Chapter no 12

House of Flame and Shadow (Crescent City, #3)

“You’ve been here this whole time?” Bryce eyed the shadow-wreathed warrior as they left the river behind, walking through the lower tunnel passage. They followed the light of Bryce’s star, once again pointing ahead, faintly illuminating the carvings all around them. Her teeth chattered with cold, but moving helped warm her frozen body—just a fraction.

Azriel, striding a few feet behind Bryce as Nesta led the way through the tunnel, said, “Yes.”

Nesta snorted. “That’s about all you’ll get out of him.”

Bryce peered over a shoulder at the male, trying to calm her shivers. “Those were your shadows against my light earlier?”

“Yes,” Azriel said again.

Nesta chuckled. “And he’s probably been put out about it ever since.”

“Seeing you go into that freezing river helped,” Azriel said mildly, and Bryce could have sworn she caught a hint of a smile gracing his beautiful face.

But she asked, “Why keep hidden at all?”

“To observe,” Nesta answered for him, stride unfaltering. “To see what you’d do. Where you’d lead me. As soon as we realized there was a tunnel, we got supplies together and followed you.” Hence her pack of food.

They passed by more carvings—all disarmed well ahead of their approach by Nesta’s silver flame. These were more peaceful: They showed small children playing. Time passing with trees blooming, then barren, then blooming again. Pretty, perfect scenes at odds with the conversation at hand.

Bryce gestured to the passageway and the carvings. “Your guess remains as good as mine. I’m just following the light.”

“Right into the river,” Nesta grumbled. Azriel snickered behind her.

Bryce glanced at him again, at the wings and armor. At his ears—she realized now that they weren’t arched, but round like a human’s. There had been carvings earlier of warriors that looked like him—armies of them. “Do you have Vanir in this world?”

His eyes narrowed. “What’s that?”

Bryce slowed her pace, allowing herself to fall into step beside him. Though perhaps he allowed it as well. “In Midgard—my world—it’s a term for all magical, non-human beings. Fae, angels, shifters, mer, sprites …” Azriel’s brows rose with each word. “Basically, they’re the top of the food chain.”

“In this world,” Nesta said from ahead, rubbing her wet, cold arms to get some semblance of warmth into them, “we have the humans and the Fae. But amongst the Fae, there are High Fae, like … me. Amren. And what some call lesser faeries: any other magical creatures. And then there are people like Azriel, who is just … Illyrian.”

“So Rhysand is Illyrian, too?” Bryce pried. “He’s got the wings.”

“Half,” Nesta corrected. “Half High Fae, half Illyrian.” Azriel cleared his throat as if to warn her to stop talking so much, and Nesta added sharply, “And with the combined arrogance of both.”

Azriel really cleared his throat then, and Bryce couldn’t help her smile, despite her clacking teeth.

Her gaze flicked to the Starsword strapped to Azriel’s back, then to his side, to the knife hanging there. Her ears hollowed out for a moment, a dull thump sounding once, and her hand spasmed, seemingly tugged toward those blades.

Azriel’s wings twitched at the same moment, and he rolled his shoulders, like he was shaking off some phantom touch. A peek at Nesta revealed her studying the male, as if such a display was unusual.

Bryce put aside her questions, rubbing her frozen hands together for warmth. Eyes on the prize, she reminded herself as they continued on. Master of spinning bullshit.

Carrying both the dagger and the Starsword was clearly bothering Azriel.

As they pushed into the gloom, clothes slowly drying, bodies slowly thawing, Bryce counted his wings twitching or shoulders rolling no less than six times.

Not to mention the occasional hollow thump in her own ears if she drew too near to him.

They crossed a stream, wide enough to be a river, but shallow and rocky all the way across. Her blazing star, thankfully, pointed to the tunnel on the other side. No swimming necessary this time. As they crossed, the star illuminated slimy white creatures slithering out of their path. Bryce reined in the urge to cringe down at them. Or at the iron-rich water scent that stuffed itself up her nose. She said, if only to distract herself from the gross fauna of the stream, “Did the Fae make these tunnels?”

A few steps ahead, Nesta said nothing. But Azriel, trailing behind, mused after a moment, “I don’t think so. From the consistent size of them, I’d guess that a Middengard Wyrm originally made these passages. Maybe it even used these waterways to get around.”

“Does it matter?” Nesta said without looking back.

“Possibly,” Azriel murmured. “We should be on alert. It might still use them to access the tunnel system.”

Alarm flared through Bryce. “What makes you say that?”

Azriel nodded to a pile of white things that she’d mistaken for more of the writhing, newt-like creatures. “Bones. Of those things from the bridge chamber, probably.”

Bryce stumbled on a slippery rock, going down into the frigid water, palms and knees smarting—

A strong hand was instantly at her back, but too late to avoid the stinging cuts that now peppered her hands and legs. “Careful,” Azriel warned, setting her on a sturdier rock.

Bryce’s stomach hollowed out with her ears this time, and the dagger was right there, the sword so close—

Azriel let out a grunt, going rigid. Like he could feel it, too, the weapons’ demand to be together or apart or whatever it was, the strange power of them in proximity to each other—

“Watch your footing” was all the male said before stepping back. Far enough away that the sword and the dagger halted their strange tugging at Bryce. Her stomach eased, her hearing with it.

Reaching the bank, she shook off the stinging in her palms, the scent of her blood stronger than that of the river, and wiped the blood from her torn knees. She’d liked these leggings, damn it. Mud came away with the blood, and she clicked her tongue as she wiped her hand along the rock wall, trying to smear it away.

She realized too late that she’d smudged the blood and dirt over a carving of two serene, lute-playing Fae females. With an apologetic look to them and their long-dead carver, Bryce continued on. And on. And on.

“Your hands aren’t healing,” Azriel said from behind Bryce the next day. Or whenever it was now, considering that they’d all slept for a few hours with nothing in the darkness to indicate the passing of time. Bryce had dozed lightly, fitfully, aware of every drip of moisture and scrape of rock in the tunnel, the breathing from the warriors beside her.

She knew they’d been monitoring her every breath.

After a quick meal, they’d been on their way. And apparently, Azriel hadn’t missed the scent of her hands still leaking blood.

Nesta halted ahead, as if concerned by Azriel’s words, and when the female backtracked, hand outstretched, Bryce showed her scraped-up palms.

“Something in the water?” Nesta murmured to Azriel.

“Her knees healed,” Azriel murmured back.

Bryce didn’t want to know how he knew that. She peered at her raw, scraped hands, the smeared blood and lingering mud on them. “Maybe my magic’s weird down here. It’d explain why the star is doing its … GPS thing.”

Her tongue stumbled over the GPS pronunciation in their language, but if they had no idea what the Hel she was talking about, they didn’t let on.

Instead, Azriel asked, “How fast do you usually heal?” He reached for her hand, her starlight washing over the golden skin of his own hands … and the scars there. Covering every inch.

She’d seen them during their first encounter on that misty riverbank, but had forgotten until now. She’d never seen such extensive burn scars.

The sword and dagger, so close now, began their thrumming and tugging. Her hearing hollowed out, her gut with it.

Azriel’s wings twitched once again.

But Bryce said of her bleeding hands, blocking out the blades’ call, “I’m half-human, so I’m used to slower healing, but since making the Drop, I’ve been healing at relatively normal Vanir speeds.”

Nesta must have been filled in on the Drop as well, because she didn’t question what it was. She only said, “Maybe it has something to do with your magic needing so long to replenish, too.”

“Again,” Azriel reminded them, “her knees have healed.”

Bryce glanced at the thick scarring over his fingers. What—who—had done such a brutal thing to him? And though she knew it was dumb to open up, to show any vulnerability, she said quietly, “The male who fathered me … he used to burn my brother to punish him. The scars never healed for him, either.” Ruhn had just tattooed over them. A fact she’d only learned right before she’d come here, and knowing about the pain he’d suffered—

Azriel dropped her hand. But he said nothing as he stepped back, far enough away that the sword and dagger stopped chattering to Bryce. If they continued plaguing him, he made no sign. He only motioned them to keep moving before prowling off into the gloom, taking the lead this time. Bryce watched him for a moment before following, heart heavy in her chest for some reason she couldn’t place.

Nesta continued down the tunnel, this time staying a little closer to Bryce. The female said a shade quietly, “I’m sorry about your brother’s suffering.”

The words steadied Bryce, focused her. “I’ll make sure my sire pays for it one day.”

“Good” was all Nesta said. “Good.”

“Tell me about the Daglan.” Bryce’s voice echoed too loudly in the otherwise silent cave from where she sat against the tunnel wall, a carving of three dancing Fae females above her. The scent of her blood filled the cave, the wounds on her hands still open and bleeding. Not enough to be alarming, but a small, steady ooze every now and then.

Azriel and Nesta, sitting beside each other with the ease of familiarity, both frowned. Nesta said, “I don’t know anything about them.” She considered, then added, “I slew one of their contemporaries, though. About seven months ago.”

Bryce’s brows rose. “So not an Asteri—Daglan, I mean?”

Azriel shifted. Nesta glanced sidelong at him, marking the movement, but said to Bryce, “I don’t think so. The creature—Lanthys—was a breed unto himself. He was … horrible.”

Bryce angled her head. “How did you kill him?”

Nesta said nothing.

Bryce’s gaze lifted to the sword hilt peeking above the warrior’s shoulder. “With that?”

Nesta just said, “Its name is Ataraxia.”

“That’s an Old Language word.” Nesta nodded. Bryce murmured, “Inner Peace—that’s your sword’s name?”

“Lanthys laughed when he heard it, too.”

“I’m not laughing,” Bryce said, meeting the female’s stare.

She found nothing but open curiosity on Nesta’s face. Nesta said, “The scar your light comes from … it’s shaped like an eight-pointed star. Why?”

Bryce peered at where the light was muffled by her T-shirt. “It’s the symbol of the Starborn, I think.”

“And the magic marked you in this way?”

“Yes. When I … revealed who I was, what I am, to the world, I drew the star out of my chest. It left that scar in its wake.” She glanced to Azriel. “Like a burn.”

His face was an unreadable mask. But Nesta asked, “So you have a star within you? An actual star?”

Bryce shrugged with one shoulder. “Yeah? I mean, not literally. It’s not like a giant ball of gas spinning in space. But it’s starlight.”

Nesta didn’t seem particularly impressed. “And you said these Asteri of yours … they also have stars within them?”

Bryce winced. “Yes.”

“So what’s the difference between you and them?” Nesta asked.

“Aside from the fact that I’m not an intergalactic colonialist creep?”

She could have sworn Nesta’s mouth kicked up at a corner. That Azriel chuckled, the sound soft as shadow. “Right,” Nesta said.

“I, uh … I don’t know.” Bryce considered. “I never really thought about it. But …” Those final moments running from Rigelus flashed in her memory, the bursts of his power rupturing marble and glass, searing past her cheek—

“My light is just that,” Bryce said. “Light. The Asteri claim their powers are from holy stars inside themselves, but they can physically manipulate things with that light. Kill and destroy. Is starlight that can shatter rock actually light? Everything they’ve told us is basically a lie, so it’s possible they don’t have stars inside them at all—that it’s merely bright magic that looks like a star, and they called it a holy star to wow everyone.”

Azriel said, wings rustling, “Does it matter what their power is called, then?”

“No,” Nesta admitted. “I was only curious.”

Bryce chewed on her lip. What was the Asteri’s power? Or hers? Hers was light, but perhaps theirs was actually the brute force of a star—a sun. So hot and strong it could destroy all in its path. It wasn’t a comforting thought, so Bryce asked Nesta, in need of a new subject, “What kind of sword is that, anyway?” Its simple, ordinary hilt jutted above Nesta’s shoulder.

“One that can kill the unkillable,” Nesta answered.

“So is the Starsword,” Bryce said quietly, then nodded to Azriel’s side. “Can your dagger kill the unkillable, too?”

“It’s called Truth-Teller,” he said in that soft voice, like shadows given sound. “And no, it cannot.”

Bryce arched a brow. “So does it … tell the truth?”

A hint of a smile, more chilling than the frigid air around them. “It gets people to do so.”

Bryce might have shuddered had she not caught Nesta rolling her eyes. It gave her enough courage to dare ask the winged warrior, “Where did the dagger come from?”

Azriel’s hazel eyes held nothing but cool wariness. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because the Starsword”—she motioned to the blade he had down his back—“sings to it. I know you’re feeling it, too.” Let it be out in the open. “It’s driving you nuts, right?” Bryce pushed. “And it gets worse when I’m near.”

Azriel’s face again revealed nothing.

“It is,” Nesta answered for him. “I’ve never seen him so fidgety.”

Azriel glowered at his friend. But he admitted, “They seem to want to be near each other.”

Bryce nodded. “When I landed on that lawn, they instantly reacted when they were close together.”

“Like calls to like,” Nesta mused. “Plenty of magical things react to one another.”

“This was unique. It felt like … like an answer. My sword blazed with light. That dagger shone with darkness. Both of them are crafted of the same black metal. Iridium, right?” She jerked her chin to Azriel, to the dagger at his side. “Ore from a fallen meteorite?”

Azriel’s silence was confirmation enough.

“I told you guys back in that dungeon,” Bryce went on. “There’s literally a prophecy in my world about my sword and a dagger reuniting our people. When knife and sword are reunited, so shall our people be.”

Nesta frowned deeply. “And you truly think this is that particular dagger?”

“It checks too many boxes not to be.” Bryce lifted a still-bloody hand, and she didn’t miss the way they both tensed. But she furled her fingers and said, “I can feel them. It gets stronger the closer I get to them.”

“Then don’t get too close,” Nesta warned, and Bryce lowered her hand.

Bryce surveyed the carved walls, pivoting. “These reliefs tell a narrative, too, you know.”

Nesta peered up at the images: the three dancing Fae in the foreground, the stars overhead, the scattered islands. The mountain island with the castle atop its highest peak. And again, always the reminder of that suffering underworld beneath it. Memento mori. Et in Avallen ego. “What sort of narrative?”

Bryce shrugged. “If I had a few weeks, I could walk the whole length and analyze it.”

“But you don’t know our history,” Nesta said. “It’d have no context for you.”

“I don’t need context. Art has a universal language.”

“Like the one tattooed on your back?” Nesta said.

All right. Their turn to ask questions. “Your friend—Amren. She said it was the same as the language in some book?”

Azriel asked, stone-faced, “What do you call it in your world—that language?”

Bryce shook her head. “I don’t know. I told the truth earlier. My friend and I got … We had a lot to drink one night.” And smoked a fuck-ton of mirthroot, but they didn’t need to know that, or need an explanation about the drugs of Midgard. “I barely remember it. She said it meant Through love, all is possible.”

Nesta clicked her tongue, but not with disdain. Something like understanding.

Bryce went on, “She claimed she picked the alphabet out of a book in the tattoo shop, but … I don’t think that was the case.” She needed to steer this away from the Horn. Quickly. Especially since Nesta had been the one they’d called to inspect her tattoo.

Azriel asked, “How did your friend know the language?”

“I still don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure out what she knew for months now.”

“Why not just ask her?” Nesta countered.

“Because she’s dead.” The words came out flatter than Bryce had intended. But something cracked in her to say them, even if she’d lived with that reality every day for more than two years now. “The Asteri had her assassinated, then had it framed as a demonic murder. She was getting close to discovering some major truth about the Asteri and our world, so they had her killed.”

“What truth?” This from Azriel.

“I’ve been trying to uncover that, too,” Bryce said.

“Was the language of your tattoo part of it?” Azriel pressed.

“I don’t know—I only got as far as learning that she’d uncovered what the Asteri truly are, what they do to the worlds they conquer. If I ever get home …” Her heart became unbearably heavy. “If I ever get home, maybe I’ll learn the rest.”

Silence fell. Then Nesta nodded to the three dancing Fae figures above Bryce. “So what does that mean, then? If you don’t need the context.”

Bryce examined the relief. Took in the dancing, the stars, the idyllic islands in the background. And she said softly, “It means that there was once joy in this world.”

Silence. Then Nesta said, “That’s it?”

Bryce kept her eyes on the dancers, the stars, the lush lands. Ignored the darkness beneath. Focused on the good—always the good. “Isn’t that all that matters?”

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