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Chapter no 77

House of Earth and Blood

Bryce knew there was little chance of this ending well.

But if Jesiba had seen her messages, maybe it wouldn’t be in vain. Maybe everyone would know what had happened to her. Maybe they could save the books, if the protective spells on them held out against an Archangel’s wrath. Even if the gallery’s enchantments had not.

Bryce said smoothly to Micah, “I have no idea where the Horn is.” His smile didn’t waver. “Try again.”

“I have no idea where the Horn is, Governor?”

He braced his powerful forearms on the table. “Do you want to know what I think?”

“No, but you’re going to tell me anyway?” Her heart raced and raced.

Micah chuckled. “I think you figured it out. Likely at the same moment I did a few days ago.”

“I’m flattered you think I’m that smart.”

“Not you.” Another cold laugh. “Danika Fendyr was the smart one. She stole the Horn from the temple, and you knew her well enough to finally realize what she did with it.”

“Why would Danika have ever wanted the Horn?” Bryce asked innocently. “It’s broken.”

“It was cleaved. And I’m guessing you already learned what could repair it at last.” Her heart thundered as Micah growled, “Synth.”

She got to her feet, her knees shaking only slightly. “Governor or not, this is private property. If you want to burn me at the stake with all these books, you’ll need a warrant.”

Bryce reached the steps. Syrinx and Lehabah hadn’t moved, though. “Hand over the Horn.”

“I told you, I don’t know where it is.”

She put one foot on the steps, and then Micah was there, his hand at the collar of her shirt. He hissed, “Do not lie.”

Hunt staggered all of one step down the stairs before Sandriel stopped him, her wind shoving him back against the wall. It snaked down his throat, clamping on to his vocal cords. Rendering him silent to watch what unfolded on the screens.

Micah growled in Bryce’s ear, more animal than angel, “Do you want to know how I figured it out?”

She trembled as the Governor ran a possessive hand down the curve of her spine.

Hunt saw red at that touch, the entitlement in it, the sheer dread that widened her eyes.

Bryce wasn’t stupid enough to try to run as Micah ran his fingers back up her spine, intent in every stroke.

Hunt’s jaw clenched so hard it hurt, his breath coming out in great, bellowing pants. He’d kill him. He’d find a way to get free of Sandriel, and fucking kill Micah for that touch—

Micah trailed his fingers over the delicate chain of her necklace. A new one, Hunt realized.

Micah purred, unaware of the camera mere feet away, “I saw the footage of you in the Comitium lobby. You gave your Archesian amulet to Sandriel. And she destroyed it.” His broad hand clamped around her neck, and Bryce squeezed her eyes shut. “That’s how I realized. How you realized the truth, too.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bryce whispered.

Micah’s hand tightened, and it might as well have been his hand on Hunt’s throat for all the difficulty he had breathing. “For three years, you wore that amulet. Every single day, every single hour. Danika knew that. Knew you were without ambition, too, and would never have the drive to leave this job. And thus never take off the amulet.”

“You’re insane,” Bryce managed to say.

“Am I? Then explain to me why, within an hour after you took off the amulet, that kristallos demon attacked you.”

Hunt stilled. A demon had attacked her that day? He found Ruhn’s stare, and the prince nodded, his face deathly pale. We got to her in time was all Danaan said to him, mind-to-mind.

“Bad luck?” Bryce tried.

Micah didn’t so much as smile, his hand still clamped on her neck. “You don’t just have the Horn. You are the Horn.” His hand again ran down her back. “You became its bearer the night Danika had it ground into a fine powder, mixed it with witch-ink, and then got you so drunk you didn’t ask questions when she had it tattooed onto your back.”

What?” Fury Axtar barked.

Holy fucking gods. Hunt bared his teeth, still forbidden from speaking.

But Bryce said, “Cool as that sounds, Governor, this tattoo says—” “The language is beyond that of this world. It is the language of

universes. And it spells out a direct command to activate the Horn through a blast of raw power upon the tattoo itself. Just as it once did for the Starborn Prince. You may not possess his gifts like your brother, but I believe your bloodline and the synth shall compensate for it when I use my power upon you. To fill the tattoo—to fill you—with power is, in essence, to blow the Horn.”

Bryce’s nostrils flared. “Blow me, asshole.” She snapped her head back, fast enough that even Micah couldn’t stop the collision of her skull with his nose. He stumbled, buying her time to twist and flee—

His hand didn’t let go, though.

And with a shove, her shirt ripping down the back, Micah hurled her to the floor.

Hunt’s shout was lodged in his throat, but Ruhn’s echoed through the conference room as Bryce skidded across the carpet.

Lehabah screamed as Syrinx roared, and Bryce managed to snap, “Hide.”

But the Archangel halted, surveying the woman sprawled on the floor before him.

The tattoo down her back. Luna’s Horn contained within its dark ink. Bryce scrambled to her feet, as if there were anywhere to go, anywhere to hide from the Governor and his terrible power. She made it

across the room, to the steps up to the mezzanine—

Micah moved fast as the wind. He wrapped a hand around her ankle and tossed her across the room.

Bryce’s scream as she collided with the wood table and it shattered beneath her was the worst sound Hunt had ever heard.

Ruhn breathed, “He’s going to fucking kill her.”

Bryce crawled backward through the debris of the table, blood running from her mouth as she whispered to Micah, “You killed Danika and the pack.”

Micah smiled. “I enjoyed every second of it.”

The conference room shook. Or maybe that was just Hunt himself.

And then the Archangel was upon her, and Hunt couldn’t bear it, the sight of him grabbing Bryce by the neck and throwing her across the room again, into those shelves.

“Where is the fucking Aux?” Ruhn screamed at Flynn. At Sabine. But her eyes were wide. Stunned.

So slowly, Bryce crawled backward, up the mezzanine stairs again, clawing at the books to heave herself along. A gash leaked blood onto her leggings, bone gleaming beneath a protruding shard of wood. She panted, half sobbing, “Why?”

Lehabah had crept to the metal bathroom door in the back of the library and managed to open it, as if silently signaling Bryce to get there

—so they could lock themselves inside until help arrived.

“Did you learn, in all your research, that I am an investor in Redner Industries? That I have access to all its experiments?”

“Oh fuck,” Isaiah said from across the pit.

“And did you ever learn,” Micah went on, “what Danika did for Redner Industries?”

Bryce still crawled backward up the stairs. There was nowhere to go, though. “She did part-time security work.”

“Is that how she sanitized it for you?” He smirked. “Danika tracked down the people that Redner wanted her to find. People who didn’t want to be found. Including a group of Ophion rebels who had been experimenting with a formula for synthetic magic—to assist in the humans’ treachery. They’d dug into long-forgotten history and learned that the kristallos demons’ venom nullified magic—our magic. So these clever rebels decided to look into why, isolating the proteins that were targeted by that venom. The source of magic. Redner’s human spies tipped him off, and out Danika went to bring in the research—and the people behind it.”

Bryce gasped for breath, still slowly crawling upward. No one spoke in the conference room as she said, “The Asteri don’t approve of synthetic magic. How did Redner even get away with doing the research on it?”

Hunt shook. She was buying herself time.

Micah seemed all too happy to indulge her. “Because Redner knew the Asteri would shut down any synthetic magic research, that would shut their experiments down, they spun synth experiments as a drug for healing. Redner invited me to invest. The earliest trials were a success:

with it, humans could heal faster than with any medwitch or Fae power. But later trials did not go according to plan. Vanir, we learned, went out of their minds when given it. And humans who took too much synth … well. Danika used her security clearance to steal footage of the trials— and I suspect she left it for you, didn’t she?”

Burning Solas. Up and up, Bryce crawled along the stairs, fingers scrabbling over those ancient, precious books. “How did she learn what you were really up to?”

“She always stuck her nose where it didn’t belong. Always wanting to protect the meek.”

“From monsters like you,” Bryce spat, still inching upward. Still buying herself time.

Micah’s smile was hideous. “She made no secret that she kept an eye on the synth trials, because she was keen to find a way to help her weak, vulnerable, half-human friend. You, who would inherit no power—she wondered if it might give you a fighting chance against the predators who rule this world. And when she saw the horrors the synth could bring about, she became concerned for the test subjects. Concerned for what it’d do to humans if it leaked into the world. But Redner’s employees said Danika had her own research there, too. No one knew what, but she spent time in their labs outside of her own duties.”

All of it had to be on the flash drive Bryce had found. Hunt prayed she’d put it somewhere safe. Wondered what other bombshells might be on it.

Bryce said, “She was never selling the synth on that boat, was she?” “No. By that point, I’d realized I needed someone with unrestricted

access to the temple to take the Horn—I would be too easily noticed. So when she stole the synth trial footage, I had my chance to use her.”

Bryce made it up another step. “You dumped the synth into the streets.”

Micah kept trailing her. “Yes. I knew Danika’s constant need to be the hero would send her running after it, to save the low-lifes of Lunathion from destroying themselves with it. She got most of it, but not all. When I told her I’d seen her on the river, when I claimed no one would believe the Party Princess was trying to get drugs off the streets, her hands were tied. I told her I’d forget about it, if she did one little favor for me, at just the right moment.”

“You caused the blackout that night she stole the Horn.”

“I did. But I underestimated Danika. She’d been wary of my interest in the synth long before I leaked it onto the streets, and when I

blackmailed her into stealing the Horn, she must have realized the connection between the two. That the Horn could be repaired by synth.”

“So you killed her for it?” Another step, another question to buy herself time.

“I killed her because she hid the Horn before I could repair it with the synth. And thus help my people.”

“I’d think your power alone would be enough for that,” Bryce said, as if trying flattery to save herself.

The Archangel looked truly sad for a moment. “Even my power is not enough to help them. To keep war from Valbara’s shores. For that, I need help from beyond our own world. The Horn will open a portal— and allow me to summon an army to decimate the human rebels and end their wanton destruction.”

“What world?” Bryce asked, blanching. “Hel?”

“Hel would resist kneeling to me. But ancient lore whispers of other worlds that exist that would bow to a power like mine—and bow to the Horn.” He smiled, cold as a deep-sea fish. “The one who possesses the Horn at full power can do anything. Perhaps establish oneself as an Asteri.”

“Their power is born, not made,” Bryce snapped, even as her face turned ashen.

“With the Horn, you would not need to inherit a star’s might to rule. And the Asteri would recognize that. Welcome me as one of them.” Another soft laugh.

“You killed those two CCU students.”

“No. They were slaughtered by a satyr high on synth—while Danika was busy stealing the Horn that night. I’m sure the guilt of it ate her up.”

Bryce was shaking. Hunt was, too. “So you went to the apartment and killed her and the Pack of Devils?”

“I waited until Philip Briggs was released.”

She murmured, “He had the black salt in his lab that would incriminate him.”

“Yes. Once he was again on the streets, I went to Danika’s apartment

—your apartment—disabled the Pack of Devils with my power, and injected her with the synth. And watched as she ripped them apart before turning on herself.”

Bryce was crying in earnest now. “She didn’t tell you, though. Where the Horn was.”

Micah shrugged. “She held out.”

“And what—you summoned the kristallos afterward to cover your tracks? Let it attack you in the alley to keep your triarii from suspecting you? Or just to give yourself a reason to monitor this case so closely without raising any eyebrows? And then you waited two fucking years?” He frowned. “I have spent these past two years looking for the Horn, calling kristallos demons to track it down for me, but I couldn’t find a trace of it. Until I realized didn’t have to do the legwork. Because you, Bryce Quinlan, were the key to finding the Horn. I knew Danika had hidden it somewhere, and you, if I gave you a chance for vengeance, would lead me to it. All my power couldn’t find it, but you—you loved her. And the power of your love would bring the Horn to me. Would fuel your need for justice and lead you right to it.” He snorted. “But there was a chance you might not get that far—not alone. So I planted a seed in the

mind of the Autumn King.”

Everyone in the room looked to the stone-faced Fae male.

Ruhn growled at his father, “He played you like a fucking fiddle.” The Autumn King’s amber eyes flashed with white-hot rage. But

Micah went on before he could speak. “I knew a bit of taunting about the Fae’s waning power, about the loss of the Horn, would rankle his pride just enough for him to order his Starborn son to look for it.”

Bryce let out a long breath. “So if I couldn’t find it, then Ruhn might.”

Ruhn blinked. “I—every time I went to look for the Horn …” He paled. “I always had the urge to go to Bryce.” He twisted in his seat to meet Hunt’s stare and said to him mind-to-mind, I thought it was the gallery, some knowledge in there, but … fuck, it was her.

Your Starborn connection to her and the Horn must have overcome even the masking power of the Archesian amulet, Hunt answered. That’s quite a bond, Prince.

Bryce demanded, “And summoning the kristallos these months? The murders?”

Micah drawled, “I summoned the kristallos to nudge you both along, making sure it kept just enough out of camera range, knowing its connection to the Horn would lead you toward it. Injecting Tertian, the acolyte, and the temple guard with the synth—letting them rip themselves apart—was also to prompt you. Tertian, to give us an excuse to come to you for this investigation, and the others to keep pointing you toward the Horn. I targeted two people from the temple that were on duty the night Danika stole it.”

“And the bombing at the White Raven, with an image of the Horn on the crate? Another nudge?”

“Yes, and to raise suspicions that humans were behind everything. I planted bombs throughout the city, in places I thought you might go. When Athalar’s phone location pinged at the club, I knew the gods were helping me along. So I remotely detonated it.”

“I could have died.”

“Maybe. But I was willing to bet Athalar would shield you. And why not cause a little chaos, to stir more resentment between the humans and Vanir? It would only make it easier to convince others of the wisdom of my plan to end this conflict. Especially at a cost most would deem too high.”

Hunt’s head swam. No one in the room spoke.

Bryce slowed her retreat as she winced in pain, “And the apartment building? I thought it was Hunt, but it wasn’t, was it? It was you.”

“Yes. Your landlord’s request went to all of my triarii. And to me. I knew Danika had left nothing there. But by that time, Bryce Quinlan, I was enjoying watching you squirm. I knew Athalar’s plan to acquire the synth would soon be exposed—and I took a guess that you’d be willing to believe the worst of him. That he’d used the lightning in his veins to endanger innocent people. He’s a killer. I thought you might need a reminder. That it played into Athalar’s guilt was an unexpected boon.”

Hunt ignored the eyes that glanced his way. The fucking asshole had never planned to honor his bargain. If he’d solved the case, Micah would have killed him. Killed them both. He’d been played like a fucking fool.

Bryce asked, voice raw, “When did you start to think it was me?” “That night it attacked Athalar in the garden. I realized only later that

he’d probably come into contact with one of Danika’s personal items, which must have come into contact with the Horn.”

Hunt had touched Danika’s leather jacket that day. Gotten its scent on him.

“Once I got Athalar off the streets, I summoned the kristallos again

—and it went right to you. The only thing that had changed was that you finally, finally took that amulet off. And then …” He chuckled. “I looked at Hunt Athalar’s photos of your time together. Including that one of your back. The tattoo you had inked there, days before Danika’s death, according to the list of Danika’s last locations Ruhn Danaan sent to you and Athalar—whose account is easily accessible to me.”

Bryce’s fingers curled into the carpet, as if she’d sprout claws. “How do you know the Horn will even work now that it’s in my back?”

“The Horn’s physical shape doesn’t matter. Whether it is fashioned as a horn or a necklace or a powder mixed with witch-ink, its power remains.”

Hunt silently swore. He and Bryce had never visited the tattoo parlor.

Bryce had said she knew why Danika was there.

Micah went on, “Danika knew the Archesian amulet would hide you from any detection, magical or demonic. With that amulet, you were invisible to the kristallos, bred to hunt the Horn. I suspect she knew that Jesiba Roga has similar enchantments upon this gallery, and perhaps Danika placed some upon your apartments—your old one and the one she left to you—to make sure you would be even more veiled from it.”

Hunt scanned the gallery camera feeds from the street. Where the fuck was the Aux?

Bryce spat, “And you thought no one would figure this out? What about Briggs’s testimony?”

“Briggs is a raving fanatic who’d been caught by Danika before a planned bombing. No one would listen to his pleas of innocence.” Especially when his lawyer had been provided by Micah.

Bryce glanced up at the camera. As if checking that it was on.

Sabine whispered, “She’s been leading him along to get a full confession.”

Despite the terror tightening his body, pride flared through Hunt. Micah smiled again. “So here we are.”

“You’re a piece of shit,” Bryce said.

But then Micah reached into his jacket pocket. Pulled out a needle. Full of clear liquid. “Calling me names isn’t going to stop me from using the Horn.”

Hunt’s breath sawed through his chest.

Micah advanced on her. “The Horn’s remnants are now embedded in your flesh. When I inject you with synth, the healing properties in it will target and fix whatever it finds to be broken. And the Horn will again be whole. Ready for me to learn if it works at last.”

“You’d risk opening a portal to another fucking world in the middle of Crescent City,” she spat, inching farther away, “just to learn if it works?”

“If I am correct, the benefits shall far outweigh any casualties,” Micah answered mildly as a bead of liquid gleamed on the syringe’s tip. “Too bad you will not survive the synth’s side effects in order to see for yourself.”

Bryce lunged for a book on a low-lying shelf along the stairs, but Micah halted her with a leash of wind.

Her face crumpled as the Archangel knelt over her. “No.” This couldn’t happen; Hunt couldn’t let this happen.

But Bryce could do nothing, Hunt could do nothing, as Micah stabbed the needle into her thigh. Drained it to the hilt. She screamed, thrashing, but Micah stepped back.

His power must have lessened its hold on her, because she sagged to the carpeted steps.

The bastard glanced at the clock. Assessing how much time remained until she tore herself apart. And slowly, the wounds on her battered body began to seal. Her split lip healed fully—though the bone-deep gash in her thigh knit far more slowly.

Smiling, Micah reached for the tattoo on her exposed back. “Shall we?”

But Bryce moved again—and this time Micah’s power didn’t catch her before she grabbed a book from the shelf and clutched it tight.

Golden light erupted from the book, a bubble against which Micah’s hand bounced harmlessly off. He pushed. The bubble would not yield.

Thank the gods. If it could buy her just a few more minutes until help came … But what could an Aux pack do against an Archangel? Hunt strained against his invisible bonds. Scoured his memory for anything that could be done, anyone left in the fucking city who might help—

“Very well,” Micah said, that smile remaining as he again tested the golden barrier. “There are other ways to get you to yield.”

Bryce was shaking in her golden bubble. Hunt’s heart stopped as Micah strode down the mezzanine steps. Heading straight for where Syrinx cowered behind the couch. “No,” Bryce breathed. “No

The chimera thrashed, biting at the Archangel, who grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.

Bryce dropped the book. The golden bubble vanished. But when she tried to rise on her still-healing leg, it collapsed. Even the synth couldn’t heal fast enough for it to bear weight.

Micah just carried Syrinx along. Over to the tank.

PLEASE,” Bryce screamed. Again, she tried to move. Again, again, again.

But Micah didn’t even falter as he opened the door to the small stairs that led to the top of the nøkk’s tank. Bryce’s screaming was unending.

Declan switched the feed over to a camera atop the tank—just as Micah flipped open the feeding hatch. And threw Syrinx into the water.

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