The devil’s daughter wants nothing more than to stay in Hell, where it’s cold and lonely and totally predictable.
Sixteen-year-old Desolation Black is an expert at keeping her emotions locked down tight. The last thing she wants is to return to Earth where there’s a girl she’s compelled to save and a boy whose touch ignites a terrifying spark of goodness deep inside of her.
But the future of Asgard depends upon the choices Desi makes. If she follows in her father's footsteps, she'll undo Odin's great plan and everyone who's ever lived might never Ascend. If she rejects her father, it could mean the end of everything and herald the prophesied Ragnarok.
If Desi could, she wouldn't choose at all.
If he weren’t Father’s right-hand man, Akaros would be dead. I clenched my fists, felt the nails bite my flesh. Akaros shook with laughter—but instead of retaliating, I pulled ragged, calming breaths through my burning throat.
“Stop holding yourself back, Desolation.” Akaros’ voice boomed through the featureless, black training room. I pressed my toes onto the smooth floor so I wouldn’t topple over. Every part of my body yearned to fight, and I poured all of my anger into a fiery gaze. I could have unleashed the heat of a thousand suns upon him, but I didn’t—it would have been nothing to him, anyway.
“Yes, yes,” Akaros soothed, walking around me, sizing me up. “Use that rage, feed me your anger—Become.”
His command threatened to shake my conviction. My shadow-self strained within me, yearning to break free. And yet, I resisted.
Years of training, and still I resisted.
It was the one form of rebellion Father, who commanded all within our cold and fiery realm, despised. He worked tirelessly to break me, to drive me to embrace my darker nature. And Akaros, a demon of the First Order and father of the Spartans, had been my personal tutor since I could walk. He inflicted an endless torment of mental and physical conditioning designed to make me burn as bright as my father.
But my father was the last thing I wanted to become.
So I stood and let Akaros circle me, every cell of my being focused on gauging his presence, the movement of his body, waiting for the millisecond of warning before he struck.
The fingers of his spirit crawled into the recesses of my mind, curling round and round like a boa constrictor. I shuddered with the effort of keeping his touch at bay.
I couldn’t let him find my secret or discern my weaknesses. Where our physical training had barely elevated my heart rate, this mental attack drew beads of sweat to my forehead and my palms grew slick.
Without warning he withdrew his presence, and I slipped to the floor, too exhausted to stand. I concentrated on breathing. On just being. I closed my eyes against the anger burning inside me, and when I finally opened them I found myself alone.
Grabbing my towel, I left the training room and walked the long corridors of the palace toward my rooms. Cold blackness reflected back at me from every surface, every heart. I plowed through the center of the lingering hoards, forcing the damned to part around me like a river around a boulder.
It wasn’t the first time I’d imagined myself a rock. Immovable. Cold and unyielding. And yet—and yet there was a hint of warmth curled deep in my heart, and it was that secret place I fought to keep hidden from Akaros and Father. Warmth that had no place inside me and suggested I was something . . . else. Something that didn’t belong in the god-forsaken realm of Helheimer.
As I approached the bend in the corridor and the door to my rooms, the hounds that guarded the entrance slipped back into the cold granite wall until I should need them again. No one but Helena, the goddess of Helheimer, had been able to tame the hounds save for me. And with Helena gone—banished by my father when he won Helheimer from her eons ago—they only answered my call. Much to Father’s frustration.
I trailed my fingers over the carving at the door, its intricate curves and knots in the way of the old magic, my protection from the demons of Helheimer.
Inside the relative safety of my rooms, nicknamed the Fortress by my father, I allowed myself to take the first truly deep, cleansing breath since I’d left several hours earlier. Here, there was warmth, softness. Comfort.
I’d decorated the walls with tapestries from Earth, depictions of forests and wildlife, sunsets and moonrises. My feet sunk into the luxurious depth of the endless rugs I’d scattered everywhere. The suggestion of warmth filled my fortress, a hint at real life—and it was the only place where I came even close to feeling safe.
After showering, I dressed in my usual black and wrapped a sweater around me—the dead were always surprised to discover the fires of Helheimer burned ice cold. It didn’t seem to matter how many tapestries and rugs I surrounded myself with, the chill of Helheimer seeped into my bones, a constant whisper of freezing pain.
I wandered out to the balcony and rested my elbows on the polished banister. The palace sat atop a granite mountain, my father’s kingdom spread below. Fire blossomed over the tiers of Helheimer, the reflection of molten lava painting the sky a dusky orange that was beautiful in its own way. I shivered, despite the warm cashmere I’d pulled around me.
Back in my room, I settled in with a book of poems—written by Charles d’Orleans during his long captivity—and tried to escape the endless boredom of my life, when a whisper wormed through me.
Come, my father said in my mind. And there was no choice but to obey.
I took my time, though. Finished the poem I’d been reading, marked my page, and draped my afghan over the wingback chair. Before leaving, I schooled my features into the mask Akaros had taught me—the face that implied I was as cruel and heartless as he. It wouldn’t do to embarrass him by showing the weakness of my mixed birth, the hint of human in my DNA.
I strode past the rabble crowding every corridor, my heavy combat boots thudding without sound. So much silence created a different kind of burning, the absolute absence of fodder for the senses. There were endless ways to torture the damned—Dante didn’t even know the half of it.
I marched past the demonic guards at the antechamber, taking no time to be announced and presented as decorum required. Akaros would be disappointed in my lack of manners, but I could only grant him so many concessions. In the end, I was only me, only answerable to myself. And my father’s laughter, rolling like ocean waves over my mind and body, proved his appreciation for my idiosyncrasies, as he called them.
My frown deepened as I crossed the throne room and approached the dais on which my father sat.
Or rather, draped.
Wearing tan linen slacks and a creamy silk shirt, my father, Loki, lounged on his throne like a boy on a couch. Several chairs were scattered in a rough semi-circle before the throne, from opulent armchairs to tiny stone stools, depending on their position in Father’s ranks.
Akaros nodded at me as I came within the circle, a slight frown tugging at the corner of his lips. He was the only one in the room who preferred the form of his spirit—and so he sat on a cushioned bench, granting him room for his onyx wings to spread unhindered behind him. Everyone else, my father included, wore their human forms, which made Akaros appear to be the god among them. In such a scene he was stunning—all chiseled flesh as black as coal and powerful wings towering high above him. But Akaros was no god—he was just a demon, like all the rest.
His bench sat closest to my father though, a position of favor he’d held for eons. The usual cronies occupied the rest of the seats, but for one man who stood furthest from the throne.
“Ah, Desolation.” Father inclined his head in my direction. Bow, he said in my mind.
I raised my chin.
And my father laughed.
“Come, take your place,” he said. I stepped around the audience and clomped up the ten steps to the dais and toward my cushioned throne—carved from the bones of those who had lost favor with Loki—and Helena before him.
At each armrest, right where my hands would go if I’d place them there, polished skulls stared out at the room. I clasped my hands in my lap. Empty eye sockets stared from the lifeless skulls that graced the throne on either side of my face. It felt like they were watching me—those soulless eyes. I tried to keep my own focused on my hands or far out into the room, without looking left or right and without making eye contact with anyone.
With the crook of a finger and the slightest twist of distaste to his mouth, Father indicated the standing man approach. He came forward, a scowl on his bearded face, and knelt on the bottom step.
“Your Grace,” he said with a British accent. I nearly laughed out loud—the ungraceful snort that escaped was probably no better. This man, a demon of the First Order, who could assume any appearance he desired, had chosen to clothe himself in the body of a tubby middle-aged Englishman. The absurdity of it had me leaning forward in my chair, curious. The First Order, those who had been cast out of Asgard along with my father Loki, rarely chose anything less than the most appealing of physical forms—usually one similar to my father, as he was Helheimer’s dictator of fashion.
Of late, he’d adopted a look eerily similar to Hugh Jackman, a careless sensuality that belied the demon within.
“Knowles,” Father said, and then it made sense. Reginald Knowles, the Betrayer. When Odin banished them, Knowles begged to remain. He claimed to have made a mistake by siding with Loki. He’d been exiled to Midgard ever since, not even allowed entrance to Helheimer since Father claimed it. Perhaps that’s why he seemed so . . . human. “Is everything ready?”
A sick foreboding crawled over my skin. I sat back and turned toward my father—time suddenly taking on the speed and motion of molasses.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Knowles said. His eyes flicked to me and I couldn’t miss the hungry look in them. “All is ready.”
Father nodded, but tapped an elegant finger against his lips for a moment before speaking. He sat up so quickly I flinched. Facing me, he pierced me with his gaze before I had the chance to look away.
“Gather your things. You’ll be leaving for—”
“But—” No. This couldn’t be happening. No, no, no.
“For the human realm—for Midgard. Now.”
I grabbed onto the smooth skull on the armrest, my fingers sinking into the eye sockets. “I can’t.” My brain filled with too many reasons to name—visions of my brief stint on Earth last year and the pain I’d caused, swam before my eyes. No matter how much I hated life with Father and Akaros, living on Earth would be a thousand times worse. But my mouth opened and closed, unable to find a single sensible word that might convince him.
Father contemplated me. He neither smiled nor frowned, only stared. Considering. Judging. I folded my arms and glared at the scuffed toes of my boots, desperately trying to think of some reason he should release me from this punishment.
Father took a deep breath and addressed Knowles. “This is not a punishment—for her.” Knowles, who had watched my lame attempt at defiance with a smirk, dropped his eyes to the reflective stone of the steps before him. “You will train her in the ways of deception and enticement—two skills in which I daresay you are quite well versed.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Knowles murmured.
I still gaped like a fish. I couldn’t seem to make my mouth do any more than its most basic of functions. Open, close, open, close. And so the moment passed before I ever found my voice.
“You are dismissed.” Father waved me away with a flick of his wrist. Knowles stumbled back from the dais.
I dared to look at my father, but any resemblance to the handsome movie star faded as he let his shadow-self stretch beyond him. There would be no argument, then. I shot to my feet and ran down the stairs.
I would have run from the throne room, run away from all of them, but Akaros blocked my path. He looked down, his lips twisted into a smile-that-was-not-a-smile, a cruel glint in his eyes.
“I have no doubt you will choose to Become,” Akaros said, his voice slithering into my ears and around my brain. I stared up at him, towering above me, and realized I’d never really had a choice, at all.