The devil didn’t arrive on the back of a fire-breathing steed, or in the midst of a violent storm. In fact, it wasn’t the king of demons who came for me at all.
Wrath stepped into the flickering light, looking ice-cold and dangerous. I unconsciously moved toward him, then froze. A low growl swept through the cave. It didn’t come from him, but some animal hidden deep within the shadows. A warning from a goddess, no doubt.
Something was very wrong . . .
I inspected Wrath from a safe distance. There wasn’t anything familiar about this demon. This creature left little doubt as to where he ruled. He was the most wicked of the Malvagi.
A traitorous part of me was relieved he was alive. Even though I knew he was immortal, I hadn’t fully believed he’d lived through Envy’s brutal attack. Another, wiser part of me reeled with denial that he was the one who’d come to collect my soul. Betrayal burned inside me.
I don’t know why I expected anything else from a despicable prince of Hell.
Angry tears stung my eyes. Nonna had been right about everything. The Wicked were skilled liars. Wrath had certainly fooled me with his act. He made me think he was dead. And that he’d cared. It must have greatly amused him—watching me fall under his spell. A naïve, lonely witch who’d been desperate enough to seek help from her mortal enemy . . .
And our kiss. I’d thought I’d felt passion, heat. Another illusion cast by my enemy.
I fought a chill as he ran his gaze over me. Where it once burned with intensity, it was now frosted over. It was impossible to discern any of his thoughts. If I was to be his queen, he didn’t seem impressed. I desperately wanted to believe this was the act, that he wasn’t truly this cold and cruel. He said nothing and expressed even less. Envy, Greed, and Lust seemed downright human compared to this alien before me.
He wore a suit befitting his royal station, hands casually tucked into his pockets. A black crown with ruby-tipped thorns sat upon his head. If turned upside down, it would appear to be dripping blood. His clothing was layered charcoal and obsidian with gold stitching. Silk and velvet. If I didn’t look too closely, he appeared more angel than dark prince.
My chin inched higher, giving him a clear view of the amulets around my neck. “Demon.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
His attention flicked to the containment circle where Antonio floated in a sort of suspended animation. Shadows along the ceiling grew talons. I could almost hear the rough scrape of their nails against stone. Wrath’s expression remained blank, but I imagined he didn’t expect to find a human magically imprisoned. I didn’t bother hiding my taunting smile. Let him see what I could do.
He turned a flat look on me. “Are you ready to sell your soul?”
I stared a moment, taking in this version of him. I hadn’t realized how often Wrath gazed upon me with blazing fire until it had been replaced with icy indifference. Whoever stood before me now wasn’t the same demon I thought I’d known. I wanted to step away from him, to run.
“Well?” His tone was clipped. There was victory in this demon’s gaze. No frustration, or flash of desire, or hard-won respect. I was a means to an end. Another potential witch queen to add to the list of those who’d been slaughtered before ever walking down the aisle. I tried not to think about my own uncertain fate. Even if it boiled down to living out of spite, I vowed to survive no matter who, or what, came for my heart. I had little doubt my life was in jeopardy. Wrath had told me the monsters would come for me, and that I believed. One stood before me now. “Have you decided?”
He appraised me, a small frown forming. Maybe he was disappointed I wasn’t cowed by his royal presence and authority. I refused to pretend I understood anything of what he felt, or desired. I wasn’t foolish enough to think he’d fallen in love with me, but I could have sworn we’d both shifted from cool animosity to something a bit warmer. I clutched the Horn of Hades as I considered my dwindling options. The slight buzz of magic was comforting—like a hug from my grandmother. If I stayed, the gates of Hell would weaken and open, destroying everything I held dear. I’d already encountered Umbra and Aper demons, the snake-like Viperidae, and four of the terrifying seven princes of Hell.
I was lucky I’d escaped with my life, and I was harder to kill than most. The human world wasn’t equipped to deal with the carnage that hordes of demons would bring if the gates opened. I imagined Nonna wearing another ruby red necklace of blood, her eyes milky and lifeless. I saw visions of my mother and father slaughtered in our restaurant. Every innocent human in our city—lying in rotting heaps, stinking in the blazing sun.
I’d already lost my sister; I wouldn’t lose anyone else.
“I agree. Under two conditions.”
A new spark lit his gaze. Along with anger, intelligence and cunning gleamed out at me. “Very well. Let’s hear your counteroffer.”
I was proud of how my voice didn’t waver. “From this point forward, no other witch will be hunted, no human attacked. I want every prince of Hell to stay out of this world. And Antonio will be my prisoner to do with as I see fit. Otherwise, I will not join myself with House Pride.”
“Spoken like a true princess of Hell.” His smile was razor sharp. He seemed smug, like he knew a secret. “Are you certain this is what you want? This is what you choose?” I nodded. Wrath stared a moment too long, like he was trying to incinerate me on the spot. “Done.”
A scroll materialized along with a raven’s quill, the point more blade than pen. When no pot of ink appeared, I immediately realized why. My heart thudded wildly. If I didn’t run now, there would be no undoing this. Some bonds could never be broken.
I carefully read over the parchment.
It was simple enough. Not much in the way of trickery. Which worried me more. Selling a soul shouldn’t be so easy. I had a more difficult time haggling with vendors in the marketplace over clothing. Part of me wanted to laugh. But there was little humor to be found in this cavern.
Before I could run screaming, I pricked my finger and signed my soul away in blood, the magic binding me to the devil for eternity. Once I finished, the scroll disappeared in a wisp of smoke. I stared until the scent of sulfur dissipated, fighting a growing wave of panic.
“Anything else?” I asked as a strange tingling sensation fell around me like a cloak. Wrath nodded to my two amulets. Of course. The devil wanted his horns back. I yanked them from my neck and dropped them on the cavern floor, their absence already a strange sort of torture.
I took a deep breath. I no longer needed to worry about hiding from the Malvagi—the Wicked had found me. But that was all right; I’d found them, too. And I hoped they’d rue the day they came for me and mine. Soon I’d be deep within their realm, and would be perfectly positioned to uncover the true players behind the murders, and what they were really after.
Then I would set about destroying them. If they didn’t kill me first.
I brushed past Wrath, walked to the lip of the cave, and glanced down. It might be the last time I saw this world, and I wanted to memorize it. An angry swell crashed against the rocks, spraying upward in harsh whispers. I stared out at the ink-colored waves, trying to calm my racing pulse. They looked like silver blades flashing in the moonlight. Nonna would claim it was a sign of treacherous things to come. This time, I couldn’t disagree.
The ground suddenly trembled, pebbles scattered, bats flew out of the cave. I braced myself against the unexpected surge of magic, fearing the cavern would collapse.
I spun around, focus darting to Antonio, or where he’d once been. Vittoria’s murderer was gone. In his place, Wrath’s power whipped around like the tail of a mighty serpent. He smiled, a quick flash of teeth. We were no longer bound together, and his power was overwhelming, infinite. I refused to let my fear show.
The demon’s grin vanished and he silently held out a hand. “Will you come with me?”
I knew he was only asking politely because of the demonic etiquette. I didn’t want to agree, I didn’t want to ever touch him again, but I knew I couldn’t find my way into the underworld without his dark magic.
I wrapped my fingers around his before my emotions betrayed me. There was crackling power in our connection. Tiny currents sparked over our skin. Before I could think about it, smoke enveloped us. Searing pain followed. It felt like my entire body was burning. I choked on a scream. Wrath’s fingers tightened on mine. There was no earth, no connection to the natural world, nothing tangible except my grip on the prince I now hated more than the rest combined.
The pain lasted only a moment before a new sensation stoked even greater fear. We stood on solid ground again. Which meant . . .
Goddess above, I could hardly breathe. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut forever.
Instead, I stared straight ahead, pulled my shoulders back, and waited for the smoke to clear.
I hoped the kingdom of the wicked was ready for a vengeful queen.