by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Overcast, February 2020
Red light from the five suns streamed down through the church’s stained glass windows. The colored glass of the windows tried vainly to tint the light, to paint pictures with it on the packed pews below, but the redness was too powerful. The intricate, rainbow-filled depictions of many-winged angels and many-mouthed chimera bled together into indiscernible pools of red, orange, auburn, and sickly magenta. The distorted light colored the crowded interior of the church like a crime scene, covered in splattered, congealed blood.
On the dais at the front of the great hall, Rhun’s bride stood, resplendent in lace, pearls, ruffles, and diamonds — all of the sugary sweetness of silk and satin that her attendant minions had been able to gather, all of it draped over her bulging tentacles. She looked like an octopus who had choked to death on a rack of wedding dresses. She had never looked more lovely.
Rhun had never felt more scared.
He stood at the end of the aisle, willing himself as powerfully as he could to let himself be seen, but he could not overpower his instinctive vanishing spell. So he stood. Quaking. In his best gray suit, with his long pink hair reaching lankly to his shoulder blades and his gazelle-like horns polished to a black shine. He looked exactly the way the Goddess Grizzelka had asked him to, exactly the way his parents had insisted. All he had to do was drop his vanishing spell and walk down the aisle.
He would be her fourth husband, and his parents assured him that if he were well-behaved — a good, obedient husband — his bride would most likely not eat him. At least, not right away. He could live for years, enjoying the nightly embrace of those tentacles (he thrilled at the thought, unsure if he was terrified or excited) and all of the honor that came with being the Goddess’s only living consort.
He should be happy.
But he couldn’t make himself seen. No matter how hard he willed himself visible, his quivering body stayed stubbornly invisible. He could not marry the goddess if she could not see him. And even with an eye at the tip of every tentacle (beautiful purple eyes) and a cluster of ten on her belly (glowing yellow eyes that showed through a cut-out in her dress), the goddess could not see through his vanishing spell. No one could.
The red light from the five suns above fell impassively through him.
Rhun sighed and slumped, ready to give up and go, when he suddenly saw one of the guests, sitting in the back pew, sit up straighter. Had she heard his sigh? Over the tinkling harp music?
Harpists played so beautifully when they knew only one of them — the best — would survive the ceremony. The rest would become Grizzelka’s wedding feast. Truly, Rhun could not be betrothed to a more terrifying and wonderful (she was wonderful, right? right?) goddess or god in all of the seven underkingdoms.
Yet Grizzelka stood at the front of the church, impatiently checking the gold and platinum timepieces strapped to each of her tentacles, wondering where her bridegroom was… and this woman in the back pew was now staring Rhun directly in his eyes. He pushed the fringe of pink hair back from his face, nervously, and he felt tears spring to the corner of his eyes. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he felt like the woman was looking at him. And he’d never felt so thoroughly seen before.
“Are you okay?” the woman mouthed. Her face was round and plain, her hair brown and dappled like a fawn’s. She looked like a dryad more than a demon. A creature of golden sunlight, filtered gently through green leaves, instead of red light blaring down harshly on craggy rocks and lava streams. Was she in the wrong realm?
The woman tilted her head and flared her nostrils. Her brown eyes were unfocused — staring at him but maybe not seeing him. Rhun realized she could smell him. She could probably smell the fear on him. He most likely reeked of it. The woman stood up, gestured surreptitiously toward the entrance to the church, right behind Rhun, and then she slipped out, without any of the other guests noticing her.
Rhun followed. The guests didn’t notice him either. Impatient as they were, they did not expect and could not see a groom so frightened by his bride that he’d been overcome by his own instinctive vanishing spell.
Outside the church, Rhun shed his gray linen suit jacket and pulled off the pink silk tie that perfectly matched his hair. He dropped both offending articles of fancy clothing on the stone steps and felt freer with every step he took away from the life that had been prescribed for him.
Twisting spires of purple and blue crystal surrounded the church, a veritable forest of them. The church had clearly been built at the base of the valley beside the crystal spires for the location’s natural beauty. The valley was much cooler than most of the surrounding mountains, protected as it was from the blistering breezes that wafted from the three nearest volcanoes.
Rhun frowned. The woman he’d been following was gone. She’d given him the courage, the prompting he’d needed to walk out on his own wedding. But she had left him alone. Between two spires at the edge of the crystal forest stood a raptor, half Rhun’s height and covered in brown feathers — soft and speckled like a fawn’s. The raptor tilted its head, and Rhun recognized the movement. The raptor was the woman. She was a shifter. Or a were-raptor. Either way, her presence in this demonic realm made much more sense now. A dryad would burn up, burst into flame in a realm such as this one, filled with so much fire and evil. Glorious evil. Except, Rhun wasn’t so sure anymore. Evil had sounded more glorious to him when he wasn’t standing before it, promised to be married to it, and expecting to be eaten by it if he ever stepped out of line. Evil is so much more exciting in the abstract.
Rhun wished he were a little boy again with only nubs of horns on his forehead and harmless dreams of tentacled goddesses filling his head, instead of beautiful spiraling horns that could not protect him and a tentacled goddess actually awaiting him. Grizzelka would not be forgiving of a bridegroom who ran away. If she planned to eat him eventually as her husband, nothing would stop her from eating him as a coward who couldn’t even go through with marrying her.
Rhun’s resolve almost failed him. His knees grew weak, and he nearly turned around to run up the aisle to the loving death that awaited him. A death that would wait longer if he faced her straight on. Courageously. As she would want him to. As his parents — the Nor-Eastern Zephyra and her favorite satyr — wanted him to.
Courage failed him. Rhun followed the raptor-shifter, leaving the church and his prescribed fate behind. He followed her into the crystal forest, and she led him on a path that descended into a hole, most likely burrowed by a giant grub, and through a twisting warren of passageways. They came to a hub room with portals to seven of the seventy realms. The portals swirled on the walls of the cave-like room; gold and silver pools that pulled the eye toward them, begging the viewer to reach out and touch.
Rhun knew there were hub rooms hidden all over the realm, but he’d only seen one of them once before — when his parents brought him from his birth realm to this one as a child before his horns came in. He remembered feeling compelled to touch the portal and then being shocked, frightened, and confused when the silver-gold surface had sucked him in. He’d assumed the compulsion to touch had been a child’s whimsy, but now he felt the same compulsion and recognized the spell-power behind it. The dark magic.
The raptor shifted back to her humanoid form, like a reflection disturbed and distorted on the surface of a rippling brook. “You looked like you needed an escape — a chance to think and talk,” she said. “I know somewhere we can go.” She stepped up to one of the portals with a coppery cast to its swirls. Strangely, it was the portal that Rhun felt least compelled to reach out and touch.
“Who are you?” Rhun asked. He hadn’t known half of the demons and angels at his own wedding, but most of them made sense with their arching bat wings and cow horns and visages of cut glass, so beautiful and horrible that merely looking upon them could make you fall to your knees. This woman-raptor was so… natural. She didn’t fit. Yet she felt familiar. Safe somehow. And even though she shook her head, refusing to answer his question, he followed her into the coppery swirls of the portal.
On the other side, Rhun expected to find green trees and dappled yellow sunlight. A wooded glade with rivulets of blue water and doe-eyed forest animals, songbirds filling the air with music that didn’t carry the underpinnings of fear, the strain of musicians expecting their host to gobble them up using her grasping, choking, strangling tentacles.
Rhun felt the thrill of fear (or excitement?) again as he remembered Grizzelka’s ash-gray tentacles, bursting out of the lacy white wedding dress that could not constrain them. She was voluptuous.
Instead of a pleasant meadow or forest glade, Rhun found himself in a dingy, dark beer pub, crammed full of rowdy revelers and reeking of yeast, sassafras, and cheese. Not at all what he had expected, but it answered a calling in his soul he’d never listened to before. He’d never been allowed to.
The woman slipped through the crowd, up to the bar, and shouted something to the bartender. Rhun couldn’t hear her over the noise of the crowd. But the bartender gave her two tankards of mead, and she brought them — one in each fist — over to a small, round table in the corner. Rhun joined her, took the second tankard, and sipped the pungent liquid. He’d never drunk alcohol before. He’d had to stay pure for Grizzelka. The fizzy, warm liquid tickled his tongue, glowed in his belly, and buzzed right up to his brain. He felt light headed. Almost dizzy. But free.
Across from him, the woman smiled and said, “My name is Iuscae. We knew each other as children.”
“In my birth realm,” Rhun said. He’d been so young when he left, he barely remembered it. He certainly didn’t remember her.
“In Cloriander,” Iuscae corrected, and Rhun felt a flash of shame that he didn’t even know the name of the realm where he’d been born. He’d lived all of his life awaiting today, training for today, learning the ways to be a pleasing husband to the great Goddess Grizzelka.
Iuscae drank deeply from her tankard, and Rhun marveled at her ability to hold her alcohol. She was shorter than him but not as skeletally thin. She was probably used to drinking; she probably hadn’t been sheltered the way Rhun had been.
Rhun couldn’t imagine drinking so deeply from his tankard; it would rise straight to his brain and knock him right off his feet. He was sure of it. Yet, Rhun took another sip and let the pleasant warmth lift his spirits. Grizzelka was going to eat him, and he would be nothing more than a snack, not an honorable meal. He’d be eaten without ceremony. Without candles and a fine silver platter. No tablecloth. No table even, probably. Just swallowed whole, as if he were nothing more than a harpist who hadn’t played beautifully enough.
Maybe he needed another sip of the warm mead. Or maybe not. Maybe its warmth wasn’t lifting his spirits after all…
Why had he run away? Why had he ruined his life? He’d never know the sublime pain and pleasure of being eaten in tiny bites, pulled apart by tentacles stronger than he could imagine gripping him with sucker disks like a million tiny kisses.
“I’m ruined,” Rhun said.
“You’re free,” Iuscae countered. “Did you really want to be the consort to the Goddess Grizzelka?”
Rhun didn’t know what else he could be, but instead of saying so, he drank deeply from the tankard of mead. His head grew foggy, and he felt himself growing translucent, vanishing again. This beer pub with its endless possibilities frightened him as badly as Grizzelka with her one, clear path.
“Free,” Rhun repeated sadly. “I don’t know what that means.”
Iuscae shrugged, leaned back, and put her feet up on the seat of an empty chair. A waiter brought a platter of fried and greasy foods to their table. Apparently, Iuscae had ordered them when she was at the bar. “I bet you’ve never eaten calamari,” she said, lifting a breaded circle from a paper-lined basket. The red-and-white checked paper was stained with grease.
Iuscae was right. Rhun had never eaten such base, plebian food. He’d been fed water-rush salads and boiled greens, fetched from other realms for him. He’d been kept trim and fit. Healthy as can be. He reached into the basket and took one of the greasy loops of calamari. It crunched and squished between his teeth, and the greasy flavor exploded on his tongue. So rich. So salty. “It’s delicious.”
“Squid tentacles,” Iuscae said with a devilish grin. She’d never looked more like she belonged among the demons still waiting for him at his wedding.
Rhun hoped they still waited. Maybe… If he left now, he could slip back into the church and down the aisle. His indiscretion would go unnoticed. And he could continue his life as it had been meant to be.
“So you like them,” Iuscae said. “The taste of freedom.” She popped several more of the tiny, breaded tentacles into her mouth. A perversion of the natural order. She was a temptress.
And Rhun was tempted.
He tried the snacks from each of the other baskets — fried cheese, fried jalapenos, fried shrimp. Everything fried. Everything delicious. But the calamari was the best, and with every bite, the squish between his teeth reminded him of his betrothed.
He was meant to squish between her teeth — the red-lipped mouth on her face and the maw on her belly, under the cluster of ten yellow eyes, and also the beaked mouth hidden between her tentacles. She was a glorious hybrid of creatures, and the more he imagined staying here, the more he longed for her.
“You’re thinking about going back,” Iuscae said. She shook her head. “Do you know how long a demi-mortal like you can live for? If he isn’t eaten?”
Rhun did not know. His education hadn’t included information like that. Information that would be useless to him.
“Thousands of years.” She mouthed the words, barely whispering them.
Rhun couldn’t even imagine what to do with all of that time. And he wasn’t sure why Iuscae cared. “How did you come to be at my wedding?” he asked.
Iuscae’s face rippled, fading from woman to raptor again. In her feathered therapod form, all of her softness was revealed as nothing but a cloak over sharp teeth and curved claws. She was a predator, and Rhun was prey. An antelope; a gazelle; a herd-animal separated from his herd.
The beer pub was filled with demi-mortals — satyrs, dryads, taurs, and less recognizable creatures. In many ways, they were more like Rhun than the demons and angels at his wedding — full immortals. But he’d had a place among them. Here he was alone in a crowd.
The waiter came to the table again, this time bearing a single plate of chipped, off-white china: a tentacled delicacy glistened upon it. Ash-gray tentacles, speckled with black, as much like Grizzelka’s own tentacles as any simple squid’s could be. Garnished with lemon and cilantro.
“I will not eat that,” Rhun said.
“You don’t have to,” Iuscae said. She unwrapped a fork from a dingy, sky-blue, cloth napkin. She speared one of the tentacles, lifted it to her angular muzzle and slurped it into her toothy mouth with the aid of a long, serpentine tongue. “You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want.” She gobbled up several more tentacles. “But you should know — they are delicious. Better than the fried ones. More succulent.”
Rhun turned his face away. He had run from his fate out of fear, but he would not pervert the natural order of the universe. He watched the patrons of the bar, and he tried to picture living among them. Could he be a bartender? A dryad and satyr in the corner were playing darts. Would he play darts?
Rhun rose from his seat without thinking and let his feet carry him to the beer pub’s front door. He opened it and looked outside — the pub was in a forest, but not the picturesque glade he’d imagined, nor the stark crystal forest they’d come from. The forest here was dark and dank, dripping with spider webs, and he saw eyes — tiny, pale eyes — peeking out at him from the thick crowns of all the trees.
Iuscae came up behind Rhun and whispered in his ear, “There are other realms. You could spend lifetimes exploring them.” She flapped her downy raptor wings, showing their speckled under-feathers. She was glorious. Different from the Goddess Grizzelka, but glorious too. Rhun had always loved birds, all sorts of birds, especially prehistoric ones. “You could explore them with me.” She could be his home. She began telling him about all the realms she could take him to — mushroom forests, asteroid fields stretched across the velvety blackness of space, ice castles, oceans with iridescent blue-green waves. There were so many.
But Rhun had a home, among the purple and blue crystal spires in Grizzelka’s realm. Inside the pearl and marble palace she’d built for him, and him alone, filled with silk pillows in his favorite colors and oil paintings of him on the walls, attendants trained to play his favorite music and prepare his favorite meals, all under the lava red sky. It was time to go home.
Rhun turned back toward the tavern, and he saw Iuscae’s toothy grin, too close to his delicate neck for comfort. Would she rip out his throat and eat him if he refused her offer? The Goddess Grizzelka would. Rhun couldn’t risk crossing her. “I’ll go with you,” he said, telling her what she clearly wanted to hear. “But…” He needed a ploy that would get him back home. “…take me back to the church to get my nuptial bag. It has my clothes and toiletries in it.”
“I can buy you new ones.” Her teeth were so sharp, and they had none of the voluptuous softness of Grizzelka’s tentacles.
“I want my own,” Rhun said. He stared Iuscae down, unflinching and unwavering. He had something to fight for. Eventually, the raptor woman relented.
Iuscae took Rhun by the hand. In her raptor form, her hand was a scaly talon at the end of her feathered wing-arm. Nonetheless, she curled her scaly talon gently around Rhun’s hand, and she led him back through the crowd of the bar to the coppery disc of the portal. Together they stepped through. This time, Rhun felt the magnetic pull — Grizzelka’s realm called to him through the portal, calling him back home.
Without Iuscae leading the way, Rhun would have been lost in the underground tunnels beneath the crystal spire forest for hours before he found the church of his wedding again. Following her feathered tail, with the downy feathers splayed out like a fan, Rhun found his way to the church before the wedding guests — and his bride — had given up hope.
As he peeked through the doors, Rhun could see that the scene in the church was much the same as when he had left. Demons and angels shifted impatiently in their seats, forked tails twitching and folded wings straining against the constrained space in the pews.
In the cracked open doorway, Iuscae leaned in close to Rhun and whispered, “Do you want to slip inside invisibly again?” She looked him up and down. He was not invisible. “Or if you tell me where your things are, I can get them. While you stay out here.”
“I’ll get them,” Rhun said. His vanishing spell flushed over him, sending him into transparency long enough for Iuscae to step back. The warmth of her breath, implying the sharpness of her teeth, withdrew from Rhun’s neck, and he stepped confidently into the church’s main sanctuary. This time, his vanishing spell dissipated as soon as the red light from the stained glass windows above touched the tips of his gazelle-like horns. Their polished, burnished twists gleamed in the light. He walked down the aisle, too quickly, out of beat with the harp music — thinner than it had been before, as some of the harps stood on the dais un-played, abandoned by their musicians who had likely already been eaten — that sprang into a lilting rhythm to invite the bridegroom to approach his bride.
Each twinkling note of music twanged against Rhun’s heart like the promise of a kiss from one of Grizzelka’s tentacles. He hoped he was not too late. He hoped, when he reached the dais, she would marry him and make him her celebrated husband, rather than a meaningless snack. She couldn’t know his indiscretion? His attempt to run away? Could she?
Yet as Rhun stepped up on the dais beside Grizzelka, he saw a gleam in the cluster of yellow eyes on her belly, a knowing gleam. Three of her ash-gray tentacles reached toward him, and Rhun flinched, shying away. He was ready to marry her; he was not ready to be eaten. But the tentacles stretched cautiously, gently, until just the narrow tips with their purple eyes touched his hand, lifted his hand, and pulled him, so lightly that it was more of a request than a demand, toward her.
A request from a goddess. Rhun stepped close, and Grizzelka whispered to him. “You’ve come to me willingly.”
Rhun whispered back, “Of course.”
“No,” Grizzelka said. “Not of course.” She turned her head toward the crowd of angels and demons watching them. In the back of the church, Iuscae still leaned against the wide wooden doors to the church. The raptor winked at him, and then she nodded at Grizzelka. “You always had a choice, and I made sure you considered it.”
“You knew–” Rhun began.
The maw on Grizzelka’s belly twisted into a mysterious smile, and the lips on her face mirrored the expression. “You had doubts, and you needed to explore them. Now you come to me of your own free will, as it should be.”
Iuscae had been working for Grizzelka the whole time. She was a temptress sent to test Rhun’s devotion.
He had passed the test.
“You always know,” Rhun breathed. He squeezed the three tentacle tips still wrapped tenderly around his hand. The ash-gray flesh squished and then squeezed back. He lowered his head, feeling unworthy to look upon Grizzelka’s greatness. “You know everything worth knowing, and you know me better than I know myself. You are my goddess. I worship you.”
“Say that again,” Grizzelka said. “The last part. And louder.”
“I worship you,” Rhun repeated, his voice raised to where the words echoed through the sanctuary of the church.
“And I,” Grizzelka said in a voice like a thousand snakes hissing as they crawled out of the depths of hell, “accept your worship.” Her slithery voice filled the church with deafening power. “You are my husband.”
Tears sprang to Rhun’s eyes as relief and gratitude flushed through his body like a fever breaking. He had fulfilled his destiny. He was home.
The goddess Grizzelka reached five more tentacles toward her bridegroom and enfolded his body in an embrace. She drew him against her, and then she dipped him backward into a passionate kiss. As her mouth engulfed his, each tentacle wrapped around his body and kissed against him with their multitudinous sucker disks in a gentle softness, promising years of love to come before he finally became a ceremonial meal to be deeply, slowly, and luxuriously enjoyed as he filled her belly. He would be a part of her greatness forever.