Chapter no 14

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

The Middengard Wyrm had arrived at last. Precisely according to Bryce’s plan.

She’d been dripping blood for it all this way, leaving a trail, constantly scraping off her scabs to reopen her wounds—ones she’d intentionally inflicted on herself by “falling” into the stream. If the Wyrm relied on scent to hunt, then she’d left a veritable neon sign leading right to them. She hadn’t known when or how it would attack, but she’d been waiting.

And she was ready.

Bryce fell back as not only shadows, but blue light flared from Azriel—right alongside the ripple of silver flame from Nesta. Back-to-back, they faced the massive creature with razor-sharp focus. Ataraxia gleamed in Nesta’s hand. Truth-Teller pulsed with darkness in Azriel’s.

Now or never. Her legs tensed, readying to sprint.

Nesta’s eyes slid to Bryce’s for a heartbeat. As if understanding at last: Bryce’s “unhealing” hand. The blood she’d wiped on the walls. Her musing about the linked river system in these caves, sussing out what they knew regarding the terrain and the Wyrm. To unleash this thing—on them.

“I’m sorry,” Bryce said to her. And ran.

She meant them no harm—she hadn’t lied about that. They could undoubtedly face the Wyrm and live. Nesta had said her sister had done exactly that.

But Bryce needed to learn whatever Urd had sent her to discover. If it was intel that could help or harm her world … she didn’t want these people knowing. Using it against her. Offering it up to the Asteri. Or wielding it against Midgard for their own gain. Whatever lay ahead was for her alone.

Bryce raced down the tunnel, her path lit by flashes of silver flame and blue magic. Nesta’s and Azriel’s powers, flaring like lightning against the nightmare of the Wyrm.

The faces of the tunnel carvings watched Bryce’s flight with cold, damning eyes. Her breath sawed in her throat. She had no idea how far she had to run, but if she could get a little farther—

A shout bounced off the rocks behind her. Not one of pursuit, but of pain. Azriel. She glanced over a shoulder just as his blue light went out.

Then a female shout resounded through the cavern, and Nesta’s silver flame vanished, too, leaving Bryce’s starlight to illuminate the way. Leaving only darkness and silence behind her.

She had to keep going. They were seasoned warriors. They were fine.

But that silence, interrupted by Bryce’s breathing, her rushing steps …

She was the master of spinning bullshit. She’d kept them distracted, kept them from thinking her a manipulative little shit, but …

Bryce slowed to a stop. The darkness behind her loomed.

She found herself face-to-face with a scene depicting a great battlefield before the high walls of a city, Fae and winged horrors and snarling beasts all at war, entrenched in pain and suffering. One of the Fae stood in the foreground, spearing a fellow Fae warrior in the mouth.

Fae against Fae. It shouldn’t have bothered her. Shouldn’t have grabbed her as it did: the warrior-female’s merciless expression as she embedded her spear in the agonized face of the female soldier before her. It shouldn’t have unsettled something in Bryce to see it.

She’d long ago understood that this kind of thing wasn’t beyond the Fae. She took comfort in knowing she wasn’t like them, would never be that way.

Yet what she’d just done …

She wasn’t a monster. Was she?

Maybe she’d regret it. She knew Hunt would have yelled at her for setting a trap only to go help the people she’d ensnared.

But Bryce began running again, hurtling through the cave. Back toward Nesta and Azriel.

And prayed there was something left for her to save.

Bryce realized now, as she retraced her steps, that what she’d earlier thought to be the roaring of the river was in fact the thunderous movement of the Wyrm’s massive body. Azriel and Nesta must have made the same mistake.

In the dark, her starlight silvered the walls, casting the world into stark relief.

Her starlight hadn’t felt so … empty before. While it had been guiding them, it had been comforting, had brought some color and spark to this realm of eternal night. Now, bobbing with every sprinting step, it seemed harsh. Devoid of color.

Like even the light was disgusted by her.

Nesta and Azriel weren’t in the tunnel by the carving of the archway. From the shaking of the ground and the snapping of jaws ahead, they’d driven the Wyrm back to the river.

Bryce checked herself in time to slow to a walk before reaching the bank, reminding herself of Randall’s training.

Observe, assess, decide.

So she crept up the last few feet toward the rushing water, a hand over her star to dim it, and—

They weren’t there. No sign of the Wyrm or its meal. Her stomach dropped. They’d seemed supremely badass and capable. Surely that Wyrm couldn’t have …

It had.

Nesta lay sprawled on a large rock in the river not ten feet away. No sign of the Wyrm or Azriel. Perhaps it had eaten him already. And would soon return for the other part of its meal.

Oh gods, she’d done this, she’d fucked up beyond forgiveness—

Bryce raced to Nesta’s prone form, splashing through the icy water, slipping over stones, the river foaming around her waist in a strong current as she reached to turn the female over—

Nesta’s eyes were open. And blazing with fury.

A hand wrapped around Bryce’s throat. A blade poked into her back. And Azriel’s voice was whisper-soft as he snarled, “Give me one reason not to bury this knife in your spine.”

Bryce bared her teeth. “Because I came back to help?”

Nesta snorted, getting to her feet. Utterly unharmed.

“The Wyrm?” Bryce managed to ask, trying not to think about the knife angled to slide into her body. Or about the tug and thrum of the Starsword and the dagger, so near to her now.

“It’s hunting us,” Nesta seethed, eyeing the river, the tunnel.

“Then fucking run,” Bryce panted. “The tunnel’s open—”

“We’re not leaving that thing alive in the world,” Azriel said with quiet venom. Nesta unsheathed Ataraxia, the blade glowing faintly. Her demeanor was calm, as if this was all in a day’s work.

Solas burn her. Randall would kill her for being so stupid. “You lured me here.”

Nesta nodded to Azriel, who withdrew his blade but kept a hand on Bryce’s shoulder, either to prevent her from moving or to hold her steady in the river’s current. “You saved me from the traps in the walls. It only made sense that you’d have a guilty conscience to go with that soft heart.”

Scratch that: her mother would kill her for being so stupid.

“I—” Bryce began, but Nesta said, “Save it.”

The sharp tone was enough to make Bryce peer into the river’s darkness, the tunnel on either side. Even the call of the Starsword and Truth-Teller became secondary as she asked, “How did it disappear?”

“Deep pits in the riverbed,” Azriel murmured. “It got one whiff of Nesta’s power and dove into one. But from the shaking of the stone … it’s staying close. Watching us.”

“Then why the fuck are we standing in the river?”

Nesta smirked at her. “Bait.”

Make your brother proud.

The Viper Queen might as well have shot Ithan in the fucking gut. Like she knew precisely how ashamed Connor would have been of how far he’d fallen.

“What’s she going to do about Sabine?” Tharion asked Ithan as he entered the suite once more. Right—he’d told them that was what he wanted to learn from her.

“Nothing,” Ithan said.

Sigrid sat on the couch beside Declan, watching his fingers fly over his phone.

“Where’s Marc?” Ithan asked.

“Pulled the lawyer privileges card,” Flynn answered for Dec. “Fed the guards some crap about legal stuff. He got a message from the Viper Queen a minute after you left, saying he was free to go.”

So that was what the Viper Queen had been typing on her computer.

“Go where?”

“To his firm,” Dec said, still focusing on his phone. “He’s going to look into whether there’s a legal way to get us all out of this shitshow.”

“I might have a solution for that,” Ithan said. They all looked at him.

Tharion asked quietly, “What did she offer you, pup?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

Tharion stood from the table by the fighting ring window. “Did you—”

“One fight—from me. Tomorrow night.”

Sigrid’s eyes widened. “What sort of fight?”

Ithan pointed to the window behind Tharion. “One of her fancy ones. Down there.”

“Did she say who?” He’d never seen Ketos’s face so serious. “You should have made her specify. She’s going to screw you over—screw us all over somehow.” Tharion’s voice sharpened. “What the Hel were you thinking?”

“I was thinking,” Ithan shot back, “that you made a stupid choice, and I was trying to get you out of it. Get us all out of this mess.”

Tharion blinked at him, eyes dark. Cold. “I didn’t ask you to get me out of it. You think I can just walk out of here? I can’t.”

“The Viper Queen said you could—”

“And what then?” The mer got to his feet. “I’ll be right back at the mercy of the River Queen. The Viper Queen knows that—she knows I don’t have any choice but to stay here, with her.” Tharion shook his head in disgust. “You dumb fucking idiot.” With that, the mer stalked out of the room.

Silence reigned for a moment. Then Declan said, “You should have talked to us first.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t,” Ithan snapped. Then sighed. “The Hind gave us two days. Marc’s a genius and all that, but legal shit takes time. We don’t have that.”

“The mer is right,” Sigrid said darkly. “You shouldn’t trust someone like her. Anyone who traffics in lives has no honor.”

“I know,” Ithan said. And for a moment, he could see it in Sigrid’s eyes—the rigid, yet fair Alpha she might be. With the emotional scars to understand the importance and value of each life.

Maybe he should have encouraged her to kill Sabine last night. Ithan sighed again.

Flynn walked to the wet bar. “Better drink up, Holstrom.”

“I never drink before a game,” Ithan said. “Even the day before.”

“Trust me,” Flynn said, pressing a glass of whiskey into Ithan’s hand, “with the Vipe hand-selecting your opponent, you’ll want something to take the edge off.”

“You left your blood all over the place to lead it along,” Nesta said. “It’s after you—not us. So you’re going to draw it back here.”

Bryce glanced between Nesta and Azriel. They were completely serious.

Bryce pointed to the boulder Nesta had been lying upon moments ago. “So, what, I’m supposed to sit on this rock and wait for the Wyrm to show up and eat me?”

“That last bit is up to you,” Nesta said, turning toward the other end of the river. “But from what I just saw, you’re a fast runner. You’ll get away in time. Probably.”


Azriel murmured, “Quiet,” and Bryce, without much of an alternative, obeyed.

It didn’t matter how brightly her starlight shone. The Wyrm was blind. And it was only a matter of time until it came sniffing again—

It was a matter of seconds, actually.

One moment, there was only the rushing river. The next, a wall of water exploded in front of Azriel, the behemoth body of the Wyrm dwarfing even the warrior’s powerful form.

Bryce had never seen such a horrible creature, even during the attack on Crescent City this spring. Rays of blue light flared from Azriel, spearing for the creature—

They pierced its dark, wet skin and vanished.

It was all Bryce saw before she leapt off the rock, splashing through the water, aiming for the tunnel archway.

Nesta shot past her, Ataraxia in hand, silver fire wreathing the other. But the Wyrm vanished—as fast as it had appeared, it went back into the sinkhole.

“Where is it?” Nesta shouted to Azriel, who pivoted, scanning the river, the tunnel—

Behind them, closer to Bryce, the Wyrm erupted from the water again from another sinkhole. Silver fire blasted past her. The Wyrm screeched as the raw power slammed into its side, setting the caverns shaking, debris and rock splashing into the river.

Then the fire vanished, sucked into its skin. The Wyrm again plunged beneath the water, into the sinkhole.

Azriel and Nesta returned to their back-to-back position, and Bryce gathered her wits enough to say, “What happened?”

“It … it ate my power,” Nesta murmured.

“That’s not possible,” Azriel said, eyes fixed on the river.

“It did,” Nesta snapped. “I felt it.”

“Shit,” Azriel said.

“We need to run,” Bryce said.

“No,” Nesta said, silver fire in her eyes again. “That thing doesn’t get out of this fight alive.”

As if in answer and challenge, the Wyrm leapt from the water, a massive, powerful surge, jaws opening wide toward Nesta and Azriel and Bryce—

A flap of Azriel’s wings and the three of them were airborne, faster than even the Wyrm could attack. It narrowly missed Azriel’s booted feet as it dove again, vanishing once more.

“We need it restrained,” Nesta said to Azriel. “So I can get close with Ataraxia.”

“If your power didn’t kill it, there’s no saying Ataraxia will, either,” Azriel panted, landing them on the bank. “It breaks through my tethers like they’re spiderwebs.”

“Then we get something else to do the fighting for us,” Nesta said, and Azriel whirled to her, as if in alarm.

But Bryce said, “Fine.” And reached a hand out to Azriel. “Give me the Starsword.” She’d led them into this mess—she could try to get them out of it. The Starsword had killed Reapers. Maybe it would kill this thing, too.

“Don’t you dare,” Azriel began—but not to Bryce. Dread paled his golden skin. “Nesta—”

Something metallic gleamed like sunshine in Nesta’s hand. A mask.

“Nesta,” Azriel warned, panic sharpening his voice, but too late. She closed her eyes and shoved it onto her face. A strange, cold breeze swept through the tunnel.

Bryce had endured that wind before, in the Bone Quarter. A wind of death, of decay, of quiet. The hair on her arms rose. And her blood chilled to ice as Nesta opened her eyes to reveal only silver flame shining there.

Whatever that mask was, whatever power it had … death lay within it.

“Take it off,” Azriel snarled, but Nesta extended a hand into the darkness of the tunnel.

Mortal, an ancient, bone-dry voice whispered in Bryce’s head. You are mortal, and you shall die. Memento mori. Memento mori, memento—

Bone clicked in the darkness. The earth shook.

Azriel grabbed Bryce, tugging her back against him as he retreated toward the wall, as if it’d offer any shelter from whatever approached. The Starsword and Truth-Teller hummed and pulled at Bryce’s spine, and her hands itched, like she could feel the weapons in her palms—

She didn’t see what it was that Nesta drew from the dark before the Wyrm found them.

As it had before, it leapt from the river, thrashing into the narrow tunnel, blocking the way back. Azriel’s shield glowed blue around them. Jaws open wide to reveal rows of flesh-shredding teeth, the Wyrm shot right for them.

But something massive and white slammed into the Wyrm instead. A creature of pure bone, larger than the Wyrm.

The skeleton they’d encountered down the tunnel. Reanimated.

Its jaws snapped for the Wyrm, long arms ending in claws finding purchase on either side of the Wyrm’s unholy mouth.

The Wyrm shrieked, but the creature held firm, biting down on the Wyrm’s head and shaking, shaking, shaking

Azriel dragged Bryce back, sword and dagger calling to her to draw them, use them. But he kept pulling her away, deeper into the tunnel as the undead thing and the Wyrm grappled with each other. The ceiling shook, debris shattering on the floor. Azriel arched a wing, shielding them both from its slicing rain.

But there was nothing in that world to shield them from the being standing a few feet away.

Hair drifting on a phantom breeze, Nesta glowed with silver fire. Still wearing her mask. A finger pointed toward the fight. Commanding that creature of bone and death to attack the Wyrm. Again. Again.

“What is she—” Bryce began, but Azriel clamped a hand over her mouth, hauling her farther down the tunnel.

So Bryce could only watch in awe and utter terror as Nesta’s fingers closed into a fist.

The beast’s jaws encircled the Wyrm’s entire front end and smashed it down into the earth, pinning it. The ground rocked with the impact, and even Azriel stumbled, his hand flying from Bryce’s mouth.

The Wyrm thrashed, but the undead creature held it firm. Held it down as Nesta drew Ataraxia once more and approached.

“We need to help her,” Bryce panted to Azriel.

“I promise you, she’s fine,” Azriel countered, urging them further into the tunnel. Out of the impact zone, Bryce realized.

The Wyrm must have sensed the sword’s approach, because it bucked against the bones and claws pinning it to the rock.

It managed to nudge the undead creature back, but only for a heartbeat.

Nesta raised her free hand again, and the undead creature slammed the Wyrm back into the ground. The Wyrm thrashed, desperate now.

With a dancer’s grace, Nesta scaled the undead beast’s tail, running along the knobs of its spine like rocks in a stream. Getting to higher ground, to a better angle.

The Wyrm shrieked, but Nesta had reached the undead beast’s white skull. And then she was jumping, sword arcing above her, then down, down—

Straight into the head of the Wyrm.

A shudder of silver fire rushed down the Wyrm. That cold, dry wind shivered through the caves again, death in its wake.

The Wyrm slumped to the ground.

The silence was worse than the sound.

Azriel was instantly gone, wings tucking in tight as he rushed toward Nesta and the undead beast that still held the Wyrm in its grip.

“Take it off,” Azriel ordered her.

The female turned her head toward him with a smooth motion that Bryce had only seen from possessed dolls in horror movies.

“Take it off,” Azriel snarled.

Still staring at him, Nesta yanked Ataraxia from the Wyrm’s body and slid down its side, landing with that preternatural ease on the rock.

Every muscle in Bryce’s body went taught, that voice whispering over and over to her, Mortal. You shall die. You shall die. You shall die.

She hated how she shook at Nesta’s stalking approach. How both the human and Vanir parts of her trembled at this thing, whatever it was, contained within the mask.

Azriel didn’t yield a single step. Nesta came to a stop before him. Nothing human or Fae looked out through the eyeholes of the mask.

“Take it off,” he said, voice pure ice. “Let the creature rest again.”

A blink, and the undead creature collapsed once more into a pile of bones.

“Cassian’s waiting for you, Nesta,” Azriel said—tone gentling. “Take off the Mask.” Nesta stayed silent, Ataraxia ready in her hand. One swipe, and Azriel would be dead. “He’s waiting for you at the House of Wind,” Azriel went on. “At home.”

Another blink from Nesta. The silver fire banked a little.

Like whoever Cassian was, and whatever the House of Wind was … they might be the only things capable of fighting the siren song of the Mask.

“Gwyn and Emerie are waiting,” Azriel pushed. “And Feyre and Elain.” The silver flame flared at that. Then Azriel said, “Nyx is waiting, too.”

The silver flame went out entirely.

The Mask fell from Nesta’s face, clattering on the stone.

Nesta swayed, but Azriel was there, catching her, bringing her to his chest, scarred hands stroking her hair. “Thank the Mother,” he breathed. “Thank the Mother.”

Bryce began to turn away, sensing that she was witnessing something deeply personal.

But Nesta pulled back from Azriel. Steadied her feet before facing Bryce, Ataraxia still in one hand. She flicked the fingers of her other hand and the Mask instantly vanished, off to wherever she’d summoned it from.

Bryce had so many words in her head that none of them came out.

Nesta just sheathed Ataraxia down her spine again and said to Bryce, “Keep walking.”

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