By DB Nielsen
Aislinn crouched among the debris. Carefully, in the welter of broken shards, she picked up the skean’s burned hilt and turned it over and over in her trembling hands.
She felt a bone-crushing disappointment.
Her opportunity for revenge had been lost.
The opportunity to have her sister back from the dead had been given to her, but she’d hesitated. She didn’t know if the Druid’s offer was merely a trick. And it was too late now, anyway. Vampires couldn’t change the past.
A wealth of pain lodged in her chest. It cut so deep, she could feel it like a shard of ice. Intense. Freezing, burning, slicing.
Turning the hilt in her palm, letting the weak moonlight and the rain run over it, she felt the immense loss. The bright hair belonging to Sorcha had been burned away. The blade was beyond repair.
She felt as if the world had chewed her up and spit her out one too many times. All that was left was empty. Hollow.
“I’m not often wrong about things, but I’ve been informed that I’m mistaken in you.”
Aislinn gasped, assuming she was all alone. Futilely grasping the hilt of her shattered skean, she looked up with wide, haunted eyes at the owner of the voice. He indifferently sat on the edge of the ramparts. Palest skin and whitest teeth flashed in a deadly, derisive grin against the darkness.
A sluice of icy blood rage poured through her. “Are you kidding me? What the Vlad now? Not you again!”
The archangel was ready for battle, dressed in full armor, but his sword was sheathed as he sat nonchalantly across from her. He was munching on an apple and appeared to be patiently waiting, though slightly bored.
It was raining everywhere else, all around him and on Aislinn herself, but somehow, he managed to stay dry—and not only dry but in a pool of reflected moonlight. It formed a halo effect around his slightly long, untamed mane of hair. The glossy, jet-black color was so dark, it shimmered blue-black, illuminating his fine features. The high cheekbones and the sharp blade of a nose could almost be considered pretty but was saved by the hard, angular jaw, squarish forehead, and brightness in his dark, intelligent eyes.
At her tone, his expression didn’t change at all, but something about him stiffened and he disdainfully discarded the apple core, tossing it carelessly over his shoulder.
There was a light burning in him. And apart from his wings, he might have passed for a man. But he was far from ordinary, even among angels.
Aislinn’s eyes narrowed. The brilliance of the bastard was almost too much to look at for long.
“Go away!” she growled.
Nathan wasn’t impressed at her disrespect and rolled his dark eyes upward to the heavens as if seeking divine guidance before facing her. “You’re really a chip off the old block, aren’t you? Why is it that neither you nor Kayne can remain civil when God sends His help? Your father acts like an arrogant douchebag most of the time. He certainly believes he’s master of life and death. Honestly, his ego is astounding. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me at all that you don’t know how to behave around the heavenly host. Like father, like daughter.”
Her jaw clenched briefly. So did her fists. Ineffectually, she gripped the hilt of the broken skean tighter in her hand until her knuckles were white as polished bone. She heard a rushing in her ears like the sound of the sea, but instead, it was her blood which started to race in her veins, and she felt unexpectedly hot and angry. A terrible feverish feeling arose in her. She recognized the symptoms.
Calm down. Get control of yourself, girl. Don’t let this asswipe get the better of you.
Thin nostrils flaring, Aislinn swallowed down the blood rage threatening to spill over. She wouldn’t let it control her.
“Help? You’re too late. Look around, Sunshine.” She made a sweeping gesture at the destruction strewn about. “Fat lot of good you are. Besides, aren’t you a little short of angels for a heavenly host? Where’s the rest of your army?”
She almost missed the cold curve of his sensuous lips. He was smiling. The bastard. It was a very smug smile. The fever in her blood surged even more. She wanted to wipe that smug smile from his stupid, strikingly handsome face.
But her anger was misdirected. What she truly wanted was to track down the Druids and do some real damage—to attack, slay, and maim as many of the avaricious, life-leaching bastards as she could. She was almost overwhelmed by the onslaught of blood rage and grief and crushing loss.
Keep it together, Aislinn.
The archangel stepped forward, exuding poise and grace, and she had the choice of craning her neck to look up at all six-feet-five of him from her crouched position or standing her ground. She straightened up. At least with her own supermodel height she didn’t need to look up at him, like a child at a skyscraper. Besides, she refused to be intimidated by this seraphic-looking asshole.
With deliberate coolness, he replied, “I am the Angel of Light. The Left Hand of God. There is no other. What need have I of an army with the Lord’s blessing upon me?”
Aislinn’s eyes were glacial as she sneered. “And you think Kayne is an arrogant douchebag?” Ruthlessly, she forced the blood rage down, suppressing it until she was in full control of her emotions. She was every inch an ice queen. “Have you looked in a mirror recently or are you blinded by your own light?”
The fine hairs on the back of her neck rose, and her skin turned to instant goosebumps, though not from the rain or the chill in the night air which failed to permeate her skin. Her insides lurched as the angel approached her and lifted one large, pale hand.
“Most intriguing, Blondie. You defend Kayne in the same manner you defended the young hunter-turned-vampire. You have no thought for self-preservation.” He watched her with intent. He reached out as if to touch the side of her face, and she stepped back, avoiding him. Nathan let her go.
“You were watching? And you did nothing?” she accused. If she had any emotional strength left, she would have shown him where to shove it, somewhere that his heavenly light did not shine out of. But he’d caught her at one of her lowest points, struggling with blood rage and mourning for what she could not recover. She was falling apart inside. But she still raged at him “People died tonight. And that’s only the beginning. You let that purebred demon, Styx, and his minion, Thirteen, save a dark mage who is practicing necromancy. What kind of angel are you?”
Nathan ignored her anger, frowning as if she presented a mystery to him. “Most intriguing, indeed. You act like you care what happens to others. I would almost believe that this is a display of—love. But this should not be.” His voice was low and melodious, and Nathan scowled more deeply, though it failed to mar his unearthly beauty. He was puzzled at the discrepancy between what he knew of vampires and what he had observed of the daughter of Kayne.
What trickery is this? It is an affront to the Almighty. How dare she? What would a vampire know of love?
“Exactly why are you here?” she challenged him. Attacking him verbally was better than feeling vulnerable. “What help are you now that the battle’s over?”
Nathan remained silent, refusing to be goaded into speech. He wasn’t answerable to a mere vampire.
He was on a mission, but she was proving a nuisance. He didn’t really have time for this. Already he could tell she was going to be an absolute little monster to deal with. It would have been so much simpler to let Zuriel handle this one. It was a pity he couldn’t delegate this task to someone else—anyone else—but it had been assigned to him from on high, and it wasn’t his place to question God’s will.
He sighed. Great. Just what I need.
In his confusion, his response was directed more to himself than to her, “What’s the point of all this? Vampires only know hate. Why in all Etherean would the Lord permit this? Kayne is a black-hearted devil who forfeited the right to love and cursed his race for all eternity.” Like the vampire before him.
Aislinn bristled, unaware of his inner dilemma.
Who was he to judge them? Vlading angels. So hypocritical.
They were supposed to be these loving and loved-up beings like their creator, but nothing Aislinn had ever seen had even remotely suggested they knew what love was.
Oh, they knew how to fight all right. God’s army, the war in the heavens, casting out dissidents, and all the rest. And this guy, the Lord’s Left Hand, Left Foot, Left Toe, or whatever he claimed he was, thought he was all that. It made her want to puke.
“Is that what you think?” Aislinn demanded, incensed by his pride and disdain. She looked at him, a fierce light in her eyes—they were still a bright blue and had not yet turned obsidian, emphasizing she still had control over her blood rage.
But she felt an impotent anger, feeling like she’d been judged by him and his god.
“We’re monsters, right? So, all we feel is rage and hate, and there’s to be no redemption for us? Etherean is barred to us bloodsuckers? Even shifters, who are little better than animals, care for others, but love and forgiveness are only for humans, and since vampires have no humanity left, that means your god can forget about the rest of us. Is that it?”
She was so angry. So righteous.
But this pixie-faced vampire did not desire entrance to Etherean, despite her talk of redemption. Nathan sensed the truth of this. It blindsided him.
She was angry at God but not for herself. Perhaps for her father. Perhaps for the hunter-turned-vampire. Perhaps for her human sister. He didn’t know which, but he knew she did not expect redemption.
In all his angelic existence, throughout all the realms, he had never come across a creature who did not want to attain an eternity in Heaven. Even Satan, who couldn’t ever go back home since he was cast down and exiled, desired all that Etherean offered.
Nathan observed Aislinn. She posed a problem. She seemed to forget what she was reborn as and still held a degree of humanity.
What can it mean? Then another thought chased the first. What did it matter?
And yet, a new emotion began to grow in Nathan’s confused mind, blooming in his chest. He felt the slightest doubt and a twinge of something indefinable. It began with the seed planted in his brain that even foul creatures with the darkest hearts were somehow deserving of love. And it was compounded by the Almighty’s obvious interest in the daughter of Kayne, which sent a sharp pang through him.
Nathan didn’t care to examine these new emotions too closely.
Forget it. Stick to the job. Do the Lord’s bidding.
Unexpectedly, a warm wind swept around them. Familiarity gripped Nathan by the throat. He heard someone cough loudly behind him. It was a mocking kind of cough, the kind someone might make who was trying hard not to laugh out loud.
Oh Lord! So, help me—
Briefly, he closed his eyes. He knew who it was.
Opening them again, Nathan turned his head to look. It was his worst nightmare.
Sitting on the ramparts a few feet away from him, almost in the same position he’d previously occupied, his guardian angel gave him a wink. Why an Archangel needed a guardian angel was anybody’s guess, but the Lord worked in mysterious ways, or so he’d been told often enough, and by the very individual who was looking at him right now.
The corners of Walt’s mouth curved up in a quirk of sudden amusement as if he knew what Nathan was thinking.
What was worse was how nice a guy Walt was back in Etherean. In Etherean, they were great friends, often catching up over drinks. But they weren’t in Etherean anymore, and the nicest angels were often the biggest assholes on Earth.
“Well, this is kind of bleak and depressing,” Walt said, looking around him, his eyes bright. “Wind. Rain. Darkness. You know what it needs? A bonfire and some s’mores. Everyone likes s’mores. You’re the Angel of Light, aren’t you? Don’t you have a match or something?”
Nathan groaned aloud. “Heaven help me.”
Aislinn was insulted. “Oh, is that it? That’s your only response? No comeback? No ‘I shall smite thee in the name of the Lord’? No—Hey! Seriously? Are you even paying attention to anything I’m saying? Well, that’s just plain rude!” She followed the direction of his gaze, but her expression remained blank. It was obvious she couldn’t see Walt.
“But I see her. And you. And you see me. Good that we’ve got that out of the way. It could have caused confusion since you seem to be having a hard time concentrating right now. I wonder why. She’s kind of cute. A little feisty, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The mostly dead part I’d be worried about. Don’t give me that look. Not PC enough for you? What do they like to call it? Oh yeah, ‘reborn’. Doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘resurrected’, does it? So, don’t tell me that the Angel of Light is experiencing a little female trouble?”
Walt continued to taunt Nathan. He balanced on the edge of the wall without fear of falling off, almost reclining like the statue of Buddha, propped up on one elbow. “And she’s right, you know? You’re being very rude.”
Nathan tried not to grind his teeth. “I am not being rude.”
“Yes, you are,” two voices said in unison.
“Give me a break!” Nathan threw his hands up in frustration. Speaking to Walt, he asked, “Why the hell are you here? Can’t you see I’m busy? I’m trying to do the Lord’s will!”
But it was Aislinn who replied to his words. “Excuse me? You know why I’m here. Did your lord send you to observe my failure? Is that it? Did you come just to rub my nose in it? To gloat? Oh, and to insult me about my father?”
“Trying to do His will?” Walt asked sarcastically over the top of the vampire, stunned at Nathan’s procrastination. “Isn’t it done yet? Do I need to hold your cape?”
“No!” Nathan almost shouted. At the last second, he restrained himself and damped down his annoyance, but his tone was louder than normal.
At his obvious distress, Kayne’s daughter was bewildered. “Then why?”
“Well, why not?” Walt asked, sitting up suddenly to face him. “What’s the holdup?”
“What does it matter?” Nathan replied; his tone hard. “It’s getting done. I’m not questioning God’s will.”
“Look, my boy, we’ve chatted about this before. Ours is not to reason why, but rather to obey. Don’t think it’s gone unnoticed that you’ve been crabby and distracted quite a bit lately. It hasn’t affected your work—yet—but with Zuri being her usual pain in the ass self and that business with the souls, you’ve got to get your head in the game.”
“Never?” Aislinn scoffed, unknowing of the other conversation that was taking place between the Archangel and the voice of his conscience. “You’ve never questioned his will? Don’t you have a mind of your own? Free will and all that? Do you do everything he asks you to?”
“I am the Angel of Light.” Nathan said witheringly to them both, “All my life, I have devoted myself to duty. I surrender to His will alone and obey. Do not question my commitment or devotion to the Lord.”
“You really are an arrogant douchebag!” Aislinn said through her teeth. “How many times are you going to blow your own horn? Next time, blow it up your ass!”
Walt’s voice was edged with dry amusement. “The girl does have a point. You might as well go around saying, ‘Look at me. Look at me’, with all your self-righteous, ‘I am the Angel of Light’ talk. It’s a wee bit sanctimonious, my lad.”
“Enough!” Nathan roared. “What does an angel have to do around here to get a little respect? I know who I am. And I know my duty.”
At that, Nathan’s body began to shine like a polished jewel, gleaming in the moonlight. His pale face, as bright as a flash of lightning, burned against the blaze of his dark eyes. Wings of shimmering pearly white unfurled from his shoulder blades, and scalloped feathered wingtips of a span far greater than twice his body length stretched toward the heavens.
“Let me do my job.”
“Well, it’s about bloody time,” Walt said, satisfied.
She should have been scorched by his sudden blaze, but not even the tips of her hair were singed. The Archangel held out his hands in an act of benediction. Sound poured forth, poignant and powerful. The angel’s voice boomed around her like the roar of a great crowd, reverberating across the city, filling every particle of air and water, everywhere and nowhere all at once. It was a pure note that rose above all Earthly sound.
His voice engulfed Aislinn and she threw her hands over her ears as he finally raised his head, briefly locking eyes with her. The temptation to fall into those strange, glittering eyes—against all reason pitch dark like falling into an abyss when the world was nothing in its first creation—held her enthralled.
He did not draw his sword, yet Aislinn felt the danger he projected and hastily stepped back against the ramparts. The sinuous, pure-white source of light energy that moved through the angel’s body made him appear to pulse, like a beacon of seraphic light in the darkness.
Dust and debris started to lift from the ground against the pull of gravity. Rain ran in reverse. The shards of Aislinn’s skean rose into the air and, against the strength of the force tugging at it, the hilt flew out of her frail grasp.
Aislinn cried out in shocked dismay and sudden fear, falling to the ground. Her body was buffeted by an extraordinary, chaotic force. She rolled to her feet near the edge of the Bloody Tower and held on to solid stone. Shielding her eyes, she could no longer bear to look upon his brilliance. Her skin felt astonishingly hot, as if it was ready to burn and blister under his radiance.
Unexpectedly, a cool, black veil was dropped over her with a slight tingling sensation, but she briefly caught the flicker of the orange-blue and white flame now burning brightly in Nathan’s hands. Somehow, she intuitively knew that these were forged from sun and moon, the chief heavenly lights in creation. Sparks flew from the skean as if it were laid on an invisible anvil and an immortal blacksmith was hammering the shards back into shape.
Behind the dark veil, she was protected from the seraphic light which burst forth.
The Archangel was lit with an inner radiance like a furnace, growing in strength until he burned brightly against the night. He could not shed his kinetic energy until, like the spark that ignited the flame, it was released with a big bang as if stars collided above.
Then all the fires went out and she was smothered in the protective darkness again. She could hear only the bang of blood in her ears, still covered by her hands. Her blood was racing in her veins and she felt alive to the elements for the first time in centuries, experiencing both heat and cold which permeated her skin, causing her to shiver.
Aislinn assumed this was the Archangel’s doing, but it was Walt who was careful to ensure she was spared the seraphic light that burned so brilliantly from Nathan’s form, knowing she would not have survived its intensity.
And through it all, the archangel’s blood called to her. She could feel it as if she was drowning, and the night sky rippling, and the stars fading. All she knew as her skean was re-forged was that the blood in her veins responded to the archangel’s light. Every cell in her body felt like it was flowering, blooming, bursting. Her blood moved so rapidly in the endless ebb and flow of time, she thought she would die.
But she didn’t die.
Instead, there was a sudden, soft hush. The world quieted. The rains abated.
There was a faint, tinted glow from the first stirrings of the sun which still hovered below the horizon, and the diamond-lit velvet sky was noticeably paler as the stars began to wink and disappear, one by one.
The protective veil slid from her form unnoticed.
Aislinn’s eyes locked with the archangel. She blinked in confusion as if awakening from a dream. She dropped her hands from her ears and straightened. She didn’t know what she had been expecting, but it wasn’t this.