The breath upon his face, like air blowing over a fire, nipped at his ears. Upon his neck, Valen felt the sensation of sharp teeth piercing his neck with friction, slipping free a moment later. The warm trail of red ran down his neck onto his chest and soaking into the edges of his clothes. Tears rushed over the shut-tight lids of his eyes, a headache forming behind the pressure of his own fears. To be eaten was terrifying, no matter how prepared Valen was. His determination wavered.
Soft, long fingers pressed firm to the wounds and slid the blood up his jawline, pulling his face upwards. Thumbs brushed his cheeks. Valen took a sharp breath that stung in his lungs. He winced but the hands held him firm and gave a gentle pull again. Valen’s eyes relaxed, a slower breath filling his lungs and his eyes parting to focus past the bubbles of tears still clinging to his lashes.
Darkness blocked the light and lips took hold of his, tongue prying his mouth open, tongue tickling the roof of his mouth, grazing his teeth, and massaging the inside of his cheek. Sweltering breath exchanged with his, given with slow intent and taken with great force.
Gasping for control, Valen clawed at the form before collapsing to his hands and knees. Something left him. Each breath of fresh air felt short and light against the lingering heat that coated the inside of his lungs. He could hear his own heart pounding in his chest, echoing in his head. His limbs felt lifeless.
“Your life is now mine, Valen of Imdar.”
“I-I don’t understand-”
The monster that was a god had gone. Rich umber skin and long free-flowing white hair, a man stood in its place. Deep-set golden eyes, fine age lines and a squat nose, the man stared with a dispassionate gaze. He wore a detailed belt over a wide-sleeved black frock and an onyx mantle down his back. Golden details crawled up the base of the mantle.
“You shall do menial labor,” the man spoke. “The shrine needs cleaned and prepped. Down the stream of the creek is the shrine of Ubertee as well. Sweet bread and dried meats shall be set at the offering.”
Valen’s eyes followed the lips that formed each word, captivated by the full-toned voice.
“You’ll walk a great distance. Are you hearing me?”
His heart jumped. “Yes,” Valen replied. “Yes. Sweet bread and dried meats for Ubertee. The mountain god has a taste for sweets?”
Runihara sighed. “She does. She and Sumerones will require strength for the year’s coming harvest. But if you fail to do this, if you fail to tend to her needs, you’ll see no harvest and no great change. Land Gods are powerful but they are creatures of habit, they are like stray dogs. They only go where they are encouraged to be, where there is food.”
“I see,” Valen whispered. His heart raced as Runihara’s hands pulled his robe shut and stood him on his feet.
“You should not feel weak any longer.”
He didn’t. Not in the sense of the wind being knocked from his lungs. Valen’s heart was an erratic rhythm of jolts and frantic pacing. His hands couldn’t sit still, fingers desperately clinging to his robes looking for some sort of distraction. The needles in his legs shivered up his back. Each glance of the god he was certain would eat him, Valen hoped to be devoured. His cheeks heated.
“I’m not. I just do not understand any of this. You said you’d take my life.”
“And I have,” Runihara’s eyes softened, resting on the mark left on Valen’s neck. Locking glances, he smirked. “You wanted to be the bride of a god, and now you are. Your life is mine until I have no use for you.”
It hurt. It was intense and a hit hard enough to cause Valen to stumble, the burst of melancholy, like a sad song sung by passing bards, vanished when Runihara turned away. What sort of creature the god of destruction was, Valen surely caught a glimpse.
“Gather your things. Once the shrine is clean, we’ll leave.”
Valen looked back where he had once sat, waiting for his fate. His punishment. It was to be his death. “What about your shrine?”
“Mine?” Runihara asked. “You’ve done enough here. Come.”
The wave of his hands pulled at Valen. He snagged the small bag of offerings his village had sent and ran to catch up with the exiting god. The broken strap of his sandal gave way and Valen lost his balance. Runihara’s hands latched hold of Valen’s waist and pulled him upright. He leaned down, his soft hair dragging in the dirt as he adjusted the strap.
“How long have you lived,” Runihara huffed. He pulled the strap tight and dusted the dirt from Valen’s ankle. That heat rushed up his leg again.
“Nineteen springs,” he yelped. Valen cleared his throat. “I was born the last day of winter.”
“You move like a child.”
Heat filled Valen’s face. He was far from a child but he accepted his many failings. There wasn’t a day he didn’t trip or drop something. It was a miracle he didn’t burn himself when he cooked.
“I have my flaws. I’m sorry.”
Runihara’s expression was hard as he rose from the ground. He towered Valen, intense eyes the color of a setting sun burned him to the core. “Even gods have flaws. Every bride I have seen is a woman, but I shall utilize a groom just as easily,” Runihara said, walking away. “I do not eat people, despite my typical appearance. I gain nothing from a human dinner.”
“Forgive me,” Valen whispered.
“Nevermind, let’s get to the shrine before the sun falls. We are heading South to Osa.”