As Nikolai lumbered to his feet, Sebastian stood on the stairs, arms outstretched. But Conrad planted his chained hands on the railing and leapt down, evading any contact. When he turned toward the front entry, he found Murdoch barring his way.
Nikolai yelled, "Conrad, it's impossible for you to leave! Damn it, the sun!"
What would happen to Conrad in the direct light of day? She gasped when he charged Murdoch, tackling him into the mahogany front doors. They wrenched one completely free of its hinges, flattening it onto the front porch.
Just before they surged into the morning sun, Murdoch traced back to the protective cover of the porch; Conrad continued. Should she try to stop him?
Nikolai started to follow, but Sebastian snatched his shirt and lugged him back to the shade. "He won't get far, Nikolai."
N¨Ļomi stood beside the brothers. Out of habit, she shaded her eyes as the four of them watched Conrad racing down the drive. I didn't mean to drop him like that. He must be so bewildered.
"He's going to burn," Nikolai said, sounding in pain.
Just as N¨Ļomi had, Murdoch put his hand to his forehead. "And then he's going to learn."
The sun sears his eyes as if they've been doused with acid. Fight on. The bayou is just down the drive, then across the road. He can scent the dark water.
His skin begins to burn. He grits his teeth against the pain.
Bayou just across the road. He can make it, could survive in the shade there. Flames growing.
He nears the property line. Gaining distance away from whatever entity seems bent on tormenting him. A being he can't see to fight, with no throat to savage. A disembodied voice had echoed all around him.
Almost there... Burning... burning...
Suddenly his sight goes black; a force shoves him back on his ass. Once his vision clears, his eyes widen. Crumbling blue walls surround him. He yells in disbelief. Confusion wells.
The same bedroom! He's in... the same goddamned room.
Crouched on the floor, he knocks his head against the wall again and again until the needle pierces his arm.
Something is happening to the patient.
Over the last week, N¨Ļomi had begun noticing an eerie awareness in those red eyes that wasn't there before, the blankness in his gaze receding with each day.
And she would know. She'd done little else but study him since his bizarre return, seldom retiring to her own room - her secret studio, hidden downstairs. Even now as Conrad lay in the bed once more, sleeping, she floated above the end of his mattress, continuing her vigil.
When he'd returned that first morning, he'd been raging, banging his head against the wall as if to blunt whatever was inside his mind. Plaster had snowed down on him and stuck to his bloody cheeks. Once the brothers had rechained him - tethering him to the bed this time - Conrad had been unreachable, drugged and muttering foreign words in his low, harsh voice.
To be fair, she would've been addled, too. One moment she'd been watching him running, the next she'd heard his unholy roar just upstairs.
No longer was N¨Ļomi the only one trapped here. Apparently, witches truly had put a boundary spell on Elancourt. As long as Conrad wore those chains, he couldn't cross the property line. The chains also rendered it impossible for him to teleport - or trace, as they called it.
N¨Ļomi couldn't put her finger on exactly when she'd first sensed a change in him. Whenever his brothers had spoken to him, Conrad had muttered incoherently, and yet she'd begun to get the feeling that he was... coherent. At least intermittently.
Sometimes it seemed as if he was trying to filter a million thoughts in order to speak only one, and that was why he had difficulty talking normally. On occasion, even his accent changed... .
He began twisting then, his head thrashing, no doubt caught in the grip of a horrific nightmare. Conrad routinely suffered them. With his fangs seeming to sharpen at intervals, he writhed, muscles straining, the chains cutting into his skin. She frowned. She didn't like to see that.
Even though everything about him should repel her, she found herself striving to be impassive. He'd destroyed parts of her house. He was a killer. He continued to have flashes of violent aggression. And he was filthy. His face was still coated with mud, blood, and caked-on plaster, his hair tangled in thick knots. Burn marks radiated over his skin and blackened his ratty clothes. When Sebastian had tried to wipe clean his charred face, Conrad had snapped his teeth at him so fast, Sebastian had almost lost his fingers.
N¨Ļomi should hate Conrad. So why did she find herself so drawn to this big male, with his terrifying dreams?
Because, like her, he knew the horror of being murdered? He might be reliving it even now.
Was Conrad merely a lost soul to be pitied? Or a man worthy of rescue? N¨Ļomi had never been very interested in Men Who Needed Saving. There were women enough out there for them -
At that moment, he jerked awake, his eyes darting yet blank. Arching his body around, he opened his mouth and sank his fangs into his own arm. With his brows drawn, he sucked slowly as if for comfort.
And her heart melted. "Merde," she whispered.
When he gave a short, ireful growl against his arm, she eased beside him on the bed. "Hush, vampire," she sighed, brushing his hair from his forehead with a telekinetic stroke. "Hush, now." He stilled, gradually releasing his bite to lie back and slumber on, as if he'd been soothed by her... .
Each night until sunrise, as the brothers attempted to reach him, N¨Ļomi floated about the ceiling, listening. Though she simply enjoyed hearing the rhythms of the men's conversations, she had also been learning much about these people.
They were from Estonia, a Baltic country bordering Russia, which explained their accents. Men from the Northlands. They'd been turned into vampires - three hundred years ago. Before then, they'd fought in the Great Northern War against Russia as noblemen officers, though eventually they'd wrested control of Estonia's floundering army. Each brother had become a warlord, leading the defense of a section of their country, under the ultimate command of Nikolai, the eldest.
At first, she'd remained in Conrad's room because she'd been hopeful about him seeing her. Now she stayed because she was intrigued by the crazed vampire.
His history was like an incomplete puzzle, and with each piece of it she received, the whole grew more riveting. He'd been highborn, but ultimately had used his military experience and his vampiric strength to become an assassin. He'd planned to kill his own brothers in retaliation for some deed she hadn't yet learned.
He'd been alone and friendless for centuries.
His past was so different from hers - with all the dancing and laughter and letting the good times roll - they were poles apart.
Yet with each revelation came more questions. He was obviously a powerful man, so what could have broken his mind like this? And how could he remain in bed day after day? Did vampires have no bodily functions?
Each night they'd brought a thermos from the new refrigerator to Conrad, and N¨Ļomi was fairly certain she knew what was in it. But exactly where did they get it? And since Conrad was refusing to drink the contents, how long would it be before he starved?
She'd watched him sleeping for more hours than she could count - why had he never once grown hard as men unwittingly did in sleep?
When dusk approached, and the brothers returned downstairs, Conrad's eyes flashed open instantly.
She crossed to the door, floating in it, so that half of her remained outside the room, and half was inside. Still she could barely hear them downstairs. But she could see Conrad's reaction and realized that he could hear them, even with the heavy door closed.
"After seeing him in this condition," Sebastian said, "I'm beginning to understand why none of the Fallen have ever come back from bloodlust."
"No one before has had the tools we do," Nikolai answered. "We've agreed to spend a month trying to rehabilitate him. If he shows no signs of improvement, then we'll do what must be done."
Conrad's listening to them. Intently. She wondered what he must be thinking.
"That was before I saw him, Nikolai. Maybe we need to... to put him out of his misery." Is he in misery?
Conrad's jaw clenched, and his expression grew deadly. Yet then his brows drew together as if he was considering the possibility right at that moment. When he frowned and closed his eyes, she felt a twist in her chest.
The vampire is in misery. And he's sane enough to know it.
Misery? What the fuck do they know of it? He shakes his head as if to jar loose the thought.
He easily hears them downstairs as Murdoch explains what he's learned about the Fallen, vampires who kill by drinking blood. "Loud sounds other than their own yells enrage them. Quick movements do as well - they react to them as if they're threats, no matter how benign. Being taken unaware would send one into a fury. Any sense of their own physical vulnerability triggers rage."
"Why don't you just explain what doesn't enrage them?" Sebastian asks.
There is little that doesn't, he thinks, just as Murdoch says, "That would be a short explanation."
He blocks them out, his musings turning to the mysterious entity again.
The being can be one of three things. He thinks. An echo from a fractured memory, a hallucination, or a ghost. He has nearly three hundred years of experience with the first two possibilities - and none with the latter. The first pair are figments of his twisted mind. The ghost would be unimagined.
Can't determine what's real or what's illusion. For the last week the being has returned to his room. He's begun seeing her again, though not as much as that first night. Only a faint, glowing outline now. But he can scent her presence. Even now, he's awash in the smell of roses.
Whenever she comes to him, so do flashes of his lucidity. He doesn't understand the connection, just knows he's beginning to crave the focus of his thoughts.
A mystery. How could a figment of his mind clear his mind? Even as he's debating her existence - he's realizing that something is actually making him coherent enough to fucking debate her existence.
Maybe the shots they keep forcing on him are helping.
He can't recall much of what happened the morning he'd tried to escape. But he thinks that she'd been trying to undress him and possibly had attempted to kiss him - before casting him about the room.
Yet the being never attacked him again. Usually she stays near the window seat. Though he has sensed her at the foot of his bed on more than one unnerving occasion.
For years, he's constantly felt as if he was being watched by something unseen - now he actually could be.
No. He sees shadowy figures every day. Why should he think she's different? Because she has a scent? Because, for the first time, he wants a hallucination to be real?
He knows there's a line between suffering from hallucinations and interacting with them. You can live with the former; the latter means you're lost.
Over the last century, he's held on to the last of his sanity by his fingertips. Acknowledging her might just be the weight around his ankles needed to drag him down.
Even as he knows this, he speculates about her constantly. If she exists, then she's a ghost. Weren't ghosts born of violent deaths or murder? So how did she die? And when? Is she even sentient? He's seen her eyes and her long hair. What does the rest of her look like?
Why are my goddamned thoughts so lucid around her?
His brothers sound as if they're about to come to the room. He doesn't want this. Each day the entity grows clearer as the sun sets and the room dims. But when his brothers arrive, she fades. He's realized that the uncovered new bulb above is too bright - the unnatural light obscures her. Darkness would reveal her to him.
It wasn't in the lightning bolts that he saw her that first night. It was in the dead black lulls between them.
Twilight's coming. Which means if his brothers will stay away, he would be closer with each minute to discovering what she looks like. He's hungry for the sight of her, hands clenching and unclenching behind his back in anticipation.
Am I reaching or does he seem much better?" Nikolai asked when the three traced into the room.
"He doesn't appear as... disordered," Sebastian said.
As if to prove them wrong, Conrad began to mutter unintelligibly in a language N¨Ļomi had never heard, his gaze darting to the window.
"Why don't you try to talk to him alone?" Murdoch said. When Nikolai nodded, Murdoch and Sebastian left.
Nikolai set the thermos on the nightstand, then pulled up a folding chair, turning it around to sit astraddle. N¨Ļomi loved it when men sat that way. His voice low, he said, "Where have you been, brother?"
Brother. She was still startled at the idea that Conrad was part of their family. Sebastian seemed determined and studious, Murdoch was quiet and mysterious, and Nikolai was authoritative like the general he was. In contrast, the madman was aggressive and struck her as dishonorable, as if in a stand-up fight between gentlemen, he'd fling dirt in his opponent's eyes.
"What do you want with me?" Conrad abruptly grated. "Why haven't you killed me?"
Seeming surprised by the interaction, Nikolai said, "That's not our intention."
"What is - to drug and starve me?"
Nikolai shot to his feet for the thermos. "I've some blood here. Will you drink?" He quickly opened the top and poured into the attached cup.
N¨Ļomi saw that the liquid was thick and dark. When it made a glug-glug sound, she wondered if it was possible for her to vomit.
"You feeding me blood." Conrad's tone was scathing. "How familiar."
Nikolai seemed to stifle a wince at that, but then he brought the cup to Conrad's lips.
Drinking. Blood. Conrad accepted obediently, drawing deep.
I want to vomit -
He spit a mouthful at Nikolai, hitting him in the face. Then he laughed, a rough, sinister sound. His red eyes brimmed with a hatred so virulent, N¨Ļomi believed that only death would cure it.
Nikolai wiped his face with his shirttail. When he seemed to draw on an unearthly supply of patience, N¨Ļomi felt sympathy for him. How much he must care for his brother to tolerate this. Nikolai didn't strike her as a normally forgiving male.
Of course, N¨Ļomi didn't bother hiding her disgusted expression. Strangely, when Conrad's eyes darted in her direction, she could swear he became more restless. Then his gaze slid to the window once more.
"Bagged blood is all you're going to get," Nikolai said. "If you don't drink it, then you go without."
"I hunt. I feed from the vein. Unlike you unmanned traitors," Conrad bit out, facing him again. "I know you hide me from your king. Your Russian king. He'll execute you for this - favored general or not."
"Possibly. So you know the risk we take."
"We want to help you - "
"Like you did last time!" Conrad bellowed, wrestling against the chain that trapped him to the bed, those tremendous muscles straining.
Undaunted, Nikolai continued, "We're going to help you combat your bloodlust."
"Never." Conrad's bloody fangs seemed to sharpen. "No one comes back. The red on my eyes will never go away."
"It would if I bled you out, drained you completely dry. But you'd only want to return to that state, killing even more than before. And you'd lose all the power you'd amassed."
"I know this!"
"Then did you know you can learn to control the memories if you're not constantly adding new ones?" At Conrad's mildly surprised look, Nikolai said, "We're aware of the memories. They're a sickness. You can't differentiate between those of your victims and your own. They make you hallucinate constantly, and your head feels like it will explode from them."
What did they mean? Conrad was sick? Was there an actual medical reason behind his madness?
"Yet what if you could turn them on and off, accessing them at will?" Nikolai asked. "How much better do you think your life would be without them tormenting you? If we can get you stable, you can learn to hold them at bay."
Conrad shook his head sharply. "I want blood from the vein. Only from the vein - "
"That's why we're going to help you find your Bride. Because there is one drive that's strong enough to compete with bloodlust."
His Bride? Did Nikolai mean the need for sex?
"And the need to kill?" Conrad bit out. "I savor it... ache to end you right now."
"Just as there's one drive that can overcome bloodlust, there's one need that's stronger than the need to kill."
"And what's that?" Conrad sneered.
Nikolai said only, "You'll know when it hits you."
Conrad glanced at the window yet again. "What are you injecting me with?" Sometimes when he spoke, he would hesitate as if even he couldn't believe he'd just sounded sane. He must have been mad for a very long time.
"A soothsayer got it from the witches for us. It's a sedative of sorts. It'll continue to weaken you physically, but after a few days, it shouldn't put you in a stupor."
Attention back to his brother, Conrad snapped, "You've no right to drug me!"
"We'll do whatever it takes," Nikolai said, with steel in his tone. "You were a good man and can be again."
"Not a man! No longer!" He ground his teeth. "I'm a killer, that's all."
"Most in the Lore believe you're lost. That the red automatically means we have no choice but to destroy you. I do not agree. Mark me, Conrad. One way or another, you will be cured of this," Nikolai vowed, his voice fierce, his gray eyes turning black, as if with emotion. No matter what had occurred, she knew that Nikolai indeed loved his younger brother. "We have resources at our disposal that you can't begin to comprehend."
Nikolai's answer seemed to be just cryptic and confident enough to intrigue Conrad. "And exactly how long am I to be jailed and drugged?"
"A month. We're going to keep you from killing for a month. If there's no change by then, we will... reevaluate."
Any interest in Conrad's expression dimmed. "I don't have that long."
"Why? What do you mean?"
Conrad didn't answer, seeming to go adrift in his own thoughts, his red eyes skittering in her direction again. She could have sworn he began following her movements, so she floated to the window seat. But he continued staring at the spot where she'd just been.
She saw the exact moment Nikolai knew he'd get no further, because he looked whipped with disappointment. With a grave nod to Conrad, he traced out, and seconds later, Murdoch appeared.
He turned the folding chair around and sat, leaning forward, elbows to his knees. "We've missed you, Con," he said quietly. This brother seemed weary to N¨Ļomi, like a man undertaking an arduous journey. And his expression constantly looked as if he'd just, at that very instant, determined he wasn't even halfway there.
"I know you hate Nikolai and me for what we did to you," he began. "But we can't take it back."
What did Nikolai and Murdoch do? These undercurrents, the tensions, the unspoken words - she had to admit all of this was fascinating to her.
"No matter how you treat us, Nikolai won't give up on this. Not until he's convinced you're beyond salvation."
Conrad smiled, his teeth still bloodied, fangs prominent - the most menacing smile N¨Ļomi had ever seen. As she shivered, he said, "Convince him then, brother. There's no delivering me from being evil."
When does the goddamned sun set in this place? He checks the sun's progress - no different from twenty seconds ago - then studies his brother's tired visage.
"Con, I can't convince Nikolai to give up on you, not when I won't," Murdoch says. "Just cooperate with us. Life can be good again."
Murdoch is much altered from how he'd been as a human. Back then, he'd been lighthearted. Women had found him charming, and he'd had few cares past servicing every pretty maid within a hundred-mile radius.
All I had was cares, no time for women, and a distinct lack of charm.
"Tell me what you've been doing these three hundred years. I haven't seen a glimpse of you since the night right after you died and rose."
He hates to be reminded of that. Swords in hand, he and Sebastian had been defending their four gravely ill sisters and father from marauding Russian soldiers. Two against battalions; they'd had no chance. Nikolai and Murdoch had returned home to find five dead from plague and two brothers mortally wounded, barely clinging to life.
Unconscious, he hadn't been able to fight off Nikolai when he'd dripped his vampiric blood down his throat. He'd woken a monster.
Neither Sebastian nor he had wanted to be turned, but then he'd had quite a bit more reason to resent the betrayal. Changed to the very thing I'd been conditioned to hate and trained to destroy...
"Don't want to tell me?" Murdoch says. "Then I'll leave tonight to dig on my own, now that I know what you were - "
"What I am. I'm still a killer for hire."
"Look at yourself." Murdoch seems to stifle his exasperation. "Who'd hire you?"
His face heats. "Fuck off, Murdoch." His brother makes him sound like a washed-up failure. Which he doesn't give a damn about - except that he doesn't want the female to believe this. The one who isn't real. The one I'm about to see.
Almost sunset... any second now. At the window she flickers in the last of the muted light. He begins to make out a more distinct shape.
"Very well," Murdoch says as he stands. "Con, you can resist us because you hate what we are or because you resent our actions. But don't fight just because you're prideful and stubborn." He gives a grin, a hint of the old Murdoch. "What am I saying? If you weren't prideful and stubborn, you wouldn't be Conrad Wroth." He traces out.
Shortly after, Sebastian enters and turns on the overhead light. The glare blazes, and she disappears.
"Turn it off!"
"My eyes pain me. Do it."