Asteria held her shit together as she approached the monolithic black citadel, her boots loud on the polished obsidian flagstones of its central circular courtyard. She tipped her chin up, clenched her fists at her sides to stop them from shaking, and strode towards her doom with the same resolve as she had managed to cling to during her trek through the previous six circular courtyards that surrounded the citadel like concentric rings.
She was fairly certain that these were the last few moments of her life and it was about to come to a grisly close.
It had taken her days of grovelling to her superiors, issuing profuse apologies unbecoming of a demon and having to bite her tongue when her temper had flared, but she had secured a meeting with her dark lord. She had been elated when the leader of her legion had informed her that their master was willing to speak with her, but as the hours had trickled past, that elation had turned to full blown fear.
She had failed in a very important mission, the sort no amount of grovelling could actually correct, so she wasn’t sure why she had thought this was going to end well.
The meeting a ridiculous part of her had believed was going to somehow redeem her was probably in fact a meeting in which she was going to discover her punishment.
Would it be a swim in the lava pit while the Devil watched her burn, or something far worse?
She wouldn’t be the first demoness, or demon, to be sentenced to spend time in his bed.
It wasn’t an honour.
It was a death sentence.
She hadn’t heard of anyone surviving the torture of being his bedfellow, mostly because those he didn’t eventually kill during the act were tossed into the lava pit when he was done with them.
Several low-ranking young demons scurried past her, dressed in black jackets and trousers, their feet bare and bloodied. The black sacks they carried over their shoulders dripped crimson, smelling of entrails.
Asteria swallowed hard and it was damned difficult to hold her nerve as she watched the clean up team carting away whatever poor bastard had just finished meeting with the Prince of Darkness.
An unfortunate lover?
She had heard the stories from those who served in his dark citadel, the young souls assigned to mopping up the mess after a lover had done or said something to flip his switch. Rumour had it that he went through at least two mattresses a week, and demanded a fresh, brand new set of sheets every few hours. His appetite for fucking was as insatiable as his appetite for destruction and death, and unfortunately that meant the two often coincided.
She sucked down a deep breath as she reached the grand arched entrance of the towering castle and looked up its height, taking in the jagged towers that rose into the dark grey sky of Hell. Light from the bubbling pits of lava beyond the walls of the central courtyard and the braziers that formed a circle, lining those walls, tried to lend warmth to the matt black stone of the fortress but only managed to make it look more sinister by casting shadows in the recesses.
The four huge demon males guarding the entrance eyed her, their elliptical pupils stretched thin in the centre of their black irises and burning gold. Elite. They were kept in a permanent state of rage in order to maintain their appearance, keeping them looking as dangerous and deadly as her kind could be.
She had such a dark side herself, but unleashing it right now would be a big mistake. Huge. Her dark lord didn’t appreciate those below him showing up on his doorstep looking ready for war.
It was the reason she had chosen her lighter black armour, the red-edged metal plates fitting more closely to her legs and hips, and across her chest, and had forgone wearing the gauntlets that normally encased her forearms and hands. She had also brushed her long black hair, tamed the gold-to-red streak that ran down the front right side, and had taken her time in front of the mirror in her hut, applying black around her blue eyes and painting her lips crimson.
She had even taken the time to preen her black leathery wings, buffing the membranes with wax until they shone, and had done the same with the small obsidian horns that curled from behind the pointed tips of her ears, following the curve down to end in a point near the lobes.
She eyed the four ripped bare-chested demon males guarding the entrance again, envied the bastards a little as she gazed at their horns. Males had bigger ones, the sort that twisted around to form deadly daggers beside their temples when they were enraged.
Asteria sighed, wishing she had such horns.
One of her friends had told her once that she had horn envy. She had denied it at the time, but it was true. Whenever she found herself banging a demon, she couldn’t keep her hands off their horns. She had even tried to rip one out of a male once. He had thought she was merely being rough and had enjoyed it. The damn thing had been rooted too deeply though and she had sort of forgotten about trying to break it off when he had begun thrusting harder between her legs, turning her brain to mush.
One of the male’s gazes slid her way and he raked an approving look over her. His black horns flared a little further, revealing his desire and interest to her.
She flicked her onyx hair over her shoulder, shot him a wink, and kept walking, a little swing to her hips with each step now as she silently flirted with the brute. She looked him up and down just as she passed him, bit her lip at the sight of so much hard muscle, and swore that if she survived the next few minutes she would be back to take him up on his offer.
Which would be a miracle, and those didn’t happen in Hell.
Still, he was a nice distraction as she ogled his arse over her shoulder, one that kept her thoughts away from her imminent death until someone approached her.
“Asteria of the Second Legion?” a demoness said, a wobble in her throaty voice.
She nodded and looked at her, and quickly masked the fear that bolted through her when she found herself face to face with a young female dressed in little more than a scrap of crimson around her hips and breasts, a thick black metal collar that was tight against her throat, and a lot of bruises.
By the Devil, was this the future she was doomed to endure staring right back at her with bleak bloodshot eyes and a startling lack of horns.
Someone had cut them off. Asteria tried not to gawp at them but she couldn’t stop herself, and her stomach plummeted when she realised they hadn’t been shorn.
They had been broken.
The black stumps that remained were brutally fractured.
The female’s hands twitched at her sides, as if with an urge to touch the horns Asteria stared at, so she dragged her eyes away, feeling bad that she had upset the young demoness.
Demons tried their best to be the toughest, most badass creatures in Hell, but when it boiled down to it, they had feelings too, and this female had been through the mill.
Probably at the hands of the one creature in Hell who didn’t possess a single jot of emotion.
The fallen angel she was about to meet.
The young demoness bowed her head and led the way, and Asteria tried to busy herself with taking in all the details of the palace her dark master called home in an attempt to stop herself from preening her horns, reassuring herself they were still perfect. Still there. On the outside, it matched his image perfectly, but on the inside… it was quite the opposite.
Oh, it was sumptuous and decadent, but it wasn’t exactly goth-chic as she had expected.
The black of the outside world gave way to white marble floors that were so highly polished she could see herself in them. They reflected the light from the crystal chandeliers, and that same light shone off the gold filigree that decorated the dark wooden ceiling. The walls were smooth and, of all things, papered. The vestibule and hallway that led off it had crimson wallpaper with black almost fleur-de-lys patterns on it. She had been in some expensive homes in the mortal world and the Devil had decorated his in that same style, but with a more sinister edge that she would have attributed more to a vampire than a fallen angel.
Her escort stopped at a set of arched wooden double doors and bowed.
Asteria guessed this was it. The bloody end to her somewhat not glorious career as a demon. She was a damned idiot for failing to capture the people who had slaughtered Barafnir but how the hell was she meant to have known the demon arsehole had been one of the Devil’s favourites?
She reached for the solid gold knob on one door, pulled down another breath to steel herself, and took hold of it. It was warm to the touch. Nothing like the cold bastard waiting on the other side. She could feel him there, his power vibrating through her, calling to her.
She closed her eyes, twisted the knob and pushed the door open just as she lifted her chin and fixed her gaze straight ahead.
It landed on a male lounging in a huge black throne in the centre of an enormous blue-walled room, wearing only gold-edged obsidian armour on his lower half.
Heaven be damned, because it had made him breathtaking.
She knew he was a brute, seven feet tall and dark and deadly, but he was a beautiful bastard, and he knew it as he sat there on his throne, black hair falling around his broad shoulders and chiselled torso on show.
The air in the expansive open room vibrated with his power, making her blood hum and skin tingle.
His red eyes held hers, a bored edge to his handsome face, and he lazily lifted his right hand from the arm of his throne and crooked a clawed finger, beckoning her.
Asteria’s palms sweated. She should have dressed a little sexier, taken more time about her appearance. It ran through her gaining volume on each pass as she sauntered towards him, feeling his heat rolling over her, power curling around her, drowning out the part of her that had feared him and replacing it with something altogether more terrifying.
The corner of his profane mouth twitched into a smirk.
He knew he was affecting her, and while his mouth said that pleased him, the way his eyes darkened said it didn’t.
She straightened her spine, crushed her unruly feelings and boxed them away, and held her head high as she marched towards him, all business. Not weak. Not affected by just his damned gorgeous presence.
Her step faltered when she noticed a smouldering bloody stain on the white marble floor.
His last appointment?
By the Devil, she was going to die in the next few seconds, or worse, at a later date after he was done with her.
When she was within a few metres, he lowered his right leg from his left knee and set his foot on the floor. His hands came down over the edges of the arms of his black throne, curling around to press sharp black claws into the stone and causing his biceps to bulge.
Behind him, a sheer black curtain did a poor job of concealing the other half of the room and she tried not to look there but her eyes were drawn to the hazy glow of candles on the other side, her focus snagged by the low moans coming from that direction.
That heat curled around her again, pushed at her will but she pushed back, refusing to fall prey to it and the Devil’s dark allure. She wasn’t about to become like those females on the other side of the curtain who were probably writhing around on his bed, waiting impatiently for the male who was staring at her.
“Asteria of the Second Legion.” His deep voice rumbled around the room like thunder, charging the air and sending tremors of pleasure through her, and she had to squeeze her thighs to stop herself from collapsing into a puddle of goo at his feet. Heaven be doubly damned, it had built this male for sin. Thoughts of dirty hard sex popped into her head, illicit images that she did her best to shove away as soon as they burst into existence. “You disappointed me.”
Just like that, the spell over her shattered and cold fear replaced the wicked heat of desire.
This was it.
Her death knell.