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Chapter no 71

House of Earth and Blood

Hunt had a night to puke out his guts.

One night in that cell, likely the last bit of security he’d have for the rest of his existence.

He knew what would happen after the Summit. When Sandriel took him back to her castle in the misty, mountainous wilds of northwestern Pangera. To the gray-stoned city in its heart.

He’d lived it for more than fifty years, after all.

She’d left the photo feed up on the hallway TV screen, so he could see Bryce over and over and over. See the way Bryce had looked at him by the end, like he wasn’t a complete waste of life.

It wasn’t just to torture him with what he’d lost.

It was a reminder. Of who would be targeted if he disobeyed. If he resisted. If he fought back.

By dawn, he’d stopped puking. Had washed his face in the small sink. A change of clothes had arrived for him. His usual black armor. No helmet.

His back itched incessantly as he dressed, the cloth scraping against the wings that were taking form. Soon they’d be fully regenerated. A week of careful physical therapy after that and he’d be in the skies.

If Sandriel ever let him out of her dungeons.

She’d lost him once, to pay off her debts. He had few illusions that she’d allow it to happen again. Not until she found a way to break him for how he’d targeted her forces on Mount Hermon. How he and Shahar had come so close to destroying her completely.

It wasn’t until nearly sunset that they came for him. As if Sandriel wanted him stewing all day.

Hunt let them shackle him again with the gorsian stones. He knew what the stones would do if he so much as moved wrong. Disintegration of blood and bone, his brain turned into soup before it leaked out his nose.

The armed guard, ten deep, led him from the cell and into the elevator. Where Pollux Antonius, the golden-haired commander of Sandriel’s triarii, waited, a smile on his tan face.

Hunt knew that dead, cruel smile well. Had tried his best to forget it. “Miss me, Athalar?” Pollux asked, his clear voice belying the

monster lurking within. The Hammer could smash through battlefields and delighted in every second of carnage. Of fear and pain. Most Vanir never walked away. No humans ever had.

But Hunt didn’t let his rage, his hatred for that smirking, handsome visage so much as flicker across his face. A glimmer of annoyance flashed in Pollux’s cobalt eyes, his white wings shifting.

Sandriel waited in the Comitium lobby, the last of the sunlight shining in her curling hair.

The lobby. Not the landing pad levels above. So he might see— Might see—

Justinian still hung from the crucifix. Rotting away.

“We thought you might want to say goodbye,” Pollux purred in his ear as they crossed the lobby. “The wraith, of course, is at the bottom of the sea, but I’m sure she knows you’ll miss her.”

Hunt let the male’s words flow through him, out of him. They would only be the start. Both from the Malleus and from Sandriel herself.

The Archangel smiled at Hunt as they approached, the cruelty on her face making Pollux’s smirk look downright pleasant. But she said nothing as she turned on her heel toward the lobby doors.

An armed transport van idled outside, back doors flung wide. Waiting for him, since he sure as fuck couldn’t fly. From the mocking gleam in Pollux’s eyes, Hunt had a feeling he knew who would be accompanying him.

Angels from the Comitium’s five buildings filled the lobby.

He noted Micah’s absence—coward. The bastard probably didn’t want to sully himself by witnessing the horror he’d inflicted. But Isaiah stood near the heart of the gathered crowd, his expression grim. Naomi gave Hunt a grave nod.

It was all she dared, the only farewell they could make.

The angels silently watched Sandriel. Pollux. Him. They hadn’t come to taunt, to witness his despair and humiliation. They, too, had

come to say goodbye.

Every step toward the glass doors was a lifetime, was impossible.

Every step was abhorrent.

He had done this, brought this upon himself and his companions, and he would pay for it over and over and—

“Wait!” The female voice rang out from across the lobby. Hunt froze. Everyone froze.

“Wait!”

No. No, she couldn’t be here. He couldn’t bear for her to see him like this, knees wobbling and a breath away from puking again. Because Pollux strode beside him, and Sandriel prowled in front of him, and they would destroy her—

But there was Bryce. Running toward them. Toward him.

Fear and pain tightened her face, but her wide eyes were trained on him as she shouted again, to Sandriel, to the entire lobby full of angels, “Wait!

She was breathless as the crowd parted. Sandriel halted, Pollux and the guards instantly on alert, forcing Hunt to pause with them, too.

Bryce skidded to a stop before the Archangel. “Please,” she panted, bracing her hands on her knees, her ponytail drooping over a shoulder as she tried to catch her breath. No sign of that limp. “Please, wait.”

Sandriel surveyed her like she would a gnat buzzing about her head. “Yes, Bryce Quinlan?”

Bryce straightened, still panting. Looked at Hunt for a long moment, for eternity, before she said to the Archangel of northwestern Pangera, “Please don’t take him.”

Hunt could barely stand to hear the plea in her voice. Pollux let out a soft, hateful laugh.

Sandriel was not amused. “He has been gifted to me. The papers were signed yesterday.”

Bryce pulled something from her pocket, causing the guards around them to reach for their weapons. Pollux’s sword was instantly in his hand, angled toward her with lethal efficiency.

But it wasn’t a gun or a knife. It was a piece of paper. “Then let me buy him from you.”

Utter silence.

Sandriel laughed then, the sound rich and lilting. “Do you know how much—”

“I’ll pay you ninety-seven million gold marks.”

The floor rocked beneath Hunt. People gasped. Pollux blinked, eyeing Bryce again.

Bryce extended a piece of paper toward Sandriel, though the malakh didn’t take it. Even from a few feet behind the Archangel, Hunt’s sharp eyesight could make out the writing.

Proof of funds. A check from the bank, made out to Sandriel. For nearly a hundred million marks.

A check from Jesiba Roga.

Horror sluiced through him, rendering him speechless. How many years had Bryce added to her debt?

He didn’t deserve it. Didn’t deserve her. Not for a heartbeat. Not in a thousand years—

Bryce waved the check toward Sandriel. “Twelve million more than his asking price when you sold him, right? You’ll—”

“I know how to do the mathematics.”

Bryce remained with her arm outstretched. Hope in her beautiful face. Then she reached up, Pollux and the guards tensing again. But it was to just unclasp the golden amulet from around her neck. “Here. To sweeten the deal. An Archesian amulet. It’s fifteen thousand years old, and fetches around three million gold marks on the market.”

That tiny necklace was worth three million gold marks?

Bryce extended both the necklace and the paper, the gold glinting. “Please.”

He couldn’t let her do it. Not even for what remained of his soul. Hunt opened his mouth, but the Archangel took the dangling necklace from Bryce’s fingers. Sandriel glanced between them. Read everything on Hunt’s face. A snake’s smile curled her mouth. “Your loyalty to my sister was the one good thing about you, Athalar.” She clenched her fist around the amulet. “But it seems those photographs did not lie.”

The Archesian amulet melted into streams of gold on the floor. Something ruptured in Hunt’s chest at the devastation that crumpled

Bryce’s face.

He said quietly to her, his first words all day, “Get out of here, Bryce.”

But Bryce pocketed the check. And slid to her knees. “Then take me.”

Terror rocked him, so violently he had no words when Bryce looked up at Sandriel, tears filling her eyes as she said, “Take me in his place.”

A slow grin spread across Pollux’s face.

No. She’d already traded her eternal resting place in the Bone Quarter for Danika. He couldn’t let her trade her mortal life for him. Not for him—

“Don’t you dare!” The male bellow cracked across the space. Then Ruhn was there, wreathed in shadows, Declan and Flynn flanking him. They weren’t foolish enough to reach for their guns as they sized up Sandriel’s guards. Realized that Pollux Antonius, the Malleus, stood there, sword angled to punch through Bryce’s chest if Sandriel so much as gave the nod.

The Crown Prince of the Fae pointed at Bryce. “Get off the floor.”

Bryce didn’t move. She just repeated to Sandriel, “Take me in his place.”

Hunt snapped at Bryce, “Be quiet,” just as Ruhn snarled at the Archangel, “Don’t listen to a word she says—”

Sandriel took a step toward Bryce. Another. Until she stood before her, peering down into Bryce’s flushed face.

Hunt pleaded, “Sandriel—”

“You offer your life,” Sandriel said to Bryce. “Under no coercion, no force.”

Ruhn lunged forward, shadows unfurling around him, but Sandriel raised a hand and a wall of wind held him in check. It choked off the prince’s shadows, shredding them into nothing.

It held Hunt in check, too, as Bryce met Sandriel’s stare and said, “Yes. In exchange for Hunt’s freedom, I offer myself in his place.” Her voice shook, cracking. She knew how he’d suffered at the Archangel’s hands. Knew what awaited her would be even worse.

“Everyone here would call me a fool to take this bargain,” Sandriel mused. “A half-breed with no true power or hope to come into it—in exchange for the freedom of one of the most powerful malakim to ever darken the skies. The only warrior on Midgard who can wield lightning.” “Sandriel, please,” Hunt begged. The air ripping from his throat

choked off his words.

Pollux smiled again. Hunt bared his teeth at him as Sandriel stroked a hand over Bryce’s cheek, wiping away her tears. “But I know your secret, Bryce Quinlan,” Sandriel whispered. “I know what a prize you are.”

Ruhn cut in, “That is enough—”

Sandriel stroked Bryce’s face again. “The only daughter of the Autumn King.”

Hunt’s knees wobbled.

“Holy fuck,” Tristan Flynn breathed. Declan had gone pale as death.

Sandriel purred at Bryce, “Yes, what a prize you would be to possess.”

Her cousin’s face was stark with terror.

Not cousin. Brother. Ruhn was her brother. And Bryce was …

“What does your father think of his bastard daughter borrowing such a vast amount from Jesiba Roga?” Sandriel went on, chuckling as Bryce began crying in earnest now. “What shame it would bring upon his royal household, knowing you sold your life away to a half-rate sorceress.”

Bryce’s pleading eyes met his. The amber eyes of the Autumn King.

Sandriel said, “You thought you were safe from me? That after you pulled your little stunt when I arrived, I wouldn’t look into your history? My spies are second to none. They found what could not be found. Including your life span test from twelve years ago, and whom it exposed as your father. Even though he paid steeply to bury it.”

Ruhn stepped forward, either pushing past Sandriel’s wind or being allowed to do so. He grabbed Bryce under the arm and hauled her to her feet. “She is a female member of the Fae royal household and a full civitas of the Republic. I lay claim to her as my sister and kin.”

Ancient words. From laws that had never been changed, though public sentiment had.

Bryce whirled on him. “You have no right

“Based upon the laws of the Fae, as approved by the Asteri,” Ruhn charged on, “she is my property. My father’s. And I do not permit her to trade herself in exchange for Athalar.”

Hunt’s legs almost gave out with relief. Even as Bryce shoved at Ruhn, clawed at him, and growled, “I’m no property of yours—”

“You are a Fae female of my bloodline,” Ruhn said coldly. “You are my property and our father’s until you marry.”

She looked to Declan, to Flynn, whose solemn faces must have told her she’d find no allies among them. She hissed at Ruhn, “I will never forgive you. I will never—”

“We’re done here,” Ruhn said to Sandriel.

He tugged Bryce away, his friends falling into formation around them, and Hunt tried to memorize her face, even with despair and rage twisting it.

Ruhn tugged her again, but she thrashed against him.

“Hunt,” she pleaded, stretching a hand for him, “I’ll find a way.” Pollux laughed. Sandriel just began to turn from them, bored.

But Bryce continued to reach for him, even as Ruhn tried to drag her toward the doors.

Hunt stared at her outstretched fingers. The desperate hope in her eyes.

No one had ever fought for him. No one had ever cared enough to do

so.

Hunt,” Bryce begged, shaking. Her fingers strained. “I’ll find a way

to save you.”

Stop it,” Ruhn ordered, and grabbed for her waist.

Sandriel walked toward the lobby doors and the awaiting motorcade. She said to Ruhn, “You should have slit your sister’s throat when you had the chance, Prince. I speak from personal experience.”

Bryce’s wrenching sobs ripped at Hunt as Pollux shoved him into movement.

She’d never stop fighting for him, would never give up hope. So Hunt went in for the kill as he passed her, even as each word broke him apart, “I owe you nothing, and you owe me nothing. Don’t ever come looking for me again.”

Bryce mouthed his name. As if he were the sole person in the room.

The city. The planet.

And it was only when Hunt was loaded onto the armored truck, when his chains were anchored to the metal sides and Pollux was smirking across from him, when the driver had embarked on the five-hour drive to the town in the heart of the Psamathe Desert where the Summit would be held in five days, that he let himself take a breath.

Ruhn watched as Pollux loaded Athalar into that prison van. Watched as it rumbled to life and sped off, watched as the crowd in the lobby dispersed, marking the end of this fucking disaster.

Until Bryce wrenched out of his grip. Until Ruhn let her. Pure, undiluted hatred twisted her features as she said again, “I will never forgive you for this.”

Ruhn said coldly, “Do you have any idea what Sandriel does to her slaves? Do you know that was Pollux Antonius, the fucking Hammer, with her?”

“Yes. Hunt told me everything.”

“Then you’re a fucking idiot.” She advanced on him, but Ruhn seethed, “I will not apologize for protecting you—not from her, and not from yourself. I get it, I do. Hunt was your—whatever he was to you. But the last thing he would ever want is—”

“Go fuck yourself.” Her breathing turned jagged. “Go fuck yourselfRuhn.”

Ruhn jerked his chin toward the lobby doors in dismissal. “Cry about it to someone else. You’ll have a hard time finding anyone who’ll agree with you.”

Her fingers curled at her sides. As if she’d punch him, claw him, shred him.

But she just spat at Ruhn’s feet and stalked away. Bryce reached her scooter and didn’t look back as she zoomed off.

Flynn said, voice low, “What the fuck, Ruhn.”

Ruhn sucked in a breath. He didn’t even want to think about what kind of bargain she’d struck with the sorceress to get that kind of money. Declan was shaking his head. And Flynn … disappointment and hurt flickered on his face. “Why didn’t you tell us? Your sister, Ruhn?” Flynn

pointed to the glass doors. “She’s our fucking princess.”

“She is not,” Ruhn growled. “The Autumn King has not recognized her, nor will he ever.”

“Why?” Dec demanded.

“Because she’s his bastard child. Because he doesn’t like her. I don’t fucking know,” Ruhn spat. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—ever tell them his own motivations for it. That deep-rooted fear of what the Oracle’s prophecy might mean for Bryce should she ever be granted a royal title. For if the royal bloodline was to end with Ruhn, and Bryce was officially a princess of their family … She would have to be out of the picture for it to come to pass. Permanently. He’d do whatever was necessary to keep her safe from that particular doom. Even if the world hated him for it.

Indeed, at his friends’ disapproving frowns, he snapped, “All I know is that I was given an order never to reveal it, even to you.”

Flynn crossed his arms. “You think we would have told anyone?” “No. But I couldn’t take the risk of him finding out. And she didn’t

want anyone to know.” And now wasn’t the time or place to speak about this. Ruhn said, “I need to talk to her.”

What came after he spoke with Bryce, he didn’t know if he could handle.

Bryce rode to the river. To the arches of the Black Dock.

Darkness had fallen by the time she chained her scooter to a lamppost, the night balmy enough that she was grateful for Danika’s leather jacket keeping her warm as she stood on the dark dock and stared across the Istros.

Slowly, she sank to her knees, bowing her head. “It’s so fucked,” she whispered, hoping the words would carry across the water, to the tombs and mausoleums hidden behind the wall of mist. “It is all so, so fucked, Danika.”

She’d failed. Utterly and completely failed. And Hunt was … he was

Bryce buried her face in her hands. For a while, the only sounds were

the wind hissing through the palms and the lapping of the river against the dock.

“I wish you were here,” Bryce finally allowed herself to say. “Every day, I wish that, but today especially.”

The wind quieted, the palms going still. Even the river seemed to halt.

A chill crept toward her, through her. Every sense, Fae and human, went on alert. She scanned the mists, waiting, praying for a black boat. She was so busy looking that she didn’t see the attack coming.

Didn’t twist to see a kristallos demon leaping from the shadows, jaws open, before it tackled her into the eddying waters.

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