Chapter no 87

House of Earth and Blood

“No,” Ruhn was saying, over and over. “No, no—”

But Hunt heard nothing. Felt nothing. It had all crumbled inside him the moment she’d hung up.

Bryce leapt the fence around the Gate and halted before its towering archway. Before the terrible black void within it.

A faint white radiance began to glow around her. “What is that?” Fury whispered.

It flickered, growing brighter in the night.

Enough to illuminate her slender hands cupping a sparkling, pulsing light before her chest.

The light was coming from her chest—had been pulled from inside it. Like it had dwelled inside her all along. Bryce’s eyes were closed, her face serene.

Her hair drifted above her head. Bits of debris floated up around her, too. As if gravity had ceased to exist.

The light she held was so stark it cast the rest of the world into grays and blacks. Slowly, her eyes opened, amber blazing like the first pure rays of dawn. A soft, secret smile graced her mouth.

Her eyes lifted to the Gate looming above her. The light between her hands grew stronger.

Ruhn fell to his knees.

“I am Bryce Quinlan,” she said to the Gate, to the void, to all of Hel behind it. Her voice was serene—wise and laughing. “Heir to the Starborn Fae.”

The ground slid out from under Hunt as the light between her hands, the star she’d drawn from her shattered heart, flared as bright as the sun.

Danika knelt on the asphalt, hands interlocked behind her blood-soaked hair. The two gunshot wounds to her leg had stopped leaking blood, but Bryce knew the bullets remained lodged in her upper thigh. The pain from kneeling had to be unbearable.

“You stupid cunt,” the asp shifter spat at her, opening the chamber of his handgun with brutal precision. Bullets were on the way—as soon as his associate found them, that gun would be loaded.

The agony in Bryce’s injured arm was secondary. All of it was secondary to that gun.

The motorcycle smoldered thirty feet away, the rifle thrown even farther into the arid scrub. Down the road, the semitruck idled, its cargo hold filled with all those petrified animals on their way to gods knew where.

They had failed. Their wild rescue attempt had failed.

Danika’s caramel eyes met the asp shifter’s. The leader of this horrific smuggling ring. The male responsible for this moment, when the shootout that had taken place at a hundred miles an hour had turned on them. Danika had been steering the motorcycle, an arm looped through Bryce’s leg to hold her steady as she’d aimed her rifle. Taken out the asps’ two sedans full of equally hateful males intent on hurting and selling those animals. They’d been nearing the racing semi when the male before them had managed a shot to the motorcycle’s tires.

The motorcycle had flipped, and Danika had reacted with a wolf ’s speed. She had wrapped her body around Bryce. And taken the brunt of the impact.

Her shredded skin, the fractured pelvis—all thanks to that.

“Bryce,” Danika whispered, tears running down her face now as the reality of this colossal fuckup set in. “Bryce, I love you. And I’m sorry.”

Bryce shook her head. “I don’t regret it.” The truth.

And then the asp shifter’s associate arrived, bullets in hand. Their clink as they loaded into the gun echoed through Bryce’s bones.

Danika sobbed. “I love you, Bryce.”

The words rippled between them. Cleaved Bryce’s heart wide open. “I love you,” Danika said again.

Danika had never said those words to her. Not once in four years of college. Not once to anyone, Bryce knew. Not even Sabine.

Especially not Sabine.

Bryce watched the tears roll down Danika’s proud, fierce face. A lock clicked open in Bryce’s heart. Her soul.

“Close your eyes, Danika,” she said softly. Danika just stared at her.

Only for this. Only for Danika would she do this, risk this.

The gravel around Bryce began to shiver. Began to float upward. Danika’s eyes widened. Bryce’s hair drifted as if underwater. In deep space.

The asp shifter finished loading the bullets and pointed the gun at Danika’s face. His colleague smirked from a step behind him.

Bryce held Danika’s stare. Did not look away as she said again, “Danika, close your eyes.” Trembling, Danika obeyed. Squeezed them shut.

The asp shifter clicked off the gun’s safety, not even glancing at Bryce and the debris that floated toward the sky. “Yeah, you’d better close your eyes, you—”

Bryce exploded. White, blinding light ruptured from her, unleashed from that secret place in her heart.

Right into the eyes of the asp shifter. He screamed, clawing at his face. Blazing bright as the sun, Bryce moved.

Pain forgotten, she had his arm in her hands in a heartbeat. Twisted it so he dropped the gun into her waiting palm. Another movement and he was sprawled on the asphalt.

Where she fired that bullet meant for Danika into his heart.

His accomplice was screaming, on his knees and clawing at his eyes.

Bryce fired again.

He stopped screaming.

But Bryce did not stop burning. Not as she raced for the semi’s cab— for the final asp now trying to start its engine. Danika trembled on the ground, hands over her head, eyes squeezed shut against the brightness.

The asp shifter gave up on the engine and fled the cab, sprinting down the road. Bryce took aim, just as Randall had taught her, and waited for the shot to come to her.

Another crack of the gun. The male dropped.

Bryce blazed for a long moment, the world bleached into blinding white.

Slowly, carefully, she spooled the light back into herself. Smothered it, the secret she and her parents had kept for so long. From her sire, from the Asteri, from Midgard.

From Ruhn.

The pure light of a star—from another world. From long, long ago. The gift of the ancient Fae, reborn again. Light, but nothing more than that. Not an Asteri, who possessed brute power of the stars. Just light.

It meant nothing to her. But the Starborn gifts, the title—they had always meant something to Ruhn. And that first time she’d met him, she’d intended to share her secret with him. He’d been kind, joyful at finding a new sister. She’d instantly known she could trust him with this secret, hidden thing.

But then she’d seen their father’s cruelty. Seen how that Starborn gift gave her brother just the slightest edge against that fucking monster. Seen the pride her brother denied but undoubtedly felt at being Starborn, blessed and chosen by Urd.

She couldn’t bring herself to tell Ruhn the truth. Even after things fell apart, she hid it. Would never tell anyone—anyone at all. Except Danika. Blue skies and olive trees filtered back in, color returning to the world as Bryce hid the last of her starlight inside her chest. Danika still

trembled on the asphalt. “Danika,” Bryce said.

Danika lowered her hands from her face. Opened her eyes. Bryce waited for the terror her mother had warned about, should someone learn what she bore. The strange, terrible light that had come from another world.

But there was only wonder on Danika’s face. Wonder—and love.

Bryce stood before the Gate, holding the star she’d kept hidden within her heart, and let the light build. Let it flow out of her chest, untethered and pure.

Even with the void mere feet away, Hel just a step beyond it, a strange sense of calm wended through her. She’d kept this light a secret for so long, had lived in such utter terror of anyone finding out, that despite everything, relief filled her.

There had been so many times these weeks when she was sure Ruhn would realize it at last. Her blatant disinterest in learning about anything related to the first Starborn, Prince Pelias and Queen Theia, had bordered on suspicious, she’d feared. And when he’d laid the Starsword on the table in the gallery library and it had hummed, shimmering, she’d had to physically pull back to avoid the instinct to touch it, to answer its silent, lovely song.

Her sword—it was her sword, and Ruhn’s. And with that light in her veins, with the star that slumbered inside her heart, the Starsword had recognized her not as a royal, worthy Fae, but as kin. Kin to those who had forged it so long ago.

Like called to like. Even the kristallos’s venom in her leg had not been able to stifle the essence of what she was. It had blocked her access to the light, but not what lay stamped in her blood. The moment the venom had come out of her leg, as Hunt’s lips had met hers that first time, she’d felt it awaken again. Freed.

And now here she was, the starlight building within her hands.

It was a useless gift, she’d decided as a child. It couldn’t do much at all beyond blinding people, as she’d done to her father’s men when they came after her and her mother and Randall, as had happened to the Oracle when the seer peered into her future and beheld only her blazing light, as she’d done to those asp-hole smugglers.

Only her father’s unfaltering Fae arrogance and snobbery had kept him from realizing it after her Oracle visit. The male was incapable of imagining anyone but pure Fae being blessed by fate.

Blessed—as if this gift made her something special. It didn’t. It was an old power and nothing more. She had no interest in the throne or crown or palace that could come with it. None.

But Ruhn … He might have claimed otherwise, but the first time he’d told her about his Ordeal, when he’d won the sword from its ancient resting place in Avallen, she’d seen how his face had glowed with pride that he’d been able to draw the sword from its sheath.

So she’d let him have it, the title and the sword. Had tried to open Ruhn’s eyes to their father’s true nature as often as she could, even if it made her father resent her further.

She would have kept this burning, shining secret inside her until her dying day. But she’d realized what she had to do for her city. This world.

The dregs of the light flowed out of her chest, all of it now cupped between her palms.

She’d never done it before—wholly removed the star itself. She’d only glowed and blinded, never summoned its burning core from inside her. Her knees wobbled, and she gritted her teeth against the strain of holding the light in place.

At least she’d spoken to Hunt one last time. She hadn’t expected him to be able to pick up. Had thought the phone would go right to audiomail where she could say everything she wanted. The words she still hadn’t said aloud to him.

She didn’t let herself think of it as she took the final step to the Gate’s quartz archway.

She was Starborn, and the Horn lay within her, repaired and now filled with her light.

This had to work.

The quartz of the Gate was a conduit. A prism. Able to take light and power and refract them. She closed her eyes, remembering the rainbows this Gate had been adorned with on the last day of Danika’s life, when they’d come here together. Made their wishes.

This had to work. A final wish. “Close,” Bryce whispered, shaking.

And she thrust her starlight into the Gate’s clear stone.

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