Author’s Note: Not much to add for this one. It’s vacation time, and this was my last deadline before that, so… I’m just gonna leave it at that. Feel free to make suggestions, comments, or critiques. I hope you enjoy.
Translucent ghosts, glowing with a soft blue light, drifted past Febe and Marcos as they strolled down a massive corridor lined with bones. Skulls stacked upon femurs, stacked upon ribcages, stacked upon stacks of bones rose to a towering ceiling of ribbed vaults—a true palace of the dead. Guttering blue torches were the only light that penetrated the gloom, casting dancing shadows across the grinning faces of the watching skulls.
Febe had asked for Marcos as an escort so she could speak with him candidly about her questions and concerns, but now that she was touring Morbidon’s palace, she was grateful for his company in place of her betrothed’s. She didn’t think she could have successfully hidden her horror and disgust from Morbidon at the design of his home. She suspected such a reaction would only push him further away from her.
Marcos glanced her way as they passed a stack of grinning skulls, yellowed by age and split by a multitude of cracks. “You know, it’s really not that bad here.”
She returned his glance, her eyebrows shooting to her cobweb-dusted hairline.
He smiled at her expression and reached out to pluck a feathery strand of webbing from her mahogany hair. “Sure, the ornamentation needs an update and the maids could do a better job, but it’s peaceful and quiet. Not a bad place for a temporary stay.” His smile faded as he flicked the cobweb off his fingers.
Febe looked around, noting the lack of ghostly residents in this area of the corridor. She paused beneath a pointed archway. “To be honest, I didn’t actually want a tour of the palace.” She hugged herself and rubbed her upper arms even though the chill she felt was more in the primal part of her mind than her body. The temperature was actually quite comfortable. “I needed to speak with you, and this seemed the best way to get you alone.”
Marcos’s expression slipped further into a frown. When he spoke, his voice was low and soft. “Careful, Princess, how you word your requests. Your betrothed has shown more tolerance than I expected, but don’t expect it to last.”
Morbidon had clearly not been happy at her request for a tour with Marcos. Not only had his expression closed into his emotionless mask, but blue flames had sparked briefly along his robes before he seemed to rein his anger back in. Yet his only response had been to call Marcos over and direct him to escort Febe in a tour of the palace. Then he’d bowed to her with an unreadable look in his silver eyes, turned on his heel, and left her in the courtyard with Marcos standing beside her, studying her with a questioning expression.
Febe sighed, studying the dusty marble beneath her silken slippers. She’d been overwhelmed by Morbidon’s company, and she had questions she didn’t dare ask him. All she’d wanted was some time to speak with another human who could understand her sense of isolation in this dreary place. Yet she feared she’d only made things worse by requesting that time. “I only wanted to talk. I haven’t had the chance to apologize for forcing you into this bargain of mine. I had no one else….” She decided not to finish that statement because it revealed more vulnerability than she was comfortable with. Out of necessity, she’d placed some level of trust in Marcos, even though he’d already been dishonest with her. He was still the only mortal in the Underworld and her only connection to her previous life.
He ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair, refusing to meet her eyes. “You owe me no apology. I allowed you to believe I was working for your sister. I apologize for that. As for me being here, I would have served Morbidon either way and there are worse duties than serving as your companion.” His half-smile didn’t lighten the solemn cast of his expression.
Febe tapped her chin, regarding Marcos thoughtfully. “You know, it’s funny, but I trust you more because you aren’t serving my sister’s will. She tried to kill me. Many times.”
His fists clenched at his sides as he turned his back on her steady regard, looking up at the wall of bones rising to the vaulted ceiling. “I believed it was self-defense. I fooled myself into thinking that she would never have attempted to assassinate you if you hadn’t been trying to kill her first.” His shoulders lifted in a brief, defeated shrug. “Now, I understand that she was as much the instigator of these attempts as the rest of you.”
“Did you… did you love her?” Febe wanted to reach out to Marcos and rest her hand on his slumped shoulder to comfort him, but she had a distinct feeling that her touch would have the opposite effect. Besides, she wasn’t familiar with providing comfort, or receiving it for that matter. Still, his sadness called to her, just as Morbidon’s sadness had. She’d failed at comforting the god. She had no idea why she thought she’d have a better chance at comforting the man.
His heavy sigh was answer enough, but he expounded on it. “I loved the woman I thought she was. It’s my fault for being blind to the truth.”
Febe shook her head though he couldn’t see it. “The truth is that she is as my mother forced her to be with her endless manipulations. Eldora was defending herself against me and Emilia, even as she was attempting to kill us so that she could ascend to the throne. All of us have been subjected to attempts on our lives since we were barely old enough to crawl. I don’t believe that all of those attempts were from each other.”
Marcos spun around to face her, his eyes wide. “Surely you don’t mean your mother would send assassins after her own daughters!”
Febe raised an eyebrow at his surprise. “You must know what my mother is capable of. I was never sure which assassins were from my sisters and which were my mother’s ‘tests.’ All I do know is that my sisters and I may not be blameless, but we are a product of our mother’s plans. Do not blame yourself for loving her. You probably saw her for the woman she could have been if she’d been born to someone else.” Febe wanted to believe that she, too, was also worthy of love, despite the terrible things she’d done. If she convinced Marcos, then perhaps she could convince herself.
His expression shifted, his lips softening into a smile as he leaned closer to her. “You are surprisingly forgiving, Little Mouse.” He lifted a hand as if to remove another cobweb, but instead his fingers brushed her cheek as lightly as any strand of web.
Febe huffed in annoyance and turned on her heel to walk the corridor again, leaving him to follow. “I hate that nickname! I have no idea why you continue to use it.”
He quickly caught up to her, matching her pace by shortening his longer strides. His deep chuckle lightened the cheerless gloom of the corridor, filled with grinning skulls that were far beyond appreciating humor. “Perhaps I use it to get a reaction from you, Princess.”
“I can’t imagine why you’d want that sort of reaction. You’ve done nothing but irritate me when we were having a friendly conversation.” She recalled the feeling of his fingers on her cheek, soft and caressing, his handsome human face so much easier to look at than Morbidon’s intimidating perfection. If Marcos was her betrothed it would be much easier for her to accept him, and perhaps someday even fall in love with him the way her sister had not.
“Trust me, Princess. I did exactly what I should have in that moment. It’s better that you’re irritated with me.” His voice had grown husky, and he kept a greater distance between them than he had before they’d stopped for their talk.
Febe fumed for a moment, before acknowledging that he might be correct in this. The moment between them had become far too intimate to be appropriate. Marcos had sensed it, and responded in a way that broke that intimacy. She should have been the one to do so. She was the one who was betrothed to another. Yet she’d discovered that Marcos made her feel comfortable and more relaxed than she could remember being in the company of another.
Something about him spoke of solid dependability and protectiveness, and it wasn’t just his bulky frame, rippling with muscles that were distracting even beneath his fine woolen uniform—a gift from his new master, she supposed. That master was the man she needed to focus on, the mystery she must solve before he grew tired of her hesitance and demanded her hand immediately. “Can you answer some questions about my…betrothed?” It still felt strange to say that, admitting that she was bound to marry a man and serve as his wife in every way. Not just a man—a god.
Beside her, Marcos nodded, though the act seemed more directed at his internal thoughts than at her question, since he responded with a distracted “hmmm?”
“I would like to know more about how I should speak to Morbidon. I think my questions upset him earlier, and he has withdrawn from me.”
This caught Marcos’s full attention. His eyes were focused on her now, despite the fact that they were still walking forward in what seemed to be an endless maze of corridors with very little to distinguish them from each other. “Did you incite his wraithfire?”
Febe shook her head, shuddering. “You mean the blue flames? No! Nothing like that. For a moment during our outing, it was as if he’d opened a door into a world where he was vulnerable and almost human. I felt…close to him there, but then it was like he slammed that door in my face, and we were back to being strangers.”
“You didn’t anger him, then. You’ve seen what happens when he loses his temper. Even the other reapers fear the reaper of the god of the dead.”
“But why did he shut me out?”
Marcos stopped, grasping her elbow to pull her to a halt beside him. When he spoke, his voice was low and intent. “He revealed his vulnerability to you, which he no doubt regrets. He is accustomed to being known as a powerful god, and I doubt he trusts others any easier than you do. It’s a wonder he showed you that side of himself at all. If you truly want to know him, you cannot push too hard to open those doors. Let him unlock them first.”
“But how do I convince him to do so?”
Marcos’s eyes gleamed in the blue torchlight. “You have to unlock your own doors for him.”
The remainder of the tour continued in silence until they came to the cellars. Marcos stopped, staring down at the stone steps leading into deeper darkness, revealed by the wooden trapdoor he’d pried open. By this time, he’d claimed one of the blue torches and held it in front of him to light their way. “Do you want to continue, Princess?”
Febe wasn’t ready to return to her rooms and be alone with her thoughts. The darkness of the cellar didn’t frighten her when she had Marcos with her. “I would like to see what lies inside a cellar in the Underworld.” Curiosity was perhaps her greatest weakness.
The contents of the cellar proved to be disappointing. Morbidon showed a lack of imagination when it came to his decorating, so more cobwebs and bones filled shelves alongside an occasional rack of dusty bottles. “I didn’t realize my lord was a wine collector.”
Marcos waved the torch near the racks so that the light illuminated the dull gleam of the bottles. “Here in the Underworld, the spirits prefer absinthe. From what I’ve been told by the reapers, the spirits brew these batches from herbs found only here in the Underworld. I recommend against drinking this version of it. I’m not sure your mortal body can handle the level of alcohol contained in these bottles.”
Febe nodded her agreement with his advice. She’d never been a fan of strong drinks anyway, preferring wine to harder liquors. It was a bit of a disappointment to see a lack of it here, but of course, Morbidon could always create some for her if she really wanted it.
They were about to abandon the large underground room when a soft susurration arose from the floor, the sound gaining volume and strength until the menacing nature of it became undeniable. The light cast by the torches outside the cellar entrance suddenly disappeared as the cellar door slammed shut with a loud crash.
Marcos’s torch flickered as dark shadows seeped from the stone walls like oil, sliding across the floor to surround them in a circle.
A shriek of terror escaped Febe, and she clapped her hands over her mouth as if her silence could conceal her from the horrors taking form around her. Her mind raced with plans for escaping this new danger—danger she should have been safe from in Morbidon’s kingdom. Danger he’d promised her she would never have to face as his bride.
The shadows stretched from ebony pools on the floor, twisting into demonic forms. Each of the half-dozen shadows stood taller than Marcos. Long, spindly arms hung from contorted bodies. The forms appeared to be nothing but macabre shadows, but like the souls in this world, they had substance. One of them smacked away Marcos’s torch so quickly that he didn’t have time to react, cackling in triumph as the only light in the cellar went flying to clatter against the stone wall.
The other five shadows that surrounded them let out horrible cheers as they closed the circle around Febe and Marcos.
Febe gauged the distance to the door, her mind spinning with plans for escape even while her legs felt weak and watery with terror. Between her and where the door should be was a wall of darkness blocked by the shadows that closed her in.
“Who are you?” Marcos demanded of the shadow that had attacked as he caught Febe’s arm and pulled her behind him, though it still put her back to the shadows. He backed away from the ones in front, pushing her towards the fallen torch, which lay a short distance away against the wall.
The shadows whispered, their voices filled with anger and malice. “The Punished… Defiled… Tormented.” Their hissing voices hurt Febe’s ears.
Marcos continued to back Febe towards the wall, turning to block each shadow that lurched forward as if to grab her, his arms held out wide to slap away the long grasping arms of the shadows as they reached in her direction. “You belong in the Abyss!”
“We have been freed.” The whispers were gleeful now.
By this time, Marcos had backed them up within reach of the torch. In a smooth movement, he blocked Febe against the wall with his body, scooping up the torch without turning his back on the shadows.
Their anger hissed out again as he swung the torch at them. The wraithfire glowed brighter in response to the proximity of the shadows, and one of them cried out in pain as a spark of blue fire caught on it and immediately ignited into a small blaze. The screeching shadow danced a jig of agony as it slapped at the flames, which only spread hungrily over its body. It was quickly consumed by the cobalt tongues of flame.
After that spectacular display, Marcos was able to hold the muttering, increasingly angry shadows off with the torch, but they were trapped too far from the trapdoor for them to escape and the wraithfire was growing weaker as the torch began to burn out. The shadows had closed in, herding them deeper into the cellar by lurching forward every time Marcos swung the torch at another shadow. Even worse, what had started as six shadows grew into a dozen as the shadows splintered, replicating themselves by the time Febe and Marcos were pressed up against a rack of absinthe bottles at the far end of the cellar from the trapdoor. The many shadows closed in, leaving almost no room for Marcos to maneuver.
Marcos seemed to be growing tired swinging the torch this way and that to hold off the shadows, which were growing more aggressive. “Who freed you?”
Febe appreciated his tactic, questioning the shadows in the hopes of distracting them and buying them more time to figure out an escape plan. She’d used such tactics in the past herself and found them remarkably effective. Even those who set out to kill can’t resist boasting about themselves.
To her disappointment, the shadows hissed out mocking laughter, offering no other answer.
“What do you want?” Febe screamed, her fists clenched in the fabric of Marcos’s shirt as he swung from one side to the other to keep the shadows from reaching her.
This time, the answers came back in a series of hissing whispers. “To punish the punisher. Torment the tormentor. Defile the defiler. The cruel god will pay with the death of his bride, after she is defiled and tormented and punished as he has done to us….”
Febe wanted to just let the tears come. Morbidon had failed her. He’d promised her safety, but she was in even more danger now than she’d ever been. The only person who stood between her and these horrible shadows was Marcos, courageously holding off the atrocities they promised to bring upon her with nothing but a torch.
Instead of crying, she tore strips off her beautiful tunic, seeking the parts that weren’t adorned by gemstones and metallic embroidery. Marcos spared a glance at her when he heard her rending her garment. “Don’t despair, Little Mouse. I’ll find us a way back to the surface. I’ll never let them hurt you!”
With a couple of strips of fabric in hand, Febe sniffled back tears, trembling now in anger. “I intend to hurt them,” she growled as rage replaced fear.
With her free hand, she pulled a bottle off the rack, grasped the cork in her teeth, and yanked it out. As the sharp reek of strong alcohol bit at her nose, she splashed some of it onto a strip of fabric, then stuffed the strip into the neck of the bottle, using the cork to hold it in place.
Marcos was too busy waving the torch to see what she’d done, but he didn’t hesitate when she held the bottle out and told him to light the strip.
The shadows had focused most of their attention on Marcos and the only threat they perceived, so they were slow to react when the bottle of absinthe crashed to the stone floor at their feet, spreading the wraithfire into a blazing pool that consumed a half dozen of them.
Their shrieking agony echoed in the cellar as Febe stuffed another bottle with fabric and had Marcos ignite it. By now, the remaining shadows were hesitant, backing away and leaving a path where they could escape to the cellar door, but Febe didn’t want them at her back. She tossed the other bottle, and the shadows tried to scatter.
Flaming liquid splashed up onto the fleeing shadows, immediately catching on their substance hungrily, as if the wraithfire were made to devour such creatures. Marcos tried to pull Febe towards the trapdoor but she resisted, ripping another strip of fabric from her tunic just in case there were any shadows that had escaped the flames. She had to make sure to destroy them all. It simply wouldn’t have been safe to leave any behind.
She needn’t have bothered. They were all consumed by the flames that licked the stone walls hungrily, searching for more fuel. It was only when the fires died down, leaving behind nothing but the stone walls and floor and the empty eyes of the skulls on their shelves, that Febe finally allowed Marcos to lead her out of the cellar.
She didn’t make it to the door before her legs collapsed. Marcos set the torch on a shelf, its dying flame hanging off the edge, and scooped Febe up into his arms, catching up the torch again as she laid against his chest, clinging to him with both arms around his neck.
“You are the bravest person I’ve ever met, Little Mouse,” he whispered in her ear as her tears soaked his shirt.
When he reached the door, it was flung open before he could set Febe down and push it aside. Febe looked up from Marcos’s shoulder at the startled faces of the castle steward and several maids— her own maid Macie among them.
The steward’s expression turned from surprise to disapproval, and several of the maids gasped, then turned and rushed away, their voices raised in excitement. Macie just stared at Febe in Marcos’s arms with an expression that suggested she was near tears, her lower lip trembling in her girlish face.
The steward turned the full force of his imposing glare upon Marcos. “This is an outrage! How dare you comport yourself in this manner with the princess? My lord Morbidon will hear of this!”