Chapter no 17

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

Only dry, ancient darkness waited beyond the star door. No sound or hint of life. Just more darkness. Older, somehow, than the tunnel behind them. Heavier. More watchful.

Like it was alive. And hungry.

Bryce stepped into it anyway.

“What is this place?” Bryce breathed, daring another step into the tunnel that lay on the door’s other side. Azriel and Nesta quickly fell into step behind her.

A shriek of metal sliced through the air, and Bryce whirled—

Too late. Even Azriel, now mid-stride, hadn’t been fast enough to stop the door from sliding shut. Its thud echoed through her feet, up her legs. Dust swirled.

They’d been sealed in.

Bryce’s star flared … and went out.

A chill rippled up her arms, some primal instinct screaming at her to run without knowing why—

Light flared at Azriel’s hand—faelight, he’d told her earlier. Two orbs of it drifted ahead, illuminating a short passageway. At its other end lay a vast, circular chamber, its floor carved with symbols and drawings akin to those on the walls of the tunnel.

Nesta whispered, voice breathy with fear, “This is the place I last saw the star on your chest.” She drew Ataraxia, and the blade gleamed in the dimness. “We call it the Prison.”

It was like game day, Ithan told himself. The same restlessness coursing through his body, the same razor-sharp focus settling into place.

Except there would be no ref. No rules. No one to call a time-out.

He stood at the edge of the empty ring in the center of the fighting pit, surrounded by his friends and Sigrid. The sprites, unable to stomach the violence, had opted to stay away.

There was no sign of the dragon.

He hadn’t dared research how bad third-degree burns were. If he’d be in any shape to go help free Athalar and Ruhn. And the Helhound, apparently—what was that about?

Focus. Survive the fight, win, and they could be out of here tonight. He was good at winning. Or he had been, once upon a time.

“She’ll try to distract you,” Flynn said from beside him, staring at the empty ring. “But get around her flames, and I think you can take her.”

“I thought you had the hots for the dragon,” Declan muttered. “No pun intended.”

“Not when she’s about to toast my friend.”

Ithan tried and failed to smile.

“Ari won’t go easy on you,” Tharion finally chimed in. He’d returned to the suite an hour ago, but he’d gone into his bedroom and shut the door. At least he’d come down for the fight.

“So he’s supposed to—what, Ketos?” Flynn asked. “Stand there and be burned to a crisp?”

“I bet the Viper Queen would find that highly amusing,” Declan said grimly.

Ithan, despite himself, finally smiled at that.

Tharion’s face remained grave, though, as he said to Ithan, “Odds are, Ari’s going to hurt you. Badly. But she’s arrogant—use it against her.”

Ithan felt Sigrid’s gaze on him, but he nodded at the mer. “Promise to wield that water magic of yours to douse the flames and I’ll be fine.”

Tharion was in no mood to joke, though. “Holstrom, I … Look, I said some shit earlier that I—” He shook his head. “If you can get me out of here, I’ll make it count. It means a lot that you’d even try. That you care.”

“We’re a pack,” Ithan said to Tharion, Flynn, and Dec. “It’s what we do for each other.” None of them contradicted it. His heart strained.

Tharion’s eyes glimmered with emotion. “Thanks.”

The double doors on the other side of the space creaked open to reveal the Viper Queen in a metallic gold jumpsuit and matching high-tops.

“She’ll probably have Ari jump down from the rafters in a ball of flame,” Tharion murmured as the snake shifter moved across the chamber with sinuous, unhurried grace. Ithan looked up, but the shadowed top of the ring remained empty as far as his wolf-sharp eyes could see.

The Viper Queen halted a few feet away and frowned at Ithan. “That’s what you chose to wear?” He examined his T-shirt and jeans. The same ones he’d been wearing since arriving in this Helhole. But she nodded to Tharion. “You should have spruced him up a bit.”

Tharion said nothing, his face like stone.

The Viper Queen turned, jumpsuit glimmering like molten gold, and strutted toward the nearest riser. She plunked herself down and waved an elegant hand to Ithan. “Begin.”

Ithan glanced to the empty ring. “Where’s the dragon?”

The Viper Queen pulled out her phone and typed into it, the screen casting her already pale face in an unearthly pallor. “Ariadne? Oh, she’s no longer in my employ.”

“What?” Tharion and Flynn blurted at the same time.

The Viper Queen didn’t look up from her phone, thumbs flying. The light bounced off her long nails, also painted a metallic gold. “An offer too good to refuse came in an hour ago.”

“She’s not your slave,” Tharion snapped, face more livid than Ithan had ever seen. “You don’t fucking own her.”

“No,” the Viper Queen agreed, typing away, “but the arrangement was … advantageous to us both. She agreed.” She at last lifted her head. Nothing remotely kind lay within her green eyes as she surveyed Tharion. “If you ask me, I think she said yes in order to avoid having to toast Holstrom to a crisp. I wonder who might have made her feel bad about that?”

They all turned to the mer, who gaped at the Viper Queen.

“Of course,” the Vipe went on, typing again on her phone, “I didn’t inform her new employer that the dragon’s a softhearted worm. But given her new surroundings, I think she’ll harden up quickly.” The swish of a message being sent punctuated her words.

Tharion looked like he was going to be sick. Ithan didn’t blame him.

But Ithan willed himself to focus, his breathing to steady. She wanted him off-balance. Wanted him reeling. He squared his shoulders. “So who am I fighting, then?”

The Viper Queen slid her phone into her pocket and smiled, revealing those too-white teeth.

“The Fendyr heir, of course.”

“We should get Rhys.”

“We’d have to hike up through the mountain, climb down past the wards, then hope we’re not too far to reach him mind-to-mind.”

Bryce listened to Azriel and Nesta quietly argue, content to let them debate while she took in the chamber.

“This place is lethal,” Azriel insisted gravely. “The wards in there are sticky as tar.”

“Yes,” Nesta admitted, “but we’ve come all this way, so let’s see why we’ve been dragged here.”

“Why she’s been dragged here—by that star.” They both turned toward her at last, expressions taut.

Bryce composed her own face into the portrait of innocence as she asked, “What is the Prison?”

Nesta’s lips pursed for a heartbeat before she said, “A misty island off the coast of our lands.” She glanced at Azriel and mused, “Do you think we somehow walked beneath the ocean?”

Azriel slowly shook his head, his dark hair shining in the faelights bobbing overhead. “There’s no way we walked that far. The door must have been a portal of some sort, moving us from the mainland out here.”

Nesta’s brows lifted. “How is that possible?”

“There are caves and doors throughout the land,” Azriel said, “that open into distant places. Maybe that was one of them.” His gaze flicked to Bryce, noting how closely she was listening to all that, and said, “Let’s go in.”

He took Bryce’s hand in his broad, callused one, pulling her toward the chamber beyond.

His face was a mask of cold determination in the light of the golden orbs floating over them, his hazel eyes darting around to monitor the gloom.

This close to him, hand in hand, she could feel the sword and dagger again thrumming and pulsing. They throbbed against her eardrums—

The hilt of the Starsword shifted in her direction—she could have reached out and touched it with her other hand. One movement, and its hilt would be in her grip.

Azriel shot her a warning look.

Bryce kept her face bland, bored. Had his glance been to warn her to be careful for her own safety, or for her not to make one wrong move?

Maybe both.

Too soon, too quickly, they neared the entrance to the large, round chamber at the end of the short passage. The faelight danced over carvings etched and embossed onto the stone floor, as ornate and detailed as those in the tunnels leading here. The entire floor of the chamber was covered with them.

But between her and that room hung a sense of foreboding, of heaviness, of keep the fuck out.

Even the sword and dagger seemed to go quiet. Her star remained extinguished. Like their task was done. They’d arrived at the place they’d been compelled to bring her.

Bryce sucked in a breath. “I’m going in. Keep a step back,” she warned Azriel.

“And miss the fun?” Azriel muttered. Nesta chuckled behind them.

“I mean it,” Bryce said, trying to tug her hand from his. “You stay here.”

His fingers tightened on hers, not letting go. “What do you sense?”

“Wards,” Bryce replied, again scanning the arena-sized cavern ahead. And there, right in the center of the space …

Another eight-pointed star.

It must have been the one Nesta had seen before. As if in answer, the star on Bryce’s chest flared, then dimmed.

Nesta stepped up beside them, pointing. “The Harp sat atop that star.”

“Harp?” Bryce asked, not missing the glare that Azriel directed at Nesta. But Nesta’s eyes remained on the star as she said, more to herself than to them, “It was held there by those wards.”

Azriel scanned the chamber, still not letting go of Bryce’s hand as he said to Nesta, “We don’t know what else might be kept at bay in here.”

“I didn’t sense anything except the Harp last time,” Nesta replied, but she still assessed the chamber with a warrior’s focus.

“We also didn’t sense that there was a second entrance into this place,” Azriel countered. “We can assume nothing right now.”

Bryce fingered the Archesian amulet around her neck. It had protected her at the gallery … had allowed her to walk through Jesiba’s grade A wards …

There had to be an answer here, somewhere. About something. Anything.

Bryce’s fingers tightened around the amulet. Then she looked over Azriel’s shoulder, and her eyes widened. “Watch out!”

He dropped her hand instantly, whirling to the unseen, unsensed opponent.

The nonexistent opponent.

Bryce moved with Fae swiftness, and by the time Azriel realized there was nothing there, she’d already crossed the ward line.

Cold fury tightened his features, but Nesta was smirking with something like approval.

“You’re on your own now,” Azriel said, blue stones glimmering at his hands with a cold fury that matched his expression.

Bryce’s brows lifted, walking backward a few steps. “You really can’t get through?”

He crouched to trace a scarred hand along the stone floor, anger fading in the face of his curiosity. “No.” He peered up at Bryce, mouth twisting to the side. “I don’t know whether to be impressed or worried.” He rose and jerked his chin at Nesta. “You going in?”

Nesta crossed her arms and remained at his side. “Let’s see what happens first.”

Bryce scowled. “Thanks.”

Nesta didn’t smile. She only urged, “Be quick. Look around, but don’t linger.”

Bryce tried, “I’d feel better if I had my sword.”

Azriel said nothing, face impassive. Fine. Sighing, Bryce surveyed the carvings on the floor. Whorls and faces and—

The hair on her arms rose.

“These are Midgard’s constellations.” Bryce pointed to a cluster. “That’s the Great Ladle. And that … that’s Orion. The hunter.”

Hunt. Her Hunt.

Her companions, the tunnels, the world faded away as she traced the stars, plotting their path. The Archesian amulet warmed against her skin, as if working to clear the wards around her.

“The Archer,” she breathed. “The Scorpion and the Fish … This is a map of my cosmos.” Her boot knocked against a raised half-orb, a screaming face carved into it. “Siph.” The outermost planet. She went to the next, a similar mound with a grave male face. “Orestes.”

“Orestes?” Azriel asked sharply, drawing her attention back to where he and Nesta still stood at the tunnel archway. “The warrior?”

She blinked. “Yes.”

“Interesting,” Nesta said, head angling. “Perhaps the name came from the same source.”

Bryce indicated the next mound, the face of a bearded old man. “Oden.” The next, closer to the center of the room, was a young, laughing male. “Lakos.” Another mound rose on the other side of the star, massive and helmeted. “Thurr,” she said. Then she pointed to a mound with a female head. “Farya.” And beyond Farya, a large, raised mound with snaking tendrils. “Sol,” she whispered, indicating the sun-shaped thing.

She scanned the room again and turned to the eight-pointed star. Directly between Lakos and Thurr. “Midgard.” The name seemed to echo in the chamber. “Someone went to an awful lot of trouble to make this floor. Someone who’d been to my world and then came back here.” Bryce glanced over a shoulder to Nesta, the warrior’s face unreadable. “You said there was a harp on the eight-pointed star?” A shallow nod. “What kind of harp? Was it special in any way?”

“It can move its player between physical places,” Nesta said, a shade too quickly.

“What else?” Bryce asked, and her chest glowed again.

Azriel lifted a hand toward Nesta, as if he’d cover her mouth to shut her up, but she said, “The Harp is Made. It can stop time itself.”

“It stops time?” Bryce’s knees wobbled.

She could think of only one group of people in her own world who’d be able to create stuff like that. Who, if they had indeed Made such objects, had a really good reason for wanting to get back into this world. To claim them.

“Was there ever,” Bryce ventured, a sudden hunch taking form in her mind, “a Made object called the Horn?”

“I don’t know,” Nesta said. “Why?”

Bryce gazed at the eight-pointed star, the very heart of this chamber, of this map of the cosmos. “Someone put your Harp there for a reason.”

“To keep it hidden,” Azriel said.

“No,” Bryce said quietly, facing the star fully, her free hand drifting to touch the matching scar on her chest.

It had led her all the way here. To this exact spot, where the Harp had been.

“It was left for someone like me.”

“What do you mean?” Nesta demanded, voice bouncing off the rock.

But Bryce went on, the words tumbling out of her faster than she could sort them, “I think … I think all those carvings in the tunnels might be to remind us of what happened.” She pointed to where they stood, the passage behind them. “The carvings tell a story. And they’re an invitation to come here.”

“Why?” Azriel asked with that lethal softness.

Bryce stared at the eight-pointed star for a moment before she said, “To find the truth.”

“Bryce,” Nesta cautioned, as if reading her thoughts.

Bryce didn’t so much as look back as she stepped onto the star.

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