Chapter no 16

House of Earth and Blood

The mirthroot Ruhn had smoked ten minutes ago with Flynn might have been more potent than his friend had let on.

Lying on his bed, specially shaped Fae headphones over his arched ears, Ruhn closed his eyes and let the thumping bass and sizzling, soaring synthesizer of the music send him drifting.

His booted foot tapped in time to the steady beat, the drumming fingers he’d interlaced over his stomach echoing each flutter of notes high, high above. Every breath pulled him further back from consciousness, as if his very mind had been yanked a good few feet away from where it normally rested like a captain at the helm of a ship.

Heavy relaxation melted him, bone and blood morphing to liquid gold. Each note sent it rippling through him. Every stressor and sharp word and aggravation leaked from him, slithered off the bed like a snake. He flipped off those feelings as they slid away. He was well aware that he’d taken the hits of Flynn’s mirthroot thanks to the hours he’d

spent brooding over his father’s bullshit orders.

His father could go to Hel.

The mirthroot wrapped soft, sweet arms around his mind and dragged him into its shimmering pool.

Ruhn let himself drown in it, too mellow to do anything but let the music wash over him, his body sinking into the mattress, until he was falling through shadows and starlight. The strings of the song hovered overhead, golden threads that glittered with sound. Was he still moving his body? His eyelids were too heavy to lift to check.

A scent like lilac and nutmeg filled the room. Female, Fae …

If one of the females partying downstairs had shown herself into his room, thinking she’d get a nice, sweaty ride with a Prince of the Fae,

she’d be sorely disappointed. He was in no shape for fucking right now. At least not any fucking that would be worthwhile.

His eyelids were so incredibly heavy. He should open them. Where the Hel were the controls to his body? Even his shadows had drifted away, too far to summon.

The scent grew stronger. He knew that scent. Knew it as well as—

Ruhn jerked upward, eyes flying open to find his sister standing at the foot of his bed.

Bryce’s mouth was moving, whiskey-colored eyes full of dry amusement, but he couldn’t hear a word she said, not a word—

Oh. Right. The headphones. Blasting music.

Blinking furiously, gritting his teeth against the drug trying to haul him back down, down, down, Ruhn removed the headphones and hit pause on his phone. “What?”

Bryce leaned against his chipped wood dresser. At least she was in normal clothes for once. Even if the jeans were painted on and the cream-colored sweater left little to the imagination. “I said, you’ll blow out your eardrums listening to music that loud.”

Ruhn’s head spun as he narrowed his eyes at her, blinking at the halo of starlight that danced around her head, at her feet. He blinked again, pushing past the auras clouding his vision, and it was gone. Another blink, and it was there.

Bryce snorted. “You’re not hallucinating. I’m standing here.”

His mouth was a thousand miles away, but he managed to ask, “Who let you in?” Declan and Flynn were downstairs, along with half a dozen of their top Fae warriors. A few of them people he didn’t want within a block of his sister.

Bryce ignored his question, frowning toward the corner of his room. Toward the pile of unwashed laundry and the Starsword he’d chucked atop it. The sword glimmered with starlight, too. He could have sworn the damn thing was singing. Ruhn shook his head, as if it’d clear out his ears, as Bryce said, “I need to talk to you.”

The last time Bryce had been in this room, she’d been sixteen and he’d spent hours beforehand cleaning it—and the whole house. Every bong and bottle of liquor, every pair of female underwear that had never been returned to its owner, every trace and scent of sex and drugs and all the stupid shit they did here had been hidden.

And she’d stood right there, during that last visit. Stood there as they screamed at each other.

Then and now blurred, Bryce’s form shrinking and expanding, her adult face blending into teenage softness, the light in her amber eyes warming and cooling, his vision surrounding the scene glinting with starlight, starlight, starlight.

“Fucking Hel,” Bryce muttered, and aimed for the door. “You’re pathetic.”

He managed to say, “Where are you going?”

“To get you water.” She flung the door open. “I can’t talk to you like this.”

It occurred to him then that this had to be important if she was not only here, but eager to get him to focus. And that there might still be a chance he was hallucinating, but he wasn’t going to let her venture into the warren of sin unaccompanied.

On legs that felt ten miles long, feet that weighed a thousand pounds, he staggered after her. The dim hallway hid most of the various stains on the white paint—all thanks to the various parties he and his friends had thrown in fifty years of being roommates. Well, they’d had this house for twenty years—and had only moved because their first one had literally started to fall apart. This house might not last another two years, if he was being honest.

Bryce was halfway down the curving grand staircase, the firstlights of the crystal chandelier bouncing off her red hair in that shimmering halo. How had he not noticed the chandelier was hanging askew? Must be from when Declan had leapt off the stair railing onto it, swinging around and swigging from his bottle of whiskey. He’d fallen off a moment later, too drunk to hold on.

If the Autumn King knew the shit they did in this house, there was no way he or any other City Head would allow them to lead the Fae Aux division. No way Micah would ever tap him to take his father’s place on that council.

But getting wasted was for off-nights only. Never when on duty or on call.

Bryce hit the worn oak floor of the first level, edging around the beer pong table occupying most of the foyer. A few cups littered its stained plywood surface, painted by Flynn with what they’d all deemed was high-class art: an enormous Fae male head devouring an angel whole, only frayed wings visible through the snapped-shut teeth. It seemed to ripple with movement as Ruhn cleared the stairs. He could have sworn the painting winked at him.

Yeah, water. He needed water.

Bryce showed herself through the living room, where the music blasted so loud it made Ruhn’s teeth rattle in his skull.

He entered in time to see Bryce striding past the pool table in the rear of the long, cavernous space. A few Aux warriors stood around it, females with them, deep in a game.

Tristan Flynn, son of Lord Hawthorne, presided over it from a nearby armchair, a pretty dryad on his lap. The glazed light in his brown eyes mirrored Ruhn’s own. Flynn gave Bryce a crooked grin as she approached. All it usually took was one look and females crawled into Tristan Flynn’s lap just like the tree nymph, or—if the look was more of a glower—any enemies outright bolted.

Charming as all Hel and lethal as fuck. It should have been the Flynn family motto.

Bryce didn’t stop as she passed him, unfazed by his classic Fae beauty and considerable muscles, but demanded over her shoulder, “What the fuck did you give him?”

Flynn leaned forward, prying his short chestnut hair free from the dryad’s long fingers. “How do you know it was me?”

Bryce walked toward the kitchen at the back of the room, accessible through an archway. “Because you look high off your ass, too.”

Declan called from the sectional couch at the other end of the living room, a laptop on his knee and a very interested draki male half-sprawled over him, running clawed fingers through Dec’s dark red hair, “Hey, Bryce. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

Bryce jerked her thumb back at Ruhn. “Checking on the Chosen One. How’s your fancy tech crap going, Dec?”

Declan Emmet didn’t usually appreciate anyone belittling the lucrative career he’d built on a foundation of hacking into Republic websites and then charging them ungodly amounts of money to reveal their critical weaknesses, but he grinned. “Still raking in the marks.”

“Nice,” Bryce said, continuing into the kitchen and out of sight. Some of the Aux warriors were staring toward the kitchen now,

blatant interest in their eyes. Flynn growled softly, “She’s off-limits, assholes.”

That was all it took. Not even a snapping vine of Flynn’s earth magic, rare among the fire-prone Valbaran Fae. The others immediately returned their attention to the pool game. Ruhn threw his friend a grateful look and followed Bryce—

But she was already back in the doorway, water bottle in hand. “Your fridge is worse than mine,” she said, shoving the bottle toward him and

entering the living room again. Ruhn sipped as the stereo system in the back thumped the opening notes of a song, guitars wailing, and she angled her head, listening, weighing.

Fae impulse—to be drawn to music, and to love it. Perhaps the one side of her heritage she didn’t mind. He remembered her showing him her dance routines as a young teenager. She’d always looked so unbelievably happy. He’d never had the chance to ask why she stopped.

Ruhn sighed, forcing himself to focus, and said to Bryce, “Why are you here?”

She stopped near the sectional. “I told you: I need to talk to you.”

Ruhn kept his face blank. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d bothered finding him.

“Why would your cousin need an excuse to chat with us?” Flynn asked, murmuring something in the dryad’s delicate ear that had her heading for the cluster of her three friends at the pool table, her narrow hips swishing in a reminder of what he’d miss if he waited too long. Flynn drawled, “She knows we’re the most charming males in town.”

Neither of his friends ever guessed the truth—or at least voiced any suspicions. Bryce tossed her hair over a shoulder as Flynn rose from his armchair. “I have better things to do—”

“Than hang out with Fae losers,” Flynn finished for her, heading to the built-in bar against the far wall. “Yeah, yeah. You’ve said so a hundred times now. But look at that: here you are, hanging with us in our humble abode.”

Despite his carefree demeanor, Flynn would one day inherit his father’s title: Lord Hawthorne. Which meant that for the past several decades, Flynn had done everything he could to forget that little fact— and the centuries of responsibilities it would entail. He poured himself a drink, then a second one that he handed to Bryce. “Drink up, honeycakes.”

Ruhn rolled his eyes. But—it was nearly midnight, and she was at their house, on one of the rougher streets in the Old Square, with a murderer on the loose. Ruhn hissed, “You were given an order to lie low


She waved a hand, not touching the whiskey in her other. “My imperial escort is outside. Scaring everyone away, don’t worry.”

Both his friends went still. The draki male took that as an invitation to drift away, aiming for the billiards game behind them as Declan twisted to look at her. Ruhn just said, “Who.”

A little smile. Bryce asked, swirling the whiskey in its glass, “Is this house really befitting of the Chosen One?”

Flynn’s mouth twitched. Ruhn shot him a warning glare, just daring him to bring up the Starborn shit right now. Outside of his father’s villa and court, all that had gotten Ruhn was a lifetime of teasing from his friends.

Ruhn ground out, “Let’s hear it, Bryce.” Odds were, she’d come here just to piss him off.

She didn’t respond immediately, though. No, Bryce traced a circle on a cushion, utterly unfazed by the three Fae warriors watching her every breath. Tristan and Declan had been Ruhn’s best friends for as long as he could remember, and always had his back, no questions asked. That they were highly trained and efficient warriors was beside the point, though they’d saved each other’s asses more times than Ruhn could count. Going through their Ordeals together had only cemented that bond.

The Ordeal itself varied depending on the person: for some, it might be as simple as overcoming an illness or a bit of personal strife. For others, it might be slaying a wyrm or a demon. The greater the Fae, the greater the Ordeal.

Ruhn had been learning to wield his shadows from his hateful cousins in Avallen, his two friends with him, when they’d all gone through their Ordeal, nearly dying in the process. It had culminated in Ruhn entering the mist-shrouded Cave of Princes, and emerging with the Starsword—and saving them all.

And when he’d made the Drop weeks later, it had been Flynn, fresh from his own Drop, who’d Anchored him.

Declan asked, his deep voice rumbling over the music and chatter, “What’s going on?”

For a second, Bryce’s swagger faltered. She glanced at them: their casual clothes, the places where she knew their guns were hidden even in their own home, their black boots and the knives tucked inside them. Bryce’s eyes met Ruhn’s.

“I know what that look means,” Flynn groaned. “It means you don’t want us to hear.”

Bryce didn’t take her eyes away from Ruhn as she said, “Yep.”

Declan slammed his laptop shut. “You’re really gonna go all mysterious and shit?”

She looked between Declan and Flynn, who had been inseparable since birth. “You two dickbags have the biggest mouths in town.”

Flynn winked. “I thought you liked my mouth.”

“Keep dreaming, lordling.” Bryce smirked.

Declan chuckled, earning a sharp elbow from Flynn and the glass of whiskey from Bryce.

Ruhn swigged from his water, willing his head to clear further. “Enough of this crap,” he bit out. All that mirthroot threatened to turn on him as he pulled Bryce toward his bedroom again.

When they arrived, he took up a spot by the bed. “Well?”

Bryce leaned against the door, the wood peppered with holes from all the knives he’d chucked at it for idle target practice. “I need you to tell me if you’ve heard anything about what the Viper Queen’s been up to.”

This could not be good. “Why?” “Because I need to talk to her.” “Are you fucking nuts?”

Again, that annoying-ass smile. “Maximus Tertian was killed on her turf. Did the Aux get any intel about her movements that night?”

“Your boss put you up to this?” It reeked of Roga.

“Maybe. Do you know anything?” She angled her head again, that silky sheet of hair—the same as their father’s—shifting with the movement.

“Yes. Tertian’s murder was … the same as Danika’s and the pack’s.” Any trace of a smile faded from her face. “Philip Briggs didn’t do it.

I want to know what the Viper Queen was up to that night. If the Aux has any knowledge of her movements.”

Ruhn shook his head. “Why are you involved in this?” “Because I was asked to look into it.”

“Don’t fuck with this case. Tell your boss to lay off. This is a matter for the Governor.”

“And the Governor commandeered me to look for the murderer. He thinks I’m the link between them.”

Great. Absolutely fantastic. Isaiah Tiberian had failed to mention that little fact. “You spoke to the Governor.”

“Just answer my question. Does the Aux know anything about the Viper Queen’s whereabouts on the night of Tertian’s death?”

Ruhn blew out a breath. “No. I’ve heard that she pulled her people from the streets. Something spooked her. But that’s all I know. And even if I knew the Viper Queen’s alibis, I wouldn’t tell you. Stay the fuck out of this. I’ll call the Governor to tell him you’re done being his personal investigator.”

That icy look—their father’s look—passed over her face. The sort of look that told him there was a wild, wicked storm raging beneath that

cold exterior. And the power and thrill for both father and daughter lay not in sheer force, but in the control over the self, over those impulses.

The outside world saw his sister as reckless, unchecked—but he knew she’d been the master of her fate since before he’d met her. Bryce was just one of those people who, once she’d set her sights on what she wanted, didn’t let anything get in her way. If she wanted to sleep around, she did it. If she wanted to party for three days straight, she did it. If she wanted to catch Danika’s murderer …

“I am going to find the person behind this,” she said with quiet fury. “If you try to interfere with it, I will make your life a living Hel.”

“The demon that murderer is using is lethal.” He’d seen the crime scene photos. The thought that Bryce had been saved by mere minutes, by sheer drunken stupidity, still twisted him up. Ruhn continued before she could answer. “The Autumn King told you to lie low until the Summit—this is the fucking opposite, Bryce.”

“Well, it’s now part of my job. Jesiba signed off on it. I can’t very well refuse, can I?”

No. No one could say no to that sorceress.

He slid his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. “She ever tell you anything about Luna’s Horn?”

Bryce’s brows lifted at the shift in subject, but considering Jesiba Roga’s field of work, she’d be the one to ask.

“She had me look for it two years ago,” Bryce said warily. “But it was a dead end. Why?”

“Never mind.” He eyed the small gold amulet around his sister’s neck. At least Jesiba gave her that much protection. Expensive protection, too—and powerful. Archesian amulets didn’t come cheap, not when there were only a few in the world. He nodded to it. “Don’t take that off.”

Bryce rolled her eyes. “Does everyone in this city think I’m dumb?” “I mean it. Beyond the shit you do for work, if you’re looking for

someone strong enough to summon a demon like that, don’t take that necklace off.” At least he could remind her to be smart.

She just opened the door. “If you hear anything about the Viper Queen, call me.”

Ruhn stiffened, his heart thundering. “Do not provoke her.” “Bye, Ruhn.”

He was desperate enough that he said, “I’ll go with you to—”

“Bye.” Then she was down the stairs, waving in that annoying-as-fuck way at Declan and Flynn, before swaggering out the front door.

His friends threw inquisitive looks to where Ruhn stood on the second-floor landing. Declan’s whiskey was still raised to his lips.

Ruhn counted to ten, if only to keep from snapping the nearest object in half, and then vaulted over the railing, landing so hard that the scuffed oak planks shuddered.

He felt, more than saw, his friends fall into place behind him, hands within easy reach of their hidden weapons, drinks discarded as they read the fury on his face. Ruhn stormed through the front door and out into the brisk night.

Just in time to see Bryce strut across the street. To Hunt fucking Athalar.

“What the actual Hel,” Declan breathed, halting beside Ruhn on the porch.

The Umbra Mortis looked pissed, his arms crossed and wings flaring slightly, but Bryce just breezed past him without so much as a glance. Causing Athalar to slowly turn, arms slackening at his sides, as if such a thing had never happened in his long, miserable life.

And wasn’t that enough to put Ruhn in a killing sort of mood.

Ruhn cleared the porch and front lawn and stepped into the street, holding out a hand to the car that skidded to a screeching halt. His hand hit the hood, fingers curving. Metal dented beneath it.

The driver, wisely, didn’t scream.

Ruhn strode between two parked sedans, Declan and Flynn close behind, just as Hunt turned to see what the fuss was about.

Understanding flashed in Hunt’s eyes, quickly replaced by a half smile. “Prince.”

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

Hunt jerked his chin toward Bryce, already disappearing down the street. “Protection duty.”

“Like Hel you’re watching her.” Isaiah Tiberian had failed to mention this, too.

A shrug. “Not my call.” The halo across his brow seemed to darken as he sized up Declan and Flynn. Athalar’s mouth twitched upward, onyx eyes glinting with an unspoken challenge.

Flynn’s gathering power had the earth beneath the pavement rumbling. Hunt’s shit-eating grin only spread.

Ruhn said, “Tell the Governor to put someone else on the case.”

Hunt’s grin sharpened. “Not an option. Not when it plays to my expertise.”

Ruhn bristled at the arrogance. Sure, Athalar was one of the best demon-hunters out there, but fuck, he’d even take Tiberian on this case over the Umbra Mortis.

A year ago, the Commander of the 33rd hadn’t been dumb enough to get between them when Ruhn had launched himself at Athalar, having had enough of his snide remarks at the fancy-ass Spring Equinox party Micah threw every March. He’d broken a few of Athalar’s ribs, but the asshole had gotten in a punch that had left Ruhn’s nose shattered and gushing blood all over the marble floors of the Comitium’s penthouse ballroom. Neither of them had been pissed enough to unleash their power in the middle of a crowded room, but fists had done just fine.

Ruhn calculated how much trouble he’d be in if he punched the Governor’s personal assassin again. Maybe it’d be enough to get Hypaxia Enador to refuse to consider marrying him.

Ruhn demanded, “Did you figure out what kind of demon did it?” “Something that eats little princes for breakfast,” Hunt crooned.

Ruhn bared his teeth. “Blow me, Athalar.”

Lightning danced over the angel’s fingers. “Must be easy to run your mouth when you’re bankrolled by your father.” Hunt pointed to the white house. “He buy that for you, too?”

Ruhn’s shadows rose to meet the lightning wreathing Athalar’s fists, setting the parked cars behind him shuddering. He’d learned from his cousins in Avallen how to make the shadows solidify—how to wield them as whips and shields and pure torment. Physical and mental.

But mixing magic and drugs was never a good idea. Fists it would have to be, then. And all it would take was one swing, right into Athalar’s face—

Declan growled, “This isn’t the time or place.”

No, it wasn’t. Even Athalar seemed to remember the gawking people, the upraised phones recording everything. And the red-haired female nearing the end of the block. Hunt smirked. “Bye, assholes.” He followed Bryce, lightning skittering over the pavement in his wake.

Ruhn growled at the angel’s back, “Do not fucking let her go to the Viper Queen.”

Athalar glanced over a shoulder, his gray wings tucking in. His blink told Ruhn that he hadn’t been aware of Bryce’s agenda. A shiver of satisfaction ran through Ruhn. But Athalar continued down the street, people pressing themselves against buildings to give him a wide berth. The warrior’s focus remained on Bryce’s exposed neck.

Flynn shook his head like a wet dog. “I literally can’t tell if I’m hallucinating right now.”

“I wish I were,” Ruhn muttered. He’d need to smoke another mountain of mirthroot to mellow the Hel out again. But if Hunt Athalar was watching Bryce … He’d heard enough rumors to know what Hunt could do to an opponent. That he, in addition to being a prime bastard, was relentless, single-minded, and utterly brutal when it came to eliminating threats.

Hunt had to obey the order to protect her. No matter what.

Ruhn studied them as they walked away. Bryce would speed up; Hunt would match her pace. She’d drop back; he’d do the same. She’d edge him to the right, right, right—off the curb and into oncoming traffic; he’d narrowly avoid a swerving car and step back onto the sidewalk.

Ruhn was half-tempted to trail them, just to watch the battle of wills. “I need a drink,” Declan muttered. Flynn agreed and the two of them

headed back toward the house, leaving Ruhn alone on the street.

Could it really be a coincidence that the murders were starting again at the same time his father had given the order to find an object that had gone missing a week before Danika’s death?

It felt … odd. Like Urd was whispering, nudging them all. Ruhn planned to find out why. Starting with finding that Horn.

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