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Between the Blade and the Heart is the first book in a brilliant new YA fantasy duology inspired by Norse Mythology by New York Times bestselling author Amanda Hocking.
When the fate of the world is at stake
Loyalties will be tested
As one of Odin's Valkyries, Malin's greatest responsibility is to slay immortals and return them to the underworld. But when she unearths a secret that could unravel the balance of all she knows, Malin along with her best friend and her ex-girlfriend must decide where their loyalties lie. And if helping the blue-eyed boy Asher enact his revenge is worth the risk—to the world and her heart.
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The air reeked of fermented fish and rotten fruit, thanks to the overflowing dumpster from the restaurant behind us. The polluted alley felt narrow and claustrophobic, sandwiched between skyscrapers.
In the city, it was never quiet or peaceful, even at three in the morning. There were more than thirty million humans and supernatural beings coexisting, living on top of each other. It was the only life I'd ever really known, but the noise of the congestion grated on me tonight.
My eyes were locked on the flickering neon lights of the gambling parlor across the street. The u in Shibuya had gone out, so the sign flashed SHIB YA at me.
The sword sheathed at my side felt heavy, and my body felt restless and electric. I couldn't keep from fidgeting and cracked my knuckles.
"He'll be here soon," my mother, Marlow, assured me. She leaned back against the brick wall beside me, casually eating large jackfruit seeds from a brown paper sack. Always bring a snack on a stakeout was one of her first lessons, but I was far too nervous and excited to eat.
The thick cowl of her frayed black sweater had been pulled up like a hood, covering her cropped blond hair from the icy mist that fell on us. Her tall leather boots only went to her calf, thanks to her long legs. Her style tended to be monochromatic — black on black on black — aside from the shock of dark red lipstick.
My mother was only a few years shy of her fiftieth birthday, with almost thirty years of experience working as a Valkyrie, and she was still as strong and vital as ever. On her hip, her sword Mördare glowed a dull red through its sheath.
The sword of the Valkyries was one that appeared as if it had been broken in half — its blade only a foot long before stopping at a sharp angle. Mördare's blade was several thousand years old, forged in fires to look like red glass that would glow when the time was nigh.
My sword was called Sigrún, a present on my eighteenth birthday from Marlow. It was a bit shorter than Mördare, with a thicker blade, so it appeared stubby and fat. The handle was black utilitarian, a replacement that my mom had had custom- made from an army supply store, to match her own.
The ancient blade appeared almost black, but as it grew closer to its target, it would glow a vibrant purple. For the past hour that we'd been waiting on our stakeout, Sigrún had been glowing dully on my hip.
The mist grew heavier, soaking my long black hair. I kept the left side of my head shaved, parting my hair over to the right, and my scalp should've been freezing from the cold, but I didn't feel it. I didn't feel anything.
It had begun — the instinct of the Valkyrie, pushing aside my humanity to become a weapon. When the Valkyrie in me took over, I was little more than a scythe for the Grim Reaper of the gods.
"He's coming," Marlow said behind me, but I already knew.
The world fell into hyperfocus, and I could see every droplet of rain as it splashed toward the ground. Every sound echoed through me, from the bird flapping its wings a block away, to the club door as it groaned open.
Eleazar Bélanger stumbled out, his heavy feet clomping in the puddles. He was chubby and short, barely over four feet tall, and he would've appeared to be an average middle-aged man if it wasn't for the two knobby horns that stuck out on either side of his forehead. Graying tufts of black hair stuck out from under a bright red cap, and as he walked ahead, he had a noticeable limp favoring his right leg.
He was a Trasgu, a troublemaking goblin, and his appearance belied the strength and cunning that lurked within him. He was over three hundred years old, and today would be the day he died.
I waited in the shadows of the alley for him to cross the street. A coughing fit caused him to double over, and he braced himself against the brick wall.
I approached him quietly — this all went easier when they didn't have time to prepare. He took off his hat to use it to wipe the snot from his nose, and when he looked up at me, his green eyes flashed with understanding.
"It's you," Eleazar said in a weak, craggy voice. We'd never met, and I doubt he'd ever seen me before, but he recognized me, the way they all did when their time was up.
"Eleazar Bélanger, you have been chosen to die," I said, reciting my script, the words automatic and cold on my lips. "It is my duty to return you to the darkness from whence you came."
"No, wait!" He held up his pudgy hands at me. "I have money. I can pay you. We can work this out."
"This is not my decision to make," I said as I pulled the sword from my sheath.
His eyes widened as he realized I couldn't be bargained with. For a moment I thought he might just accept his fate, but they rarely did. He bowed his head and ran at me like a goat. He was stronger than he looked and caused me to stumble back a step, but he didn't have anywhere to go.
My mother stood blocking the mouth of the alley, in case I needed her. Eleazar tried to run toward the other end, but his leg slowed him, and I easily overtook him. Using the handle of my sword, I cracked him on the back of the skull, and he fell to the ground on his knees.
Sigrún glowed brightly, with light shining out from it and causing the air to glow purple around us. Eleazar mumbled a prayer to the Vanir gods. I held the sword with both hands, and I struck it across his neck, decapitating him.
And then, finally, the electricity that had filled my body, making my muscles quiver and my bones ache, left me, and I breathed in deeply. The corpse of an immortal goblin lay in a puddle at my feet, and I felt nothing but relief.
"It was a good return," my mother said, and put her hand on my shoulder. "You did well, Malin."
The crimson of the early morning sun glittered off the windows of the skyscrapers that towered above, making the glass look like fragmented rubies. In the heart of the city, dwarfed by all the buildings around it, sat the Evig Riksdag — the eternal parliament. Colloquially referred to as the Riks by Valkyries, it was where we all reported and got our orders from the Eralim.
The building's design made it similar to a concrete mushroom, with the lower twenty floors narrow and almost windowless, while the top ten floors extended far past the base, held up by metal beams. It was a feat of engineering that the top- heavy building didn't topple over. The austere appearance lent itself more to a government prison than to a place of celestial intervention.
A small computer screen was posted next to the front door, and I placed my hand on it. A beam of light flashed hotly over my hand, analyzing it, then the screen flashed green. The thick steel doors slowly slid open, and Marlow and I walked inside.
The lobby was deserted, save for the half dozen armed guards that were posted around the doors. Their black uniforms all had the same insignia on their shoulders — an eagle with the three horns of Odin. It was the symbol of the Vörðr, the powerful police force of the Evig Riksdag, mostly made up of sons of Valkyries.
The solid concrete walls enclosing the lobby gave the room a bunkerlike feel, but the black marble floors swirling with copper added a touch of elegance. Two bronze statues — men brandishing long swords, hunched under the shroud of their massive wings — were the only décor in the entire space.
But the Riksdag wasn't the kind of place that encouraged loitering or visitors of any kind. Security was of the highest priority. There had been many attacks by immortals against the Riks, some that resulted in deaths of the Eralim and Valkyries that ran it, which was why the Vörðr needed to be the most elite police force in the world.
Many immortals took umbrage with the idea of being "returned," which was the vernacular the Riks used for killing. We weren't murderers — we were simply returning the immortals back to a world where they belonged.
Marlow and I took the elevator to the twenty-ninth floor, where we were greeted with a retinal scan before we could exit. A long corridor stretched out before us — more black marble floors and copper walls closing in on us. At the very end was a massive bronze door, and on either side stood Samael's personal bodyguards.
Godfrey Wright was the larger of the two, but both were hulking. Godfrey stood well over seven feet tall, with bulging arms and a shaved cranium. But what people usually noticed first was that he was a cyclops, with a solitary large eye above his nose.
The smaller and younger guard was Atlas Malosi. With light brown skin and cropped black hair, he had an open face and glittering dark eyes that made him appear much too friendly to be a guard.
He was the son of a Valkyrie, so he had the strength and height of one, but none of the supernatural ability that would make it possible for him to slay immortals. Only daughters could wield such power.
"How are you ladies doing this lovely morning?" Atlas asked, with a broad grin to match his broad shoulders.
"Just finished the job," I replied.
"I assume that it all went well for you." Atlas continued grinning.
"Is Samael in?" Marlow asked, cutting Atlas's chatter.
The smile finally fell from Atlas's face. "You know Samael. He's always in."
Godfrey was a man of few words, so he merely let out a grunt of agreement and gestured toward the door.
"Thank you." I smiled politely at the guards, but Marlow was already opening the door and heading into Samael's spacious office.
Samael had been assigned as my Eralim, because he'd been my mother's before me. His office was sparsely furnished — a large desk in front of the glass wall that overlooked the city, a few art deco chairs and a sofa, and objets d'art he'd collected over the centuries displayed on the shelves that lined the walls.
Samael himself was sprawled out on the black velvet sofa, absently reading something on his electronic tablet, but he broke out in a smile when he spotted us. While Samael was well over three hundred years old, he didn't look a day over twenty-five.
Lounging in black slacks and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he looked more like a college kid playing at grown-up than an experienced supervisor. Adding to that, he was incredibly handsome, with warm umber skin, bright aqua eyes beneath a strong brow, and a mass of shoulder-length chestnut curls with natural blond highlights coursing through.
His full lips always seemed on the edge of a smirk, one that even my stoic mother couldn't resist. As he walked over to greet us, Marlow pushed down her cowled hood and smiled brazenly at him.
"How is it that you always manage to look so beautiful, even this early in the morning?" Samael mused, his eyes locked on my mother.
I rolled my eyes and sat in one of the several uncomfortable three-legged armchairs. I leaned back, propping my black moto boots up on the glass table to wait out Marlow and Samael's flirtation.
"You know work always brings out the best in me." Marlow smiled demurely at Samael, then turned and sauntered away from him, toward his desk.
He kept a crystal bowl on his desk, perpetually filled with treats like red bean paste covered in gold leaf or baby scorpions dipped in chocolate. As Samael turned his attention to me, Marlow grabbed a handful of whatever delicacy he had today, and as he spoke, she absently munched on it.
"So, Malin, how did it go?" Samael asked me.
I looked past him to my mother, searching her expression for clues as to how she thought it went, but she just stared down impassively at the morsels in her hand.
"He's dead, so I think it went about as well as it could have," I said finally.
"Returned," Samael corrected me, then cast his eyes toward the ceiling, as if someone upstairs cared enough to eavesdrop on us. "He's returned, not dead."
The immortals weren't killed — they merely shed their mortal coil in a way that meant they could never walk the earth again.
That was one of the basic tenets of the world we lived in, and one of the first things we were taught in grade school. The gods had given us dominion over the earth, where humans, animals, and supernatural beings were all supposed to live in harmony as much as we could.
Valkyries were instated to return immortals to another realm — to an underworld called Kurnugia — and they could not come back. Mortals couldn't return from the dead, either, but that was mostly because we had no afterworld.
That was how things were kept "fair." Immortals returned to Kurnugia, but mortals could not. When we died, we were left to rot in the dirt.
The dead must stay dead. That which is dead cannot rise.
"If you're going to be a Valkyrie, you'll have to get the lingo down," Samael went on.
"I am a Valkyrie," I replied pointedly.
"It may be in your blood, but it's not your job title yet," Samael said, sitting back down on the sofa across from me. "You know how the folks upstairs love paperwork and procedure."
"That they do," Marlow snorted in agreement, but I already had plenty of experience with the bureaucracy of the Evig Riksdag.
My training in their protocol had begun shortly after my eighteenth birthday, with classes at Ravenswood Academy, and it had still taken almost a year before I was able to start apprenticing alongside my mother. Then it had been another six months of testing and training and red tape before I had finally gotten a permit and been allowed to make kills, as long as it was under the close supervision of Marlow.
Since then I had killed — or, rather, returned — four immortals. Eleazar Bélanger had been my fifth.
"How are you taking to it, then?" Samael leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, and something in the softness of his voice led me to believe what he was really asking was how I was coping.
There had been an entire course at Ravenswood Academy called Guilt and How to Handle It, and we discussed how some Valkyries couldn't deal with it. The responsibility of being an executioner was too much.
But I'd never felt guilt. I'd never felt anything but purpose. My body was made to do this, and when there was too much time between jobs, I began to crave it. The way the electricity felt coursing through me, the buzzing around my heart, the way the pressure felt growing inside of me that wouldn't stop until I completed my mission.
It was all relief and release.
"I can't imagine doing anything else," I admitted.
Samael looked back over his shoulder at my mother. "You think she's doing well enough to go on her own soon?"
"She's ready to go now." Marlow absently brushed at the crumbs on her black pants. "I know the Riksdag wants her to have seven returns under her belt, so I'll be happy to shadow for the next two, but she doesn't need me."
Samael looked back at me, grinning. "Well, it sounds like you'll be a Valkyrie very soon."
My mother looked up, pride flashing momentarily in her dark gray eyes. "She was born for it."
The city had outgrown the land, and a century or so ago it had expanded out onto the lake. I'm sure the engineer behind the New Edgewater development had visions of romantic architecture with canal streets, like Venice or St. Petersburg, but the reality had become something much different.
The water had become polluted, and it smelled of gasoline and dead fish, and the wealthy elites had fled. The condominiums and apartments that towered around me, scraping the clouds overhead, had become run-down and decrepit. Broken windows and rusty fire escapes, with clotheslines running from building to building.
Vehicles sped by on the canals, splashing filthy water onto the sidewalks. It was all old yellow taxis, hovercrafts, and luftfahrrads — motorcycles that hovered a few inches above the surface of the water.
Somewhere a baby was crying. In New Edgewater, there was always a baby crying somewhere within earshot. There was a large population of pontianaks here, and they lured victims with the sound of a crying infant.
It was getting late, but I walked slowly down the crowded sidewalks away from my apartment. As much as I loved working as a Valkyrie, it always took something out of me, and I crashed for hours after.
The garage would be closed by the time I got there, but the stack of silvery blue bills in my pocket would open the doors. Samael always paid me with freshly minted money, and I often wondered what became of the old worn dollars. Did the Riks shred them and constantly print their own money?
Above me, the overcast sky rumbled ominously. The lights from the city made the clouds glow orange and red, and I quickened my pace. I had only a block left to go when the sky opened up with angry, cold raindrops.
Excerpted from "Between The Blade And The Heart"
Copyright © 2017 Amanda Hocking.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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