Seeming dazed, Holly took the bag and turned toward the station bathroom.
"What do you think you're doing?" Cade snapped.
He tore into the bag and snatched the first pair of shoes he could find, shoving them on her feet. Then he took the bag and escorted her to the women's bathroom.
She groaned when he followed her inside and checked the stalls. Before he left, he pinched her chin. "Little bit, if anybody fucks with you in here, you give 'em a taste of what you gave the demons. Clear?"
Anytime someone asked Holly what she'd done the night before, she answered: "Studied, went to the library, swam."
Occasionally she varied the first two by doing them with Tim.
Tonight's activities? "Slew demons in horrific bloodbath, got shot at by vampires with machine guns, had a mad car chase through a swamp. Found out who - and what - my birth mother was. Learned about a secret world existing side by side with our own...."
Too much to take in. She didn't respond well to change in even the most ideal circumstances. Now, she was just...numb, deadened to the shocks that kept coming.
At least, she hoped that she was numb. Otherwise that would mean she didn't particularly feel bad about her mass murders this evening.
Yes, those men were monsters, and, yes, Holly believed they'd gotten what they deserved, but shouldn't she feel a twinge of something that she'd done it? Revulsion? Fear?
She stood in front of the mirror and stared at her eyes. The rings that had always circled her irises were much more noticeable. Because - don't you know - I'm part Fury.
Whatever that was.
Nïx's eyes were also uncanny, but their golden color was breathtaking, while Holly's violet was merely odd.
Holly drew back her hair, unable to ignore her sharply pointed ears any longer. Again, ears like this looked great on Nïx - exotic and interesting - while seeming foreign and weird on Holly.
One of the most classic OCD symptoms was an unfounded fear of losing oneself. But Holly's fear wasn't unfounded. She truly was losing herself, one feature at a time. If only I had my -
Her eyes widened. If Nïx had picked up things for her, surely she would have noticed all the pill bottles Holly had left lined up on the counter.
Diving into her suitcase, she yanked the zipper open. Inside, she found the contents of the shoulder bag she'd dropped when she'd been abducted. Her wireless laptop and case, her cell phone, even her antibacterial wipes were all there.
But no pills....
Nïx had somehow found that bag, then deliberately removed the two bottles. Why, Nïx? Holly leaned against the wall, tempted to run away, to escape all of this.
But Cadeon and Nïx were the only ones she knew who could help her get back to normal. Holly had no choice but to go along with their plans for her.
Plans that involved leaving town.
She hadn't crossed the borders of Orleans Parish in fifteen years. In fact, she rarely went anywhere except from her loft to the campus ten minutes away.
The campus really was her entire world - a regimented and orchestrated microcosm where things made sense. Days were divided into class hours, weeks into school days, and years into semesters.
Yet now she felt as if she'd been temporarily exiled.
Shaking away that thought, she collected her phone and dialed her friend Mei. When there was no answer, she left a message.
"Hi, Mei, this is Holly. I was wondering if you can take over my classes for a spell? Not a literal spell. Ha-ha. Um, I've had a family emergency crop up and might not be back for" - how long will I be gone? - "a week?"
Holly felt distanced from herself as she spoke, stunned by how normal she sounded when she was on the verge of breaking down. "Call my cell if anything comes up. I owe you big-time."
After she hung up, she exhaled unsteadily. Need to get dressed, get moving.
Crouching beside her bag, Holly checked the side compartment for her underwear, frowning at what she found. Inside were thigh-highs, thongs, and demi-cup bras, each still packaged or with the tags attached. They were all in her size, and they were...provocative.
Why on earth would Nïx swap out Holly's perfectly good high-waisted briefs and minimizer bras for these?
Left with little other choice, Holly smoothed on silky thigh-highs, and for the first time in her life, she donned a thong.
Once she was fully dressed with her pearls and glasses in place, she set about righting her hair. With angry strokes, she brushed the curls back, wrestling them into submission as usual, only now she made sure her weird ears were covered.
With the last hairpin in place, she studied her reflection. How could she look much the same as usual when she was such a wreck inside? Her eyes began to water, and she clutched the countertop for balance.
After all the madness of the night, she knew only two things for certain. I have to get this condition reversed. And Cadeon Woede is dangerous for me to be near.
The countertop cracked under her grip.
Cade, you've got it bad," Nïx said as she hopped atop the Veyron's hood.
"What's new there?"
"You know Holly doesn't trust you?"
"She shouldn't! And apparently, not you either. So, don't leave me hanging. Why did you lie to her?"
"I wanted to see where you were going with this."
"I'm going ahead with the plan." He popped the trunk and opened his bag. Rooting for the flask, he snagged it, then drank deeply of demon brew. Unfortunately it had a delayed effect, but he would sow the seeds of buzz for the future.
"You believe you could turn Holly over to a wicked sorcerer, just when she can be claimed by you? You've waited nine centuries for her."
"I have to do this. I don't want to. Gods, I don't want to. But now that bitch Sabine has my brother, and I already owe him so much. This is the only way I can atone for what I've done. The kingdom and its people are now depending on me, and me alone."
The truth of that statement hit him like a stray punch. Bugger me. The fate of all Rothkalinians rested on the shoulders of the black sheep, the ne'er-do-well.
Speaking of which... "You told Rydstrom that the mortal NĘŽomi died. Are you certain?"
Cade hadn't realized he'd held out this much hope that she'd survived. Block it out....
Nïx studied him. "I'm considering joining in with your deception of Holly. Mainly because I don't think you will be able to turn her over. And, no, I don't see that outcome. It's a hunch. And secondly, because I believe you have to be cruel to be kind. Holly needs to be educated about the world - bluntly and swiftly - and no one would be better at that job than you."
"What do you mean, educated? She's as educated as she can be."
"I want Holly to experience life. To take away the blinders she has so assiduously relied on. I think you're just the type of person to show her what she doesn't know and doesn't want to know. My niece is innocent in so many ways, and there comes a time in a woman's life when innocence is merely a euphemism for ignorance."
"How innocent could she be in this day and age?"
"She's avoided anything that could fire her Valkyrie tendencies - anything arousing or enraging. She has content controls on her computer, and no cable on her TV. She's lived a PG life. She's sublimated these tendencies so persistently that she's made herself ill at times."
"That's what the counting's about?"
Nïx nodded. "And anything she couldn't sublimate, she would medicate."
"She wants her pills now."
"Well, as her auntie, I say she can't have them. Now, other Valkyrie will have felt her energy emerging. They'll soon be searching for her themselves."
"Then you need to stall them."
After long moments, Nïx said, "I'll do it. If you vow not to fly any leg of the journey."
"You just want that because it'll give me more time to get attached to her, increase the odds that I'll just say fuck all and keep her."
"Damn it, the trip will take longer, possibly weeks. Groot's compound could be as far away as Alaska." Cade swigged from his flask. "And Rydstrom said the deadline was the full moon. What if we don't make it by then?"
"That's my condition."
"She'll be in more danger. Think of it - as soon as she's with Groot, she'll be hidden."
"Take it or leave it. But you won't get very far without the first checkpoint."
"Fine," he bit out. "I agree to your condition." More time with Holly. More time to get attached to Holly.
She emerged from the bathroom at that moment. With her hair pulled back in that perfect bun, she wore her "talismans," a nondescript sweater, and one of those skirts that hugged her plump ass - and made males like him wish they could be the one to unlock all the passion seething inside that outwardly prim female.
Her shoulders were back, her chin raised. Her signature confidence had returned in full force. That sexy smart woman confidence. Cade wanted to kiss her till her knees went weak.
"Where're we headed?" he absently asked Nïx. At that moment, more time to get attached to Holly seemed just the thing.
Nïx answered, "Mississippi Mile marker 775. You're going north of Memphis to meet a demoness named Imatra. There are more detailed instructions in the welcome bag I put together for Holly."
"Uh-huh." He stumbled forward to get Holly's suitcase, vowing to stay silent until he regained his equilibrium around her - or until the contents of his flask finally took effect.
"I want to speak to my aunt alone."
Holly had expected Cadeon to argue. Instead, he'd donned a weather-beaten leather outback-type hat, muttered something about getting food for the road and updating Rök, then headed inside.
"Look at him in that hat," Nïx said. "Sex appeal that potent ought to be illegal." She watched him the whole way in, making a low growling sound and adjusting the sword strapped over her back in fitful motions.
Yes, Cadeon might be good-looking, but the fact remained that he was a demon - with horns.
"They don't make 'em like they used to." Nïx sighed, facing her.
Holly was struck anew by how preternaturally lovely - and peculiar - her new aunt was. "I wanted to thank you for bringing my things. But why was there new underwear and stockings?"
"Because I knew you would have serviceable underclothes." She gave a mock shudder. "Valkyrie like sexy, pretty things, and serviceable is rarely either. So I collected a few grand worth of lingerie for you."
Holly had needed that very unsexy underwear to make her feel, well, very unsexy. "Did you happen to pick up any of the pill bottles on the counter?"
"Ah, those bottles arranged in that perfectly straight line, divided into threes. Everything in your house was perfectly linear. Or in threes. Or at right angles," Nïx said, her golden eyes seeming to see through to Holly's very soul one minute, but going vacant in the next. "I delighted in disrupting each and every pattern."
Holly's stomach churned. The image of her sacrosanct home, perfect as she'd left it, had been helping her get through this night. She'd thought that once she got back there, she could slip right into her old life. "Disrupting?"
Just when Holly became certain she would throw up, lightning lit the sky behind her.
Nïx smiled at the bolt, seeming pleased with it. "You don't need the pills anymore. You used them to stifle your Valkyrie traits because you didn't understand them. But now you no longer need to."
"No, I want to reverse this. I need to. I hate change - I can't handle it," Holly said, clasping her forehead. "How long will it take to get to this sorcerer?"
"Anywhere from a week to a month."
"How long do I have until there's no chance for reversal?"
"You have roughly the same time frame before you're a bona fide Valkyrie."
"If the pills stifled my Valkyrie traits before, then would they slow this transition down? Could they buy me more time to get to this sorcerer?"
"It's possible." Nïx shrugged, flipping back her spill of long black hair, the silkiest Holly had ever seen. "Though I can't say for certain. I don't see anything predetermination-wise, and human pharmacology is beneath my notice."
"Nïx, please, I might not look like it, but I'm walking the razor's edge right now."
She nodded gravely. "I know. In the restroom, you had the urge to scream to the ceiling and pull your hair out. And really, dearling, they have someone to clean that area."
How did she see -
"Ever-knowing, that's how."
"Then tell me, is all this Vessel stuff true?" Holly asked.
"Yes, unfortunately it is. Best choose your babydaddy carefully."
Nïx said, "A stroke of bad luck."
Holly's face screwed up into an expression of distaste. Bad luck was merely a random occurrence that didn't go in one's favor. "But if I get the Valkyrie change reversed, will I still be the Vessel?"
"I don't see how you could be. The Vessel must be of the Lore."
"So if I can get back to normal, people will stop trying to kill me?" Holly could nullify this chance event. She could take action to combat the random.
"Theoretically, it would follow."
So do the reasoning trail: Get Valkyrie change reversed, lose Vessel status. Stop having immortal assassins trying to kill me or demons attacking me. Break free from the finite solution set of dead or bred. Go back to being one code away from PhD and previous life. Eventually, have normal kid. No ultimate evil.
Nïx said, "But I think when the choice comes, you'll have grown to like your new self. At last you'll have a self."
"What does that mean?"
She pulled a curl free from Holly's tight chignon, irritating her. "Who are you, niece? You have no idea. You will soon, though." Nïx gave her a grin, as if Holly was on the outside of an inside joke. "Well, I must be off. Proto-Valkyrie and Soothsayer without Equal is a grueling, thankless job, but Nïxie must do it."
"Wait!" Holly followed her to her abused Bentley. "I have so many more questions. Did my mother die young? And who was my father? How will I get in touch with you? Are there more of our kind walking around? How can I recognize them?"
"All your questions will be answered in time."
This being already had all the answers. "Please, take me with you! You said I was family." And Holly felt that a few more hours with Cadeon might send her over the edge.
"If you want to stay a Valkyrie, then hop in. We have mayhem on tap for tonight," Nïx said, motioning to her backseat.
Holly glanced inside, then stared in horror. The space was piled with Pat O'Brien's cups, uninflated balloons, peanut packing filler, and boxes that read: dangereux! C-4 plastique.
She took an involuntary step back.
Nïx blithely continued, "But if you're set on the reversal, I can't take you to Groot's. His fortress is hidden, and you'll have to go through a series of checkpoints to reach him. It'll take at least a week, a week I don't have since I'm fighting an apocalypse. Just think, Holly" - she draped one arm around Holly's shoulders, and waved the other hand in an arc in front of them - "an apocalypse, the ultimate in disorder."
"Would you want to take me from preventing that?" Nïx asked, releasing her.
"Well, of course not, but - "
"If you are adamant about having your gift overturned, then I'll arrange it so that Cade has to get you safely to the sorcerer to earn his sword. Is that what you want?"
"I want to go, but not alone with him! I don't suppose you could hire someone less..."
"Incredibly hot? With less lickable horns and a less sexy Sith Ifrican accent?" She shook her head, opening her car door. "No, Cade can keep you safe. He's strong, and he's ruthless."
Holly's lips parted wordlessly. Lickable horns?
"Oh, I almost forgot." Nïx fetched a weighty satchel from the passenger seat. "Here's your welcome kit. Must go now. Ciao!"
As Nïx started the car, Holly said, "One last question."
"Very well, dearling."
"Can I trust Cadeon?"
Nïx gave her a sunny smile with blank golden eyes. "As far as you can throw him."
I guess we're keeping the conspicuous car?" Holly asked when Cade pulled onto the highway, going north.
"For now. We've got to get out of town fast. Coincidentally, this car hauls ass."
"Where are we headed first?"
"Memphis. Nïx said she put the directions in your bag."
Holly reached into the backseat, grabbing the heavy satchel her aunt had given her. Inside, she found her passport, a handwritten letter, a map with an X right above Memphis, and two weighty tomes. One was called The Living Book of Lore, the other The Book of Warriors.
As she pulled out the letter, Holly asked, "Why did Nïx seem vacant at times?"
Cade sipped his Red Bull, never glancing her way. "She's so busy seeing the future, she spaces out in the present. You get used to it. Plus she's over three thousand years old."
That was mind-boggling. Nïx had looked the same age as Holly. "How old are you?"
"Nearly a millennium." Cade looked no more than thirty-four or thirty-five.
"You weren't kidding about being medieval. Why isn't your accent?"
"Lorekind adapt to evolving languages and dialects. It's unconscious."
When Holly cracked open the letter's black wax seal, Cade leaned over to scan the contents.
She turned down the corner of the letter until he shrugged and faced forward again. Then she read the flourishing script, or tried to - her glasses actually seemed to make it harder...
Welcome to the family at last!
This letter will explain more that I didn't have time to. Inside your welcome package you'll find two books. One is the story of our origin and a record of the Valkyrie's noblest warriors. Your mother's history is among them.
Your father was a human civil engineer, the great love of Greta's life. He was killed in a revenge hit for one of her vampire raids before Greta even knew about you.
Revenge hit? Vampire raid? "Is Lorekind more violent than humankind?" she asked Cadeon.
Without turning to her, he said, "A lot more. We've got constant wars going on."
"Constant wars," she repeated. Why would someone like Holly ever want to descend into this new, even more tumultuous world...?
Greta was heartbroken to give you up, but it's the Valkyrie way to relinquish human offspring. And we all thought you were mortal. She did it with love in her heart for you. Never doubt that.
Holly didn't. She now knew that her placement with the loving Ashwins hadn't been an accident.
The second book will explain some of the aspects of this new world you've found yourself thrust into.
Read both tomes. There will be a quiz.
Now, I know that you expressed some doubts about staying a Valkyrie....
How could she know that? Unless..."She really is a soothsayer," Holly murmured.
Seeming to relax a bit, Cade said, "Oh, yeah."
But I ask that you at least give Valkyrism a sporting try. All the cool kids are doing it. And all you have to do is embrace everything you've ever feared and shunned for the last twenty years. Simple enough!
Lick Cade's horns for me, and, yes, you can treat him like a hireling if you wish, because that is certainly what he is - and what he's used to.
Lick his horns? Holly tried to act as if they weren't there at all, much less licking them!
Two tips: If you need to be certain that your erstwhile guardian is telling you the truth about anything, make him "vow it to the Lore." And if you don't want to get pregnant, don't eat. Valkyrie are infertile if they don't consume the fruits of the earth.
Nïx, Proto-Valkyrie, Soothsayer without Equal, Demigoddess, your loving auntie
Folding the letter, Holly sat stunned. Too much to think about. So much information, and she was only on the intro letter. Simply learning her father's occupation was momentous for her.
With a sigh, she pulled out The Book of Warriors and flipped to the "Origin of the Valkyrie" section - and found herself growing enthralled with the tale.
The Lore said that millennia ago, the gods WĘ«den and Freya were awakened from a decade of sleep by a maiden warrior's scream as she died in battle. Freya had marveled at the maiden's valor and wanted to preserve it, so she and WĘ«den struck the human with their lightning.
The maiden woke in their great hall, healed but unaltered - still mortal - and pregnant with an immortal Valkyrie daughter.
In the ages that passed, their lightning would strike dying women warriors from all species of the Lore - from Furies to shapeshifters to Lykae.
Freya and WĘ«den gave the daughters Freya's fey looks and his cunning, then combined these traits with the mother's courage and individual ancestry. The daughters were all half sisters, each one unique; but according to the Lore, one could always recognize a Valkyrie if her eyes fired silver with strong emotion.
Holly glanced up. "Did my eyes turn silver tonight?"
Cadeon nodded, finally giving her a glance. "It's how I knew you'd turned Valkyrie, or had begun to." He rubbed his palms on his jeans, briefly steering with his knees. "All Lorekind have eyes that turn a specific color." Cadeon's had been black.
Running her pearls along her lips, she pondered this new information. If Holly believed this legend, then that would mean that she was the granddaughter of Norse gods.
It was one thing for an adopted person to find out he or she came from a family of wealth or fame. But this was ridiculous.
And yet, this information explained so much about herself that she'd never understood, things that a pompous psychiatrist had been all too ready to medicate away.
Her obsession with shining jewels? All Valkyrie had it, because they'd inherited their acquisitiveness from Freya.
Holly's captivation with lightning and her "uncontrollable urges" to run out into thunder storms? Valkyrie derived nourishment from electricity, taking energy from the earth. Lightning was how the species was first created - and how Holly was first turned.
She wondered if her "grandparents" had struck her with that comforting bolt, or if the lightning had been drawn to her during her emotional turmoil.
And Holly's freakish strength that she'd fought so hard to disguise? Valkyrie were preternaturally strong, fierce, and warlike.
As well as amorous...
She remembered the first time she'd been in bed with a male, a schoolmate named Bobby Thibodeaux. They'd been sixteen, and a few of Bobby's unpracticed kisses had made her crazed. She'd leapt upon him, overpowering him.
Holly had been so caught up, she hadn't realized how distressed he'd become. She'd eventually registered that he'd stopped kissing her back - and that her fingernails had been digging into his arms, holding him as he'd desperately tried to get out from under her.