"What do you want with me, Mariketa?" Conrad Wroth said as he traced with his wife into Andoain's great hall.
As soon as Mari had been able to locate them - a feat in itself - she'd asked them here to meet with her and Bowen. "I need a favor," she said, beholding the towering, red-eyed vampire. The key.
Conrad was an immortal male, filled with evil - in the form of a vampire's blood-borne memories - and he was obsessed with Neomi, his phantom Bride. Who was asintangible as smoke.
Fortunately, Conrad owed Mari big-time. The ballerina Neomi, now one of Mari's friends, was alive only because of her.
"Name it, then," Conrad said, his Estonian accent pronounced.
"Well, it's like this," Mari began, "you know how Loreans have been abducted by this weird order of mortals? My best friend Carrow was among them. But I've located where they're all being kept."
Though Mari had been able to sense a cataclysmic Lore disturbance, she could get no second opinion or reading from other witches. She couldn't find Nix anywhere, so no backup from her.
In the eyes of the Lore, Mari's mystical waypoint was only a baseless hunch.
She felt like the plucky seismologist who'd seen a blip of untold strength but couldn't get anyone to believe the big one was coming.
"What does this have to do with me?" Conrad asked.
Bowen said, "We need someone to teleport me to Carrow."
"Us," Mari corrected. "Teleport us to Carrow."
Clasping her upper arm, Bowen said, "Damn it, lass! We have talked about this."
They'd been going round and round. Her wolf was nothing if not overprotective.
"And I will no' allow - "
"How did you find them?" Neomi interrupted, softly but sternly, her French accent coloring her words.
Mari said, "I detected the immortal energy within the place and was able to download the location into a mirror. Full disclosure: it felt like a freaking Lore world war was going on."
Conrad and Neomi both remained "uiet. At length, Neomi said, "You know how deeply we are in your debt."
Not even a year ago, Conrad had brought a dying Neomi to Mari. She'd risked everything to save Neomi, using more power than she'd had to give to transform her into a phantom, an immortal who could become corporeal or intangible at will.
"But this sounds like a suicide mission," Neomi continued. "If he can somehow trace to this energy you speak of, what if it's in the middle of the ocean, or in a sunny desert?"
"I firmly believe that it's on an island."
Conrad asked, "Can't someone fly over the coordinates first?"
"Nix told us it couldn't be seen from a plane," Mari hedged, since, of course, there were no coordinates. Which had hardly helped her prove her case to her immortal allies.
"Vampire, we need someone to get us on the ground," Bowen smoothly said, "so we can search the island on foot."
Mari added, "Conrad, it has to be you."
"How would he know where to go?" Neomi asked.
Mari carefully gazed away as she held up a small pocket mirror. Before this week, she'd never achieved so much magic with so little mirror. "I created a trail to the energy, like a portal, and stored the directions to it in this mirror. I believe if you gaze into the glass, it will act like a mystical GPS system to guide your teleportation." Patent pending if this badboy works! "It's possible you could trace directly there."
Conrad gripped Neomi's small hand. "If something happens to me, who will take care of my Bride?"
Mari hated to pressure him, but this was for Carrow. "Conrad, you wouldn't have a Bride right now if not for me."
The vampire gazed down at Neomi with such a consuming look that even Mari sighed. "I'll do as you ask, witch." Just when Mari felt a welling of relief, he said, "But I go alone. I can trace across the area much faster. Can cover more ground."
Bowen shook his head. "We doona know exactly what you'd be tracing into. Did you no' hear the Lore world war bit earlier? At the very least, you can expect those mortals to be there in full force."
"Alone," the vampire repeated.
"But how will Carrow know you are a friend?" Neomi asked him. "Your eyes are red."
Conrad was a true fallen vampire, his eyes bloodred from drinking victims to death. But he'd been brought back from the brink by Neomi and three stubborn Wroth brothers.
Mari said, "I could tell him something only Carrow would know. And show him pics so he'd recognize her."
"Are you certain, mon grand?" Neomi asked.
He nodded, saying simply, "Mariketa bids this."
"Very well." The dancer stood on her toes, reaching up her free hand to thread her fingers through his black hair. "Then bring Carrow back. And come home safely to me."
"I will return with her," he told Neomi. Then he faced Mariketa. "To pay on a debt so dear that it can never be settled."
Malkom woke late, blinking against a heavy bank of morning fog. He'd just dreamed a memory of Carrow's, one that he hadn't experienced before.
When he'd been in chains, humiliated in front of all the citizens of Ash, Carrow had looked up at him with realization. Malkom is noble, she'd thought.
He sat up, staring out into the gray mist, staggered yet again by her. In the past, he'd longed to be noble. He might not actually be, but for his lady to deem him so?
'Tis well enough for me.
Then his heart sank. She had thought that before last night, when he'd proved he was anything but.
Why could he not stop punishing her? Did he mean to take out all his pain on her, centuries of it?
He sank back, throwing his arm over his face. The things he'd said to her, the things he'd done. He'd revealed secrets he'd never told anyone - not even Kallen. And then he'd taken her in the dirt like a common whore.
He suffered from remorse so acute it physically pained him. Get to Carrow. Apologize. Make her understand. With those thoughts in mind, he rose and dressed, hastening to her.
As he came upon the cabin, the fog burned off, the sun appearing for the first time since their escape. Already it'd begun burning his exposed skin.
Shading his sensitive eyes, he saw that the door was open. Inside, the two witches were darting about. Packing?
His heart dropped to his stomach. Carrow was leaving him? He'd told her too much. I bared my soul, and of course, she found it lacking.
He grew panicked at the thought of losing the family he'd only just found, wanting to take back his careless words and actions. You've finally pushed her away, Slaine.
He strode up the stairs. Do not look at me as the others did, channa. He couldn't handle that from her, couldn't live with the fact that he'd spurned her and brought this upon himself.
She'd donned her sword and boots. It sounded as if Ruby was scurrying about in the back room. They truly were leaving him.
He swiped his forearm over his eyes and swallowed, wanting to say something, but he couldn't trust his voice. Then Carrow saw him standing in the doorway.
He didn't take a breath, dreading...
"There you are." She crossed to him, rising up on her toes to kiss him.
Once her lips brushed his, he groaned in relief, yanking her into him. He tightened his arms around her as he took her mouth.
She sighed, responding so sweetly.
Until they heard straining noises coming from the back.
Carrow pulled away with a sheepish smile. Then she called out, "Do you need some help, Ruby?"
In an exasperated tone, she replied, "I told you I could do this."
Hunched over and huffing with exertion, the girl dragged out the pack. She hauled it to his feet, then stood fully, placing her hand on her lower back. Her face was bright red from the effort. "I packed it for you!"
"Am I ..." He cleared his throat. "Am I to come, then?"
Ruby frowned, glancing from Carrow back to him. "Duh."
"What a great job, baby. Now, go grab a couple of lucky shells for our trip."
As soon as the girl had left, Carrow wryly said, "There might be a dead fish in there 'in case you get hungry.' "
Now that his panic had eased, his ire grew. "Where do you think you are going? The plan you laid out was for me to search."
"I had a premonition that something bad is coming here. I don't know when or how, and it could be hours or days. But we've got to leave. We'll keep to the trees to avoid the sun, and we can travel through the night, but we're running out of time." When he said nothing, she added, "Look, if you don't believe me, you can ask Ruby - "
"I will go with you."
He could see now that he had no choice but to go. Just as she'd said last night, the witch didn't have to wait to get home to leave him. She could do it just as easily here.
And he couldn't keep her and the little one prisoners forever.
Carrow's eyes lit up. "Y-you trust me?"
Malkom ... didn't. He'd finally realized he was incapable of trust - short of some kind of irrefutable proof that he was never going to obtain. But the alternative to leaving with her was losing her, so he would choose the lesser of two evils. He would make this leap. "I want to return to your home with you and Ruby."
"You're going to be so happy with us! I promise you."
While she was delighted, he was filled with misgivings. He'd been given too fine and good a female. One he could never believe would truly love someone like him. Fate's cruelest jest so far -
A clanging sound rang out. The pots hitting each other. Carrow's eyes went wide. His fangs sharpened.
"Ruby!" she screamed, sprinting outside.