Chapter no 79

House of Earth and Blood

The frigid water threatened to snatch the precious little breath from her lungs.

Bryce refused to think of the cold, of the lingering pain in her healed leg, of the two monsters in this library with her. One, at least, had been contained behind the bathroom door.

The other …

Bryce kept her focus upon Syrinx, refusing to let her terror take over, to let it rob her of breath as she reached the chimera’s limp body.

She would not accept this. Not for a moment.

Her lungs began burning, a growing tightness that she fought against as she bore Syrinx back toward the feeding platform, her lifeline out of the water, away from the nøkk. Her fingers latched into the chain links as the dock rose back toward the surface.

Lungs constricting, Bryce held Syrinx on the platform, letting it propel them up, up—

From the shadows of the rocks at the bottom, the nøkk burst forth. It was already smiling.

The nøkk knew she’d come for Syrinx. It had been watching her in the library for weeks now.

But the feeding platform broke the surface, Bryce with it, and she gasped down sweet, life-saving air as she heaved Syrinx over the edge and gasped to Lehabah, “Chest compressions—”

Clawed hands wrapped around her ankles, slicing her skin as they yanked her back. Her brow smashed into the metal rim of the platform before the cold water swallowed her once more.

Hunt couldn’t breathe as the nøkk slammed Bryce into the glass of the tank so hard it cracked.

The impact shook her from her stunned stupor, just as the nøkk snapped for her face.

She dodged left, but it still had its talons on her shoulders, cutting into her skin. She reached for the knife she’d tied to her thigh—

The nøkk grabbed the knife from her hands, tossing it into the watery gloom.

This was it. This was how she’d die. Not at Micah’s hand, not from the synth in her body, but by being ripped to shreds by the nøkk.

Hunt could do nothing, nothing, nothing as it again snapped for her face—

Bryce moved again. Lunging not for a hidden weapon, but another sort of attack.

She punched her right hand low into the nøkk’s abdomen—and dug inside the nearly invisible front fold. It happened so fast Hunt wasn’t sure what she’d done. Until she twisted her wrist, and the nøkk arched in pain.

Bubbles leaked from Bryce’s mouth as she wrenched its balls harder

Every male in the pit flinched.

The nøkk let go, falling to the bottom. It was the opening Bryce

needed. She drifted back against the cracked glass, braced her legs, and pushed.

It launched her into the open water. Blood from her head wound streamed in her wake, even as the synth healed the gash and prevented the blow from rendering her unconscious.

The platform dropped into the water again. Lehabah had sent it down. A final lifeline. Bryce dolphin-kicked for it, her arms pointed in front of her. Blood swirled with each undulating kick.

At the rocky bottom of the tank, the nøkk had recovered—and now bared its teeth up at the fleeing woman. Molten rage gleamed in its milky eyes.

Swim, Bryce,” Tharion growled. “Don’t look back.”

The platform hit its lowest level. Bryce swam, her teeth gritted. The instinct to take a breath had to be horrendous.

Come on, Hunt prayed. Come on.

Bryce’s fingers wrapped around the bottom of the platform. Then the rim. The nøkk charged up from the depths, fury and death blazing in its monstrous face.

“Don’t stop, Bryce,” Fury Axtar warned the screen.

Bryce didn’t. Hand by hand by hand, she climbed the ascending chain, fighting for each foot gained toward the surface.

Ten feet from the top. The nøkk reached the platform base. Five. The nøkk shot up the chain, closing in on her heels.

Bryce broke the surface with a sharp gasp, her arms grappling, hauling, hauling—

She got her chest out. Her stomach. Her legs. The nøkk’s hands broke from the water, reaching.

But Bryce had cleared its range. And now panted, dripping water into the churning surface beneath the grated floor. Head healed without a trace.

The nøkk, unable to stand the touch of the air, dropped beneath the surface just as the feeding platform halted, sealing access to the water beneath.

“Fucking Hel,” Fury whispered, running her shaking hands over her face. “Fucking Hel.”

Bryce rushed to the unresponsive Syrinx and demanded from Lehabah, “Anything?”

“No, it’s—”

Bryce began chest compressions, two fingers on the center of the chimera’s sodden chest. She closed his jaws and blew into his nostrils. Did it again. Again. Again.

She didn’t speak. Didn’t beg any of the gods as she tried to resuscitate him.

On a feed across the room, the bathroom door fizzled beneath Micah’s assaults. She had to get out. Had to run now, or she’d be ruptured into shards of bone—

Bryce stayed. Kept fighting for the chimera’s life.

“Can you speak through the audio?” Ruhn asked Declan and Jesiba. “Can you patch us through?” He pointed to the screen. “Tell her to get the fuck out now.”

Jesiba said quietly, her face ashen, “It’s only one-way.”

Bryce kept up the chest compressions, her soaking hair dripping, her skin bluish in the light from the tank, as if she were a corpse herself. And scrawled on her back, cut off only by her black sports bra—the Horn.

Even if she got free of the gallery, if she somehow survived the synth, Micah would …

Syrinx thrashed, vomiting water. Bryce let out a sob, but turned the chimera over, letting him cough it out. He convulsed, vomiting again,

gasping for every breath.

Lehabah had dragged a shirt up the steps from one of the desk drawers. She handed it to her, and Bryce swapped it with her ruined shirt before gathering the still-weak Syrinx in her arms and trying to stand.

She moaned in pain, nearly dropping Syrinx as her leg gushed blood into the water below.

Hunt had been so focused on the head wound he hadn’t seen the nøkk slash her calf—where the flesh visible through her leggings remained half-shredded. Still slowly healing. The nøkk must have dug its claws in to the bone if the injury was so severe the synth was still stitching it together.

Bryce said, “We have to run. Now. Before he gets out.” She didn’t wait for Lehabah to reply as she managed to get upright, carrying Syrinx.

She limped—badly. And she moved so, so slowly toward the stairs.

The bathroom door heated again, the metal red-hot as Micah attempted to melt his way through.

Bryce panted through her teeth, a controlled hiss-hiss-hiss with each step. Trying to master the pain the synth hadn’t yet taken away. Trying to drag a thirty-pound chimera down a set of steps on a shredded leg.

The bathroom door pulsed with light, sparks flying from its cracks. Bryce reached the library, took a limping step toward the main stairs up to the showroom, and whimpered.

“Leave it,” the Autumn King growled. “Leave the chimera.”

Hunt knew, even before Bryce took another step, that she would not. That she’d rather have her back peeled off by an Archangel than leave Syrinx behind.

And he could see that Lehabah knew it, too.

Bryce was a third of the way up the stairs, sparks flying from the seams of the bathroom door across the library behind them, when she realized Lehabah was not with her.

Bryce halted, gasping around the pain in her calf that even the synth could not dull, and looked back at the base of the library stairs. “Forget the books, Lehabah,” she pleaded.

If they survived, she’d kill Jesiba for even making the sprite hesitate.

Kill her.

Yet Lehabah did not move. “Lehabah,” Bryce said, the name an order.

Lehabah said softly, sadly, “You won’t make it in time, BB.”

Bryce took one step up, pain flaring up her calf. Each movement kept ripping it open, an uphill battle against the synth attempting to heal her. Before it’d rip apart her sanity. She swallowed her scream and said, “We have to try.”

“Not we,” Lehabah whispered. “You.”

Bryce felt her face drain of any remaining color. “You can’t.” Her voice cracked.

“I can,” Lehabah said. “The enchantments won’t hold him much longer. Let me buy you time.”

Bryce kept moving, gritting her teeth. “We can figure this out. We can get out together—”


Bryce looked back to find Lehabah smiling softly. Still at the base of the stairs. “Let me do this for you, BB. For you, and for Syrinx.”

Bryce couldn’t stop the sob that wrenched its way out of her. “You’re free, Lehabah.”

The words rippled through the library as Bryce wept. “I traded with Jesiba for your freedom last week. I have the papers in my desk. I wanted to throw a party for it—to surprise you.” The bathroom door began warping, bending. Bryce sobbed, “I bought you, and now I set you free, Lehabah.”

Lehabah’s smile didn’t falter. “I know,” she said. “I peeked in your drawer.”

And despite the monster trying to break loose behind them, Bryce choked on a laugh before she begged, “You are a free person—you do not have to do this. You are free, Lehabah.”

Yet Lehabah remained at the foot of the stairs. “Then let the world know that my first act of freedom was to help my friends.”

Syrinx shifted in Bryce’s arms, a low, pained sound breaking from him. Bryce thought it might be the sound her own soul was making as she whispered, unable to bear this choice, this moment, “I love you, Lehabah.”

The only words that ever mattered.

“And I will love you always, BB.” The fire sprite breathed, “Go.”

So Bryce did. Gritting her teeth, a scream breaking from her, Bryce heaved herself and Syrinx up the stairs. Toward the iron door at the top. And whatever time it’d buy them, if the synth didn’t destroy her first.

The bathroom door groaned.

Bryce glanced back—just once. To the friend who had stayed by her when no one else had. Who had refused to be anything but cheerful, even

in the face of the darkness that had swallowed Bryce whole.

Lehabah burned a deep, unfaltering ruby and began to move.

First, a sweep of her arm upward. Then an arc down. A twirl, hair spiraling above her head. A dance, to summon her power. Whatever kernel of it a fire sprite might have.

A glow spread along Lehabah’s body.

So Bryce climbed. And with each painful step upward, she could hear Lehabah whisper, almost chanting, “I am a descendant of Ranthia Drahl, Queen of Embers. She is with me now and I am not afraid.”

Bryce reached the top of the stairs.

Lehabah whispered, “My friends are behind me, and I will protect them.”

Screaming, Bryce shoved the library door. Until it clanged shut, the enchantments sealing, cutting off Lehabah’s voice with it, and Bryce leaned against it, sliding to the floor as she sobbed through her teeth.

Bryce had made it up to the showroom and locked the iron door behind her. Thank the gods for that—thank the fucking gods.

Yet Hunt couldn’t take his eyes off the library feed, where Lehabah still moved, still summoned her power, repeating the words over and over:

I am a descendant of Ranthia Drahl, Queen of Embers. She is with me now and I am not afraid.”

Lehabah glowed, bright as the heart of a star.

My friends are behind me, and I will protect them.” The top of the bathroom door began to curl open.

And Lehabah unleashed her power. Three blows. Perfectly aimed.

Not to the bathroom door and Archangel behind it. No, Lehabah couldn’t slow Micah.

But a hundred thousand gallons of water would.

Lehabah’s shimmering blasts of power slammed into the glass tank. Right on top of the crack that Bryce had made when the nøkk threw her into it.

The creature, sensing the commotion, rose from the rocks. And recoiled in horror as Lehabah struck again. Again. The glass cracked further.

And then Lehabah hurled herself against it. Pushed her tiny body against the crack.

She kept whispering the words over and over again. They morphed together into one sentence, a prayer, a challenge.

“My friends are with me and I am not afraid.”

Hunt wrested control of his body enough that he was able to put a hand over his heart. The only salute he could make as Lehabah’s words whispered through the speakers.

“My friends are with me and I am not afraid.”

One by one, the angels in the 33rd rose to their feet. Then Ruhn and his friends. And they, too, put their hands on their hearts as the smallest of their House pushed and pushed against the glass wall, burning gold as the nøkk tried to flee to any place it might survive what was about to come.

Over and over, Lehabah whispered, “My friends are with me and I am not afraid.”

The glass spiderwebbed.

Everyone in the conference room rose to their feet. Only Sandriel, her attention fixed on the screen, did not notice. They all stood, and bore witness to the sprite who brought her death down upon herself, upon the nøkk—to save her friends. It was all they could offer her, this final respect and honor.

Lehabah still pushed. Still shook with terror. Yet she did not stop.

Not for one heartbeat.

“My friends are with me and I am not afraid.”

The bathroom door tore open, metal curling aside to reveal Micah, glowing as if newly forged, as if he’d rend this world apart. He surveyed the library, eyes landing on Lehabah and the cracked tank wall.

The sprite whirled, back pressed against the glass. She hissed at Micah, “This is for Syrinx.”

She slammed her little burning palm into the glass.

And a hundred thousand gallons of water exploded into the library.

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