Dressed in my best black clothes, I hurried on my way down to where the wedding ceremony was to take be, eager to take my rightful place at Thustundra's side and become her Lifemate for all eternity. I was too excited to stop and wonder at the mismatched echoes that dogged my footsteps, or the shadow that plagued the wall on my right.
A heavy hand pressed down tightly on my mouth, and arms of steel jerked my hands behind my back, binding my wrists together with a thick rope. I tried to resist, but it had happened so fast that I was disoriented and unable to gather my wits about me. The hand over my mouth relaxed and dropped away, but before I could yell for help a foul-tasting cloth took its place, pulling tight and pulling hard on the corners of my mouth, making me writhe against the unwelcome pain.
"Looks like I've got you," a voice buzzed in my ear, sounding pleased as punch about the whole thing, not at all worried that the penalty for enthralling a creature was a year of living in the belly of Thunder Mountain. "Now no one can stop me." The male – for it was a male, by the depth of the voice – pushed me forward, holding onto the rope that disabled my hands so cruelly.
I tried to scream, to fight, but two more hands pushed down on my shoulders, targeting my only pressure point and forcing me down to my knees.
"You behave, or it will go even worse for you," a different male snarled. "And it's not going to be pretty to begin with."
I couldn't move a muscle, not until the being loosened his grip and allowed me to stand. He kept his fingers on my neck to keep me from getting any ideas. His buddy pushed me on again, hitting me square in the back and laughing nastily as I stumbled and nearly fell, managing to catch myself only by the swiftest and fanciest of footwork.
"This is gonna be fun," hooted the first one. "I'm gonna enjoy this."
I had yet to find out what "this" was.
* * * * *
I had never felt so happy in all my life. I felt like I was in a dream, or a ghost of a dream. I had to be.
The one I loved was by my side, black fur neatly combed, short head-hair brushed back, amber eyes shining bright with excitement beneath that ceremonial wedding mask that hid his gorgeous face from my view. I squeezed his hand tightly, retracting my sharp claws so as not to hurt him, and tried to focus harder on the highly revered Steldyk Elder standing before us behind an altar of mahogany, his voice echoing around the third story of Thunder Mountain.
I was getting married.
Shadow, my soon-to-be Lifemate, placed one arm around my slender, corseted waist and tugged me closer to him. I snuggled partially into his bony shoulder, breathing in his scent. But something was wrong. The scent wasn't Shadow's normal scent. Shadow's smell was usually green and full of life, full of love, but this scent was more…lustful. My sense of smell is highly developed, and I can smell emotions as well as normal creatures can smell flowers, and this emotion was definitely along the lines of covetousness, almost cruel in intensity. I couldn't figure it out, but when I looked into his eyes and saw the passion that lit them, all thought of his unusual musk vanished.
We had reached the vow part of the wedding, and my back tingled with excitement at the thought of Shadow finally belonging to me – not literally, of course. "Shadow Tayroh, do you take Thustundra Drae to be your lawfully wedded Lifemate, in sickness and in health, may you never part?" The Elder had a very deep baritone for a speaking voice, and it made me want to laugh. "Do you promise to love and care for her and protect her, and to take care of the family to the best of your ability?"
I thought I saw Shadow's fingers twist into a quick crossies, but I count be sure.
I slipped his golden, unadorned ring on his left fourth finger, as was the custom to do before he made his promise. "I do." Shadow's tone, usually light and airy, full of love and compassion, was almost dark, heavy with an unhealthy envy. I almost pulled away, but Shadow was the one I loved. I wasn't going to abandon him because he wanted me so badly that protective jealousy permeated everything about him.
"Thustundra Drae, you do you take Shadow Tayroh to be your lawfully wedded Lifemate, in sickness and in health, may you never part? Do you promise to love and care for him and to obey him with every fiber of your being, and to let him take charge of the family matters when he's with you? Do you promise to let him rule your life like a good Lifemate would, and to listen to his judgments regarding your life and his without complaint?"
The vows on my side were a little different than normal, and I wondered at the change. But I was nearly delirious with happiness. Perhaps that was my problem – I was too easily excited around Shadow, and I didn't stop to question anything about the ceremony, or why the Elder in charge was a Steldyk and not a Stund like we had discussed, or why Musilter law – a branch of the Steldyk army that ensured my orders as Quean of the Mountain were obeyed – surrounded the room and blocked the exits, intimidating the Strsrilt guests and my sisters. I was too lenient with Shadow and letting him have his way, and I knew that I shouldn't have been with the wedding. But it was too late to do anything about it.
Shadow slipped my emerald-encrusted ring on my fourth finger as I held out my hand, and I felt a small jolt leap into my body as it nestled right above my knuckle. But, me being me, and me loving Shadow, I thought nothing of it. I thought it was just my stupid shock collar acting up. "I do." I had just tied myself to Shadow in the strongest possible way…or so I thought.
"That will do, Elder. Thank you very much." Shadow started to pull me away from the altar, but I stopped and looked at the Steldyk suspiciously.
The Elder smiled at me, looking over my shapely body with hunger in his eyes, and I flinched under his cruel expression. "Why don't you take the mask off now?" He was addressing my Lifemate.
"Very well." Shadow removed the black mask that hid his face, and I gasped and backed away. But three Musilter guards blocked my path, and one went so far as to grab the back of my neck and squeezed, applying pressure to the single most sensitive part of my body, forcing me to halt as the ugly truth hit me like a clout to the face.
The male I had just married wasn't Shadow.
"Thank you, Elder," the stranger repeated. "You've delivered the only enemy of the Quiangda, the Quean of Thunder Mountain, into our hands lawfully, and with no bloodshed on either side, which is always a plus. The Quiangda thanks you wholeheartedly. Now, if you will excuse us…"
The stranger grabbed my arm forcefully, and received the shock of his life as my sharp teeth clamped down on his wrist.
"Wretch!" he hissed, smacking me across the face as I released him, spitting out clumps of black fur. The smack didn't hurt all that much, but it angered me, and I had to remind myself that lunging toward an enemy wasn't always the best option when you're as strong and as hotheaded as I have the tendency to be. "You are going to pay for that!"
"I am not going with you!" I snarled. The Musilter guards behind me secured their grips on my shoulders protectively. Irritated almost to the point of insanity, I dropped to my knees and swept my leg out behind me, tripping the three Steldyk and annoying the Steldyk whom I had bit even further.
"Yes you are! Guards, get her!"
I groaned inwardly. A battle on my wedding day was not what I wanted, even though I knew that I could win with one hand tied behind my back, and I just wanted to find my true Lifemate and get remarried. Too bad nearly every single Steldyk in the room had a different idea for me pounded into their heads.
Where are the Winds and Seasons when you need them? It really bugged me that they had left the wedding early, eager to get back to Winter's castle and rework the way they ran the world, and I swore to myself that next time I saw them I was going to use my influence just a little bit on the way they worked.
Nearly forty Musilter Steldyk advanced on me slowly, warily, with ten staying behind to control the relatively few Strsrilt and Steldyk that I had invited to my wedding, keeping them from escaping. I moaned out loud, seeing how many of them actually had weapons – about thirty of them, leaving only ten that I could beat with ease.
The Steldyk I had unwittingly married smiled maliciously, eager to have me in his arms. "Guards, attack."
The mass jumped at me as one, and I leaped forward, but under their reach, so that when we all landed I was at the rear of them. They roared wordlessly and split up to attack from different vantage points. I spun in circles as they formed a ring around me, watching and waiting for the first one to make his unlucky move.
It was a Steldyk on my right. He ducked low and rolled, kicking out with his feet and catching me hard on the shin as he came to a stop. I winced in pain, but managed to kick back, sending him flying fifty feet away into a wall. I was pretty sure I killed him, but I had no time for regrets at the moment. More were coming at me, hurdling toward me in twos and threes, seeking to overwhelm me with sheer numbers. I took out the first few with a round-kick, but they were coming at a rapid pace. I knew that I was stronger than all of them combined, but somehow a dirty trick ended up with me on the ground on my back under a pile of bodies, gasping for breath, hands pinned to my sides. I tried to fight, but an immovable force held me down, kept me frozen there on the ground. The Steldyk I had married loomed over me.
"You're mine, wretch," he chuckled, nudging my right cheek with his filthy black boot, twirling the ring around on his finger. "Say it."
"No." I needed to quit being so stubborn, but I wasn't about to relinquish my freedom after belonging to myself for only the four months that followed my year of enthrallment.
"Say it!" He kicked my left shoulder, and I growled in pain.
"I will never be yours," I sneered, defiant to a fault. "You are not my Master."
"You will soon change your mind. Guards, chain her and bring her. I'll be waiting in the wagon."
He stalked out of the room, exiting into a stairway, leaving me at the mercy of the guards and the single Elder that remained – all of the wedding guests had fled the room, even my sisters. The guards all got off me and grinned, and I could almost hear what was going through their heads.
"Touch me and you're dead," I bluffed, rising to my feet and hoping they wouldn't call me on it.
"How do you propose on that?" scoffed one Steldyk.
"Death is my ally." That stopped them all in their tracks – they had been circling me like predators circle their prey. "I was dead, yet I was not. Death returned me to the land of the living, and will return me every time I die for the rest of eternity, as well as anyone else that I ask be spared."
"Prove it," another dared.
The Elder inhaled sharply. "No!" he shouted "He will have our heads if his thrall is harmed in any way!"
I was willing to bet that "he" was the one who had married me, and letting the jerks who messed with me get hurt sounded fun. "Be right back," I promised with a wicked glint in my eye. Using a sharp claw, I slit my own throat to the bone without hesitation, feeling a quick fire that flared up and died down as my body crumpled and my spirit passed into the halls of Death himself.
* * * * *
The black hall felt warm and inviting, from the midnight drapes to the inky tables to the obsidian floor. Death, a misty black cloud with two dark blue coals for eyes, sat on a polished silver throne – the only true color in the whole room, aside from me. "Back so soon?" he purred, floating to pull me off the floor. "I wasn't expecting such an esteemed visitor, or I would've lightened the atmosphere a bit, make my home a little more inviting for you. I know you prefer open spaces since your time of enthrallment and subsequent recuperation time."
I accepted the wispy hand that hovered just above my head, letting Death pick me off the ground. "I've got a little…problem aboveground," I admitted sheepishly. "Someone took Shadow's place at the altar and is trying to enthrall me again. He left me in the hands of the guards so they could restrain me, and they told me to prove that I had an alliance with you. I was planning to come down anyways and ask for a little help."
"I'm sorry." Death seemed truly apologetic. "I cannot interfere with the affairs of the living, except yours. Since this includes those that don't have 'special relations' with me, I'm afraid there's nothing I can do. I'm sorry."
I sighed. "Oh well. I can't say you hate me at least. Well, may I stay down here with you for a day or two, or at least until they go away?"
Death smiled at me – I could see the white gleam of razor teeth. "I wish I could, but the ones above are considering chaining your body in the hopes that you really will come back. Unfortunately, they scrounged around Winter's castle and found the fear-chains she threw out, the only chains that hold you in place."
"Dang them," I cursed. "They are going to pay. Well, the least I can do is kiss you for the favor you're about to do me."
"I would love a kiss."
I could hear the smile in Death's tone, and I pressed my lips to where his would be, feeling the slight trace of fear that he couldn't eliminate from his being. But he recoiled the second my lips met his, and he backed off, eyeing me warily.
"What is that around your finger?"
I glanced down at the emerald ring snuggled close to my knuckle. "My wedding ring."
"It reeks of electric impulses and ice," Death complained. "It clogs my nose and tears down my inner defenses."
"So that's what kept me still," I mused, trying to tug the metal off. As I had expected, it wouldn't budge. It had molded to my skin, just like the collar that had clung to me like a parasite for several months now. "Dang, that…thing, he's smart."
"That thing's name is Streil, in case you need to know," Death informed me. "And you really need to be going now. They're chaining you with the fear-chains."
"Hit me!" I shouted, desperate to get back into my body before they took control.
Death smiled sadly and struck me across the throat, where I had impaled myself, and I felt the edges of my wound close up as my spirit was forced back into my body.
* * * * *
"Let me go!" I screeched, seeing a tall, lanky Steldyk stand over me, holding a long, thin chain in his hands. "Get off me!"
The hands that held me down to the smooth obsidian floor refused to budge, and I fought to get free, at least until the depression I had felt in Winter's castle drifted down into my bones. I stopped struggling, panting in vain to pull in a breath of fresh air. Coarse laughter above me let me know that someone was enjoying my discomfort, and whoever it was controlling the depression increased the focus of power on me until it felt like I was being slowly crushed at the bottom of the ocean. I threw my head back, shutting my eyes and willing the pain to disappear, willing to do whatever needed to be done if only the being in charge would release me.
"I know what you're thinking." It was the Steldyk from earlier, the one who had kicked my face – Streil, Death had called him. "If you truly want to be free, all you have to do is say you belong to me."
I wasn't that willing.
"So be it, thrall. You may have it your way…for now." He halted the flow of power, and I breathed in gratefully, wondering at his calling me "thrall."
"What do you want?" I demanded, my eyes flashing open.
I felt a blow strike my cheek, but this one hurt, unlike the one he had given me earlier. "I will not explain myself to you, wretch! What I want is none of your business!"
I was too stubborn to submit to a stuffed shirt like the one trying to coerce me into surrender. "How did you just hurt me?"
"The ring you are wearing gives me complete control over you. Now shut up, or I will make you shut up."
"Do it," I taunted. "Stuffed windbag." The next thing I knew, my face was covered by a grimy boot and pressed to the floor, my lips bleeding badly, my green blood bathing the marble around my head.
Streil had kicked me in the mouth.
"How was that?" he mocked. "Did that work?"
Frustrated with him, and with myself, I had no choice but to submit and allow myself to be chained like a prisoner, degraded worse than a thrall groveling before its Master. My hands were shackled behind my back; another chain looping tightly around my waist like a belt connected to the links on my wrist; the thin chain the Steldyk had held over me attached to my collar. Then Streil, who checked the handiwork of those working over me, tossed me easily over his shoulder and tramped to the first level of the mountain and out one of the main passages. Just outside waited a covered wagon with two maroon Styuldy in front, harnessed and ready to pull.
I groaned inwardly as my neck-chain was fixed to a ring at the rear of the wagon-box – I was going to be running the whole time, or at least until Streil saw fit for me to ride…if he saw fit for me to ride. For all I knew, this was my punishment for defying him and killing myself.
"Run," Streil ordered, pulling my face close to his by the collar. I could feel his moist breath on my cheek, taste his fetid odor on my tongue. "Or you will be extremely ill by the time we get to where we're going. The trail is long and brambly, full of thorns and poisonous things. You will run."
"I will do as I please," I hissed. "You can't make me run."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that, thrall." Streil grinned, and I was almost afraid of what I had just gotten myself into.
"I will run," I consented. "If you will let me go when we reach our destination."
"What is the fun in that? Besides, you're promised to me legally, and the only way for you to free yourself is to kill yourself. And, as we both well know, Death will not accept you into his halls. You are special." Streil spit out the word "special" with contempt. "You will run," he commanded again. "And I will see that you do."
"I will run." I gave in solely to make him keep his mind off me. The second his gaze was off me the chains that bound me were to be broken, and I didn't want him to see me missing until he camped for the night. "I give you my word."
Streil laughed. "Such mind tricks will not work on me, foolish thrall," he informed me. "I am not stupid. Besides, you cannot break fear-chains."
"I will obey you," I gritted through clenched teeth. I didn't know why I said it, but I knew that I was being irrational in voicing it, and Streil would see that I did obey him. Life in the next few hours was going to be just peachy keen.
Streil hooted and leapt into the front of the wagon, clicking to the Styuldy. "You're an idiot," he whooped playfully. "What a moron!"
I growled as the wagon started and began jogging – well, it felt like jogging to me. To a normal creature, the pace I was going at might have killed them if they had kept it up for as long as I knew I was going to have to. I had the power of super speed on my side, though, and I knew that the pace was one so slow I could've kept it up for nearly two weeks without faltering in my step.
"Have fun running, wretch," Streil called back to me. "You have never experienced a run like this before, not ever."
We passed into the outskirts of Storm Forest, and I gave one look at Thunder Mountain, my home for the past four months and the command center for me, the Quean of the planet. The red-brown crags looked homely to me, and I vowed to return as soon as I could. My family would be sick with worry over me.
I had been loping along for about an hour when the forest began to get darker faster. The trees were closer together, and I felt smothered. The woodland fauna started looking threatening as well, and strange plants grew along the narrow path, many of them spotted with deadly reds and lethal greens. One long bramble reached out lazily to stroke my cheek, and I felt an evil presence descend around me, cloaking me, forcing me to submit to its power without effort.
It was the power of Death.
There was something wrong with this Death. It didn't recognize me like Death normally did, and it was completely hostile, foreign in more ways than one.
Many have been murdered here, I realized as we passed a suspiciously green tree. It's the power of Death at his worst, the power of unnatural Death.
I shuddered, but pressed on, considering the outcomes of me leaping onto the back of the wagon. I could leap quietly enough that Streil would never know. But I decided against it. I wasn't even close to being tired, and running outside was a nice change from scurrying indoors day in and day out. I could wait a few more hours before trying to get free and return home. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so cocky in my own abilities.
After all, I have a weakness.