Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 9

Author’s Note: Not a lot of notes to add this time. I’m having fun with this plot, but the prose is killing me for some reason. I know exactly what I want to say, yet it just isn’t coming out to my satisfaction. Still, I know better than to rework a single chapter over and over again before finishing the story, so out it goes, Chapter 9. I hope you all enjoy it. Oh, yes, and for those of you familiar with the myth of Hades and Persephone, the similarity is completely intentional. 😉

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Chapter 9

Nestled within the fold of two mountains fighting for space lay a sheltered valley where enough soil existed for the land to support a forest of trees and a large lake. There might have been magic involved, because just at the entrance to the valley, the temperature changed and the snow ended, revealing grass and moss and the new buds of spring on the trees. After fighting the snow and ceaseless wind, Febe saw the valley as a single slice of paradise in that landscape, and she rushed forward despite her exhaustion, pushing past Marcos.

The ground just beneath her began to tremble as her shoe first crossed from the snow onto the new spring grass. Febe took a hesitant step back and then another. Marcos shouted a warning, and then his arms pulled her against his chest before tossing her back onto the packed snow trail where she fell to her knees, the snow instantly soaking her trouser legs. She jumped to her feet, turning to him to ask why he’d done such a thing, the words never making it past her lips when she saw that he wore an amulet that glowed with a silver-blue fire. She was about to ask what was going on when the ground split apart with a deafening crack, only a few steps away from where she’d stepped on the grass. Marcos pushed her further back, blocking her with his big body from the growing fissure as the crack speared towards them, now splitting the snow-laden earth.

Febe clung to Marcos’s hard bicep as she peered around him at the gaping chasm that blocked their path. A massive warhorse bearing a robed and hooded rider leapt out of the opening in the ground. Febe wanted to run, but her frozen legs kept her in place, though her entire body trembled with her fear. Her grip on Marcos tightened, and she pressed against him as if he could possibly protect her from the god of the dead.

The time had come for her to face her future husband.

She caught only a glimpse of Morbidon’s features before she pressed her face against Marcos’s arm. This time, the god wasn’t wearing a bone mask or even armor, but somehow he looked even more intimidating in a flowing black robe with a cowl casting his upper face into shadow. Of his lower face, the cowl revealed only a strong, square jaw and lips that were tight with disapproval as he turned his attention from her to Marcos.

“You were to summon me when you retrieved my bride.” His voice had the hollow sound of a tomb door closing—deep, resonant, echoing, and absolutely terrifying.

Febe shuddered against Marcos, before the meaning of the god’s words sunk in. She gasped and pushed away from him, staring at him in distrust and dismay, almost forgetting the presence of the god of the dead as his magnificent warhorse pawed the frozen ground and snorted clouds of warm breath into the chilly air. “You serve Morbidon?”

“You needn’t speak my name with such horror, woman!” The god’s voice lashed out at her, brittle with anger.

Febe flinched, shifting further away from the horse, and despite her feeling of being betrayed by Marcos, she returned to his side, sidling behind him as Morbidon’s lips tightened even further until they were nothing but a thin line slashing across his swarthy skin. When she clutched at Marcos’s arm, silvery-blue flames rose from Morbidon’s robes.

“My Lord, I would have summoned you when we’d had a chance to rest in the valley. It took some time getting—“

Morbidon slashed an impatient hand through the air, trailing blue flames in its wake. To Febe’s horror, the flesh on his hand was peeling away beneath the burning flames, revealing bone as white as the snow beneath them.

“I’m not interested in your excuses, peasant. I sent you to retrieve my bride, not to seduce her.” Morbidon’s final words were hissed out in what could barely be called a human voice. His now bony hand clenched in front of him and his horse neighed, tossing its head as if it was disturbed by his anger.

Marcos glanced down at Febe, who was trying to hide completely behind him now. His eyes met hers and she saw the sympathy in them. If she wasn’t so afraid at the moment of the menacing god, she would have kicked him in the shin just for daring to pretend he had any softer emotion for the person he’d been sent to collect like some prize. She wished more than anything that she had a bunch of traps at that moment to hide behind instead of this untrustworthy man. Perhaps little mouse is an apt nickname for me. She frowned in self-disgust, searching for the courage to face the god without the help of the man who’d been lying to her.

Marcos gently detached her white fingers from his sleeve, taking her frozen hand in his large, warm grasp so that he could draw her back out to stand at his side instead of behind him. “I have done no such thing. If you’d take notice, your bride is frightened, not in love.” To Febe’s surprise, he leveled a glare upon the monstrous apparition in front of them—the god of the dead now fully skeletal and burning with blue flames, his tight lips having peeled away to reveal the death rictus of a skull. “It’s no wonder she views you with such fear, for even I tremble in your presence.”

There was a chiding note to Marcos’s tone that Febe couldn’t believe he’d dared to add when addressing Morbidon. Marcos hadn’t been lying about trembling though. She had felt the tremor of his muscles beneath her grip and even now, his hand around hers wasn’t so steady. Yet he faced the god and dared to censure him as if he couldn’t be wiped out of existence for the simple act.

This is the kind of courage I need. He faces Morbidon with fear, yet still stands tall!

A long moment of silence fell. Febe didn’t dare look in Morbidon’s direction again after seeing the horrifying reaper aflame. She kept her focus tight on the weave of Marcos’s wool tunic, just visible beneath the furs that covered his chest and most of his arms.

The sudden sound of Morbidon’s voice caused Febe to jump, realizing that she had almost gone into a trance waiting for the blade of the reaper’s scythe to fall upon her. “My bride has given you a chance, yet has not extended me the same courtesy.” The hiss was gone from Morbidon’s tone. It had returned to that deep, arrogant voice that he’d used when he’d pretended to be a mere necromancer in her mother’s court.

Now’s the time for courage! Though she still didn’t feel any, Febe dared a glance at the god and saw to her relief that he was back to flesh and blood beneath the robes, and the fire had died away, though his lips were still merely a thin slash. She wondered if he was even capable of smiling, or if anger or disapproval were his only expressions. “Why didn’t you come for me yourself?” She barely whispered the words as she returned her focus to Marcos’s sleeve. She hadn’t intended to say them aloud. The fact that Marcos tightened his grip on her hand in warning didn’t make her feel any more confident about the fact that she had dared to utter them.

Another long silence fell as if the god was considering her words, or perhaps he hadn’t heard them, which would have been preferable.

Then he spoke, revealing that he’d heard her just fine. “You ran into my sister’s arms seeking your escape from me. Would you have preferred I razed her temple simply to retrieve you?”

She shuddered, though his tone had been as calm and reasonable as she’d ever heard it. “Could you have done that?” She unconsciously sidled back against Marcos’s side, though she didn’t note it until after his furs tickled her cheek. When he put a heavy arm around her shoulders to shelter her further, a growl from the god of the dead raised the hair on the back of her neck, but she remained beside Marcos, cursing her own lack of courage. Had she been Eldora, she would have been standing before the god with her chin lifted and a seductive smile on her lips, trying to manipulate the monstrous creature as Eldora had manipulated so many men and women in the past. Instead, she was cowering against another man, one she had no reason to trust, yet she couldn’t find the strength to leave his embrace and face Morbidon even as she dared to question him. Her mother would be furious at her behavior. Isa would never have sought shelter in a man’s arms.

Morbidon’s voice was a growl as he answered her. “I could have, but I do not kill without reason. Instead, I sent my servant to return you to me peacefully.” His tone was cold and brittle, and Marcos tensed against her side, his arm pressing her closer to him.

I don’t want to be “returned” to you! She wanted to scream the words at Morbidon, but this time, she managed to keep her thoughts behind her lips. He was obviously already aware that she didn’t want to marry him. He also obviously didn’t care what she wanted. All her protests would do, would be to further anger him. She had to decide whether she should use what little courage she had to face her betrothal and honor her mother’s bargain, or face the monster that wanted to enslave her in matrimony and tell him she would never agree to such a fate.

She recalled Marcos’s words about making a choice. This moment was where she had to make it. If she angered the god by denying him, she had no idea what would happen next, but if she agreed to the marriage—though the very thought of intimacy with such a creature made her ill—there was hope that she could influence him at some point. Then she might even have the power to usurp her mother and her sisters and free Barselor from the burden of their endless infighting.

Febe was hopeless when it came to men. She had no idea what to do or say to them, but Marcos had already said he would help her. Though now she knew that he had been working for Morbidon and not her sister, his intention had never changed, so technically, he hadn’t been betraying her. She’d always known that he’d planned on taking her back to marry Morbidon. However, if she were to return to Morbidon’s kingdom with the terrifying god, then she didn’t want to be alone amongst the dead. Given Morbidon’s obvious suspicions about her relationship with Marcos, her next request might be risky, but it was the only way she could work up the courage to do what she must. “I will willingly return with you to your kingdom and marry you, but you must grant me one request.”

“Are you making demands of me?” Since Febe didn’t dare look at him, she couldn’t read his expression, but his tone sounded surprised. Surely he doesn’t expect a wife to be as obedient and unobtrusive as his servants? Yet, he was male and a god, so perhaps he expected exactly that.

“If you want a wife and not a slave, then you will learn to give on occasion instead of always taking.” She trembled, despite the firmness of her tone.

Marcos squeezed her in encouragement. He was watching Morbidon, so perhaps what he saw in the god’s expression was enough to convince him she’d made the right decision in standing firm.

To her surprise, the god actually sighed. “Very well, make your request.”

“I won’t return with you to the Underworld alone. I need a companion.” She looked up at Marcos’s face, just as he turned his attention from Morbidon to her. His eyes widened when they met hers, and he slightly shook his head. She ignored the warning. “I want Marcos to be that companion.” She risked a glance at Morbidon to see how he was taking the request. Her heartbeat stuttered when she saw blue flames crawling along his robes again.

He was silent for a long time as the wind kicked up around them, whipping tiny flakes of snow into a whirl that left them all untouched. Marcos stood tense against her, though he hadn’t dropped his arm and pushed her away when he realized her intent, despite the fact that it might have put him in danger. He’d still stood with her. He was almost as much a stranger to her as the god they faced, yet she felt comforted by his arm around her and the implicit support it carried with it.

When Morbidon spoke, his tone was reluctant, but the terrible hissing of rage hadn’t returned. “Very well. I will allow you this…companion, as long as you agree to be a proper wife to me. You must swear that you will never attempt to run away again, or your companion will suffer dearly for it.”

Febe didn’t have any doubts about what he meant when he said “proper wife.” She shuddered at the thought of sharing the monster’s bed and pushed down her gorge at the very idea that he would touch her. Yet, her only other option was to tell him she would never accept him and deal with whatever came of that choice. She didn’t think it would be a good alternative. She would have to find the strength to endure, as she had endured all her life in her mother’s castle. “I agree to those terms…” She glanced up at Marcos, swallowing as she realized that she hadn’t even bothered to consult him. If he says he doesn’t agree—

Marcos met her eyes. Then he nodded, the movement so slight that she might not have caught it if she wasn’t watching him closely, but the brief squeeze around her shoulders was answer enough. He might not be happy about being put in the position she’d put him in, but he was in agreement with it.

“Then we are in accord.” At Morbidon’s words, his horse suddenly surged forward, charging right at them.

Marcos shoved her out of the way, but the horse followed her path as she stumbled back. Before she could fall or be crushed beneath pounding hooves, a hard arm swooped out and captured her around the waist, pulling her onto the horse’s back and—to her horror—settling her onto Morbidon’s lap as the animal spun around and thundered back towards the chasm.

A brief flash of Marcos’s wide eyes and gaping mouth rushed past her before the horse plunged into a darkness so all-consuming that Febe saw nothing but black, yet she remained uncomfortably aware of the solid arm holding her secure as she traveled with the god of the dead down into the Underworld.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 8

Author’s Note: I had a lot of fun writing this chapter. In it, Morbidon returns, allowing me to get deeper into his character. Let me know if you have any comments or suggestions. I love hearing from you guys!

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Chapter 8

Though Marcos hadn’t waited for Febe to make her decision to follow him, she remained glued to his trail in the snow, rather than striking off in another direction in a fruitless attempt to run. He knew the princess had no other options at the moment, but he’d expected that she’d try to run if she thought she had a chance. He didn’t blame her. He was also conflicted about the path he was taking. Not the physical one, although their progress was slow because he made certain his trail was easy for her to follow without getting buried.

He’d been exaggerating when he’d told Febe that the people of Barselor were suffering under Morbidon’s wrath. If anything, Isa’s more dictatorial rule had been scaled back once she’d been resurrected as a lich, allowing greater freedom to the commoners than they’d had since Isa’s mother had died and passed the kingdom onto her. Of course, that was only the beginning, and Marcos hadn’t been allowed to hang around waiting to see what would happen next, but it had been clear that Morbidon wasn’t holding Febe’s defection against the innocent people of Isa’s kingdom.

Still, he didn’t feel too bad for lying to Febe about the situation, because it could very well become true if she angered Morbidon again. The god was unpredictable, as Marcos had discovered when he’d confronted Morbidon. He’d expected the necromancer to fight him, and he’d even suspected he might lose, despite the training he’d received during his mandatory service in Barselor’s military, but he’d never expected the necromancer to kill him in such a manner—so casually, as if life was meaningless. If Morbidon thought nothing of those who got in his way, and he decided that the people of Barselor were an effective means of bringing Febe to heel, then there was no reason to expect him not to use them.

Marcos’s dilemma came whenever he took a moment to consider Febe as a person, rather than a spoiled princess. She was clearly terrified of the role she’d have to play and honestly, he couldn’t see her playing it successfully. Someone like Eldora had a chance of doing exactly what he’d suggested and seducing Morbidon into compliancy, but despite Febe’s uncanny ability to stay alive in the face of countless assassination attempts, she was painfully innocent in other matters. An ordinary man would roll right over her. Morbidon would destroy her independence.

Perhaps I can help her in some way. He didn’t know the mind of a god, but he felt that he might be able to offer her some insight on how to deal with a man, and apparently, despite his most depicted form as a bone dragon, there was a man beneath the surface of the god of the dead.

He glanced over his shoulder at the woman behind him. She didn’t look up when he paused, staring down at her feet as she took each step carefully to avoid slipping on the packed snow. I’d better be careful not to forget who she is, and more importantly, who she belongs to. Whatever lessons he offered to give her must be completely platonic, and he realized to his surprise that it wasn’t only for her sake. There was something charming about her innocence, especially given his knowledge of her past and the comparison to her sister. Febe was as different from Eldora as the night was from the day. He’d loved Eldora, and had paid with his mortality for that love, leaving him with a sense of anger and betrayal towards the woman he’d once sworn devotion to. Febe was even more dangerous. Morbidon had sent him to Vivacel’s temple to recapture Febe, not to win her heart. The last person he’d want to anger was the god of the dead.

 

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Morbidon lounged on his throne, unaccountably bored with his duties as ruler of the Underworld. Usually, he enjoyed this part of his job as much as he could enjoy anything, but ever since his bride had run away rather than marry him, even passing judgement on souls had lost its appeal.

He propped his head on his fist and glared down at the handful of souls facing him, their ghostly eyes wide with fear and awe. Though he’d schooled his expression to the appropriate response for their crimes, his heart really wasn’t into punishment at the moment. Nor was he really seeing the souls, beyond noting that they fidgeted beneath his gaze and glanced at each other as if one of them would be able to predict their fate before Morbidon pronounced it. It was the standard fare for a soul judging. No soul ever came to him completely innocent except for those newborn souls which he sent right back into the world of the living for another chance.

“My lord?”

Morbidon lifted his head at the sound of his steward’s voice, coming slowly out of his reverie. “Hmm?”

The man bowed in apology for interrupting the judgement ceremony. “You have a…visitor.”

Morbidon narrowed his eyes on his steward. If he didn’t know better, he would say that the man was sweating. The problem with that was that souls didn’t sweat, not even the ones who had to face him for judgement. “Who has dared to intrude on my domain without invitation? Has another fool come to steal back his lover’s soul with music?”

His steward swallowed, and there was no doubt now that he was sweating—ghostly beads popping out of his equally translucent forehead. “No, milord, ‘tis no mortal visitor.”

Morbidon stiffened, every muscle clenching in annoyance. He rose to his feet, his movements jerky and lacking his usual grace. His reapers dropped their hands to the hilts of their swords, but he waved them away, gesturing for them to herd the souls waiting to be judged out of the throne room. Then he turned his attention back to his steward, who was twisting his fingers together, his gaze darting around the throne room rather than meeting Morbidon’s eyes. “Is the visitor my sister?”

The steward bowed low. “Yes, milord. Lady Vivacel awaits you in your mourning room.”

His sister had not only entered his kingdom without his knowledge, but now she was installed in his sitting room, one he had named as a lark when he’d first created this kingdom. Despite the pun of a name, it was still his personal sanctum, the place where he went to be completely alone. The last thing he wanted to defile that space was his sister’s vibrant energy. “Did you direct her to that space?” He couldn’t keep the harshness out of his tone, though he wasn’t yet ready to condemn his servant. After all, no mere soul could stop Vivacel from doing whatever she wished.

His steward shook his head, the sweat now pouring down his face. “No, milord! I begged her to attend you in the throne room, but she would have none of it! She insisted on seeing you in your private chambers.”

Morbidon growled and clenched his fists in rage. Then he took several deep breaths to calm himself. He would not allow his sister to play his emotions so thoroughly, as she’d always done for her own amusement. He dismissed his steward, who floated away with a relieved expression. Once the man was gone, Morbidon braced himself to counter Vivacel’s energy. This was his kingdom, where his power was the greatest. He could expel her by force if he wished it. The fact that she knew this, and had still come to him, was enough to compel him to hear her out.

He didn’t bother with stalking through the long corridors of his palace, unconcerned with striking fear and awe into the hearts of the souls that drifted through the place. He had more important things to do at the moment, though it wouldn’t do to forget to maintain his image for too long. Despite their fear of him, the souls relied on him for guidance and judgement. After all, he wasn’t just the one who punished them, he was also the one who decided when that punishment had ended and freed them back into the living world. Some souls came to him lost and seeking a better path, and Morbidon could give them that, reading their auras the way a scholar reads ancient tomes.

This time though, he simply dematerialized from the throne room and manifested in his mourning room. He was instantly repelled by the feeling of Vivacel’s energy mucking up the serenity of his sanctum.

She turned at his arrival, abandoning her study of a funeral tapestry covered in cobwebs. Her upper lip was curled in distaste, but her expression changed to a warm smile that Morbidon didn’t trust for a moment. “This place is utterly depressing, brother. You surely can’t hope to bring your bride here?”

As usual, her comment struck a nerve he hadn’t even realized he had. He crossed his arms over his chest to hide his clenched fists, pushing the anger back down until it was deep inside him where it belonged. Calm. I must always remain calm. I will not become my father. “This room gives me comfort. I will prepare appropriate quarters for my bride when I bring her here.”

Vivacel chuckled, flipping her thick hair over her shoulder. “Are you sure you even understand what appropriate quarters are for a mortal like the princess?”

An image of Febe, his runaway bride, flashed vividly in his mind. In fact, thoughts of her were never far away. Her aura, riddled with fear, but still strong and plotting—the different shades of pink like colorful blossoms adding warmth to the darkness. She was intelligent and determined, but still unhardened by the life she’d been forced to live. Lovely and vulnerable. She would desire a place of her own. A sanctum that suited her, as his suited him. “I will make her a laboratory so that she can tinker with her machines in peace. That should please my bride more than any floral bower or silken grotto ever would.”

Vivacel’s smile faded as a brief flash of genuine respect crossed her face, before it was gone again behind another falsely sweet smile. “Surprisingly perceptive of you, Morby.” She turned and glanced around the room as he ground his teeth at the childish nickname. “But where is your lovely bride now? Surely, you’ve recovered her.”

The buried rage boiled up to the surface, darkening his swarthy skin with streaks of black. He looked down at his wrists, exposed by his robes as he lifted his hands. The darkness spread across the expanse of flesh and peeled it away to reveal his bones. When he lifted his gaze to glare at Vivacel, he knew that the transformation was probably complete, revealing the full form of his reaper. His bones scraped together as he pointed a knobby fleshless finger at her. “You have stolen her from me, and now you dare to come mock me with her absence?”

Unlike most people who would recoil at the sight of his reaper, Vivacel only stepped closer, until the bony finger he pointed in accusation nearly touched her. An expression of deep sadness and regret darkened a face that was usually glowing with life energy. “Dear Brother, as always, you mistake my intentions.” She shook her head at him, clasping his fleshless hand in her warm grasp. “I want to help you.”

He snarled, yanking his hand away from her. “You want my power! As you have always coveted it and tried to steal it!”

Vivacel’s eyes lowered as she sighed and stepped away from him. “I only want you to be happy. I fear that our father’s influence only grows stronger inside you. I would have you find peace so that we could become true siblings again and not the rivals you have made us.”

I have made us? Are you mad?” Wraithfire flickered over his body in the wake of his growing anger. “You’ve done this to us! Ever since Tolmac brought us to this world, you have sought to undermine my power and influence for your own gain!”

She stepped away from the silvery-blue flames that licked at the dour shadows of the mourning room. “Everything I have ever done has been to protect you and this world from a return of our father’s evil. You are not in control of yourself, Morbidon! You never deal with the anger inside you, but you cannot bury it. You must bring it out to heal it.” She took another step away from him, though he didn’t believe for a moment that she feared him. No matter how angry he’d ever been with her, he’d never struck out at her. As much as he wanted to hate her, he still loved his twin with whatever remained of his heart, and the worst part was that she knew it and manipulated him with that love as she manipulated everyone.

“My anger is out now, Dear Sister! I do not see you healing it.” His bitter words lashed the air between them.

Vivacel shook her head, her false sadness only infuriating him more. She’s fooled me before with her “compassion.”

“I cannot heal you. I have tried before.” She clasped her hands in front of her silver gown. “It took many centuries for me to heal myself and eradicate the voice of our father from my mind. You need something different than the meditation that I used to aid me.”

She wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t know. She’d chosen meditation to heal from their violent spawning and the loneliness and despair that had arisen from simply being born as what they were. He had chosen to bury his anger and resentment and to make his loneliness and despair his mantle, a cloak to shield him from the mortals that would never accept him or love him. Perhaps his way wasn’t as effective as her way, but he’d grown very powerful because of it. He’d carved out a place for himself in this world, guiding and judging the dead and gaining power from their souls in return. “Why have you come here? If it is not to return my bride, then I have no use for your presence.”

She sighed, her gaze going to the wraithfire that still burned around him. “This is not a man that Princess Febe will ever be able to love, brother. Do you not understand this? Why take a bride now, when she will only see this monster and live in fear of you?”

Another nerve struck. The fire burned brighter, drowning out the gentle glow that always emanated from Vivacel’s skin. “I would never hurt her!” He slashed a fleshless arm through the air, trailing flames. “I will protect her from those who would.”

Vivacel pulled a lock of her hair through her fingers and began fiddling with the ends. “I want to believe that. I really do.” Her forehead wrinkled as she frowned at him. “But can you change enough for her?”

He’d had enough out of his sister. She’d already stolen Febe from him and now she dared to interrogate him in his own kingdom about his fitness to be a husband to the mortal he’d chosen. He was a god. There should be no question of his suitability for a mere mortal. “Return Febe to me, or I will send my reapers down upon your temple en masse.”

Her eyes widened as her fingers clenched around her hair. “You have no power there!” She didn’t sound wholly convinced. Her statement ended as if she were making it a question.

“You think I didn’t know about that temple of revenants? I’ve always known. I allowed you to have your little sanctuary, but you’re not as powerful as you believe yourself to be. Those souls have cheated my reapers for long enough. I will send every last bit of my power behind my reapers to claim them unless you return my bride to me immediately!”

Vivacel chewed her lip, flipping her hair back over her shoulder. “Perhaps I would. If I had her. But she has run away from me as well.” She sighed heavily. “She doesn’t trust me anymore than you do.”

She could be lying. For the first time since they broke out on his body, the flames faltered, sinking back into his bones until only tiny tongues of blue fire licked the surface of his robes and fleshless hands. “You would not have let her go that easily. Not from your own temple.”

Vivacel’s expression was unreadable as her gaze dropped to the waning wraithfire. “I allowed her to leave because I will not force her to do my bidding.” She met his eyes again, her own glowing silver. “You must not force her, either. You will never win her that way.”

He clenched his fist as flesh began to form over it again. “She will learn to be a proper wife in time. Until then, I will make this kingdom her home and prove to her that she can be happy here.”

Vivacel’s smile was sly. “Perhaps you won’t have as much time to convince her as you think.”

He knew that smile well, and it usually meant that his sister was winning whatever game she was playing against him. “What have you done? Your temple will soon be in ashes if—“

She held up her hands. “You can hardly blame me, brother! It’s not what I’ve done. You were the one who sent an honorable, attractive, compassionate man to recapture your bride.” She ticked off the qualities on her fingers as she listed them. “Did you deliberately choose someone to steal her heart before you could even begin to earn it?” She chuckled at his stunned expression. “If so, you couldn’t have made a better choice.” She tapped her lips with a forefinger. “I wouldn’t mind having that man for myself.”

Morbidon struggled to bury his shock, irritated that Vivacel had been witness to it. He hadn’t even considered such an idea. He had very little experience with mortal emotions, since mortals had shunned him since his birth, always treating him as different. Whereas Vivacel had used her power to learn more about the humans who’d turned away from her, he’d used their fear to bolster his own strength and commitment to becoming the god he now was. Yet, he clearly had a handicap when it came to predicting mortal emotions. If what Vivacel was implying was true, then he’d made a serious miscalculation. He’d sent the revenant, Marcos, to fetch his bride, not steal her from him. He didn’t think the man was dishonorable enough to do so on purpose, but that didn’t mean the princess wouldn’t develop feelings for him. “If you have nothing more to tell me, I’m done with you, Vivacel.” He cut the air with his hand, now fully fleshed again. “Leave my kingdom.”

Her smile disappeared. She took a quick step forward as he turned away, dismissing her as he pondered what he should do about the situation. I can track Marcos with the amulet—

                “Morbidon, wait!”

He jerked away from her touch on his arm, spinning back around to glare at her. “Haven’t you done enough? What more do you want with me?” If she’d come here solely to wound him, she done an excellent job of it.

Yet there was a sheen of unshed tears in her eyes. “You need to learn to trust me! I didn’t come here to hurt you! You’re my brother! I love you, and I only want you to find the peace that I’ve found!”

He wouldn’t allow her display of false emotion to soften him. He’d fallen for her tricks before, right before she’d stolen away souls that had rightfully belonged to him. She played him as she played any mortal. To Vivacel, other people were game pieces on a board, all of them expendable for her pleasure. “I have business to attend to. If you don’t leave now, I will force you out of my kingdom.”

“I can help you! I know how you must handle the princess. If you storm in there and treat her with anger, you will only push her farther away from you…and farther into the sheltering arms of your own servant!”

With a growl, Morbidon marshalled his considerable power and formed it into a ball of dark energy. He swung it towards Vivacel, who gasped and tried to pull away from it. It struck her, swallowing her light as it encapsulated her. Her screams of outrage were muffled as the ball dematerialized, remaining only as a shadow in the already dim room. Then it shot up towards the ceiling in a rapid ascent to the surface world, trailing shouts and pleas from the goddess of life.

Morbidon shrugged off the excess aether, grounding it back into the Underworld to be used by his servants. Vivacel hadn’t fought him too hard. She would be rattled by the ejection from his realm, but unhurt and no doubt highly irritated. Still, he had warned her. Now, he had more pressing matters. Somewhere out there, he had a bride to fetch. He’d been too cautious in claiming her. Now that he’d put Vivacel more firmly in her place, he wasn’t worried that she’d be quick to interfere when he went to collect Febe even if it was close to her own temple.

As for Marcos… his fate will depend on what I see in Febe’s aura when she is with him.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 7

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Author’s Note: This is going to be a long one. It’s actually two chapters, but I decided to combine it into one, for now. I just felt like the original chapter ending for seven wasn’t a good enough place to stop. At the same time, I’m not thrilled with this ending either. It needed something more to me, but I wasn’t sure what. Hope you guys will enjoy it anyway! Feel free to let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 7

Marcos forged through the snow with far more ease than he should have in the blizzard. In fact, his body felt more powerful than it had any right to be. I’m not human anymore. It was an idea that still took some getting used to and still inspired a flash of anger within him. He’d made the sacrifice for Eldora. Like a fool, he’d been willing to die for a woman who seemed to be incapable of returning his love and devotion. He’d never imagined he would end up being resurrected as a servant of Morbidon.

She couldn’t have known this would happen. Despite his certainty that she’d been as surprised by his death as he had been, he couldn’t forget the lack of emotion she’d displayed when “the necromancer” had run him through with his sword. Of course, now Marcos knew the truth about the stranger Queen Isa had mistakenly welcomed into her kingdom. The queen was now paying for her hubris, and Marcos was also paying—for his devotion.

Morbidon had taken his life and then returned it to him, though—much to Marco’s relief—he was no lich, rotted and shriveled like the queen of Barselor. Morbidon had returned him to life as a revenant, with the same appearance as he’d had in life. In fact, he was even more powerful than he’d been in life. The god of the dead hadn’t done it for his sake but because he needed an agent to approach Vivacel’s temple and lure Princess Febe beyond the wards that even he could not breach. A lich would have drawn too much attention.

He resented Morbidon’s control, even though it was currently only felt through an amulet he wore and could not remove. He’d been a loyal follower of Zephrona, but the goddess of the wind had abandoned him when he’d become a servant of the god of the dead. Even her breath no longer touched him, which allowed him to move through the angry blizzard that howled around him without much effort.

From his campsite within a sheltered cave further down the mountain, he’d traveled to the temple on several occasions since Morbidon had sent him to this part of the world. He knew he couldn’t approach the temple without alerting the priestesses to his presence, and Morbidon still wanted him to avoid drawing Vivacel’s attention, but he’d been ordered to seek out some sign of Febe’s presence.

He wasn’t certain she would recognize him as the farmer her sister had dallied with for the last rota, and he was less certain of what she would do if she did. She might go deeper to ground if she spotted him, or she might approach him, hoping her sister had decided to help her after all. It all depended on what her current situation was. From what he’d seen, she had not looked happy surrounded by the temple gardens, but then again, he couldn’t remember ever seeing the princess with a smile on her face. The frown she’d worn as she’d stared blankly out into the storm had been a familiar one.

That didn’t mean she was eager to leave the temple, so he needed to come up with a plan to lure her out beyond the wards. That was going to be difficult because Febe remained always on guard. Today, he was going to scout out the area again to see if there was anything that might draw enough of the princess’s curiosity to tempt her beyond the wards.

There was no warmth in him for the distant figure of Princess Febe. She’d been a constant in his beloved Eldora’s life—a constant threat. He’d been furious at Febe when Eldora had explained the situation and about her escape from the castle, telling him that Febe had run away rather than uphold her mother’s bargain. They’d both been worried that Morbidon would take Eldora instead. Yet, the god of the dead would not relinquish his claim on Febe. This should’ve relieved Marcos, and at first, it had, though he knew that he would have to find Febe to make things right. Now, he wondered why Morbidon hadn’t chosen Eldora. Marcos had been in love with her for many rotas by the time she’d pulled him from the fields and installed him in her chambers to serve her. He’d always considered her the most beautiful of the sisters, as well as the most elegant and intelligent. She was cool and dangerous, calm with a fierce fire beneath the surface.

In sharp contrast, Febe had always appeared to be a shy, rather plain little mouse, scurrying for her laboratory whenever she had the chance. Where Eldora courted the danger of her two sisters’ plotting and her mother’s viciousness, Febe had always hidden behind her traps and locks to play her hand.

Morbidon’s insistence on having Febe instead of Eldora made Marcos wonder if he’d missed something vital about the two women. The fact that Eldora had watched him die without any sign of distress only further cemented the fact that she wasn’t the woman he’d believed she was. Perhaps she truly was as cold as the façade she’d always projected to the public. Perhaps the fire beneath the surface was simply lust, and not the possibility of a capacity for deeper love—something he’d foolishly held out hope for.

He was so wrapped in thought that he nearly tripped over the bundle of rags and furs that crossed his path to the temple. It took him a moment to make out the human shape beneath the pile, since the wind and snow limited visibility. Once he realized what he was looking at, he leapt into action, scooping up the small, shivering body and cradling it close to his chest. The woman didn’t acknowledge his presence, even as her body shook so hard that he had to tighten his hold to keep her from shuddering right out of his arms.

It was possible that this woman was some pilgrim or one of the ladies from the temple who’d strayed too far beyond the wards and had gotten lost, but a brief tug on the moth-eaten scarf that covered most of her face revealed that his fortune had changed. No longer would he be forced to trudge to the temple and look for a way to capture the princess. She’d fallen right into his path. He wondered if it was the will of the gods. It was certainly the will of one god, but Morbidon had no power to make it happen within Vivacel’s wards. It was irrelevant at this point why she was there, only that she would not survive the exposure for much longer, and he didn’t think the god of the dead wanted his bride to join the ranks of his servants.

 

Warmth! Febe hadn’t thought she’d ever know what that felt like again. The last thing she could remember was following the tracks—definitely human tracks—when a blizzard kicked up, and she’d had to struggle just to remain standing, much less keep walking. The cold had seeped in as she fought the force of the wind trying to tear her layers of clothes away. Her face had grown numb, her lips had felt like frozen metal, stiff and heavy. Exhaustion had dragged on her shivering body until she’d surrendered to the pull of the ground and sank onto the snow path.

Now she lay on a pile of furs, covered with blankets that were not the tattered ones she’d been wearing. A fire crackled merrily nearby, putting out not only the blissful warmth that she instinctively turned towards, but also a comforting light that illuminated a small cave, protected from the wind that raged just beyond the narrow entrance where someone had hung another blanket.

The fire also revealed a large man with black hair that swept his collar and olive-toned skin, as he stepped into Febe’s view and knelt down beside a pot that bubbled over the flames. She stiffened and curled up on herself as if that would be any protection against him if he meant her ill will.

As the fire limned his features, they struck a chord of familiarity. She’d seen this man before, on more than one occasion. By the time he turned his head to glance at her, her brain had made the connection. “You’re Eldora’s consort.” Her voice came out as a weak rasp. Her throat hurt and the effort to speak those three words seemed to wipe her out.

The man’s handsome features pulled into a slight wince at her words that she almost missed because he turned his attention back to the pot. He stirred the contents, releasing a tantalizing odor of some stew that made Febe’s stomach growl in appreciation. “Yes. I… am her consort.”

Febe wanted to jump up in excitement, but exhaustion wasn’t the only thing that kept her from doing anything more than prop herself into a sitting position, clutching the blankets tighter around her. Caution warred with hope. “Why are you here? Did Eldora send you?” Eldora had turned her back on Febe. She could have changed her mind and decided to help, or Morbidon could have demanded Eldora’s hand instead, and her sister had decided to return his original bride choice to save herself. Either way, Eldora hadn’t come herself, which wasn’t surprising. She rarely did her own dirty work.

The man’s jaw tightened as he picked up a bowl and spooned a chunky stew into it from the pot. He remained silent.

Febe wanted answers immediately, but if she was going to get on his good side and convince him to help her regardless of her sister’s orders, she needed to treat him carefully, not order him about as the men of Barselor were accustomed to. Somehow, she didn’t think this man appreciated taking orders from anyone other than Eldora. “What’s your name?” She had a vague recollection that he was a farmer, or perhaps that had been Emilia’s consort. It was difficult to keep the men straight since they often rotated in and out of the palace as her sisters grew bored with them.

He rose to his feet, towering over her, and Febe felt a spear of terror stab through her. If Eldora had sent him here to kill her, she had nothing that could stop him. If he’d been sent to kill me, I’d already be dead. That realization was enough to calm her until her hand was barely shaking when she took the bowl of stew he offered. He may still try to drag me back to Barselor, but I have time to convince him not to.

“My name is Marcos.” He withdrew a wooden spoon from his pack and brought it to her. “Your sister called—calls me Farmer.” His face wore no expression as he met her eyes. His were a light blue, and stood out in striking contrast against his swarthy skin. “Before I was taken from her, my mother named me Marcos.”

Febe dipped the spoon into the stew, saliva stinging her mouth as she studied the thick chunks of meat and felt the heat of the bowl warm her chilled fingers. “When were you taken from your mother?”

Only a slight flare of his nostrils gave away his underlying anger at the question, but it was still enough for Febe to scoot further away from him. He retreated to the other side of the fire. “You ask as if you don’t know. Were you really so sheltered in your laboratory?” He turned his broad back to her, shaking his head.

Febe did know that boys were taken from their mothers at a young age to begin apprenticeships or work in fieldhouses learning the professions that were open to men. She just hadn’t ever paid much attention to what the minimum age was. She’d always seen it as a good practice—starting them learning a skill at a young age would make them masters at an age when they were still strong enough to perform the work themselves. Marcos didn’t sound like he agreed, and she resented him for that. She only wished she’d been taken from her mother when she was still young enough to become someone else. “You must have been young.” Perhaps too young to have suffered for long beneath a mother’s care. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye as she blew on a spoonful of stew. “Do you remember your mother?”

The muscles of his back tensed under his heavy woolen shirt. “I remember enough, even though I had only just passed my seventh rotation of the seasons when they came for me and tore me out of her arms.”

She stared down into her bowl, not really seeing the contents. There was an underlying tone of grief in Marco’s words that she recognized only because she had a vague recollection of feeling it. On multiple occasions, caretakers had been removed from the castle because they’d been too tender or comforting to her. That hadn’t happened in many rotas, though. Once the servants had learned not to coddle their charges, they’d kept her at a distance as her mother had commanded. She couldn’t imagine her mother’s arms ever being a place she would seek shelter. “I… I’m sorry. It doesn’t sound like you were ready to leave.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Princess.” He said her title as if it was something foul crossing his tongue.

She stiffened, prepared to blast him with a reproach for that disrespect, but his back was still to her, and she wasn’t such a fool as to stare at that broad, heavily-muscled expanse without realizing her current helplessness. It wouldn’t do to openly provoke him until she had a way to halt any retribution he might mete out for it. Instead, she ground her teeth, treating him to a freezing silence. If he noted the deliberate quality of her silence, he didn’t care enough to comment on it.

After a long moment where he stood unmoving in his own bitter silence, he finally shifted—the suddenness of it startling Febe—but he was only fetching a second bowl from his pack. When he turned back to her, his expression was composed into a hard mask which gave nothing away as he crouched before the fire and helped himself to the stew.

They ate in silence, neither of them meeting the eyes of the other. When Febe was finished, she set the bowl and spoon down by her feet, having no idea what she should do with it. Marcos turned his head to glance at the discarded implements and then his gaze lifted to hers. “You want me to wait on you, Princess?”

Febe blinked in surprise. She stared down at the bowl as there would be an explanation to clear her confusion there.

He gestured to her bowl with his spoon and then pointed at a bucket in the corner. “You seem recovered enough to rinse out your own bowl, Little Mouse.”

A streak of embarrassment and anger shot through her as she treated him to a glare that should have roasted him on the spot. “How dare you call me such a name? You will address me properly!”

Instead, he caught her look and chuckled, revealing teeth that had no right being as straight and white as they were, given his social status. “You’re a long way from home, Little Mouse.”

Febe lifted her chin. “I’m still a princess of Barselor, and when we return home, you will pay for any disrespect you’ve shown me.”

Marcos’s smile disappeared. He dropped his spoon into his empty bowl and rose to his feet, his heavy brows lowering over eyes that glittered like gemstones. Febe scuttled back as he approached her, but all he did was bend down and collect her bowl and spoon. As he rose to his full height, he sketched a small bow. “I’m yours to command, milady.” Then he turned his back on her again and walked over to the bucket, crouching down to dip the bowls and spoons into the rinse water.

Febe was shaken. Putting Marcos back in his proper place should have felt like a victory, but somehow, she had a sinking feeling she’d just lost the war by winning this battle. He was testing me. Seeing how far he could push me. Little Mouse indeed! Her mother would have had the man whipped for such disrespect. Do I really want to be like my mother? The very idea struck fear into her heart.

 

Marcos twisted the amulet of Morbidon between his thumb and forefinger as he sat before the fire, watching it slowly burn down into glowing goals. The blizzard outside had also died down and the wind was now only a mournful whisper, ruffling the edges of the blanket he’d hung up at the entrance to the cave. If the weather held, they could leave this cave upon sunbirth and begin their journey.

For Febe, the journey would be a long one—down to the Underworld—but they needn’t travel too far to get there. Even this close to the temple, Morbidon could manifest, although he had ordered Febe be taken farther away so that Vivacel had less power to interfere. Marcos had no idea how these things worked for the gods and didn’t care to be enlightened. All he knew was that he could soon be rid of Febe and her arrogance, and say good riddance to the entire life he’d lived in Barselor, serving the whims of women incapable of love or even kinder emotions. Perhaps the dour god was a perfect match for the prickly Febe.

He glanced over at her sleeping form across the fire from him. In the dim light of the still warm coals, she was merely a small shape beneath the covers, though her pale face still caught the last of the light. During the night, he’d added his own blanket to her pile, concerned that she might still be too cold. Though he was now cold, it would take only moment to stoke the fire again, but they were running low on wood. He didn’t want to waste it while she slept. In this new revenant body, he didn’t feel the need for sleep as often. It was yet another thing he must grow accustomed to.

I shouldn’t have called her Little Mouse. How could she have taken it as anything less than an insult? In retrospect, it had sounded insulting, but when the name had slipped out, he’d been thinking about how small and cute she was as she’d blinked at him with wide brown eyes blank with confusion. In truth, it wasn’t that he minded cleaning up after her meal, or even serving her. It was the fact that she expected it that had irritated him.

In the cold light of predawn, he had to admit that his touchiness was due more to her sister’s arrogance than to Febe’s. The princesses had grown up surrounded by servants. Febe had looked completely baffled by the notion of rinsing her own dish. It was clear that she didn’t have Eldora’s self-awareness of her station. It was more that she simply didn’t think about things she’d never had to deal with before.

I have to stop treating them as the same woman. This girl, with her big eyes and shy smile, is not my fiery Eldora. She’s also not the one who watched me die without shedding a tear.

He released the amulet and it bumped against his chest, feeling far heavier than a talisman that small should feel as the burden of serving the dread god settled over him again. When he was irritated with Febe, it didn’t seem like such a challenge to hand her over without remorse to the god. Now that he’d reconsidered his own behavior, he felt a sinking guilt.

She may be small and cute, but she’s no innocent. She’s killed people! The grim reminder helped as he studied the woman’s peaceful face, her long lashes dark against skin pale from the chill in the air. Febe had built many terrible weapons to aid her mother’s hunger for power and control. Also, more than a few innocent souls had been caught and killed in her brutal traps, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The princess was no saint, and didn’t deserve his guilt over betraying her. Still, a saying his mother used to tell him repeated itself in his mind when he thought of what he must do. How you treat others is not about whether they deserve it, but about what kind of man you want to be.

                Frustrated with his musings, he quietly rose to his feet and walked to the entrance. Pulling aside the blanket, he looked out into the darkness which steadily grew lighter as the sun was reborn into the world. Provided everything went well when the princess awakened, they would be stepping out into the chilly morning air, bundled against the cold, to head down to the sheltered valley where Zephrona’s winds were broken upon the rocks and battered into gentle breezes. There, he would use the amulet to summon Morbidon, and be rid of Febe and the last tie to his life in Barselor.

 

Febe awakened when the light of the fire brightened the cave. She rolled onto her side to face the warmth and saw Marcos crouched beside it, feeding sticks and small logs of wood into the growing flames. It was an oddly peaceful scene, and she was almost hypnotized by the dancing flames, staring into their depths as their warmth chased away the chill.

Marcos’s voice broke the spell. “I don’t have anything fresh for rations. All we have for breakfast is travel-loaf and dried meat.”

She yawned as she pushed herself up into a sitting position, noticing only then that her pile of blankets had increased by one. She glanced at Marcos. He was bundled up in furs over his heavy woolen clothing. He didn’t look cold, but he hovered by the fire as if he was loath to leave the warmth. “I have a jar of preserves in my—” She gasped, jumping to her feet as she turned to look around at the cave. “Where’s my pack!”

Marcos stood and followed her frantic gaze. “Calm down, Princess.” He gestured to his own pack. It was only then that Febe noticed the battered leather of her smaller pack lying beneath it.

She rushed over to the packs, stumbling as she stepped out of the pile of blankets. She was so worried about her book that she barely noticed the chill as her woolen clothing failed to keep her warm when she left the small radius of heat put out by the fire.

Marcos watched her dig through her stolen supplies until she pulled out her design book, caressing the worn cover with shaking fingers. “You said you had preserves? That will soften the travel-loaf.”

Febe withdrew the jar of preserves as well as some of the dried meat. She cradled her book against her chest, handing the preserves and meat to Marcos as she returned to her pile of blankets. His gaze dropped to the rest briefly on the book before he took the offered food. She couldn’t read his expression.

Without comment, he turned back to the fire, laying two travel loaves on a stone next to the flames to warm them up.

“You didn’t check my pack?” Febe sat cross-legged on the blankets with the book in her lap, running her fingers over the cover to check for any damage.

He shook his head without looking at her. “Didn’t see a need. Besides, it wasn’t any of my business, Princess.”

Internally, Febe winced at the title. He was either being sarcastic with her or being overly ingratiating. She suspected that if it was the latter, it was only to make a point. She hadn’t won a friend with her earlier behavior. “I appreciate your consideration.”

He shrugged, the movement barely noticeable beneath the mounds of furs that covered his large body.

She struggled to find something to say that would break the awkward silence that fell between them as he fixed them a meager breakfast. Her finger traced out the branded title on the cover of her book. Her name. “This book contains all of my work for the last ten rotas. I was afraid that it had been left behind.”

His jaw twitched as he gave the book in her lap a sidelong glance. “So all your engines of death are in there?”

Febe clutched the book to her chest, treating him to a sharp glare. “I never wanted to make such things! I obeyed my mother’s commands, just as everyone else in the kingdom does. I also made engines to help people!”

He pulled one of the loaves off the stone and opened the jar of preserves, tipping it over the loaf. “Yet you weren’t ready to obey your mother when it would personally affect you. You ran from your betrothal, selfishly putting others at risk.” His eyes lifted to meet hers. “Your obedience only goes as far as those acts which leave you personally unscathed.”

Febe clutched her book so hard that her knuckles whitened. “You don’t know anything about me! About the things my mother does to ensure my obedience!”

He stood and scooped up the preserve-covered loaf, stepping over to her to present it with a bow that was unmistakably mocking. “You’re right, Princess. I don’t know what she did to you. But I do know what she did to everyone else. You and your sisters were in the best position to defy her, but you didn’t.” His glare deepened into a frown. “None of you did.”

She stared at the loaf, suddenly having no appetite. “All we ever did was plan to defy her.” Her voice came out as little more than a whisper, her anger abandoning her in a rush of despair at her many failures.

Marcos pushed the loaf towards her and Febe took it, setting her book to the side. He returned to the fire and his own heated travel-loaf.

“Are you going to take me back there? To marry the god?” She sniffed the loaf, but she was unwilling to take a bite until she had the answer she needed. Her stomach churned with fear over what he might say.

“Marrying the god of the dead was your opportunity to gain enough influence to usurp your mother. Instead, you ran away and left her in power and the god angry at Barselor and its people.” He spread preserves on his loaf. “If you’ve really spent your entire life planning to depose your mother, then you would have jumped at the opportunity.” He lifted the loaf to his lips, pausing just before taking a bite to glance at her. “I think you just play it safe.”

Febe swallowed, lowering the food back to her lap. “You have no idea what kind of sacrifice I would have had to make to marry—“

He cast his loaf back onto the stone and rose to his feet, turning to her with an expression of deep anger. “Do not talk to me about sacrifice!” His voice echoed in the small cave, the accusatory tone repeating over and over.

“Why didn’t Eldora marry him, then? I’m not the only one who’s selfish.” It was a purely childish attempt to shift his anger to someone for whom he had a greater emotional investment, but Febe couldn’t help it. Marcos frightened her in that moment. She didn’t believe he would hurt her physically, because it was clear now that he intended to make her return to honor the betrothal, but his words were like daggers, cutting into her with sharp truths she didn’t have the strength to defend against.

He stared at her, his eyebrows lowered and his lips tight. “The god does not want Eldora. He only wants you.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Now that your mother is a lich, he has the power to control her actions. She was a fool, but you’re an ever bigger one to turn him down. You had the chance to influence him. Now, he’s angry.”

His words were startling to Febe. She’d been holding out the selfish hope that Morbidon would dismiss her for running away and select one of her sisters in her stead. After all, both Eldora and Emilia were more attractive than her, and Eldora was younger and more skilled with dealing with people. She should be the one sought after by men, especially by a powerful god. “Why does he want me so much?”

She hadn’t realized she’d said that aloud until Marcos answered her. “I still haven’t figured that out, Little Mouse.”

She ground her teeth, clenching the loaf in her hands so hard that it crumbled, spreading preserves all over her fingers. “Stop calling me that!”

His chuckle lacked any humor. “Then stop being a coward. Return to your place and obey your mother’s command one last time. Then learn how to seduce a god so that the people of Barselor do not suffer his wrath!”

Febe’s heart pounded so hard that she felt it throbbing in her throat. She swallowed. “I don’t know how to do that.” Her voice barely made it past the knot of pulsing blood nearly choking her.

Marco’s cold expression softened as he stared down at her. He turned and stepped over to his pack, pulling out a rag that could have come from his blanket. She watched him, trying to find something to say to express her fear over what he insisted she do, and her certainty that her own inadequacies would doom her. No words came to her as he dipped the rag in the bucket of rinse water and then squeezed it out. Even when he brought it to her and held it out, she could only take it wordlessly, using it to wipe the sticky preserve off her hand.

“You have a choice, Princess.”

She shook her head as tears crowded her eyes. “You aren’t going to give me a choice, are you?”

“Your choice is to make the best of this, or to fight it every step of the way. What you decide to do will affect your own people. Are you going to remain a selfish brat, or will you become the woman you believe you are?”

Febe sniffled, trying to keep the tears from sliding down her cheeks. “I don’t believe I’m a good person. You’re mistaken if you think that.”

Marcos knelt beside her and brushed away a stray tear that broke free. His touch was gentle against her cheek. Febe was so surprised by the contact that she didn’t move away from him. “If that’s true, then it’s time to become someone you can believe in.” He stood and turned back to the fire, picking up a stick to stoke the waning flames. “Eat what’s left of your breakfast, Princess. We have a distance to travel before we reach the sheltered valley where we’ll camp for the night.” He glanced her way, but Febe wouldn’t meet his eyes as she surreptitiously swiped at more tears that felt like ice as they slipped free to trail down her skin. “Think about what I said. We can’t always choose the path we’re forced to take, but we can choose how we deal with it. Other people are counting on you to make the right choice.”

 

The hike was not as grueling as Febe feared it would be, given her previous experience. Fortunately, the blizzards that assaulted the higher altitudes seemed to leave them alone this time as they plowed through snow that was almost waist-high on Febe. Marcos forged a path for both of them, and Febe was able to progress fairly easily in his wake.

Unfortunately, that meant she had plenty of energy left to reflect on his words as she watched his broad back, laden with a heavy pack, leading the way. At this point, there wasn’t a way to escape him. Without his help, she wasn’t getting off this mountain, and even if she wanted to return to Vivacel’s temple, she had no idea how to get back. But more than that, his words had given her enough reason to hesitate on another escape attempt.

Are my people truly suffering because I ran away? She didn’t want to ask Marcos what had happened in her absence because he might tell her things she didn’t want to hear. She knew very little about Morbidon, and that had been intentional. Now she felt like a fool for not learning more about the dread god whose favor her mother had courted so fervently. To be fair, there was no way I could’ve seen this coming!

Her escape from the castle had been reactionary. She hadn’t really thought through the consequences to anyone other than herself, except for perhaps her sisters, but she didn’t have warm feelings towards them. However, this truth only proved Marco’s point. She really was selfish. I never even thought of using my position as his bride to try and influence him and gain the power to keep my mother from further abusing the people of Barselor. She wondered if Eldora had considered such a thing. Clearly, her consort had thought of it, perhaps because Eldora had mentioned it. Yet, her sister had been just as eager to avoid matrimony as Febe was.

The answer to why was easy. Eldora recognized that she couldn’t manipulate a god like she could a man. The men of Barselor were generally gentle and very careful with women. The punishments for offending a woman were severe and often permanent. They obeyed a woman’s commands and were grateful for her attentions. They’d been raised in a system that Febe realized was perhaps not entirely fair to them, but at the same time, it had made them docile and controllable—though Marcos didn’t seem all that docile anymore. Morbidon and his servants—like the terrifying necromancer—were not the kind of men even Eldora was accustomed to handling. If her sister didn’t feel confident about bending the god to her will, then Febe certainly didn’t have that sort of confidence.

“If I were to marry…him, how would I go about influencing his treatment of Barselor and her people?” She hadn’t realized she’d said the thought aloud until Marcos stopped in front of her and turned around, causing her to collide with his hard chest and stagger backwards.

Hands steadied her and kept her from losing her footing. Marcos immediately released her when she was no longer slipping on the packed snow left by his passage. Instead, he was watching her face with a searching look. “Are you really considering doing your duty on this?” His eyes narrowed. “Without trying to escape, or bedevil the god with anymore selfish brattiness?”

Febe swallowed and looked away from him, staring out across the seemingly endless blanket of snow that spread out around them. “I… I don’t know how to… please a man. Can you teach me?” She watched him out of her periphery.

His eyes widened and he took several steps away from her, holding up his hands. “Sorry, Little Mouse. I’m not suicidal!”

A hot flush crept up Febe’s cheeks, warming them from the chill that had slipped beneath her scarf. “I didn’t mean like that!” She waved her hands in the air as if to dispel the misconception her ill-chosen words had given him. “I just meant… you know, how to behave in a manner that a man would find pleasing. How to not make him angry. Like I made you angry about the dirty bowl.”

Marcos rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, his gaze sliding away from hers. “I wasn’t angry, Princess.” He sighed. “Besides, I don’t think the god will care if you don’t do the dishes.”

Febe noticed that, like her, Marcos avoided saying his name aloud. Morbidon. She shivered at the thought of it. One didn’t say a god’s name lightly. It could very well summon that god. Apparently, even Marcos was keen to avoid that. At least for now. “I don’t even know what to say to him. He’s never even met me! What does one say to a perfect stranger who has decided to marry you, sight unseen?”

He dropped his hand and met her eyes. “He’s seen you. He was the one who chose you.”

“The necromancer chose…” Febe closed her eyes as the blood rushed out of her head and into the sudden surge of nerves in her stomach. She’d been so blind, but then again, so had her mother. It was little wonder the man had struck terror into her from the start. “I see. Now I’m even less certain that this won’t be a complete disaster!” Somehow, her image of Morbidon had been just a vague idea of some distant amorphous figure that could turn into a bone dragon at will. Scary, but not really concrete in her mind. Now that she realized that she’d been looking at him in her mother’s court the whole time—that the forbidding necromancer had been the god himself—her position seemed more real.

Marcos didn’t correct her assessment of the situation. “We should get moving. We’ll want to be in the valley before another blizzard kicks up.”

Febe thought about running the minute his back was turned. For about a minute. Glancing around her at the blinding snow that she’d have to plow through was all it took to convince her to follow his large body as he forged their path. I don’t know what to do!

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 6

Author’s Note: It’s been a busy two weeks, and I’ve still got a busy month ahead! I’m pretty surprised that I’ve been able to get this chapter finished in time, but here it is. I’ve had to tweak it several times, and it ended up being a bit longer than I’d intended, but I’m happy with where it’s at now. For the moment. 😉 Enjoy. And as always, please feel free to like and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts, even your critiques (as long as they aren’t abusive 😉 ). Thank you all for taking the time out of your day to read this! You all are helping me bring my stories alive.

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Chapter 6

Febe remained uneasy after her walk in the garden during the blizzard that raged beyond the wards. She could certainly dismiss the brief glimpse of a man standing among the howling wall of white. There was no reason for a man to be this far up into the mountains. She’d been told that this Temple to Vivacel was a place for women. Although this special temple was forbidden to men, Vivacel wasn’t like Isa. According to her followers, she loved men as much as she loved women, and she had other temples where men served solely as priests of Vivacel. Yet here, no man could pass beyond the outer wards, and few men could withstand the harsh temperatures outside those wards. Febe must’ve been imagining things.

Cycles passed and Febe’s work upgrading the facilities was enough to consume her attention. She still couldn’t relax enough to act on the friendly overtures of the other women. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to trust another person. True sisterhood was a foreign concept to her.

Her discomfort with the others was what found her once again seeking the solitude of the garden. It sat on the side of the temple that faced out into the frozen stillness of the mountain landscape beyond the wards, within view of the temple approach. The women of the temple seemed to rarely linger in this garden, perhaps because there were no walls to blind them to the starkness of the world beyond their sheltered temple. For some reason, Vivacel had left this window open to the bleakness outside. Febe wondered if she’d done it to keep the women here. From what she could see of the snow-covered peaks, there was really nowhere for them to go.

She shook her head at that discouraging thought. As far as she knew, she was the only one who wasn’t wholly content in this temple. Even her discomfort came from her concern about whether Vivacel could be trusted. If she’d been as secure in her faith as the other women, she probably would have been able to make a nice home here from the start.

Instead, her gaze constantly scanned the horizon, searching for some means of escape from an uncertain future with a goddess dictating her fate. For once in my life, I’d like to decide my own destiny!

Despite a raging blizzard the night before, the angry winds were now silent, Zephrona’s breath seen only in occasional low-lying flurries that swept the carpet of snow blanketing the craggy mountain peak. Those flurries probably weren’t any fiercer than the gentle eternal breeze that carried the fragrance of flowers into and around Vivacel’s temple. When Febe’s gaze landed on large tracks marring the pristine white coat of snow near the craggy peak, she jumped to her feet and approached the ward, squinting to try and bring the tracks into focus.

Though she had little experience in this sort of thing, she suspected that the blizzard the previous night would have covered up any old tracks. These must be new. They stopped well beyond the approach to the temple, but it appeared as though someone had walked up, studied the temple, and then turned around and made a second set of tracks leading away from the temple. Those tracks disappeared between the stone face of the peak, which suggested that there was an opening that wasn’t visible from Febe’s vantage point. This entire time, she’d believed that the temple was surrounded by stone. Now she knew that there was a way out.

Excitement fizzed through Febe’s blood. Though they were a distance away, the tracks looked like they could have been made by a human. She hadn’t seen any other large animals beyond the temple. In fact, she hadn’t seen any animals anywhere near the temple. Within its walls were small animals such as rabbits, rodents, and cats that Vivacel’s followers allowed to prosper as long as their numbers remained balanced. Those tracks couldn’t have been made by anything that small and still be visible to Febe from where she stood by the ward.

Febe considered what this meant for her. She’d been abandoning escape plans because she had no idea where to go if she did leave the relative safety of the temple behind. She couldn’t just wander aimlessly on the mountain looking for a path down. Eventually she’d run out of the supplies she’d been secretly pilfering, or she’d freeze to death because the rat-eaten furs and blankets she’d managed to dig up in the bowels of the temple’s extensive underground storage tunnels would not keep her warm enough to face long exposure.

But if there were other people nearby, she could follow their tracks to find them. They’d made it up to the mountain, and had not approached the temple asking for supplies to continue their journey, so they must have some means of surviving. Even if they were men, the priestesses would have supplied them generously, rather than allow them to die on the mountain.

What if it’s the necromancer and his men? What better reason for them not to approach Vivacel’s wards? The fact that Morbidon’s servants could be the ones just beyond the reach of Vivacel’s magic was enough to give Febe pause in her escape plan. It was one thing to approach tired pilgrims or even unknown travelers, and quite another to find herself back in the clutches of the very nightmare she was trying to escape.

Who else would come this far? Who else would know of this place? Vivacel had reassured her that Morbidon would never find her here. Could it possible that the goddess was wrong?

There was only one person who could answer these types of questions. Febe turned away from the ward—and the tantalizing hint of freedom beyond it—to seek out Lengala.

Up until this point, she’d been very careful about what topics she’d brought up with the head priestess. Lengala made her nervous. The ageless woman reminded her far too much of a kinder, softer version of her mother. They weren’t the same temperament, but they seemed like two sides of the same coin: cunning, powerful, manipulative. Lengala ruled her people through gentle persuasion rather than fear, but no one questioned that she was in charge, which made Febe suspect that there was hard steel beneath the surface of the head priestess.

Febe’s soft-soled shoes were barely audible on the cream-colored marble floors as she entered the vast temple and made her way to the nave. Vivacel’s influence was clearly evident within the walls of the temple as greenery sprouted from every alcove and a massive ash tree dominated the center of the nave, just before the cella that contained Vivacel’s statue and altar. The canopy of the tree spread beneath a huge domed ceiling made of glass so clear that the sun’s rays filled the room, reflecting off the cream and white marble.

When storms hid the sun from Vivacel’s temple, a false sun glowed just beneath the dome to provide the same brightness. Now, in the natural light, it was dormant—a simple globe of silver with runes glowing on its sides.

Lengala was within the cella—as Febe had been told by a passing novitiate that she would be. The priestess stood before Vivacel’s altar, holding a silver goblet aloft to the statue of the goddess. Realizing she was in the middle of a ritual offering, Febe checked her steps and retreated back around the trunk of the ash tree, taking a seat at the base of it to wait for Lengala to finish.

Febe had never been pressed into joining the worship of Vivacel. For that, she’d been grateful. Growing up, she’d had to sit through far too many services for Zephrona and had never understood the purpose of them. She was no more eager to worship Vivacel than she had been to worship the goddess of the wind.

Lengala began chanting in a language Febe didn’t understand, but the hair rose on the back of her neck as the priestess’s chant steadily increased in volume until she was almost shouting the words. The sun seemed to glow even brighter as she chanted, and the air grew thick and heavy, as if the light was coalescing around them, suffocating Febe as it pressed against her skin.

Then silence fell, and Febe slumped against the tree, realizing that she’d been tensing against the force of Vivacel’s presence as all her muscles ached. She breathed out slowly, feeling light-headed as sparkles of light danced before her eyes.

“The goddess seeks to cradle you in her light, but you fight her touch.” Lengala’s voice was gently chastising as she stepped around the tree trunk and stood before Febe.

Febe swallowed and climbed to her feet, pressing a hand against the trunk for support as her shaky legs took her weight. “I’m not comfortable with being cradled.” She’d blurted out the words without examining them first. It was an unusual lapse, and one she instantly regretted, as it revealed far too much about her.

Lengala’s expression changed from chiding to sympathetic. Febe wondered if it was real emotion, or a mask like her mother had perfected. “I understand, child. Not everyone is ready to receive the goddess’s love when it is offered.” She held out a hand to Febe. “She will be here for you, when you’re ready.”

Febe glanced down at Lengala’s hand. It didn’t waver as a moment passed, and then another while Lengala stood patiently holding it out for her to take. Finally, reluctantly, Febe placed her hand over Lengala’s palm. The other woman closed her fingers around Febe’s hand and turned to lead her out of the nave.

Lengala didn’t release her hand as they walked past the columns and out into the entry hall of the temple. “You’ve come to ask me a question.”

Febe felt like a little girl as she walked hand-in-hand with the older woman. She vaguely recalled her nanny leading her about in such a fashion, but it had been so long ago that perhaps that comforting memory had only been a dream. “I wondered if you ever get pilgrims here who weren’t brought to you by Vivacel.”

Lengala glanced at her, her expression giving away nothing. “Occasionally some make the climb to the peak, though very few can handle it, and even fewer know the location of this temple. It was built here to hide it from Morbidon’s underworld gaze. He detests revenants.”

Febe shuddered at the mention of the god of the dead’s name. The name of her betrothed. “But some people know enough to come here?”

Lengala nodded. “Vivacel reaches many worshippers through her temples below. Some are guided here by her hand, some by the priests and priestesses who serve her. They send those they believe will most benefit from being here.”

“Do any others come here? Maybe by accident?”

They’d almost reached Lengala’s office by this time, and the priestess finally released Febe’s hand, stopping and turning to face her. “There are tribes that make their home in sheltered valleys nearby. Occasionally they explore this far, but rarely do they approach us. Some fear us, but most simply respect the goddess enough to avoid trespassing without intent to worship.” Her pale gaze was steady on Febe’s face.

Febe tried to keep her own expression neutral as excitement filled her. She’d been worried that the tracks might have been from Morbidon’s servants, but Lengala had said that the temple was hidden from him. If his servants knew about it—and he truly hated what Vivacel’s followers were doing here—then surely he would have sent minions to destroy it, which meant the tracks were probably from the local tribesmen. Even better, there were sheltered valleys nearby that must have resources to keep her alive and maybe even people who would help her make her way back to civilization. If she could escape to one of those tribes, she might be able to find a way to forever avoid both the god and the goddess and their plans for her.

Febe asked more questions about the general area, trying to make it seem that she was only making friendly conversation. She feared that Lengala might still be suspicious, since the priestess’s eyes had narrowed on her more than once, but Lengala provided the information without any hesitation. By the time they’d finished their tea within Lengala’s well-appointed office, Febe’s determination to escape had solidified into a full-blown plan. It would dangerous, and the odds of her simply dying of exposure or starvation were very high, but it was worth the risk if it put her destiny back in her own hands.

Unwilling to wait until any potential tracks were swept away by another storm, Febe put her plan into motion as soon as the dinner bell rang. Normally, she would collect a tray and return to her room to eat it. She wasn’t the only one who did so, avoiding the raucous crowd in the dining hall, so no one had discouraged her from it, which worked in her favor this time. As soon as she got back to her chamber, she pulled her pack from beneath her bed and placed the bread from her tray into it beside the dried meat, fruit, nuts, jars of preserves, and loaves of travel-cake she’d already packed. She felt only mild guilt about stealing the food. She’d done worse to preserve her own life and freedom in the past.

She poured her goblet of water into her waterskin and added that to the pack, grateful that carrying water was a commonplace occurrence among those who worked the fields and gardens surrounding the temple.

A full pack and layers of clothes and furs in place, Febe took a deep breath and braced herself, wrapping the woolen scarf she’d found in a trunk in the storage rooms tighter around her lower face. The scarf smelled musty and old and within her room, the heat was stifling, but she expected she would soon be grateful for any heat provided by her collection of discarded clothes and blankets.

She opened her door and peeked out into the corridor. As it had been when she’d returned with her tray to her room, it was silent. Anyone who ate in their room was closed behind their heavy wooden doors, meditating, or reading, or praying to their goddess. She was certain Lengala would be safely ruling over her followers in the dining hall as she’d been when Febe had collected her tray from the servers.

Despite her certainty that the rest of the temple was empty, she feared that eyes followed her as she made her way through the corridor and out into the empty nave. She remained in the shadows cast by the marble columns that surrounded the nave and separated it from the aisles on either side as she headed down the aisle running alongside the nave, avoiding the gaze of the silver statue of Vivacel, fearing that the goddess might be able to actually see from such a thing. Fortunately, she didn’t feel the weight of the goddess’s presence as she had earlier during Lengala’s ritual.

The entry hall was also empty, and the huge double doors that opened out onto the temple approach loomed before Febe—a challenge, daring her to seize her own fate and freedom. The door was heavy, and she was sweating beneath the many layers she wore, but she still managed to get it open enough to slip past it and out onto the temple approach.

Unlike the rest of the grounds, the front of the temple was relatively austere when it came to growing things. Just a few simple trees dotted the grounds inside the wards. Beyond them stretched the carpet of snow, blank and blinding even in the setting sun, except for the tracks, which had remained clear despite the small flurries.

Sighing in relief that she’d have a path to guide her, Febe set out, wincing as the ward passed over her and thrust her into the icy air and unforgiving winter.

*****

Lengala stood in her office, staring out the window as the small figure struggling to forge its way through the thick snow. She will probably die out there.

She will live. She follows my plan.

                Lengala bowed her head, pushing away her pity for the young princess. As you will it, My Goddess.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 5

Authors Note: Writing this book and publishing it chapter by chapter is quite a challenge compared to the way I normally do things. However, I’m really enjoying it. I can’t wait to get the next chapter out as well, because I’m excited about what’s going to happen next. I hope you enjoy! Also, just wanted to let everyone know that Lilith’s Fall is on sale on Amazon for only 0.99 cents! This is for a limited time only, so if you wanted to get a copy, now’s the time to do it! That bit of news out of the way, here’s what you came for. 😉

Chapter 5

A blizzard raged just beyond the painted wooden fence that surrounded Vivacel’s secret mountain temple. Febe sat upon a stone bench surrounded by flowers blooming in riotous colors, with no rhyme or reason to their arrangement and left to grow where they willed. It was a far different garden from the kind where she’d spent her life wandering.

Her mind was more like the blizzard assaulting the temple’s weather wards than the peaceful garden where she whiled away the free time she was given. It had been just over a ten-cycle since Vivacel had brought her here, spiriting her out of the castle in a very literal sense.

The amount of magic that must have been required to make both her and the goddess non-corporeal was impossible for Febe to quantify. It had been a strange experience drifting past the unsuspecting guards and spies set by her sister to keep her in her place. After that experience, she no longer doubted Vivacel’s power, or that of any of the AllGods, which made her escape all the more important. If Vivacel could harness such power, then surely Morbidon had equally as much, if not more, at his disposal. She’d been wise to run. Vivacel’s power centered on life, but Febe still didn’t trust her motives. The god of the dead’s motives might be so much worse.

These thoughts kept her awake at night, but they weren’t the ones that mirrored the blizzard now. Instead, it was thoughts of the future she could have if she managed to escape this repugnant marriage bargain she’d had no part in making. Even if Morbidon gave up on her and married one of her sisters, Febe would be unable to return to her life in Barselor—not that that situation would be desirable to return to anyway.

It wasn’t just that she’d be forever branded as a traitor for disobeying the queen, nor was it because there would still be a risk of Morbidon’s anger towards her. She wasn’t sure if gods forgot those kinds of insults and didn’t want to test the theory out. It wasn’t even that her mother would by now be a lich, a hideous undead monster sitting upon the throne. All of those were valid reasons to fear returning home, but they weren’t the reason she wouldn’t be going back.

Here in the temple, the priestesses—all unaging revenants—had treated her with utmost kindness and respect. Not once had she felt in fear for her life since she’d arrived, though she still set traps and still tested everything she ate. Old habits die hard, and Febe suspected these habits, learned over a lifetime, would never die. Her life was good here, peaceful and full of productive work. She’d already updated some of the infrastructure in the ancient temple, adding a pump to the well and installing pipes directly into the kitchen with the help of the novitiates. There was plenty more she could do, and none of it involved building engines to kill people or sack cities.

She could be happy with a future spent forever behind the wards that protected the temple from the inclement weather that plagued this distant mountain top in Terroc’s Ring mountain range, and also protected the temple from Morbidon and his servants.

Unfortunately, Vivacel wasn’t willing to accept her as a permanent resident of the temple. Unlike the others, the goddess had made it clear on her rare appearances that Febe was only a temporary guest. This was why Febe was certain that Vivacel had her own plans for Febe. Plans that she’d yet to reveal, perhaps because she knew that Febe would reject them.

It might be time for Febe to attempt another escape, from yet another god. The logistics of it would take some time to plan. She’d been flown here on the back of a silver dragon—the dragon form of Vivacel—and had no way of knowing if there were even paths back down the mountain. That was if she could find clothing and supplies to protect her through the wintery conditions on the mountainside beyond the wards.

Plans spun in her head, presented by a busily working brain, and then just as quickly rejected by her pragmatic side. Though Vivacel had given no indication that her time was running out, Febe still felt the burden of time passing. For the goddess, temporary could be a hundred rotas. Some of the priestesses had lived far beyond that. Febe wasn’t going to take any chances though.

“The blizzard beyond provides an excellent backdrop for reflection.”

Febe jumped at the sound of head priestess Lengala’s voice. She shivered in recognition of the fact that she hadn’t even heard the woman approach, not because Lengala was stealthy, but because she’d been too preoccupied. Even though she should be safe here for the moment, she was concerned that she’d let her guard down so completely. She turned to greet the woman, smiling though she felt no particular joy at having her thoughts interrupted. “Hello, Madam Priestess. I hope this cycle finds you well.”

Lengala nodded once, a slight smile on her unlined face. Her features were pleasant and matronly—not beautiful, but comforting. Febe had no idea what her true age was, because Lengala had completely white hair but not a single visible wrinkle or age-spot.

“Please, call me Lengala. I am in good health and content.” She studied Febe with blue eyes so pale they were almost white and made Febe fear that the priestess could see right through her. “And what of you, young princess? How does this cycle find you?”

Febe shrugged, scrambling for the right words to answer Lengala without inspiring any suspicion within her that Febe was no longer content and didn’t trust the goddess they worshipped so faithfully. “I’ve found a great deal to occupy me here. You’ve all made me feel very welcome and appreciated.” That, at least, could be said with full truthfulness.

Lengala tilted her head, her pale gaze never leaving Febe’s face. “And yet, you still seek the garden and your own company over that of others. You prefer to be alone, but are not comforted by it. Loneliness leaves you vulnerable to your own mind.”

Febe hadn’t considered her loneliness a vulnerability. She’d always felt it like a shadow crouching in the corner, so ubiquitous that she didn’t even notice it anymore. In fact, loneliness was even less noticeable than the shadows, since it didn’t potentially conceal an assassin. It simply was an inescapable part of her life. If anything, avoiding trusting others was what had kept her alive for so long. “I like to have time to think.” To plan.

Lengala picked her way through the flowers and sat down on the other side of the bench, shifting so that she faced Febe, leaning one elbow on the back of the bench. “And what thoughts bring you so much happiness, yet carve such a deep frown between your brows?”

Febe feared that Lengala would guess her intention to avoid whatever plan the goddess had for her. That could put her in deeper trouble than she was already in with Morbidon. After all, she had no one to help her escape Vivacel. Not one of the residents of this temple would go against their goddess. Instead, she tried to deflect the priestess’s attention by focusing on what Lengala seemed to find noteworthy. “I have been somewhat lonely. It’s difficult for me to feel comfortable around others.” She shrugged as if that confession hadn’t startled her with the pain it brought saying it aloud. It was as if voicing it had given those words the strength to truly affect her.

Lengala only nodded at her words, prompting Febe to wonder how much the goddess had revealed about her situation to the head priestess. “All the acolytes who are brought here by the goddess have suffered greatly in the mortal world. Few are quick to trust. We understand your loneliness, Febe.” She patted Febe’s hand resting on the bench seat between them. “We won’t rush you, or push you to make friends, but you should know that we’re here and willing to help you.”

She waited until Lengala set her hand back in her own lap before sliding her hand to her side, tucking it against her leg rather than having it exposed on the bench seat where the priestess could pat her again. It had been awkward enough the first time. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched her who didn’t want her dead. Except for perhaps Vivacel, who wanted something else from her, perhaps something even worse than her death. “I appreciate all that you’ve already done for me. I will make a concerted effort to join the group more often.”

Lengala’s smile was filled with benevolence as she turned her gaze to the blizzard. “There’s such anger in the storm, isn’t there?”

The abrupt change of subject caught Febe off-guard. She gaped at the wall of snow flurries, wondering what Lengala expected for a response. “I don’t think the storm has any feelings. It just is.”

Lengala never took her eyes off the blizzard. “Never assume a lack of emotion.” Her soft smile tightened. “Those who seem to care the least are often the ones who can be hurt the most.”

Febe had never been good at these philosophical discussions. To her, it was just a storm. Not everything had to relate to something else. Yet Lengala remained sitting there in silence, as if she expected a reply. No doubt a reply that reflected some deep observation Febe felt unqualified to impart. Of course, perhaps Lengala had guessed that Febe had been feeling a kinship to the storm at that moment.  “I never said I didn’t care.”

Lengala turned, her smile brightening into a full grin. “Dear child, I wasn’t talking about you.” She rose gracefully to her feet, smoothing the fabric of her lavender linen robe so that it lay neatly over her matronly form. Before Febe could respond to her words, she dipped her head, her heavy plait swinging forward. “Be well, Princess Febe. I will see you at dinner.”

“Be well, Lengala.” Febe watched her walk through the flowers, her robe sweeping against the bobbing blooms in passing like an old friend saying goodbye. She considered calling the priestess back and asking her who she’d been speaking of, but decided against it. As Lengala had said, every resident in this temple had a history in the mortal world. What Lengala had been talking about may not have anything to do with Febe at all.

Lengala’s interruption had thrown Febe out of her contemplative mood. Now she felt anxious with the need to get up and do something. Worse, she couldn’t let go of Lengala’s last words. They spun around in her mind, chasing her escape plans in never-ending circles. As she rose to her feet and cast one last look out at the storm, she swore she saw the silhouette of a large man among the flurries. When she blinked, he was gone, leaving behind no trace of his existence in the raging white wall of snow.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 4

Author’s Note: I had a tough time writing this chapter, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I go through these phases where I hate everything I write. I just so happen to be in one of those phases. They last for about a week or two, and when I work on a full manuscript they’re usually not a problem because I’ll go back and edit when I’m in a better mood. Since I’m publishing this book as I write it, I don’t get that luxury. So, I can’t really judge this chapter very well at this point.

The second reason is that I struggled with whether I should add a new character. I thought about cutting Farmer out altogether because he wasn’t supposed to be there in my original outline, but after introducing what was supposed to be a throwaway character, his courage and determination in the face of a terrifying opponent made it difficult to just have him leave after the scene. This is one of those cases where my characters take on a life of their own.

Let me know if you have any input on either of these issues. I’m interested to hear feedback other than my own, which is not always helpful. 😉

Chapter 4

The screaming was beginning to annoy Morbidon. He never understood why they always screamed. Surely, they’d researched the process of becoming a lich. Yet every time he performed the ritual, they seemed unprepared for the pain. Isa had been no different in that respect. From what he’d heard and seen, she’d spent many rotas dreaming of this moment, pestering his servants and those mages who practiced his art for this chance. Yet all her self-control and composure melted away in an instant when the aether began to flow around her.

Morbidon was impatient to get the procedure over with and claim his new bride. A strange buzzing feeling thrummed at the base of his skull whenever he thought of Febe, standing there in the Great Hall, facing her mother’s plans with her aura turning plotting-pink, determination to overcome any obstacle clear in the strength of her spine and the fierceness of her stance. Yet there had been soft femininity there as well, and an appealing vulnerability that called for him to protect her.

There was certainly no shortage of dangers to protect Febe from. As he held the phylactery of Queen Isa in his gauntleted fist, he promised that there was now at least one less. Isa would never harm Febe again. She wouldn’t be able to.

The queen now writhed in pain as his reapers surrounded her, chanting the spells that would channel his power into the change, morphing her body into an undead vessel to bind her soul to the living world. He felt the pull of aether away from him and breathed in deeply, drawing in the ambient aether to replenish his power.

This was what it meant to be a god. The unlimited potential of his power was something few could match in the mortal world. This ritual had very little effect on him, even as he provided the power for it. In the Underworld, his power was even greater, because the souls of the dead fed an almost endless well for him to draw from.

Isa arched her back until she was nearly bent in half, the base of her skull pushing towards her naked heels. Her mouth pulled into a rictus of agony as her flesh withered, peeling away in places as rot set in. Aether howled through the ritual room, tearing at the body in the center, stripping away all trappings of life and leaving behind a corpse that would never fully decompose, not as long as the phylactery remained intact.

The queen’s soul struggled to escape the confines of her flesh, but shackles of aether wrapped around it, binding her into her eternal prison. Her head turned towards him as he stood at the boundary of the spell circle. Her eyes—almost popping out in a face of wizened flesh—widened even further as understanding dawned. She’d done this for power, sacrificing one of her daughters to a god’s marriage bed to maintain her eternal rule over her kingdom, but in the end, she was a mere puppet for Morbidon.

As the reapers chanted the last lines of the spell, he held up her phylactery to drive home the point. One final scream rewarded him as Isa’s undead body shivered, spasming on the marble floor, blood and bile pooling around her. Then it was done, and the new lich queen collapsed, lying as still as any corpse until Morbidon chose to trace the runes on the phylactery.

He contemplated the magical glass phial in his hand and the combination of blood and aether that endlessly swirled inside it. The glittering runes that would awaken his new servant squirmed over the slick glass surface. He spun it around in his hand for a few moments as he stared down at it, barely seeing it. Then he slipped it into the pouch at his waist. Isa could wait.

Her most trusted honor guards had remained throughout the ritual, which impressed him. They were made of sturdier stuff than he would have expected. Still, the faces of the two women were pale and they trembled visibly. They both watched him as he strode towards the doors, yet neither of them seemed courageous enough to stop him or even to speak. No doubt seeing what he’d done to their queen gave them pause.

The guard who did dare to stop him had not been present during the ritual, but she approached him just beyond the chamber. “Where is my queen?”

He waited for a moment before answering, just to see how brave this woman would be. Her expression remained firm and severe even as the seconds ticked off while she glared at the mask that concealed any expression he might have had. “She rests inside. She will awaken at sundeath as an immortal lich.”

A brief flicker of disgust and fear crossed the woman’s face before it was well-concealed behind her mask of severity. “Then it’s done. I would see her.”

Morbidon shrugged and stepped to the side, gesturing that she should pass him. She shot him one last suspicious glance before she strode towards the doors. Just as she swept by him, he caught her arm in a firm grip. “Where is Morbidon’s bride? I will collect her now and begin my journey back to Halidor.”

The woman shook her arm free, glaring at him with hatred. For him, or his touch, he wasn’t certain and didn’t care. Only Febe concerned him now. “She waits in her room. Proceed to the Great Hall, and you’ll be taken care of.”

He was already walking away before she finished speaking.

The Great Hall was much emptier compared to when he’d last appeared before Isa. He’d expected another one of the angry female guards to be his guide to Febe’s chamber. Instead, a burly man dressed in farming clothes—although still armed with a serviceable sword—stood waiting for him. Sweat coated the man’s sun-browned skin. The tension in his oversized body was evident, but his feet were firmly planted in a clear message that he wasn’t going anywhere. This man wasn’t to be his guide to his new bride. This man was here to try and stop him.

Ah, I see. Perhaps I should have listened better to that guard. When she said I would be taken care of, she wasn’t speaking of hospitality. Morbidon shook his head at the pointless waste. No doubt this man is yet another innocent, sacrificed because the daughters of Isa are unwilling to uphold their mother’s honor—as stained and unworthy as it was. Selfish women!

Febe would learn under his careful tutelage, but the others would continue with their selfish ways until Morbidon had Isa dancing to his tune. Many changes were coming to Barselor.

Incidents like this only gave him more enthusiasm for his upcoming marriage. There was so much he could teach Febe. She would learn about honor and loyalty, things which had been clearly lacking in her life.

His mind was so filled with thoughts of Febe that it took him a moment to realize that the man had spoken. “My Lord Necromancer.” The man managed not to spat the words but it was clear that he wanted to as he drew his sword and leveled it on Morbidon with the air of one who knew how to handle it.

Morbidon drew his sword, enjoying the way it sang its note of freedom as it left his sheath. He liked to think it was singing also for blood. “The words are correct, but you need to work on your tone.” In truth, he wasn’t in a patient mood, particularly when the farmer didn’t take the hint. “Where is the bride? She should be ready to travel.”

Though the farmer’s hand was steady on the sword, his body trembled and sweat still coated his skin. “She’ll not be going with you.”

Had his reapers been beside him, they would have felt the instantaneous heat of his rage at the farmer’s words. His cooler head prevailed in time to save the life of the sacrificial fool they’d sent to tell him that Isa’s honor meant nothing to them, and that they did not intend to uphold her bargain.

After regaining control of his anger, he regarded the man, who’d taken several steps away from him and now held his sword in both hands to steady it, shaken by whatever he’d seen when Morbidon was in a rage. It was entirely possible that his mask had changed as he lost control over his anger. It had certainly happened before, and was one of the reasons he had a difficult time pretending to be human.

When he switched to his dragon-sight, the piss-yellow that swirled in the farmer’s purple aura from fear was now obvious to him. Though the farmer had a purple aura, it had been darkened by a life of difficult choices that weren’t always altruistic. It was clear from his stance that he’d been trained and had probably been a soldier once, but the lack of black in his aura showed that he’d never had to shed the blood of his enemy.

Frightened as he was, the farmer hadn’t run from him and was even now still squaring up against him. Such courage intrigued Morbidon. It was possible the man might be useful to him. “Listen close, peasant. The princess has been given to me to take back to my god, Morbidon. I will not fail in that duty.” He pointed his sword at the man. “You are but a mere annoyance in my path, and if you persist, you’ll be nothing but a stain on the floor.”

The farmer didn’t lower his sword, nor did he the bunched muscles of his arms and shoulders relax. “Take Emilia.”

There was a loud gasp from the minstrel’s gallery. Morbidon had become increasingly aware of the feeling of eyes upon them. Now he knew where their audience was. He didn’t turn his attention away from the farmer, but he kept the location of the spies in mind.

Ignoring the sound of outrage from the gallery, the farmer lifted his chin to face Morbidon eye-to-eye. “Eldora will never come around to the marriage. She’ll plot and plan and work to subvert her husband every moment of her life. Married to Eldora, there would be no peace for the God of the Dead.”

Morbidon sheathed his sword and crossed his arms over his chest-plate. “So, Eldora is the knife my immortal lord must always watch for. He may find that invigorating. And Emilia… let’s see, wasn’t she the alchemist who routinely tries out her newest batches of poison on people who are inconvenient to her. Perhaps my immortal lord might not mind the indigestion. They do both sound like lovely girls.”

The man’s lips tightened. “I said Emilia would be the better of the two as a god’s bride. Eldora is not for your god!” The last was spoken with ferocity that belied the man’s obvious fear.

Morbidon was growing tired of this game. He didn’t give a damn about Emilia or Eldora. There was only one bride he wanted to claim. “Take me to Febe. She will be Morbidon’s new bride.”

The farmer’s shoulders slumped, though he kept the sword raised. “I’m afraid that’s going to be a problem, My Lord Necromancer.” The yellow swirling among the purple of his aura curdled like cheese, hardening within him, but also seeming to harden his resolve. He was terrified at what the end result of his bad news would be, yet he wasn’t standing down.

“Tell me where she is.” Struggling to retain control over his human form, Morbidon’s voice dropped to its true bass, like the sound of a tomb door closing. For the moment, his anger was in check… barely.

The farmer’s words came out in a rush. “Princess Febe has escaped. We’ve searched everywhere. The other princesses have done all they can to find her and bring her back. They’ve tapped all their networks. No one knows how she got out. Her door was locked from the outside and there were no windows. She just seemed to vanish.”

At first, Morbidon heard nothing after “Princess Febe has escaped.” The rage threatened to consume him. The bones of his wings pushed at the skin of his back, eager to break free and begin the transformation into his dragon form. She ran from me! What does she run to? There is no better future than I can give her! Then the last thing the farmer said caught his attention, freezing his burning anger into an icy fury. “She vanished?”

The farmer nodded, the tip of his sword wavering.

So, Vivacel has decided to involve herself in my affairs once again. He studied the man, thinking about what he should do about him. This farmer currently served Eldora, he’d bet his immortal life on it. Judging by his determination to keep her in the castle, he served a much more intimate capacity than her other servants. That meant the farmer would probably understand these mortal women far better than Morbidon did.

“I have promised Febe to my Lord Morbidon. You and your people have allowed her to escape.” He held up an imperious hand to keep the farmer from objecting or making excuses. “Now, you will help me hunt her down.”

The farmer looked above Morbidon’s head at the shadows in the minstrel’s gallery. After a moment, the man’s frown deepened the lines on his face and he nodded so slightly that if Morbidon wasn’t carefully watching his reaction, he might have missed it. Then his attention returned fully to Morbidon as he sheathed his sword. “I’ll do whatever it takes to bring Febe back, my Lord Necromancer.”

Morbidon wondered if the farmer really believed he would be able to serve two masters. Eldora’s wishes were about to become insignificant to the man. He figured he was doing the farmer a favor on that. “Are you certain you wish to serve me?”

With a final grim glance at the figure on the balcony, he nodded. “I’m certain. What do you need me to do first?”

Morbidon considered the man. “What’s your name?”

The man shrugged. “Name’s Farmer. Least that’s what everyone around here calls me. Works well enough for me.”

Morbidon stroked the chin of his bone mask. “The second thing I’ll need you to do is change your name.”

“And the first thing?”

“The first thing I need you to do is die.” In one swift motion, Morbidon pulled his sword from its sheath and buried it to the hilt in Farmer’s chest.

There was no sound from the minstrel’s gallery. No cry of outrage or grief as the man stared down at the sword in his chest, blood dribbling from his lips.

Yes, I definitely did him a favor.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 3

Author’s Note: Well, here’s chapter 3, right on schedule. I kind of like having deadlines. Wait… did I really just say that? I might need to have my head checked!

Chapter 3

Particles of glittering sand sifted down into the bottom of the hourglass with a soft patter. Febe watched the light catch on the sand grains as if they were water, part of a flood flowing towards her. The dread built up inside her until she was certain she would burst with it.

She still hadn’t completely given up hope on escaping, though her sister’s words made her certain that not only had Eldora abandoned her, but she would actively work against any escape attempt Febe made. That meant that spies were probably in every corridor, watching and waiting to capture her in the act.

There wasn’t much time, and she’d already wasted too much of what she did have on hoping to rely on a sister who’d never been an ally. As always, the only person she could truly count on was herself. She’d engineered marvels that the rest of the world coveted. Surely, she could come up with a simple escape plan.

Yet her mind, usually so busy, drew nothing but a blank. It was almost as if simply knowing that she was doomed to marriage had turned her once-brilliant brain into mush to prepare her for her future as the chattel of some man. No, not a man. Not someone I can manipulate, or even kill if it came to that.

The fear that she would lose the ability to do what she loved the most was even greater than her fear of the monster that would enchain her with a wedding band. Surely no male, not even the god of death, would allow her to continue working in her lab, building machines to improve the lives of her people, or any people for that matter.

Perhaps, like her mother, Morbidon would demand engines of war. She wondered if a god would even need such things, and wasn’t certain which was worse: the idea that he would, and would force her to make them, or that he wouldn’t, and would never allow her to draft another engine in her life.

She withdrew her design book from her sack and clutched it in both hands as if it could work as a talisman against such a fate.

While she was contemplating her grim future, a knock sounded on her heavy wooden door.

The guard captain did not wait for an acknowledgement, opening the door a crack. “Milady, a maid is here with your dinner.”

Febe quickly slid her book back into her sack and rose to her feet to disarm the traps in the room so the innocent maid wouldn’t wind up a victim of them.

The guard captain apparently knew the drill, or perhaps the maid did, as all maids had been warned to give Febe notice and never enter her room unless she’d given them leave.

“Send her in,” Febe said after unhooking the clip that kept the last trap set. The nearly invisible wire dropped to the marble floor and Febe slid it under her rug.

The maid who entered was not a familiar one. Febe regarded the beautiful girl with suspicion as she bustled in with a laden tray, the food steaming beneath covers, sending out delicious aromas that did nothing to whet Febe’s lost appetite.

“Why didn’t mother send the usual girl?” By this, Febe meant the latest usual girl. Sadly, Febe’s maids had a bad habit of disappearing. She suspected her sisters’ hands in their absence. Being the maid of any of the sisters was a dangerous job, though Febe tried to keep collateral damage to a minimum, and deeply regretted killing the innocent, even when they got in the way.

Of course, there had been the maids who’d tried to poison her, after being bought or threatened by her eldest sister Emilia. They’d usually died because she’d made them eat the food they’d brought. Thus, the food on the tray of this maid was probably safe.

The maid set the tray down on Febe’s table, and whisked away the covers to reveal a feast that looked too much like the last meal of a condemned prisoner. It seemed that every one of Febe’s favorite dishes was present. The maid then took a small fork from the tray and took a bite of each dish, smiling at Febe reassuringly between each chew.

The girl’s beauty was rendered sublime with her smile. Usually, Febe felt awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of beautiful women, because she was only too aware of her own short-comings in that area. Her mother never failed to remind her that she lacked any of Isa’s beauty and charm, and no amount of creams and lotions and dyes would improve her appearance.

This time, she felt strangely calm, a true miracle given her predicament. “You didn’t need to do that. I have a test kit.” Emilia wasn’t the only alchemist in the country. Febe had gone to great expense to acquire a kit to test for all the poisons that were currently in use anywhere in the Southlands, and even those that had been forgotten by most assassins. Emilia always looked for something new, even if it meant finding something old. What she didn’t use, Eldora did.

The maid shrugged. “You’re food isn’t poisoned, and I have no fear for my life. Besides, it tastes delicious. Your chef is brilliant.”

“You don’t talk like a maid. Who are you?” Febe now regretted disarming all of her traps. Not that she didn’t have options. She considered the lever concealed to her right. Pulling it would send darts towards the table. This wouldn’t be the first time her maid had turned out to be an assassin. That was why Febe always stood in this spot when a servant was in her room.

The maid’s laughter was merry. “Don’t bother with your darts, dear child. They wouldn’t do much harm to me.” She swept her arms out to the side. “Of course, I should have known it wouldn’t take you long to see through my disguise. You are quite paranoid.” With a wink, the maid’s appearance shifted. Suddenly, the stunning beauty of the teenage girl became the beauty of a more mature woman dressed in a flowing silver gown rather than the frumpy uniform of the castle servants.

“You’re a mage?” This would be a first. Neither of her sisters had ever tried using magic to kill her. It was an unspoken rule in their engagements. Magic was simply unfair.

The woman pouted. “You still don’t recognize me? It’s because your people worship Zephrona, isn’t it? She’s so jealous of her followers. Imagine, forcing mine to keep their shrines in their homes and limiting my temple to such a small building in the plaza.”

“Vivacel? It… it can’t be!” Febe staggered a few steps away from the goddess, dropping into her favorite overstuffed chair next to her bookcase, where another trap awaited should she pull out the right book.

“And why not? Surely you realize by now that we exist, though you and your sisters worship your logical studies and not Our glory.”

Of course Febe knew that the AllGods were real. There had been too many miracles to deny that fact. Besides, magic was a known phenomenon in the Southlands. Her mother had often complained that none of her daughters had been born with the gift. What were gods besides very powerful magic users? And then there was the whole upcoming marriage to Morbidon. Febe had never doubted that he existed. “Is that why you’re here? The marriage to Morbidon?”

The goddess chuckled. “The horror in your tone is certainly appropriate. My brother is no one’s choice in mate, for good reason.” She frowned and shook her head. “Such a dour creature.”

Febe shuddered. “Did you come here to scare me even more?”

“No, child. I’ve come to help you escape. Morbidon has no right to force you into this marriage. A girl like you deserves to fall in love.”

“I don’t deserve anything.” Febe slumped further into her chair. “Nor do I want to fall in love. Men are nothing but a curse. Women who love them become insipid and foolish.”

“Bah! You speak your mother’s bitterness, not your own experience.” Vivacel approached Febe’s chair, her dress sparkling in the meager light cast by sconces on the walls. “Love is a beautiful thing. If it is reciprocated, it makes both partners stronger and better for it.”

“And if it’s not, they pine away and become hateful and cruel.” Febe ought to know. Her mother had loved once, long before she’d had three daughters and a kingdom to rule.

Vivacel waved away Febe’s words. “Your mother is an unfortunate exception. Not the rule. The heart is not a fragile thing. If it is broken, it only heals stronger. Then you find love again. Only those who refuse to let go become like Queen Isa.”

“I don’t want love! I just want to leave here so I’m not forced to marry the god of death!” Febe struggled not to cry in front of this powerful woman. She’d grown to despise powerful women, and couldn’t imagine a goddess would be less likely to view her tears as a weakness than the other women Febe had made the mistake of revealing her vulnerability.

Vivacel’s expression was sympathetic, but Febe didn’t trust such things. “You poor girl. You’ve never known any kind of love, have you?” She leaned down and touched Febe’s forehead, smoothing back the strands of hair that had escaped her braids. Febe jerked away from her gentle touch.

The goddess rose back to her full height, standing over Febe like a sparkling monolith. “I will help you escape. This I promise you. No one will stand in our way.”

Relief was not enough to completely chase away suspicion as Febe eyed the goddess. “What’s the catch?”

Vivacel laughed aloud, clapping her hands with amusement. “I should learn that I cannot trick you for long. The catch, indeed. You’ll simply have to wait to find out about that.” She smiled down at Febe. “Well, do you accept my offer?”

Febe wasn’t sure she could trust the goddess of life. She’d no more made a study of Vivacel than she had of Morbidon. In fact, the only one of the AllGods she knew anything about was Zephrona and that was because learning about Barselor’s patron goddess was a required part of her education.

What she did know—what all Southlanders knew—was that Vivacel and Morbidon were bitter rivals. In this case, the enemy of her future husband might just become the best friend she’d ever had.