Her shoulders were back, her chin raised. Her signature confidence had returned in full force. That sexy smart woman confidence. Cade wanted to kiss her till her knees went weak.

"Where're we headed?" he absently asked Nïx. At that moment, more time to get attached to Holly seemed just the thing.

Nïx answered, "Mississippi Mile marker 775. You're going north of Memphis to meet a demoness named Imatra. There are more detailed instructions in the welcome bag I put together for Holly."

"Uh-huh." He stumbled forward to get Holly's suitcase, vowing to stay silent until he regained his equilibrium around her - or until the contents of his flask finally took effect.

"I want to speak to my aunt alone."

Holly had expected Cadeon to argue. Instead, he'd donned a weather-beaten leather outback-type hat, muttered something about getting food for the road and updating Rök, then headed inside.

"Look at him in that hat," Nïx said. "Sex appeal that potent ought to be illegal." She watched him the whole way in, making a low growling sound and adjusting the sword strapped over her back in fitful motions.

Yes, Cadeon might be good-looking, but the fact remained that he was a demon - with horns.

"They don't make 'em like they used to." Nïx sighed, facing her.

Holly was struck anew by how preternaturally lovely - and peculiar - her new aunt was. "I wanted to thank you for bringing my things. But why was there new underwear and stockings?"

"Because I knew you would have serviceable underclothes." She gave a mock shudder. "Valkyrie like sexy, pretty things, and serviceable is rarely either. So I collected a few grand worth of lingerie for you."

Holly had needed that very unsexy underwear to make her feel, well, very unsexy. "Did you happen to pick up any of the pill bottles on the counter?"

"Ah, those bottles arranged in that perfectly straight line, divided into threes. Everything in your house was perfectly linear. Or in threes. Or at right angles," Nïx said, her golden eyes seeming to see through to Holly's very soul one minute, but going vacant in the next. "I delighted in disrupting each and every pattern."

Holly's stomach churned. The image of her sacrosanct home, perfect as she'd left it, had been helping her get through this night. She'd thought that once she got back there, she could slip right into her old life. "Disrupting?"

Just when Holly became certain she would throw up, lightning lit the sky behind her.

Nïx smiled at the bolt, seeming pleased with it. "You don't need the pills anymore. You used them to stifle your Valkyrie traits because you didn't understand them. But now you no longer need to."

"No, I want to reverse this. I need to. I hate change - I can't handle it," Holly said, clasping her forehead. "How long will it take to get to this sorcerer?"

"Anywhere from a week to a month."

"How long do I have until there's no chance for reversal?"

"You have roughly the same time frame before you're a bona fide Valkyrie."

"If the pills stifled my Valkyrie traits before, then would they slow this transition down? Could they buy me more time to get to this sorcerer?"

"It's possible." Nïx shrugged, flipping back her spill of long black hair, the silkiest Holly had ever seen. "Though I can't say for certain. I don't see anything predetermination-wise, and human pharmacology is beneath my notice."

"Nïx, please, I might not look like it, but I'm walking the razor's edge right now."

She nodded gravely. "I know. In the restroom, you had the urge to scream to the ceiling and pull your hair out. And really, dearling, they have someone to clean that area."

How did she see -

"Ever-knowing, that's how."

"Then tell me, is all this Vessel stuff true?" Holly asked.

"Yes, unfortunately it is. Best choose your babydaddy carefully."

"Why me?"

Nïx said, "A stroke of bad luck."

Holly's face screwed up into an expression of distaste. Bad luck was merely a random occurrence that didn't go in one's favor. "But if I get the Valkyrie change reversed, will I still be the Vessel?"

"I don't see how you could be. The Vessel must be of the Lore."

"So if I can get back to normal, people will stop trying to kill me?" Holly could nullify this chance event. She could take action to combat the random.

"Theoretically, it would follow."

So do the reasoning trail: Get Valkyrie change reversed, lose Vessel status. Stop having immortal assassins trying to kill me or demons attacking me. Break free from the finite solution set of dead or bred. Go back to being one code away from PhD and previous life. Eventually, have normal kid. No ultimate evil.

Nïx said, "But I think when the choice comes, you'll have grown to like your new self. At last you'll have a self."

"What does that mean?"

She pulled a curl free from Holly's tight chignon, irritating her. "Who are you, niece? You have no idea. You will soon, though." Nïx gave her a grin, as if Holly was on the outside of an inside joke. "Well, I must be off. Proto-Valkyrie and Soothsayer without Equal is a grueling, thankless job, but Nïxie must do it."

"Wait!" Holly followed her to her abused Bentley. "I have so many more questions. Did my mother die young? And who was my father? How will I get in touch with you? Are there more of our kind walking around? How can I recognize them?"

"All your questions will be answered in time."

This being already had all the answers. "Please, take me with you! You said I was family." And Holly felt that a few more hours with Cadeon might send her over the edge.

"If you want to stay a Valkyrie, then hop in. We have mayhem on tap for tonight," Nïx said, motioning to her backseat.

Holly glanced inside, then stared in horror. The space was piled with Pat O'Brien's cups, uninflated balloons, peanut packing filler, and boxes that read: dangereux! C-4 plastique.

She took an involuntary step back.

Nïx blithely continued, "But if you're set on the reversal, I can't take you to Groot's. His fortress is hidden, and you'll have to go through a series of checkpoints to reach him. It'll take at least a week, a week I don't have since I'm fighting an apocalypse. Just think, Holly" - she draped one arm around Holly's shoulders, and waved the other hand in an arc in front of them - "an apocalypse, the ultimate in disorder."

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