Cursed to live out eternity in his rotted corpse, Romeo, known for his ruthless, cutthroat ways, is given the chance to redeem himself by traveling back in time to save the life of Ariel Dragland. Unbeknownst to her, Ariel is important to both the evil Mercenaries and the love-promoting Ambassadors and holds the fate of the world in her hands. Romeo must win her heart and make her believe in love, turning her away from her darker potential before his work is discovered by the Mercenaries. While his seduction begins as yet another lie, it soon becomes his only truth. Romeo vows to protect Ariel from harm, and do whatever it takes to win her heart and soul. But when Ariel is led to believe his love is a deception, she becomes vulnerable to Mercenary manipulation, and her own inner darkness may ultimately rip them apart.
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Verona, Italy, 1304
We reach the lonely hilltop just as the sun sets over Verona. Golden light bleeds to a crimson stain that spreads across the city, dipping into every secret place, marking every shadow. Just as her blood seeped from her chest . . . spread out to coat the stones of the tomb. Cold, mute stones. They will keep my terrible secret.
Juliet is dead, and her blood is on my hands.
I hide them beneath my cloak, but I can feel her death clinging to my skin. Warm, sticky, and slick, making it hard to hold the knife Friar Lawrence insisted I carry. This mess is all I have left of the girl I loved. The girl I destroyed. My heart writhes inside me, but I don't make a sound. I don't deserve to mourn her. I deserve this misery and more. I deserve to suffer for all eternity.
And so I follow the friar across the windswept hill, to the place where the poor and ungodly bury their dead. I follow, though I am certain now that the man I trusted with my love's life is a liar and a fiend.
Perhaps even worse. Perhaps I've struck a bargain with Lucifer himself.
"Move the stones. There is a body here that will suit your purpose." The friar grunts as he sinks into the damp grass by the grave. It's a peasant's grave, marked only by a pile of rocks that the dead man's family mounded atop his corpse to keep the animals away. "In the beginning, it's easier if the body is fresh."
I set the knife by his feet and begin shifting the stones, keeping my eyes on my stained hands as I work. Blood. Juliet's blood, drying to a dull brown that cracks and flakes as my fingers flex and release. The wind rushes across the hill, blowing a piece of her away, and the horror hits me anew.
How could I have done this? How could I have been such a fool?
The friar swore my betrayal would be a blessing. He promised Juliet would dance with the angels. She would see the gates of heaven open, and know my sacrifice had delivered her to that land of eternal spring. She would weep to go, but love me all the more for paying her passage.
I thought I was making a noble choice. Juliet and I were penniless, friendless. Death was waiting for us. If not on the road to Mantua, then in the paupers' slum in that unfamiliar city. We were born noble and knew nothing of how to make our own way. I've never filled my own bath, let alone earned a living. I have no skills, no guild, not even a goat or a plot of land to work. Death was a certainty. We would have starved to death, or been murdered in our sleep. The friar agreed that the greatest kindness I could show my wife was to end her suffering before it began, and leave her here to be buried with her family.
But I should have doubted, feared.
I didn't, not until I held her as she drew her last breaths. There was no bliss in her eyes, only agony, the sting of betrayal, and an ominous spark as hatred caught fire and began to burn within her.
Juliet died hating me, and only God himself knows where she is now. Since I was a small boy, I have been taught that suicide is a sin, and that those who take their own lives are damned. I should have listened to the teachings of the Church, not one mad friar who spoke openly of black magic and the end of times. How could I have taken such a risk with my love's soul? How could I have deceived her into thinking I was dead, into believing that driving a knife through her own heart was her only hope of joining me in the world beyond?
A part of me prays it will make a difference that Juliet was tricked into taking her own life. The rest of me knows praying is pointless. I am beyond the reach of anything holy, my lot firmly thrown in with the Mercenaries of the Apocalypse, the dark magicians sworn to bring chaos to the world.
I have made the blood sacrifice and taken the life of the one I cherished most. Now only the vows remain.
"Hurry," the friar says. "The prince's guard will pass through here after nightfall. We must be finished before then."
I reach for another stone. I am ready. I will become the immortal abomination he's tricked me into becoming, and perhaps, in some small way, I will be able to make reparations for what I've done. It is what Juliet would want. She would want me to fight the darkness Friar Lawrence has awoken within me, and bring some small honor back to my life.
Or my death. I'm next to die. I will take the vows, make the mortal marks, and send my soul into another's dead body. It is the Mercenary way--to inhabit the dead--and one more thing the friar failed to mention until Juliet was gone and there was no turning back.
No turning back . . .
One, two, three, four . . . the pile of stones grows at the side of the grave as I uncover my destiny with shaking hands. The first layer is gone now, and the smell is horrific. The sickening sweetness of decay mingles with pungent burial oil and the stink of a long-unwashed man, driving me to the brink of sickness even before I lift the large, flat rock covering the head.
I gasp and pull my hands away.
The face is black with rot. Bloated, monstrous, and infested with insects. A beetle scuttles from what's left of the man's nose, and I stumble backward, bile burning a trail from my core to my lips.
The friar chuckles. "Come now, Romeo. It isn't as bad as all that. Once you've taken the vows, you'll have the power to return that body to its former glory." He leans over to peer into the man's face, nods. "Yes. That's the one. I vow the boy was handsome in life."