House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City) (45 page)

BOOK: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City)
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Ruhn approached a carved boulder just off the path. Squatting, he freed the knife in his boot and angled the blade toward a splash of the unusual blood clinging to some ancient moss.

“I wouldn’t do that.”

He knew that fair voice—its steady, calm cadence. He peered over his shoulder to find the medwitch from the clinic standing behind him, her curly dark hair loose around her striking face. But her eyes were upon the blood. “Its venom lies in its saliva,” she said, “but we don’t know what other horrors might be in the blood itself.”

“It hasn’t affected the moss,” he said.

“Yes, but this was a demon bred for specific purposes. Its blood
might be harmless to non-sentient life, but be dangerous to everything else.”

Ruhn started. “You recognized the demon?”

The witch blinked, as if she’d been caught. “I had very old tutors, as I told you. They required me to study ancient texts.”

Ruhn rose to his feet. “We could have used you years ago.”

“I had not completed my training then.” A nonanswer. Ruhn’s brow furrowed. The witch took a step back. “I was thinking, Prince,” she said, continuing her retreat. “About what you asked me. I looked into it, and there is some potential … research. I have to leave the city for a few days to attend to a personal matter, but when I return and fully review it, I will send it to you.”

“Ruhn!” Flynn’s shout cut through the chaos of the investigatory team around them.

Ruhn glanced over a shoulder to tell his friend to wait for two gods-damned seconds, but motion from the witch caught his eye.

He hadn’t seen the broom she’d stashed beside the tree, but he certainly saw it now as she shot into the night sky, her hair a dark curtain behind her.

“Who was that?” Flynn asked, nodding toward the vanishing witch.

“I don’t know,” Ruhn said quietly, staring after her into the night.

 

47

T
he storm hit when they were two blocks from Bryce’s building, soaking them within seconds. Pain lanced through Hunt’s forearm and shoulder as he landed on the roof, but he swallowed it down. Bryce was still shaking, her face distant enough that he didn’t immediately let go when he set her upon the rain-soaked tiles.

She peered up at him when his arms remained around her waist.

Hunt couldn’t help the thumb he swept over her ribs. Couldn’t stop himself from doing it a second time.

She swallowed, and he tracked every movement of her throat. The raindrop that ran over her neck, her pulse pounding delicately beneath it.

Before he could react, she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around him. Held him tightly. “Tonight sucked,” she said against his soaked chest.

Hunt slid his arms around her, willing his warmth into her trembling body. “It did.”

“I’m glad you’re not dead.”

Hunt chuckled, letting himself bury his face against her neck. “So am I.”

Bryce’s fingers curled against his spine, exploring and gentle.
Every single one of his senses narrowed to that touch. Came roaring awake. “We should get out of the rain,” she murmured.

“We should,” he replied. And made no move.

“Hunt.”

He couldn’t tell if his name was a warning or a request or something more. Didn’t care as he grazed his nose against the rain-slick column of her neck. Fuck, she smelled good.

He did it again, unable to help himself or get enough of that scent. She tipped her chin up slightly. Just enough to expose more of her neck to him.

Hel, yes.
Hunt almost groaned the words as he let himself nuzzle into that soft, delicious neck, as greedy as a fucking vampyr to be there, smell her, taste her.

It overrode every instinct, every pained memory, every vow he’d sworn.

Bryce’s fingers tightened on his back—then began stroking. He nearly purred.

He didn’t let himself think, not as he brushed his lips over the spot he’d nuzzled. She arched slightly against him. Into the hardness that ached behind the reinforced leather of his battle-suit.

Swallowing another groan against her neck, Hunt tightened his arms around her warm, soft body, and ran his hands downward, toward that perfect, sweet ass that had tortured him since day fucking one, and—

The metal door to the roof opened. Hunt already had his gun drawn and aimed toward it as Sabine stepped out and snarled, “
Back the fuck up
.”

 

48

H
unt weighed his options carefully.

He had a gun pointed at Sabine’s head. She had a gun pointed at Bryce’s heart.

Which of them was faster? The question buzzed in his skull.

Bryce obeyed Sabine’s command, her hands raised. Hunt could only follow, stepping behind Bryce so she was up against his chest, so he could snake his free hand around her waist, pinning her against him. Could he get into the air fast enough to avoid a bullet?

Bryce wouldn’t survive a close-range shot to the heart. She’d be dead in seconds.

Bryce managed to ask over the drumming rain, “Where’s your little demon friend?”

Sabine kicked the door to the roof shut. The cameras had all been disabled, he realized. They had to be, or the legion would already be here, having been tipped off by Marrin. The feeds had to be looping on harmless footage—just as she’d done at Luna’s Temple. Which meant no one, absolutely no one, knew what was happening.

Hunt slowly began to bring his good arm up Bryce’s shaking, soaked body.

Sabine spat. “Don’t fucking think about it, Athalar.”

He stopped his arm before it could cover Bryce’s breasts—the
heart beating beneath them. His battle-suit had enough armor to deflect a bullet. To let him absorb the impact. Better for him to lose an arm that he could regrow than for her to—

He couldn’t think the last word.

Sabine hissed, “I told you to stay away from this. And yet you just couldn’t listen—you had to show up at the Den, asking questions you have
no right
to ask.”

Bryce snarled, “We were asking those questions because you killed Danika, you fucking psycho.”

Sabine went wholly still. Nearly as still as the Fae could go. “You think I did
what
?”

Hunt knew Sabine wore every emotion on her face and had never once bothered to hide it. Her shock was genuine. Rain dripped off the narrow angles of her face as she seethed, “You think I killed my own daughter?”

Bryce was shaking so hard that Hunt had to tighten his grip, and she snapped, “You killed her because she was going to take your place as future Prime, you stole the Horn to undermine her, and you’ve been using that demon to kill anyone who might have seen you and to humiliate Micah before the Summit—”

Sabine laughed, low and hollow. “What utter bullshit.”

Hunt growled, “You wiped the footage of the Horn’s theft from the temple. We have it confirmed. You lied to us about Danika being there that night. And ranted about your daughter not keeping her mouth shut the night she died. All we need to prove you killed Danika is to tie you to the kristallos demon.”

Sabine lowered her gun, putting the safety back on. She trembled with barely restrained rage. “I didn’t steal anything, you stupid fucks. And I didn’t kill my daughter.”

Hunt didn’t dare lower his gun. Didn’t dare let go of Bryce.

Not as Sabine said, cold and joyless, “I was protecting her.
Danika
stole the Horn.”

 

49


D
anika didn’t steal anything,” Bryce whispered, cold lurching through her. Only Hunt’s arm around her middle kept her upright, his body a warm wall at her back.

Sabine’s light brown eyes—the same shade Danika’s had been but void of their warmth—were merciless. “Why do you think I swapped the footage? She thought the blackout would hide her, but was too dumb to consider that there might be audio still rolling that picked up each one of her disappearing footsteps as she left her post to steal the Horn, then reappeared a minute later, going back on patrol, as if she hadn’t spat in our goddess’s face. Whether she caused the blackout to steal it or if she took advantage of an opportunity, I don’t know.”

“Why would she take it?” Bryce could barely get the words out.

“Because Danika was a brat who wanted to see what she could get away with. As soon as I got the alert that the Horn had been stolen, I looked into the videos and swapped the footage on every database.” Sabine’s smile was a cruel slash. “I cleaned up her mess—just like I did for her entire life. And you two, in asking your
questions
, have threatened the shred of a legacy that she stands to leave.”

Hunt’s wings flared slightly. “You sent that demon after us tonight—”

Sabine’s pale brows snapped together. “What demon? I’ve been
waiting for you here all night. I thought about your stupid fucking visit to
my
Den, and decided you needed a real reminder to stay the Hel out of this case.” She bared her teeth. “Amelie Ravenscroft is standing across the street, waiting to make the call if you step out of line, Athalar. She says you two were putting on quite the show a moment ago.” A vicious, knowing smile.

Bryce flushed, and let Hunt look to confirm. From the way he tensed, she knew it was true.

Sabine said, “And as for what I said the night she died: Danika
couldn’t
keep her mouth shut—about anything. I knew she’d stolen the Horn, and knew someone probably killed her for it because she couldn’t keep it quiet.” Another cold laugh. “Everything I did was to protect my daughter. My reckless, arrogant daughter. Everything
you
did encouraged the worst in her.”

Hunt’s growl rent the night. “Careful, Sabine.”

But the Alpha just snorted. “You’ll regret crossing me.” She strolled for the edge of the roof, her power thrumming in a faint glow around her as she assessed the same leap that Bryce had so stupidly considered a year and a half ago. Only, Sabine would be able to gracefully land on the pavement. Sabine looked back over a thin shoulder, her lengthening teeth gleaming as she said, “I didn’t kill my daughter. But if you jeopardize her legacy, I will kill
you
.”

And then she jumped, shifting with a soft flash of light as she went. Hunt sprinted for the edge, but Bryce knew what he’d see: a wolf landing lightly on the pavement and streaking away into the darkness.

 

50

H
unt didn’t realize just how badly Sabine’s bombshell had hit Bryce until the next morning. She didn’t run. Nearly didn’t get up in time for work.

She drank a cup of coffee but refused the eggs he made. Barely said three words to him.

He knew she wasn’t mad at him. Knew that she was just … processing.

Whether that processing also had to do with what they’d done on the roof, he didn’t dare ask. It wasn’t the time. Even though he’d had to take a cold, cold shower afterward. And take matters into his own hands. It was to Bryce’s face, the memory of her scent and that breathy moan she’d made as she arched against him, that he’d come, hard enough he’d seen stars.

But it was the least of his concerns, this thing between them. Whatever it was.

Mercifully, nothing had leaked to the press about the attack in the park.

Bryce barely spoke after work. He’d made her dinner and she’d poked at it, then gone to sleep before nine. There sure as fuck were no more hugs that led to nuzzling.

The next day was the same. And the next.

He was willing to give her space. The gods knew he’d sometimes needed it. Every time he killed for Micah he needed it.

He knew better than to suggest Sabine could be lying, since there was no easier person to accuse than a dead one. Sabine was a monster, but Hunt had never known her to be a liar.

The investigation was full of dead ends, and Danika had died—for what? For an ancient artifact that didn’t work. That hadn’t worked in fifteen thousand years and never would again.

Had Danika herself wanted to repair and use the Horn? Though why, he had no idea.

He knew those thoughts weighed on Bryce. For five fucking days, she barely ate. Just went to work, slept, and went to work again.

Every morning he made her breakfast. Every morning she ignored the plate he laid out.

Micah called only once, to ask if they’d gotten proof on Sabine. Hunt had merely said, “It was a dead end,” and the Governor had hung up, his rage at the unsolved case palpable.

That had been two days ago. Hunt was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I thought hunting for ancient, deadly weapons would be exciting,” Lehabah groused from where she sat on her little divan, half watching truly inane daytime television.

“Me too,” Bryce muttered.

Hunt looked up from the evidence report he’d been skimming and was about to answer when the front doorbell rang. Ruhn’s face appeared on the camera feed, and Bryce let out a long, long sigh before silently buzzing him in.

Hunt rotated his stiff shoulder. His arm still throbbed a bit, an echo of the lethal venom that had ripped his magic right from his body.

The prince’s black boots appeared on the green carpeted steps seconds later, apparently taking a hint about their location thanks to the open library door. Lehabah was instantly zooming across the space, sparks in her wake, as she beamed and said, “
Your Highness!

Ruhn offered her a half smile, his eyes going right to Quinlan.
They missed none of the quiet, brooding exhaustion. Or the tone in Bryce’s voice as she said, “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

Ruhn slid into a seat across from them at the book-strewn table. The Starsword sheathed down his back didn’t reflect the lights in the library. “I wanted to check in. Anything new?”

Neither of them had told him about Sabine. And apparently Declan hadn’t, either.

“No,” Bryce said. “Anything about the Horn?”

Ruhn ignored her question. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Her spine stiffened.

Ruhn looked ready to get into it with his cousin, so Hunt did both of them—and himself, if he was being honest—a favor and said, “We’ve been waiting on a Many Waters contact to get back to us about a possible pattern with the demon attacks. Have you come across any information about the kristallos negating magic?” Days later, he couldn’t stop thinking about it—how it’d felt for his power to just sputter and die in his veins.

“No. I still haven’t found anything about the creation of the kristallos except that it was made from the blood of the first Starborn Prince and the essence of the Star-Eater himself. Nothing about it negating magic.” Ruhn nodded at him. “You’ve never come across a demon that can do that?”

“Not one. Witch spells and gorsian stones negate magic, but this was different.” He’d dealt with both. Before they’d bound him using the witch-ink on his brow, they’d shackled him with manacles hewn from the gorsian stones of the Dolos Mountains, a rare metal whose properties numbed one’s access to magic. They were used on high-profile enemies of the empire—the Hind herself was particularly fond of using them as she and her interrogators broke the Vanir among the rebel spies and leaders. But for years now, rumors had swirled in the 33rd’s barracks that rebels were experimenting with ways to render the metal into a spray that could be unleashed upon Vanir warriors on the battlefields.

Ruhn motioned to the ancient book he’d left on the table days ago, still open to a passage about the Starborn Fae. “If the Star-Eater
himself put his essence in the kristallos, that’s probably what gave the demon the ability to eat magic. Just as Prince Pelias’s blood gave it the ability to look for the Horn.”

Bryce frowned. “So that Chosen One sense of yours hasn’t detected a trace of the Horn?”

Ruhn tugged at the silver ring through his bottom lip. “No. But I got a message this morning from a medwitch I met the other day—the one who stitched up Hunt in the night garden. It’s a shot in the dark, but she mentioned that there’s a relatively new drug on the market that’s just starting to come into use. It’s a synthetic healing magic.” Hunt and Bryce straightened. “It can have some wicked side effects if not carefully controlled. She didn’t have access to its exact formula or the trials, but she said research showed it capable of healing at rates nearly double that of firstlight.”

Bryce said, “You think something like that could repair the Horn?”

“It’s a possibility. It’d fit with that stupid riddle about light that’s not light, magic that’s not magic repairing the Horn. That’s kind of what a synthetic compound like that is.”

Her eyes flickered. “And it’s … readily available?”

“It entered the market at some point in the past few years, apparently. No one has tested it on inanimate objects, but who knows? If real magic couldn’t heal it, maybe a synthetic compound could.”

“I’ve never heard of synthetic magic,” Hunt said.

“Neither have I,” Ruhn admitted.

“So we have a potential way to repair the Horn,” Bryce mused, “but not the Horn itself.” She sighed. “And we still don’t know if Danika stole the Horn on a lark or for some actual purpose.”

Ruhn started. “Danika did
what
?”

Bryce winced, then filled the prince in on all they’d learned. When she finished, Ruhn leaned back in his chair, shock written on every line of his face.

Hunt said into the silence, “Regardless of whether Danika stole the Horn for fun or to do something with it, the fact remains that she stole it.”

Ruhn asked carefully, “Do you think she wanted it for herself? To repair it and use it?”

“No,” Bryce said quietly. “No, Danika might have kept things from me, but I knew her heart. She never would have sought a weapon as dangerous as the Horn—something that could jeopardize the world like that.” She ran her hands over her face. “Her killer is still out there. Danika must have taken the Horn to keep them from getting it. They killed her for it, but they must not have found it, if they’re still using the kristallos to search for it.” She waved a hand at Ruhn’s sword. “That thing can’t help you find it? I still think luring the killer with the Horn is probably the most surefire way to find them.”

Ruhn shook his head. “The sword doesn’t work like that. Aside from being picky about who draws it, the sword has no power without the knife.”

“The knife?” Hunt asked.

Ruhn drew the sword, the metal whining, and laid it on the table between them. Bryce leaned back, away from it, as a bead of starlight sang down the fuller and sparkled at the tip.

“Fancy,” Hunt said, earning a glare from Ruhn, who had raised a brow at Bryce, no doubt expecting some kind of reverence from her at a sword that was older than this city, older than the Vanir’s first step in Midgard.

“The sword was part of a pair,” Ruhn said to him. “A long-bladed knife was forged from the iridium mined from the same meteorite, which fell on our old world.” The world the Fae had left to travel through the Northern Rift and into Midgard. “But we lost the knife eons ago. Even the Fae Archives have no record of how it might have been lost, but it seems to have been sometime during the First Wars.”

“It’s another of the Fae’s countless inane prophecies,” Bryce muttered. “
When knife and sword are reunited, so shall our people be.

“It’s literally carved above the Fae Archives entrance—whatever the fuck it means,” Ruhn said. Bryce gave a small smile at that.

Hunt grinned. Her little smile was like seeing the sun after days of rain.

Bryce pretended not to notice his grin, but Ruhn gave him a sharp look.

Like he knew every filthy thing Hunt had thought about Bryce, everything he’d done to pleasure himself while imagining it was her mouth around him, her hands, her soft body.

Shit—he was in such deep, unrelenting shit.

Ruhn only snorted, as if he knew that, too, and sheathed the sword again.

“I’d like to see the Fae Archives,” Lehabah sighed. “Think of all that ancient history, all those glorious objects.”

“Kept locked away, only for their pure-blooded heirs to see,” Bryce finished with a pointed glance at Ruhn.

Ruhn held up his hands. “I’ve tried to get them to change the rules,” he said. “No luck.”

“They let in visitors on the major holidays,” Lehabah said.

“Only from an approved list,” Bryce said. “And fire sprites are
not
on it.”

Lehabah rolled over onto her side, propping her head up with a fiery hand. “They would let me in. I am a descendent of Queen Ranthia Drahl.”

“Yeah, and I’m the seventh Asteri,” Bryce said dryly.

Hunt was careful not to react at the tone. The first bit of spark he’d seen in days.

“I am,” Lehabah insisted, turning to Ruhn. “She was my six-times-great-grandmother, dethroned in the Elemental Wars. Our family was cast from favor—”

“The story changes every time,” Bryce told Hunt, whose lips twitched.

“It does not,” Lehabah whined. Ruhn was smiling now, too. “We stood a chance at earning back our title, but my great-great-grandmother was booted from the Eternal City for—”

“Booted.”

“Yes,
booted
. For a completely false accusation of trying to steal the royal consort from the impostor queen. She’d be thrashing in her ashes if she knew what had become of her last scion. Little more than a bird in a cage.”

Bryce sipped from her water. “This is the point, boys, where she solicits you for cash to purchase her freedom.”

Lehabah turned crimson. “That is
not
true.” She pointed her finger at Bryce. “My
great
-grandmother fought with Hunt against the angels—and
that
was the end of my entire people’s freedom.”

The words cracked through Hunt. All of them looked at him now. “I’m sorry.” He had no other words in his head.

“Oh, Athie,” Lehabah said, zooming over to him and turning rose pink. “I didn’t mean to …” She cupped her cheeks in her hands. “I do not blame
you
.”

“I led everyone into battle. I don’t see how there’s anyone else to blame for what happened to your people because of it.” His words sounded as hollow as they felt.

“But Shahar led
you
,” Danaan said, his blue eyes missing nothing.

Hunt bristled at the sound of her name on the prince’s lips. But he found himself looking to Quinlan, to torture himself with the damning agreement he’d find on her face.

Only sorrow lay there. And something like understanding. Like she saw him, as he’d seen her in that shooting gallery, marked every broken shard and didn’t mind the jagged bits. Under the table, the toe of her high heel brushed against his boot. A little confirmation that yes—she saw his guilt, the pain, and she wouldn’t shy from it. His chest tightened.

Lehabah cleared her throat and asked Ruhn, “Have you ever visited the Fae Archives on Avallen? I heard they’re grander than what was brought over here.” She twirled her curl of flame around a finger.

“No,” Ruhn said. “But the Fae on that misty island are even less welcoming than the ones here.”

“They do like to hoard all their wealth, don’t they,” Lehabah said, eyeing Bryce. “Just like you, BB. Only spending on yourself, and never anything nice for me.”

Bryce removed her foot. “Do I not buy you strawberry shisha every other week?”

Lehabah crossed her arms. “That’s barely a gift.”

“Says the sprite who hotboxes herself in that little glass dome and burns it all night and tells me not to bother her until she’s done.” She leaned back in her chair, smug as a cat, and Hunt nearly grinned again at the spark in her eyes.

Bryce grabbed his phone from the table and snapped a photo of him before he could object. Then one of Lehabah. And another of Syrinx.

If Ruhn noticed she didn’t bother with a photo of him, he said nothing. Though Hunt could have sworn the shadows in the room deepened.

“All I want, BB,” Lehabah said, “is a little appreciation.”

“Gods spare me,” Bryce muttered. Even Ruhn smiled at that.

The prince’s phone rang, and he picked up before Hunt could see who it was. “Flynn.”

Hunt heard Flynn’s voice faintly. “You’re needed at the barracks. Some bullshit fight broke out about somebody’s girlfriend sleeping with someone else and I honestly don’t give two fucks about it, but they bloodied each other up pretty damn good.”

Ruhn sighed. “I’ll be there in fifteen,” he said, and hung up.

Hunt asked, “You really have to moderate petty fights like that?”

Ruhn ran a hand down the hilt of the Starsword. “Why not?”

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