"I'm sorry, N¨Ļomi. If I tried to embody you now, I'd probably get enthralled and you'd come back worse than dead. I know you're thinking that there's nothing worse than dead - "
"No. I don't think that." N¨Ļomi had just spent a lifetime worse than dead. She understood the concept, and why it'd be wise to avoid it.
"There's one other option as well," Nïx said. "In the Lore, there are Phantoms, a ghostlike species of immortals who can incarnate at will, like shape-shifters between life and death. If you can exist long enough in this plane as a ghost, you'd gradually regrow a physical form, accumulating strength to become like them. You'd be able to leave your spirit anchor, and still retain all your telekinetic abilities."
"How long?" This sounded perfect! "How long do I have to exist to grow a body?"
Nix snapped her fingers. "A mere four or five centuries. It'll be over before you know it."
"Oh." The breezy way Nïx said that made N¨Ļomi wonder how old the Valkyrie could possibly be. "That's kind of out for me, too. I relive my death every month. I couldn't stand the fifty years option, much less five hundred."
"Ah, the perpetual ghostly reenactment." Nïx nodded in commiseration. "Your spirit anchor would probably get burned or torn down before then anyway."
"Is there anyone else who can do the embodying?"
Nïx quirked a brow. "No one you'd want to tangle with. There are a handful of sorcerers who can do this, but they'll make outrageous demands - like your firstborn or something equally unfun."
Mari said, "Listen, N¨Ļomi, you don't have any reason to trust our advice on this, but I can provide a list of referrals who would be happy - "
"No, I trust you. How soon could you do the target practice body?" N¨Ļomi asked.
Mari seemed surprised that she was still interested. "Uh, tonight. But really, this whole thing is probably not something you'd want to consider. I mean, how bad could it be here?"
Pinning Mari's gaze with her own, N¨Ļomi said, "I'm trapped in an interminable hell that I can't even kill myself to escape. I perceive nothing, not until the one night a month when I have a knife plunged into my heart then twisted in my chest."
"Okey-dokey, then, sounds like we'll be doing the spell!" Mari pulled out papers and forms from her briefcase. "So, about that payment."
N¨Ļomi waved her hand over her shoulder at the jewelry armoire behind her, and a felt-lined drawer full of jewels opened. Another four practiced waves had the safe open. "Do your worst."
With a discerning air, Mari picked out a few diamonds and certificates and placed them in an inner compartment in her bag. Nïx wouldn't even glance at the intense glittering, instead exploring the studio. She continually cast puzzled glances at N¨Ļomi.
"Well?" Mari asked, spreading out contracts on the coffee table. "Are you reading anything on N¨Ļomi here?"
"I get nothing on her," Nïx said.
"Is that good or bad?" N¨Ļomi asked.
Nïx narrowed her eyes. "It's rare."
Mari offered a pen to N¨Ļomi. "Can I get you to sign here and here? Just an X will do." N¨Ļomi used telekinesis to craft a sloppy X. "Okay, and here. Nïx, would you witness?"
Nïx scrawled her signature, Nïx the Ever-Knowing, Proto-Valkyrie & Soothsayer Without Equal.
"Do I need to do anything to get ready?" N¨Ļomi asked.
"Why the urgency? I usually make clients wait forty-eight hours to mull their decision when the magick is irrevocable."
"I really like the Lore and want to see more of it. And there's this gathering tonight - "
"Ah, the Liv der Lanking, the Life of Lanking. A raucous party. We call it the Liver Spanking. Nïx here planned it."
Nïx nodded sunnily. "It's B.Y.O.S. Bring Your Own Sacrifice."
"Now, why do my spider senses tell me that Conrad Wroth might be there?" Mari asked.
"What? Will he, indeed?" N¨Ļomi said in a breezy tone.
Nïx added, "Naturally, you'll want him to see you flirt with other males and regret his words."
N¨Ļomi was uncertain what she planned to do if she saw him there. Part of her was dying to know if she could blood him. Part of her wanted to see if he'd held steady after three nights away. And yes, another part of her wanted to show Conrad that she wasn't pathetic, languishing away in her haunted manor.
"You can go with us," Mari offered. "My hubby's there with his kinsmen. He loathes girls' night out - throws a mantrum every week. So I suppose I could go relieve his misery."
"I'd love to go with you!" And if Conrad was there, maybe she should tell him to go to hell. To return the look of disgust and pity he'd given her. "I want to get dressed up and meet new people. I want to feel!"
"The gathering's going to be extreme," Mari said. "And you'll only be a human - with nary a ghostly power. Are you sure you'll be able to handle it?"
"I thrive on excitement."
"Adrenaline junkie," Mari said. "Got it. So this'll be a Cinderella redux. I feel all fairy godmotheresque." She peered at N¨Ļomi. "You're sure you want to do this?"
N¨Ļomi said, "My ball awaits."
"While I get ready, take a gander at the Liver Spanking live." Mari pressed her fingertips to the glass, studiously avoiding any direct eye contact with the mirror until after a scene had appeared. Raucous beings were dancing around a bonfire at least five stories high.
Beautiful chaos. N¨Ļomi yearned to be amidst it, even as she wondered if she could indeed handle being thrown into that pandemonium, a mortal among immortals.
"Check out my hubby." Mari altered the scene and pointed to a very huge and handsome male - who was scowling fiercely at his surroundings and then into his drink. "Damn, that werewolf melts my butter," Mari sighed. "He's so miserable," she added delightedly.
N¨Ļomi frowned. "That's Bowen MacRieve - your husband?" When Mari nodded, N¨Ļomi said, "He was supposed to come after Conrad in two weeks if he wasn't better. Could you get your husband to not, well, hurt Conrad?"
"I'll talk to him. But I didn't think you would care, seeing as the vampire called you pathetic."
"I do care, don't I?" N¨Ļomi sighed. She supposed she always would.
Because she might possibly have fallen a little bit - really a tiny bit - in love with Conrad.
"Why don't you go with the intent to forget all about him?" Mari asked. "After all, it's possible he could find his Bride tonight - and she might not be you. There'll be plenty of males there to distract you. Get Nïx to show you Cade and Rydstrom - buddies of mine and some of the hawtest demon brothers you'll ever see." She took her tiny cell phone from one of her many pants pockets. "Gotta make a quick call."
When Mari walked to the other side of the room, Nïx pointed out two horned males who were uncommonly attractive. "There's Cade, all flawless golden good looks and moral ambivalence. A perfect foil to mighty King Rydstrom with his scars and proud honor."
"Look at those eyes," N¨Ļomi breathed. Though one brother was lighter haired and one darker, they both had blazing green eyes.
"Oh, yes. They have eyes, too, don't they? Everybody says that's what has females begging to do the hula hoop under them. Either that or their accents - a cross between Aussie and Sith Ifrican. But I think it's the horns."
Shell-colored and pleasingly turned, their horns started just above their ears, curving back along their heads. Their shape and direction reminded N¨Ļomi of the laurel wreath crowns men wore in antiquity, though Rydstrom's horns were as battle-scarred as the rest of him.
"Yes," Nïx continued, "those sleek... rock-hard... lickable horns."
Had Nïx just growled? "It sounds like you want one of them. Or, uh, both."
"Oh, no, no. I'm Mike Rowe's beloved."
"Is this Mike down there?"
"No, Mikey's playing hard to get at present." Her eyes going vacant, she murmured, "But it will do you no good... you naughty little scamp."
Just then N¨Ļomi overheard Mari say, "Hey, Elianna... . Ha-ha, no, I don't need bail! I was wondering about that shell spell for ghosts. Is it corpus carnate or carnate corpus?"
Merde! The witch was having to get instructions?
Mari paused, then said, "I am too up for this... . Uh-huh, uh-huh... and that's why I won't get entranced, now, isn't it?"
N¨Ļomi was about to express concerns when Nïx said, "I put that vampire in your house. And I still don't know why." She leaned in, appearing genuinely puzzled. "Especially since you're going to die."
N¨Ļomi swallowed. "How do you know Conrad?"
"I know his brothers." Her voice took on a dreamy tone. "And I suppose I have an affinity for Conrad. I have squatters in my mind, too."
"So, I'm back!" Mari said. "Have you seen anything on N¨Ļomi? What course should she take?"
Seeming to come back to the present, Nïx told N¨Ļomi, "I see very little on you. I'm called ever-knowing, not all-knowing. But I know - for a fact - that the day anyone discovers what you're about to do will be your last."
"What do you mean?"
"No one besides the three of us can know the conditions surrounding your transformation. None can discover that you will begin a countdown as soon as you assume the shell body."
"Conrad's going to demand to know," N¨Ļomi said, then hurriedly added, "If he's there, and if I blood him, and if he apologizes for his past behavior, of course." And if he doesn't still feel that crazed sense of betrayal.
Nïx snorted. "I'm sure you can find ways to get around that, if you - oh, I don't know - want to live longer."
"Then we vow that none of us will ever talk about this," Mari said. "We'll never reveal that N¨Ļomi's time here is definite or how she was changed. Agreed?"
N¨Ļomi nodded firmly. "D'accord."
"Agreed," Nïx said. "I do so love unholy alliances."
"Good then. That's settled." Mari pulled out a compact mirror from another pants pocket. "And I'm ready for action. Are you sure, N¨Ļomi?"
Decades or even centuries as I've been versus even a single day of life? N¨Ļomi nodded. "Let's do it."
Mari opened the compact in her palm. "Okay, then. Now for the profound existential question." When she began to rub her thumb over the mirror, her eyes became silver, like mirrors themselves, reflecting N¨Ļomi's astonished expression. "What do you want to wear?"
Hours after he'd arrived, Conrad squeezed his head, grappling for control of his thoughts. This frenzied overload of the gathering was wreaking havoc with him. If the Fallen reacted badly to quick movements and loud noises, then he'd just stumbled onto a special kind of hell.
Return to her...
He just wanted to find a way to tell her what he was thinking. To tell her that if he could take back his words, he would.
Right when Conrad was about to trace to Elancourt, he saw Tarut. All eight feet of him. The hulking demon was towering over an area crowded with other species of demons, accompanied by his gang of Kapsliga swordsmen. Each was shirtless with a wide leather band crossed over his chest. Conrad had once proudly worn the same.
His eyes narrowed when a haze of smoke suddenly appeared in the same area. A group of seven demons stepped from it, the Woede among them. Conrad had heard they'd somehow lost their ability to trace. Rök, the infamous fugitive, must be teleporting them. Just then Rök opened his mouth, sucking the smoke inside him again.
Tarut and the Woede - all three targets here for the taking, and more easily than normal. When Conrad engaged the Woede, they wouldn't hit their rage state completely, not without risking Conrad's life and the information he held. Rage demons in full demonic state were incredibly powerful, but near mindless.
And Tarut? Conrad no longer had to worry about being clawed by him.
Rydstrom and Cade didn't clasp forearms with Tarut in greeting. Instead, their hands remained near the hilts of their swords. Then Conrad saw Cadeon stiffen, his eyes narrowing on Tarut as if in realization. He dragged Rydstrom to the side, gesturing heatedly, while Rydstrom scowled in Tarut's direction.
So the demons knew they were hunting the same target - Tarut wanting to kill Conrad and the Woede wanting to keep him alive, at least for a time... .
Conrad tensed to attack, his fangs growing sharp.
That was exactly when he heard N¨Ļomi's laughter.
"Did you have to conjure that last bottle of wine?" Nïx said under her breath, but N¨Ļomi still heard her, even over the noise of the crowd and her own delighted laughter.
Fire. Creatures from myth. Revelry.
She was in heaven! For the first time in eighty years, N¨Ļomi was freed from Elancourt!
And, yes, she was a tad tipsy - had merlot always tasted so exquisite?
Now layers of sound meshed with layers of sensation: the constant rustle of leaves beneath her new leather boots. The scent of night-blooming jasmine and spent gardenias. A band tuning instruments in the background. The delicious closeness of her new dress.
When asked what she wanted to wear, N¨Ļomi had answered, "Anything but this godforsaken black satin party dress. Something with color! Something short and really sexy."
Mari had conjured a scarlet "body-conscious sheath" for N¨Ļomi. The shameless garment was long-sleeved but backless, and was shorter than anything she'd ever worn.
Hardly the couture of the pitiful!
N¨Ļomi's hurt over Conrad's words dwindled with each second - because she wasn't pitiful. Again she'd taken control of her destiny.
By God, it was heady. I'm like the old N¨Ļomi. The one who would roll the dice and laugh in the face of fate. She was going to get "capped," and she didn't give a damn!
"I had to do the bottles," Mari murmured in answer. "You saw her - she was freaking out."
At first the change had been overwhelming. Suddenly thrust into a world of perception, N¨Ļomi had stood in her studio, wide-eyed and struggling to adjust to the onslaught of feeling.
The weight of her body had abruptly pressed down on her feet, against a floor that was impossibly rigid. Her hair had pulled heavily along her back, and shivers had glanced over every inch of her skin.
It hadn't seemed to N¨Ļomi that she alone was changed, but that the entire world was altered, as if she'd been living in a dim bubble. Her new corporeal self had been shaking with sensation, dizzy with it. She'd patted her face in astonishment and whispered, "M-maybe this wasn't a good idea."
Mari had called what she was feeling hypersensitivity and said she had gone through the same not long ago. It would improve... .
"And we never would have gotten her to climb into the mirror otherwise," Mari added. "It was like trying to dunk a cat in acid."
Women with small boxes fastened on chokers walked by. "What are they wearing?" N¨Ļomi asked, a tad too loudly by the look on Mari's face. Each box had individual decorations or sayings painted on it.
"Voice modulators. The Sirenae are being polite," Mari explained. "If they sing, they could captivate all the unmated males here. Not very sporting."
One box read: "Yeah, you're welcome." Another read, "Boom! I got your boyfriend." N¨Ļomi laughed with delight. Sirens! Of course!
A group of elven-looking women strolled by, wearing nothing but gauzy skirts. Their chests were bare except for body paint styled in intricate leafy designs.
"Goody," Nïx muttered. "The dendrophiles."
"The dendro what?" N¨Ļomi said.
"Tree lovers - the tree nymphs."
Their obvious leader said, "Well, if it isn't Nucking Futs Nïx and the hex hack."
"Well, if isn't the hookers," Nïx replied blandly. "Oh, I'm sorry, nymphets, this isn't the orgy - that's down the road."
"Nïxie, every party is an orgy waiting to happen."
Nïx opened her mouth, then closed it, dragging N¨Ļomi and Mari away. "Well, you can't argue with reason, can you?"
Almost at once, N¨Ļomi's excitement was tinged by a tug of disappointment. Murdoch had said that nymphs would be in attendance. These startlingly lovely women reminded her that Conrad might have one like them for his Bride.
Luckily, there were gorgeous males too, and soon N¨Ļomi, Nïx, and Mari were surrounded by a number. They were all huge. A couple were even taller than Conrad.
N¨Ļomi felt dwarfed, but they seemed to be making every attempt not to startle her, especially since Nïx had introduced her as "N¨Ļomi, the mortal." N¨Ļomi smiled in greeting, while furtively peering around them for a glimpse of the vampire.
"This is Uilleam and Munro," Nïx said, indicating a pair of Scottish twins who were roguishly handsome. "We just call them Hot and Hotter, or is it Hotter and Hot?" She shrugged. "They're Lykae. And here are the demons Cade and Rydstrom, also brothers - the ones I was telling you about."
"Nice to meet you, sweet," Cade said. But he seemed preoccupied, absently rasping the blond stubble over his jawline.
"It's a pleasure, N¨Ļomi." Rydstrom gave her a smile that didn't quite reach his remarkably green eyes.
The brothers' features were so alike, and yet their overall appearances were so dissimilar. Their bearings and even their accents differed. She could hear the colonial British in them, but Rydstrom's sounded more upper-class.
Rydstrom turned to Nïx. "I've been looking for you, Valkyrie."
"Oh, why? Did you find the one who seeks him in sleep?"
"As a matter of fact... " Rydstrom took her upper arm and guided her to the side.
"Help, help!" Nïx cried over her shoulder. "I'm being ravished by a demon!" When N¨Ļomi started after her - as if she could do something - Nïx mouthed, "I'm really not."
"Here's Bowen!" Mari said. He'd seemed to be following a scent. When he caught sight of Mari, he charged for her, gathering her in his arms.
After receiving a deep, seeking kiss that had N¨Ļomi fanning herself, Mari introduced him. He smiled at N¨Ļomi, then glowered at Cade, who returned the look. Int¨Ļressant.
The musicians she'd heard earlier began playing a melodic ballad with a heavy drumbeat that, of course, N¨Ļomi didn't recognize. But the song flooded over her. She could feel the percussion in her belly, and for the first time in eight decades she needed to dance.
"Go on and dance, N¨Ļomi," Mari said. "We'll wait right here. Just don't go too far."
N¨Ļomi nodded happily. At the fire, the music commanded her and she obeyed. With each second she grew more used to her body, recalling how she could coax it to move, to glide... .
Everything felt dreamlike. It seemed a night of magick.
Soon, she sensed she was being watched. As she spun, she spied glowing red eyes in the dark, following her every movement.
Conrad. Like a lion stalking a fawn.
This must be a hallucination.
She can't be real. Conrad couldn't process this. He'd wanted to go to her tonight. Over the last week, he'd ached to be able to touch her.
Now, like an offering, she was here for him. In flesh and blood, so alive. Somehow she was no longer a ghost, no more black-and-white. Her cheeks were flushed with pink, her lips as red as her short dress.
How could this change have happened?
She looked like a pagan dancing by the fire with her wild flowing hair. The way her body turned and swayed was decadent, wicked. "Tantsija," Conrad murmured.
As ever, when she moved, he grew hypnotized. But now instead of merely soothing his mind, her dancing made his body feel taut, stretched like a wire. She'd been beautiful as a ghost. Like this, she was beyond compare.
He could actually take that kiss that he'd burned for, could touch her full breasts... . No, he couldn't - she surely hated him now.
Even across the distance, he could hear her heart pumping with excitement, which meant that she could bleed. Which meant that he could hurt her. Or kill her.
He'd fantasized about sucking at her neck. Would I ever be able to stop once I'd started?
The ease he'd felt with her because he couldn't harm her disappeared, replaced by dread.
And now his enemies could target her. Tarut had just escaped him moments ago. Conrad bit out a vile curse when his arm began to ache under his bandage. Because my most fervent dream just materialized. What he'd coveted most was dancing right before him.
You have to have a dream to lose it... .
Yet his own heart lay dead in his chest. No breaths began to expand his lungs. Though Conrad was seeing her in the flesh, his blooding still wasn't triggered. Disappointment welled inside him.
Turn your back and leave.
Just when he was about to trace, someone yelled, "Fight!"
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