Chapter no 27

House of Earth and Blood

The streets were packed with Vanir streaming from the still-chaotic White Raven, all looking for answers about what the Hel had happened. Various legionaries, Fae, and Aux pack members had erected a barricade around the site, a thrumming, opaque magic wall, but the crowds still converged.

Hunt glanced to where Bryce walked beside him, silent, glassy-eyed.

Barefoot, he realized.

How long had she been barefoot? She must have lost her shoes in the explosion.

He debated offering to carry her again, or suggesting that he fly them to her apartment, but she held her arms so tightly around herself that he had a feeling one word would send her into a rage-spiral with no bottom.

The look she gave Ruhn before walking out … It made Hunt glad she wasn’t an acid-spitting viper. The male’s face would have melted.

Gods help them when the prince arrived at the gallery tomorrow.

Bryce’s doorman leapt out of his seat as they walked into the pristine lobby, asking if she was all right, if she’d been in the club. She mumbled that she was fine, and the ursine shifter surveyed Hunt with a predator’s focus. Noticing that look, she waved a hand at him, punching the elevator button, and introduced them. Hunt, this is Marrin; Marrin, this is Hunt; he’s staying with me for the foreseeable future, unfortunately. Then she was padding into the elevator, where she had to lean against the chrome rail along the back, as if she were about to collapse—

Hunt squeezed in as the doors were closing. The box was too small, too tight with his wings, and he kept them close as they shot up to the penthouse—

Bryce’s head sagged, her shoulders curving inward—

Hunt blurted, “Why won’t you make the Drop?”

The elevator doors opened and she slumped against them before she entered the elegant cream-and-cobalt hallway. But she halted at her apartment door. Then turned to him.

“My keys were in my purse.”

Her purse was now in the ruin of the club. “Does the doorman have a spare?”

She grunted her confirmation, eyeing the elevator as if it were a mountain to climb.

Marrin busted Hunt’s balls for a good minute, checking that Bryce was alive in the hallway, asking into the hall vidcom if she approved—to which he got a thumbs-up.

When Hunt returned, he found her sitting against her door, legs up and spread enough to show a pair of hot-pink underwear. Thankfully, the hall cameras couldn’t see at that angle, but he had no doubt the shifter monitored them as Hunt helped her to her feet and handed her the spare keys.

She slowly slid in the key, then put her palm to the bespelled finger pad beside the door.

“I was waiting,” she murmured as the locks clicked open and the dim apartment lights flickered on. “We were supposed to make the Drop together. We picked two years from now.”

He knew who she meant. The reason why she no longer drank, or danced, or really seemed to live her life. The reason why she must keep that scar on her pretty, sleek thigh. Ogenas and all her sacred Mysteries knew that Hunt had punished himself for a damn long while after the colossal failure that had been the Battle of Mount Hermon. Even while he’d been tortured in the Asteri’s dungeons, he’d punished himself, flaying his own soul in a way no imperial interrogator ever could.

So maybe it was a stupid question, but he asked as they entered the apartment, “Why bother waiting now?”

Hunt stepped inside and got a good look at the place Quinlan called home. The open-concept apartment had looked nice from outside the windows, but inside …

Either she or Danika had decorated it without sparing any expense: a white deep-cushioned couch lay in the right third of the great room, set before a reclaimed wood coffee table and the massive television atop a carved oak console. A fogged-glass dining table with white leather chairs took up the left third of the space, and the center third of it went to the

kitchen—white cabinets, chrome appliances, and white marble counters. All of it impeccably clean, soft, and welcoming.

Hunt took it in, standing like a piece of baggage by the kitchen island while Bryce padded down a pale oak hallway to release Syrinx from where he yowled from his crate.

She was halfway down the hallway when she said without looking back, “Without Danika … We were supposed to make the Drop together,” she said again. “Connor and Thorne were going to Anchor us.” The choice of Anchor during the Drop was pivotal—and a deeply personal choice. But Hunt shoved aside the thoughts of the sour-faced government employee he’d been appointed, since he sure as fuck hadn’t had any family or friends left to Anchor him. Not when his mother had

died only days before.

Syrinx flung himself through the apartment, claws clicking on the light wood floors, yipping as he leapt upon Hunt, licking his hands. Each one of Bryce’s returning steps dragged on her way to the kitchen counter. The silence pressed on him enough that he asked, “Were you and

Danika lovers?”

He’d been told two years ago that they weren’t, but friends didn’t mourn each other the way Bryce seemed to have so thoroughly shut down every part of herself. The way he had for Shahar.

The patter of kibble hitting tin filled the apartment before Bryce plunked down the bowl, and Syrinx, abandoning Hunt, half threw himself inside it as he gobbled it down.

Hunt turned in place as Bryce padded around the other end of the kitchen island, flinging open the enormous metal fridge to examine its meager contents. “No,” she said, her voice flat and cold. “Danika and I weren’t like that.” Her grip on the fridge’s handle tightened, her knuckles going white. “Connor and I—Connor Holstrom, I mean. He and I …” She trailed off. “It was complicated. When Danika died, when they all died … a light went out in me.”

He remembered the details about her and the elder of the Holstrom brothers. Ithan hadn’t been there that night, either—and was now Second in Amelie Ravenscroft’s pack. A sorry replacement for what the Pack of Devils had once been. This city had also lost something that night.

Hunt opened his mouth to tell Quinlan he understood. Not just the complicated relationship thing, but the loss. To wake up one morning surrounded by friends and his lover—and then to end the day with all of them dead. He understood how it gnawed on bones and blood and the very soul of a person. How nothing could ever make it right.

How cutting out the alcohol and the drugs, how refusing to do the thing she loved most—the dancing—still couldn’t make it right. But the words stalled in his throat. He hadn’t felt like talking about it two hundred years ago, and sure as Hel didn’t feel like talking about it now.

A landline phone somewhere in the house began ringing, and a pleasant female voice trilled, Call from … Home.

Bryce closed her eyes, as if rallying herself, then padded down the darkened hallway that led to her bedroom. A moment later, she said with a cheerfulness that should have earned her an award for Best Fucking Actor in Midgard, “Hey, Mom.” A mattress groaned. “No, I wasn’t there. My phone fell in the toilet at work—yep, totally dead. I’ll get a new one tomorrow. Yeah, I’m fine. June wasn’t there, either. We’re all good.” A pause. “I know—it was just a long day at work.” Another pause. “Look, I’ve got company.” A rough laugh. “Not that kind. Don’t get your hopes up. I’m serious. Yes, I let him into my house willingly. Please don’t call the front desk. His name? I’m not telling you.” Just the slightest hesitation. “Mom. I will call you tomorrow. I’m not telling him hello. Bye—bye, Mom. Love you.”

Syrinx had finished his food and was staring expectantly at Hunt— silently pleading for more, that lion’s tail waggling. “No,” he hissed at the beast just as Bryce walked back into the main room.

“Oh,” she said, as if she’d forgotten he was there. “I’m going to take a shower. Guest room is yours. Use whatever you need.”

“I’ll swing by the Comitium tomorrow to get more clothes.” Bryce just nodded like her head weighed a thousand pounds. “Why’d you lie?” He’d let her decide which one she wanted to explain.

She paused, Syrinx trotting ahead down the hall to her bedroom. “My mom would only worry and come visit. I don’t want her around if things are getting bad. And I didn’t tell her who you were because that would lead to questions, too. It’s easier this way.”

Easier to not let herself enjoy life, easier to keep everyone at arm’s length.

The mark on her cheek from Juniper’s slap had barely faded. Easier to throw herself on top of a friend as a bomb exploded, rather than risk losing them.

She said quietly, “I need to find who did this, Hunt.” He met her raw, aching stare. “I know.”

“No,” she said hoarsely. “You don’t. I don’t care what Micah’s motives are—if I don’t find this fucking person, it is going to eat me

alive.” Not the murderer or the demon, but the pain and grief that he was only starting to realize dwelled inside her. “I need to find who did this.”

“We will,” he promised.

“How can you know that?” She shook her head.

“Because we don’t have another choice. I don’t have another choice.” At her confused look, Hunt blew out a breath and said, “Micah offered me a deal.”

Her eyes turned wary. “What sort of deal?”

Hunt clenched his jaw. She’d offered up a piece of herself, so he could do the same. Especially if they were now gods-damned roommates. “When I first came here, Micah offered me a bargain: if I could make up for every life the 18th took that day on Mount Hermon, I’d get my freedom back. All two thousand two hundred and seventeen lives.” He steeled himself, willing her to hear what he couldn’t quite say.

She chewed on her lip. “I’m assuming that make up means …” “Yes,” he ground out. “It means doing what I’m good at. A death for

a death.”

“Micah has more than two thousand people for you to assassinate?”

Hunt let out a harsh laugh. “Micah is a Governor of an entire territory, and he will live for at least another two hundred years. He’ll probably have double that number of people on his shit list before he’s done.” Horror crept into her eyes, and he scrambled for a way to get rid of it, unsure why. “It comes with the job. His job, and mine.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Look, it’s awful, but he offered me a way out, at least. And when the killings started again, he offered me a different bargain: find the murderer before the Summit meeting, and he’d reduce the debts I owe to ten.”

He waited for her judgment, her disgust with him and Micah. But she angled her head. “That’s why you’ve been a bullish pain the ass.”

“Yes,” he said tightly. “Micah ordered me not to say anything, though. So if you breathe one word about it—”

“His offer will be rescinded.”

Hunt nodded, scanning her battered face. She said nothing more.

After a heartbeat, he demanded, “Well?”

“Well, what?” She again began walking toward her bedroom. “Well, aren’t you going to say that I’m a self-serving piece of shit?”

She paused again, a faint ray of light entering her eyes. “Why bother, Athalar, when you just said it for me?”

He couldn’t help it then. Even though she was bloodied and covered in debris, he looked her over. Every inch and curve. Tried not to think

about the hot-pink underwear beneath that tight green dress. But he said, “I’m sorry I thought you were a suspect. And more than that, I’m sorry I judged you. I thought you were just a party girl, and I acted like an asshole.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being a party girl. I don’t get why the world thinks there is.” But she considered his words. “It’s easier for me

—when people assume the worst about what I am. It lets me see who they really are.”

“So you’re saying you think I’m really an asshole?” A corner of his mouth curled up.

But her eyes were dead serious. “I’ve met and dealt with a lot of assholes, Hunt. You’re not one of them.”

“You weren’t singing that tune earlier.”

She just aimed for her room once more. So Hunt asked, “Want me to get food?”

Again, she paused. She looked like she was about to say no, but then rasped, “Cheeseburger—with cheese fries. And a chocolate milkshake.”

Hunt smiled. “You got it.”

The elegant guest room on the other side of the kitchen was spacious, decorated in shades of gray and cream accented with pale rose and cornflower blue. The bed was big enough for Hunt’s wings, thankfully— definitely bought with Vanir in mind—and a few photos in expensive-looking frames were propped next to a lopsided, chipped ceramic blue bowl, all adorning a chest of drawers to the right of the door.

He’d gotten them both burgers and fries, and Bryce had torn into hers with a ferocity that Hunt had seen only among lions gathered around a fresh kill. He’d tossed the whining Syrinx a few fries under the white glass table, since she sure as shit wasn’t sharing anything.

Exhaustion had set in so thoroughly that neither of them spoke, and once she’d finished slurping down the milkshake, she’d merely gathered up the trash, dumped it into the bin, and headed to her room. Leaving Hunt to enter his.

A mortal scent lingered that he assumed was courtesy of her parents, and as Hunt opened the drawers, he found some of them full of clothes— light sweaters, socks, pants, athletic-looking gear … He was snooping. Granted, it was part of the job description, but it was still snooping.

He shut the drawers and studied the framed photos.

Ember Quinlan had been a knockout. No wonder that Fae asshole had pursued her to the point where she’d bailed. Long black hair framed

a face that could have been on a billboard: freckled skin, full lips, and high cheekbones that made the dark, depthless eyes above them striking.

It was Bryce’s face—the coloring was just different. An equally attractive brown-skinned, dark-haired human male stood beside her, arm slung around her slim shoulders, grinning like a fiend at whoever was behind the camera. Hunt could just barely make out the writing on the silver dog tags dipping over the man’s gray button-up.

Well, holy shit.

Randall Silago was Bryce’s adoptive father? The legendary war hero and sharpshooter? He had no idea how he’d missed that fact in her file, though he supposed he had been skimming when he’d read it years ago.

No wonder his daughter was so fearless. And there, to the right of Ember, stood Bryce.

She was barely past three, that red hair pulled high into two floppy pigtails. Ember was looking at her daughter—the expression a bit exasperated—as if Bryce was supposed to be in the nice clothes that the two adults were wearing. But there she was, giving her mother an equally sassy look, hands on her chubby hips, legs set apart in an unmistakable fighting stance. Covered head to toe in mud.

Hunt snickered and turned to the other photo on the dresser.

It was a beautiful shot of two women—girls, really—sitting on some red rocks atop a desert mountain, their backs to the camera, shoulder-to-shoulder as they faced the scrub and sand far below. One was Bryce—he could tell from her sheet of red hair. The other was in a familiar leather jacket, the back painted with those words in the Republic’s most ancient language. Through love, all is possible.

It had to be Bryce and Danika. And—that was Danika’s jacket that Bryce now wore.

She had no other photos of Danika in the apartment.

Through love, all is possible. It was an ancient saying, dating back to some god he couldn’t remember. Cthona, probably—what with all the mother-goddess stuff she presided over. Hunt had long since stopped visiting temples, or paying much attention to the overzealous priestesses who popped up on the morning talk shows every now and then. None of the five gods had ever helped him—or anyone he cared about. Urd, especially, had fucked him over often enough.

Danika’s blond ponytail draped down Bryce’s back as she leaned her head against her friend’s shoulder. Bryce wore a loose white T-shirt, showing a bandaged arm braced on her knee. Bruises peppered her body.

And gods—that was a sword lying to Danika’s left. Sheathed and clean, but—he knew that sword.

Sabine had gone ballistic searching for it when it was discovered to be missing from the apartment where her daughter had been murdered. Apparently it was some wolf heirloom. But there it lay, beside Bryce and Danika in the desert.

Sitting there on those rocks, perched over the world, they seemed like two soldiers who had just walked through the darkest halls of Hel and were taking a well-earned break.

Hunt turned from the picture and rubbed at the tattoo on his brow. A flick of his power had the heavy gray curtains sliding shut over the floor-to-ceiling windows on a chill wind. He peeled off his clothes one by one, and found the bathroom was just as spacious as the bedroom.

Hunt showered quickly and fell into bed with his skin still drying. The last thing he saw before sleep overtook him was the photo of Bryce and Danika, frozen forever in a moment of peace.

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