In 1665 Scotland, five years after the Black Plague, former angel Jophiel lives in solitude as a mortal, having removed his own wings to punish himself for falling in love with a vampire. One day, his old friends, Michael and Zadkiel, offer him the chance to return home to his old life in the Heavens. The price? Capture his former lover, and take his head.
Lord Frederik Jasper Grimm, the man whom Jophiel loved, is a Belial vampire born with half a soul and mortal emotions. His crime was destroying a village of innocents as a ransom for his beloved sister Amelia, whom the murderous sorcerer Malcolm MacNiel holds hostage. But before Frederik can retrieve Amelia from MacNiel's keep, Jophiel captures him.
Before Jophiel can raise his sword, Frederik begs for mercy, explaining why he destroyed the village. Frederik has lied before, but Jo cannot bring himself to kill his former lover. His only choice is to hold Frederik prisoner until he can find an answer to his question: Why would he be sent to execute an innocent vampire? All the while, he must keep his new, mortal state a secret.
The Time of the Black Plague
"You are such an idiot, Jo."
"Excuse me?" Jo fell back a step at the insult and at his lover's eyes, whose glare was hard upon him. It was not a jibe lovingly delivered, but one meant to sear and cut. And it did.
Jo became angry then, his body tightening, his fingers curling into fists, his wings ruffling like those of an affronted bird. The wings were invisible to the men Frederik had stationed on the grass of his vast garden, some ten feet from where they were having their argument. But Jo's emotions were not as concealed as his wings, and the bastard vampire could see his ire clearly. Yet, Jo's anger seemed to elicit no response from Frederik at all, other than an unsympathetic demeanor.
"Ye know damn well I cannot stay on earth unless I become mortal. What is so idiotic—?"
"The plague, you fucking fool."
Frederik seethed. For the first time, Jo saw something akin to hatred gleaming within those angry eyes. The servants crossed themselves at the mention of the disease.
Though Frederik feared fire, tall flames burned hotly in every chamber of his home, and pits also flickered high in several spots surrounding it as a measure to keep the rats and fleas away from the mortals under Frederik's care. It was midnight, and, though the full moon cast its usual silver glow, 'twas hardly noticeable with the fires that sizzled and popped around them. 'Twas nearly as bright as day.
Frederik's face shone wet with sweat from the heat. "If you become mortal, the plague will consume you, as it has done everything else, and you are stupider than I imagined if you think for one moment that I will transform you into one of my kind. I won't go to hell for anything, not you, not anyone."
"I never suggested ye change me into a vampire." Jo's voice rose with impatience. Frederik's servants hardly blinked at the word. They knew perfectly well what they served. Jo sensed the fear in them, not of their master, but of the plague that raged across nearly the whole of the mortal land and of the possibility they would lose their lives to it should Frederik not transform them.
They were placing their hopes on the wrong demon. Frederik would never dare transform any living thing into a vampire. Not with the threat that it would become a soulless creature of the night.
Frederik was a Belial vampire. Different from other vampires in that he was born with half a soul. His belief, and that of other Belials, remained strong that, if they wanted any eternal peace once their long lives ended, they were to never, ever, create any more vampires.
Jo took a breath and gathered his calm, forcing his fingers to relax. "Frederik, I have stayed as long as I am able, but I can wait no longer." He lowered his voice to keep the servants from hearing. They may be comfortable with serving a vampire, but the knowledge an angel was before them in such a time of fear, when all mortals seemed to think the end of days was upon them, would likely terrify them. Even though Jo wore the traditional armor of angels, his breastplate and cape were invisible to them, like his wings. They saw only a mortal man in mortal garments, begging his lover not to cast him out. "Heaven calls to me. I can barely fight it any longer now that my wings are healed. I will become mortal for ye, Frederik. I wish to stay."
That . . . and a mortal body would allow him to share himself in ways only mortals could.
Frederik seemed hardly impressed by his declaration. His arms remained crossed over a long-sleeved blue waistcoat, and he planted his black boots steady in the grass as he stood with a stiff back. "Jo, I apologize if I have misled you in my affections. If Heaven calls to you, then you must stop ignoring it."
"Ye…what are ye saying? How could I have been misled? I know perfectly well what yer affections are."
As an angel, Jo had no sexual organs with which he could experience physical affection. But Frederik had kissed Jo and done other things with his mouth, again and again, enough to heat Jo's blood and enough to leave no doubt of the vampire's intentions.
"It seems you do not. Go home, Jo." With that, Frederik turned and began walking back toward the relatively cooler air of his house.
The angry heat swelling inside Jo's chest threatened to consume him. "Do not turn yer back on me!"
He made to follow the vampire, but a quick hand on the metal sleeve of his breastplate halted him. He jerked his shoulder away and spun, hand on his sword, ready to draw it. The servant who stalled him stepped back, uncertainty on his face. The second man, some steps farther back, watched the scene carefully, waiting in case he should be needed.
Jo could see the goodness of these men. He had spent the last week under Frederik's roof and had seen them occasionally setting tables and giving gentle commands to the maids. Jo did not know them and had barely even spoken two words to them, but he did not want to give them any cause for grief. Perhaps that was the reason Frederik had chosen them to witness this exchange. He knew Jo would not fight them just for the privilege of following the other man like a lost puppy.
"Frederik, have I truly misjudged the situation?" he called.
The vampire stalled, gave a half-turn of his head, and then continued on as though Jo hadn't spoken at all.
The strangest, most uncomfortable sensation rippled through Jo's chest. Never in all his years of battling demons had he ever experienced such pain. He looked down, half expecting to see a clawed hand punching through his armor and straight into his soul.
Naught was there. The pain existed only within him.
"Milord?" asked the one servant with light hair and pleading eyes. The other, darker-haired one was directly behind him now. "We are to see you out."
Their tones begged Jo not to make a scene of it. A door slamming had him turning back toward the direction Frederik had gone in. The heavy wooden door now separated Jo from the goings-on inside.
Bitterness began growing inside of him once again.
"I need no escort." Jo walked away from the house. He needed no direction. In this countryside where everything was surrounded by forest, he would be alone soon enough.
"Forgive me, milord, but we are to see you out," repeated the servant.
This time, Jo could not contain his scowl. Both men stepped back, but continued to follow at a distance as he marched off.
Soon, the cool night air overcame the heat, and he sensed a halt in their steps. Away from the bonfires, the countryside was much darker and also much more dangerous for mortals who sought to avoid the cats and rats and fleas—and the disease they carried.
Jo walked into the woods, limbs buzzing from the insult of being walked off the property. It was as though Frederik wanted to be absolutely certain he would not return and attempt to sneak through a window or some such nonsense. His spirit sank just a little at the realization he might very well have done exactly that had those servants not escorted him.
The anger Jo had felt toward Frederik, he now twisted toward himself. Humiliation and shame followed, pressing so heavily upon him that he hunched his back. He threw his hand out to the nearest tree to steady himself.
A crack of thunder sounded above. Jo's head shot up. The trees were not so thick that he lost sight of the sky. The sky was important to one such as him.
'Twas black as night, but the moon and stars were still bright. No hint of storm clouds, and no cold brush of a violent breeze to suggest a coming rain.
He knew what he had heard. He wished he had not.
"I am so sorry," he said.
What had he done? He'd fallen to earth from an injury in battle, and yet his wings had been healed enough for him to fly home for days now. Heaven had called to him, yet he remained in the house of a lower-level demon. He had allowed Frederik to touch him, kiss him, had put himself on his knees—he did not want to think of how perversely he'd behaved.
Jo had loved a vampire and offered to sacrifice his immortality, his wings, his very self. Perhaps 'twas just he be turned away. How dare he even entertain the thought of turning his back on his brothers? His responsibilities?
His fist punched into the dirt and scattered grass. He had not been aware of falling to his knees. The thunder clapped again. Jo winced. If this had been a test, then, surely, he had failed it, and he despised himself for that.
He wanted to scream. He wanted . . . he needed . . . argh! He did not know what he needed! How could he return home after what he'd done? He'd nearly turned his back on his family for a demon. They would never have him back. He did not wish to go back. The shame was too great.
Then, the answer, his punishment, became clear. He would not return.
Jo sighed heavily, eyes returning to the stars. He had wanted to become mortal, and, now, he would be, but without the luxury of a lover by his side. Even Heaven had its balance to maintain.
Jo reached behind himself, his fingers finding the softer feathers that grew along the slim bones of his wings nearest his shoulder blades. His hands wrapped around the stems, where the feathers were so fine that the pink flesh of his skin was visible beneath.
He gripped tightly and pulled.
A grunt escaped him at the first horrible tug, the skin of his back stretching as he pulled on his wings. The limbs themselves stiffened; his grip cut the flow of blood, and, as he pulled harder and harder, the wings were soon cold and twitching. The wings themselves became numb, but the bones where the wings met his back were fire-hot with pulsing agony.
Though he tried to hold back, he emitted a rough scream as the fiery pain consumed him. The bones of his shoulders bent under the pressure of his assault on himself. Then he heard the terrible rip of muscle and pop of the bones dislocating from his back.
He released his wings and fell forward onto his chest, a blast of air wheezing from his throat. He inhaled deeply the scent of the grass, and the blades felt cold as they pressed against his hot, sweating face. His wings—his dead, white wings—fell to his sides. They were still attached to his back by the threads of skin that had not ripped, but no longer were they fully a part of him.
He had to act quickly. Already, he could feel the cool tingle of his muscles as the flesh attempted to weave itself back together and the bones shifted to reassemble themselves. With trembling arms, he pulled his sword from the leather sheath at his hip. The blade burst into flame, and he was glad to be able to see its fire once more.
Using his free hand, Jo lifted himself back to his knees. His wings remained a useless weight on the ground, but his joints screamed with the movement. He grabbed his left wing and positioned the sword where the feathery limb met his back. He hissed as the fire burned, but then he began slicing, and that burning became naught but an inconvenience by comparison to the pain inflicted by the blade. Jo bit his lips together as he jerked his arm up and down, sawing wetly through the flesh and bone until the wing fell away.
He nearly fell onto his right side from the uneven distribution of weight.
Jo shifted to get a look at the bloody limb, his back, and the back of his thighs and calves which were wet with the blood flow.
He voiced a small cry at the sight of the disembodied wing, its heavenly glow gone from it forever. Still, Jo could still feel his connection to the Heavens; that light within him flickered weakly, but it was still there.
He gripped his other wing, and, without hesitation, sliced it clean away the same as he'd done the other.
With no weight on his back to balance him, Jo fell forward again, the slam of the earth against his chest harder than he expected.
The poke of small rocks against his chest and the unevenness of the earth were what stunned him most. He pulled himself to his hands and knees, body quaking with the strain of keeping his balance.
Jo's metal breastplate had vanished and been replaced with a thin garb that resembled a sack. Next, his sandals fell away from his legs like dry sand, leaving his feet bare. His eyes went to his sword, still in his hand. First, the flames were snuffed out, and, for a mere second, he played with the hope he would be allowed to keep it. Then it, too, came apart, no longer able to hold itself together without a heavenly hand to keep it.
Jo did not need to look to know his wings were no longer where he had dropped them. He did not want to exhaust what little strength he had remaining to look when he already knew they would not be there.
His body felt lighter. Despite the absence of his wings, he felt small and weightless enough that, if he managed to get to his feet and jump into the sky, the wind alone would carry him away.
Then his innards twisted and tugged in turmoil, his face became hot, and a ringing that was hardly that of the trumpets of home sounded in his ears. He turned his head over and retched out onto the grass a thin, hot liquid that burned the lining of his throat and mouth. The sour scent of his vomit wafted to his nose. His stomach, throat, and chest constricted and he retched again, entirely against his will. He had no control over this new body.
It was a reminder that he was now a helpless mortal, bleeding in the forest. 'Twas also a reminder of the great illness sweeping the land. If he was going to survive his new existence, he needed to find shelter.
Jo rose to his feet, and, stumbling as he went, traveled farther into the woods and away from Frederik's home.