Shadowman's arms tightened around her. Touching her for the second time in her life. His skin brushed hers. His hair tangled on her shoulder. His breath was warm at her neck.
Their first union had led to this moment, when he had crossed to her world, disregarding fae laws so they could be together, to touch just once. They'd stolen time, defied Fate, and created new life. She had never regretted it. Not even now.
With the Twilight forest behind her, Kathleen looked on the world through a thickening veil. Her mortal body lay collapsed on the operating table, eyes glassy, unfocused. A doctor worked at her belly. His hand disappeared into her skin.
“. . . she's in asystole. . . .”
The doctor eased a small form out of her womb. The baby filled his palm, her skin tinged slightly blue and smudged with a whitish paste. Her face was scrunched, beautiful, while her pink tongue touched air.
Her baby. Her little love.
A wail rose in Kathleen's throat like gorge. She reached out her arms, straining toward her child.
Kathleen's fingertips grazed the mortal world.
But Shadowman held her tight against the wall of his chest. Into her ear, he said, “Forgive me.”
“Please let me hold her.” The separation from her child was a vacuum of pain in her chest. Every nerve screamed in protest. Her marrow burned while her skin went frigid. There was no heart pain like this scoring need, no injury or disease more vicious than tearing her from her child.
His lips moved against her cheek. “You know I cannot.”
How could he be so cruel? Did his cold fae blood spare him this pain? The child was his, too.
Kathleen turned to face Death, bitter recriminations on her tongue. Shadowman looked down on her, his gaze filled with sadness.
“She'll live,” he said. “Even so small, her lifeline is strong.”
“I want her. She's
. Don't take me now,” Kathleen said. But Death had walked by her side since she was born, holding back the Shadows. She'd always known that one day she'd have to cross. She'd known that bearing her child would part the veil. She'd fought for this very moment.
Kathleen whirled back to view the receding world. Maggie was standing sentry next to the nurse, watching her siphon mucus out of the baby's nose. Prick for blood. Enclose her in a preemie unit. Her sister looked back once toward the action at the operating table, face gray, eyes aged, but she followed the child out of the room.
“The babe is strong,” Shadowman said. “Like her mother.”
Kathleen would have crumpled to the ground without his firm hold. “I want to know her. I want to be with her. It's not fair!”
She trembled uncontrollably, gripping his arms for support.
Shadowman was quiet too long, and a new horror bloomed in Kathleen's mind. She went very still. “Is she like you? Or like me?”
The fae were bound to the Between world, the twilight Shadowlands. They couldn't exist on Earth, or cross Beyond, like humankind, to the Afterlife.
“She's both. A half-breed. Our daughter has a foot in each world,” he said. “No one knows what she will become.”
“So I may have lost her completely?”
“I don't know.”
“And when I cross, I'll lose you, too?”
His silence answered her.
Pain turned to rage. Strength surged within her. “Nuhuh. No way. I'll have you both.”
“I warned you before.” His face was in her hair, and she knew he was memorizing her. Taking everything he could before he passed her on to the Hereafter. The trees around them were already stretching into a dark tunnel to oblivion. They had only moments left.
“Yeah, well, I'm not going to accept it.”
She felt a sad chuckle against her body. “Your spirit has always awed me.”
“I'm not letting this happen.”
“It has already happened.” He took her face in his hands, traced her lips with his thumb. “It is the way of the three worlds.”
Kathleen shook her head. “I was supposed to die when I was a kid, and I lived to bear my own,” she said, “so I think I can handle this. What we need is a plan.”
“How I love you.” His gaze searched her face, fierce longing tugging at his black eyes.
“The most important thing first: You look after our girl. Keep her safe.”
Just uttering those words sent fresh pain roaring through her.
He put a hand to her chest, as if to stop the hurt. “Shhh. Yes. How could I not?”
Faery whispers rose on all sides. The air thickened with magic. Kathleen felt Shadowman shift, drawing his cloak around her. They turned together to face the dark canopy, the tunnel to forever. A bright spark glimmered in the distance. The Afterlife.
Kathleen steeled her nerve. “And I'll find a way back to you both.”
Twenty-eight years later
Firelight dazzled Shadowman's eyes. Acrid smoke scorched his nose, throat, and lungs. His hands were blistered by his work, the muscles of his neck and shoulders knotted with strain. But no matter; what Kathleen suffered was far, far worse.
How could it be that she, of all mortals, had been consigned to Hell?
Channeling all his strength, he brought the hammer down and rang the anvil with the force of his blow. The note held, high and piercing, reverberating throughout the cavernous space of the New Jersey dockside warehouse. White sparks flew from the glowing hunk of iron and winked out in the depths of his fae Shadows, now churning around him.
Filtering through his memory, a scrap of talk from the fateful meeting that changed everything, her soft voice laughing with irony:
Fancy you being afraid of me.
Yes, fancy that.
And yet he'd been present nearly every day of her life, the veil between life and death made whisper-thin by her weak heart.
It had begun simplyâthe soul fire of Kathleen as a child had been golden bright, drawing the curiosity of many of the fae, even him, the darkest of them all. For how
that her soul should burn so bright when her heart was so very compromised. A moment in the presence of her warmth, and Death was transfixed.
He'd watched her grow, fight and cry, watched her grit her teeth as she willed her heart's rhythm into the beat of life.
And in spite of that ongoing labor, her dreams had been more vivid, more controlled, than most other humans' sojourns into Twilight. In dreams, she'd directed him into elaborate schemes of great daring in her imagination. She was a master of the sword, and together they vanquished evil, she never stopping for breath or blood.
And if Shadow had sent nightmares to terrorize her sleep, he had commanded peace. Nothing would harm her while he was present.
At first she wished for a magic cure, of stars and fairy dustâthough no fae, not even him, could ever heal the flesh of a human. Her hopes later fixed on a handsome doctor, who promised miracles he also could not deliver. And so time passed.
Then one dark, hopeless day, the woman Kathleen turned her gaze toward Shadow, the knowledge of her fate in her eyes. And her gaze fell on Death, her childhood Shadowman, still watching from across the veil. He'd been more transfixed than ever.
Death afraid of a mortal woman. Yet, for her, he had then and would now again dare anything. Shadowman focused on the timbre of her voice, the light humor, and heaved the hammer upward again. He concentrated himself into his grip on the shaft and jarred Shadow with another sharp, hot strike. The iron flattened, tapering just so.
I wish we could talk,
she'd said as she worked at her painting. Art had been her solace, and what else would she have painted but Twilight, the faery world on the other side of the shadows. Her pale profile had gleamed in the wan light of her bedroom. Her tone was filled with warmth. A voice across time. An echo in the dark.
After all, what harm would it be to speak with her? She was so close to passing from the mortal world regardless. Why not cross that divide first himself? Let her see him, really see him, before all chances were lost? Shadow was so cold; Kathleen was radiant. What would it be like to
that warmth, just once?
Shadowman rotated the hammer in his grip to use the tapered head to shape the end of the spear, the decorative tip of the vertical bar to the gate he forged. It needed to be razor sharp, all violence and cruelty, as was the nature of the haunt to which the gate would open.
Please touch me. I want to feel something real while I can,
And so he'd crossed when he had no call to do so. He had broken a cardinal law of nature and trespassed where he did not belong. For Kathleen.
Mortals view Death as they conceive him: ghoul, priest, demon. Kathleen had made him her dark prince from her fairy tales, even knowing his true natureâthe Grim Reaper. His duty for all eternity was to transport souls across Twilight to the Hereafter. Yet, even as she'd fought against that inevitable passage, she'd embraced him. Bid him come closer, her emotions coursing through Shadow and into him. Her intent was a revelation. Her touch changed him. Changed everything.
He grasped the wooden haft of the hammer tight, but he could feel her soft mortal skin under his hands again. The satin glide from the slope of her waist to the swell of her breast. He stroked his thumb in the hollow at the base of her throat, then followed with a brush of his mouth. Her back arched. Heat flared between them, a fire for the ages, far beyond the sear of his forge. His death-tuned senses had perceived the clamor of her heartbeat, and now he held the memory of the wild rhythm in his head and used its passion to strike the glowing piece of metal on the anvil.
Together they had created a child, Talia, now a woman with a family of her own and a strong protector by her side. Talia had fought a nightmare scourge of wraiths to come into her own fae power.
Now there remained only the second part of Kathleen's last wish, to find a way back, a way to be with them both.
Death thumbed the edge of the metal with his other hand, found a slight thickening, and lifted the hammer again. Taking a deep breath, he gathered his intent, focused his mind on the object of his creation until he shook with power, then brought the tool down. . . .
The shadows stirred.
Sudden weakness diminished him.
The hammer slipped from his grip and clattered to the floor.
Shadowman panted, dismayed, as he regarded the hammer. It was hard enough to create and sustain the corporeal form of a human body. But to hold the hammer,
hammer, took all of the power, will, and memory within him. The tool had been created by angels and was near unbearable to a fae's touch.
The last time he'd dropped the thing, it had taken him hours to lift it again, and by then, the fire had died. He gulped the smoky air and roared at the heavenly object.
“Sorry,” a voice said.
Fae Death brought his head up and jerked around to find Custo, the angel who'd given him the damn hammer in the first place. Custo always seemed to be present when Death needed him, but most especially when Death did not. Like now. Custo's olive-gold skin was lined with veins of Shadow, which meant the angel had the power to cross through fae Twilight to any other place on Earth, including this warehouse. But it was the angel's light that had banished the death shadows just enough for Shadowman to lose his grip on the hammer.
Too late, Shadowman detected the even beat of the angel's mortal heart.
Damn the boy. What does he want now?
Shadowman tugged on the shadows hovering like storm clouds around the angel. Immediately the darkness delivered an echo of Custo's emotions: Curiosity was dominant, but anchored by determined control and personal conviction, though what that conviction was, Shadowman could not fathom. The fae could sense feelings, but thoughts were the purview of the divine.
Bare-handed, Shadowman lifted the spearhead from the anvil and plunged it into the glowing coals of the forge. The fire leapt into red-gold curls, but the skin-crackling burn did not signify. Not as Death finally let cold Shadow take him, succor and restore him.
“What do you want?” Vitality pulsed through Shadowman's form with old magic. As always, he could not escape the distant call of his discarded scythe, the hoary blade clamoring from the twilight Shadowlands to be lifted in place of the hammer.
No. Never again. He was done with death.
Custo crossed fully from Twilight into the mortal world. His pale inner light pushed the darkness of the room back, revealing the scarred floor, old piles of discarded rope and rotting crates, the dingy windows of the warehouse. “I . . . uh . . . came to see . . .”
Shadowman knew the moment Custo's gaze hit the gate. Death watched the angel's eyes narrow in examination, then widen in horror. Custo stumbled backward, his fear pervading the space. Shadowman could taste it, bitter and sharp, could smell it, rank, could feel the terror that made Custo shake.
“Oh, God,” Custo said, breathless. “What have you done?”
Death crouched to protect the hammer where it lay on the floor. He brought his deep cloak around, as if the fae folds could possibly hide something divine. Custo could not have the hammer back. Not when the gate was so close to completion. Not when he was so close to Kathleen.
“You told me yourself that she is not in Heaven,” Shadowman said. “And you gave me the hammer. What did you think I would do?”
Custo shot him a look of acute alarm, his green eyes deepening to black. “It was a favor. I didn't know what your purpose was. I can read only mortal minds.”
Shadowman could sense the angel's inner conviction transforming into a pressing intent to act. The shadows of the warehouse floor roiled as Custo added, “The fae are, as usual, utterly obscure and insane.”
“Fae Shadow runs in
blood now.” Death drew on the silky darkness, sucking the magic into his being, though Shadow could not possibly help him lift the hammer. Lifting the hammer took concentration and time. Shadow was a different kind of power, impulsive and sudden.
Custo sighed. “Yeah . . . well . . . I guess you have a point.” From an affectation of easy stillness, he leapt, the fae ascendant in the blackness of his eyes.
Death twitched a finger, and midair, the Shadows struck Custo down with a sickening head crack to the concrete floor. The boy would have been much better off using his angelic gifts. Shadow would forever and always obey Death first, even the small portion of it that ran through Custo's veins.
Custo brought a hand to the floor and grunted as he pushed himself up. “Be reasonable.”
Reasonable? There was no such thing. Not in a universe that had consigned Kathleen to Hell, when
been the one to rend the boundary between the worlds.
broken the law that bound the fae to the Other side.
stepped into her room to view her painting. To speak with her. To touch her. If anyone was at fault, it was he.
Shadowman grabbed at the hammer. His hand passed right through it.
he thought, and tried for the hammer again. The tip of his finger budged the shaft slightly. So close . . .
Shadowman thought of her pale face, her gold hair, her violet eyes, but it was the memory of her smell, tinged with the chemical musk of her paints, that helped him close his hand around the grip of the hammer. He forced all his strength into his clenched fist. Mass, that contrary mortal magic, had always defied the fae.
Custo stood, shaking his head, and regarded the gate again. “You can't think for a moment that The Order will suffer that . . . that . . .
?” Death mocked, standing again.
“The Order would call it an abomination.”
“And what would you call it?”
“Seriously fucked up.”
Shadowman gripped the hammer, a tool of the angels. With it, he could forge the gate. Barbed and brutal, the gate's only decorative element was a few spare flowers, the kind that could grow in the harshest, darkest clime. Three wrought-iron, triangular petals were folded close to guard the core. The blooms were his desperate hope, a symbol that Kathleen could endure beyond, her soul bearing the empty pitch until he could find her.
“Are you going to tell them?” Death asked.
“I'm part of The Order,” Custo said. “The angels can read my mind. I couldn't hide this if I wanted to. And I don't. We've had enough trouble dealing with the last forbidden passage you created between the worlds. Wraiths are still plaguing humankind. There's a war out there. Don't open up a way even more dangerous.”
Shadowman glanced at the gate.
the gate answered, trembling on its posts. The gate had been talking to him like that since it had been mounted.
And he knew he could not wait to retrieve Kathleen from Hell. There was no higher purpose in her presence there that he could fathom. No order or justice to her damnation. He broke the law, but Kathleen suffered in Hell. There was nothing to do but fetch her back.
“Look ahead, if you can,” Custo said, the green forcing out the black in his eyes. His urgency, thick and pungent, saturated the shadows. “I beg you to look ahead.”
Shadowman gripped the hammer tighter. The gate was nearly complete. Soon, very soon, it would be ready. The fae existed in the now, the present moment, but he could see that far into the future.
The gate already clamored to open.