A Gothic Romantic Fantasy for Adults Only! Fiercely independent Ashla is the healer in a village blighted by the shadow of a dark god. Exinious created Ashla’s civilization centuries ago and then abandoned them. His only interaction is to choose a bride from their ranks every generation.
A disease has stricken the villagers that Ashla can’t cure with her magic potions. She knows this must be the work of Exinious, and fights her way to his fortress to confront him.
Deep down she already knows what’s going on. It’s time for Exinious to choose a new bride, and he must have his eyes on her. Unfortunately for the god, Ashla will never leave her post as healer. She refuses to become the property of any man—especially not a selfish and fearsome god.
An Erotic Gothic Novella by the author of Alien’s Bride! Presented here in its entirety. READ THE PREVIEW! ->
I stood at the base of the mountain and used one hand to shade my eyes from the sun. My head had to crane back to take in the god Exinious’ fortress. It didn’t matter that the black thing had been in the background of my village all my life. It still put a knot in my stomach to look at it. The sharp dark towers grew upwards from the mountain’s peaks, forming inky capillaries that stained the sky.
“You should wear something prettier,” Senator Carrus said behind me.
I closed my eyes and tried not to lose my temper. What I’d worn was simply my deep blue smock, emblazoned with the symbols for health, renewal, fertility, and medicine. A dense fabric belt tied snugly around my waist and a hooded wool cape hung off my shoulders. I felt just as entitled to my healer’s uniform as the senators did to their long brown tunics.
“I have to climb a mountain, you realize,” I said.
“You also have to beseech the god that lives there,” Carrus said. He was barrel-chested with a full white beard. “His last wife from the village died six years ago. He may be ready for another. A pretty package might go a long way towards winning the lonely god’s aid.”
The suggestion made me cringe. “I’m not volunteering to be his latest sacrifice.”
Carrus put his gnarled hand on my shoulder. “Oh, but my dear—“
I jerked away from him like his hand was a hot coal. He gave Senator Diones an amused expression while I glared at him. I’ve told the old bastard before not to touch me.
There was no need for Senators Carrus and Diones to escort me to the mountain. Their page had called me to the meeting house at sunrise to demand an explanation for why I hadn’t cured the sixteen villagers dying under my care. My patients all had the same disease, the same weeping red boils and fever.
I’d built an astonishing reputation for healing both people and animals. Our leaders claimed my practice was one of the benefits of their regime. As a woman both fatherless and unwed I’d felt too vulnerable to refute this. But then, being the darling of my senators stopped the accusations of witchcraft made against me from ever gaining a foothold.
My obligation to them was never spoken, but they had no trouble presuming it at the morning hearing. Why were those sixteen people, one of whom the niece of Senator Rizee, getting worse by the day? I was making them look bad. I was betraying all the faith they had put in me.
There was a part of me, a small part since their judging eyes and loud voices made me cower, that wanted to spit at them. The bigger part of me was focused on my patients. Why couldn’t I cure those sixteen? I don’t know.
I don’t know.
My tinctures should cure anything. Everything. They always do. Even if I don’t understand it, I can cure it. That’s the gift I was given. Of course, I’d never admit I used magic to our leaders. Who knows when I’ll fall out of favor and have it used against me? I’d answered the only way I could. I’d claimed the god Exinious had cursed us and someone had to go to his fortress and find out why.
“Splendid idea,” they’d said. “You should head out right away.”
A nauseating terror had made me feel faint. I was in a trance as Carrus and Diones guided me out here. Once I saw that hideous fortress my quest felt inescapable.
“Ashla,” Senator Diones said.
I looked at him with the scowl that was meant for Carrus. The younger and infinitely more somber Diones didn’t deserve my anger. He was one of the very few men I found tolerable in the village.
“If you don’t start climbing now it will be dark before you reach the fortress.”
I drew in a deep breath and then let it out with a slump of my shoulders. He was right. I was being a fool to let Carrus rile me. I thought of my poor patients. They suffered in their illness and not even my powerful potions could ease their pain. I’d let this drag on long enough. Something drastic had to be done. Of course, the Senate foisted the responsibility onto me to do it.
I started up the first slope, letting more dejecting thoughts bombard me. Exinious was notorious for ignoring our pleas for help. I’d heard stories that made my face feel like it had been slapped. He’d told my maternal great grandfather that we were supposed to be his amusement, but had turned out boring and annoying just like the other society he’d made before us who’d died off.
I soldiered on despite the risk of humiliation. My treatment should have cured those people. There’s magic in my bottles, just as real as Exinious’ magic. This disease was unnatural. Even if he was unwilling to render aid, couldn’t he at least tell me what this abomination was?
The shriek of a bird interrupted my doldrums. The sound had been loud enough to reverberate through my skin. I froze while balancing my outstretched hands and feet on the boulder in front of me. The shadow of a giant bird swallowed my entire form. It blotted out the sun for far too long as it passed over me. My heart began to race with terror.
The monster hawk. I remembered a solitary lesson where it was mentioned in school. I reassured myself that if it ate people there would have been more focus on it. While I was thinking this, however, I remained frozen, too terrified to look up.
The thing shrieked again and I realized it was getting closer. Now I huddled down against the boulder and squeezed my eyes closed.
“Please, Exinious,” I whispered, “don’t kill me. They need me…I know you don’t care, but they need me.”
I heard a thump and lifted my trembling head slowly to look. On the terrace above me was a tall black cage shaped like a cylinder. There was a seat inside covered in glimmering red fabric. The cage door was open.
I saw the shadow of the giant bird perched on top of the cage. It took every ounce of courage I had to lift my gaze to it. The shiny blue-black feathers were more like a raven’s than a hawk’s. The red glowing eyes, however, weren’t from any bird I’d ever seen. The massive thing was glaring at me. I felt like my heart was beating backwards for a moment. Through my terror I managed to see that the beast was perched on a large metal loop attached to the cage.
So…he’s come to fetch me? I couldn’t imagine the implications, but I had to take this as a good sign. The only trouble was my paralyzing fear. If I could wield my limbs the only direction I wanted to go was back down, and as fast as I could manage. No one had prepared me for giant monster birds.
I felt like crying, but, as in all facets of my life, I strove to hold back my tears. It was instinctive by now: never cry, never raise your voice, don’t ever let someone accuse you of being weak. I suffered the villagers’ endless scrutiny as an unwed woman. Even the senators questioned why I was unmarried. “If you don’t want children, there are plenty of older widowers who’d have you,” Carrus, a widower himself, had said. My status as healer was as much an affront to our society as it was an asset. Oh, how they wished I’d had a father to order me to marry one of them.
My thoughts were rambling. I choose to think of anything except what I had to do.
I started climbing before I could talk myself out of it. I stood on the terrace and peered into the cage. The strange fabric of the cushioned seat had to be from Exinious. I hugged my arms around myself and went in. I sat and latched the cage door closed.
The demon bird spread its massive wings and barraged me with huge gusts of wind as it took off. When the cage lifted I felt like my stomach stayed behind. I had to clutch the black bars on either side of me with white-knuckled fists and squeeze my eyes closed. I peeked a few times and regretted it. The height gave me vertigo. I had the horrifying vision of the bottom falling out of the cage and me dropping with it. Then I peeked just as we descended past the wall of the fortress. The bird glided down at a dizzying speed that made the cage sway. I curled down against my knees.
I felt a big bump, and then it was still. My body unfolded to behold a courtyard without vegetation. Where there might have been grass was instead gray stone. There were black tree skeletons bordered by circles of brick. The same dark brick created a round table with several benches. Who would ever want to sit out here? The dreariness was amplified by a gray mist clinging to the ground in scattered places. It was cold and my skin grew clammy.
The cage door let out a hideous creak when I opened it. I cringed at the loud noise. My sense of unease was so great I thought I’d anger the bird, or perhaps wake up some other monster living here.
I clutched my cape tightly around me and went down the stone path leading to the fortress’ dark arcade. As I headed toward it a figure emerged. I froze.
The god Exinious now walked toward me.
I’d given no thought to actually meeting him. He was so prevalent in our society I felt like I already knew him. Our creator. The ambivalent one. The passive watcher. The one who’d abandoned us. Neither good nor evil. A character in our history books. The subject of poems and songs. Occasionally worshipped, despite never showing any interest in our adulation. Often reviled for how little he cared for us.
He’d become a cartoon to me. Yet now, in his presence, I felt overcome.
I had no doubt he was our god. His magical aura made my breath catch. He was too powerful to behold, but I couldn’t pull my gaze from him. Exinious had the bearing of a man, but taller and more densely muscled than any I’d known from the village. Once I overcame his blinding presence I saw a striking man—a handsome man. His skin was white as chalk but was framed with pleasing dark hair in a flattering enigmatic style. He wore a gray waistcoat with large silver buttons. Over this was an impressively long black jacket, finer than anything our senators had. His tight breeches were brown and of a clinging fabric. They dove into long black boots with rows of silver buckles. I noticed some markings on his flesh that added to his beauty. His visage would have been entirely pleasing if not for his eyes. I’d never seen eyes so chillingly cruel. I felt naked in his gaze. Unworthy.
“You don’t kneel?” Exinious said once he stood before me.
My lips parted in bewilderment. I’d been so rapt I had to pause to decipher the words in my mind. Then I lowered with a flourish of my cape. I dropped to my knees in front of him, but went no lower. I looked up at him to see if this was what he wanted.
Exinious fixed those cruel eyes on me with a slight dip of his brow. “I didn’t say you had to kneel. I only asked why you didn’t. Most people do.” He gestured with three fingers for me to rise.
I obeyed clumsily.
“You arrived faster than expected.”
“You…were expecting me?”
He turned to lead me back toward the arcade. “I sent my bird for you.”
“Oh. Yes, of course.”
“It seems you climbed into the cage with little hesitation. You’re bold.” He glanced back at me. “But I already knew that.”
I blinked a few times. Now was when I should have asserted myself and my mission. ‘Five days ago people started coming down with a strange illness in the village,’ I should have said. ‘Do you know anything about it?’
But no. I clutched my cape close to my body and cowered in the trail of his aura. My spit felt too thick in my mouth to talk through.
“You may stay a few days,” Exinious said.
I followed him through the arcade, which was covered in black thorny vines.
“Stay? Stay here?”
“Yes.” He opened a domed door that looked like it was made of solid black stone.
He fixed his cold eyes on me, making me stagger back a pace. My dedication to my post was so strong the response came automatically. Now I realized I sounded defiant.
I drew my lips into my mouth to wet them. “I…I have to get back. I have sick patients. That’s…well, it’s the reason I came to see you.”
“I know why you came to see me. Your patients are recovering now.”
I blinked again with my lips parted.
“The sixteen men and women,” he said, as though I didn’t understand. “They’ll be healed by the time you return.”
My heart began to thunder again. I actually felt woozy, as though this were all a dream.
“You really cursed them?” I said softly.
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