"Why the hassle?"

"Groot wants the Vessel, but he doesn't want his fortress discovered. He's taking extra precautions to make sure no one follows us."

"You have no idea where it could be?"

"Somewhere obscure, difficult to get to, with a lot of land. I've heard tales of the Yukon. Maybe even Alaska."

"I wonder that he trusts us with this at all."

"Though your means are questionable, you complete jobs. Hard ones. And he knows how badly we want that sword."

"Why doesn't he meet us?"

"He never comes out of hiding. Omort would destroy him. Groot's the only one who has the means to kill him. At least that we know of."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Cade asked, but he knew what his brother was alluding to. They'd had a lead, a vampire who knew of a way to kill the sorcerer. But to save that leech from certain death, Cade had accidentally taken the life of the vampire's Bride. A young human named Néomi.

Unbidden, the memory arose of his sword slipping into Néomi's body.... He blocked it out. Cade was the master of blocking out unwanted realities.

Even if they had captured the vampire and tortured him for the information, there was nothing they could inflict worse than losing a Bride. That lead had been extinguished.

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Cade's fault again.

"Omort probably already knows our intentions," Rydstrom said. "He won't take this lying down - he'll send out everything he's got to prevent us from getting the Vessel to Groot."

"Little ironic that just when I find out my female's no longer a forbidden human, I have to turn her over."

"You can't be certain that she's yours. And even if she is, you have to think of your responsibilities. The last time the kingdom depended on you..." He trailed off. "Now you have to do what's right."

At the reminder of his failures, the guilt emerged again, and Cade nudged Holly away from him. She shot upright, seeming embarrassed that she'd still been holding on to him.

"No need for me to drive back to the house, then," Rydstrom said. "Just meet me at the gas station north of the lake at eleven o'clock - we'll start from there."

"I'll be there at eleven."

After hanging up with Rydstrom, Cade called Rök - his second-in-command and flatmate. In Demonish, Cade told him, "Tried to ring you for backup earlier. Just before I stormed the Demonaeus lair all by my lonesome."

"Did you?" Rök asked in a bored tone. "I was getting a leg over."

"When are you not? Need you back to the house."

"What's doing?" Rök asked, then shushed a female voice murmuring, "Come back to bed."

Cade quickly relayed the developments, ending with: "Just be there in ten minutes."

Once he'd hung up, Cade glanced over at Holly, staring dazedly out the window frame. Her hair had begun drying in unruly reddish-blond curls. He'd been waiting more than a year to see her hair freed from that tight bun she always wore and had imagined it loose a thousand times.

He hadn't thought it'd be curly. She must hate that - seeing it as another aspect of her life she couldn't control.

She looked so lost, and his hand fisted as he stopped himself from touching her again. But he had to resist. It wouldn't do for Cade to get even more attached to her.

All these months watching, he'd become increasingly fascinated with her. While sitting atop the roof of the building neighboring hers, he'd observed her strictly regimented day-to-day activities. Among them: an hour for swimming laps in her private rooftop pool, three hours a day for her doctoral work, an hour in the morning and another at night to clean her already spotless loft.

In the beginning, Cade had scratched his head at the odd little mortal's repetitive behavior and obsessive cleaning. Now he just shrugged. It was part of what made Holly unique.

On campus, he'd seen her sitting lost in thought, running her strand of pearls against her lips or tapping away at her laptop in bursts of furious inspiration.

And Cade had watched her with her boyfriend, feeling a savage thrill every time she'd denied her lips to that tosser, instead turning to give him a cheek. That male had never spent the night, and she'd never stayed with him.

Which was why the human still lived.

Cade had thought he had learned so much about her, but he hadn't known she would be so brave. Not many females could blindly stick a foot in a pool of water when there were snakes about - much less take down a dozen demons.

But this silence from her made him uneasy. For all her quirks, she wasn't a shy one, nor was she hesitant to speak her mind. "You, uh, got more questions?"

Without hesitation, she asked, "Can this change in me be undone?"

He frowned. "What would you want that for? You're quick to give up immortality." Granted, her introduction to the Lore had been harsh, but still...

"I don't want to be like this. I want to go back to how I was."

As a mercenary, his primary job was to identify what someone desired. Then he had to convince the client of two things.

That he could get it for them. And that he was the only one who could get it for them.

Holly had just given him the key to her. Which was good, because he had to tell her something that would ensure her cooperation, something other than the truth: To score a weapon, I have to give you to an evil sorcerer who will likely ensorcell you to sleep with him. Once you've delivered a child of ultimate evil for him, he may let you go.

"There might be a way to reverse the change." Of course, there was absolutely no way to reverse the change.

She gazed over at him with hope in her eyes. If he were less of a bastard, that look would really bother him. As it was, he hardly noted it. Hardly at all.

"How? How's it possible?"

"Listen, I don't want to speak out of turn and overpromise you," he said. "Right now I'm going back to my place to pick up supplies before we leave town; then we're going to meet my brother, who'll know more about all this. Just bear with me till then, and we'll figure out a way to make everyone happy."

At length, she nodded. "I have to go by my loft and pick up some clothes and things - "

"No way. They'll be watching your place."

"But I need my...my medications. They were in my shoulder bag."

"What kind of meds?" he asked, though he knew about her disorder, had been studying it. He just wanted to see if she'd admit to it.

She raised her chin. "They're for OCD. Obsessive - "

" - compulsive disorder. I've heard of it." She was going to love his place.