Chapter no 8

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

The shadows were watching him again.

Baxian and Ruhn had passed out, and Hunt had thought he’d lost consciousness, too, but … here he was. Watching a shadow watch him back. It stood beside the rack of devices Pollux and the Hawk had used on him.

Lidia hadn’t appeared today. He didn’t know whether that was a good sign. Didn’t dare ask Ruhn for his take on it. Hunt supposed that, out of all of them, he himself should be the one to know whether it was a good sign. He’d lived through this shit for years.

But he should have known a lot of other things, too.

Hunt had lost feeling in his hands, his shoulders. The itching from his slowly regenerating wings continued, though. Like streams of ants tickling down his spine. No writhing could help it.

He should have known not to tangle with Archangels, with the Asteri. He should have warned Bryce more strongly—should have tried harder to get her to back down from this insane path.

Isaiah had tried to convince him all those centuries ago. Hunt hadn’t listened … and he’d lived with the consequences. He should have learned.

His blood cooled as it ran along his body. Dripped to the floor.

But he hadn’t learned a fucking thing, apparently. One didn’t take on the Asteri and their hierarchies and win. He should have known.

The shadow smiled at him.

So Hunt smiled back. And then the shadow spoke.

“You would do well in Hel.”

Too drugged with agony, Hunt didn’t even quiver at the familiar male voice. One he’d already heard in another dream, another life.

“Apollion,” he grunted. Not Death at all, then.

He tried not to let disappointment sink in his gut.

“What a sorry state you’re in,” the Prince of the Pit purred. He remained hidden in the shifting shadows. The demon prince inhaled, as if tasting the air. “What delicious pain you feel.”

“I’d be happy to share.”

A terrifyingly soft laugh. “Your good humor, it seems, remains intact. Even with the halo inked anew upon your brow.”

Hunt smiled savagely. “I had the honor of having it done by Rigelus’s hand this time.”

“Interesting that he would do it himself, rather than employ an imperial hag. Do you detect a difference?”

Hunt’s chin dipped. “This one … stings. The hag’s halo felt like cold iron. This burns like acid.” He’d just finished voicing the last word when a thought slammed into him. “Bryce. Is she … is she with you?” If they’d hurt her, if Apollion gave one suggestion that—

“No.” The shadow seemed to blink. “Why?”

Horror leached through Hunt, colder than ice. “Bryce didn’t make it to Hel?” Where was she, then? Had she made it anywhere, or was she tumbling through time and space, forever trapped—

He must have made some pitiful noise because Apollion said, “One moment before the hysterics, Athalar,” and vanished.

Hunt couldn’t breathe. Maybe it was the weight of his body crushing his lungs, but … Bryce hadn’t made it. She hadn’t fucking made it to Hel, and he was stuck here, and—

Apollion appeared again, a second shadow at his side. Taller and thinner, with eyes like blue opals.

“Where is Bryce?” hissed the Prince of the Chasm.

“She went to find you.” Hunt’s voice broke. Beside him, Ruhn groaned, stirring. “She went to fucking find you, Aidas.” The Princes of Hel looked at each other, some wordless conversation passing between them. Hunt pushed, “You two told her to find you. Fed us all that bullshit about armies and wanting to help and getting her ready—”

“Is it possible,” Aidas said to his brother, ignoring Hunt entirely, “after everything …?”

“Don’t fall into romanticism,” Apollion cautioned.

“The star might have guided her,” Aidas countered.

“Please,” Hunt cut in, not caring if he was begging. “Tell me where she is.” Baxian grunted, rising to consciousness.

Aidas said quietly, “I have a suspicion, but I can’t tell you, Athalar, lest Rigelus wring it from you. Though he has likely already arrived at the same conclusion.”

“Fuck you,” Hunt spat.

But Apollion said to his brother, “We must leave.”

“Then what was the point of all this watching me from the shadows?” Hunt demanded.

“To ensure that we can continue to rely on you when the time comes.”

“To do what?” Hunt ground out.

“What you were born to do—to accomplish the task for which your father brought you into existence,” Apollion said before fading into nothing, leaving Aidas standing alone before the prisoners.

Shock reared up in Hunt, dampened by the weight of an old, unbidden hurt. “I have no father.”

Aidas’s expression was sad as he stepped out of the shadows. “You spent too long asking the wrong questions.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

Aidas shook his head. “The black crown once again circling your brow is not a new torment from the Asteri. It has existed for millennia.”

“Tell me the fucking truth for once—”

“Stay alive, Athalar.” The Prince of the Chasm followed his brother, vanishing into darkness and embers.

Tharion woke with a pounding headache that echoed through every inch of his body.

From the smell in his room, Holstrom had slept there, likely on the floor, but the space was empty. Squinting against his headache, Tharion padded into the main living space to find Holstrom on the couch, Flynn beside him, and Declan and Marc nursing coffees at the small table by the window overlooking the fighting pit. Ariadne sat in a chair, reading a book, her demeanor completely at odds with the female who’d roasted those lions last night.

No sign of the Fendyr heir. Or the sprites. Maybe he’d hallucinated that part.

“Morning,” he grumbled, shutting one eye against the brightness of the room.

None of them answered.

Fine. He’d deal with them in a moment. After coffee. He padded to the wet bar across the room, the glare of the muted television sending a spike of pain through his left eye, and turned on the coffee machine by muscle memory. Tharion shoved a cup under the nozzle and hit a button that vaguely resembled the main one.

“You really do look like shit,” Flynn drawled as Tharion inhaled the aroma of the coffee. “Ari, of course, looks gorgeous as always.”

The dragon kept her attention on her book, ignoring the Fae lord. She didn’t move a muscle, as if she wanted them to forget she was there. Like such a thing was even possible.

But Flynn focused on Tharion again. “Why didn’t you come to us for help?”

Tharion sipped his coffee, wincing at the heat that burned his mouth. “It’s too early for this conversation.”

“Bullshit,” Holstrom said. “We would have helped you. Why come here?”

Tharion couldn’t keep the snap from his voice. “Because the River Queen would have wiped you guys off the map. I didn’t want that on my conscience.”

“And this is better?” Ithan demanded.

Flynn added, “Now you’re stuck here, taking whatever she dishes out, not to mention the shit she’s offering you on the side. How could you be so fucking dumb?”

Tharion cut him a look. “You’re one to talk about doing dumb shit, Flynn.”

Flynn’s eyes flickered—a rare glimmer of the powerful Fae lord lurking beneath the casual facade. “Even I would never sell my soul to the Viper Queen, Ketos.”

Holstrom added, “There’s gotta be some way to get you out of this. You defected from the Blue Court. Who’s to say you can’t defect from—”

“Look,” Tharion said, grinding his teeth, “I know you’ve got some savior complex, Holstrom—”

“Fuck you. You’re my friend. You don’t get to ignore the danger you’re drowning in.”

Tharion couldn’t decide whether to glare at the wolf or hug him. He drank from his boiling-hot coffee again. Welcomed its sear down his throat.

Ithan said hoarsely, “We’re all that’s left. It’s only us now.”

Declan said quietly from the table, “It’s all fucked up. Ruhn, Athalar, Bryce …” Marc laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“I know,” Tharion said. “And Cormac’s dead.”

“What?” Flynn spat his coffee back into his mug.

Tharion filled them in on what had gone down in the lab, and fuck—he really could have used some of that venom right now. By the time he’d finished explaining his arrangement with the Viper Queen, they were all silent again.

Until Flynn said, “Okay. Next steps: We need to get to the Depth Charger, and then to Pangera. To the Eternal City.” He nodded to Tharion. “Before we got ambushed by Sabine, we had just decided to seek you out—to bail you out of this shit, and to see if you could get us in with the mer on the ship.”

“There’s no way in Hel the Vipe lets him go,” Ari said, breaking her silence.

The males blinked at her, as if they’d indeed forgotten that a dragon sat in their midst. Marc’s mouth tightened as he realized how much she’d heard.

But Flynn asked her, brow arching, “And you’re an authority on the Vipe now?”

“I’m an authority on assholes,” Ari countered smoothly, giving Flynn a look as if to indicate that he was included on that list. “And by asking her to free him, you’ll make her cling tighter.”

“She’s right,” Tharion said. “I can try to think of a way to contact Commander Sendes—”

“No,” Ithan said. “We all go.”

“I’m touched,” Tharion said, setting his coffee down on the counter behind him. “Really. But it’s not as easy as saying I defect and walking out.”

Ithan bristled, but Sigrid appeared in the bathroom doorway, steam rippling out. She must have showered. “What would it take?”

Tharion eyed the female. Definitely an Alpha, with that solid stance, those bright eyes. The lack of fear in them. “The Vipe’s all about business.”

“You’re rich,” Ari said to Flynn.

“It’s not about money for her,” Marc said. “She’s got more than she knows what to do with. It’d take a trade.”

Tharion frowned toward the hallway—the door that led to the Viper Queen’s private chambers. “Who’s with her right now?”

“Some female,” Ari answered, rising to her feet and padding toward the hall. She reached the door to her room and said over a shoulder, “Pretty blond in an imperial uniform.” The dragon didn’t say anything else as she shut her bedroom door. Then locked it.

“We need to get out of here,” Declan said, voice low. “Immediately.”

“What’s wrong?” Flynn asked. Declan was already reaching for his handgun, Marc easing to his feet beside him with feline grace.

Tharion peered down the hall in time to see the door swing open. The Viper Queen, clad in a blue silk tracksuit and white high-top sneakers, sauntered toward them, hooped gold earrings swaying beneath her black bob. “Just a moment,” she said to whoever was in the room behind her. “Your kind of poison’s downstairs. Takes a minute to get.”

Tharion stiffened as the snake shifter entered the room, surveying his friends.

“You missed a spot of Sabine’s blood on your hands,” she drawled to Flynn.

They all glared at her. But it was the Fendyr heir who shot to her feet and snapped, “You’re no better than the Astronomer, keeping these people here, drugging and—”

The Viper Queen cut her off. “Lower the hackles, little Fendyr.” She surveyed Sigrid from her wet hair to her baggy sweats. “Staying here’s free, but a wardrobe upgrade will cost you.”

“Let them go,” Sigrid commanded, voice like thunder. “The dragon and the mer—let them go.”

Tharion didn’t let the Alpha’s ferocity get his hopes up. Not as the Viper Queen laughed. “Why would I do that? They bring in good business.” She cut Tharion a mocking smirk as she stalked for the door, headed to get whatever drugs her client down the hall wanted. “When they’re not blowing their load after a few minutes.”

Tharion bristled, crossing his arms. But as soon as the Viper Queen had shut the door, vanishing outside, clipped footsteps sounded from down the hall.

Dec and Flynn drew their guns. Holstrom had his claws out. Tharion unsheathed his own, his entire body tensing.

“Put those away,” said a cool female voice. Terror stole any last traces of Tharion’s brain fog.

“Oh fuck,” Flynn breathed.

“You open that door,” the Hind said mildly, “and Prince Ruhn dies.”

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