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!
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.
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.
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—
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.