Chapter no 19

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

Lidia froze at Pollux’s words as he stepped into the steaming spray of the shower. “What do you mean they’ve fixed the Harpy?”

The Hammer said over the noise of the water, tipping back his head to soak his golden hair, “They’ve been working on her as a pet project of sorts—Rigelus just told me. Apparently, it’s looking good.”

What is looking good?” Lidia asked, using all her training to keep her heartbeat calm.

“That she’ll wake up. Rigelus needs one more thing.” Pollux opened the shower door and reached out a hand for her. An order more than an invitation.

With fingers that felt far away, Lidia unbuttoned her uniform. “What about my cycle?” she asked, as coyly as she could stomach.

“Water will wash the blood away,” Pollux said, and she hated the weight of his eyes on her as she stripped. Stepping in, she winced at the burning heat of the water. Pollux only tugged her to his naked body, his erection already pressing into her.

“When will the Harpy wake up?” Lidia asked as Pollux’s mouth found her throat and he bit deeply enough for her to wince again.

If the Harpy returned and spoke of what she’d seen, of who had really killed her …

None of Lidia’s plans, however well laid, would matter.

Pollux’s hand slid to her ass, cupping and squeezing. He nipped her ear, wholly unaware of the dread creeping through her as he said against her wet skin, “Soon.” Another squeeze, harder this time. “Another day or two and we’ll have her back.”

The Viper Queen’s announcement might as well have been a brimstone missile dropped into the room.

Tharion looked between Ithan, Sigrid, and the snake shifter. The Fendyr heir was staring at the female, face pale with shock.

The Viper Queen drawled to her, “What was it you said to me? That I was no better than the Astronomer?” She waved a manicured hand toward the ring, gold nails glinting. “Well, here’s a shot to free yourself. I believe that’s more than he ever offered you.”

“I’m not fighting Sigrid,” Ithan snarled, bristling.

“Then you and your friends will stay here,” the Viper Queen said, leaning back on her hands. “And whatever urgent rescue mission you want to stage for your other friends will fail.”

This bitch knew everything.

“Let me fight Holstrom,” Tharion snapped.

“No,” the Viper Queen said with sweet venom. “Holstrom and the girl go into the ring, or the deal’s off.”

“You fucking—” Flynn started.

“I’ll do it,” Sigrid said, fingers curling into fists at her sides.

They all turned to the Fendyr heir. Ithan’s face twisted, a portrait of anguish.

Tharion noted that pain, and wished he’d never been born. His choices had led them here. His fuckups.

“Good,” the Viper Queen said to Sigrid, who bared her teeth at the snake. But the ruler of the Meat Market gave the wolf a serpent’s smile. “Looks like it might be your last night on Midgard. Maybe you should have gotten that wardrobe upgrade after all.”

Bryce stared at the hard-faced, beautiful female who could have rivaled the Hind for sheer badassery and beauty. Theia.

Silene’s next words only confirmed how alike the ancient Fae Queen and the Hind were:

But my mother, Theia, used the time she served the Daglan to learn all she could about their instruments of conquest. The Dread Trove, we called it in secret. The Mask, the Harp, the Crown, and the Horn.

From the corner of her vision, Bryce spied Nesta glancing her way at the last word.

The Horn had been sister to the Mask, and the Harp Nesta had mentioned. It had come from here, and worse, was part of some deadly arsenal of the Asteri—

And Theia.

The carving in the tunnel of the crowned, masked queen—Theia—flashed in Bryce’s memory. She’d been holding two instruments: a horn and a harp.

The Daglan, Silene went on, always quarreled over who should control the Trove, so more often than not, the Trove went unused. It was their downfall.

Was this it, then? Why she’d been sent to this world? To learn about this Trove—that it might possibly be the thing to destroy the Asteri? But Bryce could only watch as the vision showed Theia’s hands snatching the objects from black pedestals. Spiriting them away from the subterranean mountain holds where they were kept, using cave archways to move swiftly across the lands.

Caves like this one. Capable of moving people great distances in a matter of hours. Or an instant.

Snow drifted across the image, and then Theia was standing atop a mountain, a black monolith rising behind her.

“Ramiel,” Azriel whispered from behind them, from beyond the wards.

Theia embraced a handsome, broad-shouldered man amid the swirling snow.

My mother and father, Fionn, had kept their love a secret through the years, knowing the Daglan would find it amusing to tear them apart if they learned of the affair. But they were able to meet in secret—and to plan their uprising.

“Fionn …,” Azriel murmured, awe lacing his voice, “was your ancestor.”

Nesta turned from the vision, frowning toward Azriel. “You might as well come in,” she muttered, and pointed. Silver flame rippled in a straight line, spearing for Azriel. He didn’t flinch away, only tucking in his wings tightly as streams of smoke filtered up from the floor.

A path through the wards. The spells shimmered against the flames, as if trying to close in on the road she’d made, but Nesta’s power held them at bay.

Azriel inclined his head to Nesta as he stepped through that slender passage lined with silver flames, not one ounce of fear on his beautiful face. Only when Azriel had passed through did Nesta release her power, the wards slamming back into place in a shimmering rush, like a wave washing over the shore.

Bryce pointed to the hologram—to the golden-haired Fae male. “Who is he?” she asked quietly. There had never been any mention of Fionn in the histories of Midgard, the lore.

“The first and last High King of these lands,” Azriel breathed.

Before Bryce could contemplate this further, Silene went on, But my mother and father knew they needed the most valuable of all the Daglan’s weapons.

Bryce tensed. This had to be the thing that had given them the edge—

The snows around Ramiel parted, revealing a massive bowl of iron at the foot of the monolith. Even through the vision, its presence leaked into the world, a heavy, ominous thing.

“The Cauldron,” Nesta said, dread lacing her voice.

Not a useful weapon, then. Bryce braced herself as Silene continued.

The Cauldron was of our world, our heritage. But upon arriving here, the Daglan captured it and used their powers to warp it. To turn it from what it had been into something deadlier. No longer just a tool of creation, but of destruction. And the horrors it produced … those, too, my parents would turn to their advantage.

Another shift of memory, and Fionn pulled a long blade from the Cauldron, dripping water. A black blade, whose dark metal absorbed any trace of light around it. Bryce’s knees weakened.

The Starsword.

Two other figures stood there, veiled in the thick snow, but Bryce hardly got a chance to wonder about them before Silene’s narration began anew.

They fought the Daglan and won, she went on. Using the Daglan’s own weapons, they destroyed them. Yet my parents did not think to learn the Daglan’s other secrets—they were too weary, too eager to leave the past behind.

“Wait,” Bryce cut in. “How did they use those weapons?” Nesta and Azriel cast wary looks her way. “How the fuck did they use them? And what other secrets—”

But Silene kept speaking, history unspooling from her lips.

My father became High King, and my mother his queen, yet this island on which you stand, this place … my mother claimed it for herself. The very island where she had once served as a slave became her domain, her sanctuary. The Daglan female who’d ruled it before her had chosen it for its natural defensive location, the mists that kept it veiled from the others. So, too, did my mother. But more than that, she told me many times that she and her heirs were the only ones worthy of tending this island.

Nesta murmured to Azriel, “The Prison was once a royal territory?”

Bryce didn’t care—and Azriel didn’t reply. Silene had glossed over how Theia and Fionn had used the Trove and Cauldron against the Asteri, and why the Hel had she come to this planet if not to learn about that?

Yet once again, Silene’s memory plowed forward.

And with the Daglan gone, as the centuries passed, as the Tithe was no longer demanded of us or the land, our powers strengthened. The land strengthened. It returned to what it had been before the Daglan’s arrival millennia before. We returned to what we’d been before that time, too, creatures whose very magic was tied to this land. Thus the land’s powers became my mother’s. Dusk, twilight—that’s what the island was in its long-buried heart, what her power bloomed into, the lands rising with it. It was, as she said, as if the island had a soul that now blossomed under her care, nurtured by the court she built here.

Islands, like those they’d seen in the carvings, rose up from the sea, lush and fertile.

Bryce couldn’t take her gaze off the wondrous sight, even as Silene continued. After centuries with an empty womb, my mother bore both my sister and me within a span of five years. My father was fading by then—he was centuries older than my mother. But Fionn did not consider my mother a worthy successor. The crown should go to the eldest child, he said—to my sister, Helena. It was time, he thought, for a new generation to lead.

It did not sit well with my mother, or with many of those in her court—especially her general, Pelias. He agreed with my mother that Helena was too young to inherit our father’s throne. But my mother was still in her prime. Still ripe with power, and it was clear that she’d been blessed by the gods themselves, since she had been gifted children at long last.

So it was just as it had been before: those behind the throne worked to upend it.

The image shifted to some sort of marsh—a bog. Fionn rode a horse between the islands of grass, bow at the ready as he ducked beneath trees in bloom.

My parents often went hunting in the vast slice of land the Daglan had kept for their private game park, where they had crafted terrible monsters to serve as worthy prey. It was there that he met his death.

A dark-haired, pale creature that could have been the relative of the nøkk in Jesiba’s gallery dragged a bound and gagged Fionn into the inky depths of the bog, the once-proud king screaming as he went under.

Horror rooted Bryce to the spot.

Theia and Pelias stood at the water’s edge, faces impassive.

Petals began falling from the trees. Leaves with them. Birds took flight. As if sudden winter gripped the bog. As if the land had died with its king.

Then the Starsword was thrust from the center of the pool, sparkling in the gray light. A heartbeat later, a scaled hand lifted a dagger—Truth-Teller. Debris or a gift from the creature, Bryce could only guess as they sparkled in the grayish light, dripping water. It didn’t matter—in the face of such treachery and brutality, who fucking cared?

My father had never shown himself to be giving—long had he kept Gwydion and never once offered it to my mother. The dagger that had belonged to his dear friend, slain during the war, hung at his side, unused. But not for long.

Theia extended her hands toward the water, the offered blades. And on phantom wings, sword and dagger soared for her. Summoned to her hands.

Starlight flared from Theia as she snatched the sword and knife out of the air, the blades glowing with their own starlight.

My mother returned that day with only Pelias and my father’s blades. As she had helped Make them, they answered to the call in her blood. To her very power.

Bryce knew that call. Had been hearing it since she arrived in this world. A chill rippled down her spine.

And then she took the Trove for herself.

Theia sat, enthroned, the Harp and Horn beside her, the Mask in her lap, and the Crown atop her head.

Unchecked, limitless power sat upon that throne. Bryce could barely get a breath down.

The Theia who Aidas had spoken so highly of … she was a murdering tyrant?

As if in answer, Silene said, Our people bowed—what other option did they have in the face of such power? And for a short span, she ruled. I cannot say whether the years were kind to my people—but there was no war. At least there was that.

“Yeah,” Bryce seethed, more to Silene than the others, “at least you guys had that.”

My sister and I grew older. My mother educated us herself, always reminding us that though the Daglan had been vanquished, evil lived on. Evil lurked beneath our very feet, always waiting to devour us. I believe she told us this in order to keep us honest and true, certainly more than she had ever been. Yet as we aged and grew into our power, it became clear that only one throne could be inherited. I loved Helena more than anything. Should she have wanted the throne, it was hers. But she had as little interest in it as I did.

It was not enough for my mother. Possessing all she had ever wanted was not enough.

“Classic stage mom,” Bryce muttered.

My mother remembered the talk of the Daglan—their mention of other worlds. Places they had conquered. And with two daughters and one throne … only entire worlds would do for us. For her legacy.

Bryce shook her head again. She knew where this was going.

Remembering the teachings of her former mistress, my mother knew she might wield the Horn and Harp to open a door. To bring the Fae to new heights, new wealth and prestige.

Bryce rolled her eyes. Same corrupt, delusional Fae rulers, different millennium.

Yet when she announced her vision to her court, many of them refused. They had just overthrown their conquerors—now they would turn conqueror, too? They demanded that she shut the door and leave this madness behind her.

But she would not be deterred. There were enough Fae throughout her lands, along with some of the fire-wielders from the south, who supported the idea, merchants who salivated at the thought of untapped riches in other worlds. And so she gathered a force.

It was Pelias who told her where to cast her intention. Using old, notated star maps from their former masters, he’d selected a world for them.

Bryce’s gut churned. The Asteri must have kept archives and records on this world, too. Exactly like the room Bryce had found in the palace, full of notes on conquered planets. Dusk, they’d labeled the room—as if out of all the worlds mentioned within, this world remained their focus. This place.

Pelias told her it was a world the Daglan had long coveted but had not had the chance to conquer. An empty world, but one of plenty.

She had no way of knowing that he had spent our era of peace learning ancient summoning magic and searching the cosmos for whatever remained of the Daglan on other worlds. What he wanted from them, I can only guess—perhaps he knew that to wrest the Trove from Theia and seize power for himself, he needed someone more powerful than he was.

“You idiot,” Bryce spat at the image of Pelias and Theia hovering over a table full of star charts. “Both of you: fucking idiots.”

And after all that searching, someone finally answered. A Daglan who had been using his army of mystics to scour galaxies for our world. The Daglan promised him every reward, if only he could nudge my mother toward this moment, to use the Dread Trove to open a portal to the world he indicated.

A step beside her, Nesta clicked her tongue in disgust.

My mother did not question Pelias, her conspirator and ally, when he told her to will the Horn and Harp to open a doorway to this world. She did not question how and why he knew that this island, our misty home, was the best place to do it. She simply gathered our people, all those willing to conquer and colonize—and opened the doorway.

In a chamber—this chamber, if the eight-pointed star on the floor was any indication, though the celestial carvings had not yet been added—beside red-haired Fae who looked alarmingly like Bryce’s father, Helena and Silene appeared, grown and beautiful, and yet still young—gangly. Teenagers.

In the center of the chamber, a gate opened into a land of green and sunshine. And standing there among the greenery, waiting for them …

“Oh fuck.” Bryce’s mouth dried out. “Rigelus.”

The teenage Fae boy, appearing no older than Helena and Silene, smiled at Theia. Raised a hand in greeting.

My mother did not recognize the enemy when they wore a friendly face, beckoning her and the others through the portalHad she any hesitations upon finding that the empty world she’d been promised was indeed populated, they were calmed when the strangers claimed to be Fae as well, long separated from our world by the Daglan, whom they too claimed to have overthrown. And they had waited all this time to reunite our people.

With a few words from the Daglan, my mother’s doubts melted away, and our exodus into Midgard began.

Long lines of Fae passed through the chamber, through the portal, and into Midgard.

Nausea twisted through Bryce. “She opened the front door to the Asteri. Brought the Trove right to them.”

“Fool,” Nesta growled at the image. “Power-hungry fool.”

But if Theia had opened the door to this realm, if she had the Horn and Harp, why hadn’t the Asteri immediately pounced on both? They’d wanted this world, wanted the Trove, and Theia had practically hand-delivered both to them. The Asteri were too smart, too wicked, to have forgotten either fact. So there must have been some plan in place—

By the grace of the Mother, she was paranoid enough about any new allies or companions that she hid the Horn and Harp. She created a pocket of nothingness, she told me, and stashed them there. Only she could access that pocket of nothingness—only she could retrieve the Horn and Harp from its depths. But she remained unaware that Pelias had already told the Daglan of their presence. She had no idea that she was allowed to live, if only for a time, so they might figure out where she’d concealed them. So Pelias, under their command, might squeeze their location out of her.

Just as she had no idea that the gate she had left open into our home world … the Daglan had been waiting a long, long time for that, too. But they were patient. Content to let more and more of Theia’s forces come into the new world—thus leaving her own undefended. Content to wait to gain her trust, so she might hand over the Horn and Harp.

It was a trap, to be played out over months or years. To get the instruments of power from Theia, to march back into our home world and claim it again … It was a long, elegant trap, to be sprung at the perfect moment.

And, distracted by the beauty of our new world, we did not consider that it all might be too easy. Too simple.

Midgard was a land of plenty. Of green and light and beauty. Much like our own lands—with one enormous exception. The memory spanned to a view from a cliff of a distant plain full of creatures. Some winged, some not. We were not the only beings to come to this world hoping to claim it. We would learn too late that the other peoples had been lured by the Daglan under similarly friendly guises. And that they, too, had come armed and ready to fight for these lands. But before conflict could erupt between us all, we found that Midgard was already occupied.

Theia and Pelias, with Helena and Silene trailing, warriors ten deep behind them, stood atop the cliff, surveying the verdant land and the enormous walled city on the horizon.

Bryce’s breath caught. She’d spent years working in the company of the lost books of Parthos, knowing that a great human civilization had once flourished within its walls, but here, before her, was proof of the grandeur, the human skill that had existed on Midgard. And had been entirely wiped away.

She braced herself, knowing what came next, hating it.

We found cities in Midgard carved by human hands. This world had been mostly populated by humans, and only a handful of unusual creatures that had kept mostly to themselves. It was a blank slate, as far as worlds went. Little native magic to fight the Daglan’s power.

“Fuck you,” Bryce breathed. Nesta grunted her agreement. “Blank slate, my ass.” Bryce balled her hands into fists, a familiar, long-simmering rage building under her skin.

Yet the humans were not pleased at our arrival. A legion of armored humans lined the exterior of a walled city, built of pale stone. Bryce didn’t want to watch—but couldn’t tear her eyes away from the sight.

My mother had dealt with human uprisings before. She knew what to do.

Humans lay slaughtered, the sand beneath them bloody. Bryce trembled, jaw clenched so tightly it hurt. So many dead—both soldiers and civilians. Adults and … Gods, she couldn’t stand the sight of the smallest bodies.

Azriel swore, low and dirty. Nesta was breathing jaggedly.

Yet Silene spoke on, voice unwavering, as if the memory of the merciless bloodshed didn’t faze her one bit.

City to city, we moved. Taking the land as we wished. Taking human slaves to build for us.

But some humans resisted, their city-states uniting as we Fae had once united against our masters.

Bryce didn’t let her heart lift at the bronze-armored legions in lines and phalanxes ranged against the glimmering armor of the Fae. She knew how this particular tale ended.

Knew it would be wiped from official history.

But had Aidas known what Theia—what Helena and Silene and the Fae—had done? He must have—he’d loved Theia, after all. And yet he still had the fucking nerve to talk about her as if she wasn’t a murdering piece of shit. To talk about Bryce having her light as if it was something good.

That star in her chest … it was the light of a butcher. Her ancestor.

Was this what she had been sent here to learn? That she wasn’t some brave savior’s scion, but a descendent of a morally corrupt bloodline?

It didn’t matter if that was what the star had wanted her to learn or not—she knew it now, and there’d never be any unlearning it.

There would never be any atoning for what her ancestors had done.

The thoughts sliced her heart like shards of glass, and Bryce might have walked out right then and there, might have told Silene’s memory to fuck off with her history lesson—but if this unbearable history could offer some hint about how to save Midgard’s future …

Bryce kept listening.

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