An illusion all around him. Behind him, he heard a clang like the door of a jail cell slamming shut. As the chimera vanished, realization hit him.
"You're Omort and Groot's sister. Sabine, the Queen of Illusions." She'd opened a portal into a dungeon, then disguised it as just a continuation of the road.
"Very good, Rydstrom."
He'd warned Cade that their enemy would stop at nothing to thwart them in their quest to get that sword. Rydstrom hadn't known the sorcerer's sister was in league with Omort, or that she was this powerful in her own right.
And if the rumors were true...
Then she was even more treacherous than either of her brothers.
The most beautiful female Rydstrom had ever seen was the most evil. Or maybe this wasn't her true likeness at all. She'd probably given him exactly what he needed to see to become spellbound. "Show me your real form."
"This is." She smoothed her palms over her br**sts and lower. "I'm so pleased by how much it arouses you."
Even now it did, and he despised her for it. "Why have you done this to me, Sabine?"
"It's not obvious?" With a flick of her pale hand, she directed his gaze to a bed in the center of the cell. It was uncovered and unadorned - but for the chains at the head and foot.
"You're a...slob," Holly murmured with a shudder, aghast at Cadeon's living quarters.
"Tell me how you really feel, Holly. No need to hold back."
Shirts hung over lampshades. The floor was dotted with old pizza boxes and crushed beer cans. DVDs were strewn everywhere, some with titles that had her flushing with embarrassment.
The chandelier that hung overhead had seventeen lit bulbs and ten bulbs out. She itched to knock out two more to make both numbers divisible by three. "This is...how can you...you live like this?"
When they'd first pulled up to this estate, she'd been impressed by the luxurious Garden District residence, one not far from her childhood home. They'd driven through wooden gates past the mansion to this pool house - which was also striking, easily twice as large as her spacious loft.
But inside, chaos reigned.
"Didn't know I'd be having company."
"Would you have cleaned if you had?" she asked.
With a shameless grin, he said, "Nah." Taking her by the elbow, he steered her to his bedroom, then into a bathroom that thankfully wasn't the biohazard she'd been expecting. "You've got five minutes. Clear?"
Holly nodded silently, still stunned by the disorder, shaking from the need to fix it.
"This is not the time to be peering at your new ears in the mirror or examining your claws." He turned on the water, adjusting the temperature. "Just get the blood and swamp water off."
He picked up a shampoo bottle, and must have found it empty, because he tossed it. "I'll be back." He jogged out.
When he returned, he had a towel and washcloth over his shoulder and his hands full of miniature shampoo and conditioner bottles. "My flatmate can't pass up anything free. There should be some you'll like."
He opened the glass enclosure and carelessly dropped them into the tub, where they scattered randomly.
Random. Holly hated random.
Tossing the towel and washcloth on the counter, he said, "I'll dig around, see if I can find you something to wear that won't swallow you. Call me if you need anything else."
When he closed the door behind him, she locked it. After tugging the filthy shirt over her head, she folded it and the towel as well. She grabbed the washcloth, then stepped under the steaming cascade.
All around her feet, bottles rolled with no order, no design. They taunted her.
She knew she didn't have time to arrange them into threes, but could barely resist the urge. Just don't look down.
Yet she had to in order to grab shampoo. Taking a breath, she plucked up a bottle.
Then she closed her eyes as she lathered her hair, trying to ignore her pointed ears with their sensitive, sharp tips and her longer, stronger...claws.
After shampooing her hair twice and rinsing conditioner through it, she scrubbed her skin till it burned.
Cadeon hadn't wanted her to gaze at her new features, but she had no inclination to. She just wanted out of this nightmare, wanted to get back to her ordered life, her ordered loft, her on-track career -
Oh, God, Tim!
Her boyfriend of over two years was even now in California presenting their research at a conference, working for their future. They planned for him to get a job at a local software security firm and continue his research, while she would teach.
How could she face him like this? How could she explain? Well, I got struck by this bolt of lightning, and, voilà, I was able to kill a dozen demons. Did the lightning hurt? No, it felt great. Like a hug from someone you'd really missed.
She had to get this condition reversed, would be willing to do just about anything not to be like this any longer.
Would I trust Cadeon to help me? The comforting presence she'd sensed watching her for so long - could it possibly have been him?
She remembered him from the day she'd won that award for differential equations student of the year. He'd stammered and flushed, behaving so differently from tonight, when he'd been confident and strong. And cocky. He couldn't have been more cocky. It was as if he had a separate personality or even a bolder twin.
Her eyes widened as she recalled him in the truck, touching her...privately. In all the chaos, she remembered that burning hand covering her between her thighs, his rough palm holding her up...his low growl that made her breath hitch.
When she turned under the water, the spray hit her br**sts, and it felt delicious. Tingles of pleasure radiated through her....
How could she be aroused after what she'd been through tonight? And after what she'd almost been through?
That man - that fiend - had been about to rape her on a stone altar. They all had. At the memory of all of them leering at her, thinking they would be inside her, she shuddered with disgust, any warmth dissipating.
Yet they hadn't hurt her, because she'd protected herself. She'd killed tonight. Viciously.
And I did it with joy in my heart.
At that thought, she gave a cry, her eyes flashing open, hands diving down to collect the bottles. The impulse to systematize the random couldn't be resisted. She bent down, collecting the eleven samples. Not a multiple of three, but it would have to do.
On the edge of the tub, she set out three groups of three with spaces between them, all labels out, of course. She leaned back and eyed the spaces, adjusting them for equidistance.
She set the two remaining bottles on the other side of the tub, on their tops. If they were upside down and separated, then they weren't part of the same set as the others. They wouldn't have to be included. She'd nullified them.