flask, drinking deep.
"Because you are hurt, and you need help."
"Not 'cause of what I told you?" he said.
Well, there was that. His admission had thrown her. It brought a whole new layer to whatever they had between them, an aspect of permanence to a flirtation.
All his advances hadn't been merely because the job had put her in his path. He'd sought her out, then had volunteered to protect her.
"Not only because of what you said." She dipped the cloth again, wringing it over his chest.
By the time the flask was empty, his skin was finally free of any blue tint and had begun regenerating before her eyes. By morning he should be completely healed.
Reminded of her own injury, she unraveled the makeshift bandage over her arm. Then stared in astonishment. The skin was already mending.
If I chose to stay a Valkyrie, I could keep this healing ability....
She frowned. Or I could be burned alive by demons because I'm the Vessel.
"I think you're all clear," she said. "Let's get you to bed." She helped him stand, then held his swaying form steady as she wrapped a towel around his waist - not that he was modest. The only thing he seemed discomfited about was being injured.
"Can you sit upright?" she asked when they reached the bed.
"One of the first things...I learned as a pup."
"Okay, I'm going to get a compress for your forehead." Yet, as soon as she released him, he collapsed back on his burns, hissing in a breath. "Cadeon! Here...," she said, helping him stretch out over the length of the mattress, then drawing a sheet to his waist.
When she returned with her ice water and cloth, he was mumbling in Demonish, seeming out of his head.
Was it the delirium from his injuries making him this way, or the demon brew taking effect? Or both? "Cadeon, are you drunk?"
"Blot - to."
She wondered how he'd feel if she took advantage of his drunkenness. Her eyes widened. I should! She had so many questions about this male. The more she thought about it, the more she realized he'd divulged very little about himself.
And he had done this to her first. Turnabout's fair play.
She sat beside him. "Cadeon, can you hear me?"
He didn't open his eyes. "Nothing wrong...with my ears."
"Of course, not." She laid the cloth on his forehead. "So...you and Tera seemed close."
"Been through a lot."
"Was she your girlfriend?"
He gave a laugh that sounded more like a grunt. "Not at all."
"And you really didn't sleep with Imatra?"
"Bloody hell, noooo, I didn't...She's a slag."
"Then why did you kiss her?" Holly asked.
"Directions...and to see."
"To see what?"
"That it wouldn't be all that bad without you."
This was interesting. "Did you make a determination?"
He gave a bitter laugh. "It'll be all that bad."
Oh, Cadeon. "You've known I was your female for a year?" He nodded. "Why would I be chosen for you?"
"Fate decides...who I can be most satisfied with."
Nibbling her lip, she asked, "Have you slept with anyone else since you knew it was me?"
"Gave a halfhearted try for a witch...she wanted a werewolf instead."
There was no getting around it - Holly was jealous of the witch.
But then Cadeon said, "And I wanted you."
She dipped the cloth, then gently returned it to his head. "Why did you never approach me, or tell me even days ago?"
"Can't have a human for my own...forbidden. They never survive the claiming."
"Claiming? You mean the first time for sex?" He nodded. "What happens that's so dangerous?"
"I'd go all the way demonic. I'd bite you...stun you. Keep you steady while I come in you."
"Oh." She didn't know if she was horrified or titillated by this information. Again, she was reminded that he was a demon, a different species from her. "Then wouldn't you want me to stay Valkyrie? So I could survive it?" Why would he be helping her reverse the change?
He grew quiet. "Not going to claim you anyway. Know this."
"Why do you know this?"
"Only in my mind."
Seeing he wouldn't reveal more on the subject, she asked, "Were you jealous of my relationship with Tim?"
"Wanted to kill the prick...not good enough for you."
"But you are?"
"Nah...wish I was," he said. "You can do better than a mercenary."
"But aren't you also a prince?"