Humans were forbidden to demons. Because they never survived the initial claiming.

But Cade hadn't been able to stop himself from watching her from afar, studying her, growing more and more fascinated with the young mortal. Becoming more convinced that she was his.

He knew it was ridiculous. He was an ancient immortal, a brutal mercenary, head of a crew of soldiers of fortune. And yet Cade looked forward to nothing - except seeing her.

Holly went through her life having no idea that she was the highlight of a millennium-old demon's disappointing existence....

This new job was supposed to be the last chance for him and Rydstrom to reclaim the crown. If Rydstrom found out Cade wasn't "on," the two of them would be heading for another of their infamous house-killing brawls. Cade used to enjoy working off his anger. Now the idea wearied him.

"How are we supposed to find the Vessel?" Cade asked.

"I was told it's a Valkyrie this time around."

"Handing over a Valkyrie for the use of an evil sorcerer - you're not worried about our alliance with them?"

"I'm going to take a page from your book and say that what they don't know won't hurt them."

"They will know. Nïx will be able to see this." Nïx, the half-mad Valkyrie soothsayer, had helped Rydstrom and Cade in the past. In fact, she'd put together this deal, though she'd given them no indication who they'd be working for.

Cade had talked to her less than a week ago about Holly. Nïx had revealed nothing about tonight.

Advertisement..

"If Nïx didn't see that the Vessel would be one of her own before, she might not now. Besides, it can't be helped," Rydstrom said. "Nothing is more important than this job. It was Nïx herself who vowed this was our last chance to defeat Omort."

"Do you have a location on the target?"

"Groot's oracles have been searching for her. As expected, she's here in this city."

The coming Accession was already pushing and pulling all the factions together in mystickal hotspots like New Orleans.

"And we're not the only ones who want her," Rydstrom added. "Oracles, witches, and sorcerers are all scrying for her."

Cade could imagine. "You got a name?"

"No name on her. But we have her last known whereabouts, a place called the Hall of the Son of Gib. I know it sounds like typical soothsayerese, but it's a lead."

A chill slithered up Cade's spine. No. No way. The Hall of the Son of Gib. Or Gibson Hall - the mathematics building on the Tulane campus.

Holly wasn't a Valkyrie; yet those demons might have seen her in the predicted location and mistaken her for one. She had the right delicate features and slight build. They could have assumed she was the Vessel.

Only one local demon faction would have had the resources to determine the Vessel's location before Cade and Rydstrom - the Order of Demonaeus.

"We go for the Valkyrie tonight," Rydstrom said. "I'll be back at the house in two hours. Meet me then."

Two hours. Even if Cade was tempted to ask his brother for help with the Demonaeus, there wouldn't be time to wait for him. "Yeah, will do." Click.

The wide wheels of his truck screeched as Cade cut across three lanes of traffic, careening over the median to speed back in the other direction.

He knew where the Order of Demonaeus was located, had been forced to convene with their kind on more than one occasion.

Cade had even seen their ritual altar. Was the sweet, impossibly innocent Holly stripped atop it even now?

The steering wheel bent under his grip.

2

She woke.

Her eyelids were too heavy to open, and she didn't know if she wanted to see anyway. A quick mental survey of her body revealed terrifying things.

She was lying on what felt like a stone slab, naked except for her jewelry, and with her long hair hanging down over the end, snagging on the rough edges. The stone seeped a deep chill into her body, so cold her teeth were chattering.

They'd taken her glasses from her face, ensuring that everything within ten feet would be a blur.

Deep-voiced chanting sounded all around her, in a bizarre language she'd never heard.

Holly finally cracked open her eyes. No man had ever seen her completely naked before. Now a dozen indistinct figures leered down at her.

One pinned her arms, another her legs. With a cry, she struggled against their grip. "Let me go!" This is a dream. A nightmare. "Release me! Oh, God, what are you doing?"

The meds were messing with her brain. Surely she was hallucinating.

When they didn't answer, only continued their chanting, she pleaded, "Don't do this," but she didn't know exactly what "this" could be.

Though no electric lights were on in this dank chamber, black candles sat all around and moonlight shone through a skylight of some kind. She squinted around her and could see that the men were wearing robes and...costume horns?

In their chanting, one word seemed to be repeated: Demonaeus. This must be some kind of sicko, demon-worshipping cult.

Yet they weren't wearing masks to conceal their identities. She was certain that meant one thing - they didn't plan to let her out of this place alive.

"My family will be looking for me," she lied. Her parents were dead. She had no siblings. "I'm not the one you want for this...this sacrifice." Tears pooled, then spilled down her temples. "I'm not special in any way."

A couple of them gave harsh laughs at that.

"This isn't happening," she whispered to herself, trying to stem her panic. "This isn't happening."

She gazed up at the glass dome above her. The moon had risen almost directly over an unusual etching in the center of the glass, depicting what looked like the face of a horned demon.

The shadow from the etching would slide directly over the altar, over her, when the moon hit it. It was a gnomon, a shadow maker, like that of a sundial.

The men seemed to await the shadow's advent, glancing up every so often. Await it for what?

As the moon continued to ascend, their chanting grew louder. She struggled harder, kicking her legs and thrashing her arms.

Lightning flashed across the sky. She vaguely noted that the more she strained to get free, the more frequently the bolts flickered overhead.

The largest of the men slid between her spread legs. When he removed his robe, comprehension hit her. She couldn't see below his waist but knew he was naked. "No, no, no...don't do this!"

The whites of his eyes were...flooded with black? He clamped her thighs, dragging her over rough stone to the edge of the altar.

She shrieked. All hell broke loose.