Emilien’s lips pressed together, and he closed his eyes and nodded. “You’re right. That was jealousy talking. I resented them because they helped you and I hadn’t—”
“Mon père,” she whispered. Hel swallowed her gasp, hearing her call him her father for the first time. What a precious moment for him. She could only pray Shalendra would one day call her mom.
“You never failed me,” Shalendra continued. “You taught me to be strong and to stand on my own two feet. You taught me to rely on myself, and that made me strong. I am honored to be your daughter.” Shalendra threw a quick glance to Hel. “To be a daughter to youboth.”
“I know what we should do,” Freyja interrupted. “Shalendra, do you think you and Soliana can track down information about your uncle and his wife? You would need to begin in Helheimr and go wherever that leads.” Shalendra’s eyes widened, her excitement glowing in their aqua depths.
“Remember what I told you about Helheimr draining your powers, Shalendra.” Hel frowned, her gaze darting to Émilien’s before returning to her daughter’s. “It made you so sick. By the time we figured out it was the land itself hurting you, you were almost gone.”
“Well,” Shalendra said, slapping the top of her legs. “Then there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there? I will go back and see if it happens again. This time, though, we will be prepared. The moment I start feeling sick, if I do, I will return here and regroup.”
Hel nodded. “Freyja, what other plan has that devious mind of yours come up with?”
Freyja’s smile turned smug, and Hel wanted more than anything to squirm in her seat. “I think the two of you need to figure out what’s affecting the death realms. My gut tells me they’re connected somehow, and you know my instincts are rarely wrong.”
Hel’s eyes widened, and she pressed a fist against her churning stomach as her gaze met Émilien’s then turned back to Freyja. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.
“That’s a horrible idea,” Émilien said at the same time.
Emilien’s heavy glare landed on Freyja. “Pairing me with Hel has got to be your worst idea yet. What makes you think we will be able to tolerate each other now?”
Freyja’s amethyst gaze glinted with anger. “You dare question me? I’m doing this for your daughter’s sake and your own. It’s about time the two of you worked through your differences and the pettiness. You arebothbetter together than apart. When you were married, you faced your enemies and defeated them together. It wasn’t until Hel’s ridiculous idea to send the two of you away instead of figuring out what was causing Shalendra’s health problems that everything crumbled. Everyone but the two of you knows you are better as a united front rather than apart and weak.”
She flipped a loose strand of long strawberry-blonde hair, which promptly weaved its way back through her braided updo, and in seconds, she was picture perfect. “Shalendra, what do you want from your parents?”
His beautiful daughter thought a moment, her gaze an unblinking stare that was a bit unnerving. “I want to know why I was forced to give up my family and birth right. I want to understand why my future was changed—and for what? I grew up without a mother and father, with no knowledge of a past, all because of a single person—however evil he may be? Have neither of you ever wondered if the reason I was so sick wasn’t because of Helheimr but maybe because Loki already knew who I was?”
Hel’s black eyes widened, her gaze spearing Émilien’s. “Could we have been wrong?”
He thought a moment, but the nagging doubts in his head didn’t match the firm belief in his gut that they hadn’t made a mistake, nor had they been incorrect. He refused to accept what had happened, first to Shalendra and then to himself so long ago. Losing his mate and being cursed into this monstrous form could not have been for naught.
He shook his head. “No, we were not wrong. I believe with everything I am that we made the right decision. To this day, Loki has no idea who Shalendra is. He would never have left her here with me if he had even the tiniest doubt.” Hel nodded, relief pouring into her obsidian eyes.
“Face it,” Freyja’s hard gaze met his. “You are stronger together than apart. It only makes sense for the two of you to meet whoever is trying to destroy the death realms head on. You have yet to discover the magic deep within you. I don’t think either of you has stopped long enough to consider the ramifications of what’s happening. Without the souls of the dead, each realm will collapse. Once this begins to happen, it cannot be reversed. Remember, the Nine Worlds interconnect, and if one realm within any of the worlds collapses, it dooms us all.”
Shalendra frowned. “You mean Ragnarök will begin, right? Isn’t that not so much an end but a rebirth, if you will?”
Freyja nodded. “Yes, Ragnarök is a new beginning for all worlds, but what I’m speaking about isn’t that. Pulling all souls from each of the dead realms acts like a vacuum. This is beyond Ragnarök. I’m speaking about the trueendingof the Nine Worlds and everyone in them.”
“Merde,” Émilien dropped his canine face into his paws and tried to ease the instant flare of pain now throbbing at each temple. As he dropped his heavy paws onto his thighs, a jar appeared, floating in the air in front of him. Filled almost to the rim were a mixture of both paper and coins.
“You know the rules,” Shalendra said in a prissy tone. “Shit is not an acceptable word and is worth fifty francs. Put the note in the jar.”
With a heavy scowl, he pulled a folded paper from his front pants pocket and dropped it in the jar. The moment the money touched the top of the pile, the jar disappeared. “That’s emasculating, you know. A man should be able to cuss in certain circumstances.”
“Yes,” his daughter agreed. “But not in the presence of young, impressionable ears. It was important when I was your little sister, but now that I know I’m your daughter, it’s even more so.”
Freyja’s lips quivered. “I’ve always thought you were an old soul, Shalendra, but this proves it. You are such a treasure, my dear. Such a treasure.”
Standing, the goddess closed her eyes and a brilliant flash of light appeared in the center of the amethyst stone set in the middle of the golden band across her forehead. The light grew until the gem glowed bright purple, and Freyja’s eyes opened. “I’m sending you to the last place Olivier and Jessica’s spirits were felt. You must follow the clues they left for you there. You must remember, though, you are not searching for them but only the clues they left for you to find.”
She turned to Émilien. “I hope I’m wrong, but I believe your brother and his wife’s fate and the fate of the Nine Worlds are tied together. Solve who’s behind the theft of souls from the death realms, and you will help Shalendra and Soliana find Olivier and Jessica.”
“And Shalendra?” Hel asked.
“Your daughter will be safe. She will have companions who will guard her with their lives. Now, go. Find out who is behind this and restore your kingdom, Hel. Before it’s too late and the end of times cannot be stopped.”