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He was the most beautiful monster she had ever seen.
It was the first thought Liliana had as she lay weak and drained across the black marble of the floor, her face reflected in its polished surface. As she watched, the one they called the Lord of the Black Castle rose from his ebony throne at the head of the room and walked down the ten steps with a lazy grace that spoke of power, strength and death.
Trying desperately to close her hand into a fist, she attempted to push herself up onto her knees, unwilling to meet him at such a disadvantage. But her body was debilitated beyond bearing by the blood she had spilled to make the crossing, her wrists spotted with it, though her magic had sealed the wounds. Her father would've sacrificed another without a thought to the life he took, would call her a fool for using her own blood.
"Weak." He had spit the judgment at her more than once. "I took a beautiful witch to wife and got a hatchet-faced mewling brat in return."
Sensing the vibration of the monster's boots getting ever closer, she took a deep breath, able to feel it rattle in her throat. It wasn't meant to be like this. The spell should have deposited her in the forests outside his domain, not in the midst of his great hall, where he stood as the lone, lethal shield against the vicious beings beyond. She could feel eyes on her, hundreds of them. And yet no one made a sound.
The boots were almost to her now.
Cruelty was no stranger to her, not after having grown up with the Blood Sorcerer for a father. But this man, this "monster," was meant to be completely without heart, without soul. His castle held within it the gateway to the Abyss, the place where the servants of evil were banished after death to suffer eternal torment at the hands of the basilisks and the serpents, and he was the guardian of that terrible place. It was said that even the most inhuman of the dead quivered when confronted by his visage.
But that was a lie, she thought as he crouched down beside her, his boots heavy in her line of sight.
He was not ugly at all.
Strong hands gripped her by the shoulders, pulled her roughly to her knees.
And she found herself staring into the face of a monster.
Sun-kissed hair, eyes of winter-green and skin that held the golden brush of summer even in this black place devoid of warmth, he could have stood in as the model for the mythical Prince Charming spoken of in childhood storybooks. Except Prince Charming did not wear armor of impenetrable black, and his eyes were not full of nightmares.
"Who is this?" A quiet, quiet question.
It made the hair on the back of her neck rise. She tried to force her tongue to work, but her body refused to cooperate even that much, still stunned from the leap she'd made from her father's stolen kingdom to this place that stood as the dark ward between the living and the most depraved of the dead.
"An intruder." He stroked her hair off her face, the act almost tender if one ignored the fact that he wore gauntlets over his forearms that extended to his hands in spiderwebs of black. A spray of razors rode over his knuckles, while his fingers were tipped with bladed claws the same shade as his armor. "No one has dared enter the Black Castle without invitation in " A flicker in the green. "Ever."
He didn't remember, she realized, looking into that face that was only of the Guardian. There was no echo of the boy he must've once been. None. Which could only mean one thingaccording to legend, it was Queen Alvina who had cast the final desperate spell that had thrown her children from Elden, but Liliana's father had ever gloated that he'd thwarted the queen's magic with his own.
What only Liliana knew, because he'd once betrayed it in a rage, was that the Blood Sorcerer believed he had failed. Perhaps he had with the three oldest children, but not with the youngest with Micah. Her father's blood enchantment had held strong as the child grew into a man, into the dread Lord of the Black Castle.
Oh, he would be pleased. So, so pleased. For those he bespelled rarely, if ever, broke through the veil and found themselves again. Liliana's mother had notshe haunted the hallways of his castle to this day, a slender woman with skin of the dark, lush honey-brown that spoke of Elden's southern climes, and eyes of uptilted gold.
Irina believed herself the chatelaine of a great keep, childless and with her only duty being to see to the needs of the mastereven if those needs meant nights filled with screams and bruises ringed around her neck more often than not. Her gaze glanced off her daughter even when Liliana stood directly in her path and pleaded for her mother to remember her, to know her.
By contrast, the winter-green eyes on her face right then saw her when she wished they would not. She had meant to slip unnoticed into his household, learn all she could about him before attempting to speak the truth of his past. She'd been ready to cope with a lack of memory, for he had been only five when Elden fell. But if he was caught in the malicious tentacles of her father's sorcery, then her task had become a thousand times harder. The Blood Sorcerer's work had a way of mutating over time, so there was no knowing what other effects it might've had.
"What do I do with you?" the Lord of the Black Castle and the Guardian of the Abyss asked in a tone that held a faint, dangerous amusement. "Since I have never had an intruder, your presence leaves me at a loss."
Playing with her, she thought; he was playing with her as a cat might with a mouse it fully intended to eatbut wanted to torment first.
Anger gave her the will to stare back, her defiance born of a lifetime of fighting her father's attempts to break her. Perhaps it was futile, but she could no more help it than a cornered animal could stop itself from striking out.
He blinked. "Interesting." Steel-tipped nails grazed her cheek before he moved both hands to her shoulders again and pulled, bringing her to her feet as he rose.
She wobbled, would have pitched forward if he hadn't held her up. As it was, one of her hands slammed up against the cold black of his armor. It felt like rock. Her father's sorcery she thought, had grown upon itself, turned his mental prison into a physical truth. To counteract the spell, she'd first have to remove his armor.
Of course, before she could attempt any such thing, she had to survive.
"The dungeon," the monster said at last. "Bard!"
A heavy tread, one that made the ground tremble. A second later, Liliana found herself being picked up in huge tree-trunk arms as the monster watched. "Take her to the dungeon," he said. "I'll deal with her after I hunt those destined for the Abyss tonight."
The command echoed ominously in Liliana's mind as she was carried from the hall in a hold that was unbreakable. In contrast to the strange whispering hush that pervaded this castle of harshest stone, she could feel a big, steady heartbeat against her cheek, the speed of it so slow as to be nothing human. Unable to turn her head, she couldn't see whowhatit was that carried her with such ease until they passed through a hall of black mirrors.
His face appeared as if it had been formed of clay left in a child's hands. It was all knots and bulges, misshapen and without any true form. He did have ears, but the large protrusions stuck up far too high on the sides of his head. And his nose she couldn't truly see it, but perhaps it was the small button hidden between his distorted cheeks and below the overhanging jut of his brow.
Ugly, she thought, he was truly ugly.
That made her feel better. At least one being in this place might have some sympathy with her. "Please," she managed to whisper through a throat cracked and raw.
One of those ears seemed to twitch, but he didn't halt his steady, relentless pace toward the dungeons. She tried again, got the same response. He wouldn't stop, she realized, no matter what. For the monster would punish him. All too aware of the cage created by that kind of fear, she went silent, conserving her energy.
It was as well, for this Bard's long, slow strides soon brought them to a dark corridor formed of crumbling walls, the only light coming from a single flickering torch. Then she glimpsed the stairs. The descent into the menacing maw of the Black Castle was narrow and tight enough that Bard's head scraped the top more than once, his shoulders barely fitting. She felt her feet brush the stone, too, but Bard just held her in a more restrictive way, ensuring she took no injury.
She didn't make the mistake of thinking it was because of any care on his part. No, he simply didn't want to be responsible for explaining why the prisoner had been harmed in a way that had not been mandated by the Lord of the Black Castle.
The stairs seemed to spiral down interminably, until she wondered if she was being taken into the very bowels of the Abyss itself. But the dungeons they finally came to were harshly real, the passageway lit by a torch that gave just enough illumination for her to see that each cell was a black square broken up by a small window set with bars. She strained her ears but heard only silence. Either there were no other prisoners or they were long dead.
Opening the door to the nearest cell, Bard stepped inside and placed her in the corner, atop a bed of straw. His eyes met hers, and she sucked in a breath. Large and dark and full of sorrow, they were the eyes of a scholar or a physician, shimmering with compassion. But he shook his head when she parted her lips.
There would be no mercy from him, not here.
As he turned to step out, he grunted and rattled something in the other corner. Then the door slammed shut, leaving her in a darkness so complete, it was stygian. But noa scrap of light flickered in from the flames of the torch outside, enough to allow her to navigate the cell.
Gathering her strength, she crawled to where Bard had rattled what sounded like a metal bucket. Her hands touched it after what seemed like hours, and she felt her way carefully up its side until she could dip her fingers within.
Her throat suddenly felt as if it was lined with broken glass. Sheer need gave her the strength to pull herself up onto her knees and cup her hands, drink her fill. The water was cool and crisp and sweet, the droplets trailing down her wrists. It was beyond tempting to gorge, but she stopped herself after a bare few mouthfuls, aware her empty stomach would revolt if she overindulged.
Her eyes more accustomed to the shadows now, she glimpsed something else beside the pail. A steel container. Opening it, she found a small loaf of bread. Hunger a clawing beast in her stomach after days without food, she ripped off a piece and chewed. The bread wasn't moldy or stale but simply lumpy and hardas if the baker had been given instructions to make it as unpalatable as possible.
A skittering to her left, the sound of tiny paws on stone.
She turned her head, found her eyes meeting two shiny ones that gleamed in the dark. The sight may have incited fear in another woman, but Liliana had long made pets of such creatures in her father's home. Still, she examined her roommate carefully. It was a small, quivering thing, its bones showing through its skin. Hardly a threat. Tearing off a piece of bread, she held it out. "Come, little friend."
The mouse froze.
She continued to hold the bread, almost able to see the way the tiny creature was torn between lunging for the food and protecting itself. Hunger won and it darted to grab the bread from her grasp. An instant later and it was gone. It would return, she thought, when its belly forced it to.
Closing the container with half the loaf still inside, she placed it beside the water and made her way to the straw. For a dungeon, she thought drowsily as her body began to shut down, this place was not so terrible. The monster clearly needed to take lessons from her father in how to make it a filthy pit full of screams and endless despair.