Author’s Note: As I near the end of any manuscript and the number of bullet points on my outline shrinks down to the last handful, I have an unfortunate tendency to get short-timer’s disease. I know the end is near, and I’m just slogging towards it.
For my usual WIPs, I know that I’m going to have the chance to go back and clean up those sloppy endings, with their sparse details, rushed actions, and hastily tied-off plot threads. First drafts are supposed to be rough. Otherwise, they’d probably never get done at all. At least, that’s how it would work for me.
However, since I’m publishing this as I write it, I didn’t want to do that to you all (I wanted to put y’all. I really did. It’s a struggle!) who’ve been gracious enough to come on this journey with me. So, I’m trying to take extra care with these last few chapters. I want them to be as complete as possible, and because of that, they are turning out to be longer than I’d expected, so these ending events may end up taking more chapters than I’d initially plotted out.
I hope you enjoy this latest installment, and I hope there’s no sign of short-timer’s disease in this writing. 😉
As always, feel free to add your comments and critiques, and thank you so much for sticking with me this long! This has been an excellent experience for me, and I’ve had so much fun with it that I might just do this again with a new story. (We’ll see. I think I’ll take a vacation first. :D)
Febe existed in a lovely daydream, never wanting to awaken as she watched Macie float around her bedroom, her girlish eyes wide with excitement as the seamstresses fitted Febe’s wedding dress, their pins grasped between ghostly lips.
The gown was an elaborate confection of the finest spidersilk, heavy with gems and golden and silver thread brocade. The headdress was almost as heavy, and even more encrusted with gems and gold and silver. Febe loved it. The fact that it was a dress, when she’d once been so uncomfortable wearing them, made no difference to her now. She didn’t need to always wear trousers in case she was compelled to escape. No one would hurt her now. She was the bride of a god, and soon, she would be Morbidon’s wife.
The fact that she would rule as queen over the land of the dead also didn’t bother her. Her future husband had his kingdom well in hand, and had created for her a laboratory so large that she could fit her mother’s entire castle inside it.
The laboratory was a wonder in itself, filled with clockwork mechanisms that Morbidon had seen on his journeys and re-created for her to reverse engineer. When she wasn’t with him, she would be locked away in her laboratory, and the only thing she anticipated more than being there was her wedding day, and the night that would follow.
She couldn’t recall having ever been this happy before, but that happiness dimmed when a knock on her door had Macie opening it to reveal Marcos standing just outside, his expression unreadable as he was ushered in to see Febe in her glorious wedding dress.
His smile was rueful and crooked. There wasn’t much humor in it as his gaze passed over her. “I probably shouldn’t be in here, but I wanted to come congratulate you myself.”
Febe’s answering smile felt weak to her, but she made the effort for him. “Thank you, Marcos. I appreciate all that you’ve done for me.”
He laughed humorlessly and shook his head, dropping his gaze to the floor. “I’m not completely convinced I did you any favors, but… I do wish you happiness, Princess Mouse.”
She chuckled. “You just had to get that last one in, didn’t you?”
He met her eyes, his own intent. “You’re not the Little Mouse I remember, Febe. You’ve grown, and I realize now that it’s because of…him.” He ran a hand through his hair, leaving the strands sticking up in disarray. “You always belonged to him, you know.” He grinned. “I honestly think he needed you. Maybe now, our kingdom will be a little more relaxed.”
“Our kingdom? You mean Barselor, or the Underworld?”
His grin faded. “I mean both. I guess for you and I, this has become home.”
“Marcos, I’m sure Morbidon will free you.” She took a step towards him, and the seamstresses made sounds of protest. Pins in the dress stabbed her skin, drawing her to a halt before she could reach him.
Marcos shrugged. “Free me? Febe, I could have left this kingdom at any time after bringing you here. Believe me, he wanted me to go! I stayed here for you, and I’m glad I did. I wanted to see you find happiness.” He closed the distance between them and lifted a hand to touch her cheek, but apparently thought better of it, his fingers curling between them as he aborted the movement. “Of all Barselor’s princesses, you’re the only one I believe deserves to be happy.” He stepped back. “I might have been hoping you would find that happiness with me, but I shouldn’t have been so blind to what was obvious from the start.”
She held out a hand as if to stop his retreat. “Marcos, I….”
He took a few more steps towards the door. “It’s okay, Febe. I really am happy for you. I’ll be at your wedding, and then Morbidon has offered to send me back to Barselor.” He smile was deep with malicious glee now. “I’m going back as Morbidon’s enforcer to oversee your mother’s reign.”
“Eldora will be there.”
He nodded. “I’m counting on it.”
After Marcos said goodbye and left her suite, the fittings for the headdress and wedding dress seemed to go on forever. Though Febe was still happy, his visit had put a damper on her euphoria. It wasn’t that she’d forgotten about him, or the burgeoning feelings she’d been having towards him. It was simply that once she accepted her feelings for Morbidon, everything else became secondary, and the desire she’d started to feel for Marcos paled in comparison to the literal fire that consumed her whenever she thought of making love with Morbidon.
She might have been happy with Marcos. She might have been able to make a home with him, and even start a family, raising their children together in a way that hadn’t been done in her mother’s kingdom in over a generation. She could have been happy, but she would not have been fulfilled. Not like she was now.
She accepted Morbidon’s explanation that they were soulmates, and though it went against everything she’d ever been taught by her mother, she truly believed that she belonged to him, and always had. But unlike how her mother would view such a belief, it wasn’t a possession of a woman by a man, because Morbidon belonged to her, just as much as she did to him. They were two halves of a whole. Becoming his wife only made official what was already in their hearts and souls.
She didn’t know whether she and the god of the dead could ever have children, since he was not fully human, but she suspected with his magic that there was nothing they couldn’t do.
For the first time in her life, she hoped for children, and her hand often strayed to her abdomen now, wondering if a seed had already been planted during their first passionate encounter. She was determined to be the mother neither she nor Morbidon had ever had—the mother who loved and cherished her children. Febe’s heart already beat for her imaginary offspring. Like Morbidon, they would become her world, and the person her mother had worked so hard to shape Febe into would continue to evolve into this new, more confident woman who could be true to her desires—desires for love, for nurturing, for passion, for peace.
This was why she needed Morbidon, but it wasn’t why she loved him. That love had come quickly on the heels of accepting that she really was his soulmate. She recognized now the vulnerable, proud, determined man that he was. He wasn’t a jovial man, nor was he frivolous. His demeanor would always be solemn, though it had lightened considerably when he was in her presence lately. His personality would always bear the grim weight of his station, but beneath the demeanor of the severe god of the dead, she saw the real Morbidon—the lover, the confidante, the person she could turn to when she needed someone to hold her, the man who cherished her and had spent a thousand lifetimes searching for her.
She was blissfully daydreaming about her wedding night, a perpetual blush staining her cheeks, when there was another knock on the door. She’d hoped it would be Morbidon himself to visit, but he’d said he had something important to discuss with his sister, and he hadn’t sounded happy about it. Although since then, she’d felt no negative emotion from the shared flames that burned in her soul, and he had shielded their bond so well that she couldn’t detect any thoughts or feelings from him through that. She could only assume his meeting must be going well, and he’d promised to be back before the wedding.
To Febe’s disappointment, it wasn’t Morbidon, but the disgraced steward who hovered uncertainly just outside her door, his head bowed low, his eyes completely downcast. He had fallen in favor, and rightly so, after his heinous accusations, and it was not unusual for those in his position to seek leniency from the injured party, so she wasn’t too surprised to see him there.
“My future queen! I must speak with you!” His hands folded into a plea before him, though he kept his gaze on the floor beneath his translucent feet.
Febe wasn’t happy about how fast he’d questioned both her and Marco’s honor and went right to Morbidon with his suspicions. Still, she felt sorry for him. He’d been kind to her in the beginning, and she didn’t believe he should pay such a heavy price as exile from the palace because he leapt to the wrong conclusion. For the moment, she was willing to hear the steward’s apology.
Though he motioned for her to leave the seamstresses and her maid behind and step out with him into the corridor, Febe shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest, and then wincing as the action dug pins into her flesh. Ghosts couldn’t hurt her, but she hadn’t survived this long by following strangers away from potential allies. “You can speak to me here, Steward, or not at all.”
“But Princess! It would be inappropriate for a male to be in your room when you are…are….”His hands flapped in front of him in her general direction. “I cannot remain in your quarters while you are being dressed!”
Febe believed in having compassion, but she didn’t possess a deep well of it for this particular spirit. If he didn’t hurry up and say what he wanted to say, she was going to order him from her room without even trying to help him. Let him suffer exile if his intention was to be so stubborn. “You tell me here, or not at all, Steward. I’m very busy.”
He lowered his head as he sketched a deep bow. “Of course, Your Highness. Soon, you will be a very busy queen. That’s quite a change in station! No mortal has ever been elevated to the role of queen of the Underworld before.”
Febe felt a sense of growing unease that came from a long habit of watching her back. She checked around her. The seamstresses were still performing their pin torture. Macie watched the steward with sad eyes—more sympathetic than Febe was for him, that was for certain. At least these servants were still there to help her, in case the steward had some trick up his transparent sleeves.
She couldn’t see any possible way he could be a threat to her, but her uneasiness was enough for her to try and access the narrowed bond between her and Morbidon, only to discover that it had shrunk to a thread so fine that it might as well not be there at all. His fire still burned in her soul, and it was calm, as if he was completely content, but she was now certain something was wrong.
He’d shielded their bond to give her privacy in her thoughts and emotions, and perhaps to do so for himself as well, but always before when she’d deliberately reached for it, those shields had flung wide open so she could speak her thoughts to him, wherever he happened to be at the time. Now, they were locked down and she couldn’t reach him, though she hoped some of her distress would make it through their bond to him.
With this new concern, she forgot about the steward and her mild suspicion of him. No doubt I’m overreacting, but I cannot help but think something’s terribly wrong! She clambered off the dais to much protest and many pin stabs. “Macie! I need you to find out where Morbidon has gone! I need to discuss somethings with him.
“Princess!” the steward piped in as Febe struggled to remove the dress as carefully and quickly as possible, the seamstresses jumping up to help her before she damaged all their hard work. To his credit, the steward immediately turned his back when Febe was revealed in her underpinnings. She was so agitated that she didn’t even care.
This loss of her link to Morbidon scared her. Through parts of his soul burned inside her own, it wasn’t telling her enough to know where he was and what might be happening to him. With no way of knowing where he was and what he was feeling, she couldn’t know if he was in danger.
“Princess!” the steward followed on her heels as she pulled on her most comfortable tunic and pants set. “I know where Morbidon is! I can take you to him! Perhaps this will help make up for the terrible mistake I’ve made.”
Febe paused in her frantic rush. She had no idea where she was going. “I still don’t trust you, and I’m not particularly fond of you either.”
He fell to his knees, genuflecting before her, pressing his forehead to the marble tile. “I know I’ve done wrong. I would make it all up to you. Please, let me lead you to Morbidon!”
Febe looked at the seamstresses who were muttering amongst themselves as they examined the wedding dress for any tears or damaged embellishments. Then she glanced at Macie, who was floating above Febe’s bed, hugging one of Febe’s many pillows, while chewing on her ragged, ghostly fingernail. The servants didn’t seem too concerned by the steward, but then again, they wouldn’t be. He was a permanent fixture of the palace and had been for much longer than Febe had been there. They had no reason not to trust him. Febe probably shouldn’t mistrust him either, but she’d learned never to trust anyone.
Still, though she hated to rely on him, she needed to accept his help if she wanted to find Morbidon and the explanation for why she could barely even feel the bond between them. She was also hurt that he’d narrowed the bond so thin, and based on the steady burn of his flames within her, he wasn’t discontented by that, as she was.
She made her decision, agreeing to allow the steward to show her where Morbidon was, though she fully intended to watch her back.
She followed him out into the corridor, paying careful attention to what he was carrying. Though spirit in form, the souls could manipulate solid objects. The steward appeared to have none. He led her down a maze of corridors and then cast aside a door laced with cobwebs to reveal a dusty room, filled with the bone décor that had once been a fixture throughout the palace. Since Morbidon had changed the rest of the palace to a style more suited to Febe’s preferences, she suspected that this little bit of gothic design belonged to Morbidon’s Mourning Room, his personal retreat.
She followed the steward into the room, hoping to see her fiancé there, but it was empty. Since she’d never been in there before, she took a moment to study those details that made him comfortable. She’d been so worried about her own preferences that she hadn’t thought to ask him what “home” meant for him. The skulls and bones might not have just been an image he used to intimidate his subjects. Perhaps, he found some comfort in these things, grisly as they were, yet he’d changed his entire palace to reflect what pleased her, keeping only this small sanctuary to himself. Why did it take me so long to realize I love him?
“You’re not worthy of him,” the steward said from the doorway, where he’d paused after he ushered her into the room.
Fear shot up Febe’s spine at the hard tone of the steward’s voice, and without turning around, she quickly searched the furnishings in front of her for a weapon—any weapon she could use.
She found a leg bone lying on the sofa table in front of her along with an artfully arranged pile of skulls, just as she felt him float up behind her, the chill of his presence suddenly much colder than even a spirit’s should be. She turned, raising the bone to block the hand scythe he swung towards her.
The scythe was no ordinary weapon. It was a tool of the reapers. Though it wouldn’t cut her skin at all, it would sheer away her soul and deposit it into the reservoir at the skull-shaped base of the handle, where it could later be released for judgment.
Febe knew that if the steward got his way, there would be no release into judgment. “Why are you doing this?”
His lips twisted into an ugly sneer. “It’s an abomination for a mere mortal to marry a dragon-god! You should have left this place with Marcos. You were given your chance. My Lord would have let you go, but no! Instead, you chose to ensnare him into this farce of a marriage, where you will never be his equal. Only a goddess can be his equal!” He swung the scythe towards her again, and Febe raised the bone to block it, grateful that Morbidon’s magic infused everything he created, even the ornamentation. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure the bone would have stopped the scythe.
He made a frustrated grunting sound, then shook his head and raised the scythe again, his wild eyes searching for an opening as Febe slipped into a defensive fighting stance she hadn’t used very often.
His glare could have burned her alive on the spot, if he’d had any real power. “When I’m finished disposing of you, my Goddess will greatly reward me with eternal life! No longer will I serve in this dreary underworld kingdom! Instead, I’ll be at her side. I will live forever!” He gripped the scythe with both hands and lifted it above his head for another swing.
Febe held up the leg bone to block the scythe, but the steward was fast with it, and she had never been diligent in her martial training. She knew how to block, but knocking the dangerous weapon out of his hands wasn’t something she was familiar with. This is why I prefer ranged weapons! Or better yet, a laboratory behind a bunch of traps! Morbidon! Where are you? Why can’t I hear you?
Undeterred by her successful blocks, the steward pressed his attack, changing to a flurry of quick strikes. The scythe’s edge crashed against the bone, Morbidon’s magical artifacts repelling each other. “He won’t come back to you! You realize that, don’t you? Right now, he’s bound to his sister. A bond a little interloper like you cannot possibly break. They’re linked in their minds in a way you can’t begin to achieve. Together, they’re fighting a great evil, and it’s only together that they’ll persevere. When Lord Morbidon returns and finds you gone, I’ll be sure to tell him you couldn’t love him—and don’t worry, I’ll see to it that your soul drinks from the river of lost memories. You’ll be reborn, never recalling any of this, and Morbidon and Vivacel can be together as they were always meant to be!”
The steward had been swinging the scythe to punctuate each of his increasingly mad rantings. His technique was lacking, but Febe’s wasn’t much better, and not for the first time, she truly wished she’d paid more attention to her martial arts lessons.
At first, her blocking managed to hold him off, but once he’d finished speaking, he went after her with a vengeance.
Then Febe’s guard slipped, and the scythe passed through her shoulder when the spirit took advantage of the opening. That was all it took for the reaper’s weapon to capture her soul, and she felt the agony of it being torn from her body, leaving nothing behind but a soulless husk.
The steward stepped away from her, holding the scythe aloft as if it were a torch, and in fact, it did glow a pastel pink with a hint of blue fire for a brief moment. The ghost didn’t spare her another glance as her soulless body collapsed against the dusty settee, the leg bone falling from her listless grasp. She stared at nothing, because she cared about nothing.
Everything that was Febe was gone, her soul on its way to drink from the river of lost memories and a start a new life where the happiness she’d been promised would never happen. Fool that she was, Febe had dared to dream, and she’d learned the hard way that dreams were only designed to dissipate upon awakening.