Chapter no 43

House of Earth and Blood

The wolves’ Den in Moonwood occupied ten entire city blocks, a sprawling villa built around a wild tangle of forest and grass that legend claimed had grown there since before anyone had touched these lands. Through the iron gates built into the towering limestone arches, Bryce could see through to the private park, where morning sunlight coaxed drowsy flowers into opening up for the day. Wolf pups bounded, pouncing on each other, chasing their tails, watched over by gray-muzzled elders whose brutal days in the Aux were long behind them.

Her gut twisted, enough to make her grateful she’d forgone breakfast. She’d barely slept last night, as she considered and reconsidered this plan. Hunt had offered to do it himself, but she’d refused. She had to come here—had to step up. For Danika.

In his usual battle-suit, Hunt stood a step away, silent as he’d been on the walk over here. As if he knew she could barely keep her legs from shaking. She wished she’d worn sneakers. The steep angle of her heels had irritated the wound in her thigh. Bryce clenched her jaw against the pain as they stood before the Den.

Hunt kept his dark eyes fixed upon the four sentries stationed at the gates.

Three females, one male. All in humanoid form, all in black, all armed with guns and sheathed swords down their backs. A tattoo of an onyx rose with three claw marks slashed through its petals adorned the sides of their necks, marking them as members of the Black Rose Wolf Pack.

Her stomach roiled at the hilts peeking over their armored shoulders. But she pushed away the memory of a braid of silvery-blond hair

streaked with purple and pink, constantly snagging in the hilt of an ancient, priceless blade.

Though young, the Pack of Devils had been revered, the most talented wolves in generations. Led by the most powerful Alpha to grace Midgard’s soil.

The Black Rose Pack was a far cry from that. A far fucking cry. Their eyes lit with predatory delight as they spotted Bryce.

Her mouth went dry. And turned positively arid as a fifth wolf appeared from the glass security vestibule to the left of the gate.

The Alpha’s dark hair had been pulled into a tight braid, accentuating the sharp angles of her face as she sneered toward Bryce and Hunt. Athalar’s hand casually drifted to the knife at his thigh.

Bryce said as casually as she could, “Hi, Amelie.”

Amelie Ravenscroft bared her teeth. “What the fuck do you want?”

Hunt bared his teeth right back. “We’re here to see the Prime.” He flashed his legion badge, the gold twinkling in the sun. “On behalf of the Governor.”

Amelie flicked her gold eyes to Hunt, over his tattooed halo. Over his hand on the knife and the SPQM she surely knew was tattooed on the other side of his wrist. Her lip curled. “Well, at least you picked interesting company, Quinlan. Danika would have approved. Hel, you might have even done him together.” Amelie leaned a shoulder against the vestibule’s side. “You used to do that, right? I heard about you guys and those two daemonaki. Classic.”

Bryce smiled blandly. “It was three daemonaki, actually.” “Stupid slut,” Amelie snarled.

“Watch it,” Hunt growled back.

Amelie’s pack members lingered behind her, eyeing Hunt and keeping back. The benefit of hanging with the Umbra Mortis, apparently. Amelie laughed, a sound filled with loathing. Not merely hatred for her, Bryce realized. But for the angels. The Houses of Earth and Blood and Sky and Breath were rivals on a good day, enemies on a bad one. “Or what? You’ll use your lightning on me?” she said to Hunt. “If you do, you’ll be in such deep shit that your master will bury you alive in it.”

A little smile at the tattoo across his brow.

Hunt went still. And as interesting as it would have been to finally see how Hunt Athalar killed, they had a reason for being here. So Bryce said to the pack leader, “You’re a delight, Amelie Ravenscroft. Radio your boss that we’re here to see the Prime.” She flicked her brows in emphasis of the dismissal she knew would make the Alpha see red.

“Shut that mouth of yours,” Amelie said, “before I rip out your tongue.”

A brown-haired male wolf standing behind Amelie taunted, “Why don’t you go fuck someone in a bathroom again, Quinlan?”

She blocked out every word. But Hunt huffed a laugh that promised broken bones. “I told you to watch it.”

“Go ahead, angel,” Amelie sneered. “Let’s see what you can do.” Bryce could barely move around the panic and dread pushing in,

could barely breathe, but Hunt said quietly, “There are six pups playing in sight of this gate. You really want to expose them to the kind of fight we’d have, Amelie?”

Bryce blinked. Hunt didn’t so much as glance her way as he continued addressing a seething Amelie. “I’m not going to beat the shit out of you in front of children. So either you let us in, or we’ll come back with a warrant.” His gaze didn’t falter. “I don’t think Sabine Fendyr would be particularly happy with Option B.”

Amelie held his stare, even as the others tensed. That haughty arrogance had made Sabine tap her as Alpha of the Black Rose Pack, even over Ithan Holstrom, now Amelie’s Second. But Sabine had wanted someone just like herself, regardless of Ithan’s higher power ranking. And perhaps someone a little less Alpha, too—so she’d have them firmly under her claws.

Bryce waited for Amelie to call Hunt’s bluff about the warrant.

Waited for a snide remark or the appearance of fangs.

Yet Amelie plucked the radio from her belt and said into it, “Guests are here for the Prime. Come get them.”

She had once breezed through the doors beyond Amelie’s dark head, had spent hours playing with the pups in the grass and trees beyond it whenever Danika had been given babysitting duty.

She shut out the memory of what it had been like—to watch Danika playing with the fuzzy pups or shrieking children, who had all worshipped the ground she walked upon. Their future leader, their protector, who would take the wolves to new heights.

Bryce’s chest constricted to the point of pain. Hunt glanced her way then, his brows rising.

She couldn’t do this. Be here. Enter this place.

Amelie smiled, as if realizing that. Scenting her dread and pain.

And the sight of the fucking bitch standing there, where Danika had once been … Red washed over Bryce’s vision as she drawled, “It’s good

to see that crime has gone down so much, if all you have to do with your day, Amelie, is play guard at the front door.”

Amelie smiled slowly. Footsteps sounded on the other side of the gate, just before they swung open, but Bryce didn’t dare look. Not as Amelie said, “You know, sometimes I think I should thank you—they say if Danika hadn’t been so distracted by messaging you about your drunk bullshit, she might have anticipated the attack. And then I wouldn’t be where I am, would I.”

Bryce’s nails cut into her palms. But her voice, thank the gods, was steady as she said, “Danika was a thousand times the wolf you are. No matter where you are, you’ll never be where she was.”

Amelie went white with rage, her nose crinkling, lips pulling back to expose her now-lengthening teeth—

“Amelie,” a male voice growled from the shadows of the gate archway.

Oh gods. Bryce curled her fingers into fists to keep from shaking as she looked toward the young male wolf.

But Ithan Holstrom’s eyes darted between her and Amelie as he approached his Alpha. “It’s not worth it.” The unspoken words simmered in his eyes. Bryce isn’t worth it.

Amelie snorted, turning back to the vestibule, a shorter, brown-haired female following her. The pack’s Omega, if memory served. Amelie sneered over a shoulder to Bryce, “Go back to the dumpster you crawled out of.”

Then she shut the door. Leaving Bryce standing before Connor’s younger brother.

There was nothing kind on Ithan’s tan face. His golden-brown hair was longer than the last time she’d seen him, but he’d been a sophomore playing sunball for CCU then.

This towering, muscled male before them had made the Drop. Had stepped into his brother’s shoes and joined the pack that had replaced Connor’s.

A brush of Hunt’s velvet-soft wings against her arm had her walking.

Every step toward the wolf ratcheted up her heartbeat. “Ithan,” Bryce managed to say.

Connor’s younger brother said nothing as he turned toward the pillars flanking the walkway.

She was going to puke. All over everything: the limestone tiles, the pale pillars, the glass doors that opened into the park in the center of the villa.

She shouldn’t have let Athalar come. Should have made him stay on the roof somewhere so he couldn’t witness the spectacular meltdown that she was three seconds away from having.

Ithan Holstrom’s steps were unhurried, his gray T-shirt pulling across the considerable expanse of his muscled back. He’d been a cocky twenty-year-old when Connor died, a history major like Danika and the star of CCU’s sunball team, rumored to be going pro as soon as his brother gave the nod. He could have gone pro right after high school, but Connor, who had raised Ithan since their parents had died five years earlier, had insisted that a degree came first, sports second. Ithan, who had idolized Connor, had always folded on it, despite Bronson’s pleas with Connor to let the kid go pro.

Connor’s Shadow, they’d teased Ithan.

He’d filled out since then. At last started truly resembling his older brother—even the shade of his golden-brown hair was like a spike through her chest.

I’m crazy about you. I don’t want anyone else. I haven’t for a long while.

She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t stop seeing, hearing those words, feeling the giant fucking rip in the space-time continuum where Connor should have been, in a world where nothing bad could ever, ever happen

Ithan stopped before another set of glass doors. He opened one, the muscles in his long arm rippling as he held it for them.

Hunt went first, no doubt scanning the space in the span of a blink. Bryce managed to look up at Ithan as she passed.

His white teeth shone as he bared them at her.

Gone was the cocky boy she’d teased; gone was the boy who’d tried out flirting on her so he could use the techniques on Nathalie, who had laughed when Ithan asked her out but told him to wait a few more years; gone was the boy who had relentlessly questioned Bryce about when she’d finally start dating his brother and wouldn’t take never for an answer.

A honed predator now stood in his place. Who had surely not forgotten the leaked messages she’d sent and received that horrible night. That she’d been fucking some random in the club bathroom while Connor—Connor, who had just spilled his heart to her—was slaughtered. Bryce lowered her eyes, hating it, hating every second of this fucked-

up visit.

Ithan smiled, as if savoring her shame.

He’d dropped out of CCU after Connor had died. Quit playing sunball. She only knew because she’d caught a game on TV one night two months later and the commentators had still been discussing it. No one, not his coaches, not his friends, not his packmates, could convince him to return. He’d walked away from the sport and never looked back, apparently.

She hadn’t seen him since the days right before the murders. Her last photo of him was the one Danika had taken at his game, playing in the background. The one she’d tortured herself with last night for hours while bracing herself for what the dawn would bring.

Before that, though, there had been hundreds of photos of the two of them together. They still sat on her phone like a basket full of snakes, waiting to bite if she so much as opened the lid.

Ithan’s cruel smile didn’t waver as he shut the door behind them. “The Prime’s taking a nap. Sabine will meet with you.”

Bryce glanced at Hunt, who gave her a shallow nod. Precisely as they’d planned.

Bryce was aware of Ithan’s every breath at her back as they aimed for the stairs that Bryce knew would take them up a level to Sabine’s office. Hunt seemed aware of Ithan, too, and let enough lightning wreathe his hands, his wrists, that the young wolf took a step away.

At least alphaholes were good for something.

Ithan didn’t leave. No, it seemed he was to be their guard and silent tormentor for the duration of this miserable trip.

Bryce knew every step toward Sabine’s office on the second level, but Ithan led the way: up the sprawling limestone stairs marred with so many scratches and gouges no one bothered to fix them anymore; down the high-ceilinged, bright hall whose windows overlooked the busy street outside; and finally to the worn wood door. Danika had grown up here— and moved out as soon as she’d gone to CCU. After graduation, she’d stayed only during formal wolf events and holidays.

Ithan’s pace was leisurely. As if he could scent Bryce’s misery, and wanted to make her endure it for every possible second.

She supposed she deserved it. Knew she deserved it. She tried to block out the memory that flashed.

The twenty-one ignored calls from Ithan, all in the first few days following the murder. The half-dozen audiomails. The first had been sobbing, panicked, left in the hours afterward. Is it true, Bryce? Are they dead?

And then the messages had shifted to worry. Where are you? Are you okay? I called the major hospitals and you’re not listed, but no one is talking. Please call me.

And then, by the end, that last audiomail from Ithan, nothing but razor-sharp coldness. The Legion inspectors showed me all the messages. Connor practically told you that he loved you, and you finally agreed to go out with him, and then you fucked some stranger in the Raven bathroom? While he was dying? Are you kidding me with this shit? Don’t come to the Sailing tomorrow. You’re not welcome there.

She’d never written back, never sought him out. Hadn’t been able to endure the thought of facing him. Seeing the grief and pain in his face. Loyalty was the most prized of all wolf traits. In their eyes, she and Connor had been inevitable. Nearly mated. Just a question of time. Her hookups before that hadn’t mattered, and neither had his, because nothing had been declared yet.

Until he’d asked her out at last. And she had said yes. Had started down that road.

To the wolves, she was Connor’s, and he was hers.

Message me when you’re home safe.

Her chest tightened and tightened, the walls pushing in, squeezing—

She forced herself to take a long breath. To inhale to the point where her ribs strained from holding it in. Then to exhale, pushing-pushing-pushing, until she was heaving out the pure gut-shredding panic that burned through her whole body like acid.

Bryce wasn’t a wolf. She didn’t play by their rules of courtship. And she’d been stupid and scared of what agreeing to that date had meant, and Danika certainly didn’t care one way or another if Bryce had some meaningless hookup, but—Bryce hadn’t ever worked up the nerve to explain to Ithan after she’d seen and heard his messages.

She’d kept them all. Listening to them was a solid central arc of her emotional death-spiral routine. The culmination of it, of course, being Danika’s last, foolishly happy messages.

Ithan knocked on Sabine’s door, letting it swing wide to reveal a sunny white office whose windows looked into the verdant greenery of the Den’s park. Sabine sat at her desk, her corn-silk hair near-glowing in the light. “You have some nerve coming here.”

Words dried up in Bryce’s throat as she took in the pale face, the slender hands interlaced on the oak desk, the narrow shoulders that belied her tremendous strength. Danika had been pure wildfire; her

mother was solid ice. And if Sabine had killed her, if Sabine had done this …

Roaring began in Bryce’s head.

Hunt must have sensed it, scented it, because he stepped up to Bryce’s side, Ithan lingering in the hall, and said, “We wanted to meet with the Prime.”

Irritation flickered in Sabine’s eyes. “About?” “About your daughter’s murder.”

“Stay the fuck out of our business,” Sabine barked, setting the glass on her table rattling. Bile burned Bryce’s throat, and she focused on not screaming or launching herself at the woman.

Hunt’s wing brushed Bryce’s back, a casual gesture to anyone watching, but that warmth and softness steadied her. Danika. For Danika, she’d do this.

Sabine’s eyes blazed. “Where the Hel is my sword?”

Bryce refused to answer, to even snap that the sword was and would always be Danika’s, and said, “We have intel that suggests Danika was stationed at Luna’s Temple the night the Horn was stolen. We need the Prime to confirm.” Bryce kept her eyes on the carpet, the portrait of terrified, shameful submission, and let Sabine dig her own grave.

Sabine demanded, “What the fuck does this have to do with her death?”

Hunt said calmly, “We’re putting together a picture of Danika’s movements before the kristallos demon killed her. Who she might have met, what she might have seen or done.”

Another bit of bait: to see her reaction to the demon’s breed, when it hadn’t yet been made public. Sabine didn’t so much as blink. Like she was already familiar with it—perhaps because she’d been summoning it all along. Though she might just not have cared, Bryce supposed. Sabine hissed, “Danika wasn’t at the temple that night. She had nothing to do with the Horn being stolen.”

Bryce avoided the urge to close her eyes at the lie that confirmed everything.

Claws slid from Sabine’s knuckles, embedding in her desk. “Who told you Danika was at the temple?”

“No one,” Bryce lied. “I thought I might have remembered her mentioning—”

“You thought?” Sabine sneered, voice rising to imitate Bryce’s. “It’s hard to remember, isn’t it, when you were high, drunk, and fucking strangers.”

“You’re right,” Bryce breathed, even as Hunt growled. “This was a mistake.” She didn’t give Hunt time to object before she turned on a heel and left, gasping for breath.

How she kept her back straight, her stomach inside her body, she had no idea.

She barely heard Hunt as he fell into step behind her. Couldn’t stand to look at Ithan as she entered the hallway and found him waiting against the far wall.

Back down the stairs. She didn’t dare look at the wolves she passed. She knew Ithan trailed, but she didn’t care, didn’t care—

“Quinlan.” Hunt’s voice cut through the marble stairwell. She made it down another flight when he said again, “Quinlan.”

It was sharp enough that she paused. Looked up over a shoulder. Hunt’s eyes scanned her face—worry, not triumph at Sabine’s blatant lie, shining there.

But Ithan stood between them on the steps, eyes hard as stones. “Tell me what this is about.”

Hunt drawled, “It’s classified, asshole.” Ithan’s snarl rumbled through the stairwell.

“It’s starting again,” Bryce said quietly, aware of all the cameras, of Micah’s order to keep this quiet. Her voice was rasping. “We’re trying to figure out why and who’s behind it. Three murders so far. The same way. Be careful—warn your pack to be careful.”

Ithan’s face remained unreadable. That had been one of his assets as a sunball player—his ability to keep from broadcasting moves to his opponents. He’d been brilliant, and cocky as fuck, yes, but that arrogance had been well earned through hours of practice and brutal discipline.

Ithan’s face remained cold. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything.” “Do you need our numbers?” Hunt asked coolly.

Ithan’s lip curled. “I have hers.” She struggled to meet his stare, especially as he asked, “Are you going to bother to reply this time?”

She turned on her heel and rushed down the stairs into the reception hall.

The Prime of the wolves stood in it now. Talking to the receptionist, hunched over his redwood cane, Danika’s grandfather lifted his withered face as she came to an abrupt halt in front of him.

His warm brown eyes—those were Danika’s eyes, staring out at her.

The ancient male offered her a sad, kind smile. It was worse than any of the sneers or snarls.

Bryce managed to bow her head before she bolted through the glass doors.

She made it to the gates without running into anyone else. Had almost made it onto the street when Ithan caught up to her, Hunt a step behind. Ithan said, “You never deserved him.”

He might as well have drawn the knife she knew was hidden in his boot and plunged it into her chest. “I know,” she rasped.

The pups were still playing, bounding through the high grasses. He nodded to the second level, to where Sabine’s office overlooked the greenery. “You made some dumb fucking choices, Bryce, but I never pegged you for stupid. She wants you dead.” Another confirmation, perhaps.

The words snapped something in her. “Likewise.” She pointed to the gates, unable to stop the rage boiling in her as she realized that all signs pointed toward Sabine. “Connor would be ashamed of you for letting Amelie run rampant. For letting a piece of shit like that be your Alpha.”

Claws glinted at Ithan’s knuckles. “Don’t you ever say his name again.”

“Walk away,” Hunt said softly to him. Lightning licked along his wings.

Ithan looked inclined to rip out his throat, but Hunt was already at Bryce’s side, following her onto the sun-drenched street. She didn’t dare look at Amelie or her pack at the gates, sneering and snickering at them.

“You’re trash, Quinlan!” Amelie shouted as they passed by, and her friends roared with laughter.

Bryce couldn’t bear to see if Ithan laughed with them.

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