Chapter no 64

House of Earth and Blood

Hunt had managed to get out of bed and prove himself alive enough that Ruhn Danaan had finally left. He had no doubt the Fae Prince had called his cousin to inform her, but it didn’t matter: Bryce was home in fifteen minutes.

Her face was white as death, so ashen that her freckles stood out like splattered blood. No sign of anything else amiss, not one thread on her black dress out of place.

“What.” He was instantly at the door, wincing as he surged from where he’d been on the couch watching the evening news coverage of Rigelus, Bright Hand of the Asteri, giving a pretty speech about the rebel conflict in Pangera. It’d be another day or two before he could walk without pain. Another several weeks until his wings grew back. A few days after that until he could test out flying. Tomorrow, probably, the insufferable itching would begin.

He remembered every miserable second from the first time he’d had his wings cut off. All the surviving Fallen had endured it. Along with the insult of having their wings displayed in the crystal palace of the Asteri as trophies and warnings.

But she first asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Fine.” Lie. Syrinx pranced at his feet, showering his hand with kisses. “What’s wrong?”

Bryce wordlessly closed the door. Shut the curtains. Yanked out her phone from her jacket pocket, pulled up an email—from herself to herself—and clicked on an attached file. “Danika had a flash drive hidden in the lining of her jacket,” Bryce said, voice shaking, and led him back to the couch, helping him to sit as the video loaded. Syrinx leapt onto the cushions, curling up beside him. Bryce sat on his other

side, so close their thighs pressed together. She didn’t seem to notice. After a heartbeat, Hunt didn’t, either.

It was grainy, soundless footage of a padded cell.

At the bottom of the video, a ticker read: Artificial Amplification for Power Dysfunction, Test Subject 7.

A too-thin human female sat in the room in a med-gown. “What the fuck is this?” Hunt asked. But he already knew.

Synth. These were the synth research trials. Bryce grunted—keep watching.

A young draki male in a lab coat entered the room, bearing a tray of supplies. The video sped up, as if someone had increased the speed of the footage for the sake of urgency. The draki male took her vitals and then injected something into her arm.

Then he left. Locked the door.

“Are they …” Hunt swallowed. “Did he just inject her with synth?” Bryce made a small, confirming noise in her throat.

The camera kept rolling. A minute passed. Five. Ten.

Two Vanir walked into the room. Two large serpentine shifters who sized up the human female locked in alone with them. Hunt’s stomach turned. Turned further at the slave tattoos on their arms, and knew that they were prisoners. Knew, from the way they smiled at the human female shrinking against the wall, why they had been locked up.

They lunged for her.

But the human female lunged, too.

It happened so fast that Hunt could barely track it. The person who had edited the footage went back and slowed it, too.

So he watched, blow by blow, as the human female launched herself at the two Vanir males.

And ripped them to pieces.

It was impossible. Utterly impossible. Unless—

Tharion had said synth could temporarily grant humans powers greater than most Vanir. Powers enough to kill.

“Do you know how badly the human rebels would want this?” Hunt said. Bryce just jerked her chin toward the screen. Where the footage kept going.

They sent in two other males. Bigger than the last. And they, too, wound up in pieces.

Piles. Oh gods.

Another two. Then three. Then five.

Until the entire room was red. Until the Vanir were clawing at the doors, begging to be let out. Begging as their companions, then they themselves, were slaughtered.

The human female was screaming, her head tilted to the ceiling.

Screaming in rage or pain or what, he couldn’t tell without the sound.

Hunt knew what was coming next. Knew, and couldn’t stop himself from watching.

She turned on herself. Ripped herself apart. Until she, too, was a pile on the floor.

The footage cut out.

Bryce said softly, “Danika must have figured out what they were working on in the labs. I think someone involved in these tests … Could they have sold the formula to some drug boss? Whoever killed Danika and the pack and the others must have been high on this synth. Or injected someone with it and sicced them on the victims.”

Hunt shook his head. “Maybe, but how does it tie in to the demons and the Horn?”

“Maybe they summoned the kristallos for the antidote in its venom— and nothing more. They wanted to try to make an antidote of their own, in case the synth ever turned on them. Maybe it doesn’t connect to the Horn at all,” Bryce said. “Maybe this is what we were meant to find. There are two other videos like this, of two different human subjects. Danika left them for me. She must have known someone was coming for her. Must have known when she was on that Aux boat, confiscating that crate of synth, that they’d come after her soon. There was no second type of demon hunting alongside the kristallos. Just a person—from this world. Someone who was high on the synth and used its power to break through our apartment’s enchantments. And then had the strength to kill Danika and the whole pack.”

Hunt considered his next words carefully, fighting against his racing mind. “It could work, Bryce. But the Horn is still out there, with a drug that might be able to repair it, coincidence or no. And we’re no closer to finding it.” No, this just led them a Hel of a lot closer to trouble. He added, “Micah already demonstrated what it means to set one foot out of line. We need to go slow on the synth hunt. Make sure we’re certain this time. And careful.”

None of you were able to find out anything like this. Why should I go slow with the only clue I have about who killed Danika and the Pack of Devils? This ties in, Hunt. I know it does.”

And because she was opening her mouth to object again, he said what he knew would stop her. “Bryce, if we pursue this and we’re wrong, if Micah learns about another fuckup, forget the bargain being over. I might not walk away from his next punishment.”

She flinched.

His entire body protested as he reached a hand to touch her knee. “This synth shit is horrific, Bryce. I … I’ve never seen anything like it.” It changed everything. Everything. He didn’t even know where to begin sorting out all he’d seen. He should make some phone calls—needed to make some phone calls about this. “But to find the murderer and maybe the Horn, and to make sure there’s an afterward for you and me”— because there would be a you and me for them; he’d do whatever it took to ensure it—“we need to be smart.” He nodded to the footage. “Forward that to me. I’ll make sure it gets to Vik on our encrypted server. See what she can dig up about these trials.”

Bryce scanned his face. The openness in her expression nearly sent him to his knees before her. Hunt waited for her to argue, to defy him. To tell him he was an idiot.

But she only said, “Okay.” She let out a long breath, slumping back against the cushions.

She was so fucking beautiful he could barely stand it. Could barely stand to hear her ask quietly, “What sort of an afterward for you and me do you have in mind, Athalar?”

He didn’t balk from her searching gaze. “The good kind,” he said with equal quiet.

She didn’t ask, though. About how it would be possible. How any of it would be possible for him, for them. What he’d do to make it so.

Her lips curved upward. “Sounds like a plan to me.” For a moment, an eternity, they stared at each other.

And despite what they’d just watched, what lurked in the world beyond the apartment, Hunt said, “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She toyed with the ends of her hair. “Hunt. You kissed me— at the medwitch’s office.”

He knew he shouldn’t, knew it was ten kinds of stupid, but he said, “What about it?”

“Did you mean it?”

“Yes.” He’d never said anything more true. “Did you want me to mean it?”

His heart began to race, fast enough that he nearly forgot the pain along his back as she said, “You know the answer to that, Athalar.”

“Do you want me to do it again?” Fuck, his voice had dropped an octave.

Her eyes were clear, bright. Fearless and hopeful and everything that had always made it impossible for him to think about anything else if she was around. “want to do it.” She added, “If that’s all right with you.”

Hel, yes. He made himself throw her a half smile. “Do your worst, Quinlan.”

She let out a breathy little laugh and turned her face up toward his. Hunt didn’t so much as inhale too deeply for fear of startling her. Syrinx, apparently taking the hint, saw himself into his crate.

Bryce’s hands shook as they lifted to his hair, brushed back a strand, then ran over the band of the halo.

Hunt gripped her trembling fingers. “What’s this about?” he murmured, unable to help himself from pressing his mouth to the dusky nails. How many times had he thought about these hands on him? Caressing his face, stroking down his chest, wrapped around his cock?

Her swallow was audible. He pressed another kiss to her fingers. “This wasn’t supposed to happen—between us,” she whispered.

“I know,” he said, kissing her shaking fingers again. He gently unfurled them, exposing the heart of her palm. He pressed his mouth there, too. “But thank fucking Urd it did.”

Her hands stopped shaking. Hunt lifted his eyes from her hand to find her own lined with silver—and full of fire. He interlaced their fingers. “For fuck’s sake, just kiss me, Quinlan.”

She did. Dark Hel, she did. His words had barely finished sounding when she slid her hand over his jaw, around his neck, and hauled his lips to hers.

The moment Hunt’s lips met her own, Bryce erupted.

She didn’t know if it was weeks without sex or Hunt himself, but she unleashed herself. That was the only way to describe it as she drove her hands into his hair and slanted her mouth against his.

No tentative, sweet kisses. Not for them. Never for them.

Her mouth opened at that first contact, and his tongue swept in, tasting her in savage, unrelenting strokes. Hunt groaned at that first taste

—and the sound was kindling.

Rising onto her knees, fingers digging into his soft hair, she couldn’t get enough, taste enough of him—rain and cedar and salt and pure lightning. His hands skimmed over her hips, slow and steady despite the mouth that ravaged hers with fierce, deep kisses.

His tongue danced with her own. She whimpered, and he let out a dark laugh as his hand wandered under the back of her dress, down the length of her spine, his calluses scraping. She arched into the touch, and he tore his mouth away.

Before she could grab his face back to hers, his lips found her neck. He pressed openmouthed kisses to it, nipped at the sensitive skin beneath her ears. “Tell me what you want, Quinlan.”

“All of it.” There was no doubt in her. None.

Hunt dragged his teeth along the side of her neck, and she panted, her entire consciousness narrowing to the sensation. “All of it?”

She slid her hand down his front. To his pants—the hard, considerable length straining against them. Urd spare her. She palmed his cock, eliciting a hiss from him. “All of it, Athalar.”

“Thank fuck,” he breathed against her neck, and she laughed.

Her laugh died as he put his mouth on hers again, as if he needed to taste the sound, too.

Tongues and teeth and breath, his hands artfully unhooking her bra under her dress. She wound up straddling his lap, wound up grinding herself over that beautiful, perfect hardness in his lap. Wound up with her dress peeled down to her waist, her bra gone, and then Hunt’s mouth and teeth were around her breast, suckling and biting and kissing, and nothing, nothing, nothing had ever felt this good, this right.

Bryce didn’t care that she was moaning loud enough for every demon in the Pit to hear. Not as Hunt switched to her other breast, sucking her nipple deep into his mouth. She drove her hips down on his, release already a rising wave in her. “Fuck, Bryce,” he murmured against her breast.

She only dove her hand beneath the waist of his pants. His hand wrapped around her wrist, though. Halted her millimeters from what she’d wanted in her hands, her mouth, her body for weeks.

“Not yet,” he growled, dragging his tongue along the underside of her breast. Content to feast on her. “Not until I’ve had my turn.”

The words short-circuited every logical thought. And any objections died as he slipped a hand up her dress, running it over her thigh. Higher. His mouth found her neck again as a finger explored the lacy front of her underwear.

He hissed again as he found it utterly soaked, the lace doing nothing to hide the proof of just how badly she wanted this, wanted him. He ran his finger down the length of her—and back up again.

Then that finger landed on that spot at the apex of her thighs. His thumb gently pressed on it over the fabric, drawing a moan deep from her throat.

She felt him smile against her neck. His thumb slowly circled, every sweep a torturous blessing.

“Hunt.” She didn’t know if his name was a plea or a question.

He just tugged aside her underwear and put his fingers directly on


She moaned again, and Hunt stroked her, two fingers dragging up

and down with teeth-grinding lightness. He licked up the side of her throat, fingers playing mercilessly with her. He whispered against her skin, “Do you taste as good as you feel, Bryce?”

“Please find out immediately,” she managed to gasp.

His laugh rumbled through her, but his fingers didn’t halt their leisurely exploration. “Not yet, Quinlan.”

One of his fingers found her entrance and lingered, circling. “Do it,” she said. If she didn’t feel him inside her—his fingers or his cock, anything—she might start begging.

“So bossy,” Hunt purred against her neck, then claimed her mouth again. And as his lips settled over hers, nipping and taunting, he slid that finger deep into her.

Both of them groaned. “Fuck, Bryce,” he said again. “Fuck.”

Her eyes nearly rolled back into her head at the feeling of that finger. She rocked her hips, desperate to drive him deeper, and he obliged her, pulling out his finger nearly all the way, adding a second, and plunging both back into her.

She bucked, her nails digging into his chest. His thunderous heartbeat raged against her palms. She buried her face in his neck, biting and licking, starving for any taste of him while he pumped his hand into her again.

Hunt breathed into her ear, “I am going to fuck you until you can’t remember your gods-damned name.”

Gods, yes. “Likewise,” she croaked.

Release shimmered in her, a wild and reckless song, and she rode his hand toward it. His other hand cupped her backside. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten this particular asset,” he murmured, squeezing for emphasis. “I have plans for this beautiful ass, Bryce. Filthy, filthy plans.”

She moaned again, and his fingers stroked into her, over and over. “Come for me, sweetheart,” he purred against her breast, his tongue

flicking over her nipple just as one of his fingers curled inside her, hitting

that gods-damned spot.

Bryce did. Hunt’s name on her lips, she tipped her head back and let go, riding his hand with abandon, driving them both into the couch cushions.

He groaned, and she swallowed the sound with an openmouthed kiss as every nerve in her body exploded into glorious starlight.

Then there was only breathing, and him—his body, his scent, that strength.

The starlight receded, and she opened her eyes to find him with his head tipped back, teeth bared.

Not in pleasure. In pain.

She’d driven him into the cushions. Shoved his wounded back right up against the couch.

Horror lurched through her like ice water, dousing any heat in her veins. “Oh gods. I am so sorry—”

He cracked his eyes open. That groan he’d made as she came had been pain, and she’d been so fucking wild for him that she hadn’t noticed—

“Are you hurt?” she demanded, hoisting herself up from his lap, reaching to remove his fingers, still deep inside her.

He halted her with his other hand on her wrist. “I’ll survive.” His eyes darkened as he looked at her bare breasts, still inches from his mouth. The dress shoved halfway down her body. “I have other things to distract me,” he murmured, leaning down for her peaked nipple.

Or trying to. A grimace passed over his face.

“Dark Hel, Hunt,” she barked, yanking out of his grip, off his fingers, nearly falling from his lap. He didn’t even fight her as she grabbed his shoulder and peered at his back.

Fresh blood leaked through his bandages.

“Are you out of your mind?” she shouted, searching for anything in the immediate vicinity to press against the blood. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“As you like to say,” he panted, shaking slightly, “it’s my body. I decide its limits.”

She reined in the urge to strangle him, grabbing for her phone. “I’m calling a medwitch.”

He gripped her wrist again. “We’re not done here.”

“Oh yes we fucking are,” she seethed. “I’m not having sex with you when you’re spouting blood like a fountain.” An exaggeration, but still.

His eyes were dark—burning. So Bryce poked his back, a good six inches beneath his wound. His answering wince of pain settled the argument.

Setting her underwear to rights and sliding her dress back over her chest and arms, she dialed the public medwitch number.

The medwitch arrived and was gone within an hour. Hunt’s wound was fine, she’d declared, to Bryce’s knee-wobbling relief.

Then Hunt had the nerve to ask if he was cleared for sex.

The witch, to her credit, didn’t laugh. Just said, When you’re able to fly again, then I’d say it’s safe for you to be sexually active as well. She nodded toward the couch cushions—the bloodstain that would require a magi-spell to erase. I’d suggest whatever … interaction caused tonight’s injury also be postponed until your wings are healed.

Hunt had looked ready to argue, but Bryce had hurried the witch out of the apartment. And then helped him to his bed. For all his questions, he swayed with each step. Nearly collapsed onto his bed. He answered a few messages on his phone, and was asleep before she’d shut off the lights.

Cleared for sex, indeed.

Bryce slept heavily in her own bed, despite what she’d learned and seen about the synth.

But she woke at three. And knew what she had to do.

She fired off an email with her request, and regardless of the late hour, received one back within twenty minutes: she’d need to wait until her request was approved by the 33rd. Bryce frowned. She didn’t have time for that.

She crept from her room. Hunt’s door was shut, his room dark beyond it. He didn’t so much as come to investigate as she slipped out of the apartment.

And headed for her old one.

She hadn’t been on this block in two years.

But as she rounded the corner and saw the flashing lights and terrified crowds, she knew.

Knew what building burned midway down the block.

Someone must have noticed that she’d logged on to Danika’s account at Redner Industries today. Or perhaps someone had been monitoring her email account—and seen the message she’d sent to the

building’s landlord. Whoever had done this must have acted quickly, realizing that she’d wanted to come hunt for any other clues Danika might have left around the apartment.

There had to be more. Danika was smart enough to not have put everything she’d discovered in one place.

Terrified, weeping people—her old neighbors—had clustered on the street, hugging each other and gazing up at the blaze in disbelief. Fire licked at every windowsill.

She’d done this—brought this upon the people watching their homes burn. Her chest tightened, the pain barely eased by overhearing a passing water nymph announce to her firefighting squad that every resident was accounted for.

She had caused this.

But—it meant she was getting close. Look toward where it hurts the most, the Viper Queen had advised her all those weeks ago. She’d thought the shifter meant what hurt her. But maybe it had been about the murderer all along.

And by circling in on the synth … Apparently, she’d hit a nerve.

Bryce was halfway home when her phone buzzed. She pulled it from her hastily repaired jacket, the white opal in the pocket clinking against the screen, already bracing herself for Hunt’s questions.

But it was from Tharion.

There’s a deal going down on the river right now. A boat is out there, signaling. Just past the Black Dock. Be there in five and I can get you out to see it.

She clenched the white opal in her fist and wrote back, A synth deal?

Tharion answered, No, a cotton candy deal. She rolled her eyes. I’ll be there in three.

And then she broke into a run. She didn’t call Hunt. Or Ruhn.

She knew what they’d say. Do not fucking go there without me, BryceWait.

But she didn’t have time to waste.

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