“You have nothing to fear,” he said.
Yeah, right. The whole world had just turned upside down.
A screech sounded behind her, and she turned as a car jockeyed to get ahead of a bus. Bumpers touched, scraped, crumpled while a wave of traffic poured through the intersection, a light turning green. Cars collided with earsplitting force, and a Chevy suddenly fishtailed, its hulk careening toward her position.
Layla's senses foundered as darkness broke into the world around her. Faraway screams of alarm warped in the air, and she had a sickening sense of displacement. Attachment to her body seemed suddenly tenuous, the exotic, woodsy scent again filling her head. She was drifting, separate, her tether to the world loosened.
And then she was standing on the sidewalk beyond the accident, Khan's arms around her. It felt so good, so right, against him, as if some part of her could finally rest, while her nerves vibrated with excitement. A new sense of street orientation was slow in coming, so she clutched at his arm and managed a breathless question. “Magic?”
His answer was an affirmative low growl. The tightness of his returned embrace told her that he was deeply disturbed by the sudden danger as well.
“I thought you needed a magic mirror to get from one place to another.”
“No,” he answered. “I didn't want to scare you the first time you touched Shadow.”
“Still scared, though.” She panted with shock, trying to recover her equilibrium. The accident involved no less than five cars, but the speeds hadn't been great, so the only lives at risk had been those of the bystanders, most particularly her. Close call. If not for Khan, she could have been seriously hurt.
The strangely perfect people who'd been watching them had disappeared, though the sidewalks weren't so busy that they could melt into the crowd. It was as if they were never there. She'd have dismissed them from her mind entirely, and even had a niggling inclination to do just that, if not for Khan holding her tightly, proof that magic was all around her. That was twice she'd been transported now, and she didn't feel drugged.
Layla swallowed hard as she watched people emerge from their cars to check the damage and yell at each other with wild gestures. “So this magic thing?”
“It's everywhere in the world?”
“More so than ever.”
“And everybody just goes around oblivious?”
Except, maybe, me?
“Most are aware on some level.” She felt him lower his head to her shoulder. “Each must experience it for himself or herself sooner or later.”
“I want to know everything. I mean
.” The blood now pumping through her veins had way more to do with this incredible revelation than with her near miss. This was huge. Way bigger than the wraiths. This was her life.
“You will learn if you stay with me.”
He chuckled softly against her, the movement teasing her wayward senses.
She didn't see what was so funny. This knowledge was momentous. She could not conceive of going through another day without a full understanding of this unbelievable power and its influence on the world. On her.
She gripped the arm he'd circled around her waist and glanced over her shoulder. “Do it again.”
Khan got them as far as her neighborhood, and then they walked the “little ways down here” to her home while he responded to her rapid-fire questions.
How did you learn to use your power?
Do you cast spells?
Can you do anything else?
Like what, for example?
Kill a person?
Kill a wraith?
Guess lotto numbers?
What are those?
He didn't elaborate on the nature of Shadow; she'd see it soon enough for herself and he didn't want her to fear him. Her continued regard was already wearing away his power, and he had been weakened to begin with. If he wasn't very careful, very controlled with his appearance, she would know Death.
She spoke her thoughts with her questions. “. . . I get the secrecy thingâI mean your kind has been burned at the stake and drowned and who knows what other horrible deathsâbut do you blame us? Well, I guess you do, but still . . .”
Khan didn't correct her mistaken assumptions. No fae had ever been killed by fire or water; those were mortal deaths. The fae existed out of time and place and could not do anything as transformative as
Her street was lined with buildings of ugly gray or red brick. Attached were metal landings ascending the exteriors, each connected by deathly narrow stairs. The area lacked soul, the spark of creativity, but at least it seemed clean. It smelled better than many a human road he'd traveled in his time.
A small scrap of a park opened up across the street. A group of little girls in heavy coats sat in a circle around a blindfolded child who waved her arms to locate one of her playmates. The children forming the circle chanted:
Dead man, dead man, come alive
Come alive by the number five
One, two, three-four-five
Dead man, come alive!
Again, the human preoccupation with immortality. Did it start so young?
Layla heard it, too. “Can you bring someone back from the dead?”
Khan withheld a bitter laugh at the irony of the question. Kathleen had come back from death, hadn't she? Her soul burned bright right beside him. And then there was the devil, escaped from Hell, now at large. “It is possible to return into mortality, but none are the same as they were upon their passing. Death is change.”
A yellow vehicle, garish for the gray day, waited in front of the next building, its back lights an impatient, glaring red. Toward this building, Layla turned, saying, “This is me.”
She stopped at the door, mumbling, “Crap. My keys.”
No doorway had ever blocked Khan from his quarry. A twitch and push of Shadow and the door swung open.
“Damn handy,” Layla said, her wonder mixing with her unease. Already she was growing accustomed to the idea of magic. The human adaptive capacity was staggering. The rapid pulse of change would shred many a lesser fae. No wonder few could hold on to the form of a body long in mortality.
Layla marched up the stairs before him, took the short hallway on the second floor to a door that already stood open. She rushed inside. “Ty?”
Two mortal heartbeats accelerated within the apartment. A myriad of emotions flooded the air, most of which Khan didn't like. One in particular he found he hated, which was a revelation.
“I was hoping I'd catch you,” a strong, male voice said. “If we could just . . .”
Both Layla and “Ty” looked over at Khan when he entered.
Ty was in the full power of youth and physical maturity. Eyes clear, blood thick, the light of his soul shone with purpose and self-assurance. He took a step back from Layla, which proved he was intelligent, too. “Sorry. I didn't know you had company.” Ty's tone suggested extreme irritation, but the emotion coming out of him was now distinctly one of hurt.
Too bad. “If you could just
A dark, near-violent sensation hummed beneath Khan's skin, but he could not name it. It quickened his Shadow heart, though.
“Speak with her,” Ty answered. His shoulders went back as he drew himself up.
“Khan,” Layla said with a note of warning. “This is my friend.”
Ty glanced back to Layla. “Friend? Three years and that's what I am to you?”
She shook her head in frustration. “I want to talk, Ty, really I do, because there are things to say. But I can't right now. I'll call you as soon as I can.”
A muscle in the boy's jaw twitched. He jerked his head in Khan's direction. “Are you with him?”
Layla scowled. “Not like that. He's just an informant for my story.”
“Your story. So you're still out there trying to get yourself killed? Fine.” Ty heaved a sigh, but anguish still poured out of him. “Don't bother calling me until this is over. Then maybe we'll have something to talk about.”
Ty stepped toward the door, and Khan allowed him to pass, his estimation of the mortal now at dust. Layla said nothing but watched while Ty turned the corner out of the apartment. Her silence followed the tread of his feet down the stairs and only broke when the downstairs door slammed shut.
“You didn't have to be a jackass,” she said.
“Get your things.”
But her chin dimpled with fury. “The last thing I want to do is hurt him any more. So thanks.”
Her reasoning was insane. “You seek out wraiths, and he leaves you to do the work alone? If he cared, he'd be by your side to see that you do not get attacked on the street, dragged into an alley, almost raped, almost killed. And you don't want
to get hurt?”
Layla's mouth compressed with obstinacy. “He didn't know where I was, or what I was doing.”
“By his own admission, he had an idea. And he left you to it.”
“It's not his job to shadow my every step.”
That's right. It's mine.
She swiped a hand across her eyes. “And I'm my own person. He's tried to stop me, but I felt that the story needed to be told. I can't seem to let it go. Leaving was his way of taking a stand, of showing me how much he lovesâ”
“Don't.” Khan couldn't bear for her to finish the sentence. There was no defense for such inaction. How long had she braved the deathless ones alone? She'd have been dead and “Ty” would have preserved himself. “Get your things. We go.”
“Fine,” Layla bit out, leaving the room. Khan stood fast against the gale of anger behind that short word and almost lost cohesion as he battled for control. He'd been weakened by the gate already, and by Layla even more so.
An enlarged but blurred image of Talia was pinned to Layla's wall, and its presence steadied him. Amid the clutter of her life, the urgency of her story about the wraiths, Talia was at its center. Talia, her daughter. Talia,
daughter. The thought cooled Khan and allowed him to shift his gaze from the picture on the wall to take in the rest of her home.
Papers and books littered every surfaceâtable, couch, counter, floorâwith an odd empty pocket here or there, the places for her body as she worked. There were few personal touches. A framed photograph caught his eye. The image revealed the break of dawn reflected on a worn, urban doorway, the citrine colors of morning simmering on its surface, making new what was old, regardless of the peeling blue paint. An artist had to have snapped this shot, one with the vision to thumb her nose at Time as she captured a moment of magic. It was signed Layla Mathews, but it bore the stamp of Kathleen's soul.
What was she doing following wraiths when she should be at her art?
A sudden cry brought him swiftly into the room. A large bag, spilling with possessions, sat on a messy bed. Layla was on her knees on the floor, her head in her hands, breath hitching, broken. She screamed again as a loud, metallic
sounded. The molecules of the room shuddered outward from a point of impact: her.
What wasâ? No!
Her scream devolved into a low moan as Khan gathered her into his arms and threw his head back to curse Heaven. The angels had no idea what they were doing. They rarely did. And the bitter irony was, Khan himself had given them the means to Layla's destruction.
What Rose needed was a good deed. A big one. Something to prove, should she be caught, that she didn't belong
. Because she didn't. She'd been forced to take care of some rather ugly business from time to time, but that wasn't her fault. She had a right to defend herself, didn't she? A good deed would prove once and for all that she was good, because that's what she wasâgood.
First thing, though, she had to wash the blood off her handsâthose women at the Walmart were just
âand then find Mickey. According to the newspapers, twelve years had passed, but she was sure he'd been faithful. Would probably be at home in Macon, missing her. Mourning her. On the drive down, she'd make a plan for a good deed on a far larger scale than what had transpired at Walmart. And how selfless of her, too, because others might not understand what had just happened and
her instead. Selfless, that's what she was, especially since she was so plagued by the rattle in her head.