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The garden, if that innocuous word could be used in this situation, held a grandness that surpassed anything he’d ever seen. Not that he was a garden connoisseur or had ever bothered to stop to gaze in wonder at the trees.

The morning glories blooming along the stone walls during this early hour did little to cheer him, for they were just another obstacle in this well-intentioned, but likely fool-hardy quest.

The self-proclaimed queen–really, little more than a half-bred fae with marginal skill but deadly precision–would likely not take kindly to him sifting about in this expansive garden of hers. But she had her hands, and likely other parts, filled with some other ignorant youth who had decided her beauty somehow outweighed the warnings of all those who loved him.

Which meant Ethanial could conceivably get in and get out before a morning’s worth of bedroom activities found the lovely woman out on her veranda with her newest conquest.

He did not so much scale the wall as he climbed a thick lattice that had been erected at random intervals. The flowering brush scratched at him and the thick scent of cracked vines followed him up and over. He paused, hands lost within the foliage as he twisted to glance across the garden. Though there wasn’t much to see, not from this height. The trees, plums and apricots and taller walnuts spreading branches out grandly, blocked much of the underside of the garden, but he could see the moss-edged stone paths here and there erupting from underneath the canopy.

He hopped the last few lattice holes and narrowly avoided trampling a line of jasmine. To the right, where the stone path meandered out of sight, he saw the slim edge of the veranda off the back of the fae woman’s home. The lights remained dim, but here in the garden blue will-o-wisps blinked.

“I’ll not be but a few moments,” he muttered to a cluster of the wisps when they hovered close. He waved a hand through them, scattering them back about the garden where they continued to linger, but at a distance.

Rubbing the tiny scratches on his arms, he moved away from the house, keeping just off the stone path so his footsteps would not echo. Randomly, he’d pause and touch the dirt, sensing the death and decay that led to sweet-smelling blossoms and heavy growth. He could feel them, bones of long lost youths, men too short for the world according to some.

He would pause just long enough to ascertain that no, this one wasn’t the naive young man he sought. And then he would move on, weaving through the garden at a quick pace. He was careful where he stepped, not wanting to be too obvious in his passage, but not too careful, for he didn’t worry whether he trampled some living thing, for life, really, was a passing entertainment. Nothing to worry over when death could be undone just as simply.

He passed a wooden wheelbarrow with an overflowing strawberry plant, then a fountain made of the same stones as the paths. The water bubbled, a noisy, irritating sound that grated on his nerves more than it calmed them.

The garden seemed never-ending. The dirt beneath Ethanial’s feet filled with past lives stolen long, long ago. It became hard to concentrate. Hard to determine whether he truly was in the right place, all these lost souls blending together as if they’d become one in their tortured end.

He decided that it wasn’t so much the similarities of their deaths that made them difficult to distinguish, but the lustful art they had produced in life within this very garden. Men just turned from boys pushing into the most beautiful woman they’d seen, thrusting against her as she clutched at the dirt, twirling slender fingers through flaxen hair.

Flaxen…that was their word for her bright hair, its softness trailing against their chests, slipping through their fingers.

Ethanial hesitated. Shivered.

He’d responded, not to the desire running rampant among the underside of the garden where it was rife with emotion, their ever-present desire for that woman. But the muscled thighs that had pushed forward to enter her, the curves of shafts of all sizes and shapes, the flat stomachs that had tensed as they’d caught themselves before falling against that bosom.

“You’re a lustful garden,” he muttered, eyeing the wisps as they floated closer. “No wonder men still fall to her charms.”

He found himself walking the path the further from the house he moved. The stones had cracked here and there, roots rising from underneath like fingers of those poor, desperate bastards, their balls hanging so heavy in need they likely wouldn’t have said no if faced with the decision all over again.

He found what he was looking for far in the western corner where the path turned to an arched bridge over a trickling stream. A royalty was etched into those bones. A bitterness as well. All over-shadowed by the memory of orgasms from last year.

Ethanial waved a wisp away from his face, its light more a glare as the morning began to shed stronger pockets of rays within the garden. Then he stepped off the path and moved around, down the shallow bank where the rocks remained damp.

The bones had not been buried deep. None of them had. But here, at the bank, a willow had already entwined its roots around that skeleton.

He ran his fingertips within the moist dirt, the soil clinging to him.

“Aballe? I’ve come to bring you home.”

No response from the ground, though the twittering of the birds above his head became more concentrated, as if they’d decided he was no danger. Ethanial glanced back the way he’d come, checking to be sure no one had trailed him, then he dug into the soil, fingers like claws, damp dirt smearing against his wrists.

The earth moved and shuddered, a vibration under Ethanial’s feet as those bones twisted, joints rearticulating, reaching for one another to form a whole once more. Tissue formed, spreading from marrow. Muscles clasped onto reshaped tendons. Fragile follicles sprouted baby soft hair that quickly grew a harshness that came with decades of life.

Sweat dripped down Ethanial’s temples. The collar of his shirt turned damp. The morning sun, breaking through the trees here at the edge of the stream, heated his neck warningly. And in the distance, he heard a cheerful laugh, feminine and bubbly, full of potential, both dark and beautiful.

She couldn’t seduce him, he told himself. He wanted the hardness of a man’s hand, the wetness of their tongues, the firmness of their muscled backs and buttocks against his palms. She couldn’t seduce him.

Yet the more he attempted to convince himself of his safety from her charms, the more the garden swayed his mind, nagging him with orgasmic memories, of lustful artistry. And for the first time since he’d started this quest, he felt real fear.

For was there not a man with that fae queen? Likely a youthful, attractive man with a smile both daring and drunk on lust. Who would be swept within her thrall, ready and eager to please Ethanial if that was her wish.

Ethanial shivered again and pushed deeper, straining to awake the dead faster. “Aballe,” he murmured. “Aballe, rise for me.”

A hand, still thin, yet muscles flexing, turned within the dirt, reaching through the roots to grasp at Ethanial. He let out an explosive sigh of relief, sending the birds swooping down across the bridge to rise again within the confines of the shadowed willow beyond. Then he gripped Aballe’s wrist in two hands, feeling the skin knit together underneath, and pulled with all his might.

The roots cracked, the stones shuddered, the dirt spilled away as Aballe erupted from the garden. His hair hung in matted, dirty locks. His skin smooth and unblemished by the sun. His body lax, an exhaustion from his rebirth shared by Ethanial.

They sat huffing, Aballe half within the soil still, his breaths far harsher than Ethanial’s own, his eyes far wider, his fear far stronger.

“Who—” Aballe choked off and then bent, gagging and spluttering before he spat globs of spit-soaked dirt into the damp edge of the stream.

“This happens sometimes, if the death is still fresh,” said Ethanial in a warm voice, rubbing his hands comfortingly down Aballe’s back. As soon as Aballe took a clear breath, his gagging all but gone, he added, “We need to be gone from here. She has a new toy for her attention, but better we don’t test her.”

Aballe didn’t resist as Ethanial hefted him up and pulled him completely free of the soil. Clumps of it fell from Aballe’s body, his skin coated with the dirt enough so it almost passed as camouflage within the garden.

“There we are.” Ethanial brushed at Aballe’s arms, though he did little but smear the dirt more. “Shall we go?”

Only then, faced with the man standing straight did Ethanial see the rock hard erection Aballe had brought forth from the garden with him. Thick and strong, with a slight upward curve, that cock stood proudly, waving slightly when Aballe turned his head toward another ringing laugh from the queen of seduction, the stealer of youth.

“She’ll kill you all over again,” said Ethanial, purposefully keeping his voice low and coaxing, worried that perhaps he’d merely gifted the woman a chance to kill the same man twice.

But when Aballe snapped his head back, there was no lust in his gaze, only hatred. “I know. But we can’t just leave him.”

Oh, the beauty of naivety and sentimentalism. It’d been long since Ethanial had dealt with such things. That manner made this risky trip all the more worth it.

“Yes, actually,” he said, dropping the coaxing manner. “Yes, we can. Just like all the idiot men before him and all the ones who will come after him. We need to go before she finds us here. Especially with your cock like that. She’d have you on your knees licking her clean before you can get a word out in your state.”

As he spoke, he shooed away another of the wisps as it drifted between them. Then he grabbed Aballe’s arm and began to drag him back through the garden. He headed at an angle that would take him straight toward the wall, cutting through the bushes and ducking under the trees rather than sticking to the path.

“Who are you?” asked Aballe. He did not attempt to struggle, thankfully, but he did seem unsteady on his feet, stumbling now and then so they made more noise than Ethanial would have liked and far less progress.

“My name is Ethanial Hei. And you can thank me later.”

Aballe made a strange noise then and clutched at Ethanial’s arm. He was huffing heavily, shaking his head as if unable to clear it. Death flashbacks, possibly. Or this garden itself, grasping at him, swelling his shaft with all the lust it had plagued upon Ethanial.

“This place…” murmured Aballe. “This place…”

“You’ve been dead for over a year,” volunteered Ethanial. “It’ll take some readjusting being alive again.”

“Only a year?”

“That’s right.”

“But I remember so much more than that.”

Ethanial stopped abruptly. Turned to Aballe, and while trying to avoid thinking about the thick cock now rubbing at his middle as they faced one another, he gripped Aballe by both arms and shook him slightly.

“Your name, what is it?” he demanded.

The man he thought to be Aballe stared at him. Eyes of pale blue, wide and guileless, just as that wretched woman preferred. Naive and ignorant and blessed with all the desires for peace and love and unity and everything else that seemed impossible nowadays.

“Your name!” He did not yell, but it was a close thing, his voice cutting into an angry, loud whisper.

The man licked at the dirt on his lips, cringing, likely from the deathly taste. “Aballe nu Shudzni.”

Ethanial squeezed Aballe’s arms in abject relief and then released him. “The youngest son of our most gracious and atrocious Rhul.”

“Did he hire you?”

With a quiet snort, Ethanial tugged Aballe further. “We should save the chitchat for once we’re out of this place. There, there’s the wall. We just have to find…”

“He did hire you.”

Ethanial ignored him and dragged them to the wall. There he released Aballe and glanced left and right. Vines clung to the stone, blocking much of what he could see. So he chose right in the hopes that getting further from the half-fae’s house would give them a few extra moments before being discovered.

“Ethanial.”

“Come. That woman you fell for is liable to find us and attempt to seduce me and I don’t relish being turned to fertilizer.”

“Is that what I was relegated to? Fertilizer?”

Ethanial glanced back. “Not anymore, if it’s any consolation.”

“It is, actually. But why though? He never liked me. Why pay a necromancer to raise his failure from the grave?”

There existed that youthful bitterness of a man still plagued by a father’s disinterest. That, unfortunately, wasn’t something Ethanial could remove, not if he wanted the man himself to arrive whole in mind.

He felt along the wall as he walked, his hand scraping over vines and heavy leaves. He ducked under a trailing brush of branches as he responded. “He needs an heir.”

“I’m the last child he’d wish to hand the province over to,” said Aballe in a distracted tone. “I think I hear—”

A high keening, fury and murder in that sound echoed over the garden. They both froze, Ethanial with his breath caught in his chest, yet beside him, Aballe’s fists curled and his cock twitched, drooling in anticipation.

“She knows,” whispered Aballe.

Indeed. The garden swamped them with a warning, the dead clamoring against Ethanial’s mind, tearing at him, begging for him to save them as well, to not leave them in this never-ending torture. He cursed under his breath and rushed on, uncaring of the branches catching at his hair or the leaves scratching at his arms.

“Here! Climb the lattice!”

He stopped and ushered Aballe to hurry, fingers on soft, reborn flesh as he helped Aballe on those first harried steps. The back of Ethanial’s hand grew wet as he held Aballe’s thigh, and for just a scant moment, the garden got the better of him, his shaft grew stiff, his hands turned sensual and he leaned forward, wanton desire suddenly swamping him as he pressed his nose against Aballe’s hip, wondering what it would be like to linger, for just a few moments, indulging the way so many others had before.

He shook off the sudden desires as Aballe struggled upward through the brush grown wildly across the lattice.

Insects skittered away as Ethanial moved to follow and a single wisp lingered near his head. The creature hummed distractedly as it rose in counterpoint with Ethanial’s climb, but he did not bother attempting to wave it away this time.

“She’s heard us,” gasped out Aballe.

“The forest beyond the garden isn’t hers. We just have to—watch yourself!”

Aballe’s slip slapped his cock hard through the leaves and right up against one of the lattice bars. Ethanial, his gaze continuously drawn to that thick length, noticed the pain must have been enough to distract Aballe’s mind from the garden’s want, for his shaft softened, losing some of its luster.

A ringing laughter rippled over them, a power that sent the will-o-wisp flying upward in a spiral.

“A necromancer in my garden,” murmured that seductive voice.

She did not stand near, nothing stood under them when Ethanial glanced down, yet her voice smoothed itself over his mind, teasing him with wonders and delights.

“I’m not yours,” he said.

“What?” asked Aballe. He balanced at the top, both hands against the stone wall as he struggled to keep from falling.

“You keep going!”

The young man obeyed, blinking back whatever thrall the garden’s souls attempted to warp him with. One leg disappeared over the top, accompanied with much shifting and uncomfortableness as Aballe’s most sensitive places were shoved through the flowering vines at the top of the lattice. Then his other leg kicked over and Ethanial could only see arms and face and even those disappeared downward out of his view after a moment.

He breathed a sigh of relief.

Too soon though. Too soon. For as he reached the top of the lattice, the view of the hilly forest beyond a welcome sight, the will-o-wisp shuddered and blew off as if it’d been tossed, a glow trail fading in its wake.

“Why not stay?”

Ethanial gripped the very top of the lattice, the wood bending under his hand, not as stable as it’d once been. The whole structure shook and shivered as Aballe descended the opposite side, tossing Ethanial just slightly off balance enough he had to strain, stomach clenching hard.

Slowly, he twisted and looked down, conscious of Aballe’s fingers roughly passing by his knee. The fae witch had boyish features, a squared-off jaw and the hint of a roguish manner. Her hair flowed about her shoulders, and yet, his eyes played tricks on him, shortening it, making her long locks seem cut merely to her cheeks.

Her breasts did not bulge as in the memories sorted by the garden’s souls, though her buttocks had a roundness to it, one that would be pleasant to press against. Her chin lifted and a daring entered her eyes.

“Am I not to your liking?” she breathed. “More still?”

She flowed before him, becoming all he might want, her femininity blurring, becoming androgynous with masculinity beginning to overtake even the softest of her features, thickening her shoulders, tightening her hips, swelling the muscles under the pants she abruptly now wore.

“Oh.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I didn’t realize…”

The garden breathed a longing breath. Laughing at him, they were. The youths reaching for another chance to please her in the desires of flesh and blood. And they did it through him, feeding his lust, swamping him with such desperate need that he slid a step down on that lattice, the forest outside stretching beyond his grasp.

“You’re beautiful,” he said.

She smiled—he smiled—whatever she was. “Come.” She held out a hand, masculine strength in those tendons as she turned her palm up, offering everything. “You’ll never have to leave,” she promised. “Ever.”

Ethanial sighed, sinking into the clamoring of the garden, and began to descend. Then a sudden pain in his calf made him gasp and Aballe’s voice cut through the fog.

“It’s them! They’ll always convince you. Don’t fall for it! They’re lost, just like you’ll be if you don’t get out of there now!

With a shake of his head, Ethanial scrambled for the top of the lattice, cracking through the vines, snapping the crossbeams under his weight. The fae witch’s laughter followed him over, more feminine now, her illusion deteriorating in the face of his resistance.

“You’ll always wonder.” Her voice a murmur as the early morning light grew golden against her hair. “He knows, but you? You’ll always, always wonder…”

His footing slipped as he went over the top of the framework, the tip of one wooden cross ripping his pants as he fell. The lattice groaned and snapped, his weight tearing his grip away. His entire front side scraped down the foliage, his hard cock, pressed high and tight in his pants, rubbed violently against the wooden diamonds.

Then Aballe’s arms enveloped him and they stumbled backward, the walls of the garden seeming to gain meters upon meters in height before their eyes. They breathed hard for a moment, Ethanial shaking, his erection softening quickly from the pain of his fall. Aballe’s breath hot against his cheek.

Then a hand, fingers slender and ringed with silver and gold, reached through the lattice.

Aballe shouted and jerked Ethanial further away. They ran, into the forest, far from the layers of death and desire within her garden. They passed the fading trail of the will-o-wisp, that path shedding the last remnants of its light, dispersing into the nether.

They did not stop until Aballe tripped and cursed, clutching at one of his bare feet. “You didn’t think to bring clothes, did you? Maybe a set of boots? A horse would have been nice as well.”

Ethanial slowed and stopped. “Up ahead. Yes.” Then he ran a still shaking hand through his hair. “She turned herself into what I wanted. I didn’t know she could do that.”

Aballe snorted. “You think we’re all too stupid for our own good? It’s not her illusions that capture you though. They just draw you in more easily. It’s us—them now, I guess. The dead she has buried. She kills at the height of it all, she did me when…” He trailed off and set his foot back to the ground. After a moment of them catching their breath, he straightened. “Why’d you risk it anyway? Seems a stupid thing to do.”

“Was hired to.”

“By my father, yes, I’d already established that, but there doesn’t seem much reason behind it. I’d always been third rate, more burden than use and in no way destined to do anything but serve one of my brothers once father passes. So it doesn’t make sense for him to spend on me, not when everything owned by the province goes to his stupid war. So why?”

Ethanial sighed. “Your brothers, I’m sorry to say, have both perished in that stupid war you mention. Along the southern border, or so I’m told.”

A flurry of emotions flickered over Aballe’s face. He spun around, butt clenching, movements sharp and jerky. There he paused, one hand scrubbing at the dirt on his chin, and for a few moments, they stood in relative silence.

The will-o-wisp that had been blown far afield appeared from between the trees beyond Aballe. A soft blue light, pale in the morning. Visible only when the wisp shuddered under the deeper shadows of the trees.

“So again,” said Aballe, voice roughened, him obviously having steeled himself. He turned back toward Ethanial, whatever emotion overcoming him locked away in a blank exterior. “Why are you here when you could have raised one of my brothers from the battlefield? This is where the money would be considered well spent by my father.”

“You know him well.” Ethanial chuckled under his breath. Then he answered, “I guess I’m a bit of a political activist. So long as it doesn’t require me to go too far out of my way.”

“What?” snapped Aballe, the blankness of his expression shuddering even further. His hands were held straight to his sides and he leaned slightly in a position that seemed to echo that of his father’s own manner.

“Our most gracious and atrocious Rhul has recently made it clear that he has no intention of brokering the offered peace dealings. He has already dragged the province through hell’s gates and all his neighbors will him.”

Aballe’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a necromancer. I’d think the job security of my father’s wars would be enough incentive to help him.”

Ethanial laughed quietly at the naivety. Had he ever been so clean and pure? Had there ever been a time when he’d look around and only see the blinding, perfect light against blanket blackness, rather than the pragmatic balance he’d come to value?

“There is always death,” he corrected. “It’s unavoidable. Unless life has been snuffed out completely and that is the direction your father is sending the world. You were always beloved by your people, book smart and well-raised to deal with the politics rather than the battlefield.”

Aballe didn’t respond and that focused, pale gaze caught Ethanial tightly, forcing him to keep his eyes front, center, rather than lowered to catch sight of Aballe’s body once more. That silence must have been a practiced manipulation, proving Ethanial right that Aballe might just prove to be enough to level the power play within the provinces, for Ethanial found himself speaking to fill the void.

“Your father said, and I’m quoting him here, ‘Go raise my son from the dead and bring him here so he can take the crown he deserves.’” Ethanial paused. “He didn’t say which son. And I didn’t ask.”

For another moment they stood in that eerie, morning quiet, the wind shuddering in the canopy and dodging the will-o-wisp about the tall elms. Then a flicker of a smile appeared across Aballe’s dirty face.

“You do realize he’s going to be furious with you.”

“Of course. That’s where you come in. You see, I can drag you back to the capital, make a grand entrance, you proving your existence to your citizens in a way your father could not possibly refute. Then I shall need to disappear, I’m sure. But mayhaps you, if you think about it in a few years once all the burdens of that crown have been placed on your brow, think of me and make sure to pardon me for whatever multitude of laws your father decides I shall have broken?”

“Consider it done.”

“I’ll consider it done when it is done. Not until then. And you, if you’ve learned anything from this encounter with this woman, will do well to do the same. Life is short, if you’re stupid. Shorter if you piss off the necromancer who’s brought you back from the grave.”

“Thanks.” Aballe’s brows dipped, but his smile didn’t falter. “I think.”

“Don’t mention it. And I mean that in a literal sense. The people don’t need the image of you fornicating with that fae witch in their minds to make them think less of you. Not that most of them haven’t done worse in their youth, but let’s just pretend this didn’t happen.”

Aballe relaxed enough that his gaze danced about them, landing once or twice on that bobbing wisp twirling slowly about them. Then he twisted to stare back the way they’d come.

The trees closed off the fae witch’s home, her stone walls invisible, the thrall of the lustful creatures buried within no longer stretching their invasive, sensual desires through Ethanial’s mind. But he could well imagine what sorts of things Aballe might be thinking.

About sinking into perfection. Kissing soft flesh, tasting beauty, hearing moans of godlike power echo in his ears. About having and holding everything he’d ever wanted in a man, a multitude of them clamoring in his mind, spurring him on as he rushed toward completion, to finish what none of them could ever do, to claim that fae as his own, rising from the soil again and again in a never-ending cycle of wanton lust and lifeless bone.

Then Aballe grimaced. “It’ll be easy enough to never speak of her again. But I’d go one further and set the whole area off limits for leagues about her property. Set traps within the woods and warnings at the woodland edges.” He turned back to face Ethanial. “When I’m king.”

He twisted abruptly and headed deeper into the woods. “I take it this is the way? I’m not too turned around, am I? Think death has finally relinquished its hold on my mind for I recognize these lands.”

Ethanial stared after him, stunned to discover that no, he hadn’t known what Aballe had been thinking. Not at all. He swallowed tightly against the realization and turned his gaze back toward the unseen garden where lust bloomed year round.

He knows, but you? You’ll always, always wonder…

With a shudder, Ethanial quickly turned away, following after Aballe. Yet, he did pause when he passed the will-o-wisp. Beckoned the frightened creature closer and ran fingers around the air about it. And when he left to deliver Aballe home, the wisp gently bobbed behind, a presence Ethanial did not attempt to dissuade.

~ ~ ~

This one takes place in one of the provinces that would eventually end up being part of the Merandin Empire. A loooong time before any of my novels take place. Ethanial was created as part of a family, one of whom will feature in an upcoming houndmaster novel. He’s also going to be responsible for a dragon-scaled prison, but he doesn’t know it yet.

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