The noise from the waterfall was deafening when they got out of the truck. Immediately, those doors groaned open, seeming of their own accord.
"You ready?" he asked, having to raise his voice over the sound.
"Ready to get this over with!"
When he and Holly entered the empty hall, no one greeted them. The doors eased shut behind them, just as another opened across the bailey. They had no choice but to follow the path available, leading them deeper toward the heart of the castle. Their footsteps echoed on the stone floor.
As much as Cade despised Groot, the military part of Cade's mind couldn't help but be impressed with the design of the castle. The layout was a defensive dream.
Five baileys had been built in an X formation, all connected to the largest tower in the center by narrow walkways. Only one bailey was on land. The other four were constructed on man-made piers or natural pediments in the water.
If Groot were attacked, he could destroy the walkway from the land bailey, and the others would be unreachable.
Even if an enemy decided to approach by water, at least two of the baileys would prove unassailable because they lay at the direct edge of the waterfall. The strength of the current would make them impossible to near.
An attack by air wouldn't work. The forge vented smoke so dense it would cloak the castle from above.
When they passed through the far door, it led them outside to a walkway over the water, connecting to the forge. Cade glanced over the stone balustrade. Beneath them, the silt-laden water dropped at least four hundred feet down, churning in monstrous eddies and spitting up foam. The din was so loud he would have to yell to be heard.
In the main tower, the forge had large bay doors that opened up like a warehouse. The area was filled with blacksmith tools: tongs, pincers, and an anvil as big as a car. An immense furnace blazed. Directly across from the forge opening was a crenellated parapet wall.
Inside the main keep they entered a long, dimly lit hall. All along the walls, he saw glowing white eyes, like penlights covered with a milky film. He smelled the stench of rot.
"What are they?" Holly whispered.
"Revenants," he grated. Imatra had said they'd be here. His jaw clenched. She'd neglected to mention that there would be hundreds of them.
"I thought only evil sorcerers raised them from the dead," Holly said.
"Standard sorcerer issue," Cadeon answered. "They all use them."
The revenants' skin was putrid, their bodies in varying stages of decomposition, and they each had a disgusting metal spike shoved into their temple. "What's with those spikes?"
"I don't know," Cade murmured. "I've never seen that before."
The opening and closing of doors finally ushered them into a study with plush rugs, rich wood paneling, and an inviting fire. The cozy room looked as if it was missing an Englishman with a pipe, reading classics aloud.
Still, she said, "I thoroughly don't like this place."
"Me neither, pet."
Minutes later, a towering, muscular man strolled in, followed by six revenants.
"Groot?" Cadeon asked in an incredulous tone.
She understood his disbelief. Holly had pictured Groot as a fragile, white-haired wizard, straight out of The Lord of the Rings.
Instead, he was hulking, his muscles bulging under his old-fashioned trousers and tunic. His smith work must have developed his physique.
His skin was shiny and sallow, as if the only light he'd seen for years was from a fire.
"And you're the infamous Cadeon the Kingmaker," the sorcerer said. Then his deep-set, pale eyes darted to her. "Welcome to my home, Holly. I am Groot the Metallurgist."
He had an unctuous demeanor, eyeing her intently, even...smugly? She unconsciously took a step closer to Cadeon.
This entire place was wrong, unnerving. She knew down to her bones that this man was evil.
"You have the sword?" Cadeon asked.
"And it will kill Omort?"
"I vow it to the Lore and wish you much success with it. I want you to succeed." His mincing way of speaking seemed out of place for such a burly male. "I would like to leave this compound once in a century or so." Groot smiled in her direction. "To take my new bride out."
Why is he looking at me?
"Cadeon...?" she murmured. When he didn't answer, she met his gaze.
And saw a man she didn't know.
No longer merely cocky, he now looked cruel. "What is this?" she asked, dread tightening her stomach.
"It's a trade. Sorry, pet. I need that sword, and Groot needs a Vessel."
Her lips parted. "A Vessel," she said dumbly. This isn't happening. This can't be happening.
"Have you made her eat?" Groot asked.
Cadeon answered, "Three squares a day."
She remembered all those times Cadeon had urged her to eat. Now she knew why.
To make sure I'm nice and fertile for the evil sorcerer.
She couldn't get enough air. "There's no reversing my change to Valkyrie?"
"Nah. I just needed your cooperation to get you to my employer here."
Oh, God...oh, God. Breathe. "I was part of a...business transaction?"
"Yeah, that's about right."
Groot chimed in. "Your guardian sold you over. For a weapon." He snapped his gnarled fingers, and those foul, rotting soldiers seized her arms. "Put her in my room."
"Cadeon?" As they began forcing her out, she cried over her shoulder, "You don't mean this!"
Cade gritted his teeth, battling not to go to her with every ounce of will he possessed. When he felt Groot studying him, he forced himself to shrug. "Never trust a demon, love...."
Before, he'd wondered if she'd suspected him. At the look on her face, he knew. She'd really believed in me. She'd trusted him utterly.
She began struggling against the revenants, seeming shocked when she couldn't budge their grip. When tears welled in her eyes, pain stabbed him like a knife to the heart.
Keep it together, five more minutes. As long as the sorcerer was with Cade, he wasn't hurting Holly.
Groot's going to give me the sword, I'll kill him, then come for you. We'll take our chances together....
The door closed behind her. Cade forced himself to breathe.
"She's exquisite," Groot said with sigh. "It will make this process that much more enjoyable."
Cade had never wanted to kill anyone so badly in his life. This sick fuck thought he would have Cade's female, was already envisioning it.
And Groot was brother to the sorceress who had Rydstrom. At that instant, Cade decided he'd kill every single member of that family with the sword Groot was about to give him.
"The revenants look stronger than before," Cade said, his tone deceptively casual.
"The metal spike. I'm able to infuse them with a hundred times more power, and control their actions even more precisely. They're handy to have around. They're stronger than even, say, a rage demon."
Holly might not have suspected Cade of anything, but Groot did. "I'm not here to make trouble. I just want the sword. Get in, get out."
"Very well. I have it here," Groot said, crossing to a weapons cabinet. Once he'd collected the sword, he unsheathed it.
The weapon was a thing of beauty to behold, glimmering in the light.
Groot started across the room toward Cade, then faltered. "Actually, I'll keep my distance, if you don't mind." He made a motion like he was about to toss the sword. Once Cade raised a hand in readiness, Groot pitched it to him.
When Cade caught the handle, he felt the smallest prick in his palm. Changing hands, he darted his gaze down and found what looked like a silver thorn embedded into the skin. He plucked it free, and a drop of blood welled. "What the fuck is this, Groot?" But he knew...
"Relax, demon. It's just a little toxin to make you sleep. Your kind is so susceptible to it. You'll wake up unharmed a few hundred miles from here with no memory of how to locate this place."
Blind panic...rage... Cade charged the sorcerer, bellowing, "You goddamned bastard! I'm going to feed your heart to - "
The world went black.
As the guards led her away to yet another bailey, Holly felt numb with shock. She willed herself not succumb to the tears that threatened.
Holly thought that once she started crying, she'd never be able to stop.
Cadeon had deceived her. He'd lured her into this trap by telling her she could have her transition reversed. And then he'd made sure she was fertile for another man.
Holly had loved him, and he'd feigned the same only to get her here. Had he ever cared about her at all?
When the guards forced her into a bedroom, she fought them, but even with her new strength she could gain no ground. The entry doors audibly locked behind them.
The chamber was dominated by a large bed with black silk sheets, a vile reminder of what this madman intended to do to her.
How could Cadeon betray her like this...?
No, get it together, Holly! She swiped her sleeve over her eyes. She needed to take note of her surroundings. Yes, she'd been wrong to trust Cadeon, but that didn't mean his training didn't make sense to her - or that she wasn't about to need it.
Holly surveyed the area for escape. Besides the main entry doors, there were two other sets. She ran to the first, a narrower door, finding it locked. She tried the next. Also locked. But it felt colder to the touch. It had to lead outside. She thought.
The layout of the castle confused her, and she'd been so dazed as they'd brought her here that she hadn't paid enough attention.
No escape? Then she'd fight. She scanned for weapons. Her gaze landed on two battle-axes crossed high above a fireplace. Just as she'd tensed to leap for one, Groot entered.
The door automatically locked behind him. No keys to steal. "You look upset."
Trying to make her voice steady, she said, "I just didn't see that one coming." What an understatement.
He gave her a disbelieving look. "Not even a little?"
She gritted her teeth. She recalled how she'd never fully trusted the demon in the beginning, always having that niggling doubt. But she'd forced herself to ignore her apprehension.
"Well, I'm sure he made you very earnest promises to win your trust. Did he give you the fated female song and dance?" When Holly averted her eyes, he exclaimed, "Oh, he did!" With a sigh, he said, "I'm afraid you fell for the oldest trick in the Lore."
Wait... She faced him again with her chin up. "There are ways to tell if I was truly his female. I had proof."
"And who informed you of what that proof might be?"
Oh, my God. Her heart fell. Cadeon had obviously lied about certain aspects of rage demon physiology as well. I'm an idiot! How he must've laughed behind her back.
"Every single thing he told you was a lie. They come more easily to his tongue than the truth."
"But Nïx also told me - "
"Nïx? You trusted that mad creature? She plays with fates. It amuses her. When you live that long, I suppose you take entertainment where you can get it."
Betrayed by Nïx as well.
"Now, we both know why you're here," Groot said. "Are you going to make this more unpleasant than it needs to be?"
Think! Play along. Buy time. "No. I'm tired of running. I'm tired of being shot at. Anyone who can keep me hidden and alive looks very good right now."
"Precisely. I'll keep you protected here. You're much better off without Cadeon."
"And I'm sick of being betrayed. At least I know at the outset that you can't be trusted."
"Smart Valkyrie. Now, I just need to make sure the demon departs." He crossed to the thin door, and it opened automatically. He entered a small anteroom that contained what looked like a master control booth, with two rows of TV screens and monitors, multiple keyboards, and at least four whirring CPUs.
Keep him off his guard. "Nice system. You know the way to a geek's heart." She saw all the screens were security camera feeds. "But paranoid much?"
His tone amused, he said, "It's not an easy thing when the most powerful sorcerer in the world wants you dead."
"Why the technology? Why not use magick?"
"I use both." He pointed to one of the second row monitors. "That outer gate is mystickally protected. You could run a tank into it, and the gate wouldn't budge an inch. It can only be opened from this control."
She raised her brows at the screen. "Those are Wendigo." The ones that had followed their truck.
Their faces were long and haggard, as if their normal human ones had been stretched like putty. Stringy hair grew in patches all over their graying skin. They had hunched backs and emaciated bodies. Some still wore scraps of clothing.
Their red eyes glowed with an unearthly hunger.
"Yes, my barbarians at the gate. They are excellent guards, viciously protecting the valley," he said, sounding admiring. "A few follow the rare vehicle, craving fresh meat. Most stay in the town."
Fresh meat. Holly stifled a glare, her anger rising. She couldn't stop thinking about those villagers trapped in that church. Their last sight had been these horrific beasts....
Her thoughts were interrupted by a display on one of the many screens. "Is that...is that the cabin I just stayed in?"
Don't throw up, don't gag. "You spied on us?" She had never hated anyone so instantly and so violently as much as she did this bastard.
"Did you think there was no reason for such an innocuous checkpoint? It looks so rustic, you never suspect the cameras. Initially, I'd had them installed to make sure you two weren't plotting against me. But then, there were other...benefits." He reached his gnarled hand toward her, and she forced herself not to recoil as he brushed her cheek. "The more I watched, the more I wanted you."
The humiliation and disgust she felt were overpowering.
"I could scarcely wait for you to be delivered to me, but the demon wanted to enjoy you for himself first."
Once her eyes stopped watering, they focused on his face. "Then you know there's a chance I could be pregnant with the demon's baby."
"I suspected as much. He's probably just as likely as I am to spawn evil."
"He's known in the Lore as a brutal killer. But I do want the babe to be mine. If you're pregnant, I'll take care of it."
"Take care of...?" It dawned on her what he meant. "Why would you want a child at all?"
"To possess the warrior of ultimate evil. I want to mold it, shape it."
Looking away, she studied the screens, trying to determine the layout of the castle, to find an escape route. She felt as if she was in a video game. Level one, defeat pervert. Level two, engage army of revenants. Level three, steal vehicle and evade Wendigo.
Another screen drew her attention. She squinted. "Is that a...female revenant? I thought only men were raised from the dead."
Groot gave her that disturbing smile. "It gets lonely out here."
That's it. She retched in her mouth. "You know what? I can't do this. No subterfuge. You're just too revolting for me to pretend."
The demon she'd thought she loved had delivered her to a monster who slept with reanimated corpses.
Tim's math betrayal was laughable now.
"In that case, I'll have to insist that you accept my welcome gift immediately." He opened a drawer and withdrew a felt-lined case. Inside lay a shining spike, looking like a new, polished railroad tie.
"What is that for?" she demanded.
He rose, starting for her. "It replaces your will with mine."
The spikes in the revenants' heads. "You think you're going to put that in my temple?" Her claws sharpened like daggers. She would use them to slit his meaty throat. Never hesitate.
"It will only hurt for a few months, until your head grows around it permanently."
"Over my dead body, Groot. I'll fight you to the death over this. I'll - "
Suddenly the biggest diamond she'd ever seen appeared.
From behind his back, he'd produced a brilliant stone the size of his palm. "Look how it sparkles, Valkyrie."
Faultless light, cylinders of brightness. She stared, riveted. Have to look away. Or I greet a fate worse than death.
Panic made her heart thunder. Break away! I can do this....
"Your eyes have grown silver," he said, his voice getting thick. When he was directly in front of her, he raised the spike. "Just relax for me, Valkyrie - "
Her hand shot out to snatch him between the legs.
She broke her stare just as his eyes widened. He dropped the diamond and the spike to pry her loose. She wrenched down with all her strength, hissing, "This will only hurt for a little while. Just relax for me."
When he doubled over, she used her free hand to shove his face down as she hiked her knee to it.
Crunch. Once he collapsed with a muffled groan, she whirled around, about to leap for a battle-ax, but revenants stormed in. He must've sounded some kind of silent alarm.
"Hold her down!" he ordered from the ground, wiping his palm over his bloody face. With a grunt, he swooped up the spike, then lumbered to his feet once more.
The guards started for her. She counted twenty with swords and armor. Multiple combatants coming for her. She needed to run, but the main exit was blocked. The second door led to the control booth. Her head swung in the other direction. Only one option.
Charging to those doors, she barreled her shoulder into them with a yell. They burst open.
She surged forward onto a balcony - directly over the edge of the falls. The doors had indeed led outside.
Trapped. In front of her, revenants blocked her way back in. Behind her...a four-hundred-foot drop.
When Groot elbowed through the guards, looming with that spike in hand, she leapt atop the slippery stone balustrade.