The Beating Of Her Wings
A Forever Knight - Sandman Crossover
By Sandy Adams
No copyright infringement is intended.
Author's Note: If you've never read "Neil Gaiman's Sandman" (sadly, the series is no longer being published, but back issues and trade paperback collections are available), I strongly urge you to give it a try!
The Beating Of Her Wings
By Sandy Adams
"Hello, I haven't seen you in a long time."
Nick looked around, surprised at being addressed in such a familiar manner by an unfamiliar voice. "I'm afraid you have me confused with someone else."
He favored her with a disarming grin, mostly to cover his own confusion. There was a woman -- little more than a girl, really -- perched on the hood of his Cadillac, and she had somehow gotten there in the split second his back had been turned. All without his sensing her.
She shook her head, a knowing smile tweaking her lips and lighting eyes that were black as night and nearly as ancient. She wore her eyeliner Egyptian style, heavy black lines of kohl encircling her lids. On the left, the thick line swirled down onto her pale cheek to form an abstract spiral. Her hair was raven's wing dark and styled into Gothic spikes that formed a ragged veil over one eye. Black lipstick stood out starkly against a mime's white face -- a complexion rarely achieved even by vampires after a millenia of avoiding the sun. Completing the look, she was dressed entirely in black, right down to the athletic shoes on her feet. Nick blinked. Goth by Reebok?
Following his bemused gaze, she laughed. "Hey, I'm a busy person. Comfort counts."
"Who are you?" he asked, still staring. Despite her ultra-pale skin and somber trappings, he was almost certain she wasn't a vampire.
Her lips curved in a gamin smile. "I'm not surprised you don't remember me," she said, toying with the silver chain around her neck. An ankh dangled from the chain, resting between her small breasts. "Most people don't. Then again, most people rarely meet me more than once."
Seeing his mystification, she added cheerfully, "I'm Death."
"Right," Nick said flatly. Just what he needed after a full shift -- and with the sun edging up over the horizon. A crazy perched on the hood of his car. Wasn't his partner punishment enough?
He eyed her petite frame sarcastically. "Death. As in the Grim Reaper. The Dark Angel. The sister of Dream..."
"You do remember me!"
Nick frowned. He was tired and wondering why he was even having this conversation. It was like one of Schanke's endless discourses on the merits of garlic: annoying and a real waste of his time. "Isn't Death supposed to be a tall skeletal guy carrying a scythe?"
"Aren't vampires supposed to walk around in opera capes, talking like Bela Lugosi?" she countered without missing a beat. She dangled a foot over the fender and contemplated the toe of her Reeboks while he hunted for his voice.
Finding it, he began, "Look, Miss --"
"Death," she interjected brightly.
"Whatever!" He took a deep breath. "I really don't have time for whatever game you're playing, so if you'll kindly remove yourself from my car -- ?"
Her dark eyes lifted to meet his, skewering him with a naked honesty impossible to look away from. "Even your kind come to me eventually, Nick."
"I...don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, come on," she chided, pursing her black-tinted lips. "Like I'm going to tell anybody! Besides, you haven't killed for blood in, what -- like, a century now. Right?"
Frightened, and angry because of it, he snapped, "Who put you up to this? LaCroix?"
She met his anger with a seemingly imperturbable calm. "I don't take orders from children, Nick."
Any other time, hearing LaCroix referred to as a 'child' would have reduced Nick to helpless laughter. At the moment, he was too confused and upset to enjoy it. It didn't exactly help when she shrugged and added, in the same reasonable tone, "I'm one of the Endless, you see. I've been around almost as long as there's been an 'around' to be in."
Maybe it was fatigue or the nearness of the dawn. Maybe her madness was contagious. Maybe it was simply easier to surrender to the unreality of the situation. Whatever the reason, he found himself saying, "You certainly don't look your age."
"Neither do you." A coquettish grin. "Not bad for nearly eight hundred years."
"You're not a vampire," he said with sudden certainty. "So how do you know so much about me?"
"Oh, I was there."
He frowned, not understanding, and she explained, "The night you nearly died." She held up a hand to forestall any protest he might mount. "Vampires aren't really dead, no matter what the legends say. I should know. But you came pretty close." Her voice softened, became gentle. "I was there, waiting for you."
She tilted her head, spilling black hair over one shoulder, and her black eyes sparkled. "I still am."
"I am immortal." It had the sound of resignation rather than defiance. "Damned to live forever."
"Nick..." She shook her head sadly. "Nothing lives forever. One day, even this universe will end. And I'll be here, the last one out, turning off the lights and shutting the door behind me."
Her gamin features shadowed for just a second. Softly, she added, "Even Dreams die."
"Why are you here?" he demanded, suddenly. Even as he said the words, he realized he'd finally given in. He believed. Which probably made her the sane one.
One moon-pale shoulder lifted in a coy shrug. "Maybe I'm just curious about what could make a vampire change his ways." Her gaze seemed to penetrate the depths of his soul -- assuming he still had one. "Maybe I was just curious about you."
"I got tired of the killing," he said stiffly. "I wanted to live, again."
"To live?" She mocked him with his own words. "Aren't you immortal? 'Life eternal' and all that jazz?"
"What I do isn't living. I want to be mortal, again."
"Careful what you wish for, Nick." She cocked one dark brow. "You really have no idea of the high cost of living."
Stung, he sneered, "And I suppose you do?"
"More than you might think."
She hopped down from her perch on the hood; Nick was astonished to find that she barely came up to his shoulder. Reading the surprise in his expression, she quipped, "Big things come in little packages."
Then she sobered, her head lifting as if she heard a distant summons. "Well, it's been real. But I've got an appointment and I can't be late."
Suddenly, it seemed very important that he know who her 'appointment' was with. Urgently, he demanded, "Who have you come for?"
There was infinite compassion in her dark eyes. "Everyone meets me sooner or later, Nick. I'm really not that bad, once you get to know me."
"Who, damn it!"
She merely gazed at him, her silence more eloquent than words, and he read the answer in her eyes.
"No!" The denial was torn from his throat. "You can't --"
But he was pleading with thin air. Death had vanished between on heartbeat and the next.
He took instantly to the air, fighting the terror rising in him with each passing second. Natalie. She had come for Natalie. He knew it, even as he knew there was nothing he could do to stop her. Even as he knew he had to try, no matter the cost.
He reached Nat's building in time to hear her scream.
Without hesitation, he flung himself through the apartment window in a dazzling shower of glass and wood, oblivious to the thousands of tiny cuts crosshatching his skin. He landed heavily and rolled to his feet.
Natalie sprawled across the bed, the duvet already dyed scarlet by the spreading stain beneath her. Her assailant bent over her, bowie knife poised for the killing stroke.
Snarling, Nick lunged, clearing the bed in one powerful leap, knocking the younger man to the floor. One-handed, Nick lifted him -- all one hundred eighty pounds of him -- and whirled, smashing the man into the wall with enough force to bring a rain of plaster down on them both. Fangs bared, eyes blazing feral yellow, he was a vision from Hell leering into the killer's face.
The man tried to scream, but Nick's fingers closed around his throat, robbing him of air. He kicked desperately, even managed to connect once or twice with Nick's legs, but to no avail. He might as well have tried to kick down a mountain.
Nick could hear the man's heartbeat, a thunder in his ears. The coppery stench of blood was all around him, driving the vampire wild. It would be so easy to tear out the soft throat before him. And didn't the killer deserve it? Didn't he deserve to die?
His fangs were inces from the man's sweating flesh when Nick realized he could hear a second heartbeat in the room. He jerked his head around. "Nat?"
Hope flaring to life within him, Nick flung the man from him and ran back to the bed. He knelt beside the prone woman, listening. Yes...There it was! A pulse, faint and thready, but there. Nat was still alive!
Behind him, he heard a muttered curse. He looked up just in time to see Nat's attacker leap at him. From somewhere, the man had recovered his knife.
Nick blocked the attack with an out-thrust arm, sweeping the man off his feet and throwing him back into the wall. There was a sickening crunch -- a sound like green wood snapping -- and the man slid to the floor. A red smear marked his slide down the wall. Somehow, he'd impaled himself on his own knife.
Now there was only one heart beating...and it was slowing.
"Hadn't you better call an ambulance?" asked a soft, too-familiar voice, just beyond his shoulder.
Nick jumped. Not even vampires were that quiet!
Fangs bared, he turned to face Death. "You can't have her! Not yet."
The pale woman shook her head in quiet wonder. "You'd really fight me for her, wouldn't you?" She sighed. "Not that it would do any good. But still..."
Moving away from the bed, she approached the body slumped in the corner. "As it happens, I'm not here for her -- or you. This time."
She extended her hand and...something...reached up from the corpse to take it. The faint outline of a man looked down at his mortal remains with boundless astonishment of the newly dead. Gently, she took his hand and led him away.
On the point of vanishing into the undiscovered country that was her realm, she glanced back at Nick, still hovering protectively over the motionless form on the bed. "I'll be seeing you, Nick."
Then she was gone.
Nick scrambled for the phone, with no time to consider her parting words of what they might mean for him. He had only one thought: save Natalie.
But, after he'd dialed the emergency number and sat listening for the welcome sound of approaching sirens, he thought he heard -- in the distance, but as near as the fragile pulsing of the human heart -- the beating of great dark wings.
Author's Note #2: the characters of Death and Dream of the Endless are the creations of Neil Gaiman and appear in the DC Comics/Vertigo title "Sandman."
Originally published in "Knightbeat #8".
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