"We'll get you new glasses. And we'll buy you clothes and shoes on the road."
"And we need to get my medicine refilled."
"What happens if we don't?"
She balled her hands into fists. "That's not an option."
"Some of these factions might think to check your pharmacy records. This is a life-or-death situation, Holly."
"Though I understand very little about tonight, that fact has fully sunk in. But I'm not overstating the importance of those pills."
"We'll see. That's the best I can promise."
"Where are we meeting your brother?" she asked, letting the subject drop. He knew she'd come back around to it eventually.
"North of the lake."
"So we have about thirty minutes. Cadeon, will you kindly explain why I am the most popular girl in town?"
"You're a Valkyrie now, so that makes you a member of the Lore - it's a collection of mythical beings, except we're not mythical. Just about anything you've ever imagined or read about exists in some fashion."
"Like vampires and Valkyrie."
He nodded. "And werewolves and sirens and ghouls."
"What are Valkyrie like?"
Strange, eccentric. Beautiful to a fault. Holly would fit right in. "They're strong as hell. Fast, too, with good senses." He couldn't stop himself from saying, "But they're very docile, and happy to do a male's bidding."
She frowned at that, but before she could ask, he continued, "Now, about every five hundred years, an Accession comes, and - "
"What's an Accession?"
"It's a force that affects Lorekind by pitting species against each other. Some think it began as a mechanism to kill off immortals, or we'd never die, continue spawning, and overrun the earth. So every five centuries, unique things happen. And you're one of them."
"What do you mean?"
"With each Accession, a Lorekind female called a Vessel reaches sexual maturity. Her firstborn will be the ultimate warrior for either good or evil, depending on the father's inclination."
"That's why those demons wanted to...to..."
"Breed with you? Yeah. And the leeches wanted to kill you because they didn't know if the demons had already completed their ritual."
Her brows drew together. "Wait. I'm called a Vessel? Could there be a more derogatory term? By its very definition, a vessel is of no importance compared to its contents. Vessels are disposable. Couldn't these Lorekind have gone with baby maker or bun oven?"
"I lobbied for cargo hold, but just lost out."
Again, she recrossed her legs. They were toned, taut - all that swimming had done her right. He wondered what she would do if he reached over and put his hand on her knee, sliding it up her thigh. There'd be no panties to get in his way....
As if she knew his musings, she pulled the jacket down with a glare.
Hell, he might have to turn her over to Rydstrom completely. No. As soon as the thought arose, Cade swatted it down. Call him a glutton for punishment, but he was going to take every second with her that he could get.
"All kinds of factions, both good and evil, will be searching for you," he continued, "wanting you either bred or dead. Even some of the good guys will seek to kill you."
"Because in the last seven Accessions, only one good offspring has been born. The rest are evil."
"So the odds are that mine would be, too."
"Exactly. They'd act for the greater good, or to ensure their own dominance."
"What if I got my tubes tied or something?"
"They'll kill you to make sure." And it probably wouldn't take anyway. She was too far gone into the transition to Valkyrie. If she had surgery, her body would simply "heal" it.
She was quiet for long moments. "This sounds really dangerous, protecting me. Are you doing it just for the pay?"
I've been protecting you for months. Because you drive me crazy, and I want you more than is right. "Yeah, just for the pay. I have a history of taking on tough jobs."
"How much are you getting?"
"Something priceless to my family."
"More specific, please," she said in a voice she probably used with unruly jocks.
Second rule of being a mercenary: Lie through your teeth - but stick as close to the truth as possible to keep it convincing and less complicated. "My brother Rydstrom - the one we're meeting - is king of our kind, the rage demons. But his kingdom was usurped by a dark sorcerer called Omort the Deathless. Like the name indicates, he can't be killed in the usual ways."
"Most immortals can be killed only by an otherworldly fire or by beheading. Omort is immune even to those means. As you can imagine, he's hard as hell to defeat. But now, if I do this job with you, I'll get a sword that was forged specifically to kill him."
"A dark sorcerer." She pinched her forehead. "It just keeps getting better. I wonder that he doesn't want 'the Vessel' for himself, since everyone else seems to."
That supposition was a little close for comfort. A wicked sorcerer did want her, just not the one she was aware of. So Cade told her the truth: "Omort won't seek you. He can't breed with a Vessel. Because he was born of one."
But his half brother Groot hadn't been.
"So if Rydstrom is a king, then you're a prince?"
"Of a lost crown."
"Is he the one who dragged you away that day on campus?"
"You remember that?" On the one occasion he'd had to speak to her, for the first time in his life, he'd been off his game. Unfortunately, Rydstrom had been there to see it. "That's him. He's the good brother of the Woede. I'm the bad one. You'll see it as soon as we're together."
"What's the Woede?"
"That's what they call the two of us because we rarely separate." No matter how much they might want to.
"What was wrong with you that day?" she asked. "Why couldn't you talk?"
"Couldn't talk? It wasn't like that."
"You were babbling incoherently."
Funny, Rydstrom had described it as blathering. "I never babble."
"Why were you on campus anyway? Were you already watching me about this?"
"No, it was a coincidence." He exhaled. A fated one...
At the mention of Cade's brother, she noted the instantaneous change in him.
Clearly, he had issues with this Rydstrom.
She remembered the brother from that day of the awards. He'd seemed more reasonable. Maybe he'd be more inclined to answer her questions with direct, comprehensive answers. Every time Cadeon explained something, she got the sense that he was just treading the surface of the subject.
And yet again, Cadeon's gaze strayed to her bare legs. She hated this vulnerable feeling, going with no underwear, no hose, no bra.
Everything she'd ever learned about concealing her emotions she used now. She reached for her pearls to calm herself, but they weren't there. Nothing was as it should be, and she wanted to hit something in frustration.
This night was all wrong. A nightmare for someone like her. She didn't need a male like Cadeon casting her lustful glances - not now and certainly not when she'd been naked earlier.
Most times she endeavored to forget she had a body at all, much less one that could be sexy. Or could feel sexy.
No man had ever seen her completely naked before tonight. Now thirteen demons had.
But only one had lived to tell about it.
Oh, God, this is too much, too much to take in.
"All right, poppet, you've got to stop that leg-crossing thing, stat."
"I'm uncomfortable!" She'd never gone so long without undergarments. "I don't have my clothes, my jewelry. My laptop. Not even my shoes!"
"And now you've got me uncomfortable, too."
She could have sworn he'd adjusted himself. "You...you just touched yourself."
"I'm a demon. I'm not exactly shy about things like this."
She was appalled. "But you shouldn't...you can't just..."
"What should I do? You're an attractive female in my car who's not wearing panties. So to make you more comfortable, I should cut off circulation in my c - "
"Don't say it! I get the picture." Her nails dug into her palms. Not nails - claws. And for some reason they were now curling, her mind locked on that memory of his hard, tanned torso leading down to those unbuttoned jeans.
"I'm going to react," he said. "Even if you're not my usual type."
"Usual type? Oh, let me guess. Swimbos with more breasts than brains?"
He hiked his broad shoulders. "My kind prefer tarts with a little more meat on their bones so they can take a demon's lusts."
"Tarts?" Her jaw slackened. "My God, you're the most misogynistic man I've ever met. I bet you also like your tarts barefoot and pregnant."
"Nah, I like them barefoot, on birth control, and always available in my bed."
She sputtered. And then the truth of her situation hit her.
My fate is in the hands of a chauvinist demon, who seems to be trying to exacerbate my condition.
She'd never needed the medication more than now - when getting it seemed impossible.
Her mind was wracked with ideas and images that shouldn't be in there. She was unable to stop seeing that golden hair leading down from his navel. The more she endeavored not to think about it, the more the picture flashed in her head.
What would it be like to nuzzle that trail? To clutch his hips as she lowered her face to it...?
Her heart thundered in fear of what she might do if she lost control.
The last time had been eight years ago. She'd terrified a young man, even...hurting him.
And he hadn't been the first.
"Rydstrom isn't here. He's always where he says he'll be."
They'd pulled over to the side of the gas station parking lot twenty minutes ago. Cade called Rydstrom's cell phone again, but got an out-of-area message.
"Maybe he got caught in traffic," Holly offered.
"No way." Cade rubbed a palm over one of his horns, then got out to pace in front of the headlights. Ten more minutes passed. Something's definitely wrong.
His brother had told him just tonight that Omort would be dispatching everything he had to stop them. Had Rydstrom somehow fallen victim to the bastard's powers?
Cade couldn't continue this job without Rydstrom - he didn't know where the first checkpoint was and hadn't been in contact with Groot himself. I need Rydstrom for the directions.
I need him to keep me in line with the asset.
Half an hour had dragged by when a red Bentley pulled up behind them, hopping the curb in an alignment-wrecking jounce.
"Well, if it isn't Nucking Futs Nïx," he muttered to himself as she parked the wheezing car. Never had Cade seen such an abused Bentley.
There were dings in the body, mud all over the tires, smoke tendrils rising from the hood, and at least two bullet holes. A Garfield doll was stuck to the rear window.
Surely Rydstrom had sent her to tell Cade about a change of plans. But this was a problem. Cade couldn't let Nïx near Holly without the chance of getting caught in his lie about reversing her transition.
He hastened to the car - and found the soothsayer shutting down the engine and the blaring music. "Where the fuck is my brother?" Cade demanded as soon as she opened the door. Sand poured from the floorboard.
Nïx gracefully stood, immediately strapping a sword over her back. She wore a T-shirt that read: Keep Me Separated. "Rydstrom's a bit tied up at the moment."
"What the hell does that mean?" he asked, studying Nïx's exotic eyes for lucidity. He'd seen them go blank with confusion many times and couldn't afford that now. "Nïx, did he send you to meet me?"
"No. I thought I'd drop by to see my niece." She peered past him in Holly's direction, and he stepped in front of her.
"Nothing is more important than this to Rydstrom. If you know where he is, then you must tell me."
Her tone casual, Nïx said, "Sabine, the Queen of Illusions, tricked him, capturing him."
Dread settled like a brick in Cade's stomach. "She's Omort and Groot's half sister." And rumored to be a hundred times more evil. "What does she want with Rydstrom?"
"I'm guessing she wants to be impregnated by him," she said blithely, while Cade's jaw slackened. "The last of the holdout rebels in your kingdom would be forced to recognize Rydstrom's heir - under any circumstances."
"But Rydstrom can't get her pregnant. Not unless she's his female."
"I'm sure with Sabine's powers, she could work something out."
"Is she in league with Omort? Is Rydstrom being held in Tornin?" No one escapes the dungeons of Tornin.
"I don't know if Sabine works with Omort or if she has her own agenda. And I can't see exactly where Rydstrom is imprisoned. All I know is that it's a shadowy cell."
"I need that sword even more now." He ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know how to contact Groot or even where the first checkpoint is."
"I know where it is, but I don't see any further than that."
"What? That's all I need! Tell me."
"You just assume I'm going to allow you to ransom my niece to an evil sorcerer?"
"You're the one who set up this deal!" he snapped.
"But I hadn't seen that the Vessel would be one of our kind."
"You know what's at stake."
"What's at stake for you," she said. "This is my kin."
"Then why are we even discussing this?"
She blinked at him. "Because I'm mischievous?"
Nïx started toward Holly, and short of violence, there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop her. Cade was a lowlife mercenary, but he drew the line at hurting females.
Immediately, he thought of that vampire's Bride he'd killed. Or rather, Cade didn't hurt them purposely. Block it out....
At the car, Nïx said, "Come, dearling."
Holly opened the door, pulling Cade's jacket tighter as she got out. She met Nïx eye to eye, almost exactly the same height as the Valkyrie soothsayer.
"Welcome to the family." Nïx kissed both of Holly's cheeks with loud mwah sounds, seeming not to notice Holly's startled expression. "I'm your aunt Nïx, the Ever-Knowing. I'm also the Proto-Valkyrie and Soothsayer without Equal."
"You're a Valkyrie?" Holly asked, her gaze on one of Nïx's uncovered ears.
"Only the oldest and greatest," Nïx answered.
Cade said, "She's a powerful prognosticator."
Nïx's eyes grew silvery with emotion. "And you are the spitting image of your mother. Strawberry blond hair and violet eyes."
"You were related to my mother?"
"Greta was my half sister."
"Greta," Holly said slowly, as if stunned to finally know her mother's name.
"She was a famous warrior. She died two decades ago, a glorious death in battle."
"Warrior? Battle? I thought Valkyrie were docile."
Nïx laughed. "Did the demon tell you that?" She made a tsking sound. "Cadeon Woede! For shame."
"Just having a bit of fun with that."
"What was Greta like?" Holly asked.
"She was part Fury - "
Cade made a strangled sound but covered it with a cough. "No way." The most fierce race of females in existence. Valkyrie were violent. Furies were...incomprehensible.
Hell, if Cade turned her over to Groot, Holly might off the sorcerer herself.
"Look at Holly's violet eyes, with the dark ring around the iris. A Fury's eyes."
"Why did she give me away?" Holly asked. "I know there must have been a good reason."
And there was Holly's signature confidence. She expressed no bitterness or self-doubt over the fact that she'd been given over.
"I've put together a welcome package with a letter that will explain more. But for now, you need to leave. It's dangerous for you here."
"Where am I going?" Holly demanded.
Nïx nodded in answer.
"Um, that wasn't a yes-or-no question."
"I thought we were supposed to meet Cadeon's brother here."
"You were," Nïx said. "But he's not here."
Exhaling impatiently, Holly said, "Just tell me, how did I become like this."
"You make it sound like it's a tragedy."
"I...no, I didn't mean to, but I just want to go back to my old life. I'm a single code away from getting my doctorate, and I have classes to teach - "
"Yes, well, if I had students like your delicious football players, I'd be eager to return, too. Re-rowr."
Cade prompted Nïx, "Again, how'd she get like this?"
Nïx looked confused as if she didn't understand the question, then finally answered, "The seed was always there but was given water and sun with the lightning bolt." She turned to Holly. "And now you'll grow into the Valkyrie you were always meant to be."
"Cade told me that it's reversible?" she said in a tone tinged with disbelief.
"Did he, then?"
He pinched the bridge of his nose, prepared to be busted.
"He's right," Nïx said, shocking him, going along with his lie. "Only one man can reverse this. His name is Groot the Metallurgist. He's a powerful sorcerer. If you get to him before you become fully immortal, he can change you back," she said, though Cade knew that she knew that wasn't true.
Without a word, Nïx sauntered back to her car, leaving them no choice but to follow. "Now, I took the liberty of visiting your vampire-infested building and packing a bag for you. I know you'll want to change."
Nïx popped the trunk, displaying a large suitcase atop another pile of sand. She lifted the weighty-looking bag with a finger, setting it on the ground. "Oh, and here are your spare glasses." She pulled a pair from her jacket pocket, handing them to Holly. "Style name Smitten Kitten - love it!"
Enunciating every syllable, Cade repeated, "Smitten Kitten?"
Sliding him a discomfited glance, Holly donned them.
Nïx continued, "Of course the glasses will become redundant, since your eyesight should continue to improve each day. And here are your pearls." She handed over a strand that looked exactly like the ones Holly usually wore. Naturally, she would have backups. "These items are your talismans."
"Do you feel stronger when you wear them?"
Holly bit her lip and nodded.
"Then, yes, talismans. Now, those pearls have been bespelled. When you wear them, you'll be protected from scrying eyes."
Holly turned to Cade, as if for translation.
"It means, don't take them off." He collected the necklace from Holly and turned her around by the shoulders. "Pull up your hair."
When she piled up all those red-gold curls, he just prevented himself from kissing her slender nape....
He shook himself and finished.
"You need to get dry," Nïx told her. "You're still a vulnerable little mortal. Oops, I forgot - you want to stay that way." She tittered behind her fingertips as if that inclination was so misguided it was cute.