Author’s Note: Hurray! I’m back to work and loving it! I missed my keyboard, and it was good to get back to this story. I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, except to say please feel free to comment and critique below. Tell me what you think. Also, just a brief reminder that I am running a Goodreads giveaway of 5 signed paperback copies of Lilith’s Fall starting on August 1 and running to September 1 so if you have a GR account, mark your calendars and be sure to sign up when it starts!
The god of the dead sat upon his throne of bones, which rested upon a pile of skulls. His cowl was firmly in place, casting most of his inhumanly handsome face into darkness. Behind him, a line of his reapers stood like statues, robed shadows in the gloomy throne room. The only light that seemed capable of penetrating the oppressive darkness emanated from the wraithfire torches and chandelier that hung low from a lofty vaulted ceiling.
Marcos and Febe had been lead to this throne room by the steward, his transparent face pinched tight with disapproval, his eyes glittering with self-righteous malice. He’d left them standing side-by-side facing the throne of the silent god.
Now, Morbidon studied them from within the shadow of his cowl. His long-fingered hands, pale in the wraithfire light, rested on the arms of his throne, which was adorned by yet more skulls—inhuman ones with fangs and huge empty eye sockets. Morbidon’s lack of movement gave no clue to his thoughts, but Febe knew that the steward had already informed the god of his impression of what had happened within the cellar, dismissing her and Marcos’s claims of being attacked by dark souls from the Abyss as impossible.
Since Morbidon had been visiting the Abyss during the attack as part of his routine patrolling, the steward insisted that there was no possible way the god wouldn’t have noticed the escape of any dark souls that were being punished there. He’d also told Febe and Marcos there was no way the souls had the power to enter Morbidon’s palace through the wards placed to deter just such events. The steward believed she and Marcos were telling a convenient lie to explain their situation.
The important thing was what her betrothed believed. At the moment, Febe couldn’t tell, and the longer he allowed the silence to draw out in the tomblike atmosphere of the throne room, the angrier she grew at this unfair treatment of them. First they’d been attacked, and now they were being accused of dishonorable behavior. Neither of them deserved this, and she’d had enough of Morbidon treating them like misbehaving children awaiting their punishment.
After several long moments passed where he did nothing but stare at them, not even the flicker of wraithfire betraying his emotions, she couldn’t keep her irritation behind her tongue any longer. “I’m sick of skulls! And bones!” She curled her lip at the throne and its macabre adornments.
Marcos grasped her arm as she stepped towards the throne, her voice shaking with anger. His whispered warning was still audible in the silence that had changed in quality from oppressive to stunned. “Little Mouse, have a care! This isn’t your mother’s kingdom!”
She shook off his restraining hand and took a few more steps towards Morbidon’s throne as the god looked on without comment, though his fingers tightened on the arms of his throne as she approached. “I’m sick of the darkness and the constant silence. I’m sick of the dust and the cobwebs!” She plucked one of the offending strands off of her tunic arm as she spoke, flinging it aside to glare at the steward watching her from the edge of Morbidon’s dais, his mouth agape. “And I’m sick to death of you and your kingdom!”
Morbidon’s knuckles whitened on the bones of the monstrous skulls. She was now close enough to see the tremor of his cowl, as though tension had pulled him as tight as a bow string vibrating after releasing an arrow. Yet he remained eerily silent in the aftermath of her devastating words. Without seeing his face, she had no idea what he was thinking and no clue if her words had managed to inspire any emotions at all in the god of the dead.
Her anger did not abate in the face of his lack of reaction. In fact, his unresponsiveness only incensed her, her frustration and hurt coalescing into a ball of rage that had to be released as if her sister’s black powder concoction had ignited behind it. “You promised me that I would be safe here! You promised that no one would ever threaten me again! You swore that you would be there to protect me! I was a fool to believe you!” She took another step towards the throne and then another until the toes of her slippers bumped into the base skulls that held up the dais. “I trusted you!” Her voice quivered on those words.
She turned to glance at Marcos, only to find that he’d followed her, approaching the throne to stand at her side, as if he could possibly protect her from Morbidon’s wrath. Her anger softened for a moment as she looked into his concerned expression, his gaze traveling from her to the god before returning to her, filled with an emotion she’d never seen directed at her before. He had no chance of winning a fight against the immortal reapers and the god of the dead, yet he was still there at her side. “Marcos was there for me. He protected me the way you did not!”
She cast her gaze back to Morbidon, and her anger sparked anew at the shadows that hid his face from her. No matter what pretty words he spoke to her, he was still playing god instead of trying to be a true mate to her. “I would rather be back in my mother’s castle with a thousand assassins at my door than spend another minute here with you, my lord.” His title dripped with her contempt and disgust.
She’d expected him to burst into wraithfire. She’d expected his flesh to peel away to reveal the horror of his bony reaper. She did not expect him to lean forward on his throne and rest his head on his palms in a position of hopelessness and despair that was human enough to weaken her anger and resolve.
The steward rushed towards her, floating faster than she’d ever seen one of the ghosts move. He flapped his hands in her face, shooing her away from the throne and her apparently devastated betrothed. “You’ve done enough here, you wretch! Begone to your quarters! My lord will decide your fate soon enough!”
Febe snarled at the ghost, her anger refreshed by his behavior. She’d always cringed away from rudeness, preferring the comfortable isolation of her laboratory and her mathematics to the inconsistencies of people’s actions. The steward had been kind to her in the beginning, but one misperception later he was treating her like refuse. Marcos was right. This wasn’t her mother’s kingdom, and she was done being the little mouse he kept calling her. “Do not speak to me in such a way, peasant!” She straightened her spine and rolled her shoulders back, lifting her chin until she looked down her nose at the ghost. “I am Princess Febe of Barselor. I have centuries of royal blood running through my veins. I am a master inventor responsible for engines that will change the world.” Her words rang with her conviction, her last statement one of pride at accomplishments she could claim as her own, beyond her birth and breeding. “You are nothing but a servant. I don’t take orders from you.”
Morbidon lifted his head from his hands as the steward staggered back in the face of her wrath. “Princess Febe is correct, Steward. You will never speak to my bride again in such a manner!” His voice was dark and ragged like an ancient funeral shroud.
“B-but My Lord! She and this cretin,” the steward gestured to Marcos, “have dishonored themsel—“
“Enough!” Morbidon’s roar shook the entire throne room, sending falls of dust and debris pattering down from the vaulted ceiling. “Get out of my sight, Steward! Your accusations are not welcome here!”
The steward drifted away from Febe, bowing clumsily as he floated backwards towards the wide double doors. He disappeared long before he reached them.
Silence reigned again in the throne room. Morbidon sat straight and tall now, though his face was still concealed and his hands gripped the arms of the throne so tightly that the bones of his fingers were clearly outlined—outlined, but not exposed. He’d been angry, and a small amount of wraithfire had crossed over his body when he’d yelled at the steward, but he hadn’t lost control, and he seemed to have everything under control now.
But Febe was still angry—at him, and at her situation. Based on his words to his steward, he still considered her his bride. He refused to release her from this bargain despite how unhappy she was. “Did you not hear my words, my lord? I hate it here! Let me return to my home!”
The god sighed, his straight posture slumping as if the breath leaving him had been propping him up. “You’ve experienced a grave injustice that I would seek to correct, if you will allow it, Princess.” He rose to his feet slowly, as if he himself were a corpse rising from the grave. “No dark souls have ever escaped the Abyss, and none can pass into this castle beyond my wards. This means you were a victim of some other trickery perpetrated by someone who can enter and leave through these wards. Someone who meant to frighten you and,” his cowl turned briefly in the direction of Marcos, “drive you into the arms of my servant.” Morbidon’s focus returned to her. “You are correct that I failed you, Princess. Please, allow me to make amends.”
Febe shook her head. “I no longer care about your kingdom and whatever traitors you harbor within it. I want to go home. You cannot possibly think I would marry you now?”
Blue fire skated over his robes and down to his hands. “You gave your word! Would you go back on your own agreement? Do you have no honor, woman?” His voice had lost all semblances of culture and civility. He sounded like a primal male howling and snarling in anger.
Marcos stepped in front of her, his broad body providing a barrier between her and the angry god. “You should allow her to choose. She’s suffered enough because of this bargain.”
“And you think she will choose you, peasant?”
Morbidon’s voice cracked like a whip, but Marcos didn’t flinch in the face of it, nor did he back down when the god’s skin began to peel back beneath growing blue flames on his hands. “So far, she hasn’t been offered a better choice than me.”
Morbidon’s now skeletal hands clenched in front of him. “You dare to insult me? I will kill you a thousand times over, and you will suffer the pain of every death!” He left the dais, his robe sweeping behind him as he strode towards Marcos and Febe, only stopping when he towered over Marcos, close enough to reach out and strangle him with his burning skeletal fingers.
“Do not hurt him!” Febe pushed between the two men, shoving Morbidon in the chest, staggering back into Marcos’s chest when all her strength failed to budge the god of the dead. Suddenly, she screamed as the wraithfire from his body crossed onto her skin from her contact with him, trailing up her arms in a wave of agony.
Morbidon’s soulmate writhed on the bed in pain and the fault lay with him. He’d lost his temper as he’d sworn he would not do. He’d foolishly allowed his devastation and heartbreak to fuel his inherent rage, behaving as insanely as his father had once done when deprived of the woman he had loved. Morbidon had become the monster he’d tried his entire life not to be, and he’d hurt the one woman who’d mattered to him more than even his mother and sister.
Now, as his wraithfire threatened to consume her body and soul, he could not heal her. Had this been a normal flame, she wouldn’t have even a slight scar as a memory of it. He could heal any mortal from any normal wound and even bestow unending life upon them, but he could not stop the burning of his own wraithfire. It emanated from the rage within his soul, and consumed him time and time again, but since he was immortal and a divine dragon, he was never destroyed by it. Febe did not have that luxury. She suffered his pain without the benefit of his divinity.
There was only one person he knew who had learned to quench wraithfire, and that was his sister, who’d mastered her own flames. He’d already summoned her, knowing as soon as Febe had come into contact with his burning body that she would need help he couldn’t give her. Yet, Vivacel had not responded to his summons, and their mental link had shrunk to a tiny thread after he’d ejected her from his kingdom. He could barely feel the wisp of her thoughts, and those thoughts told him she was deliberately making him wait, deliberately causing Febe suffering because he’d ignored Vivacel’s warnings and she wanted to punish him.
He held tight to Febe’s hand, trying to pull the fires back into his own body, to no avail. His anger at his sister for allowing Febe to continue suffering did not allow him to calm himself enough to quench his own flames. As long as they burned within him, they would burn within Febe.
Her screams were like swords, piercing and twisting in his gut. He’d been a fool not to release her from her promise. He would rather never touch her or even speak to her again then have her suffer like this.
“Can’t you do something?” The desperate voice was so much a reflection of his own internal thoughts that for a moment he didn’t realize that someone else had spoken.
He turned his attention to Marcos, never releasing Febe’s hand even though her writhing pulled and tugged on his grip. “I told you to leave here!”
The human crossed his thick arms over his chest, leveling a glare at Morbidon. “I’m not leaving her! Not like this!”
The mortal’s tone of possessiveness infuriated Morbidon, which only caused his flames to burn hotter, making Febe moan aloud as her back arched off the bed. “She’s my bride!” Realizing that his anger was killing her faster, he quickly tried to push it back into the deep well within him where he usually kept it, but his flames were free and out of his control now that they had a new host.
“You don’t deserve her! Look at what you’ve done to her! If you had only let her go….”
Never had a human dared to speak to him in such a tone, yet Morbidon couldn’t take issue with what Marcos was saying. He was right on all counts, and he only spoke aloud the very thoughts that haunted Morbidon. But he couldn’t allow Marcos’s words to stand unchallenged. The human wasn’t just censuring him for his treatment of Febe. They were locked in a battle for her heart, and the human was winning. Morbidon wasn’t willing to concede the fight. Not until Febe was healed and he had a chance to make amends.
Then he would lay his heart and soul bare to her and be vulnerable in a way that terrified him, because it meant the possible rejection he’d feared for so long. He now understood that he should have done that from the start. Febe didn’t want to marry a god. She also didn’t need a man. She needed a friend, a person she could trust and turn to when times grew difficult. She needed someone to hold her when she was sad, and comfort her when she was scared. He’d tried to impress her with his magic and his power, but all she’d needed was the one thing he struggled to give. Himself.
Marcos had nothing else to give but himself, and that had been enough for Febe when Morbidon wasn’t.
Morbidon had failed Febe on all counts, proving his sister correct. He wasn’t the right mate for her. But she was the perfect mate for him, and he was determined that she would live so that he could become the mate she needed and deserved. “She will live! I will find a way to clench the flames and heal her body and soul.” His next words were the most difficult he’d ever spoken. “And then I will free her from her promise. I will let her make her own choice.” What he didn’t say aloud to the other man was that he wasn’t going to stop trying to win her. Febe would not be able to leave his kingdom until she was fully healed. The fire was burning parts of her soul away, and only in the Underworld could she regenerate them with his help.
“Why does she still burn then?” Marcos approached the bed, only stopping reluctantly when Morbidon waved him off. “Make it stop!” He pressed his hands together in a prayer gesture. “Please, god of the dead, I beg of you! Save Febe!”
As long as Marcos stood there, Morbidon would never be calm enough to meditate. “I will do as you ask, but only because it is already my will to do so. Though I will give her a choice, don’t think I’ve given up on her, human. Now leave this room. I must have silence and peace to end these flames.”
Marcos looked as if he wanted to object. With one last agonized glance at Febe, he abandoned the healing chamber.
Morbidon sighed, stroking the soft, smooth back of her hand with the fingers of his free hand. He couldn’t wait for Vivacel to change her mind and heal Febe. He couldn’t hold off the worst of the flames for much longer, and there would soon be nothing left of Febe if he didn’t try even harder than he’d already tried.
Never releasing Febe, he sank into the meditative state that would allow him to travel the deepest road—the one within him. The road that led to his rage and all the memories that fueled it.