She should be dead.
But those were her fingers, curling on the rubble. That was her breath, sawing in and out.
The brimstone had decimated the square, the city was now in smoldering ruins, yet the Gate still stood. Her light had gone out, though, the quartz again an icy white. Fires sputtered around her, lighting the damage in flickering relief.
Clumps of ashes rained down, mixing with the embers.
Bryce’s ears buzzed faintly, yet not as badly as they had after the first blast.
It wasn’t possible. She’d spied the shimmering golden brimstone missile arcing past, knew it’d strike a few blocks away, and that death would soon find her. The Gate must have shielded her, somehow.
Bryce eased into a kneeling position with a groan. The bombardment, at least, had ceased. Only a few buildings stood. The skeletons of cars still burned around her. The acrid smoke rose in a column that blotted out the first of the evening stars.
And—and in the shadows, those were stirring demons. Bile burned her throat. She had to get up. Had to move while they were down.
Her legs wouldn’t cooperate. She wiggled her toes inside her sneakers, just to make sure they could work, but … she couldn’t rise off the ground. Her body refused to obey.
A clump of ash landed on the torn knee of her leggings. Her hands began to shake. It wasn’t a piece of ash.
It was a gray feather.
Bryce twisted to look behind herself. Her head emptied out. A scream broke from her, rising from so deep that she wondered if it was
the sound of the world shredding apart.
Hunt lay sprawled on the ground, his back a bloodied, burned mess, and his legs …
There was nothing left of them but ribbons. Nothing left of his right arm but splattered blood on pavement. And through his back, where his wings had been—
That was a bloody, gaping hole.
She moved on instinct, scrambling over concrete and metal and blood.
He’d shielded her against the brimstone. Had somehow escaped Sandriel and come here. To save her.
She turned him over, searching for any hint of life, of breathing— His mouth moved. Just slightly.
Bryce sobbed, pulling his head into her lap. “Help!” she called. No answer beyond an unearthly baying in the fire-licked darkness. “Help!” she yelled again, but her voice was so hoarse it barely carried across the square. Randall had told her about the terrible power of the Asterian Guard’s brimstone missiles. How the spells woven into the condensed angelic magic slowed healing in Vanir long enough for them to bleed out. To die.
Blood coated so much of Hunt’s face that she could barely see the skin beneath. Only the faint flutter of his throat told her he still lived.
And the wounds that should have been healing … they leaked and gushed blood. Arteries had been severed. Vital arteries—
“HELP!” she screamed. But no one answered.
The brimstone’s blasts had downed the helicopter.
Only Fury’s skill kept them alive, though they’d still crashed, flipping twice, before landing somewhere in Moonwood.
Tharion bled from his head, Fury had a gash in her leg, Flynn and Amelie both bore broken bones, and Ruhn … He didn’t bother to think about his own wounds. Not as the smoke-filled, burning night became laced with approaching snarls. But the brimstone had halted—at least they had that. He prayed the Asterian Guard would need a good while before they could muster the power to form more of them.
Ruhn forced himself into movement by sheer will.
Two of the duffels of weapons had come free of their bindings and been lost in the crash. Flynn and Fury began divvying out the remaining
guns and knives, working quickly while Ruhn assessed the state of the one intact machine gun he’d ripped from the chopper’s floor.
Hypaxia’s voice cracked over the miraculously undamaged radio, “We have eyes on the Old Square Gate,” she said. Ruhn paused, waiting for the news. Not daring to hope.
The last Ruhn had seen of Athalar was the angel plunging toward Bryce while the Asterian Guard fired those glowing golden missiles over the walls like some sick fireworks show. Then the citywide explosions had sundered the world.
“Athalar is down,” Declan announced gravely. “Bryce lives.” Ruhn offered up a silent prayer of thanks to Cthona for her mercy. Another pause. “Correction, Athalar made it, but barely. His injuries are … Shit.” His swallow was audible. “I don’t think there’s any chance of survival.”
Tharion cocked a rifle to his shoulder, peering through the scope into the darkness. “We’ve got about a dozen demons sizing us up from that brick building over there.”
“Six more over here,” Fury said, also using the scope on her rifle. Amelie Ravenscroft limped badly as she shifted into wolf form with a flash of light and bared her teeth at the darkness.
If they didn’t shut the portals in the other Gates, only two options existed: retreat or death.
“They’re getting curious,” Flynn murmured without taking his eye from the scope of his gun. “Do we have a plan?”
“The river’s at our backs,” Tharion said. “If we’re lucky, my people might come to our aid.” The Blue Court lay far enough below the surface to have avoided the brimstone’s wrath. They could rally.
But Bryce and Hunt remained in the Old Square. Ruhn said, “We’re thirty blocks from the Heart Gate. We go down the river-walk, then cut inland at Main.” He added, “That’s where I’m headed, at least.” They all nodded, grim-faced.
Tell Ruhn I forgive him—for all of it.
The words echoed through Ruhn’s blood. They had to keep going, even if the demons picked them off one by one. He just hoped they’d reach his sister in time to find something to save.
Bryce knelt over Hunt, his life spilling out all around her. And in the smoldering, acrid quiet, she began whispering.
“I believe it happened for a reason. I believe it all happened for a reason.” She stroked his bloody hair, her voice shaking. “I believe it wasn’t for nothing.”
She looked toward the Gate. Gently set Hunt down amid the rubble. She whispered again, rising to her feet, “I believe it happened for a reason. I believe it all happened for a reason. I believe it wasn’t for nothing.”
She walked from Hunt’s body as he bled behind her. Wended her way through the debris and rubble. The fence around the Gate had been warped, peeled away. But the quartz archway still stood, its bronze plaque and the dial pad’s gems intact as she halted before them.
Bryce whispered again, “I believe it wasn’t for nothing.” She laid her palm on the dial pad’s bronze disk.
The metal was warm against Bryce’s fingers, as it had been when she’d touched it that final day with Danika. Its power zinged through her, sucking the fee for the usage: a drop of her magic.
The Gates had been used as communication devices in the past—but the only reason words could pass between them was the power that connected them. They all sat atop linked ley lines. A veritable matrix of energy.
The Gate wasn’t just a prism. It was a conduit. And she had the Horn in her very skin. Had proved it could close a portal to Hel.
Bryce whispered into the little intercom in the center of the pad’s arc of gems, “Hello?”
No one answered. She said, “If you can hear me, come to the Gate.
Still nothing. She said, “My name is Bryce Quinlan. I’m in the Old Square. And … and I think I’ve figured out how we can stop this. How we can fix this.”
Silence. None of the other gems lit up to indicate the presence or voice of another person in another district, touching the disk on their end. “I know it’s bad right now,” she tried again. “I know it’s so, so bad, and dark, and … I know it feels impossible. But if you can make it to
another Gate, just … please. Please come.” She took a shuddering breath.
“You don’t need to do anything,” she said. “All you need to do is just put your hand on the disk. That’s all I need—just another person on the line.” Her hand shook, and she pressed it harder to the metal. “The Gate is a conduit of power—a lightning rod that feeds into every other Gate throughout the city. And I need someone on the other end, linked to me through that vein.” She swallowed. “I need someone to Anchor me. So I can make the Drop.”
The words whispered out into the world.
Bryce’s rasping voice overrode the sounds of the demons rallying again around her. “The firstlight I’ll generate by making the Drop will spread from this Gate to the others. It’ll light up everything, send those demons racing away. It’ll heal everything it touches. Everyone it touches. And I—” She took a deep breath. “I am Starborn Fae, and I bear Luna’s Horn in my body. With the power of the firstlight I generate, I can shut the portals to Hel. I did it here—I can do it everywhere else. But I need a link—and the power from my Drop to do it.”
Still no one answered. No life stirred, beyond the beasts in the deepest shadows.
“Please,” Bryce begged, her voice breaking.
Silently, she prayed for any one of those six other gems to light up, to show that just one person, in any district, would answer her plea.
But there was only the crackling nothingness. She was alone. And Hunt was dying.
Bryce waited five seconds. Ten seconds. No one answered. No one came.
Swallowing another sob, she took a shuddering breath and let go of the disk.
Hunt’s breaths had grown few and far between. She crawled back to him, hands shaking. But her voice was calm as she again slid his head into her lap. Stroked his blood-soaked face. “It’s going to be all right,” she said. “Help is coming, Hunt. The medwitches are on their way.” She shut her eyes against her tears. “We’re going to be all right,” she lied. “We’re going to go home, where Syrinx is waiting for us. We’re going to go home. You and me. Together. We’ll have that afterward, like you promised. But only if you hold on, Hunt.”
His breathing rattled in his chest. A death rattle. She bent over him, inhaling his scent, the strength in him. And then she said it—the three words that meant more than anything. She whispered them into his ear, sending them with all she had left in her.
The final truth, the one she needed him to hear.
Hunt’s breathing spread and thinned. Not much longer.
Bryce couldn’t stop her tears as they dropped onto Hunt’s cheeks, cleaning away the blood in clear tracks.
Light it up, Danika whispered to her. Into her heart. “I tried,” she whispered back. “Danika, I tried.” Light it up.
Bryce wept. “It didn’t work.”
Light it up. Urgency sharpened the words. As if … As if …
Bryce lifted her head. Looked toward the Gate. To the plaque and its gems.
She waited. Counted her breaths. One. Two. Three.
The gems remained dark. Four. Five. Six.
Nothing at all. Bryce swallowed hard and turned back to Hunt. One last time. He’d go, and then she’d follow, once more brimstone fell or the demons worked up the courage to attack her.
She took another breath. Seven.
“Light it up.” The words filled the Old Square. Filled every square in the city.
Bryce whipped her head around to look at the Gate as Danika’s voice sounded again. “Light it up, Bryce.”
The onyx stone of the Bone Quarter glowed like a dark star.