Almost midnight, All Hallow's Eve
Jack Shaussegeny lost himself in the rhythm of the djembe, the skin-covered hand drum his best friend Professor Patrick Welsh--expert in African tribe ritual and ancient demon lore, and resident witch doctor--played. The pain in Jack's body didn't bother him this night. No, he'd followed every phase correctly. The ritual had to work!
This night, the genetic defect that resulted in a weakened state of bone and muscle and led to an overall decline in vitality during middle age would no longer plague the men in the Shaussegeny family. Jack would no longer have to live his life as though everything that made him alive would end tomorrow. His wife had understood his need to feel strong and vital--she'd forgiven him his transgressions and stood by him time and time again.
But no modern miracle would save him. He'd accepted that when his doctor announced he'd contracted the genetic defect of his forefathers and would soon see its ravaging effects upon his person. His only escape would come by summoning the magic that lived in Woodcutter's Grim.
To a certain extent, Woodcutter's Grim citizens realized that this town was unlike any other. Whether unconsciously or subconsciously, they all knew of the evil presence that stopped time, made it fly unaccountably, turned day into night, or even shifted to alternate time periods while the evil went unchecked. That and unpredictable weather anomalies were warnings to all that evil held sway. All Hallow's Eve, of all nights, citizens stayed behind locked doors--and didn't answer a knock for any reason.
One and all, the people who lived here had also come to accept that evil delighted in coming to them in fairytale forms to catch them off-guard. Citizens stayed because Woodcutter's Grim was their home and had been a haven to them for generations. They accepted the evil like a dark secret that came to life when mentioned--and most knew better than to speak of it. "The telling of horror could be the conjuring of it," was an oft-spoken monition, no doubt started by the Protectorate--the guardians of Woodcutter's Grim who shielded the townsfolk. They were the chosen few who safeguarded the Portal between time and space... and held back the evil that spilled through it into the cursed woods and beyond, into their midst and, of late, into the world past its borders.
But Jack wasn't willing to play by the rules that had been passed down through countless generations of families who called this place home. If he could forge an alliance, he could save himself. Save his son and his son's sons.
At the rapid drumbeat of the summoning ritual, Jack recognized the time had come. He held his hands high and cried out the spell:
God of the woods,
I summon thee.
Heed me and come forth!
Do my bidding
and henceforth from this day until the end
will my family and yours be allies, yea, even friends.
The rhythm intensified and he cried out again, but the only voice that answered came from behind him.
"Jack, no!" his wife Catherina cried as she rushed into the clearing with their grown son Gavin following behind.
"Not like this," his son reproached.
How had they known what he was up to? Unless they'd seen the remains of the cleansing ritual he'd performed just before he and Patrick came out to the deepest part of the woods. He should have realized the two of them would understand the significance of the ritual and this sacred area of the forest.
"Come away from this cursed place," she begged him.
"For pities' sake, step into the circle of protection!" Patrick cried in alarm, pushing his drum out to make room for all of them. "You must, now!"
"You can't do this, Father," Gav said, standing firm. "You can't expect evil to befriend you. Evil needs no allies, only willing participants."
Jack shook his head. "The Protectorate wants you to believe that. They have no power, but we will have power."
Gavin's young wife suddenly ran into the clearing, panting and holding her swollen middle. In alarm, Gav turned from his father to her. "Darling, I told you not to come. You shouldn't be here."
Her eyes glowed with stubborn determination. From the first time Gav had brought her home, Marnie had seemed to understand Jack in a way few others could. "I had to, Gav. We're a family. We have to face this together. If there's any way our son can escape this genetic curse..."
Her belly was full of her first child--a son. A son who would inherit the defect that had taken everything from Jack's father, his grandfather... And would soon take everything from him and his own son in his time.
"Jack, no. What will become of us?" Catherina moaned, and Gav rushed to gather his mother and wife into the protective circle Jack and Patrick had both drawn under the moon and stayed within.
Jack followed the direction of his wife's horrified gaze. The full moonlight spilled down into the clearing and there before them, illuminated, was the Portal in the center of the limestone megaliths that bore a striking resemblance to the Druids' Altar in Ireland--a structure undisputedly out of space and time, presumably materializing in and out of various dimensions at different times. The portal dolmen, a swirling mass of blackness that lived and breathed, was believed to be the point of origin, where evil and reality met and merged. Out of that entrance stepped a fearsome creature of evil. Twisted and gruesome, it was something borne of a fairytale nightmare. All of them shuddered at the sight of the monster transforming before them. The shape-shifter roared its murderous displeasure, striking the five of them straight to the heart and turning their blood into water. In horror, they huddled together inside what Jack had believed was a circle that would protect them from supernatural evil. He wasn't so sure anymore.
"Mortal who summoned me, come forth!"
Jack moved to stand before his family, just inside the circle, assuming a confidence he no longer felt in the presence of this demon. "I summoned you, god of the woods. Jack Shaussegeny has beckoned and bound you, creature. And now do as I bid thee. Bless the Shaussegeny family, one and all, for time unending. Make us strong and powerful, in body, mind and spirit. In exchange, we offer our unending allegiance."
"Jack, you can't," Catherine whimpered once more when Jack dropped to his knees and lifted his hands in humble supplication.
The creature snarled, its whole body contorting and seeming to enlarge and strengthen before their eyes as it grew ever more hairy and hideous. "You would seek a blessing, pitiful mortal. You would seek an alliance with evil and would bargain for your will. Very well. Harken to me: From this day forward, the Shaussegeny name will inspire fear, trembling, yea, even loathing in those who hear it. You long for strength and power in body, mind and spirit, and you shall have it. Yet each generation, one and all, will suffer this curse: The moon in each of its phases will change you into creatures of the night--my dark children. This shall be your rightful form, and you shall suffer greatly when you resist your true nature--the nature of the beast. Outside of Woodcutter's Grim only shall you be unable to take on your rightful form, but you will endure agony all the more for it, indeed to the threshold of death. Only by being what you are and giving yourself over to your predatory nature will you thrive and be strong. None shall resist you.
"Though I do your bidding, do not think me ignorant, mortal. Because your name has long been synonymous with faithlessness, even unto your own chosen mates, I add one more curse upon your family: Only one chosen mate will be allotted to each of your kin henceforth. The chosen one for each will be protected by one of my own offspring, a thing of darkness, which shall be sent ahead from birth to prepare the way. These chosen mates must also fall under the family curse, but these pairs will know true peace only when they become one with their true mates. Herein lies your salvation--and your damnation. Only if each of your clan remains faithful to their chosen mates in word and deed for all of their days will they have blissful contentment. Apart, mates shall be restless and forever unsettled, gripped by a sadness and despair unlike any other. Additionally, a terrible fate will come upon the one who breaks the mate covenant.
"And now there is but one manner in which this multi-faceted curse I have pronounced upon you and your family, one and all, for time unending can be broken and obliterated entirely: That beauty falls in love with the beast and vice versa, that evil loves good and good loves evil. If this should happen, your family shall be released from each aspect of my curse and your alliance with evil shall be ended."
A blast of moonfire spilled out of the Portal, drawing the snarling creature back inside before the black mouth closed. Light waned, then died entirely. For a moment, the clearing was thrust into darkness. For the first time, Jack felt bloodcurdling fear. Above, the moon rose high in the sky and a curious tearing, a remaking, sensation took over his limbs.
"What's happening?" Catherina whispered, holding her arms out in front of her as if they pained her. "Jack..."
"The curse," Patrick exclaimed in awe, his gaze moving over each of them in the throes of their agony.
Jack understood and cried out his joy. The curse, his blessing, had come to pass as soon as the creature uttered its binding contract and disappeared. Power such as he'd never experienced flowed through his limbs. He was becoming strong, virtually indestructible. His family would never again suffer. They were saved. Surely all generations of Shaussegenys would praise him for his wisdom and foresight...
New York City
Thirty years later...
"Danielle is pregnant. I don't know how this came about, Heather. I honestly don't. You have to believe I never intended for this to happen. I don't want to lose you..."
The words spun in Heather Rowe's head like a song that played itself over and over. She'd turned on the stereo, tried to block Eddie's pleas out and drink herself into a fog. Tried to feel something she didn't--never had, never would. Not about him.
I'm stupid. I didn't say a single word. Just stood there, like a deer frozen in the headlights. "...don't know how this came about..." I didn't even comment on that. He'd been cheating on her again--with his secretary, a woman he couldn't seem to give up no matter how many times he claimed to love her. Love me.
Heather had met Eddie her first year of college where they'd both pursued a degree in law. Eddie dropped out early to move into software development, which better suited his lack of ambition and need to sleep until noon every day. Just after that, she'd found out the hard way that she wasn't the only woman in Eddie Underwood's life. She'd met her polar opposite in his receptionist, the shapely Danielle, by walking in on the two of them enjoying a "break" on Eddie's desk. Heather forgave him within a week after he promised to sever all ties with his illicit lover--even going so far as to fire her.
Even with her head firmly buried in her beloved sand, Heather had known in almost no time that the relationship wasn't over. Yet she hadn't done anything about it. I'm pathetic, like Mom. Too scared to be alone in this world. She couldn't be alone because she felt worthless if someone didn't love her. Love her, use her--she didn't see any difference. I can't be alone because...
Standing, Heather weaved her way drunkenly across the living room of the top floor luxury apartment she'd rewarded herself with when she'd made partner at her prestigious law firm, Avery, MacMillian, Tatum and Rowe. At the wet bar, she poured herself another drink. She never drank, had never been able to tolerate the effects it had on her despised delicate constitution.
Heather rubbed the growing throb in her forehead. Blinding headaches had plagued her since childhood--whenever she was emotionally stressed. This headache had started from the moment she gotten home from a day in court and found her fiancé sitting on the edge of the leather sofa with that all-too-familiar look of shame on his boyishly handsome face.
Damn Eddie. Damn that she felt sympathy for him. Damn that his betrayal could devastate her when her reasons for staying with him for so long had little to do with true love. She'd chosen him deliberately. Eddie was innocuous, unlike all the men her mother had gotten involved with all through Heather's childhood. Eddie didn't scare her or hurt her physically--rarely demanded anything of her at all. With Eddie, she wasn't alone, alone with the darkness that had been with her for as long as she could remember. A darkness that promised both terror and salvation.
"I have to do the right thing, don't I, Heather? I have to marry her."
Marry Danielle... and leave me all alone. I can't be alone with the darkness. Because then it'll start whispering to me, showing me things... Heather closed her eyes, a shudder working through her body. Things I don't want to see.
Had Eddie known she was afraid to be alone? Was that why...
The face of Lance Shaussegeny filled her mind like an apparition, an omen of doom, and Heather shuddered again, reluctant intrigue filling her. She dropped the glass and watched it shatter on the tile in what seemed like slow motion.
She'd met Eddie and Lance in law school--they'd been unlikely roommates in the co-ed dorm until she and Eddie got involved--and the three of them had become inseparable. Heather didn't remember asking Lance to join them being a conscious choice on her part so much as what had happened. Lance was always there, pale and ill-looking, near her. He even hung around when Eddie was around, though he'd never liked him and never bothered to hide his aversion. Lance never missed a chance to verbally beat her boyfriend to a pulp, yet he somehow managed to do that without making her feel like a complete fool for staying with Eddie. No, Lance made her feel cherished, worthy, desired above all other women--the absolute center of his world.
She and Lance had joined the same firm after passing the bar. Like she did, Lance took the downtrodden cases, wanting losers to win, the poor to get rich, the meek to grasp power. She was passionate in her cause, helping those who couldn't help themselves. The one thing she did well was resist--the inevitable, the rules, the way things had to be. Lance... Lance won every case he took on, too, but he had little passion for the endeavor. His passion....
Heather flushed once more, then forced herself to get down on her hands and knees to clean up the shattered glass.
Lance and Eddie were complete opposites. Eddie had an irresistible charm, along with a fun-loving upbeat nature and sense of humor that had captured her from the first. He always made her laugh, always made her relent on the little things even when she knew she shouldn't. He was so unlike the men she'd gotten used to in her childhood. Cruel, selfish men. She had no defenses whatsoever against Eddie because he pushed the darkness away in a way that no one else could.
Lance was soft-spoken, withdrawn, faithful, driven, intelligent and intense despite his less than robust physique. In all the years she'd known him, he never seemed to have an interest in any woman except her. The idea that he was gay had been thrown out the window the first time he kissed her. The few times he'd done it since had been natural...under the mistletoe, ushering in the new year. But those kisses had taken her so outside herself, made her feel things she'd never even imagined before. She'd comprehended each and every time that she belonged to Lance in a way she refused to allow herself to accept. Because, somehow, someway, Lance was connected to the darkness that pursued her.
I'm not safe with him, like I am with Eddie. Lance terrifies me and completes me at once. He would possess me completely if I let him.
Over the pulsing music, she heard the bell ring and she stopped breathing. A sense of longing, belonging filled her with dread. She could sense Lance the way an animal sensed prey. When she didn't move or speak, simply held her breath, he pounded on the door, calling, "Heather, let me in. You know you want to. You have to."
She lifted the wet, cold cloth she'd used to scoop up as much of the glass as she could. Her finger caught the edge of a shard, and she hissed as her skin burst open and blood gushed out.
"Heather, talk to me. I need to see you," Lance solicited.
Knowing she couldn't ignore or avoid him--two things she'd never had the ability to do with this man--she dropped the cloth in the sink. She grabbed the half-full bottle and carried it with her across the room. She opened the door and walked away again.
"How did you know this time?" she asked without looking at him. He always knew--everything. Everything that happened, everything she thought and felt. And sometimes she inexplicably felt she knew the same things about him.
She halted just before she reached the sofa, hearing him close the door, sensing him barely an inch behind her.
"He chose her, Heather. Like the utter idiot he's always been, he chose her. You know Eddie doesn't have the stomach for conflict. It's always been her. He just didn't have the guts to tell you to your face. This time...her trick worked."
The image of Lance--tall, muscular, and brooding--filled her entire being, glutted her memory with the hot kisses they'd shared. She easily pictured the thick shadow of hair perpetually covering his jaw, the rough-hewn lines of his face in her hands, his hard, demanding lips and his even harder, demanding body. He'd taken her heart and soul in those kisses, and she'd run for her life each time.
"This time her trick worked." Heather whirled to face him, almost losing her balance, but he reached for her as she demanded, "What do you mean 'her trick worked'?"
"Same one you tried to pull a few years ago."
She swallowed in shock. He couldn't know. She hadn't told anyone...
"Tried to get pregnant so he'd have to choose you," Lance reminded softly.
She gasped. How could he know about all those months she'd gone in and out of fertility clinics, behind Eddie's back, only to be told unanimously that she couldn't have children of her own? With Eddie. With any man. Something was wrong with her ovaries, and, even without that damage, the unexplained illness--"failure to thrive" they'd called it when she was younger--she'd dealt with all her life wouldn't allow her to conceive let alone sustain a pregnancy.
Lance's obsidian black eyes held her, and he reached for the bottle in her hand. "I asked your secretary. I was worried. You had so many appointments at medical facilities."
"You followed me?"
"Are you really surprised, honey?"
She swallowed. "How do... You know too much about me, Lance. I never told you. I never told anyone. But you know, don't you?"
He set the bottle on the glass coffee table, then took the last step to her. "About the SOB's your mother paraded in and out of your life? They hurt you. It's why Eddie the Dud appeals to you. He has no strength. He's a coward. He's oblivious to what you call the darkness and just about everything else. But that's not the only reason you stay with him, is it?"
Heather stopped breathing when Lance lifted her hand, seeing the blood covering her fingers from the glass cut. Somehow he knew where the cut was in all the mess and brought that finger to his mouth. The warm, wetness as he sucked gently was healing, exciting...
"The darkness will never go away, Heather, not until you give yourself to your destiny." He cradled her injured hand in his, held it against his heart.
"I know everything there is to know about you. I know every thought you've ever had. And you know mine. But I frighten you, don't I, honey? Because I'm part of that same darkness."
Impossible. It's always been impossible. But I've known Lance forever, and he's known me just as long. She stared at him, swallowed but couldn't speak. Their gazes met and held. She couldn't define so much about Lance. There was something predatory about him. Something unnatural. And yet he's mine, completely. He's tender and ruthless, my terror, my salvation. Just like the darkness. He knows about the darkness because he's part of it. And I'll never have peace until I accept that.
Lance took her face in his large, powerful hands, and Heather couldn't escape him. Not tonight. She'd consumed too much alcohol. His mouth was close enough to hers that she could taste him, feel him inside her as vital as breathing, as something dark and primal growing within.
"I have to go, babe," he told her softly. "I don't have any choice this time. I'd rather die than leave you..."
"So why are you even here? If you need to go... you should go." Her tone sounded breezy, accepting. She felt anything but.
"I have to go home."
"But...but you said you never want to return there."
Lance had spoken of his hometown, Woodcutter's Grim. He hated it, never wanted to return to it. Even still, she knew his family meant everything to him. Often, he'd said he "wasn't ready to take his place" with them. Heather had formed the impression that something bad had happened in Woodcutter's Grim. That something bad lived there. Something that disturbed him enough to vow nothing could ever make him go back.
"My father...he's disappeared. I have to leave. Now. Tonight. There isn't much time."
"Why are you here? If you need to go, why..."
His hands stroked her face, his dark gaze sliding longingly to her mouth. "I couldn't leave without... If I get too close, what I've spent so long protecting you from..." He shook his head, as if realizing he made no sense. "Nothing matters to me but keeping you safe, Heather. Do you understand that?"
His eyes returned to hers and she saw something desperate and afraid in them--something she'd seen before when he talked about his hometown. She couldn't help wanting to reach out to him. But she didn't. She couldn't.
"When I leave...dear God, Heather, I can't come back. I can't. Even if you need me, even if you ask me to, I can't leave Woodcutter's Grim ever again once I go back. It'll be too late for me by then."
"Too late for what? I don't understand, Lance. What scares you so much about that place?"
"I don't want you to know. I've never wanted you to understand any of this. I didn't try to take you from him because I'd rather die then let my curse touch you."
The raw maleness of him gripped her like an aphrodisiac. She felt so small next to him, yet knew Lance would protect her completely.
"If you need me, honey...you'll have to come to me. It's the only way."
But I can't. I can't do that. I can't accept the darkness. She couldn't understand, but she didn't want him to walk away from her. She didn't consciously realize he was walking away and she was holding him back until he turned back. "Heather, I don't know if I can live without you."
She closed her eyes, and the world seemed to tip onto an axis of balance she'd never experienced in her whole life. Because Lance's powerful, unyielding arms were swallowing her up as if she was the most precious thing in the world to him. She could hear his heart beating mightily, far too fast.
"I can't do this. Not to you, baby. I have to go."
She barely heard his words as she wrapped her arms around him, reaching up to touch him. His expression was filled with an ecstasy that seemed familiar. His eyes closed as her fingertips brushed his jaw and chin. His groan resonated throughout her body. His face was deeply tanned with a five o'clock shadow so dense and dark, he would never get rid of the shadow. The bones were sharp and prominent, his lips the opposite--soft and full. When she danced her thumbs together over his bottom lip, his eyes widened a fraction. His eyebrows were thick and heavy, contributing to the bedroom look of his tortured, beautiful eyes.
What would it be like to give myself to a man who would possess me so completely, we couldn't think about each other without connecting in some intense, telepathic way? We would become part of each other in such a way that we could never be whole apart again.
"Heather, my love..." he moaned, "I never want to hurt you. You're so fragile."
No thought of resistance came when he ducked his head and captured her mouth with his. The ferocity of Lance's kiss left her so weak, she couldn't stand. But he was holding her, taking her down to the floor, undressing her and himself, and devouring her. She wanted him to. Never before had she experienced sensuality as something new, intense, overwhelming. Sweet. Her fear was lost in her almost painful stirring, the culmination that Lance alone brought with his hands, his mouth, and his body.
Once he was filling her unimaginably and bringing her to a place she'd never reached without him, she realized he was at the end of his control when a preternatural growl ripped from his throat. He was heeding some inner beast, and Heather could no longer trust in reality. The fulfillment of pleasure transformed her, transformed him.
The lamp shattered nearby, plunging them into darkness. Lance was holding her in arms that felt impossibly more powerful than ever before, holding her so tightly, she could no longer breathe. Pain came. Sharp. She could smell blood so strongly. Something monstrous, huge and hairy covered her slight, self-detested delicate form, filled her. Claimed her, body and soul. For a moment, she imagined she could see massive fangs jutting from an elongated jaw. Biting her. Taking her blood. Terrified even as her body convulsed, she reached up and felt warm liquid at her throat.
Eyes opened above her. They were glowing and yellow. The roar that came from the thing marking her as its own made her scream.
But Lance's soft voice made her go limp with relief. His familiar arms gathered her and rocked her against him. "I'm so sorry, Heather. I couldn't stop myself."
"What..." she started on a sob.
"It's too late now. I belong to you and you belong to me. I'll never stop loving you or waiting for you. Nothing can change what we are to each other."
I've become one with the darkness--my terror, my salvation. "Who are you, Lance? What are you?"
"You know. You've always known--because the darkness told you. It prepared the way for me. Our souls have always been one because of it. The rest is up to you." He drew back, and his eyes, no longer amber and luminous, glittered with unshed tears. "Don't make me wait too long, honey. Every minute we're apart will be torture for both of us, and not just because of the changes we'll go through. Come to me soon. Don't wait."
"I don't know how to find you."
"When the time comes, you'll know. You'll find me instinctively because we're part of each other now. We can't survive separated."
Heather woke the next morning alone. She knew in a heartbeat that everything had changed. Her life would never be the same. But she couldn't have predicted the changes, or the newborn fear that would consume her. She'd given herself to Lance, to the darkness, but she stoically refused to accept her destiny.