Authors: Ednah Walters
The cold hit me hard as the portal to Earth closed behind me. The mist wrapped around me like a cloak of misery, reminding me that this was where I belonged, and I welcomed it. Hel, a realm so cold and desolate that nothing grew on it, was my home. And Hel—a deity so powerful Odin gave her reign over the dead from nine realms—was my mother. She presided over their souls, including other deities’, and did as she pleased. So she’d slept with my father, Baldur, Odin’s beloved son, and had me—her one and only son.
The term “Helboy” had a whole new meaning.
I’d been curious about the woman who’d sent soul reapers to terrorize my friends just so I would come to her. I’d even wondered why she was desperate to have me with her when she hadn’t cared before. Now, I was indifferent to her and her reasons. I had my personal demons to deal with.
The Norns had kidnapped me from this realm when I was a child and taken me to Earth to live among Mortals, as they called humans. With all her powers and thousands of soul reapers at her disposal, my mother could have found me a long time ago. Instead, she’d left me to grow up believing I was normal, a Mortal, free to love and be loved back by whomever I chose. I was wrong. I wasn’t normal, and I sure as hell wasn’t free to love the girl of my choice.
All I had to do was close my eyes to see the light dancing on the strands of her golden hair, her teasing smile daring me to kiss her, her sweet laughter and sparkling eyes sending need through me.
Thinking about her hurt so much each breath I took felt like a knife twisting in my gut. Cora was the girl I was meant to love. I would have worshipped the ground she walked on. I would have given her the world. Literally. I was slated to take Odin’s place after Ragnarok and lead the gods, and she would have been by my side.
But she hadn’t waited for me while I was visiting my grandparents in Asgard. Instead, she’d chosen another. Echo. A soul reaper. My mother’s reaper. Talk about being stabbed front, right, and center. I glared at his back, wishing I could make him disappear.
A blood-curdling growl rippled through the air and chunks of icicles fell around us, yet I felt no fear. The crunch of our boots on the frozen ground echoed inside the cave, and somewhere a gurgling sound I couldn’t explain reached my ears. Like I said, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about anything but my pain. I wanted to nurse it, feed it, and live it until I saw Cora again. Until I won her over.
We exited the cave and entered a snow-covered landscape. Fog hugged the ground, and moonbeams bounced off snowflakes on the hulking mountains rising above it.
“Where are we?” Viggo asked.
“Hel,” I retorted.
Viggo laughed. Viggo, son of Forseti, God of Justice, was around my age. Since Forseti and I had the same father, Viggo was also my nephew, a fact he often ignored. He’d followed me to Earth from Asgard, looking for adventure, and I’d given him a taste when we’d fought the bounty hunters my mother had sent after me. I didn’t know what awaited us in Hel’s Hall. In my misery, I’d completely forgotten about what could happen to Viggo. According to the Asgardian gods, my mother could keep him here indefinitely, and there was nothing they could do about it. She didn’t believe in letting go of people who ended up in her realm, and Viggo didn’t belong in Hel.
“Leave, Viggo,” I said, stopping.
He frowned and glanced around. There was nothing to see but fog and snow. “Why?”
“Go back to Asgard.”
“There’s no way I am letting you have all the fun,” Viggo said.
“This is not fun,” I snapped. “This is real.” I glanced around. The fog was lifting and revealing walls of ice. “This is my home, not yours. One day we’ll have that adventure, my friend. Not today.”
“I’m not leaving you, Eirik,” Viggo said stubbornly, his voice no longer teasing.
Ignoring him, I glanced at Echo—the soul reaper escorting us. He was dressed for the cold: heavy leather boots, gloves, and a leather-hooded duster. Everything about him bugged the crap out of me. If I’d known where we were headed, I would have told him to take a hike.
He had been quiet since we left Earth, but then he had every reason to be. He had stolen Cora from right under my nose. One word from him and I’d wrap my mace around his neck. He was a legendary soul reaper, a Grimnir, and thousands of years old, but that meant jack right now. Righteous anger and my magical mace would make me unstoppable.
Echo stopped and looked back.
“Create a portal to take my friend to Asgard,” I ordered.
Echo studied me intently as though deciding his next move. “I can’t. No one creates portals between realms. Because of the strong magic here, it can be redirected anywhere. Even the gods use horses or shape-shift into something that flies to move between the realms. Earth is different. The magic there is practically dead, so you get very little interference.” He glanced at Viggo. “The young deity should go back to Earth and access the Bifrost from there.”
Viggo crossed his arms. “I’m not going back to Asgard.”
“Why not?” I ground out. “Look at this place. There’s nothing here for you.”
“I promised Frigg I’d guard you, and I can’t go back on my word.”
My grandmother had no business doing this. The gods, even young ones like Viggo, lived by a code. Vows were taken seriously. Breaking them brought not only shame to the oath breaker, it landed them in Hel, whether they’d died in battle or not. I touched the mace at my waist to make sure it was secure. I had promised Viggo’s father I’d watch his back, too.
“Fine. Lead the way, Grimnir,” I ordered.
Echo’s lips tightened. “You know I’m doing you a favor.”
“You’ll get brownie points from Mommy Dearest for bringing me in, so screw you and your favor.”
Echo studied me. “I understand why you hate me.”
“No, you don’t,” I snapped.
“Shut up, Grimnir,” I warned, reaching for my mace.
He watched me pull out the weapon, but didn’t back down. “I can put up with your anger and attitude, but you better watch it when you’re around Cora. You talk to her like that, and I’ll forget you are the son of my goddess. It’s not Cora’s fault she fell in love with me.”
“You didn’t give her a chance to do anything else,” I shot back. “You were all over her from the moment you met her. Pawing her. Treating her like you did Maliina. There’s a name for men like you.”
Echo’s eyes glowed gold. “You watched us? There’s a
for men like you.”
“I was looking out for her, you jackass,” I yelled and leaped at him, but Viggo jumped between us and gripped my arm. The chain of the mace wrapped around my arm and the spiked head stopped inches from my bicep when the sharp tips could have easily pierced the fabric and imbedded into my skin. My weapon knew better than to hurt me.
“Let me do the honors,” Viggo said, unsheathing his dagger.
Viggo would kill Echo for me, or die trying. I couldn’t face his mother or my half brother if that happened. “No. He’s not worth it.”
“Let her go, Eirik.” Echo sounded like he felt sorry for me, which only pissed me off all over again. “I’m not asking. I’m telling you to let her go because she’s mine, and I will destroy anyone who tries to come between us, including you.”
A large shadow materialized behind Echo, and the next second, he was dangling by his feet in midair, cursing.
I’d known there were giants in other realms, but I never thought I’d meet one the moment I stepped in Hel. From the tiny waist, breasts, and the long blond hair, this one was a woman. A giantess. I tilted my head back to see her face, but the moon was behind her, making it impossible to see her features.
“What are you doing, Grimnir?” the giantess said in a soft voice that contradicted her size.
“Nothing, Modgie,” Echo said calmly, and despite my loathing for him, I was impressed. I’d be shitting bricks if I were in his shoes.
me, you insufferable reaper,” she said, her voice rising. “My name is Modgud.”
“Insufferable? Now you hurt my feelings, Modgie. I thought we were friends.”
“You threatened the son of the goddess,” the giantess snarled.
“I’d never do that. You misunderstood,” Echo said. “Did I mention how radiant you look tonight? I brought you a gift. A golden hair clip. It matches the bracelet I brought you the other day.”
“I’m not interested in your trinkets or compliments, you scoundrel,” she said, but she sounded pleased. “This time you went too far. I heard what you told Baldurson, and if I did, the Golden One did.”
“He’s out here?” Echo asked, his voice filling with concern.
“He was at the gate the last time I saw him. He is behind the celebrations. So tonight you swim the Gjöll.” The giantess looked down at me, then Viggo. She either recognized him or guessed who he was, because she bowed. “Stay here, please. I’ll come for you when I’m done with him.”
“You can’t be serious,” Echo said, his voice rising. “Modgie, come on. I’ll never survive the river. If the needle sharp rocks don’t split my gut open, the snakes and their venom will finish me.”
“So you’ll lose a limb or two. It won’t be the end of the world. You can help Dad take the damned to the island. If you die, Mama will find you something to do in the kitchen.”
Echo in the kitchen. That was funny. I liked this giantess. I followed them despite her instructions to stay put. Viggo took the rear, laughing at the entire scene. It was actually hilarious. And the thought of a dead Echo was appealing. With him out of the picture, I’d swoop in to console Cora and be there in her time of need. Women liked that. Just like Echo had helped her deal with the souls bothering her and she’d fallen in love with him. In time, she’d forget him.
Even as the thought crossed my mind, I knew that was pain and betrayal talking. I couldn’t let Echo die just to get Cora. My conscience couldn’t handle that.
Yes, Cora and I had something special. At least, we had before Echo came into the picture. It was my fault I’d spent way too much time in Asgard and missed the chance to show her it could lead to something more. There was still time to do it. No matter how long it took, I would show her I was hero material, make her see I was the better man. Echo was wrong for her in so many ways. She just needed someone to show her.
Then there was Raine, the girl I’d known since I was a child. Raine Cooper had been my playmate and was my best friend. She would never forgive me if she found out I’d let Echo die when I could have prevented it. Her love was the one constant thing I could always count on. Not having it would destroy my world.
We reached a covered bridge across a gorge. The wide, gurgling sounds I’d heard earlier came from the river rushing under it, the dark surface reflecting the moon as it meandered between the steep, snow-covered walls. Occasionally, sloshes broke the surface and something long reared its head, fangs bared and eyes glowing, before disappearing under the surface. I shivered, imagining thousands of snakes slithering in the water just waiting for some ignorant soul to fall in.
The giantess paused and turned to stare at me.
“Put him down.”
“But he threatened you,” the giantess said.
“We were joking around. Let him go and lead us to the castle.”
She dropped Echo, who landed on the icy terrain with the agility of a cat. The giantess grunted and led the way through the bridge.
“Thank you,” Echo said as we passed him.
“I didn’t do it for you,” I said.
“I know. You might not know this, but—”
“Just shut up, Echo,” I said. “I don’t care about what you have to say.”
Our footsteps echoed on the bridge. It was made of black stones, the rail cold to the touch. The Bifrost—the bridge between Earth and Asgard—was made of a special marble that shimmered with colors of the rainbow. The only light from this bridge came from the flickering torches along the rail, which gave the roof a yellow glow. The roof appeared to be made of gold, but I could be wrong.
Souls, once they entered this realm, were no longer mere energies. They became solid, capable of doing anything a Mortal could. They wielded weapons like the ones in Asgard, took lovers like my father had, and felt pain like the ones tortured on Corpse Strand—the island where criminals and evil souls ended up. In fact, a large boat was moored on the bank of the river to our right, and I could see souls seated inside it. Standing beside it was another giant, probably Modgud’s father waiting to escort them to the island.