Hell Bent (Razing Hell #5) by Cate Corvin

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Melisande





The collar bit into my throat with every move I made.

I grimaced, pausing halfway towards reaching for a bottle of dark wine.

The skin around my neck felt like it’d been rubbed raw, but after three days of getting used to the weight of it, I knew that was only an illusion. In the few glimpses I’d caught of myself in a mirror, there was no redness, no scratches besides the ones my own nails left behind.

Nothing to show that it might be anything more than a decorative ornament.

That was the most galling thing about the slave collar Queen Ereshkigal had fitted to me when I woke up from a dream of agony and torment.

That it was beautiful.

Not that it always hurt, not that the spell she’d placed on it kept me bound in Kur for as long as she desired, nor even the fact that it couldn’t be cut away or removed by any hands other than her own.

It was the fact that she had me in a pretty necklace, a band of gold-plated ebonite the width of my forefinger, set with diamonds and amethysts that sparkled when they caught the light.

Like I was a cosseted pet instead of a captive. Her slave.

Her silent handmaidens, ranging from winged and clawed Gallu demons to pretty girls who looked barely more than human, had brushed my hair until it shone as smooth as glass. I’d been given a shift of black silk to wear that was identical to theirs. It was simple but elegant, and spilled like water around my knees when I knelt before the Queen.

I stared at the bottle of wine I was supposed to be fetching for her, gritting my teeth with impotent rage.

The Queen loved beauty. Or rather, she loved breaking it. She took more joy in destroying something pretty and whole than in kicking someone already down.

So instead of being left to wallow in my own filth, coated in blood and sand, she’d had my unconscious body removed from the birdcage and washed.

I’d woken on a stone floor, clean and dressed in new clothes, and the collar tight around my throat. The night before seemed like nothing but a confused fever-dream: hadn’t she ripped open my wounds again with her darkness? Why would I be in silk and jewels?

But the moment I’d been forced to my knees before her, the flash of vicious satisfaction in her eyes was all I needed to tell me why she’d done this.

It wasn’t for my benefit. The comfort I seemingly enjoyed was an illusion, much like her slave collar.

It was to keep me on my toes, always jumping at shadows and wondering when the next cruel strike would come.

I hadn’t bowed properly that first day. Her guardian’s whip had come down across my back in lines of white-hot fire, splitting the silk dress and soaking it with blood.

It had forced me face down to the ground in front of her feet, gasping out all my breath in shock at the sudden pain. He’d hit me over and over until the darkness mercifully swallowed me again.

The next time I woke up, I was clean again, and my wounds tended.

After that, I bowed properly. I pressed my face to the floor with my arms outstretched, in total obeisance to the Queen. There was a time to fight, and a time to bow. This wasn’t going to be the hill I died on just to make a point.

Distantly, I knew that she was just breaking me down. Every time I gave in to her games and control, she won a little more of the high ground.

Her handmaidens had already been broken. Their eyes were empty, and they moved like automatons: living and breathing, but totally empty shells. They, too, were clean and pampered, ornaments for Ereshkigal to move around like pretty, dead-eyed dolls.

As long as I held on to my rage, Ereshkigal would never make a doll out of me.

Lucifer made sure of that.

I ran a finger along the edge of my collar again, barely stopping myself from scratching at my skin until it bled, and grabbed the wine bottle.

Irkallan guardians lined the corridors, their pale limbs painted with dark stripes. They were silent as I slipped out of the wine room and passed them, but I felt their suspicious gazes on me.

It took a great effort to slow my steps towards the throne room and drift along like the other handmaidens, gazing at nothing in particular, but taking in all I could. Memorizing it as I had memorized the succubus temple’s map.

The palace of Kur was labyrinthine, with passages branching off into darkness and going God knew where, but I committed everything to memory. In some alcoves, more black sphinx statues stood, staring down with snarling faces that seemed alive under the flickering torchlight.

Ereshkigal’s throne had been spun on its axis and now sat on the broad balcony, her back facing the roomful of corpses and despair. I felt a pulse of sadness from Inanna’s body as I walked beneath her, but I had no time to spare for the semi-dead goddess.