House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City) (11 page)

BOOK: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City)
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Ruhn was already sipping from his whiskey, his striking blue eyes fixed on Maximus. Promising death.

She was half-tempted to let Ruhn send Maximus scurrying back to his daddy’s castle of horrors, but she’d worked so hard on the deal, had tricked the asshole into paying nearly a third more than the bust was worth. All it would take was one phone call from Maximus to his banker and that check in her purse would be dead on arrival.

So Bryce went up to Ruhn, drawing his attention from the vampyr at last.

Her brother’s black T-shirt and dark jeans were tight enough to show off the muscles Fae went to pieces over, and that plenty of people on the VIP level were now ogling. The tattooed sleeves on his golden-skinned arms, however, were colorful and beautiful enough to piss off their father. Along with the line of rings in one arched ear, and the straight black hair that flowed to his waist save for one shaved side. All painting a glaring billboard that said
Fuck You, Dad!

But Ruhn was still a Fae male. Still fifty years older than her. Still a domineering dick whenever she ran into him or his friends. Which was whenever she couldn’t avoid it.

“Well, well, well,” Bryce said, nodding her thanks to the
bartender as another sparkling water appeared before her. She took a swig, swishing the bubbles to rinse away the lingering taste of lion and alphahole. “Look who decided to stop frequenting poseur rock clubs and start hanging with the cool kids. Seems like the Chosen One’s finally getting hip.”

“I always forget how annoying you are,” Ruhn said by way of greeting. “And not that it’s any of your business, but I’m not here to party.”

Bryce surveyed her brother. No sign of the Starsword tonight—and, glancing at him, beyond the telltale physical heritage of the Starborn line, little declared that he’d been anointed by Luna or genetics to usher their people to greater heights. But it had been years since they’d really spoken. Maybe Ruhn had crawled back into the fold. It’d be a shame, considering the shit that had gone down to pull him out of it in the first place.

Bryce asked, “Is there a reason why you’re here, other than to ruin my night?”

Ruhn snorted. “Still happy playing slutty secretary, I see.”

Spoiled prick. For a few glittering years, they’d been best friends, a dynamic duo against Motherfucker Number One—aka the Fae male who’d sired them—but that was ancient history. Ruhn had seen to that.

She frowned at the packed club below, scanning the crowd for any sign of the two friends who trailed Ruhn everywhere, both pains in her ass. “How’d you get in here, anyway?” Even a Fae Prince had to wait in line at the Raven. Bryce had once delighted in watching preening Fae assholes be turned away at the doors.

“Riso’s my buddy,” Ruhn said. “He and I play poker on Tuesday nights.”

Of course Ruhn had somehow managed to befriend the club’s owner. A rare breed of butterfly shifter, what Riso lacked in size he made up for with sheer personality, always laughing, always flitting about the club and dancing above the crowd. Feeding off its merriment as if it were nectar. He was picky about his close circle, though—he liked to cultivate
interesting
groups of people to entertain him. Bryce and Danika had never made the cut, but odds were
that Fury was in that poker group. Too bad Fury didn’t answer her calls for Bryce to even ask about it.

Ruhn bared his teeth at Maximus as the glowering vamp headed toward the golden steps. “Riso called me a few minutes ago and said you were here. With that fucking creep.”

“Excuse me?” Her voice sharpened. It had nothing to do with the fact that she highly doubted the diplomatic club owner had used those terms. Riso was more the type to say,
She’s with someone who might cause the dancing to cease
. Which would have been Riso’s idea of Hel.

Ruhn said, “Riso can’t risk tossing Tertian to the curb—he implied the prick was being handsy and you needed backup.” A purely predatory gleam entered her brother’s eyes. “Don’t you know what Tertian’s father
does
?”

She grinned, and knew it didn’t reach her eyes. None of her smiles did these days. “I do,” she said sweetly.

Ruhn shook his head in disgust. Bryce leaned forward to grab her drink, each movement controlled—if only to keep from taking the water and throwing it in his face.

“Shouldn’t you be home?” Ruhn asked. “It’s a weekday. You’ve got
work
in six hours.”

“Thanks, Mom,” she said. But getting home and taking off her bra did sound fantastic. She’d been up before dawn again, sweat-soaked and breathless, and the day hadn’t improved from there. Maybe she’d be exhausted enough tonight to actually sleep.

But when Ruhn made no move to leave, Bryce sighed. “Let’s hear it, then.”

There had to be another reason why Ruhn had bothered to come—there always was, considering who had sired them.

Ruhn sipped from his drink. “The Autumn King wants you to lie low. The Summit meeting is in just over a month, and he wants any loose cannons tied down.”

“What does the Summit meeting have to do with me?” They occurred every ten years, a gathering of Valbara’s ruling powers to debate whatever issues or policies the Asteri ordered them to deal with. Each territory in the Republic held its own Summit meeting
on a rotating schedule, so that one occurred in the world each year—and Bryce had paid attention to exactly zero of them.

“The Autumn King wants everyone associated with the Fae on their best behavior—rumor says the Asteri are sending over some of their favored commanders, and he wants us all looking like good, obedient subjects. Honestly, I don’t fucking care, Bryce. I was just ordered to tell you to not … get into trouble until the meeting’s over.”

“You mean, don’t do anything embarrassing.”

“Basically,” he said, drinking again. “And look: beyond that, shit always gets intense around the Summit meetings, so be careful, okay? People come out of the woodwork to make their agendas known. Be on your guard.”

“I didn’t know Daddy bothered to care about my safety.” He never had before.

“He doesn’t,” Ruhn said, lips thinning, the silver hoop through the bottom one shifting with the movement. “But I’ll make him care about it.”

She considered the rage in his blue eyes—it wasn’t directed at her. Ruhn hadn’t yet fallen in line, then. Hadn’t bought into his Chosen One greatness. She took another sip of water. “Since when does he listen to you?”

“Bryce. Just stay out of trouble—on all fronts. For whatever reason, this Summit is important to him. He’s been on edge about it—beyond the whole everyone-needing-to-behave-themselves bullcrap.” He sighed. “I haven’t seen him this riled since two years ago …”

The words trailed off as he caught himself. But she got his meaning. Since two years ago. Since Danika. And Connor.

The glass in her hands cracked.

“Easy,” Ruhn murmured. “Easy.”

She couldn’t stop clutching the glass, couldn’t get her body to back down from the primal fury that surged up, up—

The heavy crystal glass exploded in her hands, water spraying across the golden bar. The bartender whirled, but kept away. No one along the bar dared look for more than a breath—not at the Crown Prince of the Valbaran Fae.

Ruhn gripped Bryce’s face with a hand.
“Take a fucking breath.”

That horrible, useless Fae side of her obeyed the dominance in his command, her body falling back on instincts that had been bred into her, despite her best attempts to ignore them.

Bryce sucked in a breath, then another. Gasping, shuddering sounds.

But with each breath, the blinding wrath receded. Eddied away.

Ruhn held her gaze until she stopped snarling, until she could see clearly. Then he slowly released her face—and took a deep breath of his own. “Fuck, Bryce.”

She stood on wobbling legs and adjusted the strap of her purse over her shoulder, making sure Maximus’s outrageous check was still inside. “Message received. I’ll lie low and act my classiest until the Summit.”

Ruhn scowled and slid off the stool with familiar Fae grace. “Let me walk you home.”

“I don’t need you to.” Besides, no one went to her apartment. Which wasn’t technically even
her
apartment, but that was beside the point. Only her mom and Randall, and occasionally Juniper if she ever left the dance studio, but no one else was allowed inside. It was her sanctuary, and she didn’t want Fae scents anywhere near it.

But Ruhn ignored her refusal and scanned the bar. “Where’s your coat?”

She clenched her jaw. “I didn’t bring one.”

“It’s barely spring.”

She stomped past him, wishing she’d worn boots instead of stilettos. “Then it’s a good thing I have my alcohol sweater on, isn’t it?” A lie. She hadn’t touched a drink in nearly two years.

Ruhn didn’t know that, though. Nor did anyone else.

He trailed her. “You’re hilarious. Glad all those tuition dollars went to something.”

She strode down the stairs. “At least I went to college and didn’t sit at home on a pile of Daddy’s cash, playing video games with my dickbag friends.”

Ruhn growled, but Bryce was already halfway down the
staircase to the dance floor. Moments later, she was elbowing her way through the crowds between the pillars, then breezing down the few steps into the glass-enclosed courtyard—still flanked on two sides by the temple’s original stone walls—and toward the enormous iron doors. She didn’t wait to see if Ruhn still trailed before she slipped out, waving at the half-wolf, half-daemonaki bouncers, who returned the gesture.

They were good guys—years ago, on rougher nights, they had always made sure Bryce got into a taxi. And that the driver knew exactly what would happen if she didn’t get home in one piece.

She made it a block before she sensed Ruhn catching up, a storm of temper behind her. Not close enough for someone to know they were together, but near enough for her senses to be full of his scent, his annoyance.

At least it kept any would-be predators from approaching her.

When Bryce reached the glass-and-marble lobby of her building, Marrin, the ursine shifter behind the front desk, buzzed her through the double doors with a friendly wave. Pausing with a hand on the glass doors, she glanced over a shoulder to where Ruhn leaned against a black-painted lamppost. He lifted a hand in farewell—a mockery of one.

She flipped him off and walked into her building. A quick hello to Marrin, an elevator ride up to the penthouse, five levels above, and the small cream-colored hallway appeared. She sighed, heels sinking into the plush cobalt runner that flowed between her apartment and the one across the hall, and opened her purse. She found her keys by the glow of the firstlight orb in the bowl atop the blackwood table against the wall, its radiance gilding the white orchid drooping over it.

Bryce unlocked her door, first by key, then by the finger pad beside the knob. The heavy locks and spells hissed as they faded away, and she stepped into her dark apartment. The scent of lilac oil from her diffuser caressed her as Syrinx yowled his greeting and demanded to be immediately released from his crate. But Bryce leaned back against the door.

She hated knowing that Ruhn still lurked on the street below,
the Crown Fucking Prince of Possessive and Aggressive Alphaholes, staring at the massive floor-to-ceiling wall of windows across the great room before her, waiting for the lights to come on.

His banging on the door in three minutes would be inevitable if she refused to turn on the lights. Marrin wouldn’t be stupid enough to stop him. Not Ruhn Danaan. There had never been a door shut for him, not once in his entire life.

But she wasn’t in the mood for that battle. Not tonight.

Bryce flicked on the panel of lights beside the door, illuminating the pale wood floors, the white plush furniture, the matching white walls. All of it as pristine as the day she’d moved in, almost two years ago—all of it far above her pay grade.

All of it paid for by Danika. By that stupid fucking will.

Syrinx grumbled, his cage rattling. Another possessive and aggressive alphahole. But a small, fuzzy one, at least.

With a sigh, Bryce kicked off her heels, unhooked her bra at last, and went to let the little beast out of his cage.

 

9


P
lease.”

The male’s whimper was barely discernible with the blood filling his mouth, his nostrils. But he still tried again. “Please.”

Hunt Athalar’s sword dripped blood onto the soaked carpet of the dingy apartment in the Meadows. Splatters of it coated the visor of his helmet, speckling his line of vision as he surveyed the lone male standing.

Kneeling, technically.

The male’s friends littered the living room floor, one of them still spurting blood from what was now his stump of a neck. His severed head lay on the sagging sofa, gaping face rolled into the age-flattened cushions.

“I’ll tell you everything,” the male pleaded, sobbing as he pressed his hand against the gash on his shoulder. “They didn’t tell you all of it, but I can.”

The male’s terror filled the room, overpowering the scent of blood, its reek as bad as stale piss in an alley.

Hunt’s gloved hand tightened on his blade. The male noted it and began shaking, a stain paler than blood leaking across his pants. “I’ll tell you more,” the man tried again.

Hunt braced his feet, rooting his strength into the floor, and slashed his blade.

The male’s innards spilled onto the carpet with a wet slap. Still the male kept screaming.

So Hunt kept working.

Hunt made it to the Comitium barracks without anyone seeing him.

At this hour, the city at least appeared asleep. The five buildings that made up the Comitium’s complex did, too. But the cameras throughout the 33rd Legion’s barracks—the second of the Comitium’s spire-capped towers—saw everything. Heard everything.

The white-tiled halls were dim, no hint of the hustle that would fill them come dawn.

The helmet’s visor cast everything into stark relief, its audio receptors picking up sounds from behind the shut bedroom doors lining either side of hallway: low-level sentries playing some video game, doing their best to keep their voices down as they cursed at each other; a female sentry talking on the phone; two angels fucking each other’s brains out; and several snorers.

Hunt passed his own door, instead aiming for the shared bathroom in the center of the long hallway, accessible only through the common room. Any hope for an unnoticed return vanished at the sight of the golden light leaking from beneath the shut door and the sound of voices beyond it.

Too tired, too filthy, Hunt didn’t bother to say hello as he entered the common room, prowling past the scattering of couches and chairs toward the bathroom.

Naomi was sprawled on the worn green couch before the TV, her black wings spread. Viktoria lounged in the armchair next to her, watching the day’s sports highlights, and on the other end of the couch sat Justinian, still in his black legionary armor.

Their conversation stalled as Hunt entered.

“Hey,” Naomi said, her inky braid draping over her shoulder. She wore her usual black—the triarii’s usual black—though there was no trace of her wicked weapons or their holsters.

Viktoria seemed content to let Hunt pass without greeting. It was why he liked the wraith more than nearly anyone else in
Micah Domitus’s inner circle of warriors, had liked her since those early days in the 18th, when she’d been one of the few non-angel Vanir to join their cause. Vik never pushed when Hunt didn’t want to be bothered. But Justinian—

The angel sniffed, scenting the blood on Hunt’s clothes, his weapons. How many different people it belonged to. Justinian blew out a whistle. “You are one sick fuck, you know that?”

Hunt continued toward the bathroom door. His lightning didn’t so much as hiss inside him.

Justinian went on, “A gun would have been a Hel of a lot cleaner.”

“Micah didn’t want a gun for this,” Hunt said, his voice hollow even to his ears. It had been that way for centuries now; but tonight, these kills he’d made, what they’d done to earn the wrath of the Archangel … “They didn’t deserve a gun,” he amended. Or the swift bolt of his lightning.

“I don’t want to know,” Naomi grumbled, punching up the volume of the TV. She pointed with the remote at Justinian, the youngest in the triarii. “And neither do you, so shut it.”

No, they really didn’t want to know.

Naomi—the only one of the triarii who was not Fallen—said to Hunt, “Isaiah told me that Micah wants you two playing investigators tomorrow for some shit in the Old Square. Isaiah will call you after breakfast with the details.”

The words barely registered. Isaiah. Tomorrow. Old Square.

Justinian snorted. “Good luck, man.” He swigged from his beer. “I hate the Old Square—it’s all university brats and tourist creeps.” Naomi and Viktoria grunted their agreement.

Hunt didn’t ask why they were up, or where Isaiah was, given that he couldn’t deliver the message. The angel was likely with whatever handsome male he was currently dating.

As Commander of the 33rd, acquired by Micah to shore up Crescent City’s defenses, Isaiah had enjoyed every second here since he’d arrived more than a decade ago. In four years, Hunt hadn’t seen the city’s appeal beyond it being a cleaner, more organized version of any Pangeran metropolis, with streets in clean lines
rather than meandering curves that often doubled back on themselves, as if in no hurry to get anywhere.

But at least it wasn’t Ravilis. And at least it was Micah ruling over it, not Sandriel.

Sandriel—the Archangel and Governor of the northwestern quadrant of Pangera, and Hunt’s former owner before Micah had traded with her, desiring to have Hunt clear Crescent City of any enemies. Sandriel—his dead lover’s twin sister.

The formal papers declared that Hunt’s duties would be to track down and dispatch any loose demons. But considering that those sorts of disasters happened only once or twice a year, it was glaringly obvious why he’d really been brought over. He’d done most of the assassinating for Sandriel, the Archangel who bore the same face as his beloved, for the fifty-three years she’d possessed him.

A rare occurrence, for both siblings to bear an Archangel’s title and power. A good omen, people had believed. Until Shahar—until Hunt, leading her forces—had rebelled against everything the angels stood for. And betrayed her sister in the process.

Sandriel had been the third of his owners after the defeat at Mount Hermon, and had been arrogant enough to believe that despite the two Archangels before her who had failed to do so, she might be the one to break him. First in her horror show of a dungeon. Then in her blood-soaked arena in the heart of Ravilis, pitting him against warriors who never stood a chance. Then by commanding him to do what he did best: slipping into a room and ending lives. One after another after another, year after year, decade after decade.

Sandriel certainly had motivation to break him. During that too-short battle at Hermon, it was her forces that Hunt had decimated, his lightning that turned soldier after soldier into charred husks before they could draw their swords. Sandriel had been Shahar’s prime target, and Hunt had been ordered to take her out. By whatever means necessary.

And Shahar had good reason to go after her sister. Their parents had both been Archangels, whose titles had passed to their daughters after an assassin had somehow managed to rip them to shreds.

He’d never forget Shahar’s theory: that Sandriel had killed their parents and framed the assassin. That she’d done it for herself and her sister, so they might rule without
interference
. There had never been proof to pin it on Sandriel, but Shahar believed it to her dying day.

Shahar, the Daystar, had rebelled against her fellow Archangels and the Asteri because of it. She’d wanted a world free of rigid hierarchies, yes—would have brought their rebellion right to the crystal palace of the Asteri if it had been successful. But she’d also wanted to make her sister pay. So Hunt had been unleashed.

Fools. They had all been fools.

It made no difference if he’d admitted his folly. Sandriel believed he’d lured her twin into the rebellion, that
he
had turned Shahar against her. That somehow, when sister had drawn blade against sister, so nearly identical in face and build and fighting technique that it was like watching someone battle their reflection, it was
his fucking fault
that it had ended with one of them dead.

At least Micah had offered him the chance to redeem himself. To prove his utter loyalty and submission to the Archangels, to the empire, and then one day get the halo removed. Decades from now, possibly centuries, but considering that the oldest angels lived to be nearly eight hundred … maybe he’d earn back his freedom in time to be old. He could potentially die free.

Micah had offered Hunt the bargain from his first day in Crescent City four years ago: a kill for every life he’d taken that bloody day on Mount Hermon. Every angel he’d slaughtered during that doomed battle, he was to pay back. In the form of more death.
A death for a death
, Micah had said.
When you’ve fulfilled the debt, Athalar, we’ll discuss removing that tattoo on your brow
.

Hunt had never known the tally—how many he’d killed that day. But Micah, who’d been on that battlefield, who’d watched while Shahar fell at her twin sister’s hand, had the list. They’d had to pay out commissions for all the legionaries. Hunt had been about to ask how they’d been able to determine which killing blows had been made by his blade and not someone else’s, when he’d seen the number.

Two thousand two hundred and seventeen.

It was impossible for him to have personally killed that many in one battle. Yes, his lightning had been unleashed; yes, he’d blasted apart entire units, but that many?

He’d gaped.
You were Shahar’s general
, Micah said.
You commanded the 18th. So you will atone, Athalar, not only for the lives you took, but those your traitorous legion took as well.
At Hunt’s silence, Micah had added,
This is not some impossible task. Some of my missions will count for more than one life. Behave, obey, and you will be able to reach this number.

For four years now, he had behaved. He had obeyed. And tonight had put him at a grand total of eighty-fucking-two.

It was the best he could hope for. All he worked for. No other Archangel had ever offered him the chance. It was why he’d done everything Micah had ordered him to do tonight. Why every thought felt distant, his body pulled from him, his head full of a dull roaring.

Micah was an Archangel. A Governor appointed by the Asteri. He was a king among angels, and law unto himself, especially in Valbara—so far from the seven hills of the Eternal City. If he deemed someone a threat or in need of justice, then there would be no investigation, no trial.

Just his command. Usually to Hunt.

It would arrive in the form of a file in his barracks mailbox, the imperial crest on its front. No mention of his name. Just
SPQM
, and the seven stars surrounding the letters.

The file contained all he needed: names, dates, crimes, and a timeline for Hunt to do what he did best. Plus any requests from Micah regarding the method employed.

Tonight it had been simple enough—no guns. Hunt understood the unwritten words: make them suffer. So he had.

“There’s a beer with your name on it when you come out,” Viktoria said, her eyes meeting Hunt’s even with the helmet on. Nothing but a casual, cool invitation.

Hunt continued into the bathroom, the firstlights fluttering to life as he shouldered his way through the door and approached
one of the shower stalls. He cranked the water to full heat before stalking back to the row of pedestal sinks.

In the mirror above one, the being who stared back was as bad as a Reaper. Worse.

Blood splattered the helmet, right over the painted silver skull’s face. It gleamed faintly on the intricate leather scales of his battle-suit, on his black gloves, on the twin swords peeking above his shoulders. Flecks of it even stained his gray wings.

Hunt peeled off the helmet and braced his hands on the sink.

In the harsh bathroom firstlights, his light brown skin was pallid under the black band of thorns across his brow. The tattoo, he’d learned to live with. But he shrank from the look in his dark eyes. Glazed. Empty. Like staring into Hel.

Orion, his mother had named him. Hunter. He doubted she would have done so, would have so lovingly called him Hunt instead, if she’d known what he’d become.

Hunt glanced to where his gloves had left red stains on the porcelain sink.

Tugging off the gloves with brutal efficiency, Hunt prowled to the shower stall, where the water had reached near-scalding temperatures. He removed his weapons, then his battle-suit, leaving more streaks of blood on the tiles.

Hunt stepped under the spray, and submitted himself to its relentless burning.

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