Chapter no 41

House of Earth and Blood

The rain didn’t halt.

Hunt couldn’t decide if it was a blessing, since it kept the streets mostly empty of all save Vanir affiliated with water, or if it was shit-poor luck, since it certainly wiped away any chance of a scent from the demon prowling the streets.

“Come … on,” Bryce grunted.

Leaning against the wall beside the front door of the gallery, sunset mere minutes away, Hunt debated pulling out his phone to film the scene before him: Syrinx with his claws embedded in the carpet, yowling his head off, and Bryce trying to haul him by the back legs toward the door.

“It’s. Just. Water!” she gritted out, tugging again.

“Eeettzzz!” Syrinx wailed back.

Bryce had declared that they were dropping off Syrinx at her apartment before going out to FiRo to investigate.

She grunted again, legs straining as she heaved the chimera. “We.

Are. Going. Home!

The green carpet began to lift, nails popping free as Syrinx clung for dear life.

Cthona spare him. Snickering, Hunt did Jesiba Roga a favor before Syrinx started on the wood panels, and wrapped a cool breeze around the chimera. Brow scrunching with concentration, he hoisted Syrinx from the carpet, floating him on a storm-wind straight to Hunt’s open arms.

Syrinx blinked at him, then bristled, his tiny white teeth bared. Hunt said calmly, “None of that, beastie.”

Syrinx harrumphed, then went boneless.

Hunt found Bryce blinking, too. He threw her a grin. “Any more screeching from you?”

She grumbled, her words muffled by the rain-blasted night. Syrinx tensed in Hunt’s arms as they emerged into the wet evening, Bryce shutting and locking the door behind them. She limped slightly. As if her tug-of-war with the chimera had strained her thigh again.

Hunt kept his mouth shut as he handed Syrinx over to her, the chimera practically clawing holes in Bryce’s dress. He knew her leg bothered her. Knew he’d been the cause, with his battlefield stapling. But if she was going to be stupid and not get it looked at, then fine. Fine.

He didn’t say any of that as Bryce wrapped her arms around Syrinx, hair already plastered to her head, and stepped closer to him. Hunt was keenly aware of every part of his body that met every part of hers as he scooped her into his arms, flapped his wings, and shot them into the storming skies, Syrinx huffing and hissing.

Syrinx forgave them both by the time they stood, dripping water, in the kitchen, and Bryce earned redemption points for the additional food she dumped into his bowl.

An outfit change for Bryce into athletic gear, and thirty minutes later, they stood in front of the Rose Gate. Its roses, wisteria, and countless other flowers gleamed with rain in the firstlight from lampposts flanking the traffic circle beyond it. A few cars wound past to disperse either into the city streets or along Central Avenue, which crossed through the Gate and became the long, dark expanse of the Eastern Road.

Hunt and Bryce squinted through the rain to peer at the square, the Gate, the traffic circle.

No hint of the demon that had been creeping through Vik’s feeds. From the corner of his eye, he watched Bryce rub her upper thigh,

reining in her wince. He ground his teeth, but bit back his reprimand.

He didn’t feel like getting another lecture on domineering alphahole behavior.

“Right,” Bryce said, the ends of her ponytail curling in the damp. “Since you’re the sicko with dozens of crime scene photos on your phone, I’ll let you do the investigating.”

“Funny.” Hunt pulled out his phone, snapped a photo of her standing in the rain and looking pissy, and then pulled up a photo he’d taken of the printouts Vik had made.

Bryce pressed closer to study the photo on his phone, the heat of her body a beckoning song. He kept perfectly still, refusing to heed it, as she lifted her head. “That camera there,” she said, pointing to one of the ten mounted on the Gate itself. “That’s the one that got the little blur.”

Hunt nodded, surveying the Rose Gate and its surroundings. No sign of Sabine. Not that he expected the future Prime to be standing out in the open, summoning demons like some city-square charlatan. Especially not in such a public place, usually packed with tourists.

In the centuries since the Fae had decided to cover their Gate with flowers and climbing plants, the Rose Gate had become one of the biggest tourist draws, with thousands of people flocking there each day to give a drop of power to make a wish on its dial pad, nearly hidden beneath ivy, and to snap photos of the stunning little creatures who now made their nests and homes within the tangle of green. But at this hour, in this weather, even the Rose Gate was quiet. Dark.

Bryce rubbed her gods-damned thigh again. He swallowed down his annoyance and asked, “You think the demon headed out of the city?”

“I’m praying it didn’t.” The broad Eastern Road speared into dark, rolling hills and cypresses. A few golden firstlights gleamed among them, the only indication of the farms and villas interspersed throughout the vineyards, grazing lands, and olive groves. All good places to hide.

Bryce kept close as they crossed the street, into the heart of the small park in the center of the traffic circle. She scanned the rain-slick trees around them. “Anything?”

Hunt began to shake his head, but paused. He saw something on the other side of the marble circle on which the Gate stood. He took out his phone, the screen light bouncing off the strong planes of his face. “Maybe we were wrong. About the ley lines.”

“What do you mean?”

He showed her the map of the city he’d pulled up, running a finger over Ward Avenue. Then Central. Main. “The kristallos appeared near all these streets. We thought it was because they were close to the ley lines. But we forgot what lies right beneath the streets, allowing the demon to appear and vanish without anyone noticing. The perfect place for Sabine to summon something and order it to move around the city.” He pointed to the other side of the Gate. To a sewer grate.

Bryce groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Gods, it reeks,” Bryce hissed over the rushing water below, pressing her face into her elbow as she knelt beside Hunt and peered into the open sewer. “What the fuck.”

Soaked from the rain and kneeling in Ogenas knew what on the sidewalk, Hunt hid his smile as the beam of his flashlight skimmed over the slick bricks of the tunnel below in a careful sweep, then over the

cloudy, dark river, surging thanks to the waterfalls of rain that poured in through the grates. “It’s a sewer,” he said. “What did you expect?”

She flipped him off. “You’re the warrior-investigator-whatever. Can’t you go down there and find some clues?”

“You really think Sabine left an easy trail like that?”

“Maybe there are claw marks or whatever.” She surveyed the ancient stone. Hunt didn’t know why she bothered. There were claw marks and scratches everywhere. Likely from whatever lowlifes had dwelled and hunted down here for centuries.

“This isn’t some crime-scene investigative drama, Quinlan. It’s not that easy.”

“No one likes a condescending asshole, Athalar.”

His mouth curved upward. Bryce studied the gloom below, mouth tightening as if she’d will the kristallos or Sabine to appear. He’d already sent a message to Isaiah and Vik to get extra cameras on the Gate and the sewer grate, along with any others in the vicinity. If one so much as shifted an inch, they’d know. He didn’t dare ask them to follow Sabine. Not yet.

“We should go down there,” Bryce declared. “Maybe we can pick up her scent.”

He said carefully, “You haven’t made the Drop.” “Spare me the protective bullshit.”

Dark Hel, this woman. “I’m not going down there unless we have a fuck-ton more weapons.” He only had two guns and a knife. “Demon aside, if Sabine’s down there …” He might outrank Sabine in terms of power, but with the witches’ spells hobbling most of his might through the halo’s ink, he had his proverbial hands tied.

So it’d come down to brute strength, and while he had the advantage there, too, Sabine was lethal. Motivated. And mean as an adder.

Bryce scowled. “I can handle myself.” After the shooting range, he certainly knew that.

“It’s not about you, sweetheart. It’s about me not wanting to wind up dead.”

“Can’t you use your lightning-thing to protect us?”

He suppressed another smile at lightning-thing, but he said, “There’s water down there. Adding lightning to the mix doesn’t seem wise.”

She cut him a glare. Hunt gave one right back.

Hunt had the feeling he’d passed some test when she smiled slightly.

Avoiding that little smile, Hunt scanned the river of filth running below. “All sewers lead to the Istros. Maybe the Many Waters folk have

seen something.”

Bryce’s brows rose. “Why would they?” “A river’s a good place to dump a corpse.”

“The demon left remains, though. It—or Sabine—doesn’t seem to be interested in hiding them. Not if she wants to do this as part of some scheme to jeopardize Micah’s image.”

“That’s only a theory right now,” Hunt countered. “I have a Many Waters contact who might have intel.”

“Let’s head to the docks, then. We’ll be less likely to be noticed at night anyway.”

“But twice as likely to encounter a predator searching for a meal. We’ll wait until daylight.” The gods knew they’d already risked enough in coming down here. Hunt placed the metal lid back on the sewer with a thud. He got one look at her annoyed, dirty face and chuckled. Before he could reconsider, he said, “I have fun with you, Quinlan. Despite how terrible this case is, despite all of it, I haven’t had fun like this in a while.” In ever.

He could have sworn she blushed. “Hang with me, Athalar,” she said, trying to wipe the grime off her legs and hands from kneeling at the grate entrance, “and you might get rid of that stick up your ass after all.”

He didn’t answer. There was just a click.

She whirled toward him to find his phone out. Snapping a photo of


Hunt’s grin was a slash of white in the rainy gloom. “I’d rather have

a stick up my ass than look like a drowned rat.”

Bryce used the spigot on the roof to wash off her shoes, her hands. She had no desire to track the filth of the street into her house. She went so far as to make Hunt take off his boots in the hallway, and didn’t look to see if he was planning on taking a shower before she ran for her own room and had the water going in seconds.

She left her clothes in a pile in the corner, turned the heat as high as she could tolerate, and began a process of scrubbing and foaming and scrubbing some more. Remembering how she’d knelt on the filthy city street and breathed in a face full of sewer air, she scrubbed herself again.

Hunt knocked twenty minutes later. “Don’t forget to clean between your toes.”

Even with the shut door, she covered herself. “Fuck off.”

His chuckle rumbled to her over the sound of the water. He said, “The soap in the guest room is out. Do you have another bar?”

“There’s some in the hall linen closet. Just take whatever.”

He grunted his thanks, and was gone a heartbeat later. Bryce washed and lathered herself again. Gross. This city was so gross. The rain only made it worse.

Then Hunt knocked again. “Quinlan.”

His grave tone had her shutting off the water. “What’s wrong?”

She whipped a towel around herself, sliding across the marble tiles as she reached the door. Hunt was shirtless, leaning against the doorjamb to her bedroom. She might have ogled the muscles the guy was sporting if his face hadn’t been serious as Hel. “You want to tell me something?”

She gulped, scanning him from head to toe. “About what?”

“About what the fuck this is?” He extended his hand. Opened up his big fist.

A purple glittery unicorn lay in it.

She snatched the toy from his hand. His dark eyes lit with amusement as Bryce demanded, “Why are you snooping through my things?”

“Why do you have a box of unicorns in your linen closet?”

“This one is a unicorn-pegasus.” She stroked the lilac mane. “Jelly Jubilee.”

He just stared at her. Bryce shoved past him into the hall, where the linen closet door was still ajar, her box of toys now on one of the lower shelves. Hunt followed a step behind. Still shirtless.

“The soap is right there,” she said, pointing to the stack directly at his eye level. “And yet you took down a box from the highest shelf?”

She could have sworn color stained his cheeks. “I saw purple glitter.” She blinked at him. “You thought it was a sex toy, didn’t you?”

He said nothing.

“You think I keep my vibrator in my linen closet?”

He crossed his arms. “What I want to know is why you have a box of these things.”

“Because I love them.” She gently set Jelly Jubilee in the box, but pulled out an orange-and-yellow toy. “This is my pegasus, Peaches and Dreams.”

“You’re twenty-five years old.”

“And? They’re sparkly and squishy.” She gave P&D a little squeeze, then put her back in the box and pulled out the third one, a slender-legged unicorn with a mint-green coat and rose-colored mane. “And this is Princess Creampuff.” She almost laughed at the juxtaposition as she held up the sparkly toy in front of the Umbra Mortis.

“That name doesn’t even match her coloring. What’s up with the food names?”

She ran a finger over the purple glitter sprayed across the doll’s flank. “It’s because they’re so cute you could eat them. Which I did when I was six.”

His mouth twitched. “You didn’t.”

“Her name was Pineapple Shimmer and her legs were all squishy and glittery and I couldn’t resist anymore and just … took a bite. Turns out the inside of them really is jelly. But not the edible kind. My mom had to call poison control.”

He surveyed the box. “And you still have these because …?” “Because they make me happy.” At his still-bemused look she added,

“All right. If you want to get deep about it, Athalar, playing with them was the first time the other kids didn’t treat me like a total freak. The Starlight Fancy horses were the number one toy on every girl’s Winter Solstice wish list when I was five. And they were not all made equal. Poor Princess Creampuff here was common as a hoptoad. But Jelly Jubilee …” She smiled at the purple unicorn-pegasus, the memory it summoned. “My mom left Nidaros for the first time in years to buy her from one of the big towns two hours away. She was the ultimate Starlight Fancy conquest. Not just a unicorn, not just a pegasus—but both. I flashed this baby at school and was instantly accepted.”

His eyes shone as she gently set the box on the high shelf. “I’ll never laugh at them again.”

“Good.” She turned back to him, remembering that she still wore only her towel, and he was still shirtless. She grabbed a box of soap and shoved it toward him. “Here. Next time you want to check out my vibrators, just ask, Athalar.” She inclined her head toward her bedroom door and winked. “They’re in the left nightstand.”

Again, his cheeks reddened. “I wasn’t—you’re a pain in the ass, you know that?”

She shut the linen closet door with her hip and sauntered back to her bedroom. “I’d rather be a pain in the ass,” she said slyly over her bare shoulder, “than a snooping pervert.”

His snarl followed her all the way back into the bathroom.

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