Chapter no 34

House of Earth and Blood

Bryce and Ruhn had waited at the edge of the Oracle’s Park for Hunt, each minute dripping by. And when he’d emerged again, eyes searching every inch of her face … Bryce knew it was bad. Whatever he’d learned. Hunt waited until they’d walked down a quiet residential block bordering the park before he told them what the Oracle had said about

the Horn.

His words were still hanging in the bright morning air around them as Bryce blew out a breath. Hunt did the same beside her and then said, “If someone has learned how to repair the Horn after so long, then they can do the opposite of what Prince Pelias did. They can open the Northern Rift. It seems like one Hel of a motive to kill anyone who might rat them out.”

Ruhn ran a hand over the buzzed side of his hair. “Like the acolyte at the temple—either as a warning to us to stay the fuck away from the Horn or to keep her from saying anything, if she’d found out somehow.”

Hunt nodded. “Isaiah questioned the others at the temple—they said the girl was the only acolyte on duty the night the Horn was stolen, and was interviewed then, but claimed she didn’t know anything about it.”

Guilt twisted and writhed within Bryce.

Ruhn said, “Maybe she was scared to say anything. And when we showed up …”

Hunt finished, “Whoever is looking for the Horn doesn’t want us anywhere near it. They could have learned she’d been on duty that night and gone to extract information from her. They’d have wanted to make sure she didn’t reveal what she knew to anyone else—to make sure she stayed silent. Permanently.”

Bryce added the girl’s death to the list of others she’d repay before this was finished.

Then she asked, “If that mark on the crate really was the Horn, maybe the Ophion—or even just the Keres sect—is seeking the Horn to aid in their rebellion. To open a portal to Hel, and bring the demon princes back here in some sort of alliance to overthrow the Asteri.” She shuddered. “Millions would die.” At their chilled silence, she went on, “Maybe Danika caught on to their plans about the Horn—and was killed for it. And the acolyte, too.”

Hunt rubbed the back of his neck, his face ashen. “They’d need help from a Vanir to summon a demon like that, but it’s a possibility. There are some Vanir pledged to their cause. Or maybe one of the witches summoned it. The new witch queen could be testing her power, or something.”

“Unlikely that a witch was involved,” Ruhn said a shade tightly, piercings along his ear glinting in the sun. “The witches obey the Asteri

—they’ve had millennia of unbroken loyalty.”

Bryce said, “But the Horn can only be used by a Starborn Fae—by you, Ruhn.”

Hunt’s wings rustled. “So maybe they’re looking for some way around the Starborn shit.”

“Honestly,” Ruhn said, “I’m not sure I could use the Horn. Prince Pelias possessed what was basically an ocean of starlight at his disposal.” Her brother’s brow furrowed, and a pinprick of light appeared at his fingertip. “This is about as good as it gets for me.”

“Well, you’re not going to use the Horn, even if we find it, so it won’t matter,” Bryce said.

Ruhn crossed his arms. “If someone can repair the Horn … I don’t even know how that would be possible. I read some mentions of the Horn having a sort of sentience to it—almost like it was alive. Maybe a healing power of some sort would be applicable? A medwitch might have some insight.”

Bryce countered, “They heal people, not objects. And the book you found in the gallery’s library said the Horn could only be repaired by light that is not light, magic that is not magic.”

“Legends,” said Hunt. “Not truth.”

“It’s worth looking into,” Ruhn said, and halted, glancing between Bryce and Hunt, who was watching her warily from the corner of his eye. Whatever the fuck that meant. Ruhn said, “I’ll look up a few medwitches and pay some discreet visits.”

“Fine,” she said. When he stiffened, she amended, “That sounds good.”

Even if nothing else about this case did.

Bryce tuned out the sound of Lehabah watching one of her dramas and tried to concentrate on the map of Danika’s locations. Tried but failed, since she could feel Hunt’s eyes lingering on her from across the library table. For the hundredth time in that hour alone. She met his stare, and he looked away quickly. “What?”

He shook his head and went back to his research.

“You’ve been staring at me all afternoon with that weird fucking look on your face.”

He drummed his fingers on the table, then blurted, “You want to tell me why the Oracle warned me to stay the Hel away from you?”

Bryce let out a short laugh. “Is that why you seemed all freaked when you left the temple?”

“She said she’d reveal her vision for you—like she has a damned bone to pick with you.”

A shiver crawled down Bryce’s spine at that. “I don’t blame her if she’s still pissed.”

Hunt paled, but Bryce said, “In Fae culture, there’s a custom: when girls get their cycle for the first time, or when they turn thirteen, they go to an Oracle. The visit provides a glimpse toward what sort of power they might ascend to when mature, so their parents can plan unions years before the actual Drop. Boys go, too—at age thirteen. These days, if the parents are progressive, it’s just an old tradition to figure out a career for their children. Soldiers or healers or whatever Fae do if they can’t afford to lounge around eating grapes all day.”

“The Fae and malakim might hate each other, but they have a lot of bullshit in common.”

Bryce hummed her agreement. “My cycle started when I was a few weeks shy of thirteen. And my mom had this … I don’t know. Crisis? This sudden fear that she’d shut me off from a part of my heritage. She got in touch with my biological father. Two weeks later, the documents showed up, declaring me a full civitas. It came with a catch, though: I had to claim Sky and Breath as my House. I refused, but my mom actually insisted I do it. She saw it as some kind of … protection. I don’t know. Apparently, she was convinced enough of his intention to protect me that she asked if he wanted to meet me. For the first time. And I

eventually cooled down enough from the whole House allegiance thing to realize I wanted to meet him, too.”

Hunt read her beat of silence. “It didn’t go well.”

“No. That visit was the first time I met Ruhn, too. I came here— stayed in FiRo for the summer. I met the Autumn King.” The lie was easy. “Met my father, too,” she added. “In the initial few days, the visit wasn’t as bad as my mother had feared. I liked what I saw. Even if some of the other Fae children whispered that I was a half-breed, I knew what I was. I’ve never not been proud of it—being human, I mean. And I knew my father had invited me, so he at least wanted me there. I didn’t mind what others thought. Until the Oracle.”

He winced. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“It was catastrophic.” She swallowed against the memory. “When the Oracle looked into her smoke, she screamed. Clawed at her eyes.” There was no point hiding it. The event had been known in some circles. “I heard later that she went blind for a week.”

“Holy shit.”

Bryce laughed to herself. “Apparently, my future is that bad.” Hunt didn’t smile. “What happened?”

“I returned to the petitioners’ antechamber. All you could hear was the Oracle screaming and cursing me—the acolytes rushed in.”

“I meant with your father.”

“He called me a worthless disgrace, stormed out of the temple’s VIP exit so no one could know who he was to me, and by the time I caught up, he’d taken the car and left. When I got back to his house, I found my bags on the curb.”

“Asshole. Danaan had nothing to say about him kicking his cousin to the curb?”

“The king forbade Ruhn to interfere.” She examined her nails. “Believe me, Ruhn tried to fight. But the king bound him. So I got a cab to the train station. Ruhn managed to shove money for the fares into my hand.”

“Your mom must have gone ballistic.”

“She did.” Bryce paused a moment and then said, “Seems like the Oracle’s still pissed.”

He threw her a half smile. “I’d consider it a badge of honor.”

Bryce, despite herself, smiled back. “You’re probably the only one who thinks that.” His eyes lingered on her face again, and she knew it had nothing to do with what the Oracle had said.

Bryce cleared her throat. “Find anything?”

Catching her request to drop the subject, Hunt pivoted the laptop toward her. “I’ve been looking at this ancient shit for days—and this is all I’ve found.”

The terra-cotta vase dated back nearly fifteen thousand years. After Prince Pelias by about a century, but the kristallos hadn’t yet faded from common memory. She read the brief catalog copy and said, “It’s at a gallery in Mirsia.” Which put it a sea and two thousand miles beyond that from Lunathion. She pulled the computer to her and clicked on the thumbnail. “But these photos should be enough.”

“I might have been born before computers, Quinlan, but I do know how to use them.”

“I’m just trying to spare you from further ruining your badass image as the Umbra Mortis. We can’t have word getting out that you’re a computer nerd.”

“Thanks for your concern.” His eyes met hers, the corner of his mouth kicking up.

Her toes might have curled in her heels. Slightly.

Bryce straightened. “All right. Tell me what I’m looking at.”

“A good sign.” Hunt pointed at the image, rendered in black paint against the burnt orange of the terra-cotta, of the kristallos demon roaring as a sword was driven through its head by a helmeted male warrior.

She leaned toward the screen. “How so?”

“That the kristallos can be killed the old-fashioned way. As far as I can tell, there’s no magic or special artifact being used to kill it here. Just plain brute force.”

Her gut tightened. “This vase could be an artistic interpretation. That thing killed Danika and the Pack of Devils, and knocked Micah on his ass, too. And you mean to tell me some ancient warrior killed it with just a sword through the head?”

Though Lehabah’s show kept playing, Bryce knew the sprite was listening to every word.

Hunt said, “Maybe the kristallos had the element of surprise on its side that night.”

She tried and failed to block out the red pulped piles, the spray of blood on the walls, the way her entire body had seemed to plummet downward even while standing still as she stared at what was left of her friends. “Or maybe this is just a bullshit rendering by an artist who heard an embellished song around a fire and did their own take on it.” She began tapping her foot under the table, as if it’d somehow calm her staccato heartbeat.

He held her stare, his black eyes stark and honest. “All right.” She waited for him to push, to pry, but Hunt slid the computer back to his side of the table. He squinted. “That’s odd. It says the vase is originally from Parthos.” He angled his head. “I thought Parthos was a myth. A human fairy tale.”

“Because humans were no better than rock-banging animals until the Asteri arrived?”

“Tell me you don’t believe that conspiracy crap about an ancient library in the heart of a pre-existing human civilization?” When she didn’t answer, Hunt challenged, “If something like that did exist, where’s the evidence?”

Bryce zipped her amulet along its chain and nodded toward the image on the screen.

“This vase was made by a nymph,” he said. “Not some mythical, enlightened human.”

“Maybe Parthos hadn’t been wiped off the map entirely at that point.”

Hunt looked at her from under lowered brows. “Really, Quinlan?” When she again didn’t answer, he jerked his chin at her digital tablet. “Where are you with the data about Danika’s locations?”

Hunt’s phone buzzed before she could reply, but Bryce said, reeling herself back together as that image of the slain kristallos bled with what had been done to Danika, what had been left of her, “I’m still ruling out the things that were likely unconnected, but … Really, the only outlier here is the fact that Danika was on sentry duty at Luna’s Temple. She was sometimes stationed in the general area, but never specifically at the temple itself. And somehow, days before she died, she got put on watch there? And data shows her being right there when the Horn was stolen. The acolyte was also there that night. It’s all got to tie together somehow.”

Hunt set down his phone. “Maybe Philip Briggs will enlighten us tonight.”

Her head snapped up. “Tonight?”

Lehabah completely stopped watching her show at that.

“Just got the message from Viktoria. They transferred him from Adrestia. We’re meeting him in an hour in a holding cell under the Comitium.” He surveyed the data spread before them. “He’s going to be difficult.”

“I know.”

He leaned back in the chair. “He’s not going to have nice things to say about Danika. You sure you can handle hearing his kind of venom?”

“I’m fine.”

“Really? Because that vase just set you off, and I doubt coming face-to-face with this guy is going to be any easier.”

The walls began swelling around her. “Get out.” Her words cut between them. “Just because we’re working together doesn’t mean you’re entitled to push into my personal matters.”

Hunt merely looked her over. Saw all of that. But he said roughly, “I want to head to the Comitium in twenty. I’ll wait for you outside.”

Bryce trailed Hunt out, making sure he didn’t touch any of the books and that they didn’t grab for him, then shut the door before he’d fully walked onto the street beyond.

She sank against the iron until she sat on the carpet, and braced her forearms on her knees.

They were gone—all of them. Thanks to that demon depicted on an ancient vase. They were gone, and there would be no more wolves in her life. No more hanging out in the apartment. No more drunken, stupid dancing on street corners, or blasting music at three in the morning until their neighbors threatened to call the 33rd.

No friends who would say I love you and mean it. Syrinx and Lele came creeping in, the chimera curling up beneath her bent legs, the sprite lying belly-down on Bryce’s forearm.

“Don’t blame Athie. I think he wants to be our friend.” “I don’t give a shit what Hunt Athalar wants.”

“June is busy with ballet, and Fury is as good as gone. Maybe it’s time for more friends, BB. You seem sad again. Like you were two winters ago. Fine one minute, then not fine the next. You don’t dance, you don’t hang out with anyone, you don’t—”

“Leave it, Lehabah.”

“Hunt is nice. And Prince Ruhn is nice. But Danika was never nice to me. Always biting and snarling. Or she ignored me.”

“Watch it.

The sprite crawled off her arm and floated in front of her, arms wrapping across her round belly. “You can be cold as a Reaper, Bryce.” Then she was gone, whizzing off to stop a thick leather-bound tome from crawling its way up the stairs.

Bryce blew out a long breath, trying to piece the hole in her chest together.

Twenty minutes, Hunt had said. She had twenty minutes before going to question Briggs. Twenty minutes to get her shit together. Or at least pretend she had.

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