Author’s Note: I had a tough time writing this chapter, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I go through these phases where I hate everything I write. I just so happen to be in one of those phases. They last for about a week or two, and when I work on a full manuscript they’re usually not a problem because I’ll go back and edit when I’m in a better mood. Since I’m publishing this book as I write it, I don’t get that luxury. So, I can’t really judge this chapter very well at this point.
The second reason is that I struggled with whether I should add a new character. I thought about cutting Farmer out altogether because he wasn’t supposed to be there in my original outline, but after introducing what was supposed to be a throwaway character, his courage and determination in the face of a terrifying opponent made it difficult to just have him leave after the scene. This is one of those cases where my characters take on a life of their own.
Let me know if you have any input on either of these issues. I’m interested to hear feedback other than my own, which is not always helpful. 😉
The screaming was beginning to annoy Morbidon. He never understood why they always screamed. Surely, they’d researched the process of becoming a lich. Yet every time he performed the ritual, they seemed unprepared for the pain. Isa had been no different in that respect. From what he’d heard and seen, she’d spent many rotas dreaming of this moment, pestering his servants and those mages who practiced his art for this chance. Yet all her self-control and composure melted away in an instant when the aether began to flow around her.
Morbidon was impatient to get the procedure over with and claim his new bride. A strange buzzing feeling thrummed at the base of his skull whenever he thought of Febe, standing there in the Great Hall, facing her mother’s plans with her aura turning plotting-pink, determination to overcome any obstacle clear in the strength of her spine and the fierceness of her stance. Yet there had been soft femininity there as well, and an appealing vulnerability that called for him to protect her.
There was certainly no shortage of dangers to protect Febe from. As he held the phylactery of Queen Isa in his gauntleted fist, he promised that there was now at least one less. Isa would never harm Febe again. She wouldn’t be able to.
The queen now writhed in pain as his reapers surrounded her, chanting the spells that would channel his power into the change, morphing her body into an undead vessel to bind her soul to the living world. He felt the pull of aether away from him and breathed in deeply, drawing in the ambient aether to replenish his power.
This was what it meant to be a god. The unlimited potential of his power was something few could match in the mortal world. This ritual had very little effect on him, even as he provided the power for it. In the Underworld, his power was even greater, because the souls of the dead fed an almost endless well for him to draw from.
Isa arched her back until she was nearly bent in half, the base of her skull pushing towards her naked heels. Her mouth pulled into a rictus of agony as her flesh withered, peeling away in places as rot set in. Aether howled through the ritual room, tearing at the body in the center, stripping away all trappings of life and leaving behind a corpse that would never fully decompose, not as long as the phylactery remained intact.
The queen’s soul struggled to escape the confines of her flesh, but shackles of aether wrapped around it, binding her into her eternal prison. Her head turned towards him as he stood at the boundary of the spell circle. Her eyes—almost popping out in a face of wizened flesh—widened even further as understanding dawned. She’d done this for power, sacrificing one of her daughters to a god’s marriage bed to maintain her eternal rule over her kingdom, but in the end, she was a mere puppet for Morbidon.
As the reapers chanted the last lines of the spell, he held up her phylactery to drive home the point. One final scream rewarded him as Isa’s undead body shivered, spasming on the marble floor, blood and bile pooling around her. Then it was done, and the new lich queen collapsed, lying as still as any corpse until Morbidon chose to trace the runes on the phylactery.
He contemplated the magical glass phial in his hand and the combination of blood and aether that endlessly swirled inside it. The glittering runes that would awaken his new servant squirmed over the slick glass surface. He spun it around in his hand for a few moments as he stared down at it, barely seeing it. Then he slipped it into the pouch at his waist. Isa could wait.
Her most trusted honor guards had remained throughout the ritual, which impressed him. They were made of sturdier stuff than he would have expected. Still, the faces of the two women were pale and they trembled visibly. They both watched him as he strode towards the doors, yet neither of them seemed courageous enough to stop him or even to speak. No doubt seeing what he’d done to their queen gave them pause.
The guard who did dare to stop him had not been present during the ritual, but she approached him just beyond the chamber. “Where is my queen?”
He waited for a moment before answering, just to see how brave this woman would be. Her expression remained firm and severe even as the seconds ticked off while she glared at the mask that concealed any expression he might have had. “She rests inside. She will awaken at sundeath as an immortal lich.”
A brief flicker of disgust and fear crossed the woman’s face before it was well-concealed behind her mask of severity. “Then it’s done. I would see her.”
Morbidon shrugged and stepped to the side, gesturing that she should pass him. She shot him one last suspicious glance before she strode towards the doors. Just as she swept by him, he caught her arm in a firm grip. “Where is Morbidon’s bride? I will collect her now and begin my journey back to Halidor.”
The woman shook her arm free, glaring at him with hatred. For him, or his touch, he wasn’t certain and didn’t care. Only Febe concerned him now. “She waits in her room. Proceed to the Great Hall, and you’ll be taken care of.”
He was already walking away before she finished speaking.
The Great Hall was much emptier compared to when he’d last appeared before Isa. He’d expected another one of the angry female guards to be his guide to Febe’s chamber. Instead, a burly man dressed in farming clothes—although still armed with a serviceable sword—stood waiting for him. Sweat coated the man’s sun-browned skin. The tension in his oversized body was evident, but his feet were firmly planted in a clear message that he wasn’t going anywhere. This man wasn’t to be his guide to his new bride. This man was here to try and stop him.
Ah, I see. Perhaps I should have listened better to that guard. When she said I would be taken care of, she wasn’t speaking of hospitality. Morbidon shook his head at the pointless waste. No doubt this man is yet another innocent, sacrificed because the daughters of Isa are unwilling to uphold their mother’s honor—as stained and unworthy as it was. Selfish women!
Febe would learn under his careful tutelage, but the others would continue with their selfish ways until Morbidon had Isa dancing to his tune. Many changes were coming to Barselor.
Incidents like this only gave him more enthusiasm for his upcoming marriage. There was so much he could teach Febe. She would learn about honor and loyalty, things which had been clearly lacking in her life.
His mind was so filled with thoughts of Febe that it took him a moment to realize that the man had spoken. “My Lord Necromancer.” The man managed not to spat the words but it was clear that he wanted to as he drew his sword and leveled it on Morbidon with the air of one who knew how to handle it.
Morbidon drew his sword, enjoying the way it sang its note of freedom as it left his sheath. He liked to think it was singing also for blood. “The words are correct, but you need to work on your tone.” In truth, he wasn’t in a patient mood, particularly when the farmer didn’t take the hint. “Where is the bride? She should be ready to travel.”
Though the farmer’s hand was steady on the sword, his body trembled and sweat still coated his skin. “She’ll not be going with you.”
Had his reapers been beside him, they would have felt the instantaneous heat of his rage at the farmer’s words. His cooler head prevailed in time to save the life of the sacrificial fool they’d sent to tell him that Isa’s honor meant nothing to them, and that they did not intend to uphold her bargain.
After regaining control of his anger, he regarded the man, who’d taken several steps away from him and now held his sword in both hands to steady it, shaken by whatever he’d seen when Morbidon was in a rage. It was entirely possible that his mask had changed as he lost control over his anger. It had certainly happened before, and was one of the reasons he had a difficult time pretending to be human.
When he switched to his dragon-sight, the piss-yellow that swirled in the farmer’s purple aura from fear was now obvious to him. Though the farmer had a purple aura, it had been darkened by a life of difficult choices that weren’t always altruistic. It was clear from his stance that he’d been trained and had probably been a soldier once, but the lack of black in his aura showed that he’d never had to shed the blood of his enemy.
Frightened as he was, the farmer hadn’t run from him and was even now still squaring up against him. Such courage intrigued Morbidon. It was possible the man might be useful to him. “Listen close, peasant. The princess has been given to me to take back to my god, Morbidon. I will not fail in that duty.” He pointed his sword at the man. “You are but a mere annoyance in my path, and if you persist, you’ll be nothing but a stain on the floor.”
The farmer didn’t lower his sword, nor did he the bunched muscles of his arms and shoulders relax. “Take Emilia.”
There was a loud gasp from the minstrel’s gallery. Morbidon had become increasingly aware of the feeling of eyes upon them. Now he knew where their audience was. He didn’t turn his attention away from the farmer, but he kept the location of the spies in mind.
Ignoring the sound of outrage from the gallery, the farmer lifted his chin to face Morbidon eye-to-eye. “Eldora will never come around to the marriage. She’ll plot and plan and work to subvert her husband every moment of her life. Married to Eldora, there would be no peace for the God of the Dead.”
Morbidon sheathed his sword and crossed his arms over his chest-plate. “So, Eldora is the knife my immortal lord must always watch for. He may find that invigorating. And Emilia… let’s see, wasn’t she the alchemist who routinely tries out her newest batches of poison on people who are inconvenient to her. Perhaps my immortal lord might not mind the indigestion. They do both sound like lovely girls.”
The man’s lips tightened. “I said Emilia would be the better of the two as a god’s bride. Eldora is not for your god!” The last was spoken with ferocity that belied the man’s obvious fear.
Morbidon was growing tired of this game. He didn’t give a damn about Emilia or Eldora. There was only one bride he wanted to claim. “Take me to Febe. She will be Morbidon’s new bride.”
The farmer’s shoulders slumped, though he kept the sword raised. “I’m afraid that’s going to be a problem, My Lord Necromancer.” The yellow swirling among the purple of his aura curdled like cheese, hardening within him, but also seeming to harden his resolve. He was terrified at what the end result of his bad news would be, yet he wasn’t standing down.
“Tell me where she is.” Struggling to retain control over his human form, Morbidon’s voice dropped to its true bass, like the sound of a tomb door closing. For the moment, his anger was in check… barely.
The farmer’s words came out in a rush. “Princess Febe has escaped. We’ve searched everywhere. The other princesses have done all they can to find her and bring her back. They’ve tapped all their networks. No one knows how she got out. Her door was locked from the outside and there were no windows. She just seemed to vanish.”
At first, Morbidon heard nothing after “Princess Febe has escaped.” The rage threatened to consume him. The bones of his wings pushed at the skin of his back, eager to break free and begin the transformation into his dragon form. She ran from me! What does she run to? There is no better future than I can give her! Then the last thing the farmer said caught his attention, freezing his burning anger into an icy fury. “She vanished?”
The farmer nodded, the tip of his sword wavering.
So, Vivacel has decided to involve herself in my affairs once again. He studied the man, thinking about what he should do about him. This farmer currently served Eldora, he’d bet his immortal life on it. Judging by his determination to keep her in the castle, he served a much more intimate capacity than her other servants. That meant the farmer would probably understand these mortal women far better than Morbidon did.
“I have promised Febe to my Lord Morbidon. You and your people have allowed her to escape.” He held up an imperious hand to keep the farmer from objecting or making excuses. “Now, you will help me hunt her down.”
The farmer looked above Morbidon’s head at the shadows in the minstrel’s gallery. After a moment, the man’s frown deepened the lines on his face and he nodded so slightly that if Morbidon wasn’t carefully watching his reaction, he might have missed it. Then his attention returned fully to Morbidon as he sheathed his sword. “I’ll do whatever it takes to bring Febe back, my Lord Necromancer.”
Morbidon wondered if the farmer really believed he would be able to serve two masters. Eldora’s wishes were about to become insignificant to the man. He figured he was doing the farmer a favor on that. “Are you certain you wish to serve me?”
With a final grim glance at the figure on the balcony, he nodded. “I’m certain. What do you need me to do first?”
Morbidon considered the man. “What’s your name?”
The man shrugged. “Name’s Farmer. Least that’s what everyone around here calls me. Works well enough for me.”
Morbidon stroked the chin of his bone mask. “The second thing I’ll need you to do is change your name.”
“And the first thing?”
“The first thing I need you to do is die.” In one swift motion, Morbidon pulled his sword from its sheath and buried it to the hilt in Farmer’s chest.
There was no sound from the minstrel’s gallery. No cry of outrage or grief as the man stared down at the sword in his chest, blood dribbling from his lips.
Yes, I definitely did him a favor.