Author’s Note: This is the first chapter of the story I’m going to share on this blog. Although I try to make it clear in the story who each of the characters are, they are mentioned in my other fantasy novels, like The Princess’s Bride, Child of the Dragon Gods, and The Light of the Dragon, which are all available on Amazon.
However, this story is a standalone and you shouldn’t need to have read any of those books to enjoy this one and understand what’s going on. I will reference events that happened in previous books, but I will give enough detail that you don’t need to read them (unless you want to. 😉 )
Please let me know if you like what you’ve read and want to see more. I’m open to both comments and critiques (just please remember that there is a person behind this keyboard when you criticize 😉 )
The men arrived on a day when dust danced on the wind, filling each breath with sand so fine that even the silken scarves of the nobility couldn’t filter it. People struggled with a wracking cough as the angry fingers of Zephrona, goddess of the air, tugged at their brightly-colored scarves and long tunics. In contrast, the travelers—each mounted atop a black destrier—moved across the landscape like a portentous cloud, dark and forbidding in their ebony clothes and obsidia armor.
The wind left them alone. As they advanced through the white stone and red clay buildings of Cabez, not a single breeze ruffled their cloaks or tugged on their cowls to reveal more of their bone-white masks.
Febe watched the solemn procession from the battlement of her mother’s castle, ignoring the wind that tried to strip her bare, pulling at her silken robe and bejeweled scarf with all the passion of an eager lover.
The funereal air of the men suited their nature, and it was that nature that frightened her. Not because they were men, for Febe had never encountered one of those not cowed into gentleness by the power of her mother’s matriarchy. It was also not because these men were warriors, though Febe had never seen their kind in person.
She knew of the great-sword-wielding barbarians, of course. Her mother had sent Febe’s war engines against enough of their kind, but they seemed to be pitiful creatures in her mind, playing with primitive weapons against her ballistae, her thunder-pipes, and the finest explosives her sister could invent. Barselor’s army of artillerywomen and engineers had leveled battlefields before the enemy even reached their lightly-armored infantry. Other nations found it more advisable to simply bargain with Queen Isa than attempt to invade.
These warriors were far from pitiful in person, but their massive size and heavy armor wasn’t what had her clinging to the parapet against the scouring wind simply to keep them in her sight. They were dressed like Morbidon’s reapers for a reason. These men escorted a necromancer, a servant of the god of death.
Unfortunately for her peace of mind, Febe couldn’t identify which of the macabrely dressed men was the necromancer. Despite the drab black, gray, and white of their attire, they each wore elaborate skull masks and carved armor plates with countless swirls and designs that didn’t mean anything to someone not versed in the arcane rituals of Morbidon’s servants.
Febe certainly wasn’t versed in it. Like most sane people, she avoided invoking the dread patron god of Halidor. Any study of his lore was risky. Yet her mother embraced the idea of becoming a lich queen and had already spent a fortune that belonged to the people of Barselor to court the necromancers of Halidor into granting her the knowledge to become one.
Febe trusted mathematics over magic on any day. She wouldn’t trade a single charcoal pencil for a spell to turn a person into one of the undead. Unfortunately, her mother—facing her own mortality—had grown to covet an immortal life, and an eternal rule over Barselor which would bar her three daughters from ever ascending to the throne.
Queen Isa had been so eager to become a lich queen that she’d allied with Halidor against Ariva several rotas ago on only the promise of such a spell. Halidor had lost the battle, and Barselor had lost both soldiers and war engines, but apparently, Isa had not lost her determination.
The procession was close to the castle drawbridge now, and Febe bit her lip as she waited to see if the gatekeeper would truly allow these people in. As the bridge began to lower, smooth and almost soundless due to Febe’s superior design, she felt a tightening in her gut.
It wasn’t surprising that the gatekeeper didn’t dare defy Isa’s orders by keeping the unwelcome visitors out. Febe considered proposing a temporary alliance with her sisters to put a stop to her mother’s latest scheming, but she wasn’t certain if things had grown that dire yet. Even speaking with her sisters was akin to walking into combat.
Rather than risk the hidden dagger or concealed poison that would certainly await, Febe decided against action for the moment. After all, if she hadn’t been told of the necromancer’s arrival until the last moment, then neither had her sisters. Her mother was nothing if not predictable in that regard. She kept all three of them equally in the dark so as to continue the rivalry that had long-ago destroyed any sisterly bond they might have had.
The people whispered that Isa despaired of their endless battles, but Febe knew the truth. Isa never wanted to turn her kingdom over to her daughters, so she kept them from uniting against her by pitting them against each other.
As the heavy mounts carrying the interlopers crossed the bridge with a clatter much louder than the smooth mechanics that operated it, Febe turned away from the parapet, clutching at her robes to keep them from whipping even further in the ceaseless wind. With quick steps, she hurried back to her laboratory, where she would be safe behind a series of deadly traps.
Morbidon regarded the elderly queen with distaste he didn’t bother to conceal. His mask hid it well enough from the woman and her courtiers. His reapers shifted around him, their subtle movements imperceptible to the mortals who looked upon them with fear and awe. The reapers were responding to his mood, so he forced himself to regain calm. His servants settled around him, maintaining the façade he wanted to project. “The priests have responded to your imperious summons, but do not take that as any approval from Morbidon.”
The withered woman leaned forward on her carved and gilded throne. “I allied with Prince Onian because of a promise.” She slammed her fist down on the arm of the throne like a child throwing a tantrum. “That promise was not kept!”
Morbidon shrugged, once again pushing away his aggravation at her disrespect. She had no idea who she was dealing with, and for the moment, he intended to keep it that way. “The promise was that you would be turned into a lich if you helped Halidor defeat the Arivans and claim the ginacite mines.”
Isa’s silver brows meet over dark eyes that were still as sharp as pinpoints despite the map of wrinkles corrugating a face that had once been stunning. “The defeat was a failure on Halidor’s part. We relied on their information. No one mentioned dragons.”
It had not been just any dragon who’d defeated Morbidon’s servants, but rather Tolmac, the god of fire. Morbidon was grateful for his mask because it hid his scowl from the queen and her court, but again the reapers shifted around him, detecting his anger.
Tolmac had apologized for his interference, but that had not changed the outcome, or the fact that Tolmac had set himself up as the guardian of the resource-rich Ariva. All because of a woman. How could the son of Cindara have grown so weak? “That doesn’t change the deal you made with the Prince.”
The queen seemed to realize she was getting nowhere with anger. She leaned back and steepled her fingers in front of her. “It’s true that I allowed victory to be a deciding factor for my transformation. I’m sure you can agree that it didn’t seem possible we could lose to the Arivans.” Her tone dripped with bitter contempt. “However, Barselor still has much to offer with an alliance. Halidor has never recovered from the defeat at Ulrick’s Pass.”
“It seems your spies are at least minimally competent, Queen Isa.” Halidor’s difficulties were hardly a secret. With Prince Onian in disgrace, and a priest king who’d been elected rather than inheriting the throne causing civil unrest, Morbidon’s most loyal servants had not been able to recover from the financial ruin started by the old king and completed by the ill-advised war.
Her smug smile fattened her cheeks. Morbidon ground his teeth, feeling them sharpen as a hot spike of rage coursed through him. He could end her now, with just a touch, before her paltry guards could even move to block him. That she dared to be so confident, as if she had the upper hand when she was the one asking the favor, was almost the undoing of his subterfuge. Let the pathetic little mortal see his glory, then join his kingdom in her agonizing death.
The reapers at his sides and back fanned out, ready to carry out his wishes with unquestioning loyalty.
Suddenly the air grew heavy in the throne room and time slowed to a molasses drip. Dust motes froze in the beam of light coming through the arched windows.
The voice of the goddess of life flowed into the throne room. “Surely you don’t believe you have such power here, do you, brother?” Her tinkling laugh scraped like claws along Morbidon’s nerves.
“Vivacel, show yourself, or be gone. I have no time to deal with you.”
The dust motes shifted aside, making way for the light to take shape as the form of a beautiful woman appeared. “You have all the time in the world. We can argue like this forever.” She drew her hand through the motes, leaving behind a gap as time completely stopped.
“We have been arguing like this forever!” He regretted raising his voice as soon as he did it, aware that she’d once again caused him to lose his composure. Though he was only younger than her by a few moments, he’d spent his entire existence at a disadvantage in arguments with his twin. She pushed him into a rage easily, while never seeming to lose control over her own emotions.
Vivacel floated to him, touching his mask with slender fingers formed of light. “Dear brother, we needn’t argue at all.”
Morbidon turned his head away, breaking contact with her. “This argument only ends when you reverse what you’ve done, Vivacel.”
Lips drawing tight, Vivacel shook her head. “You’re so stubborn. Are you not here to grant Isa immortality? Why would you still hold such anger at my doing the same for other mortals?”
“Becoming a lich is not the same thing as becoming a demi-god!” Morbidon shook his head and brushed past her, approaching the throne where the queen still sat with her superior smile frozen upon her face. “You’ve not only stolen from me in the past, you continue to steal souls from me.” He turned to regard her over one shoulder. “Did you think I wouldn’t know about your temple of revenants?”
She feigned a yawn in the way that had always infuriated Morbidon. “Very well, carry your grudge like the burden it is.” Her glowing silver eyes narrowed. “But do not think you can harm these souls under my protection without repercussion.”
Since he had been thinking about doing exactly that, Morbidon had no defense against her accusation. “She’s a foul soul. I’d be doing the world a favor.”
Vivacel chuckled. “You pretend altruism you’re incapable of, brother. Whatever you do is done for your own benefit.” She raised her arms and swirled her fingers in the air. “I won’t stop you from making her a lich if that is her wish. Whatever havoc such a creature will wreak upon this mortal world is on your head.” A wreath of light flowed from her fingers to surround Queen Isa. “But I will protect her from your wrath. Do what you’ve come for, or not. Then leave here. You’re not welcome.” With a final glare in his direction, Vivacel faded back into the light beam, and time started moving at its regular pace again, the dust motes swirling wildly in the disturbed air where she’d been.
Isa blinked in confusion at seeing Morbidon’s reapers spread out around him. Her eyes widened in comprehension, then narrowed. She flicked her fingers, and a series of clicking sounds emanated from the galley above the throne. Morbidon glanced up at the guards holding weapons that fired projectiles far faster than any arrow. Thunder-pipes, he’d heard his servants call them, named after the roaring sound they made when they released projectiles. Many a soul in his underworld kingdom had fallen to one. For any mortal, such weapons would be deadly, even with the armor he and his servants were wearing. He didn’t fear the weapons for no one he’d brought were burdened by mortality, but he’d come here for a purpose, so he gestured for his reapers to stand down.
Believing she’d cowed him and his men into submission, Isa’s arrogant smile returned.
Recalling that Vivacel’s ward still lay upon her, he shrugged off his anger at her disrespect and returned to the matter at hand. “You summoned me here for a reason. I’m certain it wasn’t for target practice.” He crossed his arms over his carved breastplate.
“Yes, let’s get back to that. I have a proposal to make in return for the spell to make me in—“
“Mother!” A strident voice cut-off the queen with one word spoken in a tone that made it sound like a curse.
Morbidon sighed inwardly at this new interruption. He’d already grown tired of this game. He’d been curious about Isa and what she could do for him. She was a formidable human, and had amassed a powerful army of war engines and explosive artillery. Though the current patron goddess of Barselor was Zephrona, Morbidon’s twin sister Vivacel had a strong foothold in this land and the hearts of its people. With Isa as a lich, and Morbidon holding her phylactery, he could dislodge their influence and supplant it with his own.
Yet he had no desire to contend with the three women now filing into the throne room. Her daughters were well known—even to his servants in Halidor—as scheming murderers willing to do almost anything to win the throne from each other. Keeping them from inheriting the throne and tearing Barselor apart had been the ostensible reason for Isa’s unusual obsession with becoming a lich.
Morbidon had more than a few souls in his kingdom that’d been dispatched by the daughters for one reason or another. He had many more that’d been dispatched by Isa in her rise to power and her attempts to hold onto it. The daughters were truly a pale reflection of their mother.
They were, however, younger and more beautiful than he’d anticipated, given the age of their mother. Though on second look, he saw that it wasn’t physical beauty so much as some quality that shone through their rather ordinary appearance. Shifting to his dragon sight so he could see their auras more clearly, he found them less corrupted with evil than he’d expected. Certainly, there was the black of death churning among the colors of their souls, but it wasn’t as pervasive as the darkness that nearly consumed the queen. These souls were not wholly lost to the evils they’d committed. It was a curious observation. One that piqued his interest enough for a closer examination.
The brightest of the waning souls was the middle sister, Febe, who watched him with eyes the same dark brown as her mother’s and just as sharp. She held herself with visible tension, her hands clasped tight in front of her. The beads hanging from the high comb in her braided mahogany hair clicked softly from the fine trembling in her body. Swirls of yellow fear twisted through her pastel pink aura, trickling into the wisps of black from deaths she’d caused. The fear contrasted with her two sisters who held themselves with the same arrogant self-confidence as their mother, no sign of self-doubt in their more vibrant—but also darker—auras.
“Ah, my loving daughters.” Isa’s smile was malicious as she studied the three women. “I had not expected you to join me today.”
The eldest daughter, Emilia, narrowed the same glare on her mother. “Perhaps that’s because of the lack of an invitation, Mother.” Her voice had been the one to interrupt the proceedings in the first place.
Isa waved a hand. “This matter doesn’t concern you. There was no need of an invitation.”
“Maybe you should let us decide whether we’re concerned.” Eldora was the youngest of the three sisters, and had a smooth cultured voice that revealed her years of diplomatic training. From what Morbidon had heard of her, she was the master of Barselor’s spies. Apparently, they had not been as forthcoming to her about this meeting as she would have preferred.
“Do not question me, girl!” Isa clenched her fist on the throne.
All three women flinched as one, the movement barely noticeable. Yellow trickled into the auras of the other two sisters, infecting all three daughters now. Deep and rooted, the color spread through their souls like tiny veins from a lifetime of fears well-fed and nurtured.
“You were speaking of your proposal, Queen Isa.” Morbidon had little patience with watching someone else’s family drama unfold, and much less for the sudden spike of pity he felt for women he’d considered lacking honor or decency.
Isa’s smile took on a new quality: a cruel, sly line that bisected her withered skin. “Indeed. For the spell I desire, I will trade a permanent alliance with Halidor.”
“What?” Emilia turned to her mother as the other two sisters struggled visibly to cover their shock.
Isa held up an imperious hand which Emilia responded to by staggering back, her own hands held up as if to block a blow.
“I will give one of my daughters in matrimony to the Priest king as a symbol of our permanent alliance in exchange for the spell.”
All three sisters gasped as one.
“This is an outrage!” Eldora shook with her fury, her comb coming loose from her honey-gold hair. As the most attractive of the three—and the youngest—perhaps she feared she would be the one sacrificed at the matrimonial altar.
“Barselorian women do not marry!” Emilia held up one fist and shook it at her mother. Suddenly she was surrounded by guards. The uniformed women grabbed Emilia with rough hands and held her as she struggled against their grip.
“Take her to my discipline chamber.” Isa turned to regard her two other daughters as the eldest was hauled away shrieking threats at her mother.
“Is it always this pleasant in your throne room, Your Highness?” Morbidon addressed the queen, but kept his eyes on the middle sister.
Yellow bloomed from thin branches into full blossoms through the pink of Febe’s aura. The shadows of black could barely be seen within the sickly mustard shade as she stared down the corridor where her sister’s screams were growing fainter.
Isa’s response drew his attention back to her. “That was simply a show of spirit. My daughters have many charms, and many gifts. Halidor would be blessed with any one of them.”
The time of Isa’s death was approaching, but not as soon as she must believe in her mortal desperation. Morbidon was well aware that she had several rotas yet before his reapers would come to claim her, but he certainly wasn’t going to tell her that. Her desperation served his purpose.
For her to offer one of her daughters as a bride was unprecedented. The Barselorian kingdom normally didn’t recognize marriage, viewing the practice of it in other kingdoms as enslavement of women. Breeding contracts were a temporary union, quickly dissolved once a child was born. Only women raised Barselorian children. The concept of a father was foreign to them.
Despite the nature of Morbidon’s own father—the dragon prince of the Void demons—he resented Isa and her ilk for robbing their children of knowing the men who’d sired them.
The festering darkness that was Isa’s soul grew even darker before his eyes as she committed to the sacrifice of her daughter to what she believed to be a fate worse than death. She would suffer dearly in her time in the Underworld for her crimes, but until then, she was a threat to all of those around her. Despite Vivacel’s warnings, Morbidon did not fear Isa’s actions if he made her a lich. He was more concerned about what she would do if he didn’t. He could control her when she was his servant, but not now, as she still wore the light-crown of Vivacel’s ward. Ironically, Vivacel had forced his hand on this one.
Isa watched him with rapt attention, perhaps trying to read his reaction through his mask. Eldora watched her mother with her hatred and fear visible on her face as well as through her aura.
The entire court had fallen silent after Emilia’s outburst. They all now waited with anticipation to see what Halidor’s representative would say. His contemplation had taken only moments, but it was clear that it took too long for Febe’s liking. She now shifted her weight, twisting her hands in the fabric of her robe as she watched him from beneath lowered lashes. It wasn’t submissiveness that he sensed in her, but rather someone plotting. The yellow inside her withered, replaced by a bright pink.
Suddenly, he decided that he didn’t want the priest king to have her. The man was neither kind nor cruel, but he was no match for this female who’d survived to adulthood in a place where secret murder plots were as frequent as their breakfast trays. “I’ve considered your proposal, and I reject it.”
Both daughters slumped with audible gasps of relief, and the mask of politeness that had crept across Isa’s face now congealed, hardening to reveal her true disdain for himself and his men. “Then we have nothing else to discuss.” She bit off the last word, twisting her lips as if it tasted bitter. Her guards surrounded his men. In the galley, the guards leveled thunder-pipes upon them as the queensguards motioned for him to leave the presence of the queen.
But Morbidon was not finished with this meeting. He would not leave Barselor without Febe. The idea that had unfurled like a seedling in his mind now strengthened its roots. “I didn’t say there would be no alliance. Your daughters are truly talented. This is known throughout the Southlands. One of them would be a worthy match for the Priest King, but he would not be a worthy match for her.”
Isa’s eyebrows rose, pushing a wave of wrinkles to her hairline. “No man is a worthy match for a woman of Barselor, but I sense you have something in mind that still involves a marriage alliance.”
Morbidon took a step towards the throne, ignoring the weapons trained on him as he brushed past the guards—all large, strong women, but still less than a third the size of any member of his retinue. “Perhaps a man isn’t worthy of one of your daughters, but a god is. Your daughter, Febe, shall be joined to Morbidon as his bride.”
Shock bled all color from Febe’s aura. “I will not marry a monster!” She ran to her mother’s throne and kneeled at the side of it. “Mother, please! We can find another way. Do not do this!”
Morbidon clenched his fists at her words. He knew that many mortals viewed him as a creature of evil, and perhaps they weren’t entirely wrong, but to have her speak such views so baldly in front of him struck him with an unexpected pain. He couldn’t believe she would truly prefer remaining here where assassination waited around every dark corner and her mother’s cruelty bred curdling fear deep into her soul.
Isa pushed Febe away from the arm of her throne, pulling away from her daughter’s touch as if it burned her. Other than that, she paid no mind to the distressed princess, her mask of detached arrogance back in place, though Morbidon could sense her elation. “A god, hmm. Still male, so still not worthy—“
Anger rushed through Morbidon yet again. “Tread carefully, woman. I’ve abided your disrespect for long enough.”
The queen shrugged; still convinced she had the upper hand with her special weapons. “I accept your offer, and grant Febe to your god.” She glanced at her daughter’s stricken expression. “When the transformation is complete.”
A strange feeling coursed through Morbidon that he didn’t recognize. He couldn’t qualify it, so he tried to ignore it, but every time he looked upon the mortal woman he had claimed as his bride, he couldn’t push it away. She believed him to be a monster. For the first time in his extremely long life, he wanted to prove someone wrong about that.