Marlan Ice

Sequel to Painted. When assassins attack cursed immortal Gideon Flynn's wife, he must take her to the last place he ever wanted to go: back to icy, desolate, dangerous Marla, to force the king to drop the contract.

(Note: this IS a sequel, so if certain places, names, or past events don't make sense, it's probably pointing to something in the first book.)

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3. Chapter 1 (1/2) - Sacrifice

Present day (5184 years later)...

"And that's it?" Wyrren asked, taking a better grip on her machete. "Everything you can remember?"

"Every scrap of it," Gideon agreed. "If you can trust my memories. I must have gone over that conversation a thousand times in my head in the decades after, so it's probably close to what happened. ... Crazy bitch."

"Less talking, more ghastly sacrificial temple-pyramid finding," Wyrren's stepsister Ana said behind them. "I am literally being eaten alive by every insect that's ever lived."

"I'm not certain you understand what 'literally' means, Ana," Wyrren said.

"It means shut up and find the gods damned temple," Ana shot back.

They had been traveling through the jungle for over a week now, wandering down game trails, alongside emerald rivers, across deep ravines and through the gloom hundreds of feet below the tree canopy. The landscape came in a hundred shades of green, and water dripped from every surface, the constant humidity soaking everything and everyone. Technicolor birds screamed at them from high above, and every so often Gideon would see eyes in the dark of larger beasts watching them pass.

Understandably, they were all wet and tired. Wyrren didn’t complain because complaining wasn’t her way, but whatever Wyrren abstained from Ana would flock to, and their other eight companions would fall somewhere between. While Verrus hovered over Ana’s shoulder and mimed blood sucking insects (with yummy chewing sounds), Ornil marched out ahead of the group with a grim expression, devastating the underbrush with his own machete.

Gideon had married Wyrren Jadis eighteen months prior, in the late spring following a dramatic prison break. Wyrren. Intelligent, proud, serious, devoted Wyrren, who had forfeited a queenship and a marriage proposal from a man she loved to see Gideon’s fragmented pieces reformed. Beautiful Wyrren, though her disfigurement left her face perpetually blank and slack-jawed. Her skin was alabaster-white, her hair pale gold, her tall, slender figure fit so well with his... the humidity plastered her shirt to her small breasts. The latter was a particularly nice touch, he thought.

Gideon let his eyes linger before he put his arm around her waist. Wyrren responded by pressing her lips against his cheek.

Seeking Death had been Wyrren's idea. She had said that she wanted to question Death for herself, to find some new breakthrough that might win him back his mortality. Gideon sensed that there had been more to it than that, but... why not? Let her try. She was young and enthusiastic, and he hadn't gotten to travel so extensively for decades. So he'd given her free access to his diary, recounted whatever stories he could remember, and taken her anywhere she'd wanted to go. The latest ancient lore that she had uncovered spoke of a temple in this rain forest where a death god had communed with mortal men. "To reach the person of Death through sacrifice", the text had read, so Wyrren had made this place their next destination.

Gideon just enjoyed the trip, despite the heat and the waning moral of his friends. If he had learned anything through the millennia, it was that pleasant days should be treasured for their own sake. Ignore the hope, the fear, the prickle of dread currently twisting his stomach. He had a pretty wife with a wet shirt beside him, and he hadn't enjoyed the vibrancy of the jungle in decades.

Ornil, fifty paces ahead of them, turned to his right and paused. “Is that it?” He pointed with his machete.

Verrus stopped teasing Ana. Wyrren hesitated, then increased her pace. “Gideon!”

Gideon wasn’t far behind. About one hundred yards beyond stood a crumbling stone pyramid, rising into the jungle canopy in a giant stair-step pattern. Most of its stonework was hidden by a thick layer of moss, and trees grew around and on it liberally… but it was a pyramid, and at the top stood a small temple, an altar prominent at its head.

“Well. Let’s give it a try,” Gideon muttered.

It wasn’t going to work, of course.

Twenty minutes later, Ornil laid the young pig they had brought on the altar and lashed it in place. Wyrren stood back with a bone and steel knife, meditating. When everything was set in place, Wyrren sliced open the animal's throat. Blood spurted and poured across the stone surface and into worn grooves and crevices, turning green moss brown and staining her hands and clothes with spray. The pig gave a horrible scream and fought against the ropes, then tiring, then falling limp.

Wyrren closed her eyes and put her hands on the body, her body taunt, her breath strained.

The jungle went silent.

The blood in the altar's grooves began to glow red, then white. It spread, tracing out fantastical patterns that no longer existed in the stonework, in walls that had crumbled away and motifs too faded to make out. A shepherd's crook and a farmer's scythe appeared, the one crossed over the other, the figures of a man and woman in fantastical dress, onto the rest of the pyramid in the shapes of birds and beasts, into walls and paths and gardens that no longer existed...

The pig died.

The light faded.

The sounds of the jungle resumed as if nothing had happened.

Gideon looked at his friends, too startled to breath.

Wyrren yelled and stabbed the pig several more times before she dropped the knife. She avoided meeting his eyes when she turned away. "I don't understand. What did I do wrong?"

Gideon didn't understand, either. Nothing Death ever did had made any sense to him, but this... what had they done right? After nearly fifty-two hundred years of cursed immortality, this was the closest he'd ever come to seeing its avatar again.

He cleaned the blood off of his wife with magic, then put his arms around her, holding her close and muttered that it wasn't her fault, that she'd done well, that they were making progress. And he ground his teeth and glared over her shoulder where Death’s figure had been outlined in that magical glow.

... What now?

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