Holly gaped before she could finally find words. "Maybe because you lied to me, tricking me to go off with an evil demon? One who turned me over to a sorcerer who planned to impregnate me with the ultimate evil!"
Nïx tapped her gloved finger against her chin. "I guess you couldn't throw Cade very far."
I'm going to sack her. I'm going to shove her face into the yellow snow over there.
Nïx chided, "Now, dearling, that's not nice...."
"I want to talk to Holly alone," Regin said.
With a shrug, Nïx turned for the car. Once she and Holly were alone, Regin said, "There are four reasons why you should come with me now. Firstly, there's food in the car, and apparently, you're still a masticator. Second, a warm shower and a clean bed can be had in less than two hours. Thirdly, Nïx is bat-shit crazy, and you're not the first one of us that she's sent on a freaky vision quest. And the last reason you should come with me? I didn't fuck you over."
Holly kind of liked this Regin. After all the duplicity she'd dealt with, a straight shooter might be nice to be around.
Yet then, even Regin resorted to trickery. "Very well. I didn't want to have to do this, Holly." She sighed. "But you're leaving me no choice." From her pocket, she pulled out a cache of antibacterial wipes, waving them enticingly. "Look what Auntie Reege has. Who's your buddy? Who's your favorite Valkyrie?"
When Holly somehow resisted, Regin sighed, "Fuck this noiseage," then swooped Holly up under her arm, pinning her to her side. Though Holly fought, she carried her to the truck. Once Nïx reached back to open the door, Regin tossed Holly in the backseat.
Holly was still sputtering, dragging her matted hair from her eyes when the truck took off, heading out of the city.
Nïx turned to face her. "Well, did you have fun on your adventure?"
I'm delirious. This is what it feels like to be in delirium. "Oodles of."
"Good." Nïx handed her granola bars. Holly gorged on them without even taking off her filthy gloves.
"Soon we'll be in New Orleans, where you can meet your coven. We have your room all set up - you're to live with us at Val Hall now."
"New Orleans?" Holly sputtered, choking on granola. "You sent me across the entire continent when I'd been in the same city as my own kind?"
At her nod, Holly gave a weird, high giggle. She started laughing outright and couldn't seem to stop, even after she'd also begun crying.
"There, there," Nïx said. "If I hadn't sent you on this trip, then you wouldn't have your own page in The Book of Warriors!"
"We're here," Regin said, turning into what looked like an airfield.
"Seriously, dearling, you need to chillax."
"Why, Auntie Nïx? Why do I need to do anything?"
"Because in minutes, you're going to see the demon at the chopper pad."
Two things registered in Holly's addled brain. She was about to ride in a helicopter.
And she'd be damned before Cadeon saw her crying. She ran her crusty sleeve over her face.
"Why is he coming here?" she asked as they parked next to a sleek, silver helicopter with blackened windows.
"Because he's after you," Nïx said, hopping out of the car.
When her aunts jogged toward the chopper, Holly followed. "Why is he after me?" she asked Nïx, having to yell over the rotors.
Regin got there first and slid open the door. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" She ushered Nïx in, shoved Holly up, then climbed inside behind her. A female pilot began pressing buttons and flipping switches. The rotors sped up, growing louder.
Holly cried, "Nïx!"
"Oh, yes, of course. What was I thinking? Holly, this is your aunt Cara the Fair."
The pilot gave her a two-finger salute against a helmet that read Fly Me Friendly.
Nïx continued, "She's part Fury, as well. She's flying us all legs on the way home, and then she's off to..."
"Colombia," Cara finished for her.
"Nïx, damn it! Tell me!"
Her brows drew together. "Tell you what, dearling?"
"Let it go for now," Regin said. "She's spaced."
They'd just lifted off when a truck skidded to a stop, and Cadeon jumped from the cab.
She frowned when he charged for them, with his eyes black, pumping his arms for speed, looking more determined than she'd ever seen him. But why? Seller's remorse?
What did he think the Vessel would get him now? A magickal bow and arrow? An enchanted shield?
Regin slapped her knees. "Oh, my gods, look at him running like his life depended on catching us." She slid open the door. "Is this straight outta Platoon, or what? Willem!" she cried, holding out one hand. "Run, Willem!" Then she choked on her laughter.
"Why would he be doing this?" Holly whispered to herself, but even over the clamoring rotors, Regin heard her.
"Why do you care? Historically, whenever a prick serves me up to a skeevy sorcerer to use like a brood mare, I stop analyzing his motives. Historically. Now give him a nice New York State bird, and get him out of your head."
Val Hall - home of the New Orleans coven of Valkyrie - was a nightmare.
Wraiths clad in ragged red cloaks circled the old antebellum mansion, the yard was filled with lightning rods and charred trees, and dense fog wafted with no deference to the breeze, as if it were alive.
At Holly's first sight of the place, she was tempted to turn on her heel and get back into the car, heading for snow country. Except she couldn't because Nïx had dropped off her and Regin, chirping that she'd be back in a week, but there were "snacks in the fridge."
On the flight to New Orleans, Holly had learned little about Cadeon's actions from her aunt. All she'd been able to glean from Nïx's ramblings was that Cadeon had had pressing reasons for what he'd done. Not what those reasons were, or how he could so callously abandon Holly. She'd thought she'd have all the time in the world to question Nïx. Now Holly was left just as confused as before with no relief in sight.
As Regin led her inside, Holly saw some Valkyrie were sitting on the roof, while others rocked in wicker chairs on the second-story gallery with a TV in front of them and what looked like Wii controllers in their hands.
Inside the manor, Regin pushed even more Valkyrie out of the way. "Make a hole, clear out. She's new."
Most of them eyed Holly with curiosity, some with suspicion. And then the mass questions for Regin began:
- "You sure she's fully one of us?"
- "Is this the one we get to haze? Dibs on her clothes!"
- "Can she play pool?"
- "Is she any good at video games?"
"Good at video games?" Holly asked the crowd. They were sizing her up, just as her jocks once had, and just as the Sandbar denizens had. So she said, "I can make video games."
Apparently, those were big words for this crowd.
"You heard her," Regin said. "She's already a creature with which one doesn't fuck."
"She's getting a page in The Book of Warriors. She tagged a pack of Wendigo and culled the membership roster of the Order of Demonaeus by a quarter. And that was just this month."
This is what you are, Holly. A killer. A creature even violent Valkyrie admire.
Holly was overwhelmed, perspiration beginning to bead above her lip.
"So let's have a little boo-yah respect for Holly the..." Regin trailed off with a frown. "What should your Valkyrie name be?"
They were all too close, making her dizzy, unsteady on her feet. She put her hand to her forehead and muttered, "I feel nauseated. Maybe I should lie down."
- "Dude, told you she wasn't a Valkyrie. We don't throw up."
Now Regin studied her with her brows drawn. "What's doing?"
What's doing? The first day Holly had ever seen Cadeon, he'd said that to her. Reminded of the bastard, Holly retched, throwing up the contents of her stomach.
The crowd backed away with a collective gasp.
"Well, the good news is that I got your trailing name," Regin said. "Welcome, Holly the Preggers."
Five days had passed since Holly had been smuggled into Val Hall. Cade had been seconds too late at the chopper pad, and now she was in the hands of the Valkyrie. "I can't believe the men you sent didn't keep her from getting inside," he said to Rök as the two of them lay in wait among the burned trees on the property.
"This coven has a three-thousand-year-old soothsayer and witches batting on their team," Rök said. "They've got sneaky covered. They probably have a portal we can't see."
"Now Holly's with her family," Cade said, taking a slug of demon brew. "They won't exactly be arguing my case."
"Not to put too fine a point on it, but your chances were pretty much blown with or without the Valkyrie's interference. In my experience, nothing says we're taking a T.O. like getting the finger as a helicopter dusts off."
When Cade scowled, Rök continued, "I put too fine a point on it, didn't I?" He snapped his fingers for the flask. "So tell me what it's like."
"What's what like?"
"You know - this." He waved at Cade's face then in Holly's direction.
"A two-demon siege of Val Hall?" He knew what Rök was talking about, but wouldn't make this any easier.
"You're going to make me spell it out, aren't you?"
"If I have to cop to it, then yeah."
After another swig, Rök said, "What's it like to care for someone more than for yourself? I only ask because this is the first thing you've done that I haven't."
"The way I'm feeling now, I would recommend staying the hell away from it."
At Rök's raised brows, he said, "Imagine you got lanced straight through the center of your chest."
Rök nodded gravely. "Happened more than once."
"Then imagine how you'd feel if that huge hole never mended."
"Not good at all. If I could just talk to her once before we leave for Rothkalina." The grim reality of his situation was that even if he could somehow win Holly over, he'd immediately have to leave her.
"You have to talk to her before you can leave. Face it, you wouldn't be any good to us right now. You don't eat or sleep. You're obsessed with something, and it's not victory against Omort. That's how leaders get their men killed."
"Holly could stay inside for months working on her code." Cade ran a hand over his face. "Still no luck with Nïx?"
"I've got the entire crew beating the streets for her - "
"Who are we looking for?" a voice whispered from behind them.
Cade and Rök both scrambled back. Nïx had been crouched directly behind them, peering at the manor along with them.
Neither had heard her approach.
Cade recovered first and said, "I've been searching for you."
"I've never heard that before." Nïx looked as mad as ever but she also appeared...tired.
"How is Holly?"
"Splendid. She's settling in nicely. She even has a date next week with someone name Desh. He's a demon. Maybe you know him?"
The news felt like a kick in the teeth
"So what did you want with me?"
"I want to see her before I have to leave for Rothkalina. I don't care if it's just for five minutes. Can you arrange a meeting?"
"You'll have to do better than that," Nïx said. "Holly told me just the other day that she wished she had a great, big house."
"She truly did?" he exclaimed. He'd get her the biggest, best -
"No, she didn't truly," Nïx added with a sigh. "Maybe? Sure! I can't remember. Anyway, the fact remains that Holly might actually somehow forgive you, and then what will happen? Do you expect my niece to live in your pool house man-cave with you and the smoke demon?" She waved a negligent hand toward Rök, and he saluted her with the flask. "The days of your unplanned, rolling-stone existence have ended, Cade. Having a female all of your own is a big responsibility."
"I'm on it. Just get me the meeting."
"I'll help on one more condition: You and your crew stop searching for N®¶omi and the vampire."
N®¶omi was indeed alive. "How did she survive?"
"After you so rudely gutted her? She's a phantom now. Long story. But witchcraft was involved."
Rök exclaimed, "A phantom! No wonder I couldn't bloody find her. I never had a chance, did I?"
Nïx shook her head sadly. "Especially not when I was tipping her off to your every move..."
Both males were stunned silent by that. Finally Cade said, "You knew she lived? Yet you told us that she'd died. You lied - "
"Yes, and people who lie are bad. Oh, but I didn't mean you." Her eyes going vacant, she said, "I did tell a fib, but only so the fates would align to get you here, skulking around Val Hall at midnight tonight - with Groot dead, with you in possession of a mystickal sword, and with Holly..."
"With Holly what?"
"Nothing." She gracefully stood. "I'll get started on our plan," she said, sauntering off, leaving his heart thundering at the idea that he might win Holly back. "By the way," she called over her shoulder. "Your brother's back in town."
"How are you liking it here at Val Hall?" Nïx asked.
"I like it fine," Holly answered, wondering if her aunt was lucid.
Nïx was a font of information. But to get to it, one had to first catch her. Then one had to catch her when she was lucid. Over the last two weeks, Holly hadn't had much luck with either.
"You're settling in?"
This put Holly on edge. What's Nïx getting at? "I am," she answered slowly. In fact, she was getting on with her new life quite well, all things considered.
Since she couldn't return to the loft, she'd accepted the room the Valkyrie offered her at Val Hall. Regin had taught her how to survive at the manor - how to steal others' clothes and defend her own, how to know who'd just gotten dry cleaning back for the really good takes, how to anticipate and avert pranks.
Holly was expected to train with weapons several times a week - especially with the Accession nearing. Regin had helped her try out swords to pick the one she liked best. "Anything but a greatsword," was all Holly had requested.
She was also expected to practice Wii because the witches were winning even when drunk, and were getting overly cocky about their abilities.
In her free time, Holly could work on her code, which everyone mistakenly believed was a video game, so they left her alone.
"And what about your school?" Nïx asked.
"I found out last week that I can finish my PhD from here." When Holly had called her doctoral advisor and described her project, the woman had told Holly that her code would be more than enough to complete her degree. No more classes, to be taught or taken. Mei had taken over jock duty - and she'd gleefully related that Tim was facing an ethics panel and lost grants....
Holly had known her code would be enough to finish her doctorate. Universities owned their students' research. Her code could earn the school untold riches.
But she didn't care that she would lose out. The school had been good to her.
Nïx asked, "But you know you can go out every now and then?"
She nodded. "With a buddy." Holly was in much less danger now that Cade's crew had in fact taken out two factions, and Tera the Fey had spread the word that Holly was not to be touched.
Plus, Holly's reputation as a slaughter-happy Valkyrie would make enemies, as Regin put it, "a jot leery" about attacking her.
Still, she wasn't to go anywhere without another Valkyrie.
"I'm glad to see that Regin has taken you under her wing," Nïx said. "Though I wonder about that, since she isn't exactly the most giving of Valkyrie."
Holly said, "She's already admitted that she's using me for distraction and advised me not to look too deeply into it." Straight-shooting Regin, telling it like it is.
Regin was even going to help her find an exorcist for the Laughing Ladies - though she wouldn't accompany her to the bridge. Fierce Regin was terrified of ghosts. So Holly was still looking for a buddy to go with her to Michigan in the winter.
Yes, Holly was settling in. Life was almost dandy. Except for the fact that she was pregnant with an evil demon's spawn.
In a rare bout of lucidity, Nïx had explained that Cadeon could've "double bagged it," and Holly could've been on the pill, a sponge, and an IUD, and he still would've "slipped one past the goalie."
The Vessel was hyper-fertile at all times for the first pregnancy. A virile male could have blown her a kiss, and Holly would've been calling him in nine months.
Good to know. Now. Score another one for Nïx, who could've divvied that little nugget of wisdom, but hadn't.
Holly didn't actually believe Cade was evil. But her general attitude about having a demon baby was: Meh. She couldn't get worked up about it one way or the other, and waited each day for it to sink in, hoping to feel some kind of excitment.
She'd forgiven her aunt for the most part. Without Nïx's interference, Holly would still be stubbornly clinging to her old life, when this one suited her far better.
Holly had realized that being with Cadeon wasn't the sole reason she'd been happy. And though it didn't feel possible now - even after everything, she still missed him terribly - Holly believed she could be happy once more.
All she'd ever wanted was to feel normal. In the Lore, she did. Even with her lingering quirks and compulsions, Holly fit in.
Nïx had told her that she would finally get a sense of herself on her journey, and in fact, Holly had discovered who she was: Holly the Bright.
It was her new Valkyrie name. She kind of liked it. Especially when compared to her coven's first few ideas: Holly the Spawner, Holly the Plucky Single Mother, and Holly Crocker.
Nïx said they'd chosen her name because of her intelligence, but also due to the fact that she'd followed the northern lights to get away from danger.
"Any thoughts on Cadeon?" Nïx asked. "You can't put him off forever."
He actually hadn't lied about Holly being his by fate. And Nïx had told her that the demon would be wanting his female back.
For the first week, he'd continued coming to Val Hall every night. Initially he'd acted as if he owned the place, striding right up to the front door - or at least intending to. The wraiths had caught him and tossed his towering frame into an oak so hard the trunk had split from the impact.
The Valkyrie playing Wii on the porch had cackled with glee.
If he yelled for her, her aunts slapped headphones on her ears, then sicced the wraiths on him even harder.