The men slapped their hands over their ears; the glass above them splintered into ominous forks through the etched demon's face - then the whole of it shattered, raining heavy shards all around the untouched altar.
A lightning bolt jagged down through the opening to spear her squarely in the chest, tossing the men away.
She screamed from the impact, arching with her fists clenched. The bolt was a physical force continuing on and on.
Unimaginable heat sizzled through her veins. Her two rings melted off her fingers, her earrings from her ears. Her necklace and watch were seared to liquid, dripping from her body.
She was unharmed - because her skin was somehow hotter than the boiling metal.
The pressing weight of the electricity filled her with power, with...comfort. When it ended, Holly was changed. She didn't feel alone in this place.
Punish them, a voice seemed to whisper in her mind. They dared to hurt you....
Her earlier terror was strangled by a fresh rage. Her fingers were suddenly tipped with razor-sharp claws. Her eyesight was keener than it had ever been even in the darkness. Fangs grew in her mouth.
Though she felt no ill effects from the lightning, the demons looked dazed, blinded. They were bleeding from the falling glass.
But they quickly regrouped. She rose, crouching on the altar, waiting as they stalked closer. One had a club - her eyes fixed on it.
A club. To beat her unconscious so they could continue their sick ritual.
Red covered her vision. When one lunged for her, she snatched him by the horns. They were...attached to his skull. Not a costume. Which meant real demons?
Which meant hallucination. This couldn't truly be happening. She laughed as she twisted the demon's head, assured this was some kind of nightmare.
And in her nightmare, the instinctive drive to kill with her new strength and fury overwhelmed her.
When the others attacked, Holly was unafraid.
She knew how to kill them as if she'd been hunting and slaughtering them for thousands of years. She knew to wrench their heads from their necks, to slash out with claws that would rend through skin and arteries as they would tissue paper.
When the blood began to spray, lightning scored the sky above her as if in encouragement.
"I understand," she murmured as she aimed for one's jugular and severed it. "I see." Yes, their last sight on earth should be my laughing face.
"Easy, female," Cade soothed as he crept closer to where Holly huddled naked in a corner.
She was covered in blood. But had it come from her, or the twelve demons she'd apparently slain?
Her eyes were...silver, glowing in the shadows. Which meant Valkyrie. Somehow she was no longer a mere human.
A Valkyrie at Gibson Hall. Holly was indeed the Vessel.
She had her knees drawn up to her chest and was trying to cover her br**sts while baring her little claws at him to ward him off. She was trembling with fear and shock, and tears coursed down her blood-splattered face.
It was killing him.
"Easy," he murmured. "I don't want to hurt you."
Her eyes darted from his horns to those on one of the heads lolling on the stone floor.
"Yeah, I'm a demon, too," he said. "But not at all like them. My name's Cadeon Woede."
How far had they gotten with her before she'd turned and attacked? Though the carnage looked to have been done some time ago, Holly still had gashes on her arm from the claws of one of these demons.
She might have been turned to a Valkyrie, but she hadn't yet been granted the accelerated healing and immortality of one. Which meant that she was still incredibly vulnerable to harm. Like a human.
Humans die so easily.
"Did they injure more than your arm?"
She finally shook her head.
"Hurt you anywhere? Do I need to get you to a hospital?" he asked, even as he knew that wouldn't work.
Other factions were searching for her. He would be surprised if they hadn't already scried the lightning he'd seen from a distance. Power still sizzled from her and throughout the chamber. New power was easily traceable.
She whispered, "They d-didn't hurt me."
"Good. I want to help you, Holly."
She frowned at his use of her name, studying his face.
"We've met before," Cade said, but she was in no way calmed - lightning continued to strike in constant streams. Lightning gave Valkyrie strength, but it also mirrored their emotions.
When he began unbuttoning his shirt to cover her, she gave a cry, and bloody claws swiped out at him. Then she stared in horror at her fingertips.
Just hours ago, she'd been living as a normal human - or near normal with some eccentricities. Now she had become something he never could have predicted. A Valkyrie. Or half one. He hadn't known she'd possessed this latent potential. The shock of the ritual must have triggered the transformation.
If not for this power, she would have been brutalized, her womb offered to the dark god this order of demons worshipped.
When he removed his shirt, she bared her small fangs and hissed, then looked aghast at her reaction.
"There, now, a good hiss never hurt anyone." He crouched beside her, fighting the urge to clasp her to his chest. "I'm going to put this on you. Easy..."
She gazed up at him with eyes wavering between silver and the intense violet he recognized. "Wh-what's happening to me?"
"You know all those creatures you thought were myths?" When she shakily nodded, he said, "Well, they're not. And you're changing from a human to an immortal."
Which meant it had become possible for Cade to claim her for his own.
And you've just become my target - the Vessel. The means to pay for a sword to kill our enemy.
She equaled the crown he'd worked for nine hundred years to reclaim - the unyielding pursuit that had given him a reason to go on living.
Never had it been so close....
All he had to do was use and betray the woman he'd waited just as long to possess.
Holly turned and hunched to button the shirt, peering over her shoulder to keep this Cadeon in sight.
She remembered meeting him before. As if she could ever forget those stunning green eyes. She recalled his accent as well - it sounded like some type of British colonial, and he spoke with an unusual intonation.
Months ago, he'd approached her on campus. Initially he'd been cocky, then grew tongue-tied, stammering, even as he'd boldly studied her figure.
She'd found him weird. And that was before she'd known what had been hidden beneath the hat he'd worn.
Now she could see what had been covered by his shirt as well. His bared chest was rippling with muscles, and he wore a wide gold band just above his bulging bicep.