The last wasn't impossible. Conrad just had to find and coerce the right sorcerer to do it. He knew that there were only so many in the entire world and all other dimensions who could resurrect beings. And even fewer who would.

As for his captivity - the bottom line was that his brothers were not coming back, or at least, not soon. Not until after a war. If they got out alive.

Could the Valkyrie take Mount Oblak? Certainly possible. But it would take time to prepare.

Time he didn't have. His blood supply wasn't infinite, and the threat of Tarut weighed on him.

Tonight Conrad would get started on his list.

When he'd awakened this evening, N¨Ļomi had brought him a cup of blood, then set off on the paper quest. Good. He wanted her away. Collecting a bath towel, he started down the stairs.

One way or another, Conrad was going to remove the chains. He couldn't break them, so that left him with one other option.

He'd found a woodcutter's ax in the old toolshed. A cutting stump sat behind it.

If he was drinking heavily of blood, he could regenerate a hand in three to four days. He'd have to do them one at a time of course, so regenerating would take at least six days. Which meant he would miss the gathering, a promising hunting ground. Killing tended to get complicated without hands -

Suddenly, he heard... a phone ringing? Frowning, he hastened after the faint sound, coming upon a small sitting room downstairs, well off to the side of the house.

The ringing seemed to come from inside the wall. Tossing the towel over his shoulder, he raised his bound hands to slap his palms against the wall - it sounded hollow. His lips curled. A moving panel. He'd seen them in older houses before.

After determining the edges, he scanned it for a latch. Maybe it was in the wainscoting? He felt along the dingy white wood. Got it. When he pressed it, a faint click sounded.

He shoved the panel open and found newspapers were stacked behind it, but then she wouldn't have to enter through an opened door.

Inside, he narrowed his eyes. The room was a studio - her dance studio, with attached barres and mirror-covered walls. So this is here-and-there, her secret place.

The space was overtly feminine, decorated with faded pinks and reds, silks and crumbling lace. But the mirrors were all broken, with strike patterns as if someone had taken a fist to them - or a shot of telekinesis.

Against a far wall was a small cot, padded with blankets that would never warm her. An unused pair of ballet slippers was tossed casually atop them. Beside a safe on the floor, he spied a sizable pile of pebbles and stockpiled cases of liquor.

On a table, he found masses of odds and ends displayed like treasures. Among the offerings were Sebastian's money clip, Nikolai's now quiet cell phone, and the hair comb from Murdoch's pocket. N¨Ļomi had probably treasured the comb because she found it pretty.

She's going to have a thousand of them.

He'd stumbled upon a little ghost's nest, filled with trinkets stolen from the living to connect her to them. Feeling dazed, he sank onto the cot. This is everything she has. And Elancourt is the entire world to her.

Yet you threatened to burn it down.

He tried to imagine being trapped alone here, if their situations were reversed. Yes, he was trapped as well, but he'd always known that sooner or later he'd get free.

No wonder she'd cleaved to him so strongly. She'd been desperate.

The back of his boot hit something. Bending down, he found a leather scrapbook. He brushed off a layer of dust and cracked it open, the stiff leather protesting.

The pages were neatly marked, the contents - playbills and articles about her successes - meticulously lined in wax.

He glanced up, half expecting her to appear and start haranguing him for trespassing in her secret room, but she was doubtless after that paper like a terrier starving for a bone. So he read... .

One article was entitled Bastardizing Ballet? Not Just for the Cultural Elite Anymore. N¨Ļomi had made sure that children from the French Quarter and Story-ville were guaranteed seating at her performances.

According to another article, Miss N¨Ļomi Laress had violated parish decency laws with her coterie on more than one occasion.

Local Ballerina Courted by Russian Prince, read another headline. Conrad's fingers bit into the leather. Always with the bloody Russians!

When the interviewer asked N¨Ļomi if she was moving to Moscow anytime soon, she'd answered, "Leave New Orleans? Never, especially not for a man, prince or not. The city's in my blood." At least N¨Ļomi had been prophetic. Even death couldn't make her leave.

Why would she ever choose Conrad when she'd refused a prince? Disappointment settled over him like a weight on his chest. She'd said they were too different. In any other situation, he wondered if she would have glanced twice at Conrad.

But then, everyone was a prince in Russia!

Just as he was setting the album away, he found an article in the back that seemed to have been clumsily tacked on and was disintegrating in places without the wax treatment. Brows drawn, he read what he could:

Famous Ballerina Savaged by

Spurned Oil Millionaire

N¨Ļomi Laress, a colorful and well-regarded citizen of New Orleans, died in her home Saturday night when Louis Robicheaux, a first son of the city, stabbed her in the chest. Immediately after, he turned the blade on himself, slitting his own throat.

... from a past shrouded in mystery, Laress rose in the ranks of professional dancers, gaining national recognition as a prima ballerina...  

"It was so awful," one witness said on the condition of anonymity due to the illegal alcohol served at the party. "She was still breathing when he twisted the knife in her chest and told her to feel it for him! There was blood everywhere, all over her. I thought I would faint."

Conrad's shaking hands fisted on the sides of the album. He stared up at a mirror, and his eyes were redder than he'd ever seen them.

Not only had she been murdered, the monster had made sure she'd... suffered. Conrad had known she'd been stabbed to death, had imagined her pain a thousand times. He couldn't have imagined anyone would have taken hold of that blade and twisted it in N¨Ļomi's fragile chest - while telling her to feel it for him.

And I can't even slaughter the miserable fuck.

Stunned, he cupped one of her diminutive slippers in his hand, stroking his thumb over the silk. Her death had been horrific, her afterlife wretched - but he could make her existence better.

As soon as he got free.

Even if she didn't want him as he wanted her, she was good and deserved more, certainly more kindness than he'd given her.

His resolve renewed, he set the slipper away, then headed outside.

When he reached the cutting stump, he grasped the ax. This operation would be problematic with his chains, but he thought he could get enough leverage to swing for one clean strike.

Was this more madness? No. He would do this for her. Then what are you waiting for?

Raising the ax, he regarded his hand pitilessly.



"Maybe I can reach it," N¨Ļomi murmured as she gazed at the paper. "And maybe I can't."

In the end, she decided it wasn't worth the trouble. She was turning her back on a possible paper, and she didn't care. As she floated down the drive, a placid breeze blew and the stars were out in a cloudless night sky, and she couldn't stop smiling over last night.

She'd decided that she was going to give Conrad the key this eve, because she believed that he would make the vow never to harm his brothers.

And that look in his eyes...  She thought he truly wanted a future with her, impossible though that might seem.

Just as she wanted more with her fascinating vampire.

Would he be angry about the key at first? Without a doubt. But after a rage, he'd soon calm. And if his brothers were trapped somewhere else, there really was no other option... .

As she closed in on the manor, she spied movement near the toolshed. She frowned to see Conrad. What was he doing out there?

She blinked for focus. Because it looked like he was holding an ax at the cutting stump. What the devil is he doing? Why would he -

The horrific answer dawned on her; the ax dropped.

Everything began to spin.

The sound of the strike was still echoing as the blood spurted... he staggered silently. Silent, doesn't want to alert me with a yell, doesn't want me to stumble upon him quietly removing his own hand in the dark.

M¨¨re de Dieu. Her energy flared and dimmed. He shoved a towel to the wound. The white cloth was red and dripping with blood in seconds.

Madness... A storm soon boiled overhead. Too much. Just as the rain began to fall, she finally had enough air to scream.

His head jerked up, and his big body lurched. He was gritting his teeth against the pain as they made their way to each other.

"Don't be upset, koeri," he bit out, his eyes rapt on her face. His expression was drawn in agony - but not over his own pain. "It will... regenerate."

She could barely hear him over the roaring in her ears. "But... but... "

"I did this for us."

"Oh, God... " The pain he must be suffering!

His face was wet from the growing storm, his black hair lashed over his cheeks. "Can you... do you think you can help with the other one?"

"Conrad, no!"

"You can do this, N¨Ļomi. It will save days... of healing time. Have to get these goddamned things... off me."

"Why?" She began weeping in earnest.

"This is the first step. I made a conscious decision. You're looking at me... like I've gone completely mad again." His voice faltering, he asked, "H-have I?"

"I... that's not why I'm so upset!" Rose petals swirled around her body. Her hair began whipping, yet not in time with the strengthening wind.

"Then why are you looking at me like this?" He narrowed his eyes, realizing her reaction was more than horror. "What is happening to you? To the sky?"

She gazed up at him, her eyes awash in tears. "Conrad, c-come inside so I can tend to you. I have to t-tell you something. D'accord?" Lightning struck close by.

"No. Tell me now." Even after what he'd just done, he got that stubborn look on his face.

"S'il te plait, let me just tend to you - "

"Now, N¨Ļomi!"

"I... I'll be back." She unsteadily traced to her studio. It took three tries before she could get hold of the key. When she returned, fear for him sat cold and heavy inside her. "I-I was giving it to you tonight," she whispered, offering the key.

His brows drew together as if he couldn't comprehend what it was. Then his eyes went wild. He threw back his head; his unholy roar of fury echoed in the night.

She gasped, energy funneling out of her.

"What is this? N¨Ļomi, what the fuck is this?"

She focused on his face, trying to keep the world from spinning. "J-just let me help you."

"Don't come near me!"

"Conrad, please, listen! I was going to give it - "

"Bullshit! Cease your lies!" he bellowed.

She squeezed her eyes shut, only opening them once she heard the rattle of chains. He flung the manacles to the ground in front of her.

And then she learned what rage truly was.

Can't comprehend... what I've just learned...  

Fury threaded through his veins, drowning out the pain. She'd willfully kept him here. Lied about the key. Again and again.

Not her. I didn't want her ever to betray me.

He could hear himself beginning to speak, but didn't register the words, just had this rage he had to unleash before it seared him inside.

As the rain fell harder, the sparks glittering off her grew more intense. With each word, her face paled, her image flickering even more. Her lips parted as if she was horrified, as if she didn't recognize him at all.

He dimly heard her say, "Y-you're going to say something you regret, something you can never take back... ."

And then he must have.

"Oh," she murmured, looking like he'd struck her. Tears spilled from her eyes. Just before she disappeared, she whispered, "Good-bye, vampire."

Somewhere out in the night, he heard her crying harder. An answering roar of pain was ripped from his chest.


Free of the chains, Conrad could finally trace. He ignored the throbbing from his injury and returned to his cabin deep in the Estonian marshes.

Inside, he peered around. I'm glad she'll never see this.

It looked exactly like a madman's home would - the product of a disordered mind. Esoteric writing was crudely printed on the walls; belongings lay broken, destroyed in countless rampages. Scattered on the floor were books with the pages stripped and crumpled.

Dark sheets haphazardly covered the windows. Demon skulls hung nailed over the door. His furniture consisted of a threadbare couch, a table with one chair, and a mattress on the floor. The only things organized were his weapons, and there were hundreds of them.

Atop the table were the notes he'd kept on his search for his brothers. With his remaining hand, he flipped through them. Just as this cabin didn't fit Conrad anymore, neither did these writings.

He'd tracked the three all over the world, from Mount Oblak in Russia all the way to Louisiana. But the writings no longer made sense to him whatsoever. Because he was different. All Conrad could discern from the pages was an all-consuming need for revenge.

Even that was extinguished.

He lay back on the mattress, but couldn't sleep for hours. Vivid red streaks had begun slashing up his arm as his hand began to regenerate; the pain was punishing.

He'd severed his hand for her. For them. He'd been proud to take the pain. To get a step closer to discovering a way for them to be together.

She betrayed you, willfully kept you a captured plaything. Why was it that everything he gave a damn about ended up stabbing him in the back?

She'd played him for a fool, keeping his mind from hunting. He'd walked around that mausoleum high on her, complacent. Charmed by her every move, he'd been blinded to what was really happening... .

Hours toiled by before he finally passed out.

Sometime in the night, he jerked awake with a yell, cradling his arm, his body slicked with sweat. He'd seen N¨Ļomi screaming in terror, trapped in darkness where he couldn't reach her.

She wasn't here with him as she always had been. "Shh, mon coeur... " she'd soothed. "Good-bye, vampire," she'd said last night.

His brows drew together. Stop thinking about her!

She'd calmed him, surrounded him with laughter. She'd challenged him to rethink his blind hatred. You'll never see her again. Once his trust was lost, he didn't give it again.

He was disgusted with himself. Even after her betrayal, he missed her presence more than he missed his hand.

The silence within her home seeped into N¨Ļomi like a damp chill, until she thought she'd lose her mind.

Just as she'd known it would.

For the last three days, she'd aimlessly roamed her halls, a lonely, despairing ghost, filled with regret. And always she wondered where Conrad had gone, where in the world he was at that moment. Was he safe? Healing? Was he drinking from a glass - or from victims?

Is he thinking of me?

She hadn't known it was possible to miss another this much.

He would never return, and she could do nothing but... await. Await the years to pass, hoping for the arrival of someone, anyone.

N¨Ļomi was helpless, powerless to alleviate her own misery. She was as pitiful as he'd accused that night.

With a sigh, she exited the house into the drizzling rain, bent on getting the paper. Having long since read the ones he'd collected, she pined for something to take her mind from this.

She had no other escape. She couldn't unburden herself to a good friend or change her scenery. She couldn't drink. There was no television show or good book to absorb her.

At the property line once more, her hopes sank. Tears began to fall for the paper that was well out of her reach.

I'm in the driveway, crying over a newspaper. This was the low point of her afterlife. She was as weak and pathetic as Conrad had deemed her with his crazed, yelling words.

Next thing she knew, she'd be moaning, "Woowooo."

To hell with this. She would not mope like a... a damned ghost!

Her sadness boiled to anger. She refused to feel guilt for what she'd done. She'd been trying to protect him and his brothers. For ages they'd wanted to save Conrad. He was the one who'd gone and lopped off his hand without so much as a mention of his plans to her!

With her new anger came realization. Had she actually thought she needed a man to actualize her? To save her from this cursed afterlife? Would she wait forever for his return, as Marguerite L'Are had done for N¨Ļomi's contemptible father?

Conrad called me pitiful - and he was right!

How much she'd changed. In life, she'd always been bold, taking her destiny into her own hands. After that year of burlesque, N¨Ļomi had told everyone at the club, "I want to be a ballerina," and they'd laughed. "Maybe you could make the leap from burlesque to vaudeville," they'd said. "There are a few who've made that climb."

But burlesque dancer to ballerina was supposedly an impassable divide. Which was why N¨Ļomi had had to make it.

How do I get from point A to point B? she'd thought, hour after hour, day after day. She had figured it out, and though it had taken her years, she'd done it.

N¨Ļomi had danced her way from the Quarter to worldwide fame!

I want to be the old me! She had to do something. Think... think.

But in the last eighty years, she hadn't been able to come up with any way to alter her existence -

Wait...  N¨Ļomi possessed two things she never had before. One was a tool - Nikolai's cell phone. The other was the knowledge that at least one person on earth had been able to hear her.

What if someone else could? Someone like Conrad, someone from the Lore? If there was one thing N¨Ļomi was learning about this Lore, it was that assumptions were readily turned on their ears.

There were witches, they'd said, some with extraordinary abilities - like that Mariketa. Maybe witches could hear ghosts?

And maybe pigs can fly.

She frowned at herself. Why was she scoffing at her daring idea?

Because she wasn't the old N¨Ļomi who relished challenges. She supposed that being disembodied did that to spirits. After all, she couldn't recall a tale featuring a ghost worthy of rooting for. How many stories recounted the quests of intrepid ghosts?

But what do I have to lose? She gave a laugh. My precious time?

What if this Mariketa was powerful enough to make N¨Ļomi... incarnate? N¨Ļomi had to find her number. Yet how?

She floated through the tangled gardens to the sad little folly, turning it over in her head. How? How?

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