"Sebastian, grab his arms!" this Nikolai barked to one of the others. "Murdoch, get his damned legs!" As Murdoch and Sebastian rushed to action, she realized that they both resembled Nikolai. All three had the same grim expression, the same tall, powerful bodies.
Brothers. Their captive must be one as well.
They carried the bloody and flailing Conrad toward the front double doors. Blood in her home. She shuddered. She detested blood, hated the sight of it, the scent of it. She'd never forget how it'd felt to be bathed in her own, to have it thicken and cool around her dying body.
Hadn't Elancourt seen enough of it?
In a panic, she raced downstairs and shot her hands up, exerting an invisible force against the doors. She used all her strength to keep them sealed tight. No one could bust through this hold -
The doors flew open. The men barreled through her, making her shiver as though she'd walked through a cobweb. A gust of wind rushed inside, following them in to stir the leaves and grit coating the floor.
Just how strong were they? Yes, they were huge, but she'd held the doors with what had to be the strength of twenty men.
Once inside the darkened room, Nikolai cast a chain across the floor with no care for her Italian marble.
The lunatic broke free once more, making it to his feet. He was towering! He lumbered toward the door, but his bound ankles ensured that he careened into an antique armoire covered with a sheet. It collapsed under the impact. Crushed.
She'd had to dance two performances to afford that piece, and remembered lovingly polishing it herself. It was one of the few original furnishings that remained.
After Murdoch and Sebastian hoisted him out of the wreckage, Murdoch wrapped his thick arm around Conrad's neck, cupping the back of Conrad's head with his free hand. She could see that Murdoch was tightening this hold with all his might, his face drawn with the effort, the muscles in his neck standing out with strain.
Somehow Conrad was unaffected for long moments. Eventually, his thrashing eased and he went limp. While Murdoch laid him on the ground, Nikolai hastily affixed the chain to the same radiator he'd tested last night, then attached the other end to Conrad's handcuffs.
That's why Nikolai had been inspecting it? Because he intended to jail this lunatic here?
"Could you have found an eerier place to keep him?" Sebastian said between breaths as they all stood. At that instant, lightning crackled just outside. The high stained-glass windows were broken in places and cast tinted light, distorting the shadows within. "Why not use the old mill?"
"Someone might come across him there," Murdoch answered. "And Kristoff knows about the mill. If he or his men discover what we're planning... "
Who's Kristoff? What are they planning?
Nikolai added, "Besides, Elancourt was recommended to me."
"Who would ever recommend this?" Sebastian waved a hand around. "It looks straight from a horror movie." She wished he was wrong, but a bolt flashed then; hued shadows appeared to slither and pounce. Sebastian raised his brows as if his point had been made.
Nikolai's gaze focused on his brothers' faces, studying their reactions as he answered, "Nïx did." He hesitated, seeming not to know if they'd laugh, rail, or nod.
Murdoch shrugged and Sebastian nodded grimly.
Sebastian glanced around. "Raises my hackles, though" - another flash of lightning - "almost like it's... haunted."
Sebastian gets a cookie.
"And you know that's something for me to say. It's spooked Conrad as well."
Yes, because otherwise he clearly would be fine.
"The weather makes it seem worse." Nikolai ran his hand through his wet hair, then wiped his face with his shirttail. "And if there are spirits lingering about? You forget what we are - any ghosts would do well to fear us."
Fear them? No living thing could touch her.
"It's actually ideal because the place scares people away," Nikolai continued over another bout of thunder. "And the Valkyrie compound isn't far from here - not many from the Lore will venture anywhere near their home."
Valkyrie? Lore? She remembered a newspaper article a few years back on "Gang Speak." These men were speaking Gang. They had to be.
Murdoch said, "Perhaps the Valkyrie won't appreciate vampires so close to Val Hall."
Vampires? Not Gang? They're all mad. Mon Dieu, I need a bourbon.
"Is it even habitable?" Sebastian asked in a scoffing voice.
Nikolai nodded. "The structure and the roof are solid - "
" - and once we do some modifications, it'll be suitable for our purposes. We'll fix just what we need: a couple of bedrooms, a shower, the kitchen. I already had the witches come around today to do an enclosure spell along the perimeter of the estate. As long as Conrad's wearing those chains, he can't escape the boundary."
Witches? Oh, come now! N¨Ļomi moved to rub her temple, felt nothing, but was somewhat soothed by the familiar act.
In the lull, Murdoch cased the main salon, plucking at cobwebs. "Conrad knew we were going to be at the tavern."
"No doubt of it," Nikolai answered, crossing to a dirt-caked window to glance outside. "He was awaiting us. To kill us."
"Obviously he's gotten good at it." Sebastian patted his ribs in an assessing manner and winced. Looking more closely, she could see that they all seemed injured in some way. Even Conrad appeared to have been clawed across the chest by some beast. "He likes it."
Likes to kill? A murderer in my home. Again. Was he the same kind of man as Louis - one who would stab a defenseless woman through the heart? Tamp it down, N¨Ļomi... . The wind picked up. Control the emotion.
Murdoch said, "I suppose he'd have to, if the word about his occupation is true."
A professional killer?
"Finding him now... it couldn't come at a worse time," Sebastian said. "How are we going to manage this?"
"We fight a war, deceive our king, try not to worry about our Kaderin and Myst, all the while attempting to salvage Con's sanity," Nikolai replied evenly.
Murdoch lifted a brow. "And here I thought we would be busy."
The brothers began exploring nearby rooms, testing wood for rot and pulling sheets from furniture, examining their surroundings.
In the past, she'd been fortunate with those who'd occupied Elancourt. Nice families had come and gone, a few harmless vagrants. Nothing about these men said We're nice and harmless!
Especially not the chained murderer. He lay on the floor, blood collecting at the corner of his parted lips to drip down.
Drip... drip... A crimson pool was stark against her marble. Just as before. Tamp it down. Control it.
The madman's eyes flashed open. She couldn't warn the others! In the space of a bolt of lightning, he somehow shot to his chained feet, hobbling forward with unnatural speed. Before she could even raise her arms to exert pressure against him, he'd stretched the chain taut... the radiator was bending under the pressure.
He couldn't break it. Imposs -
Like a whip, it snapped free as he charged across the room for the door - the door where she stood. As she stared in disbelief, the radiator trailed in his wake, destroying everything in its wildly sweeping path.
Suddenly, the underfloor web of attached heating pipes burst up through the floor, foot after foot of groaning metal and exploding marble and splinters.
The three men dove for him once more, the pile of them skidding to a stop right at her slippers.
She gaped. Her home, her beloved home. In fifteen minutes, the madman had wrought more destruction to Elancourt than it had sustained in the last eighty years.
Her hands fisted. Control it. But her hair had already begun to swirl about her face, rose petals floating in a tempest around her body. Outside, the wind kicked up, streaming through the holes in the high windows, sweeping the grit and dust until she was able to see all the destruction.
The marble! When her eyes watered with frustration, rain poured outside.
Tamp it down.
Too late. Lightning bombarded the house, illuminating the night like successive bomb blasts. From under the pile of men, Conrad yanked his head up at her.
In a flash, N¨Ļomi twisted round, sweeping her hair over her face as she dissipated. Reemerging on the landing, she gazed down at him.
Conrad continued to stare at the spot where she'd stood, blinking and easing his struggles as if dumbfounded.
Had he... had he possibly seen her?
No one ever had before. Ever. She'd been so uniformly ignored for so long that she'd begun to wonder if she truly existed.
Up close, she'd been able to see that the whites of his eyes were... red. She'd thought he'd been injured, with burst blood vessels shooting across, but in fact, they were wholly glazed with red.
What were these beings? Could they truly be... vampires? Even in light of what she'd become, she still struggled to believe in anything supernatural.
With a shake of his head, Conrad frenziedly renewed his flight for the door, gaining inches, even as the three wrestled with him.
"I didn't want to have to do this, Conrad!" Nikolai said, digging into his jacket pocket. As the others pinned Conrad, he bit the end off what appeared to be a syringe and injected its contents into Conrad's arm.
Whatever it was slowed him, making him blink his red eyes again and again.
"What did you give him?" Sebastian asked.
"It's a concoction from the witches - part medical, part mystickal. It should knock him out."
For how long would it knock Conrad out? How long were they expecting him to stay here? To spit across her floor and roar within her halls? She'd be damned if she allowed another of Louis's ilk to taint her home once more! This Conrad was an animal. He should be put down. Or at the very least, put out.
She'd show these trespassers power like they'd never seen, sweeping them into the yard like trash! She'd toss them by their feet all the way to the bayou! N¨Ļomi would demonstrate what happened when a ghost went poltergeist -
"Where... is she?" Conrad grated between heaving breaths.
N¨Ļomi froze. He couldn't be talking about her, couldn't have seen her.
"Who, Conrad?" Nikolai demanded.
Just before the shot knocked him unconscious, he rasped, "Female... beautiful."
Dawn had come and gone, and still N¨Ļomi was reeling. Because apparently Elancourt was filled to the rafters with real vampires.
Any lingering doubt had evaporated when she'd seen the brothers vanish and reappear as they'd gone about repairing parts of the house.
And this wasn't even the most astonishing development of the night. When Conrad had said, "Female... beautiful," had he possibly been talking about her?
Now she could only wait impatiently for him to regain consciousness so she could find out.
He remained as the brothers had left him last night - lying on the new mattress they'd brought in for him, with his wrists chained together behind him, his muddy boots and the ankle restraints removed. His ripped clothing had dried, the material stiff with dirt. The angry red gashes on his chest had healed within mere hours.
She floated in a sitting position above the foot of the bed wondering how much longer he would be out. She'd thought all vampires would be comatose during the day, but his brothers were in and out downstairs, busily teleporting goods into the manor.
This waiting was unbearable. Because he possibly... saw me. Yes, no one ever had before, and, yes, this development was based solely on the idea that he'd deemed her beautiful. Maybe if he wasn't one to quibble about pink cheeks and the appearance of blooming health... ?
N¨Ļomi didn't necessarily seek an acknowledgment of her presence. She could float a sheet spray-painted with "Bonjour! from le spectre!" if she wanted bad attention, or a possible exorcism. No, she wanted to be seen. She yearned to converse.
The possibility of this meant that all her grand plans to evict them had evaporated, her rancor over the damage to Elancourt temporarily soothed. Now she wanted to keep them close - especially Conrad.
Curiosity ruled her. Why after eighty years of sporadic tenants had the blood-spitting vampire been able to see her? Why not his brothers? When they'd been chaining up Conrad for the day, she'd waved her hands, yelling as loud as she could. She'd even thrown herself through their torsos, to no effect.
Was Conrad able to see her because he alone had red eyes?
She stood to float from one peeling blue wall to the other. The brothers had unerringly chosen for Conrad the Blue Room, the most masculine of all the guest rooms. The heavy curtains were a deep navy, and the spare pieces of furniture - the bedstead, the nightstand, and a high-backed chair by the fireplace - were dark and stout.
Though she'd expected them to sleep in coffins, they'd put Conrad in the made-up bed. She'd also believed that even indirect sun would burn them, but the room was aglow with enough pallid sunlight to illuminate the dust motes. And when the curtains wavered from a draft in the house, light would encroach all the way up to his feet.
He turned over on his back then, reminding her how massive he was, his broad shoulders seeming to span the bed, his feet hanging over the end. He must be over six and a half feet tall.
She floated above him, tilting her head as she peered down. He looked to be in his early thirties, but it was difficult to tell with the mud and blood covering his face. With a nervous swallow, she concentrated and used telekinesis to draw back his upper lip, jabbing his nose before she got it right.
She saw a slash of white teeth gleaming against his dirty face and... unmistakable fangs. Just like in the novels she'd read long ago. Just like in the vampire movies the last young couple had loved to watch.
How had these men become vampires? Were they turned? Or born that way?
At that moment a loud bang sounded from downstairs. Though she dearly wanted to investigate what they were doing to her house, she feared Conrad would wake in her absence.
The brothers had already boarded many of the windows that didn't have heavy curtains, and had brought in folding chairs, mattresses, and sheets - even a modern refrigerator. The plumbing had been repaired in the master bathroom. Earlier, electricity had surged to life so abruptly that the lightbulb and fixture overhead had popped and shattered, raining glass.
She'd floated the shards off the prisoner, a good move because he now began to twist in the tangled sheets.
When his ripped shirt rode up a few inches, she noticed a thin scar beginning just above the waistline of his loose pants. How long was it? She waved her hand to tug the shirt farther up his torso. The scar continued. Nibbling her lip, she painstakingly manipulated the buttons until she could unfasten them all and spread the sides wide.
The scar nearly reached up to his heart. It appeared as if a razor-sharp blade had entered at his stomach and slashed upward.
When she could drag her gaze from the mark, she surveyed his bared chest. It was broad and generously packed with muscle. With his hands behind his back, those rippling muscles seemed to flex even at rest. His entire torso looked hard as rock, with not a spare ounce on him.
She wondered what his skin would feel like. She would never know... .
His pants waist sat so low that she could see the line of crisp, black hair descending from his navel. That dusky trail taunted her to ease his pants lower, but she resisted - barely.
The men N¨Ļomi had been attracted to in the past had been older and handsome in a soft, cultured way. In contrast, this male was all hardness and sharp edges.
So why did she find his battle-scarred body so attractive?
"Oh, wake up, Conrad," she said with difficulty. Speaking was an arduous undertaking for her - she often felt like she was trying to shove elephant-sized sounds through a pinhole. To her, the words came out echoing and extended. "Just... wake up." She wanted to jump on the bed or scream in his ear. If she'd had a bucket of water -
Conrad's eyes shot wide open.
He comes to. The light is murder on his sensitive eyes. Pain shoots through him. He grits his teeth against waves of it.
Get free. He fights his bonds. Limbs feel leaden. Drugged. Rage stabs him, the need to kill strangles him like clenched hands around his own throat.
How long have I been out? He remembers where he is. The manor - as forbidding as he'd sensed it would be. When he'd been in the car, the sight of it had made him sweat and thrash.
The feeling of being watched is multiplied here, the tingle on the back of his neck unrelenting.
He tenses. He'd seen... had he seen a spill of shining black hair as some female twirled round? Can't determine what's real and what's illusion. Before she vanished, he'd thought he'd glimpsed blue eyes going wide with surprise. He'd smelled roses and had seen a bared shoulder - slim and impossibly pale. Yet no one else had reacted to her.
Which means she can't be real.
Anything he sees that others don't is suspect. She's likely a figment in his mind from another's memory. Someone that he's drunk had known her as a wife, a mistress... or one of their own victims.
He strains harder against the chains. Nothing. Metal like this shouldn't be able to hold him. Unless... Mystickally reinforced.
Damn his brothers to hell! Why in the fuck would they bring him here? This place feels wrong, menacing. He doesn't know how or why. Doesn't care. Just know I have to get free.
Suddenly the smell of roses surrounds him. I'm not alone in this room. Though he sees nothing, there's another presence here. Is it the female from before? Was there a female before? He begins to sweat.
Something is inches from him, creeping closer... he could swear he feels warm breaths against his ear. He writhes, baring his fangs in warning. The need to kill seethes inside him.
From directly beside his ear he scarcely hears a voice. He can't make out the faltering words.
But he senses expectancy - a yearning that hits him in roiling waves. His head feels like it's about to explode. He's supposed to do something. "What? What?" He doesn't know... doesn't know what he's supposed to do...
He hates this need he senses.
"Seeeeee meeeeee?" the faint voice says. He jerks his head back and forth. Sees nothing.
He lunges upright, feeling a shock of something, like static electricity.
Conrad's body drifted through hers, making her gasp and him shudder.
He stumbled to his feet. Confusion appeared to mount within him. "Someone's here. Real?" His voice sounded even raspier than last night.
"Conrad, be calm," she said slowly.
His eyes glowed a deeper red. "Show - yourself!" Could he possibly be responding to her words? Or did he merely have some kind of vampire's sense that he wasn't alone?
With a low growl, he backed against the wall as he worked on the manacles. Finally he looped his bound hands under his feet to bring them forward. Seeming to relish the chance to fight, he intently scanned the room for an enemy, for a kill.
As N¨Ļomi hovered about him, waving her hand in front of his face, his eyes darted wildly, his head jerking right, then left. Frowning, she brandished her forefinger, stabbing his eye, passing straight through it.
He didn't blink.
She floated backward as if pushed. He can't see me. Heavy disappointment settled over her.
Beautiful female? Just the ramblings of a madman. She'd seized on the words no matter how unlikely they were because she'd been desperate.
The elation of the night had set her up for the bitterest disappointment. She gave one last frantic wave at his eyes -
He snapped his teeth, the sound like a bear trap; she reacted with a startled cry and raised her hands, shoving him away, sending him like a cannonball into the high-backed chair. When the chair slammed into the opposite wall, it collapsed from the impact, exploding into a cloud of splinters, tufts of upholstery filler, and plaster.
Battling to be freed from the shambles, he yelled in a foreign language, what had to be oaths. Yet he appeared to like the violence - or at least to be accustomed to it.
"Conrad... wait!" she managed to bite out. Where are the brothers? With their syringes? Yes, the three men were in and out, but they were never gone long.
Once he made it to his feet, he began tearing through the room, banging on the walls with his chained hands, knocking holes in the brittle plaster.
"Stop hurting... my house!"
He didn't. Instead, he snatched up the fireplace tools and swung them round, chucking them with so much force that the poker embedded itself into the brick of the fireplace, bobbing there. When his frenzied gaze landed on the defenseless nightstand, she said, "No closer."
Conrad charged for it. Without thinking, she swept him up to the ceiling. He closed his eyes tight, then opened them, seeming astounded to be still regarding the floor.
He thrashed and fought her hold. He was strong, and soon she was forced to drop him, more hastily than she'd intended - he landed flat on his face. When he rose, she saw that his forehead was gushing blood into his eyes and alongside his nose.
She hadn't meant to hurt him! "Dieu, je regrette!"
"Conrad!" Nikolai yelled from downstairs, appearing in the doorway a split second later. He swept a baffled glance over the chaotic scene. "What the hell are you - "
Nikolai never finished his question because Conrad swung his bound arms at him. As though hit by a battering ram, Nikolai flew out of the room and over the landing to the first floor.
Conrad charged out the door with a wide-eyed N¨Ļomi right behind him. Though his speed was still superhuman, he was slower than he'd been last night - even with his ankles free. They'd already weakened him drastically.