They did. Two hours later, Conrad decided that speaking to his brothers with roughly twenty thousand dollars' worth of whiskey in his belly wasn't so awkward.
When Nikolai and Sebastian wanted to know what had happened to Conrad in the past three centuries, he told them. When they asked about N¨¦omi, he found himself proudly relating his wife's accomplishments. "You've never seen a woman dance as she does. And she'd bought that property by herself - an unmarried woman in her twenties." Even to himself, his tone sounded impressed.
"Chains, drugs, and brute force couldn't control Conrad," Nikolai began in an amused tone, "but a tiny ballerina is domesticating him with ease."
"What are you going to do about her mortality?" Sebastian asked.
"Search for a way to make her immortal." When they gave him uneasy expressions, Conrad said, "I know the odds, but that's a more likely scenario than me following wherever she would go after death." Conrad finished his drink, then contemplated the bottom of his glass. "Do you not think of our sisters when you're here?"
Nikolai and Sebastian shared a speaking glance.
At length, Nikolai said, "We're bringing them back. We have the means to retrieve them from the past. Not to change history, but just to return with them to this time."
Conrad narrowed his gaze. Was Nikolai jesting? "How?"
With utmost seriousness, Sebastian answered, "A mystic's key."
Conrad flinched at the word key.
Sebastian topped off their drinks. "A goddess named Riora gave me one turn of it for the sole purpose of reuniting my family. I know for a fact that it works."
If skeptical Sebastian said it worked, then it did. "And you'd thought of returning my past self as well?"
"Yes, the offer still stands," Nikolai said. "Think of it, we could clear your eyes of the blood completely. And take away all the memories that plague you."
"And what would happen to my present self?"
"You'd fade," Sebastian said.
"I knew you'd had an ace up your sleeve." No wonder his brothers had been so confident about Conrad's recovery. "But I'm not interested."
Nikolai steepled his fingers. "You wouldn't want to be human again?"
Sebastian added, "No more red eyes, no more blood drinking."
Conrad shook his head. "And no more strength to protect N¨¦omi. I need it to keep her safe. If history wouldn't be changed, then I'd still have the same enemies after me - and now her." Conrad drained his glass, hating this reality of their lives. "Why didn't you just do it? Why go through all the trouble of capturing me?" Especially when he'd been spitting blood at them and trying to murder them.
"We wanted you to get stable enough to make the choice," Nikolai answered. "We would've been taking away your immortality. And you would have lost your own memories from the last three hundred years as well. It was a major decision." In a lower tone, Nikolai said, "I didn't want to make the same mistake twice."
"There was no first mistake," Conrad said firmly. "You made a fated decision, and I'm in your debt."
"Good. Then you won't mind helping us raise the girls."
Christ, their sisters actually would live again. He'd get a second chance to know them better. Hell, N¨¦omi could teach them to dance. He grinned, shocking his brothers. "When do we go back for them?"
"Once Murdoch returns, we plan."
Conrad opened his mouth to speak, then froze. Something's wrong. A chill slithered up his spine. "I'll return," he said, immediately tracing back to Elancourt.
Straight into fire.
N¨¦omi had been dreaming of floating and walking through walls again. But now she wanted to wake because her breaths had begun to taste of... soot?
She couldn't seem to get enough air, coughing with each smoky inhalation. And in the haze of her mind, she perceived fire all around her, thought she smelled the flames and felt their heat.
A fire! Why can't I wake?
Feeling so dizzy... she needed clean air... .
At last, she was able to crack open her eyelids. She blinked them in disbelief.
The room was choked with thick smoke. Flames licked the walls and crawled across the bowing ceiling. The boards above her whined under the strain.
Conrad! He was here? Through the flames between them, their gazes met - just before a beam snapped and a portion of the ceiling collapsed in front of him.
With a yell, he lunged for her to trace her away, but returned to the same spot empty-handed, as if his arms had wrapped around only air. When he failed at it a second time, he dived into the fire, tearing away the blazing timbers to reach her.
Why did he look so stricken? She wasn't hurt - hadn't even a scratch. In fact, she felt nothing. No perception. Dim.
Then she glanced down. No, no, no... Her body from her waist down was buried under the burning wreckage from the ceiling. It should be crushing her. Why am I still conscious? Where was the pain?
Then she realized...
I died... again?
N¨¦omi was in her incorporeal form once more, wearing her old black dress and jewerly -
A thunderous rending above her drew her gaze. With the ceiling gone, she could see that the roof was sagging in pockets. The enormous rafters began to snap, one by one. Jagged wood hurtled down like spears, hammering into the floor.
Still grappling to get to her, he dodged them.
One caught him, stabbing into his body, slamming him down. A split second later, the roof crashed over him, shrouding him. With a shriek, she found herself rising through the debris covering her, floating admist the fire to get to him.
She couldn't find him, couldn't see! Then... she spied blood pooling out from under a pile of debris, the liquid reflecting the flames, boiling and popping.
Tonight Cade found himself in a familiar spot - sitting on the edge of a downtown apartment's roof. His female's building neighbored this one, and her top loft and private rooftop pool were readily viewable from this higher vantage.
Cade hadn't intended to come here tonight. He'd just needed to.
He gazed over at her balcony. And there she was.
His Holly. She was a math geek who wore glasses, no makeup, and her blond hair in a conservative bun; she was sexier than any female he'd ever known.
But as ever, he scratched his head at her antics. She was cleaning an already spotless apartment. Mystifying human.
She'd expire if she saw his place. Just another example of how unalike she and Cade were.
Holly was scholarly - he was deadly. Every aspect of her life was strictly organized. His idea of a day's schedule was wake, eat a few meals, do things, sleep. And any of those were optional.
She didn't even drink. He took a swig just then.
Was she having company over tonight? Her tosser boyfriend? Just as his claws dug into his palms, Cade heard footsteps approaching.
Bloody Rydstrom. His brother had found him. So much for keeping my visits secret.
"What in the hell are you doing up here?" Cade demanded.
"I ask you the same," Rydstrom said, treating him to a look of unmitigated disappointment.
I've never seen that one before.
"You told me you wouldn't come here anymore."
"Fell off the wagon," Cade muttered.
"Humans are forbidden to us as mates for a reason. If you haven't gotten that through your thick skull before, then you certainly should now. The accident with the vampire's Bride is exactly why mortals and immortals should never mix."
Cade narrowed his eyes. "Are you sure N¨¦omi's even dead?"
With a nod, Rydstrom said, "I checked with Nïx."
Why did mortals have to die so easily? The smallest sword thrust had ended the girl forever. She hadn't deserved to die like that.
"If she's dead, then that vampire is out searching for something of mine to destroy." Cade glanced around them. A thousand times over, Wroth had vowed. Cade would be signing Holly's death warrant to approach her right now.
"So you have even more reason to resist her," Rydstrom said. "You have to forget her."
"You think I haven't tried?" Cade ran his hand over a horn. "You think I don't know how bad this looks? I'm stalking a girl, a human who's millennia younger than I am."
"Then it's fortunate we're leaving this town for good. Nïx has given us one last means to destroy Omort - a job to complete. This is our final hope to reclaim my crown. She's adamant about that."
"What's the op?" Cade asked, though he didn't give a damn. He'd agree to anything to take his mind from what he'd done - and from what he was tempted to do with Holly. Even Nïx hadn't foreseen his crazed plans for her.
"We'll receive instructions within the week. Just be ready to move quickly."
Cade exhaled. "I'm always ready."
"Again, brother, this is it - our last chance. I have to know that your head is in the right place."
"I said I'll be ready," he snapped. "Whatever it is, I'll get the job done." Cade rose and gazed at Holly.
For a last time.
With a lingering glance at his female, Cade dropped from the roof.
No sooner had Cade disappeared into the night than Nïx emerged from the stairwell to join Rydstrom. "And how did he react?"
Rydstrom glanced at her, evincing no surprise that she'd found them. "You don't know?"
"I'm ever-knowing, not - "
"Yes, yes, not all-knowing." Rydstrom sighed. "Cade's vowed to do his duty."
When Holly came back into their view, Nïx's golden eyes fixed on the girl and her pupils dilated. Tilting her head, she asked, "And if he finds out N¨¦omi still lives?"
"Lying to him sits ill with me," Rydstrom said. "You're certain I can't tell him?"
Nïx faced him. "I've gone over and over the decision trees. Billions of outcomes all trace back to this decision fork - tell him or don't. It must be this way."
"So you've seen my future?"
"Some of it," she said. "And it's a doozy."
"Tell me," he said, waving her on.
"Rydstrom, you really must learn to ask. In any case, I've got somewhere I need to be. A mystery will be revealed to me tonight, and I can hardly wait."
"You can't leave me like this! And what if we need to get in touch with you?"
She grinned at him, but her eyes were growing vacant, her mind already somewhere else. "Greedy demon, there's only so much Nïx to go around."
If N¨¦omi had died again, then that meant she had the power to save him.
She could move things with her mind once more. With a wave of her hand, she easily tore through the wreckage, following Conrad's trail of blood. Two waves of her hand had the roof section covering him hurled up and out into the yard. He lay unconscious, pinned by that jagged beam.
As delicately as she could, she began extracting it from his body. Even unconscious, he yelled in pain. She was hurting him, but she had no choice. Flames still advanced from all around them. The entire structure of the manor was quaking.
Inch by grisly inch...
At last! She freed him of it. Finally able to escape the blaze, she traced him outside under a great oak to shelter him from the raining embers.
She couldn't feel them.
Floating beside him, she assessed his wound, shocked at how swiftly he was still losing blood. "Conrad! Please wake up... tell me what to do to help you!"
He'd said he couldn't die from an injury like this, but his paleness terrified her. He needed blood. Without thought, she put her wrist to his lips.
She gasped. Oh, m¨¨re de Dieu... She felt herself growing corporeal once more, gradually, from her arm out, like an accumulation of form. She perceived the dew on the grass and the bayou breeze.
How can this be?
Conrad's instinct took over, and before she could blink, his fangs had closed on her flesh like a brand. His sucking was as dizzyingly provocative as she'd remembered. When he groaned against her skin, she nearly swooned with pleasure.
Too soon, he released her with a last lick. In moments, he was able to open his eyes. With a husky murmur, he said, "For that... I'm willing to be staked nightly." When he opened his eyes, his gaze flickered over her body, over the familiar black dress they knew so well. "You were a spirit again. But I just tasted... flesh and blood. What happened?"
N¨¦omi could feel the bite mark on her wrist was already beginning to mend. I don't know what I am. She whispered, "I just changed. I don't understand it." They stared at each other for long moments. Out of the corner of her vision, she saw flames stretching high into the night sky. Smoke funneled out of the windows and chimneys. Heat reached all the way to them. "I'd realized something was wrong with me, but - "
"Nothing's wrong with you!" he said vehemently, already able to sit up.
"Then what am I?"
"I don't give a damn. As long as you're with me."
"I give a damn! What if I get stuck in that spirit form again?" She hated that weird ghostly half-world. She'd nearly forgotten how alone and echoing and faded it felt. "I wouldn't be able to hold you when you're injured or sleep against your warm chest. Or have sex with you. And I want to - a lot! And I'm so sick of this damned dress!"
"So that's what you are," a woman cried from the oak above them. "It all becomes clear!"
They both glanced up. Nïx sat perched on a limb, with her sword strapped over her back.
"Up there all along!" Conrad bellowed, immediately grimacing and clamping a hand over his side. "And you didn't think to help us?"
Nïx stood and alighted from the limb as though stepping from a curb, landing without so much as a sound.
"What became clear?" N¨¦omi asked, her tone tinged with fear. "What am I?"
She saw Conrad swallow and knew he wasn't sure he even wanted to know.
"You're one of those powerful Lore phantoms I was telling you about. Though your aging process was accelerated by a few centuries. Good timing, too." She furtively pointed at the manor, saying in a stage whisper, "Just between me and you - your spirit anchor is on fire." An explosion sounded at that moment, and glass shattered out from all the remaining downstairs windows. "And, yes, I did plan for that blast to punctuate my words."
"Phantom?" Conrad rubbed his forehead, smearing ash there. "Spirit anchor... ?"
N¨¦omi explained, "Nïx told me weeks ago that I might become like a Lore phantom if I lived long enough as a ghost. Phantoms can incarnate at will, they can trace, and they can move things with their minds. And they don't have to remain in one place where their spirit is anchored. But it would take possibly five hundred years for me to gradually grow a body to incarnate with. Evidently, Mariketa sped up the five centuries."
Wide-eyed, Nïx said, "Yes, clever, clever Mariketa - a spell maker and a rule breaker! There's a reason Mari is my favorite Wiccan-type person."
Conrad said, "I still don't... What are you talking about?"
"Mari broke the House's rules, or rather, she bent them. Witches are not allowed to create immortals." She faced N¨¦omi. "But in theory, you were an immortal already. So Mari gave you a body, which jumpstarted the phantom aging process. And somehow she managed to add a touch of Lore blood to activate the transition from human to Lore being. Maybe the vampire cut himself as he was frantically fetching mirror shards for the witch's spell? I dunno."
Conrad grated, "Is she part vampire?"
"No. Your blood was merely an agent, a facilitator. Even Mari can't make a female vampire."
"No wonder she was so nervous," Conrad said. "She knew what she was going to try to do going in."
"Yes. You owe Mari much. Though she didn't break the letter of their laws, she broke the spirit. She could be punished severely for this if others find out - even branded as a rogue for what she did. In short, Mariketa the Awaited will not be listing you as a reference, and you should send her a nice card for Beltane."
"Does this mean I can change back and forth anytime I want?"
"You're a shape-shifter between life and death," Nïx answered. "Concentrate on disembodying."
N¨¦omi focused. When it worked, Conrad listed to the side before righting himself. "Sorry, mon grand!" She attempted making herself whole once more. Again, gradually, she grew corporeal.
"But, N¨¦omi," Nïx began with the gravest severity, "whenever you disembody... " She paused as if deciding how best to deliver tragic news.
"Yes?" N¨¦omi whispered. Conrad was holding his breath.
Nïx finally finished, "You will be... wearing that dress."
N¨¦omi and Conrad groaned.
"Just think of it as your alter-ego-wear. Cosplay of sorts, with your rose petals and goth-looking face. Speaking of alter egos - I think we should call you the Incarnatrix. Maybe give you a spotlight beacon."
"I'm immortal?" N¨¦omi said in disbelief, as all this sunk in. "And a part of the Lore?" That realm N¨¦omi had loved so much.
"Yes. No more getting capped, unless you get beheaded in your corporeal form. Naturally. In your spirit form, you can't be killed at all. Your species is very envied within the Lore. You're powerful, yet with few vulnerabilities. Well, gotta run. I have at least four more appointments this evening. My job as Proto-Valkyrie and Soothsayer Without Equal is as crucial and involved as you'd think."
N¨¦omi said, "But I have so many questions... ."
Nïx sighed. "I'll give you a prediction because I'm benevolent. And because I didn't get you a wedding present." Dramatically waving her hand in an arc above her, Nïx breathed, "I can see it now." Then she met their eyes. "No. Really. I can see it now."
"N¨¦omi - wife, mother, and owner of the only Lore ballet academy in this plane. Conrad, adoring husband and father, who still slips into the crazies now and again but works hard to get past it. He'll be throwing a mantrum every time you go to girls' night out, sweating with white knuckles until you return, but he'll get better with each year."
N¨¦omi frowned. "We'll be parents? Can I... can we have children?"
Conrad squeezed her hand. "N¨¦omi, it doesn't matter - "
"I'll check my sources to be sure." Nix peered up, brows drawn as if she was thinking back. When she was actually thinking forward. Then she winced. "Ooh," she murmured with distaste. Another grimace. "Oh, now, that's not nice!"
Conrad's lips parted. "What in the hell are you seeing?"
"You'll have children, all right," Nïx said, her tone grim. "And that first set of twins... " She shuddered.
"First set?" Conrad said with a cough, looking dumbfounded. "What did you see?"
"What didn't I see. I'll give you a for instance - any time you try to give them a bath, they either hide in the walls or sink their baby fangs into the door so you can't pull them away. And the pranks... don't get me started on the pranks. Auntie Nïx will be unavailable to sit for those two decades."
N¨¦omi said, "They sound... delightful?"
Nïx's tone softened. "Happily, they grow up to be strong with clever minds and proud hearts." She eyed them both. "For now, I'll be expecting you both on the front line this Accession." She started away.
"Wait!" Conrad said. "Did someone... did one of my enemies set this fire?"
Nïx turned back with a grin. "Unless you'd pissed off some wiring-hungry nutrias, then I'm going with no." She disappeared into the night.
Stunned to silence, N¨¦omi and Conrad sat together on the ground, staring at her home of more than eighty years, blazing in the night.
When tears began to course down her face, Conrad reached over to brush them away. "Koeri, I'm so sorry about the house."
Yes, she was crying, but not for the reason Conrad believed. There's nothing wrong with me. No wonder she hadn't felt like a human or a ghost - she was a bit of both. She was overwhelmed because she was so relieved.
I'm an immortal now.
She surveyed Conrad's face, noting that his color was already returning. He'd swiftly heal his injury and be back to normal soon.
We're going to be together. And have terrible, terrible little children.
When the first wall of Elancourt collapsed, she started laughing. Flames were consuming her home, and all she could think was... let it burn.
"N¨¦omi?" Conrad cast her a concerned expression. "Why are you laughing?"
She felt freed, ready to embark on the rest of her new life. "Because I'm happy."
"This is going to be one of those times when your happiness baffles me, isn't it? You told me this was your dream home."
Dreams can change. She knelt before him. "All that matters is that we're together. And now that I'm immortal, if we play our cards right, it'll be forever."
His brows drew together, as if the truth of that hit him just at that moment. "But you loved this place."
"I did. It was everything to me. Before, when I had nothing else."
In a dry tone, he said, "This does resolve the problem of how to expand the studio."
"Exactement." She smiled, cupping his face with her hands. "We'll take our time rebuilding, have fun with it. Apparently, we have all the time in the world." She leaned in to kiss the vampire she loved.
With a grin against her lips, he murmured, "At least until that first set of twins arrives."