Inside the main keep they entered a long, dimly lit hall. All along the walls, he saw glowing white eyes, like penlights covered with a milky film. He smelled the stench of rot.
"What are they?" Holly whispered.
"Revenants," he grated. Imatra had said they'd be here. His jaw clenched. She'd neglected to mention that there would be hundreds of them.
"I thought only evil sorcerers raised them from the dead," Holly said.
"Standard sorcerer issue," Cadeon answered. "They all use them."
The revenants' skin was putrid, their bodies in varying stages of decomposition, and they each had a disgusting metal spike shoved into their temple. "What's with those spikes?"
"I don't know," Cade murmured. "I've never seen that before."
The opening and closing of doors finally ushered them into a study with plush rugs, rich wood paneling, and an inviting fire. The cozy room looked as if it was missing an Englishman with a pipe, reading classics aloud.
Still, she said, "I thoroughly don't like this place."
"Me neither, pet."
Minutes later, a towering, muscular man strolled in, followed by six revenants.
"Groot?" Cadeon asked in an incredulous tone.
She understood his disbelief. Holly had pictured Groot as a fragile, white-haired wizard, straight out of The Lord of the Rings.
Instead, he was hulking, his muscles bulging under his old-fashioned trousers and tunic. His smith work must have developed his physique.
His skin was shiny and sallow, as if the only light he'd seen for years was from a fire.
"And you're the infamous Cadeon the Kingmaker," the sorcerer said. Then his deep-set, pale eyes darted to her. "Welcome to my home, Holly. I am Groot the Metallurgist."
He had an unctuous demeanor, eyeing her intently, even...smugly? She unconsciously took a step closer to Cadeon.
This entire place was wrong, unnerving. She knew down to her bones that this man was evil.
"You have the sword?" Cadeon asked.
"And it will kill Omort?"
"I vow it to the Lore and wish you much success with it. I want you to succeed." His mincing way of speaking seemed out of place for such a burly male. "I would like to leave this compound once in a century or so." Groot smiled in her direction. "To take my new bride out."
Why is he looking at me?
"Cadeon...?" she murmured. When he didn't answer, she met his gaze.
And saw a man she didn't know.
No longer merely cocky, he now looked cruel. "What is this?" she asked, dread tightening her stomach.
"It's a trade. Sorry, pet. I need that sword, and Groot needs a Vessel."
Her lips parted. "A Vessel," she said dumbly. This isn't happening. This can't be happening.
"Have you made her eat?" Groot asked.
Cadeon answered, "Three squares a day."
She remembered all those times Cadeon had urged her to eat. Now she knew why.
To make sure I'm nice and fertile for the evil sorcerer.
She couldn't get enough air. "There's no reversing my change to Valkyrie?"
"Nah. I just needed your cooperation to get you to my employer here."
Oh, God...oh, God. Breathe. "I was part of a...business transaction?"
"Yeah, that's about right."
Groot chimed in. "Your guardian sold you over. For a weapon." He snapped his gnarled fingers, and those foul, rotting soldiers seized her arms. "Put her in my room."
"Cadeon?" As they began forcing her out, she cried over her shoulder, "You don't mean this!"
Cade gritted his teeth, battling not to go to her with every ounce of will he possessed. When he felt Groot studying him, he forced himself to shrug. "Never trust a demon, love...."
Before, he'd wondered if she'd suspected him. At the look on her face, he knew. She'd really believed in me. She'd trusted him utterly.
She began struggling against the revenants, seeming shocked when she couldn't budge their grip. When tears welled in her eyes, pain stabbed him like a knife to the heart.
Keep it together, five more minutes. As long as the sorcerer was with Cade, he wasn't hurting Holly.
Groot's going to give me the sword, I'll kill him, then come for you. We'll take our chances together....
The door closed behind her. Cade forced himself to breathe.
"She's exquisite," Groot said with sigh. "It will make this process that much more enjoyable."
Cade had never wanted to kill anyone so badly in his life. This sick f**k thought he would have Cade's female, was already envisioning it.
And Groot was brother to the sorceress who had Rydstrom. At that instant, Cade decided he'd kill every single member of that family with the sword Groot was about to give him.
"The revenants look stronger than before," Cade said, his tone deceptively casual.
"The metal spike. I'm able to infuse them with a hundred times more power, and control their actions even more precisely. They're handy to have around. They're stronger than even, say, a rage demon."
Holly might not have suspected Cade of anything, but Groot did. "I'm not here to make trouble. I just want the sword. Get in, get out."
"Very well. I have it here," Groot said, crossing to a weapons cabinet. Once he'd collected the sword, he unsheathed it.
The weapon was a thing of beauty to behold, glimmering in the light.
Groot started across the room toward Cade, then faltered. "Actually, I'll keep my distance, if you don't mind." He made a motion like he was about to toss the sword. Once Cade raised a hand in readiness, Groot pitched it to him.
When Cade caught the handle, he felt the smallest prick in his palm. Changing hands, he darted his gaze down and found what looked like a silver thorn embedded into the skin. He plucked it free, and a drop of blood welled. "What the f**k is this, Groot?" But he knew...
"Relax, demon. It's just a little toxin to make you sleep. Your kind is so susceptible to it. You'll wake up unharmed a few hundred miles from here with no memory of how to locate this place."
Blind panic...rage... Cade charged the sorcerer, bellowing, "You goddamned bastard! I'm going to feed your heart to - "
The world went black.
As the guards led her away to yet another bailey, Holly felt numb with shock. She willed herself not succumb to the tears that threatened.
Holly thought that once she started crying, she'd never be able to stop.
Cadeon had deceived her. He'd lured her into this trap by telling her she could have her transition reversed. And then he'd made sure she was fertile for another man.