House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City) (46 page)

BOOK: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City)
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“You’re a prince.”

“I don’t understand why you make that sound like an insult,” Ruhn growled.

Hunt said, “Why not do … bigger shit?”

Bryce answered for him. “Because his daddy is scared of him.”

Ruhn shot her a warning look. “He outranks me power-wise
and
title-wise.”

“And yet he made sure to get you under his thumb as early as possible—as if you were some sort of animal to be tamed.” She said the words mildly, but Ruhn tensed.

“It was going well,” Ruhn said tightly, “until you came along.”

Hunt braced himself for the brewing storm.

Bryce said, “He was alive the last time a Starborn Prince appeared, you know. You ever ask what happened to him? Why he died before he made the Drop?”

Ruhn paled. “Don’t be stupid. That was an accident during his Ordeal.”

Hunt kept his face neutral, but Bryce just leaned back in her chair. “If you say so.”

“You still believe this shit you tried to sell me as a kid?”

She crossed her arms. “I wanted your eyes open to what he really is before it was too late for you, too.”

Ruhn blinked, but straightened, shaking his head as he rose from the table. “Trust me, Bryce, I’ve known for a while what he is. I had to fucking live with him.” Ruhn nodded toward the messy table. “If I hear anything new about the Horn or this synthetic healing magic, I’ll let you know.” He met Hunt’s stare and added, “Be careful.”

Hunt gave him a half smile that told the prince he knew exactly what that
be careful
was about. And didn’t give a shit.

Two minutes after Ruhn left, the front door buzzed again.

“What does he fucking want now?” Bryce muttered, grabbing the tablet Lehabah had been using to watch her trash TV and pulling up the video feed for the front cameras.

A squeal escaped her. An otter in a reflective yellow vest stood on its hind legs, a little paw on the lower buzzer she’d had Jesiba install for shorter patrons. Out of the hope that one day, somehow, she’d find a fuzzy, whiskery messenger standing on the doorstep.

Bryce bolted from her chair a second later, her heels eating up the carpet as she ran upstairs.

The message the otter bore from Tharion was short and sweet.

I think you’ll find this of interest. Kisses, Tharion

“Kisses?” Hunt asked.

“They’re for you, obviously,” Bryce said, still smiling about the otter. She’d handed him a silver mark, for which she’d earned a twitch of the whiskers and a little fanged grin.

Easily the highlight of her day. Week. Year.

Honestly, her entire life.

At the desk in the showroom, Bryce removed Tharion’s letter from the top of the pile, while Hunt began to leaf through some of the pages beneath.

The blood rushed from her face at a photograph in Hunt’s hand. “Is that a body?”

Hunt grunted. “It’s what’s left of one after Tharion pried it from a sobek’s lair.”

Bryce couldn’t stop the shudder down her spine. Clocking in at more than twenty-five feet and nearly three thousand pounds of scale-covered muscle, sobeks were among the worst of the apex predators who prowled the river. Mean, strong, and with teeth that could snap you in two, a full-grown male sobek could make most Vanir back away. “He’s insane.”

Hunt chuckled. “Oh, he most certainly is.”

Bryce frowned at the gruesome photo, then read through Tharion’s notes. “He says the bite marks on the torso aren’t consistent with sobek teeth. This person was already dead when they were dumped into the Istros. The sobek must have seen an easy meal and hauled it down to its lair to eat later.” She swallowed the dryness in her mouth and again looked at the body. A dryad female. Her chest cavity had been ripped open, heart and internal organs removed, and bite marks peppered—

“These wounds look like the ones you got from the kristallos. And the mer’s lab figured this body was probably five days old, judging by the level of decay.”

“The night we were attacked.”

Bryce studied the analysis. “There was clear venom in the wounds. Tharion says he could feel it inside the corpse even before the mer did tests on it.” Most of those in the House of Many Waters could sense what flowed in someone’s body—illnesses and weaknesses and, apparently, venom. “But when they tested it …” She blew out a breath. “It negated magic.” It had to be the kristallos. Bryce cringed, reading on, “He looked into records of all unidentified bodies the mer found in the past couple years. They found two with identical wounds and this clear venom right around the time of …” She swallowed. “Around when Danika and the pack died.
A dryad and a fox shifter male. Both reported missing. This month, they’ve found
five
with these marks and the venom. All reported missing, but a few weeks after the fact.”

“So they’re people who might not have had many close friends or family,” Hunt said.

“Maybe.” Bryce again studied the photograph. Made herself look at the wounds. Silence fell, interrupted only by the distant sounds of Lehabah’s show downstairs.

She said quietly, “That’s not the creature that killed Danika.”

Hunt ran a hand through his hair. “There might have been multiple kristallos—”

“No,” she insisted, setting down the papers. “The kristallos isn’t what killed Danika.”

Hunt’s brow furrowed. “You were on the scene, though. You saw it.”

“I saw it in the hall, not in the apartment. Danika, the pack, and the other three recent victims were in
piles
.” She could barely stand to say it, to think about it again.

These past five days had been … not easy. Putting one foot in front of the other had been the only thing to get her through it after the disaster with Sabine. After the bomb she’d dropped about Danika. And if they’d been looking for the wrong fucking thing all this time …

Bryce held up the photo. “These wounds aren’t the same. The kristallos wanted to get at your heart, your organs. Not turn you into a—a heap. Danika, the Pack of Devils, Tertian, the acolyte and temple guard—
none
of them had wounds like this. And
none
had this venom in their system.” Hunt just blinked at her. Bryce’s voice cracked. “What if something else came through? What if the kristallos was summoned to look for the Horn, but something worse was also there that night? If you had the power to summon the kristallos, why not summon multiple types of demons?”

Hunt considered. “I can’t think of a demon that demolishes its victims like that, though. Unless it’s another ancient horror straight from the Pit.” He rubbed his neck. “If the kristallos killed this dryad—killed these people whose bodies washed into the river
through the sewers—then
why
summon two kinds of demons? The kristallos is already lethal as Hel.” Literally.

Bryce threw up her hands. “I have no idea. But if everything we know about Danika’s death is wrong, then we need to figure out
how
she died. We need someone who can weigh in.”

He rubbed his jaw. “Any ideas?”

She nodded slowly, dread curling in her gut. “Promise me you won’t go ballistic.”

 

51


S
ummoning a demon is a bad fucking idea,” Hunt breathed as night fell beyond the apartment’s shut curtains. “Especially considering that’s what started this mess in the first place.”

They stood in her great room, lights dimmed and candles flickering around them, Syrinx bundled in blankets and locked in his crate in Bryce’s bedroom, surrounded by a protective circle of white salt.

What lay around and before them on the pale floors, reeking of mold and rotten earth, was the opposite of that.

Bryce had ground the block of obsidian salt down at some point—presumably using her fucking food processor. For something she’d dropped ten grand on, Bryce didn’t treat it with any particular reverence. She’d chucked it into a kitchen cabinet as if it were a bag of chips.

He hadn’t realized she’d only been biding her time until she needed it.

Now, she’d crafted two circles with the obsidian salt. The one near the windows was perhaps five feet in diameter. The other was big enough to hold herself and Hunt.

Bryce said, “I’m not going to waste my time snooping around town for answers about what kind of demon killed Danika. Going right to the source will save me a headache.”

“Going right to the source will get you splattered on a wall. And if not, arrested for summoning a demon into a residential zone.” Shit.
He
should arrest her, shouldn’t he?

“No one likes a narc, Athalar.”

“I
am
a narc.”

A dark red eyebrow arched. “Could’ve fooled me, Shadow of Death.” She joined him in the salt circle. Her long ponytail pooled in the collar of her leather jacket, the candlelight gilding the red strands.

His fingers twitched, as if they’d reach for that silken length of hair. Run it between them. Wrap it around his fist and draw her head back, exposing that neck of hers again to his mouth. His tongue. Teeth.

Hunt growled, “You do know that it is my
job
to stop these demons from entering this world.”

“We’re not setting the demon loose,” she hissed back. “This is as safe as a phone call.”

“Are you going to summon it with its unholy number, then?” Many demons had numbers associated with them, like some sort of ancient email address.

“No, I don’t need it. I know how to find this demon.” He started to answer, but she cut him off. “The obsidian salt will hold it.”

Hunt eyed the circles she’d made, then sighed. Fine. Even though arguing with her was nearly as enticing as foreplay, he didn’t feel like wasting time, either.

But then the temperature in the room began to drop. Rapidly.

And as Hunt’s breath began to cloud the air, as a humanoid male appeared, thrumming with dark power that made his stomach roil …

Bryce grinned up at Hunt as his heart stopped dead. “Surprise.”

She’d lost her fucking mind. He would kill her for this—if they weren’t both killed in the next few seconds.

“Who is that?” Ice formed in the room. No clothing could protect against the cold this demon brought with him. It pierced
through every layer, snatching the breath from Hunt’s chest with clawed fingers. A shuddering inhale was the only sign of Bryce’s discomfort as she remained facing the circle on the other side of the room. The male now contained inside its dark border.

“Aidas,” she said softly.

Hunt had always imagined the Prince of the Chasm as similar to the lower-level demons he’d hunted over the centuries: scales or fangs or claws, brute muscle and snarling with blind animal rage.

Not this slender, pale-skinned … pretty boy.

Aidas’s blond hair fell to his shoulders in soft waves, loose, yet well cut around his fine-boned face. Undoubtedly to show off the eyes like blue opals, framed by thick, golden lashes. Those lashes bobbed once in a cursory blink. Then his full, sensuous mouth parted in a smile to reveal a row of too-white teeth. “Bryce Quinlan.”

Hunt’s hand drifted to his gun. The Prince of the Chasm knew her name—her face. And the way he’d spoken her name was as much greeting as it was question, his voice velvet-soft.

Aidas occupied the fifth level of Hel—the Chasm. He yielded only to two others: the Prince of the Abyss, and the Prince of the Pit, the seventh and mightiest of the demon princes. The Star-Eater himself, whose name was never uttered on this side of the Northern Rift.

No one would dare say his name, not after the Prince of the Pit became the first and only being to ever kill an Asteri. His butchering of the seventh holy star—Sirius, the Wolf Star—during the First Wars remained a favorite ballad around war-camp fires. And what he’d done to Sirius after slaying her had earned him that awful title: Star-Eater.

“You appeared as a cat the last time” was all Bryce said.

All. She. Said.

Hunt dared take his eyes off the Prince of the Chasm to find Bryce bowing her head.

Aidas slid his slender hands into the pockets of his closely tailored jacket and pants—the material blacker than the Chasm in which he resided. “You were very young then.”

Hunt had to plant his feet to keep from swaying. She’d met the prince before—how?

His shock must have been written on his face because she shot him a look that he could only interpret as
Calm the fuck down
, but said, “I was thirteen—not
that
young.”

Hunt reined in his grunt that would have suggested otherwise.

Aidas tilted his head to one side. “You were very sad then as well.”

It took Hunt a moment to process it—the words. The bit of history, and the bit of now.

Bryce rubbed her hands together. “Let’s talk about
you
, Your Highness.”

“I am always happy to do so.”

The cold burned Hunt’s lungs. They could last only minutes at this temperature before their healing abilities started churning. And despite Bryce’s Fae blood, there was a good chance that she might not recover at all. Without having made the Drop, the frostbite would be permanent for Bryce. As would any digits or limbs lost.

She said to the demon prince, “You and your colleagues seem to be getting restless in the dark.”

“Is that so?” Aidas frowned at his polished leather shoes as if he could see all the way down to the Pit. “Perhaps you summoned the wrong prince, for this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Who is summoning the kristallos demon to hunt through this city?” Flat, cutting words. “And what killed Danika Fendyr?”

“Ah yes, we heard of that—how Danika screamed as she was shredded apart.”

Bryce’s beat of silence told Hunt enough about the internal wound that Aidas had pressed. From the smile gracing Aidas’s face, the Prince of the Chasm knew it as well.

She went on, “Do you know what demon did it?”

“Despite what your mythologies claim, I am not privy to the movements of every being in Hel.”

She said tightly, “Do you know, though? Or know who summoned it?”

His golden lashes shimmered as he blinked. “You believe I dispatched it?”

“You would not be standing there if I did.”

Aidas laughed softly. “No tears from you this time.”

Bryce smiled slightly. “You told me not to let them see me cry. I took the advice to heart.”

What the Hel had gone on during that meeting twelve years ago?

“Information is not free.”

“What is your price?” A bluish tint crept over her lips. They’d have to cut the connection soon.

Hunt kept perfectly still as Aidas studied her. Then his eyes registered Hunt.

He blinked—once. As if he had not really marked his presence until this moment. As if he hadn’t cared to notice, with Bryce before him. Hunt tucked away that fact, just as Aidas murmured, “Who are you.”

A command.

“He’s eye candy,” Bryce said, looping her arm through Hunt’s and pressing close. For warmth or steadiness, he didn’t know. She was shaking. “And he is not for sale.” She pointed to the halo across Hunt’s brow.

“My pets like to rip out feathers—it would be a good trade.”

Hunt leveled a stare at the prince. Bryce threw Hunt a sidelong glare, the effect of which was negated by her chattering teeth.

Aidas smiled, looking him over again. “A Fallen warrior with the power of …” Aidas’s groomed brows lifted in surprise. His blue opal eyes narrowed to slits—then simmered like the hottest flame. “What are
you
doing with a black crown around your brow?”

Hunt didn’t dare let his surprise at the question show. He’d never heard it called that before—a black crown. Halo, witch-ink, mark-of-shame, but never that.

Aidas looked between them now. Carefully. He didn’t bother to let Hunt answer his question before that awful smile returned. “The seven princes dwell in darkness and do not stir. We have no interest in your realm.”

“I’d believe it if you and your brethren hadn’t been rattling the
Northern Rift for the past two decades,” Hunt said. “And if I hadn’t been cleaning up after it.”

Aidas sucked in a breath, as if tasting the air on which Hunt’s words had been delivered to him. “You do realize that it might not be my people? The Northern Rift opens to other places—other realms, yes, but other planets as well. What is Hel but a distant planet bound to yours by a ripple in space and time?”

“Hel is a planet?” Hunt’s brows lowered. Most of the demons he’d killed and dealt with hadn’t been able to or inclined to speak.

Aidas shrugged with one shoulder. “It is as real a place as Midgard, though most of us would have you believe it wasn’t.” The prince pointed to him. “Your kind, Fallen, were made in Midgard by the Asteri. But the Fae, the shifters, and many others came from their own worlds. The universe is massive. Some believe it has no end. Or that our universe might be one in a multitude, as bountiful as the stars in the sky or the sand on a beach.”

Bryce threw Hunt a look that told him she, too, was wondering what the Hel the demon prince was smoking in the Chasm. “You’re trying to distract us,” Bryce said, arms crossing. Hoarfrost crept across the floors. “You’re not rattling the Northern Rift?”

“The lesser princes do that—levels one through four,” Aidas said, head angling again. “Those of us in the true dark have no need or interest in sunshine. But even they did not send the kristallos. Our plans do not involve such things.”

Hunt growled, “Your kind wanted to live here, once upon a time. Why would that change?”

Aidas chuckled. “It is dreadfully amusing to hear the stories the Asteri have spun for you.” He smiled at Bryce. “What blinds an Oracle?”

All color leached from Bryce’s face at the mention of her visit to the Oracle. How Aidas knew about it, Hunt could only guess, but she countered, “What sort of cat visits an Oracle?”

“Winning first words.” Aidas slid his hands into his pockets again. “I did not know what you might prefer now that you are grown.” A smirk at Hunt. “But I may appear more like that, if it pleases you, Bryce Quinlan.”

“Better yet: don’t appear again at all,” Hunt said to the demon prince.

Bryce squeezed his arm. He stepped on her foot hard enough to get her to cut it out.

But Aidas chuckled. “Your temperature drops. I shall depart.”

“Please,” Bryce said. “Just tell me if you know what killed Danika. Please.”

A soft laugh. “Run the tests again. Find what is in-between.”

He began to fade, as if a phone call were indeed breaking up.

“Aidas,” she blurted, stepping right to the edge of their circle. Hunt fought the urge to tuck her to his side. Especially as darkness frayed the edges of Aidas’s body. “Thank you. For that day.”

The Prince of the Chasm paused, as if clinging to this world. “Make the Drop, Bryce Quinlan.” He flickered. “And find me when you are done.”

Aidas had nearly vanished into nothing when he added, the words a ghost slithering through the room, “The Oracle did not see. But I did.”

Silence pulsed in his wake as the room thawed, frost vanishing.

Hunt whirled on Bryce. “First of all,” he seethed, “
fuck you
for that surprise.”

She rubbed her hands together, working warmth back into them. “You never would have let me summon Aidas if I’d told you first.”

“Because we should be fucking
dead
right now!” He gaped at her. “Are you insane?”

“I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. Or anyone with me.”

“You want to tell me how you
met
Aidas when you were thirteen?”

“I … I told you how badly things ended between me and my biological father after my Oracle visit.” His anger banked at the lingering pain in her face. “So afterward, when I was crying my little heart out on one of the park benches outside the temple, this white cat appeared next to me. It had the most unnatural blue eyes. I knew, even before it spoke, that it wasn’t a cat—and wasn’t a shifter.”

“Who summoned him that time?”

“I don’t know. Jesiba told me that the princes can sneak through cracks in either Rift, taking the form of common animals. But then they’re confined to those forms—with none of their own power, save the ability to speak. And they can only stay for a few hours at a time.”

A shudder worked its way down his gray wings. “What did Aidas say?”

“He asked me:
What blinds an Oracle?
And I replied:
What sort of cat visits an Oracle?
He’d heard the screaming on his way in. I suppose it intrigued him. He told me to stop crying. Said it would only satisfy those who had wronged me. That I shouldn’t give them the gift of my sorrow.”

“Why was the Prince of the Chasm at the Oracle?”

“He never told me. But he sat with me until I worked up the nerve to walk back to my father’s house. By the time I remembered to thank him, he was gone.”

“Strange.” And—fine, he could understand why she hadn’t balked from summoning him, if he’d been kind to her in the past.

“Perhaps some of the feline body wore off on him and he was merely curious about me.”

“Apparently, he’s missed you.” A leading question.

“Apparently,” she hedged. “Though he barely gave us anything to go on.”

Her gaze turned distant as she looked at the empty circle before them, then took her phone out of her pocket. Hunt caught a glimpse of who she dialed—
Declan Emmet
.

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