Take her... claim her completely. The last barrier between them. Conrad needed to bite her, to mark her, like an animal. He was the monster they all thought him.

No! He had to fight... had to overcome the instinct.

He felt his fangs sharpening. As his hips bucked, he found himself easing toward her pale neck, drawn to the hectic pulse he could see so clearly. Possess her completely. He licked her, preparing her.

Lost...  

He pierced her tender skin; the sweetest flesh he'd ever tasted closed tight around his aching fangs. Was she moaning? He could feel the sound.

His eyes flashed open when he began sucking her, because God help her... he knew he'd do this again.

As her rich blood hit his tongue and slid down his throat like silk and wine, he groaned in ecstasy. Heat seared through his veins. Her heat. Her essence.

"Stop now." Her words were faint compared to the exquisite beating of her heart in his ears.

No. Want more. Sucking harder.

"You'll hurt me," she whispered.

Must have this.

"Conrad... "

With a will he hadn't known he possessed, he stopped taking. But he left his fangs in her flesh, growling against her damp skin as his seed erupted from his body in mind-numbing waves. Connection. Marked. Mine... .

When he drew back from her, he studied her face. Her cheeks were pinkened. He hadn't hurt her.

He'd bitten her. He'd taken her blood. And it had felt like it was supposed to happen. He'd heard her moaning. She'd taken pleasure from his bite. I didn't hurt her -

She burst into tears. With her bottom lip trembling, her eyes glittering, she whispered, "How could you, Conrad?" She raised her hand to slap him - the closest to fury he'd ever seen her.

37

"What is wrong with me?" At the folly yet again. All the night creatures around him were silent, as if they sensed his threat. "Why can't I be right?" he roared to the night.

N¨Ļomi hadn't been physically hurt, but she'd been inconsolable. "You have no idea what you've done!" she'd cried. The hand poised to strike him had faltered. She'd closed it to a fist before lowering it, without giving him the hit he'd deserved.

As her gaze had flickered over his face, the expressions he'd grown used to seeing had been absent. There'd been none of her looks of pride in him, or glances brimming with desire.

She'd appeared betrayed.

For an hour he retraced his habitual path along the water's edge. He scarcely registered it when the skies opened up and poured. Earlier when he'd left the room, he thought he'd heard her beginning to cry harder. To cry over him.

It made his chest feel hollow, and his new heartbeats pained him. Hell, could death feel worse than he did now?

The only thing that heartened was that she hadn't removed the ring. They'd both glanced at it and then met eyes. He'd felt sure she'd throw it in his face.

But she hadn't rejected his claim on her. Not yet.

A sound behind him. At first he thought she'd followed him out into the rain, and he twisted around, words rising from his tongue. I'm in love with you. I will do better. I won't hurt you again -

Eight swordsmen greeted him, weapons drawn, Tarut among them. There weren't many males that Conrad had to tilt his head to meet their eyes, but this was one of them.

Goddamn it, how could Conrad have been so careless? His senses had never failed him before. The demon could have walked up right behind him and sliced off his head, before Conrad would even have known.

"Will you trace, Wroth?" Tarut said, raising his voice over the rain. "Or fight?"

"Finally ready to die?"

One last battle, then. If Conrad was defeated, then maybe it would for the best. When N¨Ļomi left him, the memories would take over once more, and he'd be lost anyway.

Or if he won... She hadn't taken off his ring. If he won, he wouldn't let her leave him.

Let fate decide my future.

There were eight swordsmen against him, and he was weaponless. But Conrad would be fighting for her - because he'd vowed if he killed Tarut and rid himself of the mark, then she'd become his wife.

Things became simple. Kill eight; keep her forever.

Conrad's fangs sharpened. He ran his tongue along one, the blood like a hit of adrenaline. Obstacles stood between him and what he wanted. He sneered at the demons. They had no idea what they'd stumbled into. Eliminate the obstacles.

He charged the closest one. In a flash, Conrad's hand shot out, ripping the demon's throat from its neck. Blood spurt. In his mind, these beings kept him from N¨Ļomi. A surge of fury coursed through him. They were a threat to her very life.

Conrad reached the next one, grabbing it by the horns, twisting the head until vertebrae cracked. His fingers bit into the demon's thick skin, ripping the beast apart with his hands.

They'd dared bring death to his and N¨Ļomi's home... .

Rage erupted in him - never had Conrad felt its equal. And soon... he succumbed to the frenzy, doing what he did best.

As N¨Ļomi peered into the mirror at the two pinpoints of blood on her neck, she shivered all over again.

The bite that had given her such pleasure also spelled her doom. She'd never felt more connected to a living person, and once it was over, never more betrayed.

Now she felt only regret. Her anger with Conrad had been akin to chastening a beast of prey for hunting. He was a vampire; he'd bitten her. She knew he hadn't made a conscious decision to do it. He'd appeared confounded, appalled with himself as he'd grated, "I'm supposed to protect you from men like me."

She gazed down at the breathtaking ring he'd bought for her, but she couldn't bring herself to remove it. He'd told her to take it off if she truly didn't want to marry him.

But she truly did.

He wanted to put a claim of some kind on her and her future. She felt the same need for him.

Yet she'd already sensed that she'd be leaving soon. She didn't know where she was going, just knew it would be without Conrad.

Oh, who was she fooling? Leaving? She wasn't going on a trip. She was about to die. And she was afraid.

She drew away from the mirror to wait for his return. He'd probably gone to the folly again. She wished he would come back - the wind had begun churning, pelting rain against the windows.

Suddenly a deafening roar resounded over the property. "Conrad!" Oh, God, would he try to harm himself? She'd been so hard on him!

When she heard him yell in pain, she was on her feet in an instant, cinching her robe as she hastened for the door. Dashing headlong into the blustery night, she squinted against the rain, tracking the sounds to a clearing near the folly.

She drew up short at the sight of three mangled bodies on the ground. Five other beings, all tall and brawny, circled Conrad. His lips were drawn back from his fangs, baring them in his rage. Was he motioning for his opponents to come closer?

In a flash of lightning, she made out the black symbols on their bared backs. The Kapsliga.

They took turns lunging forward with their swords raised. Every time they lashed out, the circle would tighten, giving Conrad less space to maneuver. Why didn't he trace away?

When one demon sank his sword into Conrad's arm, he bellowed with rage, his fist shooting out. With a brutal hit, Conrad sent him spinning unconscious to the ground, snatching the demon's weapon as he fell.

With his uninjured arm he swung the sword down, decapitating the foe. Now he has a weapon. She was transfixed by the harsh lines of his face, by the savagery in his expression. When the dam burst, his eyes flooding with red, she knew he was going to kill them all. She would only hinder him. Though it went against every instinct urging her to help him, she began to back away -

Conrad caught sight of her. At that exact moment, she heard breaths behind her; an arm slid around her neck.

Tarut had N¨Ļomi.

Conrad tensed to trace to her, but the demon tightened his hold.

"Not unless you want your fragile human dead."

Can't get to her, can't reach her. She was wide-eyed in the rain, terrified. This is all my doing - all my fault!

She looked so small compared to the immense demon. If Tarut flexed a muscle, he'd snap her neck. In one instant, she'd be dead. "Ease your goddamned grip, demon - you'll suffocate her."

"Bad luck of yours to get a mortal for a Bride. They die so readily."

The rawest panic Conrad had ever felt surged within him. "Just hang on, N¨Ļomi." To Tarut, he said, "Let her go if you have any care for living."

"I don't think so, vampire." Two of Tarut's henchmen seized Conrad's arms, and he was forced to allow it. "You know what I seek. I'll never let her go, not until I get it."

Tarut wouldn't let her go until Conrad was dead. Through the deluge, he scanned the area, searching for options, for a kill. There were none.

He could see no way to remove this power from the demon.

N¨Ļomi was shaking her head, struggling to speak. "Trace away... " she gasped. So vulnerable.

"I'll vow to free her from the curse," Tarut said, "and release her tonight. All you have to give me is your head."

Rewards and obstacles. Reward: saving N¨Ļomi's life. Tarut would be bound by that oath to free her.

The obstacle? There was no obstacle. All I've ever wanted is life, she'd said. And because of Conrad's past, she was in jeopardy of losing it.

If he could sacrifice his life to save hers, he'd do it proudly.

"Conrad... no!" she cried, blinking through the rain. "Wait... I'm d - " The bastard tightened his grip, cutting off her air.

"Stop!" When she dug her little fingers into the demon's arm, desperate for breath, desperate for life, Conrad yelled, "Do it, demon - swing your blow. If you vow that neither you nor your men will ever harm her."

Tarut gave a solemn nod. "I vow it to the Lore."

N¨Ļomi was weeping, fighting... frantic for breath to tell him the truth.

In the tumultuous storm, Conrad stood with his shoulders back, so ready to meet death for her. Her struggles were making his expression anguished, making him impatient for the blow.

But it'd be for naught.

N¨Ļomi had only thought she'd known what intensity was in this man. Now she realized that his fiercest emotion was... love. It blazed from his eyes. And she knew he wanted her to see how he felt.

Yet then her sight began clouding as her dizziness increased. A fog seemed to slide around everyone, hindering her vision.

Still holding her, Tarut advanced on Conrad.

"No," she choked out. As the demon leveled his sword at Conrad's neck, she seized a breath. "I'm... dying anyway! Leave here!"

Conrad's brows drew together in confusion; Tarut swung his sword.

38

An instant before it sliced through Conrad, Tarut's sword - and the meaty arm that wielded it - dropped to the ground.

The hit happened so fast, what was left of Tarut's arm flew past Conrad's face, spraying blood.

Cadeon had struck Tarut from behind, lunging from the smoke demon's tracing to strike just in time.

At once, Conrad grappled against the two who held him, frenzied to get to N¨Ļomi. The clash of steel rang out over the pouring rain and howling wind as Cadeon's men engaged the Kapsliga.

Conrad's mortal Bride was in the midst of an immortal battle -

When Tarut twisted around to face Cadeon, dagger in his other hand, Conrad bellowed, "No! Tarut's holding her!"

But Cadeon had already given a jabbing thrust.

Tarut had used N¨Ļomi to shield him.

Time slowed; Conrad couldn't see her, but he could scent her flowing blood... . He could see Cadeon's shocked reaction as he drew back his sword.

The demon had run it through her.

"No!" Conrad roared, struggling frantically. "N¨Ļomi!"

When Cadeon raised his sword again, Tarut finally dropped N¨Ļomi to block the strike. Too late.

Just after Conrad spied Tarut's head thudding to the ground, he caught sight of her... collapsing into the mud... limp, eyes open and dazed, pooling blood from her mouth and stomach.

With a roar, he snatched out one Kapsliga's throat with his clenching fingertips. He caught the other one by the roof of the mouth to wrench his head back and off his neck. The other Kapsligas fled at the sight.

Freed, Conrad lurched for her, sinking to his knees beside her. "N¨Ļomi!" He clasped her body up into his arms. "You stay with me!"

She could tell the old madness was on the verge of reclaiming him. He was adjusting her sodden robe in jerky motions - as if to keep her covered and warm in the rain.

N¨Ļomi didn't want to look down. Strangely, there was no pain - only numbness. But the demon's expression had told her everything. The wound was a mortal one.

Cadeon turned to approach them. As he made his way, she dimly heard the others... .

"Cade did what?" Rydstrom yelled. "What the fuck did you say, Rök?"

"He's gutted the vampire's Bride," Rök said. "The leech is worthless to us now - you can't torture them any worse than this."

"I didn't see her," Cadeon told Conrad. "I never saw her."

She felt pity for him - after all, he'd saved Conrad's life. If only he hadn't taken her own.

Even N¨Ļomi shivered at Conrad's expression. With his eyes blazing red with malice, he said, "A thousand times over, demon. Anything you love will die." Then he traced her inside their room.

As he cradled her head, he mumbled his thoughts aloud. "Hospital. Where? A human hospital... " His eyes darted wildly. His face was beaten by the Kapsliga, his jaw swollen and lip busted. "You stay with me," he pleaded down to her in a tormented voice. "J-just hold on for me! Need to think... "

She wanted so badly to stroke him to comfort him, but her arms hung useless. I know this feeling. So cold.

Dying. Just as Nïx had predicted. On the day I told Conrad the secret, but not as they'd expected. Fate could be so cruel.

"Need to find a hospital... "

She shook her head as much as she could. She wouldn't make it to the hospital - it was too late for her. But she had to explain, so he didn't think this was his fault. "Conrad... was dying anyway."

"Don't talk!" His voice was raw.

Sounds were dimming. Blood left her body so swiftly, like it had just been awaiting the chance. "I called a witch... she came through... the studio mirror." Sight going blurry. "Made me alive... but only for a short time. Knew this... couldn't tell you."

"Your death was the deal with the devil?" He was quaking beside her. "And you got just two goddamned weeks?"

"Worth it!" She weakly coughed. "Love you."

At that, blood tracked from his eyes like tears... . But then his body suddenly grew still. "What witch, koeri?"

"Mariketa."

Clutching her to his chest, he traced them into the studio. "Just stay alive, N¨Ļomi!"

After easing her to the cot by the mirror, he found a blanket and pressed it to her wound. "My brave girl," he rasped, "you stay with me." Then he faced the glass. "Witch!" he roared. "Come to me!"

As he continued to yell for Mari, N¨Ļomi fought to remain conscious, wanting to tell him that Mari couldn't help, that he was getting his hopes up only to have them crushed. But with each attempt, she coughed up more blood.

"Mariketa!" He punched the mirror in a frenzy, battering his hand. "Come to me!"

When there was no response, he sank to his knees beside N¨Ļomi. "Ah, God, come to us!"

39

"Forgodsakes, lay off!" Mari's voice sounded from the mirror minutes later. "We're coming!"

N¨Ļomi cracked open her lids when Conrad sank down beside her on the cot. He gently cradled her head in his lap.

"Why do you always get to go first?" Mari's voice demanded.

"Because I'm bigger than you are," came Bowen's reply.

When the Lykae emerged from the glass, with Mari following, their eyes went wide.

Mari started for N¨Ļomi, but Bowen's hand shot out for her arm, shoving her behind him. After he scanned the area and scented the air, he turned to Conrad. "Who did this to your female?"

"Demon," Conrad answered, his voice hoarse from yelling. "Named Cadeon."

"That bastard!" Bowen snapped, drawing Mari to his side. "You should've let me smash him in the jungle!"

"Cade? Oh, Hekate, you can't be serious!" Mari hurried to N¨Ļomi. "So that's who's been trying to call me. It had to have been an accident."

N¨Ļomi weakly nodded, then coughed up more blood.

Conrad squeezed her hand too forcefully, looking to be teetering on the brink.

Mari's gaze landed on N¨Ļomi's neck. "You bit her. Did you see her memories?"

"No, it was just hours ago - "

"Then how did you know to contact me through the mirror?"

"N¨Ļomi told me after... after she was... Damn it, what does it matter? Just fix this spell, witch."

"I'm so sorry." Mari shook her head sadly. "I can't fix it. I told N¨Ļomi this going in."

"Heal - this - body."

"It's just a shell. Even if I could heal her, she'd just get killed again and again."

"If all she needs is a real body - I'll return directly!"

That's my Conrad. So intense.

"The conditions for the assumption of another's body are lengthy," Mari said. "Chiefly among them - the body has to be donated by its owner. Not, er, commandeered."

"Restore her old one. I knew warlocks who could revivify flesh, creating a body from a strand of hair." He was clearly trying so hard, struggling to say the right words. "You could do that with N¨Ļomi," he said, his voice breaking on her name.

Mari answered, "That's how they make soulless zombies."

Conrad said, "We have a soul, waiting right here." When N¨Ļomi felt herself becoming less substantial, he murmured, "Stay with me, N¨Ļomi. Please, baby."

"Embodying a spirit isn't a science. It's an art, and it'd be outside my skill set as it is, much less if I have to revivify her dead body as well. Normally, a witch would heal the body in one step, then implant the spirit in another step. Now you want me to do both at the same time? Even though I've never done either before?"

"Yes - you must!" Inhaling deeply for control, he grated, "A dream demon marked me. I think that curse had something to do with her injury. This happened to N¨Ļomi just before the demon was killed tonight."

Mari's eyes narrowed. "You mean a dream demon hijacked my subject to give you a nightmare? My mystickal signature was all over her. And some tool just ignored that?"

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