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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2. Prologue (2/2) - Death

Sometimes when Gideon dreamed, he dreamed of falling. Eyes closed, wind rushing past him, his hair snapping across his eyes. In his dreams, the cities were empty. The forests stood still. No birds disturbed the quiet. He was alone in the air: silent, still, peaceful, falling without fear on and on and never reaching the ground. The sound of wind. The thrill of high places.

He felt like that after striking the earth.

Then he was plucked from his perpetual tumble and thrown against a stone wall, slamming the back of his head against rock. His vision swam, and when it cleared he saw a woman whose form contorted like melted wax, two round, gaping holes where her eyes ought to have been, her skin a piebald mess of brown flesh and pale, wet clay. Her lips had torn off and too much of her gritty, broken teeth showed. She leaned in too close, bending over him until her forehead was only a few inches from his.

Then she smiled at him, showing her skull beneath the gristle. “Gideon.”

Gideon screamed and slid down the wall, away from the monster. His hands shot up and he called for the abyss— that hungry black and violet cloud of absence that devoured anything he loosed it on. Nothing happened.

Gideon tried again, sliding until his shoulders reached the ground, then threw himself to the side and scrambled away. He slipped on a puddle on the street, splashing red in every direction.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to fear the reaper,” the woman said. "Or was that just a song I heard somewhere?" She hummed a few bars experimentally.

Gideon froze, letting her words sink in. He looked up at what he had tripped on, and found a twisted broken leg attached to a twisted, broken body.

That’s me, he thought.

Which meant…

He whirled around and stared at the woman a second time, from the bottom of her black robe to the twisted scythe she held in her hand. The woman herself… now that she wasn’t pressed so close, Gideon recognized the signs of a drowning. “Death,” he whispered.

Death gave him a grand bow, raw bone fingers spread like a diva mocking royalty. “In the flesh! … Such as it were.”

“… Right.” So this was how it worked. He had always wondered.... Gideon took a deep breath and stepped up to her, lips pressed tight. “I’m ready.”

“No, you’re not,” she whispered.

Then she was on his other side. “Why don’t we take a walk, Gideon Flynn?”

“I… yes. Right.” He stepped forward. “What do you mean, I’m not ready?”

Her voice became weary. “In what world does 'you aren’t ready' have multiple meanings?” Death replied. “This way.” She started down the road, then cut onto the main street, stepping into the oncoming invading soldiers’ lines. The column parted in the middle to let her pass, though from the way the soldiers moved, they didn't seem to know why they shifted from formation. Gideon found that the soldiers paid him no such courtesy, and he followed Death more closely than he would have liked to avoid being stepped through.

They passed the city’s shattered gate and stopped for a minute while Death stood still and watched the armies flooding in. Gideon noticed, with a sour twist of his mouth, that no impaled messenger decorated the area. Damn not-Robin to hell.

“Your mind has eroded,” Death said at last, moving from the main street down one of the main arteries in the burning mercantile district. “But not so much that you are excused from the choices you’ve made. And you did choose this.” She looked back at him. “Tell me why.”

“… What else was I to do?” Gideon asked. “They murdered my family. I couldn’t let them go unpunished. I needed justice!”

“Has anyone ever told you that life isn’t fair?” Death asked.

“I could make it fair!” Gideon's voice raised to a shout. “I was the king! If anyone could fix it, it would have been me!” He paused, gaped at her, wondering it he dared ask the most terrible question. “I did it, right? I killed the men responsible? You’re Death. You’d know.”

Death stopped walking. “You killed the murderer of your mother Serenity, your wife Grace, and your brother Miguel,” she said at last. “Indirectly.”

That was three avenged out of… thirty-two he had lost. Gideon had had nine brothers and sisters, almost all of whom had been married, and their wives and husbands had been killed as well, down to his second oldest brother's bastard daughter that had been hidden five cities east. “… And the rest?” Gideon asked, his eyes wide and horrified. Who hadn’t he punished?

"Who murdered the rest of your family, you mean?" Death resumed its pace. “You will learn the answer to that, eventually,” she said. “You won't accept it until it's far too late. But I’m here to discuss you. One murderer punished, hundreds of innocents executed. Far more suffering and dying beyond that.

“Did you really think this was what was needed? Do you understand that you are a thousand times more the monster than anyone you set on the spike, Gideon? Is your heart so black that you can’t feel the blood on your hands? Or the pain you have caused the people you swore to protect?”

Gideon looked at his hands, palms held up. They were indeed bloody, from slipping over his own corpse.

Death’s hand covered both of his, gripping them, and she leaned close once more. “And the worst thing of all is that behind your madness, behind your grief, there is a man who might have been something else. Who has the capacity for compassion and great love and great sacrifice. You are a magnificent ruin, and I love the man you will be someday.”

Gideon stared at her grotesque face, his eyes wide, and he pulled his hands away from her. “But I’m dead,” Gideon said.

“Not for long,” Death said. She jumped from a stone half-wall to a roof of a burning house, balancing there with her arms spread wide.

“… What?!” Gideon demanded. “But you’re Death. You don’t do that!” He scrambled after her, grabbing the roof's eves and straining to hoist a leg over and follow. "You have to take me!"

"No. I really don't," Death replied, stepping onto the roof's peak. A portion of the roof collapsed, sending a cloud of sparks around Death's robe before flames roared high and outlined her in blood orange and indigo.

"I can't come back to life! They'll impale me!" Gideon grabbed her arm, then recoiled at the spongy texture under her robe.

"Then I would advise you not to get caught," Death replied. "Because when they see you healing after your execution..."

Gideon's face turned white.

"I'm not just bringing you back to life. I'm denying you entirely," Death said. "For a time, anyway."

"How long?" Gideon said.

"... You need to understand it's not the length. It's a journey, not a prison sentence. Specifically, I have a woman in mind who will need to be saved someday. You'll be the one to do it."

"Who is she?" Gideon asked. "Where will I find her? When? A name?"

"Her name is Mother," Death replied. "You'll understand in time."

"I need more than that, dammit!" Gideon shouted. "Tell me what I have to do!"

"The journey is the lesson and the destination both. And I have told you more than you need to know."

Gideon stared at her, horrified, furious. The only good thing about his myriad failures was that he was going home. He would see his parents, his family, his beloved Grace. He was going to rest and know that he had died serving justice. "... This is cruel beyond anything I have ever done," he finally managed.

"Try meeting Life sometime," Death replied wryly.

"... Please. Please!"

"I am healing some of the damage you have done to your own mind as well," Death continued as if she had not heard. "You will hear no more stray voices, and you will be able to think clearly again. How well you care for yourself is up to you. You will heal from any physical injury, but doing so will always hurt. Also, you're going to need this." She reached into her robes and drew out a familiar leather-bound book: the diary Gideon had kept since he was a young child.

Gideon took the book and clutched it to his chest. "My grandfather was right to hate you," he said at last.

Death laughed. "Be strong, be wise, make mistakes, Gideon Flynn. I will see you again." She paused, turned, and looked on him with those empty eye sockets as if she loved him. "Take the northern gate, but go around the bridge district first. Your way should be clear. I have other people to collect."

And then Gideon found himself in intense agony, on a cobbled road as shards of his face reconstructed their prior shape and his organs slurped back into his abdomen. He screamed and screamed until his throat was raw and his voice had gone hoarse, until he rolled out of his own bloody puddle and lay gasping on the side of the street. His skin retained only bruises and shallow cuts, and every muscle in his body ached and throbbed.

Eventually he reached into his pocket in the front of his tunic and pulled out his diary. He weighed it in his hands, then put it back. He would never forgive Death. He would live forever and curse her name until the very end.

But when he finally got to his feet, he ran and staggered to the northern gate through the bridge district, and he went unchallenged.

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