The cold that numbed her limbs was an entirely different chill from what she'd experienced in the dark one's prison. The catacombs contained a damp, moldy cold that pierced the skin and infused the bones with weakness.
Cybele stood tall before the horrible creature that was sprawled over a gore-stained throne in the center of the dank cavern. She tightened her muscles against the constant desire to shiver, knowing the least sign of weakness would be her undoing.
The monster to lead all monsters held a goblet in her bony fingers, the clear outline of a skull engraved on its rusted metal surface. Blood coated her leathery lips and dribbled down her skeletal chin. A snake-like tongue whipped out to capture the precious liquid, causing Cybele's stomach to lurch in horror.
A single lantern, hung on a post driven into the rock floor, lit only the queen and a small circle around her throne. The rest of the sizeable cavern was cast in darkness. By the retch-inducing stench and the soft sounds of shuffling, skeletal feet in the dark, Cybele knew she was surrounded by ghouls.
"I wish to thank you for your role in placing my people on the ridge, Princess Cybele. It was indeed a fortuitous opportunity for us."
The queen of the ghouls had a voice like a creaky wheel. The sound grated against Cybele's already overstretched nerves. It distracted her so that it took a moment for Cybele's mind to form around the correct response. "What I did was not for you, Queen Morta."
The ghoul stared at Cybele through glassy black eyes. They were lidless in the deathlike face -- unblinking. Horror crawled up Cybele's spine at that unfaltering gaze, and she couldn't restrain the slight tremor that started in her hands and threatened to consume her. Finally the cracked, dry lips parted and a hag's cackle emerged past blood-coated teeth. "You do not wish to be in our debt. Very wise, pretty one. Being cast back into the living world to do my bidding would be an ugly fate for one such as you."
The ghoul's bony head tipped sideways. A lank, tangled strand of dull brown hair shifted from her shoulder to hang limply over an emaciated breast. "Besides, I have much grander plans for you."
Cybele's eyes widened with dawning apprehension. "I wish to remain below, in the catacombs. As a slave."
The queen's amused cackle twisted like bony fingers into Cybele's belly. "For a slave you have very precise requirements, Princess." The black eyes narrowed in a show of temper. "And an elevated opinion of your rights."
The queen stood so suddenly that Cybele took a step backward, her breath rushing past her lips in a gasp. The skeletal goblet hit the rocky floor with a clang and blood seeped onto the pale stone, pooling in an indentation near one long, emaciated foot. A hungry, keening wail from the shadows was abruptly cut off by the sound of bone smashing into bone. "You have no say in your fate, Cybele of Sheoldris!"
Cybele clasped her hands and lifted her chin, angered by her moment of weakness. The only weapon she had against the monsters of the subterranean realm was her strength. And she would make use of it until she no longer had breath to fight. "I will submit to being a slave, Queen Morta, but I will not let you use me against my brother."
The queen moved forward in jerky, marionette-like strides. The tattered cloth of her filthy shroud trailed through the spilled blood and left bright trails in her wake. She stopped before Cybele and poked a leathery finger, tipped in a filthy nail, into Cybele's breastbone. "You will get your wish, lovely princess. And you will not get your wish." The gristly lips tipped upward, transforming the queen's death mask of a face into a garish parody of mirth that made Cybele's breath tighten.
The queen glanced toward her despicable subjects, waiting beyond the flickering light of the lantern. A rusty screech spilled upon the air and Cybele realized they were laughing. Her blood turned cold and her knees threatened to give out beneath her.
The queen's cryptic comment could mean only one thing. And Cybele could not allow it. She would fling herself into a raging fire if necessary.
She really had no choice.
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