Authors Note: Writing this book and publishing it chapter by chapter is quite a challenge compared to the way I normally do things. However, I’m really enjoying it. I can’t wait to get the next chapter out as well, because I’m excited about what’s going to happen next. I hope you enjoy! Also, just wanted to let everyone know that Lilith’s Fall is on sale on Amazon for only 0.99 cents! This is for a limited time only, so if you wanted to get a copy, now’s the time to do it! That bit of news out of the way, here’s what you came for. 😉
A blizzard raged just beyond the painted wooden fence that surrounded Vivacel’s secret mountain temple. Febe sat upon a stone bench surrounded by flowers blooming in riotous colors, with no rhyme or reason to their arrangement and left to grow where they willed. It was a far different garden from the kind where she’d spent her life wandering.
Her mind was more like the blizzard assaulting the temple’s weather wards than the peaceful garden where she whiled away the free time she was given. It had been just over a ten-cycle since Vivacel had brought her here, spiriting her out of the castle in a very literal sense.
The amount of magic that must have been required to make both her and the goddess non-corporeal was impossible for Febe to quantify. It had been a strange experience drifting past the unsuspecting guards and spies set by her sister to keep her in her place. After that experience, she no longer doubted Vivacel’s power, or that of any of the AllGods, which made her escape all the more important. If Vivacel could harness such power, then surely Morbidon had equally as much, if not more, at his disposal. She’d been wise to run. Vivacel’s power centered on life, but Febe still didn’t trust her motives. The god of the dead’s motives might be so much worse.
These thoughts kept her awake at night, but they weren’t the ones that mirrored the blizzard now. Instead, it was thoughts of the future she could have if she managed to escape this repugnant marriage bargain she’d had no part in making. Even if Morbidon gave up on her and married one of her sisters, Febe would be unable to return to her life in Barselor—not that that situation would be desirable to return to anyway.
It wasn’t just that she’d be forever branded as a traitor for disobeying the queen, nor was it because there would still be a risk of Morbidon’s anger towards her. She wasn’t sure if gods forgot those kinds of insults and didn’t want to test the theory out. It wasn’t even that her mother would by now be a lich, a hideous undead monster sitting upon the throne. All of those were valid reasons to fear returning home, but they weren’t the reason she wouldn’t be going back.
Here in the temple, the priestesses—all unaging revenants—had treated her with utmost kindness and respect. Not once had she felt in fear for her life since she’d arrived, though she still set traps and still tested everything she ate. Old habits die hard, and Febe suspected these habits, learned over a lifetime, would never die. Her life was good here, peaceful and full of productive work. She’d already updated some of the infrastructure in the ancient temple, adding a pump to the well and installing pipes directly into the kitchen with the help of the novitiates. There was plenty more she could do, and none of it involved building engines to kill people or sack cities.
She could be happy with a future spent forever behind the wards that protected the temple from the inclement weather that plagued this distant mountain top in Terroc’s Ring mountain range, and also protected the temple from Morbidon and his servants.
Unfortunately, Vivacel wasn’t willing to accept her as a permanent resident of the temple. Unlike the others, the goddess had made it clear on her rare appearances that Febe was only a temporary guest. This was why Febe was certain that Vivacel had her own plans for Febe. Plans that she’d yet to reveal, perhaps because she knew that Febe would reject them.
It might be time for Febe to attempt another escape, from yet another god. The logistics of it would take some time to plan. She’d been flown here on the back of a silver dragon—the dragon form of Vivacel—and had no way of knowing if there were even paths back down the mountain. That was if she could find clothing and supplies to protect her through the wintery conditions on the mountainside beyond the wards.
Plans spun in her head, presented by a busily working brain, and then just as quickly rejected by her pragmatic side. Though Vivacel had given no indication that her time was running out, Febe still felt the burden of time passing. For the goddess, temporary could be a hundred rotas. Some of the priestesses had lived far beyond that. Febe wasn’t going to take any chances though.
“The blizzard beyond provides an excellent backdrop for reflection.”
Febe jumped at the sound of head priestess Lengala’s voice. She shivered in recognition of the fact that she hadn’t even heard the woman approach, not because Lengala was stealthy, but because she’d been too preoccupied. Even though she should be safe here for the moment, she was concerned that she’d let her guard down so completely. She turned to greet the woman, smiling though she felt no particular joy at having her thoughts interrupted. “Hello, Madam Priestess. I hope this cycle finds you well.”
Lengala nodded once, a slight smile on her unlined face. Her features were pleasant and matronly—not beautiful, but comforting. Febe had no idea what her true age was, because Lengala had completely white hair but not a single visible wrinkle or age-spot.
“Please, call me Lengala. I am in good health and content.” She studied Febe with blue eyes so pale they were almost white and made Febe fear that the priestess could see right through her. “And what of you, young princess? How does this cycle find you?”
Febe shrugged, scrambling for the right words to answer Lengala without inspiring any suspicion within her that Febe was no longer content and didn’t trust the goddess they worshipped so faithfully. “I’ve found a great deal to occupy me here. You’ve all made me feel very welcome and appreciated.” That, at least, could be said with full truthfulness.
Lengala tilted her head, her pale gaze never leaving Febe’s face. “And yet, you still seek the garden and your own company over that of others. You prefer to be alone, but are not comforted by it. Loneliness leaves you vulnerable to your own mind.”
Febe hadn’t considered her loneliness a vulnerability. She’d always felt it like a shadow crouching in the corner, so ubiquitous that she didn’t even notice it anymore. In fact, loneliness was even less noticeable than the shadows, since it didn’t potentially conceal an assassin. It simply was an inescapable part of her life. If anything, avoiding trusting others was what had kept her alive for so long. “I like to have time to think.” To plan.
Lengala picked her way through the flowers and sat down on the other side of the bench, shifting so that she faced Febe, leaning one elbow on the back of the bench. “And what thoughts bring you so much happiness, yet carve such a deep frown between your brows?”
Febe feared that Lengala would guess her intention to avoid whatever plan the goddess had for her. That could put her in deeper trouble than she was already in with Morbidon. After all, she had no one to help her escape Vivacel. Not one of the residents of this temple would go against their goddess. Instead, she tried to deflect the priestess’s attention by focusing on what Lengala seemed to find noteworthy. “I have been somewhat lonely. It’s difficult for me to feel comfortable around others.” She shrugged as if that confession hadn’t startled her with the pain it brought saying it aloud. It was as if voicing it had given those words the strength to truly affect her.
Lengala only nodded at her words, prompting Febe to wonder how much the goddess had revealed about her situation to the head priestess. “All the acolytes who are brought here by the goddess have suffered greatly in the mortal world. Few are quick to trust. We understand your loneliness, Febe.” She patted Febe’s hand resting on the bench seat between them. “We won’t rush you, or push you to make friends, but you should know that we’re here and willing to help you.”
She waited until Lengala set her hand back in her own lap before sliding her hand to her side, tucking it against her leg rather than having it exposed on the bench seat where the priestess could pat her again. It had been awkward enough the first time. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched her who didn’t want her dead. Except for perhaps Vivacel, who wanted something else from her, perhaps something even worse than her death. “I appreciate all that you’ve already done for me. I will make a concerted effort to join the group more often.”
Lengala’s smile was filled with benevolence as she turned her gaze to the blizzard. “There’s such anger in the storm, isn’t there?”
The abrupt change of subject caught Febe off-guard. She gaped at the wall of snow flurries, wondering what Lengala expected for a response. “I don’t think the storm has any feelings. It just is.”
Lengala never took her eyes off the blizzard. “Never assume a lack of emotion.” Her soft smile tightened. “Those who seem to care the least are often the ones who can be hurt the most.”
Febe had never been good at these philosophical discussions. To her, it was just a storm. Not everything had to relate to something else. Yet Lengala remained sitting there in silence, as if she expected a reply. No doubt a reply that reflected some deep observation Febe felt unqualified to impart. Of course, perhaps Lengala had guessed that Febe had been feeling a kinship to the storm at that moment. “I never said I didn’t care.”
Lengala turned, her smile brightening into a full grin. “Dear child, I wasn’t talking about you.” She rose gracefully to her feet, smoothing the fabric of her lavender linen robe so that it lay neatly over her matronly form. Before Febe could respond to her words, she dipped her head, her heavy plait swinging forward. “Be well, Princess Febe. I will see you at dinner.”
“Be well, Lengala.” Febe watched her walk through the flowers, her robe sweeping against the bobbing blooms in passing like an old friend saying goodbye. She considered calling the priestess back and asking her who she’d been speaking of, but decided against it. As Lengala had said, every resident in this temple had a history in the mortal world. What Lengala had been talking about may not have anything to do with Febe at all.
Lengala’s interruption had thrown Febe out of her contemplative mood. Now she felt anxious with the need to get up and do something. Worse, she couldn’t let go of Lengala’s last words. They spun around in her mind, chasing her escape plans in never-ending circles. As she rose to her feet and cast one last look out at the storm, she swore she saw the silhouette of a large man among the flurries. When she blinked, he was gone, leaving behind no trace of his existence in the raging white wall of snow.