Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 17

Author’s Note: I have to admit, this chapter took me by surprise. Yes, I have an outline, and yes, I generally try and (kinda, sorta) follow it, but sometimes unexpected things happen, and that was this chapter. I was sitting there typing and saying, “What???? I didn’t see that coming!” This happens sometimes in my writing, and it’s at that point that I know the story has come alive for me.

Once it starts moving on its own, defying my grand plans for it, I just have to get out of the way and let it go where it wants. Still, I like the direction it took. I hope you do too. Feel free to comment, critique, or just speculate what will happen next. I love hearing from you guys! Thank you for taking the time to check out my post!

Oh yeah, I can’t forget to add a reminder about my Goodreads Giveaway. There’s still time to sign up to win a copy of Lilith’s Fall, signed by yours truly!

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Lilith's Fall by Susan Trombley

Lilith’s Fall

by Susan Trombley

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Chapter 17

Febe awakened to music. The gentle flutes and soft drum beats called to her, drawing her out of the darkness of her unconsciousness. Her body felt strange, and her eyes were difficult to open, but mostly, she just felt empty. A strange, soul-deep emptiness, as if part of her was missing.

The music fell silent as she lifted her head to look in the direction of the players and then pushed herself up to a sitting position on the bed, surprised to realize that she could. She remembered such pain—crippling, agonizing, unimaginable pain. Now, she felt normal. Physically. But there was still that emptiness.

She was in a room that was much larger than her bedroom, and much emptier. There was only her bed lying in the center of a ritual circle. Beyond the ring of candles, she saw the amorphous forms of specters, hovering near the walls that supported a high, vaulted ceiling.

The specters each held an instrument, but as intriguing as that was, her curious gaze was pulled away from them to fix on a robed figure, cowl pulled low to conceal a face she knew for a fact was so handsome it almost hurt to look upon it. Her betrothed. The god that had nearly killed her.

She flinched away from him, though he’d made no move towards her when her attention shifted to him. He remained standing in the center of the ritual circle—a tall, monolithic creature, distant and frightening. His hands glowed with the wraithfire that had caused her so much pain, yet they weren’t burned away to reveal the bones of his skeleton. Wraithfire runes also burned around the ritual circle.

The musicians began to play their music again as Febe stared at him, wondering what she should do, if she could escape whatever plan he had in mind for her—no doubt some vengeance for her words and actions. Deep-voiced chanting joined the music, and Febe dared to look away from Morbidon to glance over her shoulder, where a handful of reapers stood just beyond the burning runes of the circle.

Magic wavered in the air. A heavy presence dropped upon her—the weight of a god’s focus. She’d felt it before, in Vivacel’s temple. Suffocating, grasping, trying to pull her towards it. As before, she strained against it, her entire body tensing in a battle of will to keep the god at a distance.

The chanting grew louder. The music’s tempo sped up. The wraithfire flames leapt higher.

Febe screamed, her mind pushing back against Morbidon’s power, rejecting it with as much force as her ragged soul could muster.

All sound died to silence as the wraithfire immediately extinguished, plunging the chamber into complete darkness.

Febe huddled on the bed, shivering, curling her body up to protect herself from any more assaults in the darkness. A hand settled on her shoulder, and she hissed and flinched away, curling up into a tighter ball.

A deep sigh followed. “Febe, I mean you no harm. The ritual is meant to heal your soul, but you must open yourself to my power.  The damage that was done is extensive. If you push me away so forcefully, it will only further damage you.”

She felt cold and empty, like a metal bucket left out in the snow. “Leave me alone! Haven’t you done enough?”

The down-stuffed mattress compressed at the edge of the bed as if Morbidon had taken a seat. Febe sensed the room filling with a mellow light, not the blue wraithfire that so dominated his palace, but a warmer glow, like the candles and lamps that were in her chambers. She didn’t lift her head from where it was tucked under her arms, maintaining her tight fetal position.

“I deeply regret losing my control, Febe. I regret many of my actions since I brought you here. I have not been worthy of you, but I would like to prove that I can be. But first, you must let me heal the damage to your soul. The holes left behind by the wraithfire are now fraying. If I can’t complete the ritual, more of your soul could be lost before it has the time to regenerate.”

“I don’t trust you!” She lifted her head to glare at him, rapidly blinking in the light to bring him into focus. To her surprise, he’d pulled back the cowl to reveal his stunning face. Perhaps he hoped to use his inhuman handsomeness to convince her to forgive him, but she doubted it. He did not see it as an asset.

His solemn expression deepened into a frown as he lifted a hand to spear his fingers through his long, silky hair, leaving behind disarrayed strands that made her fingers twitch with a desire to smooth them despite her conflicting feelings about him. “I know. I’ve failed to protect you as I promised.” His eyes hardened and his mouth tightened into an angry line. “I will discover who has betrayed me and make them pay in ways they cannot even begin to imagine.” He met her eyes and his expression softened with regret. “But I know that won’t change what has already come to pass. I never believed you or Markus were dishonorable, Febe. I could see the truth in your auras when you came before me in my throne room.”

She uncurled from her ball and sat up, anger replacing her hurt and fear. “If that’s the case, then why did you treat us like prisoners facing a tribunal? Why didn’t you immediately correct your steward? Why make us go through that?”

He looked away from her accusing stare. “I was too proud.” His tone sounded as if the words had to be dragged out of him. “I wanted you to be the first to speak. I wanted you to refute the steward’s claims with angry denials, so that I could hear the truth ringing through your words. I wanted to hear your defense, and more than that, I wanted to hear you say that you would not have done such a thing because you belonged to me.” He looked back into her eyes, continuing on into her stunned silence. “I saw the threads of desire in your aura when you looked at Markus. Your heart is not completely unfettered. I wanted you to reaffirm your commitment to me. Instead, you declared your hatred for me and my kingdom.”

She had done that. She couldn’t take those words back, but she still felt as if she’d been justified in her anger. His pride had been his undoing. He’d allowed her to think he believed she’d done something dishonorable with Markus just so she would soothe his jealousy by denying it. She shook her head at him. “I can’t take those words back, because I still feel as if I can never make a home here.”

Some unknown emotion flashed in his eyes, and they appeared to darken from silver to pewter, but then it was gone, and they were back to their beautiful silver. “I know I made a mistake,” he shook his head, “many mistakes with you, Febe. You have a good reason to be upset, but I ask for this one more chance to earn your trust. Let me heal you. Stay here with me in the Underworld until your soul regenerates. Let me be the friend and companion I have failed to be in the past, and in return, I will allow you to choose your own future when your soul is once again complete.”

She stared down at her hands twisting in her lap. He sat so close to her on the bed that she could smell his scent, that heady fragrance which made her want to inhale deeply. His body was so much larger than hers, dwarfing her, intimidating, overwhelming, but also appealing to a part of her she’d believed died with her first lover. Even in her fear, she still desired Morbidon. Even in her anger. Even in the knowledge that simply touching him while his wraithfire raged within him had nearly destroyed her. Her soul felt torn and ragged. Did she trust him enough to help it heal? In return, would he keep his promise to let her go? “I… I’m afraid of you.”

He reached out to touch her face, but his hand froze when she flinched away from him. “I know. I’ve done little to try and change that. I will not touch you, Febe. Not unless you ask me to.” He dropped his hand. “Though I will not deny that it’s difficult for me not to.”

“Can you heal my soul without touching me?”

He studied her with molten silver eyes. “I don’t need to physically touch you, Febe, but the ritual requires you to submit to my power and open yourself to my spirit. If you fight it, you will only damage yourself further. I can give you a potion which will put you back to sleep so that you will not be tempted to resist. The fraying wounds can be tied off while you slumber, and you’ll be unaware of my presence.”

She didn’t like the sound of that. In fact, his spirit touching hers seemed far more intimate than his hand brushing her cheek. “I want to be aware of what you’re doing!”

“You cannot fight it, Febe. You must trust me on this, at least. The alternative is unthinkable! Your soul will disintegrate if it suffers any more damage.” He reached to grasp her hand, then paused and dropped his hand back to rest on his thigh.

She sucked in a deep breath, considering him and what this ritual would mean for her. Having him touching her physically was unnerving enough, because it sparked a heat inside her that belied her fear of him, but allowing that heavy, overwhelming presence that had attempted to invade her during the ritual to enter her freely meant opening herself to someone else in ways she’d never even considered. She’d be vulnerable to him in the deepest parts of her soul, where even her mother’s cruelties and her sisters’ attempts on her life couldn’t touch her. That secret part of her that could not be taken from her no matter what was done to her body. “You’re asking for a lot.” He was asking for everything.

“This isn’t about intimacy, Febe.” His voice deepened, sounding rough around the edges, as if he’d picked up her growing desire. “The way my spirit will touch yours will be only about healing. It will be my power—which is only a peripheral part of my soul—and not my inner being, that engages with your soul.”

Her relief to hear that was tinged with disappointment that surprised her. There’d been something about the idea of having no choice but to join with him soul-to-soul. It would take the burden of making that decision out of her hands. For her own survival, she would have had to open herself to him and accept him. If the relationship ended up a disaster, and he became as controlling and abusive as her mother, at least she hadn’t chosen to be with him. It wouldn’t then be her fault that he’d rejected her love or turned it into something ugly. She could have been with him without the shame of making that choice and living to potentially regret it. There was a certain comfort in having the decision taken out of her hands—in being able to have what she desired, without the risk of shame that came with getting exactly what she wanted only to regret it later. “I don’t have much choice, do I?”

He breathed a sigh of relief, rising to his feet to tower over the bed, slipping back into god-mode so quickly as he pulled the cowl over his face that she had a hard time believing he was the same man who’d sat beside her on this bed so casually. “We must restart the ritual immediately. The longer we wait, the more of your soul seeps away.”

“Morbidon.”

He paused in his stride towards the center of the circle, his head turned back to her as the wraithfire runes burst into life and flames curled up his hands to his fingertips.

“Can you leave your cowl down? If… if I’m going to open myself up to you, I need to see your face.”

He hesitated for so long that Febe thought he was going to refuse, but then the flames on his hands flickered out and he lifted them to pull the cowl back. His expression was uncertain as he nodded at her, then made his way to the center of the circle.

She sat forward on the bed, scooting to the edge of it, keeping her eyes focused on Morbidon, as his flames ignited on his hands again. His eyes met hers and their gazes locked.

The music and the chanting began again, filling the room as Morbidon’s power flowed into the chamber. The air around Febe took on a sense of heaviness, a weight pressing down on her like stones slowly crushing a heretic. Only this wasn’t just on her chest. It was all around her, surrounding her, suffocating her. She struggled to breathe, gasping for air, clutching at her throat as Morbidon’s spirit probed and pressed on her soul, seeking an opening.

“Let me in, Febe!” His voice was harsh, with a hint of concern and desperation in his tone. “You must not fight me!”

Febe took several deep, ragged breaths, staring into his eyes, her body shaking as she forced herself to relax, visualizing unlocking doors in her mind.

Suddenly, the weight disappeared off of her body, and she felt strangely light, almost buoyant, as if she could float up into the rafters of the vaulted ceiling. The music made her head swell until she thought it might pop, and she could only giggle at the image. A sense of well-being filled her, as those strange empty spots that she’d been sensing inside herself were knitted back together.

She felt like dancing, like power suffused every pore of her body and she could suddenly fly, or pluck the moon from the heavens to bounce it back and forth between her hands. Laughter bubbled from between her lips as she jumped to her feet and spun around, her arms spread wide as Morbidon’s magic spun around her and through her.

Even the deepest throes of inventive inspiration had never felt as amazing as this moment. She’d never felt so free, so powerful, so capable of performing miracles. Is this how you feel all the time?

She hadn’t expected an answer to her unspoken question, but his voice came to her in her mind. This is the gift of my power. This is how my servants feel when I choose to bestow it upon them. For me, it can also be a burden. A great weight that destroys this joy you’re now experiencing. This rush of instant power is different from living beneath the constant flow of it.

You’ve done this for your servants? She felt a twinge of jealousy encroach upon her euphoria. That he would share something this amazing with anyone but her seemed wrong.

This is simply my power, Febe. My soul has never touched another’s other than the bond that I share with my sister. It has waited eons for you.

                Can we touch our souls now? She felt like a goddess, like she could walk from one end of the Easterly Ocean to the other and never get her feet wet. She could only imagine what a god’s soul would feel like, given the incredibly joy of receiving the god’s power. She wanted to try, and now that the power was flowing through her, she figured it was time to send him a little payback. She had some of his power, and she was going to use it to go after his soul.

No, Febe! Neither of us is ready for that. The power that I’ve given you should have completed the healing of the frayed holes, which will give your soul time to heal. I will withdraw it from you now.

                Febe wasn’t ready to have him take the power back, not when she wanted a taste of the power of his true soul and this was her only chance. She finally had enough power to no longer be completely helpless against him. She wanted him to be the one feeling helpless to stop what was happening for once. He’d foolishly given her this gift, and now she intended to use it against him. If this was what his power could do for her, what could the power of his soul give her? Could she herself become a god? Now was her only chance to try and take by force what he wouldn’t give her, before he stole back the little taste of power he had given her.

Before he could do as he’d said and withdraw his power, Febe seized ahold of it with her spirit. She wasn’t sure how she knew what to do, but her soul moved instinctively towards his, grabbing hold of the threads of aether that currently bound them together to trace along the path of that power until she was able to invade his body and wrap those threads around his soul.

She didn’t have an actual plan for what she would do when she had his soul vulnerable to her touch. She wasn’t even certain what she wanted to do with it. She was still angry at him, and frustrated at her own helplessness against him. A vague plan of binding his soul with the very power he gave her had formed as that power had rushed through her. Perhaps then, her life and her destiny would be her own, and she’d have the god dancing to her tune, not the other way around.

But she hadn’t been prepared for his soul. It wasn’t some pale, transparent ghost within him, nor was it even a light swirl of color as hers appeared to be with what little she could see of herself. Morbidon’s soul was a blazing dragon formed of blue wraithfire that writhed within his physical body, barely caged by his flesh. As soon as she neared it, it unfurled, reaching for her with flaming claws that dug into the ragged tatters of her soul.

His dragon soul pulled her towards it, tucking her against the length of its aetherial body as it curled its sinuous form around her until their souls were so deeply intertwined that they seemed to blend together. His memories, his emotions, his hopes, and even his fears blended with hers.

And the person that was Febe was lost forever.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 16

Author’s Note: When I first wrote this chapter, I thought it was a mess. I set it aside for a while, and when I came back to it, I was surprised that it was better than I’d thought. Granted, there are a lot of fragmented sentences, and normally, that would be a no-no, right? After all, grammar is important, and I do try to catch my more egregious grammatical mistakes, although there seems to be some disagreement on where commas should go when a conjunction is involved…ah! I’m not gonna pull my hair out over that one until line editing time. Which is not now!

Back to fragments. They were needed here. It fit the emotional state of the character whose POV this is written in. That’s all I have to say. My internal editor wanted to fix them, because years of schooling insisted they were bad as much as the green squiggly line beneath them does. I didn’t fix them, because I like the way this reads much better with them in.

This chapter was difficult to write from another perspective as well, because… well, I’m not going to give away any spoilers. 😉

I hope you enjoy and as always, feel free to comment or critique. I’m open to anyone’s comments and suggestions and even to criticisms. I’m happy with this chapter, (which is rare for me) but I’d love to hear your opinion!

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Chapter 16

When Morbidon was a small child, he fell into a river. Thrashing against the current, he sank like a stone to the bottom, his eyes staring up at the world of air so close and tantalizing, yet so far out of his reach as water suffocated him, digging its amorphous fingers deep into his lungs.

That was how he felt now as he sank beneath the surface of his consciousness—suffocated, separated from the world of the living as he had always been. Back then, it had been his sister who’d saved him from drowning; plucking him from the river with her claws after she’d experienced her first shift into dragon form in response to his terrified cries in her mind.

Now his sister was playing deaf to his cries for help, and he was alone beneath the surface, staring at the world above—staring at his hand clasping his soulmate’s burning fingers. He felt as helpless and useless to save himself—much less his mate—as he had in that moment when he was a child.

Darkness veiled his vision as the feeling of suffocation passed and peace trickled in. His raging emotions calmed in the darkness. He was comfortable in this deeper place—a place between the living world and a mind that raged with despair and bitterness. It was a crossroads, a place of options. When he followed the road into his memories, those options disappeared. Yet he had no choice. Not just Febe’s life, but also her soul, depended on him finding the source of his rage and defeating it.

He knew this place, recognizing each step as he took it, deeper and deeper into his subconscious. On more than one occasion, his sister had tried to guide him, her hand in his as they walked these roads together in the hopes of taming the fires that always burned within Morbidon.

He paused at the point where his sister’s spirit was usually ripped away from him, her soul unable to progress any deeper into his subconscious, despite their spiritual connection that was a rarity even for dragons like themselves. From this point on, he’d always been forced to travel alone, so at least it was no different this time. And from this point on is where he always failed in his journey.

The memories were deep and cloying. Not water suffocating him any longer, but rather like oil, sliding over his spirit, leaving behind a dark residue that he couldn’t seem to shake. Beyond the path his mind drew for him, memories lurked like bandits waiting to ambush the unwary.

From long experience, he knew what paths to avoid. Some memories were too barbed to be touched, some too dark to even be seen. The memory of the boy who’d pushed him into the river, hoping he would die. The children who’d gathered to stone his sister in the street. His mother, her withered lips pinched tight as her eyes avoided meeting those of her children, even while they changed her bedding and fed her. Rage built within him as he passed those memories, sidestepping their trailing tendrils as they reached out to snare him.

One memory gave him pause, shocking him to his core as he couldn’t believe he had forgotten it. It had been pushed here into the darkness with his other unhappy memories, even though it concerned his sister before she’d taken to manipulating and betraying those around her for her own gain. He turned away in disgust and sadness as the scene unfolded, the awkwardness of the original encounter now freshly recalled. She’d cornered him in the stable and pushed her lips against his, her hands fumbling at the tied rope that served as his belt. He saw himself recoiling, shoving her backwards so hard that she slammed into the splintered boards of the stable wall. Her head smacked back against the boards with a crunching sound, her hair flying wild around her flushed face, but her eyes never left his.

“We’re meant to be together! You’re all I have, and I’m all you’ll ever have, Morby!” Her voice was breathless and shaky, but not because of the unnatural desire that had driven her actions. Unshed tears made her eyes glossy, and through their link, he felt her loneliness and hopelessness, so much a reflection of his own that they could have been mirror-images.

“I don’t believe that, Vivi! What you want is wrong! You know it! We won’t always be alone. We’ll leave this village and find our soul mates.” He’d been shaking too, repulsed by what she’d done, but also filled with pity for his sister—pity and understanding. He feared being alone as well.

Her trembling hands reached out to him. “We’ve always been together, Morby!”

He shook his head vehemently. “Not like this, Vivi! We will always be together, but never like this!” Then he’d turned and ran out of the stable, away from the only person in the Cosmos who’d ever loved him.

He passed that memory, vowing to forget it as he had done before. Perhaps this was why his sister could not travel this deep into his mind. The barrier prevented her from seeing his darkest secrets, even the ones that she shared.

He’d reached a dream clearing, and now a fresh memory blocked his path. His soul mate stood before him, her eyes flashing in anger, her lips tight with disapproval, her shoulders back and her chin lifted—more bold and determined than he’d ever seen her before the incident that caused that memory. “I’m sick to death of you and your kingdom!”

Her words cut like razors, thin agonizing slices over his soul.

I trusted you!” The accusation of failure burned him like his own wraithfire.

I would rather be back in my mother’s castle with a thousand assassins at my door than spend another minute here with you, my lord.” The finality of those words, the sneer that twisted her beautiful lips, and the disgust that tempered her voice shredded him until he wanted to fall to his knees before her in despair.

“I’m all you’ll ever have, Morby….” His sister’s insidious voice whispered in his ear, followed by mocking laughter.

Rage burned away despair. Wraithfire exploded into the clearing, consuming his soulmate’s image. She screamed in agony, and Morbidon echoed the scream with his own guttural cry of pain as the change came upon him, his soul twisting and bending, reshaping into his dragon form.

It was one of his earliest memories. Before the river, before the stones, and long before he failed his bride. His bones snapping and reshaping. His skin peeling apart and reforming into scales. Before that, he hadn’t known he was a monster. He’d wondered why his mother never looked at him, but he’d been blissfully unaware of the truth. Perhaps even she hadn’t known if he would ever be able to shift.

The village children had cornered him and his sister in the forest. One held the butcher’s shears open over one of Vivi’s long braids, as the biggest boys pinned Morbidon to the ground to keep him from helping her. Tears streaked Vivi’s cheeks and dirt marred her dress where they’d shoved her down. Her socks sagged, torn and stained with blood from her knees. One dull leather shoe lay several yards away, where the children had first ambushed them when they walked into the clearing. The girls holding Vivacel’s braids pulled hard enough that she cried out in pain, their laughter shrill and shrieking to Morbidon’s ears.

Though only five at the time, Morbidon fought against the hold of the boys as the child with the shears slowly closed them over her hair, bragging about how he would hang the braid up as a trophy in his room. One of the boys holding Morbidon cuffed him up aside the head, so hard that he saw stars. His body already ached from their beating.

Vivi shouted for him to help her, and her fear and pain sparked through their mental link.

Then he shifted form, his dragon bursting free in a maelstrom of agony. The boys holding him had immediately released him and started running, but the other children hadn’t noticed until the change that had taken hold of him.

Some managed to escape. Some didn’t. Those who did never told their parents why the others had disappeared, and they avoided both Morbidon and Vivacel after that save for the one who’d pushed him into the river the next summer season, claiming he was “slaying the beast.”

The adults had looked at the twins even more suspiciously after the disappearances, but they had no proof and no witnesses willing to speak—just a handful of missing children who never returned home and two unnatural silver-eyed twins who never spoke a word beyond the sheltering walls of their home.

Wraithfire raged on, burning his memories as it had burned those children so long ago, and as it now burned his soul mate. His thoughts melted in the heat until only small discernible chunks floated in the miasma. Failed her…she hates me…monster…I’ve become my father…

He’d come to fight the monster at the heart of his darkest memories. He’d come to defeat the creature that stoked the fires of rage and hatred within him. He’d expected to find his father—that amorphous being that was only his mother’s nightmare cries in his mind, yet bore Morbidon’s face whenever he tried to picture the man. Instead, it was actually his face that looked back at him. His face and his body. Morbidon was the monster in the center of his rage. He was the killer, the bringer of death and destruction. He was the god of death, and he’d visited it upon so many, but none that haunted him as those children did.

He’d failed his mother, by not being the son who could have brought her back from her despair. He’d failed his sister, only saving her in the end at the cost of those children’s lives. He’d failed his bride, unable to save her from the terror of nightmares given form within the very walls that should have protected her. No matter how much power he had, he continually failed the ones he loved.

His sister was right. She was all he’d ever have—and she wasn’t enough.

I want Febe! He faced himself down, his dragon body towering over the man—the monster—that mocked him with his own desolation.

“She hates you! You’ll never win her now.” His image laughed, cruel eyes narrowed on Morbidon. “You’re nothing but a killer. Why would she even want you? If she could see what you’ve done, she’d run as far away as possible.”

I don’t give up that easily! I will show her what I’ve done! I will lay my heart and soul bare before her. Only if that fails will I admit defeat.

“And if you fail then? What will you become, Morbidon?”

I don’t know. But I know I won’t ever become my father! His roar of defiance shook the clearing of shadows and memories.

His image stared back at him in silence for a moment. Then a brief flicker of some emotion Morbidon had never seen on his own face shifted the face of the monster. Suddenly, it wasn’t his exact image any longer. Subtle differences—deeper lines bracketing the mouth, a sharper frown, and black soulless eyes—replaced his features. “Interesting. You’re stronger than I expected.” The apparition shook its head. “No matter. There are more fertile fields for me to sow. You are your own worst enemy, my son. You’ll destroy yourself in time without my help.”

The figure disappeared and darkness consumed the wraithfire until the clearing was quiet and peaceful, the shadows melting and reforming into the familiar and comforting lines of his mourning room. Skulls and bones lined one wall, and Morbidon’s lips twisted into a grim half-smile. “She’s sick of bones. I’ll have to change the décor.”

 

When Morbidon opened his eyes, coming slowly out of his meditative trance, he saw that Febe lay at rest on her bed, her eyes no longer tightly clenched shut, but only lightly closed. Her breathing was even and steady. The wraithfire was gone, and her skin glowed a healthy pink, but when he shifted to his dragon sight, he saw that ragged holes marred her pastel pink aura where the fire had burned. Her body could be healed easily, flesh knitted back together with magic. Her soul was magic in itself and would not be replenished so easily.

She would need time to heal. Time for him to become the mate she needed. The mate she deserved. He would reveal the monster to her, and hope that she could see past it to the man he wanted to be.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 15

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Author’s Note: Hurray! I’m back to work and loving it! I missed my keyboard, and it was good to get back to this story. I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, except to say please feel free to comment and critique below. Tell me what you think. Also, just a brief reminder that I am running a Goodreads giveaway of 5 signed paperback copies of Lilith’s Fall starting on August 1 and running to September 1 so if you have a GR account, mark your calendars and be sure to sign up when it starts!

Chapter 15

The god of the dead sat upon his throne of bones, which rested upon a pile of skulls. His cowl was firmly in place, casting most of his inhumanly handsome face into darkness. Behind him, a line of his reapers stood like statues, robed shadows in the gloomy throne room. The only light that seemed capable of penetrating the oppressive darkness emanated from the wraithfire torches and chandelier that hung low from a lofty vaulted ceiling.

Marcos and Febe had been lead to this throne room by the steward, his transparent face pinched tight with disapproval, his eyes glittering with self-righteous malice. He’d left them standing side-by-side facing the throne of the silent god.

Now, Morbidon studied them from within the shadow of his cowl. His long-fingered hands, pale in the wraithfire light, rested on the arms of his throne, which was adorned by yet more skulls—inhuman ones with fangs and huge empty eye sockets. Morbidon’s lack of movement gave no clue to his thoughts, but Febe knew that the steward had already informed the god of his impression of what had happened within the cellar, dismissing her and Marcos’s claims of being attacked by dark souls from the Abyss as impossible.

Since Morbidon had been visiting the Abyss during the attack as part of his routine patrolling, the steward insisted that there was no possible way the god wouldn’t have noticed the escape of any dark souls that were being punished there. He’d also told Febe and Marcos there was no way the souls had the power to enter Morbidon’s palace through the wards placed to deter just such events. The steward believed she and Marcos were telling a convenient lie to explain their situation.

The important thing was what her betrothed believed. At the moment, Febe couldn’t tell, and the longer he allowed the silence to draw out in the tomblike atmosphere of the throne room, the angrier she grew at this unfair treatment of them. First they’d been attacked, and now they were being accused of dishonorable behavior. Neither of them deserved this, and she’d had enough of Morbidon treating them like misbehaving children awaiting their punishment.

After several long moments passed where he did nothing but stare at them, not even the flicker of wraithfire betraying his emotions, she couldn’t keep her irritation behind her tongue any longer. “I’m sick of skulls! And bones!” She curled her lip at the throne and its macabre adornments.

Marcos grasped her arm as she stepped towards the throne, her voice shaking with anger. His whispered warning was still audible in the silence that had changed in quality from oppressive to stunned. “Little Mouse, have a care! This isn’t your mother’s kingdom!”

She shook off his restraining hand and took a few more steps towards Morbidon’s throne as the god looked on without comment, though his fingers tightened on the arms of his throne as she approached. “I’m sick of the darkness and the constant silence. I’m sick of the dust and the cobwebs!” She plucked one of the offending strands off of her tunic arm as she spoke, flinging it aside to glare at the steward watching her from the edge of Morbidon’s dais, his mouth agape. “And I’m sick to death of you and your kingdom!”

Morbidon’s knuckles whitened on the bones of the monstrous skulls. She was now close enough to see the tremor of his cowl, as though tension had pulled him as tight as a bow string vibrating after releasing an arrow. Yet he remained eerily silent in the aftermath of her devastating words. Without seeing his face, she had no idea what he was thinking and no clue if her words had managed to inspire any emotions at all in the god of the dead.

Her anger did not abate in the face of his lack of reaction. In fact, his unresponsiveness only incensed her, her frustration and hurt coalescing into a ball of rage that had to be released as if her sister’s black powder concoction had ignited behind it. “You promised me that I would be safe here! You promised that no one would ever threaten me again! You swore that you would be there to protect me! I was a fool to believe you!” She took another step towards the throne and then another until the toes of her slippers bumped into the base skulls that held up the dais. “I trusted you!” Her voice quivered on those words.

She turned to glance at Marcos, only to find that he’d followed her, approaching the throne to stand at her side, as if he could possibly protect her from Morbidon’s wrath. Her anger softened for a moment as she looked into his concerned expression, his gaze traveling from her to the god before returning to her, filled with an emotion she’d never seen directed at her before. He had no chance of winning a fight against the immortal reapers and the god of the dead, yet he was still there at her side. “Marcos was there for me. He protected me the way you did not!”

She cast her gaze back to Morbidon, and her anger sparked anew at the shadows that hid his face from her. No matter what pretty words he spoke to her, he was still playing god instead of trying to be a true mate to her. “I would rather be back in my mother’s castle with a thousand assassins at my door than spend another minute here with you, my lord.” His title dripped with her contempt and disgust.

She’d expected him to burst into wraithfire. She’d expected his flesh to peel away to reveal the horror of his bony reaper. She did not expect him to lean forward on his throne and rest his head on his palms in a position of hopelessness and despair that was human enough to weaken her anger and resolve.

The steward rushed towards her, floating faster than she’d ever seen one of the ghosts move. He flapped his hands in her face, shooing her away from the throne and her apparently devastated betrothed. “You’ve done enough here, you wretch! Begone to your quarters! My lord will decide your fate soon enough!”

Febe snarled at the ghost, her anger refreshed by his behavior. She’d always cringed away from rudeness, preferring the comfortable isolation of her laboratory and her mathematics to the inconsistencies of people’s actions. The steward had been kind to her in the beginning, but one misperception later he was treating her like refuse. Marcos was right. This wasn’t her mother’s kingdom, and she was done being the little mouse he kept calling her. “Do not speak to me in such a way, peasant!” She straightened her spine and rolled her shoulders back, lifting her chin until she looked down her nose at the ghost. “I am Princess Febe of Barselor. I have centuries of royal blood running through my veins. I am a master inventor responsible for engines that will change the world.” Her words rang with her conviction, her last statement one of pride at accomplishments she could claim as her own, beyond her birth and breeding. “You are nothing but a servant. I don’t take orders from you.”

Morbidon lifted his head from his hands as the steward staggered back in the face of her wrath. “Princess Febe is correct, Steward. You will never speak to my bride again in such a manner!” His voice was dark and ragged like an ancient funeral shroud.

“B-but My Lord! She and this cretin,” the steward gestured to Marcos, “have dishonored themsel—“

“Enough!” Morbidon’s roar shook the entire throne room, sending falls of dust and debris pattering down from the vaulted ceiling. “Get out of my sight, Steward! Your accusations are not welcome here!”

The steward drifted away from Febe, bowing clumsily as he floated backwards towards the wide double doors. He disappeared long before he reached them.

Silence reigned again in the throne room. Morbidon sat straight and tall now, though his face was still concealed and his hands gripped the arms of the throne so tightly that the bones of his fingers were clearly outlined—outlined, but not exposed. He’d been angry, and a small amount of wraithfire had crossed over his body when he’d yelled at the steward, but he hadn’t lost control, and he seemed to have everything under control now.

But Febe was still angry—at him, and at her situation. Based on his words to his steward, he still considered her his bride. He refused to release her from this bargain despite how unhappy she was. “Did you not hear my words, my lord? I hate it here! Let me return to my home!”

The god sighed, his straight posture slumping as if the breath leaving him had been propping him up. “You’ve experienced a grave injustice that I would seek to correct, if you will allow it, Princess.” He rose to his feet slowly, as if he himself were a corpse rising from the grave. “No dark souls have ever escaped the Abyss, and none can pass into this castle beyond my wards. This means you were a victim of some other trickery perpetrated by someone who can enter and leave through these wards. Someone who meant to frighten you and,” his cowl turned briefly in the direction of Marcos, “drive you into the arms of my servant.” Morbidon’s focus returned to her. “You are correct that I failed you, Princess. Please, allow me to make amends.”

Febe shook her head. “I no longer care about your kingdom and whatever traitors you harbor within it. I want to go home. You cannot possibly think I would marry you now?”

Blue fire skated over his robes and down to his hands. “You gave your word! Would you go back on your own agreement? Do you have no honor, woman?” His voice had lost all semblances of culture and civility. He sounded like a primal male howling and snarling in anger.

Marcos stepped in front of her, his broad body providing a barrier between her and the angry god. “You should allow her to choose. She’s suffered enough because of this bargain.”

“And you think she will choose you, peasant?”

Morbidon’s voice cracked like a whip, but Marcos didn’t flinch in the face of it, nor did he back down when the god’s skin began to peel back beneath growing blue flames on his hands. “So far, she hasn’t been offered a better choice than me.”

Morbidon’s now skeletal hands clenched in front of him. “You dare to insult me? I will kill you a thousand times over, and you will suffer the pain of every death!” He left the dais, his robe sweeping behind him as he strode towards Marcos and Febe, only stopping when he towered over Marcos, close enough to reach out and strangle him with his burning skeletal fingers.

“Do not hurt him!” Febe pushed between the two men, shoving Morbidon in the chest, staggering back into Marcos’s chest when all her strength failed to budge the god of the dead. Suddenly, she screamed as the wraithfire from his body crossed onto her skin from her contact with him, trailing up her arms in a wave of agony.

 

Morbidon’s soulmate writhed on the bed in pain and the fault lay with him. He’d lost his temper as he’d sworn he would not do. He’d foolishly allowed his devastation and heartbreak to fuel his inherent rage, behaving as insanely as his father had once done when deprived of the woman he had loved. Morbidon had become the monster he’d tried his entire life not to be, and he’d hurt the one woman who’d mattered to him more than even his mother and sister.

Now, as his wraithfire threatened to consume her body and soul, he could not heal her. Had this been a normal flame, she wouldn’t have even a slight scar as a memory of it. He could heal any mortal from any normal wound and even bestow unending life upon them, but he could not stop the burning of his own wraithfire. It emanated from the rage within his soul, and consumed him time and time again, but since he was immortal and a divine dragon, he was never destroyed by it. Febe did not have that luxury. She suffered his pain without the benefit of his divinity.

There was only one person he knew who had learned to quench wraithfire, and that was his sister, who’d mastered her own flames. He’d already summoned her, knowing as soon as Febe had come into contact with his burning body that she would need help he couldn’t give her. Yet, Vivacel had not responded to his summons, and their mental link had shrunk to a tiny thread after he’d ejected her from his kingdom. He could barely feel the wisp of her thoughts, and those thoughts told him she was deliberately making him wait, deliberately causing Febe suffering because he’d ignored Vivacel’s warnings and she wanted to punish him.

He held tight to Febe’s hand, trying to pull the fires back into his own body, to no avail. His anger at his sister for allowing Febe to continue suffering did not allow him to calm himself enough to quench his own flames. As long as they burned within him, they would burn within Febe.

Her screams were like swords, piercing and twisting in his gut. He’d been a fool not to release her from her promise. He would rather never touch her or even speak to her again then have her suffer like this.

“Can’t you do something?” The desperate voice was so much a reflection of his own internal thoughts that for a moment he didn’t realize that someone else had spoken.

He turned his attention to Marcos, never releasing Febe’s hand even though her writhing pulled and tugged on his grip. “I told you to leave here!”

The human crossed his thick arms over his chest, leveling a glare at Morbidon. “I’m not leaving her! Not like this!”

The mortal’s tone of possessiveness infuriated Morbidon, which only caused his flames to burn hotter, making Febe moan aloud as her back arched off the bed. “She’s my bride!” Realizing that his anger was killing her faster, he quickly tried to push it back into the deep well within him where he usually kept it, but his flames were free and out of his control now that they had a new host.

“You don’t deserve her! Look at what you’ve done to her! If you had only let her go….”

Never had a human dared to speak to him in such a tone, yet Morbidon couldn’t take issue with what Marcos was saying. He was right on all counts, and he only spoke aloud the very thoughts that haunted Morbidon. But he couldn’t allow Marcos’s words to stand unchallenged. The human wasn’t just censuring him for his treatment of Febe. They were locked in a battle for her heart, and the human was winning. Morbidon wasn’t willing to concede the fight. Not until Febe was healed and he had a chance to make amends.

Then he would lay his heart and soul bare to her and be vulnerable in a way that terrified him, because it meant the possible rejection he’d feared for so long. He now understood that he should have done that from the start. Febe didn’t want to marry a god. She also didn’t need a man. She needed a friend, a person she could trust and turn to when times grew difficult. She needed someone to hold her when she was sad, and comfort her when she was scared. He’d tried to impress her with his magic and his power, but all she’d needed was the one thing he struggled to give. Himself.

Marcos had nothing else to give but himself, and that had been enough for Febe when Morbidon wasn’t.

Morbidon had failed Febe on all counts, proving his sister correct. He wasn’t the right mate for her. But she was the perfect mate for him, and he was determined that she would live so that he could become the mate she needed and deserved. “She will live! I will find a way to clench the flames and heal her body and soul.” His next words were the most difficult he’d ever spoken. “And then I will free her from her promise. I will let her make her own choice.” What he didn’t say aloud to the other man was that he wasn’t going to stop trying to win her. Febe would not be able to leave his kingdom until she was fully healed. The fire was burning parts of her soul away, and only in the Underworld could she regenerate them with his help.

“Why does she still burn then?” Marcos approached the bed, only stopping reluctantly when Morbidon waved him off. “Make it stop!” He pressed his hands together in a prayer gesture. “Please, god of the dead, I beg of you! Save Febe!”

As long as Marcos stood there, Morbidon would never be calm enough to meditate. “I will do as you ask, but only because it is already my will to do so. Though I will give her a choice, don’t think I’ve given up on her, human. Now leave this room. I must have silence and peace to end these flames.”

Marcos looked as if he wanted to object. With one last agonized glance at Febe, he abandoned the healing chamber.

Morbidon sighed, stroking the soft, smooth back of her hand with the fingers of his free hand. He couldn’t wait for Vivacel to change her mind and heal Febe. He couldn’t hold off the worst of the flames for much longer, and there would soon be nothing left of Febe if he didn’t try even harder than he’d already tried.

Never releasing Febe, he sank into the meditative state that would allow him to travel the deepest road—the one within him. The road that led to his rage and all the memories that fueled it.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 14

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Author’s Note: Not much to add for this one. It’s vacation time, and this was my last deadline before that, so… I’m just gonna leave it at that. Feel free to make suggestions, comments, or critiques. I hope you enjoy.

Chapter 14

Translucent ghosts, glowing with a soft blue light, drifted past Febe and Marcos as they strolled down a massive corridor lined with bones. Skulls stacked upon femurs, stacked upon ribcages, stacked upon stacks of bones rose to a towering ceiling of ribbed vaults—a true palace of the dead. Guttering blue torches were the only light that penetrated the gloom, casting dancing shadows across the grinning faces of the watching skulls.

Febe had asked for Marcos as an escort so she could speak with him candidly about her questions and concerns, but now that she was touring Morbidon’s palace, she was grateful for his company in place of her betrothed’s. She didn’t think she could have successfully hidden her horror and disgust from Morbidon at the design of his home. She suspected such a reaction would only push him further away from her.

Marcos glanced her way as they passed a stack of grinning skulls, yellowed by age and split by a multitude of cracks. “You know, it’s really not that bad here.”

She returned his glance, her eyebrows shooting to her cobweb-dusted hairline.

He smiled at her expression and reached out to pluck a feathery strand of webbing from her mahogany hair. “Sure, the ornamentation needs an update and the maids could do a better job, but it’s peaceful and quiet. Not a bad place for a temporary stay.” His smile faded as he flicked the cobweb off his fingers.

Febe looked around, noting the lack of ghostly residents in this area of the corridor. She paused beneath a pointed archway. “To be honest, I didn’t actually want a tour of the palace.” She hugged herself and rubbed her upper arms even though the chill she felt was more in the primal part of her mind than her body. The temperature was actually quite comfortable. “I needed to speak with you, and this seemed the best way to get you alone.”

Marcos’s expression slipped further into a frown. When he spoke, his voice was low and soft. “Careful, Princess, how you word your requests. Your betrothed has shown more tolerance than I expected, but don’t expect it to last.”

Morbidon had clearly not been happy at her request for a tour with Marcos. Not only had his expression closed into his emotionless mask, but blue flames had sparked briefly along his robes before he seemed to rein his anger back in. Yet his only response had been to call Marcos over and direct him to escort Febe in a tour of the palace. Then he’d bowed to her with an unreadable look in his silver eyes, turned on his heel, and left her in the courtyard with Marcos standing beside her, studying her with a questioning expression.

Febe sighed, studying the dusty marble beneath her silken slippers. She’d been overwhelmed by Morbidon’s company, and she had questions she didn’t dare ask him. All she’d wanted was some time to speak with another human who could understand her sense of isolation in this dreary place. Yet she feared she’d only made things worse by requesting that time. “I only wanted to talk. I haven’t had the chance to apologize for forcing you into this bargain of mine. I had no one else….” She decided not to finish that statement because it revealed more vulnerability than she was comfortable with. Out of necessity, she’d placed some level of trust in Marcos, even though he’d already been dishonest with her. He was still the only mortal in the Underworld and her only connection to her previous life.

He ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair, refusing to meet her eyes. “You owe me no apology. I allowed you to believe I was working for your sister. I apologize for that. As for me being here, I would have served Morbidon either way and there are worse duties than serving as your companion.” His half-smile didn’t lighten the solemn cast of his expression.

Febe tapped her chin, regarding Marcos thoughtfully. “You know, it’s funny, but I trust you more because you aren’t serving my sister’s will. She tried to kill me. Many times.”

His fists clenched at his sides as he turned his back on her steady regard, looking up at the wall of bones rising to the vaulted ceiling. “I believed it was self-defense. I fooled myself into thinking that she would never have attempted to assassinate you if you hadn’t been trying to kill her first.” His shoulders lifted in a brief, defeated shrug. “Now, I understand that she was as much the instigator of these attempts as the rest of you.”

“Did you… did you love her?” Febe wanted to reach out to Marcos and rest her hand on his slumped shoulder to comfort him, but she had a distinct feeling that her touch would have the opposite effect. Besides, she wasn’t familiar with providing comfort, or receiving it for that matter. Still, his sadness called to her, just as Morbidon’s sadness had. She’d failed at comforting the god. She had no idea why she thought she’d have a better chance at comforting the man.

His heavy sigh was answer enough, but he expounded on it. “I loved the woman I thought she was. It’s my fault for being blind to the truth.”

Febe shook her head though he couldn’t see it. “The truth is that she is as my mother forced her to be with her endless manipulations. Eldora was defending herself against me and Emilia, even as she was attempting to kill us so that she could ascend to the throne. All of us have been subjected to attempts on our lives since we were barely old enough to crawl. I don’t believe that all of those attempts were from each other.”

Marcos spun around to face her, his eyes wide. “Surely you don’t mean your mother would send assassins after her own daughters!”

Febe raised an eyebrow at his surprise. “You must know what my mother is capable of. I was never sure which assassins were from my sisters and which were my mother’s ‘tests.’ All I do know is that my sisters and I may not be blameless, but we are a product of our mother’s plans. Do not blame yourself for loving her. You probably saw her for the woman she could have been if she’d been born to someone else.” Febe wanted to believe that she, too, was also worthy of love, despite the terrible things she’d done. If she convinced Marcos, then perhaps she could convince herself.

His expression shifted, his lips softening into a smile as he leaned closer to her. “You are surprisingly forgiving, Little Mouse.” He lifted a hand as if to remove another cobweb, but instead his fingers brushed her cheek as lightly as any strand of web.

Febe huffed in annoyance and turned on her heel to walk the corridor again, leaving him to follow. “I hate that nickname! I have no idea why you continue to use it.”

He quickly caught up to her, matching her pace by shortening his longer strides. His deep chuckle lightened the cheerless gloom of the corridor, filled with grinning skulls that were far beyond appreciating humor. “Perhaps I use it to get a reaction from you, Princess.”

“I can’t imagine why you’d want that sort of reaction. You’ve done nothing but irritate me when we were having a friendly conversation.” She recalled the feeling of his fingers on her cheek, soft and caressing, his handsome human face so much easier to look at than Morbidon’s intimidating perfection. If Marcos was her betrothed it would be much easier for her to accept him, and perhaps someday even fall in love with him the way her sister had not.

“Trust me, Princess. I did exactly what I should have in that moment. It’s better that you’re irritated with me.” His voice had grown husky, and he kept a greater distance between them than he had before they’d stopped for their talk.

Febe fumed for a moment, before acknowledging that he might be correct in this. The moment between them had become far too intimate to be appropriate. Marcos had sensed it, and responded in a way that broke that intimacy. She should have been the one to do so. She was the one who was betrothed to another. Yet she’d discovered that Marcos made her feel comfortable and more relaxed than she could remember being in the company of another.

Something about him spoke of solid dependability and protectiveness, and it wasn’t just his bulky frame, rippling with muscles that were distracting even beneath his fine woolen uniform—a gift from his new master, she supposed. That master was the man she needed to focus on, the mystery she must solve before he grew tired of her hesitance and demanded her hand immediately. “Can you answer some questions about my…betrothed?” It still felt strange to say that, admitting that she was bound to marry a man and serve as his wife in every way. Not just a man—a god.

Beside her, Marcos nodded, though the act seemed more directed at his internal thoughts than at her question, since he responded with a distracted “hmmm?”

“I would like to know more about how I should speak to Morbidon. I think my questions upset him earlier, and he has withdrawn from me.”

This caught Marcos’s full attention. His eyes were focused on her now, despite the fact that they were still walking forward in what seemed to be an endless maze of corridors with very little to distinguish them from each other. “Did you incite his wraithfire?”

Febe shook her head, shuddering. “You mean the blue flames? No! Nothing like that. For a moment during our outing, it was as if he’d opened a door into a world where he was vulnerable and almost human. I felt…close to him there, but then it was like he slammed that door in my face, and we were back to being strangers.”

“You didn’t anger him, then. You’ve seen what happens when he loses his temper. Even the other reapers fear the reaper of the god of the dead.”

“But why did he shut me out?”

Marcos stopped, grasping her elbow to pull her to a halt beside him. When he spoke, his voice was low and intent. “He revealed his vulnerability to you, which he no doubt regrets. He is accustomed to being known as a powerful god, and I doubt he trusts others any easier than you do. It’s a wonder he showed you that side of himself at all. If you truly want to know him, you cannot push too hard to open those doors. Let him unlock them first.”

“But how do I convince him to do so?”

Marcos’s eyes gleamed in the blue torchlight. “You have to unlock your own doors for him.”

 

The remainder of the tour continued in silence until they came to the cellars. Marcos stopped, staring down at the stone steps leading into deeper darkness, revealed by the wooden trapdoor he’d pried open. By this time, he’d claimed one of the blue torches and held it in front of him to light their way. “Do you want to continue, Princess?”

Febe wasn’t ready to return to her rooms and be alone with her thoughts. The darkness of the cellar didn’t frighten her when she had Marcos with her. “I would like to see what lies inside a cellar in the Underworld.” Curiosity was perhaps her greatest weakness.

The contents of the cellar proved to be disappointing. Morbidon showed a lack of imagination when it came to his decorating, so more cobwebs and bones filled shelves alongside an occasional rack of dusty bottles. “I didn’t realize my lord was a wine collector.”

Marcos waved the torch near the racks so that the light illuminated the dull gleam of the bottles. “Here in the Underworld, the spirits prefer absinthe. From what I’ve been told by the reapers, the spirits brew these batches from herbs found only here in the Underworld. I recommend against drinking this version of it. I’m not sure your mortal body can handle the level of alcohol contained in these bottles.”

Febe nodded her agreement with his advice. She’d never been a fan of strong drinks anyway, preferring wine to harder liquors. It was a bit of a disappointment to see a lack of it here, but of course, Morbidon could always create some for her if she really wanted it.

They were about to abandon the large underground room when a soft susurration arose from the floor, the sound gaining volume and strength until the menacing nature of it became undeniable.  The light cast by the torches outside the cellar entrance suddenly disappeared as the cellar door slammed shut with a loud crash.

Marcos’s torch flickered as dark shadows seeped from the stone walls like oil, sliding across the floor to surround them in a circle.

A shriek of terror escaped Febe, and she clapped her hands over her mouth as if her silence could conceal her from the horrors taking form around her. Her mind raced with plans for escaping this new danger—danger she should have been safe from in Morbidon’s kingdom. Danger he’d promised her she would never have to face as his bride.

The shadows stretched from ebony pools on the floor, twisting into demonic forms. Each of the half-dozen shadows stood taller than Marcos. Long, spindly arms hung from contorted bodies. The forms appeared to be nothing but macabre shadows, but like the souls in this world, they had substance. One of them smacked away Marcos’s torch so quickly that he didn’t have time to react, cackling in triumph as the only light in the cellar went flying to clatter against the stone wall.

The other five shadows that surrounded them let out horrible cheers as they closed the circle around Febe and Marcos.

Febe gauged the distance to the door, her mind spinning with plans for escape even while her legs felt weak and watery with terror. Between her and where the door should be was a wall of darkness blocked by the shadows that closed her in.

“Who are you?” Marcos demanded of the shadow that had attacked as he caught Febe’s arm and pulled her behind him, though it still put her back to the shadows. He backed away from the ones in front, pushing her towards the fallen torch, which lay a short distance away against the wall.

The shadows whispered, their voices filled with anger and malice. “The Punished… Defiled… Tormented.” Their hissing voices hurt Febe’s ears.

Marcos continued to back Febe towards the wall, turning to block each shadow that lurched forward as if to grab her, his arms held out wide to slap away the long grasping arms of the shadows as they reached in her direction. “You belong in the Abyss!”

“We have been freed.” The whispers were gleeful now.

By this time, Marcos had backed them up within reach of the torch. In a smooth movement, he blocked Febe against the wall with his body, scooping up the torch without turning his back on the shadows.

Their anger hissed out again as he swung the torch at them. The wraithfire glowed brighter in response to the proximity of the shadows, and one of them cried out in pain as a spark of blue fire caught on it and immediately ignited into a small blaze. The screeching shadow danced a jig of agony as it slapped at the flames, which only spread hungrily over its body. It was quickly consumed by the cobalt tongues of flame.

After that spectacular display, Marcos was able to hold the muttering, increasingly angry shadows off with the torch, but they were trapped too far from the trapdoor for them to escape and the wraithfire was growing weaker as the torch began to burn out. The shadows had closed in, herding them deeper into the cellar by lurching forward every time Marcos swung the torch at another shadow. Even worse, what had started as six shadows grew into a dozen as the shadows splintered, replicating themselves by the time Febe and Marcos were pressed up against a rack of absinthe bottles at the far end of the cellar from the trapdoor. The many shadows closed in, leaving almost no room for Marcos to maneuver.

Marcos seemed to be growing tired swinging the torch this way and that to hold off the shadows, which were growing more aggressive. “Who freed you?”

Febe appreciated his tactic, questioning the shadows in the hopes of distracting them and buying them more time to figure out an escape plan. She’d used such tactics in the past herself and found them remarkably effective. Even those who set out to kill can’t resist boasting about themselves.

To her disappointment, the shadows hissed out mocking laughter, offering no other answer.

“What do you want?” Febe screamed, her fists clenched in the fabric of Marcos’s shirt as he swung from one side to the other to keep the shadows from reaching her.

This time, the answers came back in a series of hissing whispers. “To punish the punisher. Torment the tormentor. Defile the defiler. The cruel god will pay with the death of his bride, after she is defiled and tormented and punished as he has done to us….”

Febe wanted to just let the tears come. Morbidon had failed her. He’d promised her safety, but she was in even more danger now than she’d ever been. The only person who stood between her and these horrible shadows was Marcos, courageously holding off the atrocities they promised to bring upon her with nothing but a torch.

Instead of crying, she tore strips off her beautiful tunic, seeking the parts that weren’t adorned by gemstones and metallic embroidery. Marcos spared a glance at her when he heard her rending her garment. “Don’t despair, Little Mouse. I’ll find us a way back to the surface. I’ll never let them hurt you!”

With a couple of strips of fabric in hand, Febe sniffled back tears, trembling now in anger. “I intend to hurt them,” she growled as rage replaced fear.

With her free hand, she pulled a bottle off the rack, grasped the cork in her teeth, and yanked it out. As the sharp reek of strong alcohol bit at her nose, she splashed some of it onto a strip of fabric, then stuffed the strip into the neck of the bottle, using the cork to hold it in place.

Marcos was too busy waving the torch to see what she’d done, but he didn’t hesitate when she held the bottle out and told him to light the strip.

The shadows had focused most of their attention on Marcos and the only threat they perceived, so they were slow to react when the bottle of absinthe crashed to the stone floor at their feet, spreading the wraithfire into a blazing pool that consumed a half dozen of them.

Their shrieking agony echoed in the cellar as Febe stuffed another bottle with fabric and had Marcos ignite it. By now, the remaining shadows were hesitant, backing away and leaving a path where they could escape to the cellar door, but Febe didn’t want them at her back. She tossed the other bottle, and the shadows tried to scatter.

Flaming liquid splashed up onto the fleeing shadows, immediately catching on their substance hungrily, as if the wraithfire were made to devour such creatures. Marcos tried to pull Febe towards the trapdoor but she resisted, ripping another strip of fabric from her tunic just in case there were any shadows that had escaped the flames. She had to make sure to destroy them all. It simply wouldn’t have been safe to leave any behind.

She needn’t have bothered. They were all consumed by the flames that licked the stone walls hungrily, searching for more fuel. It was only when the fires died down, leaving behind nothing but the stone walls and floor and the empty eyes of the skulls on their shelves, that Febe finally allowed Marcos to lead her out of the cellar.

She didn’t make it to the door before her legs collapsed. Marcos set the torch on a shelf, its dying flame hanging off the edge, and scooped Febe up into his arms, catching up the torch again as she laid against his chest, clinging to him with both arms around his neck.

“You are the bravest person I’ve ever met, Little Mouse,” he whispered in her ear as her tears soaked his shirt.

When he reached the door, it was flung open before he could set Febe down and push it aside. Febe looked up from Marcos’s shoulder at the startled faces of the castle steward and several maids— her own maid Macie among them.

The steward’s expression turned from surprise to disapproval, and several of the maids gasped, then turned and rushed away, their voices raised in excitement. Macie just stared at Febe in Marcos’s arms with an expression that suggested she was near tears, her lower lip trembling in her girlish face.

The steward turned the full force of his imposing glare upon Marcos. “This is an outrage! How dare you comport yourself in this manner with the princess? My lord Morbidon will hear of this!”

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapters 12 and 13

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Author’s Note: I didn’t get Monday’s blog out this week, which disappoints me, but I’ll be back in form next Monday. I did, however, finish two chapters of Morbidon’s Bride in time to publish them today, so that’s something. The manuscript is at 45,000 words so far, and still somewhat following my outline. 😉 As much as these things do, that is. My characters have a tendency to surprise me. Anyway, I hope you enjoy these two chapters. Please feel free to make any comments or critiques (as long as they are respectful, I will be happy to receive them.) I’d also love to know your thoughts on where you think this is going. 😉 I know where it’s going, but I want to hear what you think (I’m not going to spoil it though). *rubs hands together in anticipation*

 

Chapter 12

The following morning Febe awoke out of restful sleep, marveling at the fact that no nightmares and no strange noises had caused her to snap instantly awake—a habit that had become so ingrained over her lifetime of always being on guard that she no longer even noticed her fatigue and insomnia. Yet now her mind and body were refreshed from an easy sleep.

She felt more relaxed than she could ever remember feeling, even when she was supposedly safe within Vivacel’s temple. Back then, she’d still been on the run. Now, her time for running was over. She’d committed herself to this path, and to giving Morbidon a chance.

To that end, she didn’t object when Macie arrived along with her breakfast and pressed her to select a suitable outfit for her outing with Morbidon since she’d been too worn out to do it the previous evening. While Febe tried to eat some of the food that had been clearly prepared to tempt her appetite, she watched Macie pluck outfits from the wardrobe and hold them up for her perusal.

Febe rejected one after another. Many of them were dresses, and she’d never much bothered with such garments because they were restricting on her upper body and the flowing skirts got in the way of her legs, making it difficult to run when she needed to escape. Macie seemed to get the idea that Febe wouldn’t be comfortable in the dresses and instead pulled out a beautifully matched set of a long tunic and loose pants that were in the same style of the clothing Febe usually wore.

The color was a cross between rose and gold with embroidered flowers and vines sparkling with gemstones on the tunic and the hem of the pants. She nodded her assent to Macie, and the ghost girl smiled broadly, twirling around with the garment in hand in her exuberance at Febe’s selection.

Febe shook her head at the maid’s antics, unable to hide the smile that pulled at her lips. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt any sense of positive anticipation, but Macie’s excitement was infectious. Not that all the butterflies taking up residence in her stomach were good ones. Nerves made it difficult for Febe to control her trembling as she washed up and dressed.

She was still nervous when she followed the maid out of her room, though she tried to distract herself by memorizing the layout of the halls as they passed through them to reach the exit to the courtyard.

Her mind blanked when she stepped out into the courtyard and saw Morbidon waiting there. His masculine beauty made her feel uncomfortable rather than drawn to him. He was like a painting created by magic to be perfect rather than by the passionate hand of an artist, complete with flaws in the brushstrokes. Though he was pretty to look at, there wasn’t any life to him.

He bowed when he saw her, but it wasn’t deep enough to hide his frown. Perhaps he was disappointed that she had frozen on the steps rather than continue down them in the wake of the maid to join him.

Febe chided herself, forcing her limbs forward. Thus far, Morbidon had been kind to her, and he’d sounded sincere in his promise that no one would hurt her.

She closed the distance between them, crossing the courtyard in quick steps before she could change her mind. As she neared him, she shivered. The air around him seemed to crackle with his power. There was a scent of ozone and something else she couldn’t identify—a scent that was slightly musky, but also refreshing, like the smell of the first drops of rain striking hot clay pavers—earthy and exotic. She liked it, and breathed it in deeply without thinking.

Morbidon’s eyes widened as Febe audibly inhaled. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment as she realized what she’d done. To her surprise, his swarthy skin darkened with a slight blush as well.

He studied her for a long moment with an unreadable expression and then turned to gesture to two beautiful horses standing ready at the end of the courtyard. “Our mounts await, Princess. Are you ready to leave?” His tone was cool and composed, at odds with the flush that still stained his high cheekbones.

Febe swallowed around the embarrassment that threatened to block off her throat. What is he thinking right now? It wasn’t an auspicious start to their outing, but she’d made a commitment, and she was going to keep it. Besides, she really wanted to see the Blessed Isles. “I’m ready, milord.”

Febe hadn’t realized Morbidon had been tense until the muscles in his face and body relaxed at her words. The unnatural perfection of his features softened into something approaching human as he held out one hand to her.

With only a slight hesitation, she placed her palm over his, trying not to flinch as his fingers closed over her hand. A brief moment of panic struck as she recalled the fleshless fingers of his reaper. She straightened her spine and shoved away her fear as he gently tugged her towards the horses. His clasp was warm around her chilled fingers, and the contact caused a flush of heat to spread through her body until she felt almost too warm for comfort.

They rode mostly in silence down to the docks. Occasionally, Morbidon would point out features of the landscape, or name some of the souls floating around farming solid-looking crops or working with what appeared to be living cattle.

She gestured to a vast field of crops as they passed. “Milord, it seems strange that your kingdom would require so much food since the subjects are all spirits.”

He reined his horse to a stop and Febe followed suit as they watched a man labor in a vast field of crops. “The souls in my kingdom do not forget their previous lives easily. Some of them find it more comforting to continue on here as they did in life. I’ve provided them this environment to give them purpose. You will see that the spirits can eat if they wish to, though it isn’t necessary to sustain them. They are able to enjoy the tastes and textures they remember from life, just as they enjoy the feeling of solid soil and an animal’s hide beneath their hands.”

Febe studied the ghostly man as he bent to his task, one hand holding his back as if it pained him. “So you don’t force them to labor like this?”

Morbidon glanced at her, a frown creasing his brow. “These souls are not being punished. There is a place for those who are. I will never take you there.” His tone darkened. “It is not a place anyone would ever want to visit.” He turned to stare at the soul intently.

“What kind of people are punished in your kingdom?” Morbidon was known to be a harsh god, if the kingdom of Halidor’s worship of him was anything to go by. Small infractions could result in hard punishment.

“The people who face the worst punishments in my kingdom are the ones who deserve it.” He met her eyes with his pale gaze, and his expression had returned to the hard mask of perfection she found so unnerving. “Your mother has a place reserved for her, though now that she is a lich, she will not see that place for a very long time.”

She regretted bringing up the subject that caused him to slip back into god-mode. Despite his beauty, he was difficult to look at when his emotions were hidden behind this cold façade. It was almost as if he were wearing a beautiful version of the bone mask he’d had on when he’d been impersonating a necromancer. Still, now that she’d brought up the question, she had to follow it to its logical conclusion. She had to know.

Febe bit her lip, dropping her gaze to study the grass beside the shifting hooves of her horse. “And what of me? What punishment do I deserve? After all, you said yourself that your kingdom is filled with my victims.”

Morbidon guided his horse closer to hers. The two animals tossed their heads and snorted at each other, but their riders weren’t paying any attention. “Your soul is not darkened by evil like your mother’s. There is regret that eats away at the edges. I do not punish those who are already punishing themselves.” His fingers were warm and strong as they lifted her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Many souls come to my kingdom with regrets. Too many more come to my kingdom without them. I won’t pretend that I’m not a harsh master. I won’t lie to you, Febe.” He gestured to the farming soul. “But I am not cruel without reason. Many who come here find peace in the tasks that remind them of who they used to be. They choose not to leave, though they are all given the opportunity to be reborn once they have served their penance.” His eyes narrowed. “Even your mother will be given another chance at life when she has paid for the evil she has committed in this one.”

Febe turned her head, breaking his grasp as she spurred her horse. The animal lurched forward, pushing aside Morbidon’s mount, which blew out an annoyed gust of air from his nostrils. “I’d like to see this Blessed Isle, milord.” She tried to pretend her voice wasn’t quavering and that she wasn’t so obviously trying to escape his touch. What bothered her most wasn’t what he’d revealed about his kingdom and himself, but what he’d revealed about her. She’d liked the feeling of his fingers touching her face. Her chin was still warm where his skin had caressed hers.

 

Febe enjoyed the ferry ride to the Blessed Isles far more than she’d expected. The waters of the lake were so still they could have been glass. Only the passing of their ferry caused ripples that distorted her reflection. The sun above them shone merrily—a false, magical globe in the sky, similar to Vivacel’s false sun in her temple, only much larger. The approaching island claimed most of Febe’s attention, though she couldn’t forget the solemn god who escorted her. His presence was simply too powerful to ignore.

Morbidon didn’t say much as they slid across the water on the flat-bottomed boat. He hadn’t even spoken to the ferry man, yet the ghostly man seemed to know exactly what to do. The god of the dead was clearly taciturn, which should have suited Febe, who was accustomed to spending most of her time alone in her lab. Still, even though making conversation appeared to be a struggle they both shared, she wished he would be more forthcoming, if only to keep that statue-like expression from stiffening his features until he looked as remote and unattainably beautiful as the moon.

It probably didn’t help that Febe had no idea what to say to him, especially since she was still struggling with her unexpected attraction to him. She wanted to ask him questions to break the awkward silence that stretched between them, but every time she opened her mouth, she ended up too nervous to speak.

She didn’t find her voice until they’d debarked from the ferry, leading their mounts up the beach to a copse of trees where they would picnic before their tour of the isle. She was watching him instead of her footing, but since the beach was covered in sugary white sand, with no sign of a rock in sight, she didn’t worry about tripping. As he drew his horse to a halt beside one of the trees, he did something that she’d seen him do several times since they’d met up this morning. He lifted his hand to his face as if to grip the edge of a cowl, then seemed to realize that it wasn’t there, dropping his hand. She found this seemingly unconscious habit of his intriguing enough to overcome her nervousness. “Why do you usually wear a cowl, milord?” Why would he cover up that face? Why would anyone?

He looked up from tying the reins of his horse to the tree. His expression was as unreadable as a stone statue. “Does it bother you that I’m not wearing it?”

She couldn’t stop her sharp laugh at his question. He was terrifying when he was wearing his cowl. Even though his appearance was somewhat eerie without it, she much preferred him this way. When his eyes narrowed, she hastened to shake her head, adding, “It doesn’t bother me, but it seems to bother you.”

He looked startled at that. His hand reached up to his face in that same gesture that had inspired her curiosity. Then he glanced down at his fingers as if he just noticed them clutching for a nonexistent cowl. A slight frown marred his features, creasing his forehead and deepening the lines bracketing his mouth. “I am unaccustomed to baring my face in front of mortals.”

She tilted her head, studying his perfect face from an angle as if there would be some explanation for why he’d choose to hide it. “I don’t understand. Surely you know that it’s ….” Feeling a flush creep into her cheeks, she cut herself off before she acknowledged aloud how handsome she found him.

He didn’t look at her. Instead his gaze focused on the pack his horse carried as he loosened the straps to withdraw their picnic meal. “I’m aware of how my face looks. It is abnormal to mortals—a constant reminder to them that I am different—a creature of divine magic.” His pale gaze flicked to her, and she gasped at the blazing light in his eyes. “A reminder that I’m the bastard son of the divine dragon that raped my mother.” His voice was ragged as he turned his back on her, abandoning his search for their lunch. “I was told that I could be his very image, save for my eyes. Those I inherited from my mother, though I rarely ever saw them to be certain, since she would not look at us.”

Febe had no idea what to say to him. Though his stance was more remote than ever, his confession, and the pain behind his words, revealed a vulnerability that made him seem more approachable. His mother had turned her back on him because she could not stand to see the face of her attacker in the inhuman beauty of her child. “Us? You mean you and Vivacel?”

His shoulders tensed, but he didn’t turn back around. “My sister and I had only each other growing up. We lived outside of our village, because the people feared us and did not want our tainted presence among them. We cared for our mother, who’d become an invalid after the attack, because the villagers feared her misfortune would somehow fall upon them as well. Yet no matter how much we did for her and how much we loved her, she died cursing our very existence.”

The pain in his voice drew her to him the way his beautiful face had not. She reached out a hand to touch his shoulder, pausing as his muscles tightened beneath her palm. “I’m so sorry, milord. I cannot say that I understand all that you’ve been through, but my mother did not return my love either. That, I do understand.”

He took a step away from her, and her hand dropped back to her side. When he spoke again, his tone was cool and remote. “I wear the cowl because I have been concealing my face since I was a child. Does that answer your question sufficiently, Princess?”

Febe didn’t understand what she’d done that had made him pull away just when she’d discovered something that could bring them closer. Doesn’t he want me to care about what has happened to him? Is he angry that I even asked the question? “Milord?”

His fingers clenched into fists at his sides. “I don’t have an appetite at the moment. Perhaps we should tour the isle before we eat. That is, unless you are hungry. We will eat now if you would prefer.”

Febe didn’t have much of an appetite at the moment either. She’d already messed up their outing by asking her question. She wished she could talk to Marcos and get his input on what she’d done wrong. Perhaps he could better explain the mind of this man so she would know what she could and could not say and do. Morbidon was back to being the solemn god, and Febe craved the company of another human. “We can tour the isle, milord. I don’t feel very hungry at the moment either.”
Chapter 13

Their tour was enough to distract Febe from Morbidon’s dour mood. Perhaps even he found it cheering, since by the time they returned to the ferry, the tension that had frozen his features into his beautiful mask had slackened again, and his eyes were no longer cold silver, but had warmed to molten metal whenever he glanced her way.

After their morning conversation had apparently revealed too much for Morbidon’s comfort, he restricted his conversation to pointing out sights on the island. Febe was too charmed by the beauty of the Isle of the Blessed and the frolicking spirits there that she hadn’t been too distressed by his reticence.

It was only once they were again sliding effortlessly across the lake of glasslike water to return to the mainland that she felt the weight of his silence. Without colorful villages, glowing flora, and dancing ghostly youths to distract her, she had only her own fears and doubts. Morbidon had proven that the Underworld could be a place of great beauty, and even in the more mundane areas like the fields they’d ridden through to get to the dock, she’d seen bucolic peace and contentment. He was not always the harsh punishing god the Halidorians worshipped. “Why do the Halidorians only depict that side of you?”

It wasn’t until he straightened from where he’d been leaning against the side of the ferry rails that she realized she’d spoken her thought aloud. She swallowed as she met his eyes, but there was no sign of anger or irritation in their silvery depths. “What side of me do the Halidorians depict?”

Febe swallowed again, and the lump choking her throat made her fear she’d swallowed her own tongue. It was difficult to speak, but now that she’d asked the question, she couldn’t take the words back and must explain where they’d come from. “In all our dealings with Halidor, we’ve seen their patron god as the Dread God of Death. They depict you as a master of judgement and punishment, a god who demands slavish devotion and worship, and who wields his power in anger when his followers fail him. Your priests are known to be cruel and the death priestesses ….” She shuddered as she thought of the poor women who removed their eyes to serve the god of the dead. They believed that they could not be distracted by the living world if they were to effectively channel the power of the Underworld.

Morbidon held up a hand to forestall any more of her speech. His expression had grown severe as the words had poured out of her. Now, his lowered brows cast his pale gaze into shadow and his lips were a bloodless slash. “So this is the image that I have been fighting against for your hand?” He shook his head. “It’s little wonder so many mortals view me with such terror.”

His tone held disappointment and exasperation, which was at odds with his hard expression. “Are you saying you didn’t know how Halidor depicts you?”

His brows drew together, creasing the naturally tanned skin between them. “Halidor’s worship is part of my due for providing my protection and guidance as their patron god, just as your people worship Zephrona in return for her protection and guidance. When she’s angry with her followers, she delivers a scouring wind to punish them. When she’s pleased, your kingdom is blanketed in fragrant, soft breezes that carry the seeds of new life from one field to another and then bring clouds heavy with rain to water them. As patron gods, we offer reward and punishment to our followers based on their deeds.” He sighed heavily. “Halidorians are a warlike people bound by traditions older than my arrival in this realm. Before they worshipped me, they followed one of the old gods—a primeval creature of blood and death, who fed on war and sacrifice. That creature was destroyed by my hand, which won me their worship, but it seems that they have continued to view my patronage as one to fear and respect, rather than love.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, mussing the long strands enough that Febe felt an unexpected desire to comb them straight again with her own fingers. She wondered if they’d feel as silky and soft as his hair looked.

His next words distracted her from her urge to touch him. “Many of my followers behave in ways that I find repugnant. Thus, I have probably laid too much punishment upon them. This is likely the reason that they portray me in such an unpleasant manner.” His eyes lifted from his contemplation of the boards that made up the ferry floor to meet her gaze. “As for the death priestesses, I have never asked for such a sacrifice as they continue to make. They can wield my power and see into my kingdom as long as they perform my rituals properly. Removing their eyes is a tradition that they refuse to abandon. It is symbolic only, but they are rigid in their customs. Since it is voluntary on their part, I have not interceded. Changing such deeply ingrained customs causes many of my followers great anxiety and foments unrest. I do not do it lightly.”

“I didn’t realize that gods couldn’t simply change everything to suit themselves. I thought Halidor was that way because you demanded it.”

His short laugh lacked any humor. “If I desired it, I could sweep through Halidor and destroy all those who disobey me. I could also coerce my people by claiming their souls even while they still live, sublimating their will to my own. I could control them so completely that they dance like puppets under my hands. I can change everything to suit myself.” His tight mouth twisted into a snarl of disgust. “There are gods who would do such things. But I am not one of them.”

Febe stared at him, stunned by his words and what they revealed about him. “You have all that power, but you still let them do things you don’t like?”

His eyes narrowed on her. “Would you have me take their free will? The very thing which makes them human? I leave them their freedom to make their own decisions, even when those decisions will see them punished when they return to my kingdom. How else is a soul to gain wisdom and grow stronger if it is not allowed to make mistakes?”

Febe hadn’t considered it from that angle before, but it still seemed wrong that he had so much power and didn’t use it to stop people from doing awful things. “But what about the suffering of their victims? When you leave them to do as they wish, they harm others who don’t have the strength to stop them.” She looked away from his face, gazing out over the calm water. “If I had the powers of a god, I wouldn’t let people hurt each other ever again.”

Morbidon released a hard sigh, stepping forward abruptly to close the distance between them. Suddenly, his fingers were stroking her cheek, and only then, beneath the heat of his caress, did Febe realize that her cheeks were damp with tears. “Is that why you build your engines, sweet Febe? Do you hope one of your designs will give you enough power to end the suffering of others?”

The sympathy in his expression was nearly her undoing. She couldn’t remember when—or even if—she’d ever cried on someone else’s shoulder. Her mother had always viewed tears as a sign of weakness to be purged, which was why Febe had always hidden away in her laboratory to shed her tears in isolation.

Morbidon’s sympathy scared her in ways that even his reaper could not. It threatened to crumble the wall she’d built so carefully over the rotaas to protect herself emotionally even as her traps protected her physically. All she had to do in that moment was lean her cheek against his broad chest and let go. Instinct told her he would catch her and hold her while her sobs wracked her body. Instinct also told her that she would lose much more to him in that act of compassion and unconditional support than she was ready for.

So she turned her back on him to face the water, gripping the railing as she brought her emotions under control. “I build my engines because I’ve always had a gift for inventing things. I see a need—a lack of efficiency in some process, a tool that is needed but not available—and I figure out ways to improve the situation. The engines you speak of—the ones made for war—I built because of the demands of my mother. Although….” She stared down at her white-knuckled grip on the railing.

Morbidon remained silent after her voice trailed off, though he joined her at the rail, standing so close to her that his heady scent clouded her thoughts.

She started speaking again to distract herself from the silent god waiting so patiently for her to continue. She was certain he could outwait her without even trying. “The thunder-pipe I invented was supposed to equalize power between the wealthy and the poor. I thought that if the poor—who could not afford to purchase swords, much less lessons in the martial arts—had a weapon that they could use without much training, then they could….”

“Revolt.” One word, spoken in his deep voice—not asking a question, but not an accusation either. He’d easily worked out the plan she’d buried so deep that even she hadn’t openly acknowledged it to herself.

“I was more naïve then. I really thought I could find a way for my thunder-pipes to be produced underground and put into the hands of the peasants. I kept the plans secret, searching for smiths that I could trust to build them.” Splinters from the railing dug into her fingers, and Febe marveled at how real the Underworld was, down to even that tiny detail. Morbidon’s magic made her inventions seem like children’s toys. He created reality out of nothing. She couldn’t even make a small weapon without the aid of blacksmiths and woodsmiths and alchemists. If she’d had magic like his, she would have created a thousand thunder-pipes and distributed them among the poor, the rebels, those downtrodden by her mother’s harsh regime.

“A revolt could have meant the death of you and your sisters as well as your mother. That type of rebellion usually ends in the blood of all nobles being spilled.”

Febe nodded. It was a risk she’d subconsciously acknowledged. She’d been planning to get in contact with the rebels that even now agitated the peasants in Barselor with their underground pamphlets and daring attacks on tax offices. However, there would have been no guarantee that they would spare her life, or even accept her help. She’d never gotten that far though. “My sister’s spies found a way into my laboratory.” Her shoulders slumped as she stared out at their reflection on the water. “She recognized the potential of my weapon. I would have expected her to keep it for herself, to raise her own army. I’m still not sure why she decided to share it with my mother instead.” And just like that, Febe’s plans to depose her mother had crumbled and the queen gained a weapon that would only further subjugate her people, as well as increase her confidence in angling for invasions of foreign lands.

The ferry bumped against the dock before Morbidon could respond. It was possible that he had nothing to say to that, because they led their horses off the ferry in silence. Febe allowed him to assist her in mounting, growing more comfortable with his touch, but also more sensitive to its effect on her. The brief brush of his skin against hers, the quick reminder of his hard body and inhuman strength, was awakening feelings in her that she hadn’t been certain she was capable of experiencing anymore.

She was no virgin. Her mother believed that the importance other kingdoms placed on such a thing was offensive, and in defiance of such traditions, she’d been adamant that her daughters make use of any men they fancied, as long as they didn’t grow too attached. Febe had been young and foolish once, breaking her mother’s rule by falling for a man nearly ten rotas older who’d been plucked from the mines for her use. Her mother’s reaction to that relationship had convinced Febe to never allow herself to grow close to another man again.

Yet Queen Isa was no threat to Morbidon. In that way, he was safe for Febe to care about, maybe even to love, but in so many other ways, he was just as big a threat to her as her mother had been to any man foolish enough to fall in love with one of her daughters.

Morbidon seemed to accept her silence as normal, rather than as the mental turmoil it actually signified. He made no effort to break it or draw her out of her thoughts. Perhaps it was simply because he was unaccustomed to conversation. She peeked at him from the corner of her eye as they rode back along the path to the palace. He sat astride his mount straight and tall, his gaze focused ahead of them, though he glanced at her briefly as if he felt her eyes on him.

“Milord?” She had no idea what she wanted to say to him, just knowing that she needed to break the silence, because someone had to. They were both too accustomed to isolation to make good conversationalists without at least one of them trying.

His attention focused on her, and Febe flushed at the intensity of his gaze. “Please call me Morbidon. I am no lord and master to you. I would be your friend, Princess.”

“In that case, please call me Febe.” She turned her head to watch the road in order to avoid his piercing pale eyes. “I’m no longer a princess anyway. I’m sure my mother has disowned me by now.”

“Your mother is too busy dealing with her new form to disown you formally. Nor will she. I will not allow it.”

“Is she in pain?” She still refused to meet his eyes, though she felt him watching her.

“Do you want her to be?” He asked as if he could make that happen, and would, for her sake.

Febe’s feelings where her mother was concerned were always conflicted. Both hate and love for the same person warred within her heart. She still dreamed of the kind of mother she’d wanted Queen Isa to become, but knew that the embittered, brutal, power-hungry matriarch would never change no matter how much she did for her, nor how much she loved her. “I suppose after what she’s done, she deserves to suffer, but if I insisted on her torture, then I would be no less a monster than she is.”

Febe caught the movement of his shrug from her peripheral vision. “Some would call it justice, but I understand your hesitation. I never stopped loving my mother, no matter how much she cursed us. Your mother does not suffer physical pain in her condition. Not anymore. Her pain will be of the spiritual kind. Her soul is shackled into the lich’s body until I free it. For now, I have allowed her to rule as she sees fit, but she is aware that I will take control if she goes too far. This understanding alone has caused her no end of torment.”

Toying with the reins in her hand, Febe dared a glance in his direction. “I thought you said you didn’t want to take away the free will of your subjects.”

“Nor will I, even with her, without good reason.” His lips were tight, his face a hard mask again.

“So if I asked you to stop her from hurting the people of Barselor, would you do it?”

His lips softened, but his gaze was still sharp and brittle. “If you asked me to, yes.”

She hadn’t expected that answer. “You’d sacrifice your own principles for me? Why?”

He drew his horse to a halt just as the palace gates came into view. “I would have thought that was obvious to you by now.” He waved his hand to encompass the palace and the fields beyond it. “I am a spirit dragon of divine blood. I can not only see the souls of others, I gain strength from them. I am attuned to souls the way a fire dragon is attuned to flames.” He dropped his hand, but his eyes never left hers. “When I meet my soul mate, I know it without question.” A slight smile, the first she’d ever seen on him, brightened the severity of his expression. “Even when I try to deny it to myself.” His smile disappeared. “You are my soul mate, Febe.”

They finished their ride in silence after Morbidon’s revelation. Febe had no idea what to say to him. She hadn’t even believed in such a thing as soulmates and now he was telling her she was his. It was too much to accept. She barely knew him, and if anything, he seemed more remote now than before their outing, as if his confession had bothered him as much as it disturbed her.

The emotionless mask she was beginning to hate had come back over his features as they entered the palace gates, making her ill at ease whenever she glanced his way, which made it a relief to see a familiar face when they rode into the courtyard. Though Marcos hadn’t been much more than a stranger when he’d come to find her near Vivacel’s temple, he was now the only link to her former life. A smile spread her lips at the sight of his human face turning to watch them pass. It was still an attractive face, but unquestionably mortal, which made it more comforting to rest her eyes on than Morbidon’s solemn, joyless perfection.

“Milor—Morbidon, I would like to spend the rest of the day touring your palace, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, Febe. I can have one of the servants—“

“If you can spare him, I’d like Marcos to escort me.”

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 11

Author’s Note: Only one chapter today, unfortunately. I feel like my confidence in my writing has been shaken lately, so I’m dealing with a touch of writer’s block. I’m still gamely tapping away at the keyboard, but everything I write seems like garbage to me, so I have to go over it again and again, and I’m never satisfied. I’ve been sitting in front of the computer staring at the screen, so paralyzed by self-doubt that I can’t even remember the words for common things.

Still, I made a commitment to myself to keep to my set deadlines and post these chapters in the time I promised. In fact, it’s even more important that I do it now, because these moments of self-doubt can turn into something much longer lasting, crippling my ability to create at all. So here is Chapter 11, in all it’s imperfect glory. I apologize if it seems rough and raw. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to add any comments, questions, or critiques below. I love hearing from you guys, and I’m certainly open to constructive criticism.

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Chapter 11

Febe followed the steward into the dark palace where she was met by a young, ethereal maid who led her to her rooms. By this time, she wasn’t even bothered by the strangeness of the ghostly servant, though the steward had at first frightened her. She’d been eager enough to escape her betrothed that she’d chosen the smaller fear of touching a ghost over remaining behind with the god of the dead. Now, she realized that the souls around her were not mournful or vengeful hauntings, but merely the spiritual form of once-living people. She doubted they meant her any harm, which was more than she could have said about the servants in her mother’s castle. Far too many of them had been agents of her sisters.

Her rooms were far nicer than she’d been expecting after walking through the dour, dark palace that was decorated with skulls and skeletons—constant reminders of where she was and who she’d be forced to marry soon.

In her mother’s castle, she’d only had one room, and she’d preferred it that way since it had been easier to set her traps in the smaller space. Here, she had a spacious suite of rooms to contend with, as well as multiple entrances where assassins could get to her. I must remember, my sisters aren’t here. There’s no reason for anyone to assassinate me now. No, she was facing a far worse fate than dying. She was facing the future of marriage to Death.

Despite the inconvenience of a large space to set traps over, the rooms were cozy and elegant. The sitting room was filled with bookshelves packed with books the likes of which Febe hadn’t seen even in her mother’s extensive library. Several overstuffed chairs sat beside the bookcases and a handful of side tables held candelabras that filled the room with a warm, mellow glow, chasing away the gloom that tried to creep in from the corridor.

A four-poster bed hung with silk drapes in a soft pink that complemented the lilies that were embroidered on the bedspread dominated the bedroom which sat just off the sitting room. There were so many pillows arranged on the bed that despite the size of it, they took up over half the surface.

A massive wardrobe sat against one wall, intricately carved with magical beasts. Febe looked away from it when she saw that the curving, graceful shapes were dragons. One glance had been enough to tell her that the wardrobe depicted the Allgods pantheon, based on the symbols of their elements enshrouding each dragon as they writhed across the surface.

A vanity table with a huge silver mirror sat near the wardrobe. Rugs woven with flowers in pinks and reds—with a dash of purple and green—warmed the black marble floors as she walked to the final room of the suite in the trail of the ghostly maid.

When the maid threw open the door, Febe stepped inside a room with a huge marble basin that was already filled with steaming water upon which rose petals floated on the surface. Beside the tub was another basin on a table carved of marble. Across the large room was a garderobe unlike any she’d ever seen before. It was carved of marble and the seat wasn’t simply a crude plank with a hole in it, but rather shaped in a way that made it look like it would actually be comfortable.

“Everything is self-filling and self-emptying, milady. You need only touch the side of each basin here.” The maid demonstrated by tapping her fingers on the edge of the small hand basin.

Febe watched as the basin magically filled. She’d installed pipes to pump water to her mother’s bathing room in their palace, but nothing she’d ever seen had been this convenient. Even with her pipes, draining the bath had been a hassle, and the heater she’d built beneath the tub had to be constantly tended, yet the water in this basin steamed already without any sign of a heat source, and when the maid tapped the basin again, the water simply disappeared.

She’d avoided magic her entire life because she’d always seen it as a dangerous and destructive force. She considered her engines and inventions as far more positive, even though they’d been misused by her mother, because anyone could make use of them. Magic required an inherent talent, and far too many mages had abused their power to oppress others who weren’t blessed by the gods with such talent.

Yet she couldn’t deny that she was charmed by this bathing room, and given her current state, she was eager to make use of it. Nothing sounded better to her at the moment than a relaxing soak in the bath with the fragrant petals brushing against her skin as she washed away the dirt and tension from her ill-fated escape.

As she dismissed the maid with as much kindness as she could muster, the apparition told her that dinner would be sent soon, but that it would be delivered to her sitting room. However, she could take as long as she wanted, since it would remain warm indefinitely.

More magic! I suppose I should get used to this. She shook her head as she closed the door and locked it, appreciating the heft of the lock that had been installed in the solid oak panel. She didn’t have the supplies to trap the entry, but then again, she doubted anything would stop Morbidon, and right now, he was the only one she feared.

Still, she hesitated as she stood before the bath, fingering the worn fabric of her tunic hem. The idea that the god of the dead could come across her at any point while she was nude and vulnerable in the bath made her wonder if being clean again would be worth it. She eyed the lock.

The maid had explained that these rooms were created especially for her arrival. Not built. Created. Out of nothing. That was a power that the spirits took for a granted. A power their lord wielded without effort. Yet, he’d installed locks on every door in her suite. Complicated—difficult to pick—locks. Who are they meant to keep out?

She wondered if he’d done it for her sake. If he’d known that she would be more comfortable behind a locked door, even if she were aware that it wouldn’t do anything to stop him from entering. She wasn’t certain what she thought about that. If he’d truly added the locks for her peace of mind, it demonstrated a surprising—and perhaps disturbing—insight on his notions of honor. Not only that, but the rooms were beautifully designed, filled with books and piles of pillows, both of which were luxuries Febe had enjoyed in her own chamber back in her mother’s castle.

The many shades of pink used in her rooms were also surprisingly soothing. Her mother had never allowed such feminine colors in any of Febe or her sister’s rooms, so she’d grown up with greens and blues, but the soft pinks and the bright blossoms made her oddly content, as if the color and the blossom design would have been her pick if she’d had the guts to go against the upbringing that had been instilled in her by her mother.

There was simply no way that Morbidon could know her so well when they’d barely spoken. She couldn’t imagine a monster such as she’d seen back on that mountain taking the time and effort to learn about her so that he could create this haven for her. A haven so far removed from the rest of the palace in tone that it could have been in a different world altogether.

Perhaps it had been merely luck, or a good guess, that had informed his choices. At any rate, the bath was calling to her and her aching muscles couldn’t resist it any longer. The sooner she entered it and washed up, the sooner she could dress again and feel less vulnerable.

 

She had to put her worn and dirty clothing back on over her clean body because she didn’t have her pack—a realization she’d come to only after she’d sank deeply into the soothing warmth of the bath. Anxiety and panic had assailed her, causing her to sit up with a slosh of scented water, but then she slid back down until only her nose and eyes remained above the water, her heart breaking as she recognized that she would no longer need her design book, filled with schematics and mathematical equations and blueprints. She was going to be the wife of a god. He could create an entire palace out of aether. He had no need for her inventions. The one thing that had truly made her feel special—her ability to invent—was completely pointless in this kingdom. She was just another princess and not even a pretty or charming one.

Her warm tears blended so well with the bathwater that she barely felt them on her cheeks.

After a good cry, Febe had pulled herself from the tub and dried off with a new sense of determination. Just because Morbidon didn’t need her gift, didn’t mean she couldn’t still use it. She would get a new book and fill its blank pages with new inventions, new equations, and new schematics. The ideas already started to prickle in her mind as she studied the bathroom surrounding her. How nice it would be for everyone to live in such luxury—how lovely for even the poorest peasant to touch a basin and be rewarded with hot water for washing or maybe even cooking.

Perhaps she could come up with inventions that could do these very things without magic. It would give her something to focus on, an idea to germinate in a mind that had spent too much time dwelling on a frightful future that had come to pass.

It occurred to her that the wardrobe she’d avoided studying too closely for fear she’d be reminded of her future husband might have a change of clothing for her. However, now that she was filled with a renewed purpose that cheered her, her body demanded food, reminding her that she’d neglected it for too long. She had no idea how long it had been since her breakfast with Marcos, and she hadn’t even eaten much then.

Just as the maid had promised, the food was laid out on the small table in the sitting room, almost buckling the table beneath the amount of dishes set upon it. It seemed that her new husband had somehow become aware of her favorite dishes, because they were all there, tempting her with the aromas of spice and savory meats. Every warm dish steamed, and the cold dishes, like the bowl of summer berries, were still crystalline with ice. Marvelous! There has to be some way to do this without magic! I will figure it out!

She was just about to sit down to the spread when there was a light knock on her door.

The food and the rush of ideas inspired by it had lured her into forgetting where she was, but the sound of the knock had her instantly on alert again. She eyed the door, complete with its lock, which had not been turned by the maid when she’d gone out. Her thoughts twisted from practical inventions to those that insured her survival. Her gaze darted around the room. Febe had no traps set. Nothing to protect her from danger.

“Milady?” The soft voice of the maid called from beyond the wooden panel.

Some of Febe’s tension eased, though she still felt the tightness in her stomach and the trembling of her limbs from muscles ready to move at a moment’s notice. “You may enter.” Her heart was still pounding, but she tried to rein in her nerves. She’d gotten through much worse encounters than dealing with a ghostly maid who was nothing but kind and helpful. After all, the girl had seemed downright sweet and childlike.

The door swung open, revealing the maid, who quickly stepped aside to allow another person to enter ahead of her.

Every muscle in Febe’s body stiffened again as she froze in her seat. Her jaw gaped open, but she was powerless to close it. Fear spiraled through her like acid, burning her stomach and tingling in her limbs. At the same time, she was unable to look away from the man in her doorway. Her eyes didn’t even want to. He was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen. No artist had ever captured masculine beauty like his—an idealized perfection that didn’t seem real.

His black brows were dark slashes set low over silver eyes that were piercing and pale in stark contrast to his swarthy complexion. His jaw was square and chiseled, and high cheekbones framed a straight nose without a hint of any bumps or breaks. She’d seen those lips before, but hadn’t realized how sensual they were when they weren’t tight with disapproval. Long, straight ebony hair framed his perfect face, falling well past his shoulders, blending into his black robe.

His eyes looked familiar. The color, the shape, even the almost glowing quality, reminded her of the goddess Vivacel. But there was no sign of sympathy or kindness in the face of the man who faced her. Not man—god! No matter how lovely he was to look at, he was still the monster, Morbidon. She didn’t need to have recognized his robe to know that. There was simply an air about him—an air of darkness and authority that didn’t tolerate being questioned.

Fear paralyzed her throat and kept her from swallowing, much less speaking as her future husband stood in her doorway.

He studied her as she trembled, then his gaze left her to take in the surrounding room, freeing her from the piercing power of it. He sighed and his shoulders slumped in a manner so human—and so at odds with his ethereal beauty—that Febe was caught off-guard. For a moment, he’d looked disappointed and almost vulnerable, his features shifting to reveal an actual human expression before his face returned to sculpted perfection.

Then he caught her further off-guard by sliding the strap of a pack off his shoulder, holding it up so that she could see it. “I was told you would want this returned to you.”

Complex emotions warred within Febe. On the one hand, she wanted to leap to her feet and rush to grab her pack so that she could dig out her design book and check it over in an almost compulsive need to reassure herself that it was safe. She’d never expected to see it again, so the relief she felt made her almost lightheaded.

On the other hand, she still feared the man holding the pack, and her fear made her want to leap from her table and run into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her to close him out. This conflict kept her frozen in her seat.

A flicker of impatience crossed Morbidon’s beautiful face, tightening his lips into a slight frown as his gaze touched her face, then settled on the pack in his hand. “This is important to you, yes?” His eyes met hers again. “Do you not want it back?”

Febe nodded, surprised she was able to do that much. Morbidon’s imposing height and breadth filled the doorway so completely that she couldn’t even see the ghostly maid behind him. At the same time, now that he didn’t have his cowl, she was better able to see his expression—which made him slightly less intimidating. He didn’t look angry. Rather, he seemed exasperated. No doubt she was making him seriously reconsider his choice to make her his bride. Good!

Her nod of agreement seemed to act as permission for him to enter her room, because he stepped forward, rapidly approaching her as if he worried that she’d change her mind. Since she hadn’t meant to invite him in, there was nothing to change.

She thought about getting up to run as he neared the table, but knew that was foolish. There was nowhere to go. She was at his mercy and as vulnerable in this place as she’d been in her cradle right after birth. No matter how clever her mind, no matter how cunning her traps, she couldn’t harm the man in front of her. Her safety and continued well-being were entirely in his hands—and she hated that. Her helplessness made her angry.

The anger was a good antidote to her crippling fear. Febe rose to her feet and snatched the strap of the pack as he held it out to her over the table. “Of course I want it back! I wouldn’t have been separated from it if you’d treated me with any degree of respect instead of grabbing me up like a sack of grain to haul me back to this dreary kingdom!” Her words spilled forth on a river of anger, stress snapping her restraint like a dam breaking under too much pressure. She’d endured so much just to avoid this very situation. Now she was stuck here, chattel to this creature, and he had the nerve to act as if he were doing her some favor by returning her property to her when he was the one responsible for her losing it in the first place.

A frown deepened the shadows beneath his brows and creased the skin between them. “You would have had plenty of time to pack your things properly and return with me in comfort if you had honored your obligation and not run away in the first place.” His tone was chiding, his deep voice rumbling into the room like one of her engines growling to life.

How dare he try to turn this into my fault! “I never made any promises! You made your bargain with my mother! Why should I have to honor it?”

“Are you saying you don’t obey your matriarch? Your queen?” He crossed his arms over his broad chest, one straight eyebrow lifted in skepticism. “You create weapons of untold destruction for your mother’s army.” He spread his arms out to his sides as if to encompass the room. “My kingdom is filled with the victims of your genius. These weren’t created out of obedience to your mother’s will? Is this something you do for your own enjoyment?”

The pack slid from Febe’s nerveless fingers and dropped to the marble floor at her feet with a soft thud. Anger spilled out of her like sand from an hourglass, leaving her deflated, her knees weak from the abrupt departure of the strong emotion. She gripped the edge of the table as her legs buckled.

Suddenly, strong hands grasped her before she could topple forward. They pressed her down into her seat, taking the weight off legs that no longer had the strength to support her. “I don’t enjoy killing.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I did what I was told.”

“And yet, you rebelled when it came to marrying me.”

Febe looked up into Morbidon’s eyes. He was standing over her now, leaning over the table, his hair brushing against her shoulder, his hands still gently gripping her arms. He was so close she could see the pores of his skin, the perfection of it unmarred by any scars or marks. His lashes curved long and lush beneath his lowered brows, and within the silver of his eyes were small spots of blue and green, barely visible. “I’ve never been more afraid of anything in my life than marrying you.”

She didn’t know how she managed the words without her anger to bolster her, but the truth would no longer be contained. She’d never directly disobeyed her mother before; because that was the one person she’d feared more than anything. Yet, Morbidon had replaced her mother as the scariest person she’d ever met. That was why she’d run from the betrothal instead of doing exactly what she’d always done—which was to obey her mother.

Strangely, his frown this time didn’t seem angry, but rather sad. “I know. I see your fear knotted within you.” He released her arms and stepped back, towering over her still but giving her breathing room. “I would never harm you.” He gestured with one hand to the room around them. “No one in my kingdom will ever harm you.” His eyes narrowed. “No one in the world would ever dare harm you now. You are safe with me, Princess Febe.”

Febe twisted her fingers together, avoiding his eyes to stare at the table piled high with food that still steamed or crackled with frost. “You say that, but I’ve seen….”

Morbidon turned away from her, running long fingers through his hair, ruffling the smooth fall of it so that he looked less perfect and more approachable. “I know what you’ve seen. I will not pretend that the reaper is not a part of me, just as my dragon is a part of me. Perhaps that makes you view me as a monster.” He glanced over his shoulder at her, catching her staring at him.

She quickly looked away as he spoke again. “I would have you see me as more than that.” He turned back to face her, his eyes blazing. “No part of me would hurt you, Febe! I swear this on my word as a god! I swear on my honor that you will be safe.” His jaw was set as he struck his chest with one clenched fist. “Give me the opportunity to court you, Princess, and I will prove that I am a god with honor and that I can be a worthy mate for you.”

His tone rang with sincerity. He was asking for what he could simply demand, or even take by force. Febe still feared him, and she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to feel the way he wanted her to about him, but he’d been right about one thing. She’d disobeyed her mother for her own selfish reasons when it came to marrying him.

In most kingdoms, arranged marriages for alliances were common. Doing your duty by forming an advantageous match was simply an accepted part of being a princess. Am I truly better than these other royals who have done their duty by their countries? Surely there’s no more advantageous match than marriage to a god! I already accepted this when I agreed to marry him, but he’s offering me a chance to know him as a person before I must learn him as a man. It would be foolish not to at least make an effort!

When broken down logically, the decision was an easy one. Taking her fear out of the equation, she had no reason not to take him up on his offer and allow him to court her. She’d already committed to him, but her fear would stand between them and only make her miserable if she didn’t put forth an honest effort. “I… I will try to….”

She swallowed around the lump in her throat, thinking of all the times she’d faced down death and come out on the other side unscathed. Those other times, she’d bent her mind to the task of surviving, overcoming her instinctive emotional responses to danger in order to triumph using logic and tactics. This time should be no different. “You may court me.” She didn’t know exactly what that entailed, but figured it would take time—time she desperately needed to grow accustomed to her new life and this strange creature who’d invaded it.

His stance relaxed, his fingers releasing from clenched fists to hang at his sides. The crease between his brows smoothed out as he sketched a bow to her. He still didn’t smile. She wondered if he even knew how. “Very well, Princess. I will leave you to your meal and rest.” He gestured behind him and the ghostly maid floated into the room. “Macie will provide anything you want or need. You have only to ask.”

The maid curtseyed to Febe, a bright smile on her sweet face. Her gaze turned from Febe to Morbidon, and her eyes lit up, fixing on the imposing god with naked devotion that made Febe uncomfortable, sparking an unexpected twinge of possessiveness that made her want to snap at the girl to leave the room. She kept her mouth shut, pushing away the unwanted emotion.

Morbidon didn’t look at the maid as he continued speaking to Febe. “The days in my kingdom follow the sun on the surface world. In this part of the underworld, I have adjusted the day to match the same cycle as Barselor.” He gestured at a wall that was empty of bookshelves, and suddenly a window formed, revealing a landscape where the sun was setting to cast a brilliant rainbow of colors across the small clouds that dotted the horizon. “This is a view of the Isle of the Blessed. There are many beautiful places in my kingdom. I would show them all to you. This window will allow you to choose which view you see.”

Febe stared at the view beyond the window in awe. She’d never seen a place so lovely. Not even in paintings.

“I would like to take you there tomorrow, after your morning meal.”

She turned back to him. “That would be… amazing!” She was struck by the desire to see the place in person, to experience its vivid beauty with all five senses. Even if it meant she would be spending time in Morbidon’s company.

He bowed again. “Then I will come for you tomorrow. Farewell, Princess. Enjoy your meal.” He turned abruptly and left the room, striding through the door that had been left open by the maid.

Once her lord was gone, Macie clapped her hands together, grinning at Febe. “Milady, you must choose something perfect to wear for tomorrow! There’s a whole wardrobe filled with clothes! Once you finish eating, I’ll gladly help you go through them.”

Febe stared at the maid, feeling exhausted from the excesses of emotion. Since Macie seemed to be excited enough for both of them, she figured it was okay that all she could do was stare at her empty plate with no energy to fill it, despite the emptiness of her stomach. She glanced at the view within the magical window, as breathtaking as the god who’d created it. Tomorrow. I’ll deal with it tomorrow!

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 10

Author’s Note: The good news is: I’ve decided to publish more than one chapter at a time if they are ready by that Friday. The bad news is: I’m currently only one chapter ahead, and I want to keep a one-chapter cushion in case I run into a difficult two week window and don’t have a chance to get to my writing. However, now that Jessabelle’s Beast is almost ready to be published, I have more time to work on Morbidon’s Bride and should be getting several chapters ahead pretty soon. Hopefully by the Friday after next.

More good news is that–while making some character notes–I hit an inspiration bubble and managed to fully map out the rest of the story, clacking madly away at the keyboard as the ideas flowed and the story fell completely into place. The end was not what I was expecting! We’ll see if it’s what you all were expecting.

I have to say, I’m very pleased with it. It feels right. I love when a story I’m working on takes off in a direction I didn’t anticipate, or that I had specifically planned against. This sense of “rightness” sometimes makes me feel like I’m not making these stories up, but simply telling them as they happen in some other dimension. Hey, it’s fun to dream! 🙂

And I sure dream that Morbidon is real somewhere! I can’t help falling in love with the arrogant (but so socially inept) god of death. And Marcos! Sheesh, my alpha males are so much fun to write. I love this guy! He’s completely hijacked the story in some spots! Men who feel fear but still stand in the face of danger are so much hotter to me than men who feel no fear at all. It shows more courage in my opinion. 🙂

The real question is: Who will Febe fall in love with? I gotta tell ya, I love them both already. I hope you guys do too. And I hope you’ll keep joining me for new chapters (fingers crossed there will be even more than one at a time soon). Enjoy, and as always, feel free to add any comments, advice, suggestions, critiques, predictions, or maybe just a hello. 🙂 I love hearing from you guys!

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Chapter 10

Morbidon wanted to enjoy the feeling of having his bride in his arms, but the bitter yellow of her aura robbed him of even that much pleasure. She feared him, and his hold on her as they descended to his kingdom did nothing to assuage that fear. If anything, it only deepened the roots of it. Her fear was an obstacle he would have to overcome, and he’d blundered badly thus far in winning anything even remotely approaching affection from Febe.

He hadn’t intended to unleash his reaper in front of her, but the way she’d clung to Marcus had only aggravated the suspicions Vivacel had put into his head. His control over his rage had slipped, and Febe had borne witness to the monster within him. To make matters worse, it had only taken a shift to his dragonsight to see that she did not harbor any amorous feelings towards Marcos. At least, she didn’t yet.

Giving in to her request to keep Marcos around as a companion had been the most difficult choice he’d ever made. Morbidon wasn’t a gambler. He didn’t like leaving anything to chance, and there was a big chance that allowing the two to remain together for any length of time could lead to the very situation Vivacel had mocked him about.

Yet, what he’d seen in Febe’s aura beneath the corrupting fear had been plotting-pink, not the red of romantic feelings. Marcos was part of her plans, whatever they might be. Morbidon was confident he could handle any escape or murder attempt Febe or her companion might try, so her plotting didn’t worry him. The important thing was to keep her near him long enough for her to see that he wasn’t the monster she believed him to be, although he’d done a terrible job proving that to her thus far.

His magic flowed around them as they traveled through the pathway to the Underworld. Though he’d left the revenant behind, it was a simple matter to have a reaper retrieve Marcos, and he’d already sent the order. By the time his horse, Specter, set hooves onto the black marble of his palace courtyard, Marcos would be on his way. It occurred to Morbidon that the former human might be of use to him in more ways than simply reassuring Febe. Somehow, despite Febe’s upbringing and her dislike and disdain for males, she’d turned to Marcos for protection. Marcos had earned her trust, even after she’d discovered that he was working for Morbidon.

Given her history, he hadn’t thought Febe would be quick to trust anyone, but then again, perhaps her soul was starved for companionship. That was something he could relate to. He’d been alone for so long he’d almost forgotten what it had been like to trust another. He hadn’t forgotten what it had been like to have that trust betrayed. Though he was still sorely tempted—every time Vivacel came around—to forgive the past and foolishly trust her again, simply so he wouldn’t have to be alone any more.

It was uncomfortable to hold the stiff woman on his lap because he desired her, and didn’t want to frighten her further with evidence of that desire. Her scent recalled a garden of blooming flowers, reminding him of Spring—and of life—but the tension in her body and the yellow in her aura reminded him that she wanted nothing to do with him. He had a long journey ahead of him to win her, as well as no idea exactly how he could do that. He would make Marcos share his secret.

Specter clattered down to the marble of the courtyard, neighing in triumph at yet another successful journey to and from the surface. His stallion enjoyed the exercise and didn’t get it enough, since Morbidon liked to travel in his dragon form. This time, he’d chosen his human form in an attempt to avoid further frightening Febe, but he’d failed miserably.

Febe sat frozen on his lap even after the horse finished his victory prancing. Her fear never abated, and the steel hard muscles in her back never loosened. They sat astride the shifting horse awkwardly for a moment as Morbidon wondered what he should do next.

His steward came to his rescue, floating over to them as Febe turned to regard the ghostly man with a blank expression. The terror in her eyes had faded to an almost trancelike calm that Morbidon didn’t like at all. She’d retreated within herself, her fear solidifying into a knot that didn’t look like it would ever unravel.

His steward bowed. “My Lord, shall I show the princess to her chambers?”

“Yes, see her to her rooms.” At this moment, there was nothing Morbidon wanted more than to be away from his bride. He was uncomfortably aware that no matter how close he held her, she was so far out of his reach that even with all his power, there was nothing he could do to bring her closer. He hadn’t felt this helpless since he’d been a child watching his mother turn her face to the wall rather than look at him and his sister. He released Febe, quickly dismounting Specter and taking several steps away from the horse as his incorporeal groom rushed up to hold the stallion’s reins.

The steward held up a hand to Febe to help her off the tall stallion. She stared down at the hand blankly, perhaps unaware that it would have substance in his kingdom, despite its appearance. Or perhaps, she was simply so far gone that she didn’t even notice it.

To Morbidon’s relief, she finally reached out and placed her palm into the steward’s hand, allowing him to help her slide off Specter’s back. She didn’t even glance back at him when the steward bowed once more to him and then motioned for her to follow him into the palace.

For a moment, Morbidon had been afraid he’d broken her so completely with fear that she’d never recover. If a part of him wasn’t still so certain that she belonged to him and that he needed her, her behavior would have convinced him that he’d made a serious mistake in bringing her here. Perhaps I should have taken one of the other sisters in her place. Yet neither of the other sisters had appealed to him the way Febe did. In fact, he’d yet to meet another soul that had ever appealed to him the way Febe’s did.

Instead of retiring to his palace as his horse was led away, he paced in the courtyard, unwilling to be caged in by walls in his current mood, even the grand walls of his own design. He waited for his reaper servant to return with Marcos in tow.

 

Marcos clutched Febe’s pack to his chest as he rode behind the reaper, suspiciously eyeing the scythe that arced over his head. Febe had demanded his companionship as a condition of her agreeing to marry Morbidon, but that didn’t mean the god of the dead had to honor that condition. Still, in everything he’d heard about Morbidon, the god did have some notion of honor. Marcos just hoped it extended to keeping his word to Febe and not just killing Marcos outright. After all, Morbidon suspected he’d been trying to seduce Febe away from the god.

The worst part was that Marcos hadn’t been entirely unaffected by her. The idea of spending more time in her presence was disturbing, given that she was to be married to the god of the dead. He hadn’t expected the little mouse to turn to him with so much trust, but when she had, it had kicked his protective instincts into high gear, giving him the strength to face down the god that terrified him. Now, he had the image of her wide, frightened eyes etched into his memory, appealing him to fight for her—to protect her. There was something about that vulnerability that called to him in a way that even Eldora’s fiery independence had not.

When the reaper landed in the center of a shadowed courtyard lit only by guttering torches of blue flames in the middle of a dark underworld kingdom that Marcos had hoped not to visit for a long time yet, he found the god himself awaiting their arrival, a flickering blue flame hovering beside him without even the illusion of a torch to hold it.

Marcos dismounted as soon as the reaper’s horse stopped moving, and the beast stamped its hooves a few times before its rider kicked it back into motion. Animal and rider took off into the air, heading back to the surface to no doubt continue their endless work. That left him alone with Morbidon, who was watching him through the shadows cast by his black cowl.

Marcos bowed awkwardly. He’d only had a few conversations with the god, and they had all been essentially Morbidon giving him orders. All except for the first conversation, which he didn’t want to relive. “My Lord.”

“Marcos.”

It was strange to hear his name spoken so frequently now that he’d gotten it back. Ironically, he had the god who had killed him to thank for returning his true name to him. He’d been “Farmer” for so long that he’d almost forgotten what his name had been before. This, at least, put him in Morbidon’s debt, which was not a comfortable place to be. “Was there something you needed, milord?”

“Tell me how you won her trust?” Blue light limned the robed figure, deepening the shadows beneath his cowl so that Marcos couldn’t even see his lips moving. It was an eerie reminder of the wraithfire that precipitated the transformation of the god into the Dread Reaper.

Clutching Febe’s pack in one hand, he held his other hand up, eyeing the god for any sign of offensive movement. Not that Morbidon couldn’t simply smite him with the wave of a hand, or perhaps even a thought. “I swear, milord, nothing happened between us!”

Morbidon tilted his head to one side as if to regard him from a different angle. “You are drawn to her. Do not deny it. I can see it in your aura. The red of desire trickles through your soul like spilled wine when she is near you.”

Marcos dropped his gaze to the marble tiles beneath his feet. “It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing happened between us, and I swear on my honor that nothing will!”

“I believe you. But you have earned her trust, and she does not fear you as she does me. I wish to know how you’ve done it. I would have her turn to me when she is afraid, rather than be the one she fears.”

He struggled for a moment to find words to respond to Morbidon. The god was actually asking for his advice. It was a strange and uncomfortable position to find himself in, but if he could help Morbidon win Febe over, perhaps his life would be fully returned to him, and he would no longer be trapped in the Underworld under the god of the dead’s control.

Of course, that meant that he’d be leaving Febe behind, but that was probably a good thing. Her vulnerability was dangerous to his peace of mind. “It would help her to see your face.” It was the first bit of advice that popped into his head, but as soon as he said it, he realized he was right. One of the things that made Morbidon so frightening was how his face was always obscured so it was difficult to read his expression.

The god touched his cowl, his long fingers stroking over the fabric as if loath to part with it. “Are you certain that would help?”

Just then, it occurred to Marcos that Morbidon might have a truly monstrous visage that he was hiding behind the cowl. If that was the case, then revealing himself to Febe might seriously backfire, but he had no idea how to express that without insulting the god. “I believe she would be more comfortable if she could better read your mood. If she can’t see your face for some reason, then perhaps you could give her more clues to how you’re feeling in other ways.”

Morbidon suddenly reached out and grasped hold of Marco’s shirt to lift him off his feet until they were eye-to-eye. “Explain these other ways! I would have her feel comfortable here. No one will try to assassinate her here! No one would dare bring harm to her.”

Due to his position and the way the blue light shifted to follow Morbidon’s movements, Marcos got his first close-up glimpse of what was under the cowl. The god was far from deformed or monstrous, and if Febe were the vapid type of girl to appreciate beauty over substance, revealing his face would probably win her over easily. However, from the things Marcos had heard about Febe, and his own observations, it would take much more than a pretty face to win her. “The first step you need to take is to show her your face.” Perhaps that will help her forget the monster you become. Though I doubt it! Who could forget that? “If you want her trust, you need to earn it, and you can start doing that by putting your trust in her.”

Morbidon released his shirt, dropping him back to his feet. As he regained his balance, brushing his hands down his shirt to smooth it, Marcos reflected that the other man had shown no sign of effort lifting his significant bulk one-handed off the ground. It was a sobering reminder of just who he was dealing with, as if he needed one. It was little wonder Febe feared Morbidon so much. It was an appropriate response. He would have to tread very carefully with his advice. If he made a mistake or gave bad advice, he had no idea what the god would do to him in retaliation.

Morbidon’s attention had thankfully strayed from him, his head turning towards the castle where a ghostly figure stood watching them. Unfortunately, Marcos hadn’t been dismissed, so he assumed that Morbidon still wanted information, which meant if he ever wanted to get away from this conversation, he had to bring the god’s attention back to him. “Milord?”

Morbidon glanced down at him, his sublimely handsome features cast back into shadow again. “You said the first step.” Again, his fingers stroked the cowl, clutching the edge of it for a moment before his hand dropped. “I assume that means there are more.”

Marcos held up Febe’s pack. “I guarantee she’ll be happy to have this back, and it gives you an excuse to see her again. Don’t have one of the servants take it to her. Deliver it to her yourself.” Febe would be worried about her book. Having Morbidon return it to her might make her more receptive to him. It was worth a try.

Morbidon took the offered pack, holding it away from him by the strap as if it were filled with diseased rats. “You think I should wait on her instead of ordering my servants to do so?” His tone shifted from skeptical to thoughtful as he stared at the pack dangling at the end of his long arm.

Marcos threw up his hands in a stopping gesture. “Well, no, I wouldn’t go that far! Just this one del—”

Morbidon snapped the long fingers of his free hand as he stared at the pack. “Of course! The more she sees me, the less she will fear me! From this moment on, none shall serve my bride save for me!”

With the situation spiraling quickly out of control, Marcos tried to mitigate some of the damage. “Ah, that might be difficult, milord! Febe is a princess. She’ll need a lady’s maid at the very least. Unless you can perform arcane rituals with hair styles and hairpins, and you understand all those powders and creams and unguents that princesses wear.”

To Marcos’s dismay, it seemed that Morbidon was considering these obstacles, tapping his chin with his finger as if he were ticking off a list of things he’d need to learn to allow him to be the sole caretaker of his wife. That would be catastrophic. “Little steps are the best—most guaranteed—way to get a woman to trust you. She won’t have a chance to grow comfortable with you if you’re never out of her sight!”

The god returned his attention to Marcos, clenching his free hand into a fist. “How can she possibly grow comfortable with me when I’m not there? Now you’re just playing games with me, peasant!”

How to say this without offending him? “If you’re hovering over the princess, she’s going to feel like a captive. She needs her own space, and she also needs to see other faces besides yours—and mine,” he hastily added in the hopes of heading off any lingering suspicions Morbidon might have.

Morbidon slung the pack over one shoulder and crossed his arms. “In all this tiptoeing around my bride, when do I get the honor of her company?”

How can a god be so ignorant of these things? “Dates are probably the best way to win her over and spend time with her. But they have to be the right ones. Take her to the nicest parts of your… kingdom.” If there are any.