Chapter no 7

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

Lidia carried the crystal bubble containing the Queen of the Fire Sprites through the dim halls, Irithys’s flame splashing gold upon the marble floors and walls.

She said nothing to the sprite—not with all the cameras mounted throughout the Asteri’s palace. Irithys didn’t seem to care. She rested on the bottom of the orb with her legs folded serenely. After several long minutes, though, the sprite said, “The dungeons aren’t this way.”

“And you’re so familiar with the layout of this place?”

“I have a keen memory,” the queen said flatly, her long hair floating above her head in a twirl of yellow flame. “I need only see something once to remember it. I recall the entire walk down here to the mystics in perfect detail.”

A helpful gift. But Lidia said, “We’re not going to the dungeons.”

From the corner of her eye, she noted Irithys peering at her. “But you told Rigelus—”

“It has been a long while since you left your bubble … and used your powers.” Whatever embers were left with the halo’s constraints. “I think it wise that we warm you up a bit before the main event.”

“What do you mean?” the queen demanded, flame shifting to a wary orange, but Lidia said nothing as she unlocked an unmarked iron door on a quiet lower level. Lidia offered up silent thanks to Luna that her hands didn’t shake as she reached for the handle, the gold-and-ruby ring on her finger shimmering in Irithys’s light.

Between one breath and the next, Lidia buried that part of her that begged to distant gods, the part that doubted. She became still and flat, expression as undisturbed as the surface of a forgotten forest pool.

The door creaked open to reveal a table, a chair in front of it, and on the other side of the table, chained with gorsian shackles, an imperial hag.

The hag lifted baleful, yellow-tinged eyes to Lidia as the Hind shut the door behind her. Those eyes lowered to the bubble, the Sprite Queen glowing orange inside it.

Lidia slid into the chair across from the prisoner, setting the sprite’s crystal on the table between them as if it were no more than a handbag. “Thank you for meeting me, Hilde.”

“I had no choice in the matter,” the hag rasped, her thinning white hair glimmering like strands of wispy moonlight. A wretched, twisted creature, but one of hidden beauty. “Ever since your dogs arrested me on trumped-up charges—”

“You were found in possession of a comm-crystal known to be used by Ophion rebels.”

“I never saw that crystal in all my life,” Hilde snapped, shards of brown teeth glinting. “Someone framed me.”

“Yes, yes,” Lidia said, waving a hand. Irithys watched every movement, still that alert shade of orange. “You can plead your case before Rigelus.”

The imperial hag had the good sense to look nervous. “Then why are you here?”

Lidia smirked at Irithys. “To warm you up.”

The Sprite Queen caught her meaning, and simmered into a deep, threatening red.

But the hag let out a hacking laugh. She still wore her imperial uniform, the crest of the Republic frayed over her sagging breasts. “I’ve got nothing to tell you, Lidia.”

Lidia crossed one leg over the other. “We’ll see.”

Hilde hissed, “You think yourself so mighty, so untouchable.”

“Is this the part where you tell me you’ll have your revenge?”

“I knew your mother, girl,” the hag snapped.

Lidia had enough training and self-control to keep her face blank, tone utterly bored. “My mother was a witch-queen. Plenty of people knew her.”

“Ah, but I knew her—flew in her unit in our fighting days.”

Lidia angled her head. “Before or after you sold your soul to Flame and Shadow?”

“I swore allegiance to Flame and Shadow because of your mother. Because she was weak and spineless and had no taste for punishment.”

“I suppose my mother and I differ on that front, then.”

Hilde swept her rheumy gaze over Lidia. “Better than that disgrace of a sister who now calls herself queen.”

“Hypaxia is half Flame and Shadow—she should have your allegiance on both fronts.”

Lidia knew Irithys monitored each word. If she could remember things after seeing them only once, did it also apply to what she heard?

“Your mother was a fool to give you away,” Hilde grumbled.

Lidia arched a brow. “Is that a compliment?”

“Take it as you will.” The hag flashed her rotting teeth in a nightmare of a smile. “You’re a born killer—like any true witch. That girl on the throne is as softhearted as your mother. She’ll bring down the entire Valbaran witch-dynasty.”

“Alas, my father was a smart negotiator,” Lidia said, making a good show of admiring the ruby ring on her finger, the stone as red as Irithys’s flame. “But enough about me.” She gestured to the hag, then to the sprite. “Irithys, Queen of the Sprites. Hilde, Grand Hag of the Imperial Coven.”

“I know who you are,” Irithys said, her voice quiet with leashed rage. She now floated in the center of the orb, her body bloodred. “You put this collar on me.”

Hilde again smiled, wide enough to reveal her blackened gums. A lesser person would have cowered at that smile. “I had the honor of doing it to the little bitch who bore the crown before you, too.”

Hilde didn’t mean Irithys’s mother, who had never been queen at all. No, when the last Sprite Queen had died, the line had passed to a different branch of the family, with Irithys first to inherit.

A damned inheritance—she’d gained the title and a prison sentence in the same breath. Irithys had barely had her crown for a day before Rigelus had her brought into the dungeons.

Lidia said blandly, “Yes, Hilde. We all know how skilled you are. Athalar himself can thank you for his first halo. But let’s talk about why you chose to betray us.”

“I did no such thing.” Even with the gorsian shackles, a crackling sort of energy leaked from the hag.

Lidia sighed at the ceiling. “I do have appointments today, Hilde. Shall we speed this up?”

She gave no warning before tapping the top of Irithys’s crystal. It melted away to nothing, leaving only air between the hag and the Sprite Queen.

Irithys didn’t move. Didn’t try to run or erupt. She just stood there like a living, burning ruby. As if being free of the crystal after all these years—

Lidia shut down the thought, her voice as dead as her eyes as she said, “Let’s see how motivational you can be, Your Majesty.”

Hilde glared daggers, but didn’t cower or tremble.

Yet Irithys turned to Lidia, hair swirling above her. “No.”

Lidia arched a brow. “No?”

Across the table, Hilde was still bristling—but listening carefully.

Irithys said boldly, unafraid, “No.”

“It wasn’t a request.” Lidia nodded to the hag. “Burn her hand.”

Hilde snatched her gnarled hands off the table. As if that could save her.

Irithys’s chin lifted. “I may be your captive, but I do not have to obey you.”

“Hilde is a traitor to the Republic—”

“These are lies,” Hilde interrupted.

“Your pity is wasted on her,” Lidia went on.

“It is not pity,” Irithys said, ruby flame darkening to a color like rich wine. “It is honor. There is none in attacking a person who cannot fight back, enemy or no.”

Lidia’s upper lip curled back from her teeth. “Burn. Her.”

Irithys glowed a violet blue, like hottest flame. “No.”

Hilde let out a caw of laughter.

Lidia said with a calm that usually made enemies start begging, “I will ask you one more time—”

“And I will tell you a thousand more times: no. On my honor, no.”

“You have no honor down here. It means nothing in this place.”

“Honor is all I have,” Irithys said, the heat of her indigo flames strong enough to warm Lidia’s chilled hands. “Honor, and my name. I will not sully or yield them. No matter what my enemy has done. Or what you threaten me with, Hind.”

Lidia held the sprite’s blazing stare and found only unbreaking, unrelenting will there.

So Lidia inclined her head mockingly at the queen. And with a wave of her hand, she activated the magic Rigelus had gifted her for the week. Like a ball of ice melting in reverse, the crystal orb formed around Irithys again.

“Then I have no need of you,” Lidia said, and picked up the crystal, stalking for the door.

Irithys said nothing, but her flame burned a bright, royal blue.

Lidia had just opened the metal door again when Hilde called from the table, “And what of me?”

Lidia threw the imperial hag a cool look. “I suggest you beg Rigelus for mercy.” She didn’t let the hag reply before slamming the door behind her.

Mercy. Lidia had held none in her heart two days ago, when she’d walked past Hilde in the upper corridors and slipped her own comm-crystal into the hag’s pocket. With Ruhn in the dungeons, no one was accessing the other end of the line, anyway. The crystal was, for all intents and purposes, dead. But in Hilde’s possession, when Mordoc had sniffed it out on Lidia’s suspicion … the crystal once again became invaluable.

She could think of no one, other than the Asteri themselves, that Irithys might hate more than the hag who had inked the tattoo on her burning throat. No one that Irithys might enjoy hurting more than Hilde.

And yet the Sprite Queen had refused.

The mistress was nowhere to be found when Lidia returned to the heat and humidity of the mystics’ hall, nor when Lidia set Irithys back on her stand in the center of it.

“What of the other prisoners?” Irithys demanded as Lidia stepped back.

Lidia paused, sliding her hands into her pockets. “Why should I waste my time trying to convince you to assist me with them?”

Indeed, time was running thin. She had places to be, and quickly.

“You went to an awful lot of trouble to get me out today. For nothing.”

Lidia shrugged, then began prowling for the exit. “I know when I’m losing a battle.” She tossed over a shoulder, “Enjoy your name and honor. I hope they’re good company in that crystal ball.”

Bryce and Nesta walked in fraught, heavy silence for ages.

Bryce’s feet had begun aching again, the soreness continuing all the way up her legs. Normally, she would have resorted to talking to distract herself from the discomfort, but Bryce knew better than to ask prying questions about this world, about Nesta’s people.

It would be too suspicious. If she sought to tell them as little as possible about herself and Midgard, then they probably wished to do the same regarding their home.

Without warning, Nesta stopped, holding up a fist.

Bryce halted beside her, glancing sidelong to find Nesta’s blue-gray eyes making a slow sweep over the tunnel ahead. Icy calm had settled on her face.

Bryce murmured, “What is it?”

Nesta’s eyes again flicked over the terrain.

As Bryce stepped forward, her star illuminated what had given the warrior pause: the tunnel widened into a large chamber, its ceiling so high even Bryce’s starlight didn’t reach it. And in the center of it … the path dropped away on either side, leaving only a sliver of a rocky bridge over what seemed to be an endless chasm.

Bryce knew it wasn’t endless only because far, far below, water roared. A large subterranean river, if the sound was this loud even up here. Bits of spray floated from the darkness, the damp air laced with a thick, metallic scent—iron. There must have been deposits of it down here.

Nesta said with equal quiet, “That bridge is the perfect place for an ambush.”

“From who?” Bryce hissed.

“I haven’t lived long enough to know every horror in this world, but I can tell you that dark places tend to breed dark things. Especially ones as old and forgotten as this.”

“Great. So how do we get across without attracting said dark things?”

“I don’t know—this tunnel is foreign to me.”

Bryce turned to her in surprise. “You’ve never been down this way?”

Nesta cut her a look. “No. No one has.”

Bryce snorted, surveying the chasm and bridge ahead. No movement, no sound other than the rushing water far below. “Who’d you piss off to get sent to retrieve me, anyway?”

She could have sworn Nesta’s lips curved into a smile. “On a good day, too many people to count. But today … I volunteered.”

Bryce arched a brow. “Why?”

That silvery flame flashed in Nesta’s eyes. A shiver slithered along Bryce’s spine. Fae and yet … not.

“Call it intuition,” Nesta said, and stepped onto the bridge.

They’d made it halfway across the narrow bridge—Bryce doing everything she could not to think about the lack of railings, the seemingly endless drop to that thundering river—when they heard it. A new noise, barely audible above the rapids’ roar.

Talons skittering over stone.

From above and below.

“Hurry.” Nesta drew that plain-yet-remarkable sword. At the touch of her hand, silver flames skittered down the blade and—

The breath whooshed out of Bryce. The sword pulsed, as if all the air around it had vanished. It was like the Starsword, somehow. A sword, but more. Just as Nesta was Fae but more.

“What is your sword—”

“Hurry,” Nesta repeated, stalking across the rest of the bridge.

Bryce mastered herself enough to obey, moving as fast as she dared given the plunge gaping on either side.

Leathery wings fluttered. Those talons scraped along the stone mere feet ahead—

Bryce damned caution to Hel and jogged toward the tunnel mouth beyond, where Nesta was waving at her to hurry the fuck up, sword gleaming faintly in her other hand.

Then Bryce’s star illuminated the rock framing the tunnel’s mouth.

She ran.

A teeming mass of things crusted the entrance, smaller than the beasts beneath the dungeon, but almost worse. Cruder, more leathery. Like some sort of primordial bat-lizard hybrid. Black tongues tasted the air between flesh-shredding, clear teeth. Like the kristallos, bred and raised for eons in darkness—

A few of the creatures leapt, swooping into the void below, off on the hunt—

The tunnel, the bridge, rumbled.

Bryce staggered, the drop looming sickeningly closer, and a white wave of panic blinded every sense—

Training and Fae grace caught her, and Bryce could have wept with relief that she hadn’t tumbled into that void. Especially as something massive and slimy lurched from below, the size of two city buses.

An enormous worm, gleaming with water and mud.

A mouth full of rows of teeth opened wide and snapped

Bryce fell back on her ass as the worm caught three of the flying lizards between those teeth. Swallowed them all in one bite.

Her starlight flared, casting the whole cavern in light and shadow.

The creatures on the walls screeched—either at the worm or the light—flapping off their perches and right into the creature’s opening jaws. Another snapping bite, river water and metallic-reeking mud spraying with the movement, and more vanished down the worm’s throat.

Bryce could only stare.

One twist of its behemoth body and it’d be upon her. One bite and she’d be swallowed. Her starlight could do nothing against it. It had no eyes. It likely operated on smell, and there she was, a trembling treat offered up on that bridge—

A strong, slim hand grabbed Bryce under the shoulder and dragged her back.

Sensations pelted her: rock scraping beneath her as she was dragged, light and shadows and shrieking flying things, her back stinging as debris sliced her skin, the wet slap of the worm’s massive body as it surged from the depths again, snatching at the beasts—

She couldn’t stop shaking as Nesta dropped her a safe distance into the tunnel. The worm took a few more bites at the air, the cavern shuddering with each of its powerful thrusts upward. The iron smell grew stronger—blood. It misted the air alongside the river water.

Every snap of the worm’s jaws boomed through the rock, through Bryce’s bones.

She could only watch in mute horror as more creatures disappeared between those teeth. As the tang of more blood filled the air. Until the worm at last began sinking down, down, down. Back toward the river and wherever its lair lay below.

Nesta’s breathing was as harsh as Bryce’s, and when Bryce finally peered at the warrior, she found Nesta’s gaze already on her. Displeasure and something like disappointment filled Nesta’s pretty face as she said, “You froze out there.”

Hot anger washed away Bryce’s lingering shudders, the stinging from her scraped skin, and she shoved to her feet. “What the fuck was that thing?”

Nesta glanced to the shadows behind Bryce, as if someone stood there. But she said, “A Middengard Wyrm.”

“Middengard?” Bryce started at the word. “Like—Midgard? Did they come from my world originally?”

Horrific as the creature was, to have another being from her world here was … oddly comforting. And maybe finding a scrap of comfort in that fact proved how fucking desperate she was.

“I don’t know,” Nesta said.

“Are they common around here?” If they were, no wonder the Fae had bailed on this world.

“No,” Nesta said, a muscle ticking in her jaw. “As far as I know, they’re rare. But I’ve seen my sister’s paintings of the one she defeated. I thought her renderings exaggerated, but it was as monstrous as she depicted it.” She shook her head, shock honing into something cold and sharp once more. “I didn’t know more than one existed.” Her eyes swept over Bryce in a warrior’s wary assessment. “What manner of power is it that you possess? What sort of light is this?”

Bryce slowly shook her head. “Light. Just … light.” Strange, terrible light from another world, she’d once been told.

From this world.

Nesta’s eyes glimmered. “What court did your ancestors hail from?”

“I don’t know. The Fae ancestor whose powers I bear, Theia—she was Starborn. Like me.”

“That term means nothing here.” Nesta pulled Bryce to her feet with ease. “But Amren told me what you said of Theia, the queen who went to your world from ours.”

Bryce brushed the dust and rock off her back, her ass. Her ego. “My ancestor, yes.”

“Theia was High Queen of these lands. Before she left,” Nesta said.

“She was?” A powerful ruler here as well as in Midgard. Her ancestor had been High Queen. Bryce carried not only Theia’s starlight—she carried her royal ties to this world. Which could land her in some major hot water with these people, if they felt threatened by Bryce’s lineage—if they believed she might have some sort of claim to their throne.

Nesta’s eyes drifted to the star on Bryce’s chest, then to the shadows behind her. But she let the subject drop, turning toward the tunnel ahead. “If we encounter something that wants to eat us again,” the warrior said, “don’t stare at it like a startled deer. Either run, or fight.”

Randall would like this female. The thought pained her. But she snapped back, “I’ve been doing that my entire life. I don’t need a lesson from you about it.”

“Then don’t make me risk my neck dragging you out of danger next time,” Nesta said coolly.

“I didn’t ask you to save me,” Bryce growled.

But Nesta began walking into the tunnel once more—not waiting for Bryce or her star to light the way. “You’ve gotten us into enough of a mess as it is,” the warrior said without looking back. “Keep close.”

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