Ruhn met his sister outside the Fae Archives right as the lunchtime crowds spilled into the warren of streets in Five Roses.
Amid the throng, few of the milling Fae noticed them, too focused on getting food or scrolling through their phones. Still, Bryce slid on a sunball cap and a pair of sunglasses as she stepped onto the blisteringly hot street that even the trees and greenery of FiRo couldn’t entirely cool.
“I’m not wearing that getup,” Ruhn said. Certainly not in Fae territory. “People are going to figure out who you are pretty damn fast.”
“I can’t take any more of the gawking.” “Comes with the territory.”
Bryce grumbled something Ruhn chose not to hear. “So Tharion’s back at the house?” he asked as they headed toward her apartment.
“Yep. Already grilling Ithan.” Which was why she’d asked him to come as backup. A fact that gave him no small amount of satisfaction.
They crossed a busy intersection teeming with Fae and shifters, the occasional draki making their way past. Ruhn said, “I take it you didn’t invite me to walk you home for some muscle in the mean streets of Crescent City.” He wryly nodded to the angels and witches soaring overhead, the little otter in his yellow vest scooting by, the family of some sort of equine shifters trotting between the cars.
She glared at him over her sunglasses. “I wanted to discuss something with you—and I don’t trust the phone. Or messages.”
Ruhn blew out a breath. “I know the shit with Cormac is absurd—” “It’s not about Cormac. It’s about Danika.”
“I saw Fury this morning. She told me Danika was a bloodhound. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes,” Ruhn said, surprise shooting through him. “You’re simply … telling me this?”
His sister waved a dismissive hand. “Danika kept a lot of things from me. And I don’t see the point in keeping secrets anymore.”
“It’s okay to be pissed at her, you know.” “Spare me the self-help lecture, okay?”
“Fair enough.” He rubbed his jaw. “I guess this explains how Danika knew we were siblings before anyone else.” He’d never forget running into Bryce and Danika at that frat party—his first time seeing his sister in years. And how Danika had stared at him. Then looked at Bryce, brows high. He’d known in that moment that Danika had guessed what no one else had, even as Bryce introduced him as her cousin. He’d chalked it up to her uncanny observation skills.
“I thought she was just good at scenting,” Bryce said, fanning her face against the heat. “Not a genius or whatever. Do you think this could have anything to do with her connection to Sofie?”
“It seems like a stretch. Danika was a powerful, influential Vanir regardless of that gift. She could have been sought out by Sofie or Ophion for a host of other reasons.”
“I know.” They fell silent until Bryce halted outside the glass doors of her apartment building. “Maybe Sofie thought Danika could help free her brother from Kavalla or something. It sounded like she was working on that for years before she was able to get to him. Maybe she imagined Danika had the influence.”
Ruhn nodded. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it had been like—for Emile to endure, and for Sofie to spend every moment of every day praying and working for his survival. That she hadn’t given up, that she’d accomplished it … Ruhn had no words. “Did Danika have that kind of sway, though?” he asked.
Bryce shook her head. “I mean, she might have been able to, but she never tried to do anything like that, as far as I know. And I don’t see why Sofie would contact Danika, of all people, when Danika was here and Sofie was over in Pangera. It doesn’t add up.” Bryce flipped her ponytail over a
shoulder and grunted her frustration. “I want to know what Sofie knew about Danika.”
“I get that,” Ruhn said carefully. “And I get why you want to find Emile, too. But I’ll say this one more time, Bryce: if I were you, I’d stay out of whatever game Tharion and the River Queen are playing in looking for the kid. Especially if Ophion is on the hunt for Emile as well.”
Bryce opened the door to her building, air-conditioning smothering them like a frosty blanket, and waved to Marrin. The ursine shifter waved back from the front desk, and Ruhn offered a half smile to the male before he stepped into the elevator after his sister.
Ruhn waited until the doors had shut before he said softly, “I know Athalar already said this to you last night, but the Asteri could kill you for even getting involved. Even if it’s something as seemingly harmless as finding this kid.”
Bryce idly wrapped the length of her ponytail around a wrist. “They could have killed me this spring, but they didn’t. I’m guessing they won’t now.”
Ruhn toyed with his lip ring, tugging on the silver hoop as the elevator doors opened and they stepped out onto her floor. “If they want you alive, I’d start wondering why that is. You have the Horn in your back. That’s no small thing.” He couldn’t help himself from glancing at his sister’s back as he said it, eyeing the upper tendrils of the tattoo visible above her dress. “You’re a power player now, Bryce, whether you like it or not. And trust me, I get it—it sucks to want to be normal but to have all this other shit that keeps you from being that way.” His voice turned hoarse and she looked over a shoulder at him, face neutral. “But you’re Starborn and you have the Horn. And you have a lot of power thanks to the Drop. The Bryce before this spring might have searched for Emile with few repercussions, but the Bryce who exists now? Any move you make will be politicized, analyzed— viewed as an act of aggression or rebellion or outright war. No matter what you say.”
Bryce sighed loudly—but her eyes had softened. Either at what he’d said, or what he’d admitted to her about his own life. “I know,” she said before unlocking the front door to her apartment.
They found Tharion on the couch with Ithan, the TV blasting the latest sports stats. Tharion munched on a piece of pizza, long legs sprawled out in
front of him, bare feet on the coffee table.
Ruhn might have stepped inside to grab a piece of that pizza had Bryce not gone still.
A Fae sort of stillness, sizing up a threat. His every instinct went on high alert, bellowing at him to defend, to attack, to slaughter any threat to his family. Ruhn suppressed it, held back the shadows begging to be unleashed, to hide Bryce from sight.
Ithan called over to them, “Pizza’s on the counter if you want some.”
Bryce remained silent as fear washed over her scent. Ruhn’s fingers grazed the cool metal of the gun strapped to his thigh.
“Your cat’s a sweetheart, by the way,” Ithan went on, not taking his focus from the TV as he stroked the white cat curled on his lap. Bryce slowly shut the door behind her. “He scared the shit out of me when he leapt onto the counter a few minutes ago, the bastard.” The wolf ran his fingers through the luxurious coat, earning a deep purr in response.
The cat had stunning blue eyes. They seemed keenly aware as they fixed on Bryce.
Ruhn’s shadows gathered at his shoulders, snakes ready to strike. He subtly drew his gun.
Behind her, a familiar ripple of ether-laced power kissed over her skin.
A small reassurance as Bryce croaked, “That’s not a cat.”
Hunt arrived at the apartment just in time to hear Bryce’s words through the shut front door. He was inside in a moment, his lightning gathered at his fingers.
“Oh, calm yourself,” the Prince of the Chasm said, leaping onto the coffee table.
Swearing, Ithan lunged from the couch and jumped over it with preternatural grace. Tharion went for a knife at his thigh, a wicked blade with a curved tip. Designed to do its worst damage on the way out.
But Aidas said to Hunt, little fangs glinting, “I thought we were friends, Orion.”
“It’s Hunt,” he gritted out, lightning skittering over his teeth, zapping his tongue.
One move and he’d fry the prince. Or try to. He didn’t dare take his focus off Aidas to check on Bryce’s positioning. Ruhn would make sure she stayed back.
“Regardless,” Aidas said, padding across the coffee table and jumping onto the carpet. A glowing light filled the corner of Hunt’s vision, and he found Ruhn standing on Bryce’s other side, Starsword in hand.
But Bryce, damn her, walked forward. Hunt tried to block her, but she easily sidestepped him, her chin high as she said, “Good to see you again, Aidas.”
Ruhn, Tharion, and Ithan all seemed to inhale at once.
Hunt hardly breathed as the cat trotted up to her and wended between her legs, brushing against her shins. “Hello, Princess.”
Hunt’s blood chilled. The demon prince purred the word with such intent. Such delight. Like he had some sort of claim on her. Hunt’s lightning flared.
Aidas trotted for the counter and jumped onto it in one graceful spring, then surveyed all of them. His blue gaze returned to Bryce at last. “Why don’t you know how to use your powers yet?”
Bryce rolled her shoulders, cracking her neck, and held out a hand. A kernel of starlight flared in her palm. “I can use them.”
A soft, hissing laugh. “Party tricks. I meant your real powers. Your heritage.”
Hunt’s fingers tightened on his gun. Bryce challenged, “What powers?” Aidas’s eyes glowed like blue stars. “I remember the last Starborn
Queen, Theia, and her powers.” He seemed to shudder. “Your light is her light. I’d recognize that luster anywhere. I’m assuming you have her other gifts as well.”
“You knew the last Starborn Queen?” Ruhn asked. Starlight glinted among Ruhn’s shadows, shimmering down the length of his sword.
Aidas’s eyes now flared with a strange sort of rage as he looked upon the Fae Prince. “I did. And I knew the sniveling prince whose light you bear.” A ripple of stunned silence went through the room.
Ruhn, to his credit, didn’t back down an inch. But from the corner of Hunt’s vision, he noted Ithan and Tharion creeping into mirroring positions behind the Prince of the Chasm.
Bryce said, more to herself than to the demon prince, “I hadn’t realized they’d have individualized starlight. I always thought mine was only … brighter than yours.” She frowned at Ruhn. “I guess it makes sense that there could be nuances to the light amongst the Fae that got interbred. Theia’s elder daughter, Helena, had the gift—and married Prince Pelias. Your ancestor.”
“He’s your ancestor, too,” Ruhn muttered.
“Pelias was no true prince,” Aidas spat, fangs bared. “He was Theia’s high general and appointed himself prince after he forcibly wed Helena.”
“I’m sorry,” Ithan said, scrubbing at his face, “but what the fuck is this about?” He glanced at the pizza on the table, as if wondering whether it had been spiked with something.
Welcome to our lives, Hunt wanted to say.
But Bryce’s face had gone pale. “Queen Theia allowed this?”
“Theia was dead by that point,” Aidas said flatly. “Pelias slew her.” He nodded to the Starsword in Ruhn’s hand. “And stole her blade when he’d finished.” He snarled. “That sword belongs to Theia’s female heir. Not the male offspring who corrupted her line.”
Bryce swallowed audibly, and Ruhn gaped at his blade. “I’ve never heard any of this,” the Fae Prince protested.
Aidas laughed coldly. “Your celebrated Prince Pelias, the so-called first Starborn Prince, was an impostor. Theia’s other daughter got away— vanished into the night. I never learned of her fate. Pelias used the Starsword and the Horn to set himself up as a prince, and passed them on to his offspring, the children Helena bore him through rape.”
That very Horn that was now tattooed into Bryce’s back. A chill went down Hunt’s spine, and his wings twitched.
“Pelias’s craven blood runs through both of your veins,” Aidas said to Ruhn.
“So does Helena’s,” Ruhn shot back, then recited, “Night-haired Helena, from whose golden skin poured starlight and shadows.”
Bryce clicked her tongue, impressed. “You memorized that passage?”
Ruhn scowled, as if annoyed she’d focus on that when a demon prince was before them.
But Bryce asked Aidas, “Why are you telling us this now?”
Aidas shimmered with anger. “Because I was powerless to help then. I arrived too late, and was vastly outnumbered. After it was over—that’s when I asked my eldest brother for a favor. To face Pelias on the battlefield and wipe him from this world.” Aidas paced a few steps, tail swishing. “I tell you this now, Bryce Quinlan, so the past does not repeat itself. Are you doing anything to help in this endless war?”
“You mean the rebel cause?” Tharion asked, face taut with disbelief and dread.
Aidas didn’t take his eyes off Bryce as he said, “It is the same war we fought fifteen thousand years ago, only renewed. The same war you fought, Hunt Athalar, in a different form. But the time is ripe again to make a push.”
Ithan said slowly, “Hel is our enemy.”
“Is it?” Aidas laughed, ears twitching. “Who wrote the history?” “The Asteri,” Tharion said darkly.
Aidas turned approving eyes on him. “You’ve heard the truth in some form, I take it.”
“I know that the official history of this world is not necessarily to be believed.”
Aidas leapt off the counter, trotting to the coffee table again. “The Asteri fed their lies to your ancestors. Made the scholars and philosophers write down their version of events under penalty of death. Erased Theia from the record. That library your former employer possesses,” he said, turning to Bryce, “is what remains of the truth. Of the world before the Asteri, and the few brave souls who tried to voice that truth afterward. You knew that, Bryce Quinlan, and protected the books for years—yet you have done nothing with that knowledge.”
“What the fuck?” Ithan asked Bryce.
Aidas only asked, “What was this world before the Asteri?”
Tharion said, “Ancient humans and their gods dwelled here. I’ve heard the ruins of their civilization are deep beneath the sea.”
Aidas inclined his head. “And where did the Asteri come from? Where did the Fae, or the shifters, or the angels come from?”
Bryce cut in, “Enough with the questions. Why not just tell us? What does this have to do with my … gifts?” She seemed to choke on the word.
“The war approaches its crescendo. And your power isn’t ready.”
Bryce flicked the length of her ponytail over a shoulder. “How fucking cliché. Whatever my other powers are, I want nothing to do with them. Not if they somehow link me to you—the Asteri will consider that a serious threat. Rightly so.”
“People died so you could have this power. People have been dying in this battle for fifteen thousand years so we could reach this point. Don’t play the reluctant hero now. That is the cliché.”
Bryce seemed at a loss for words, so Hunt stepped in. “What about your eldest brother, with his armies? They seem perfectly content to slaughter innocent Midgardians.”
“Those armies have always been to help you. Not to conquer.”
“The attack on this city last spring suggests otherwise,” Hunt argued.
“A mistake,” Aidas said. “The beasts that swept in were … pets. Animals. Micah opened the doors to their pens. They ran amok as they saw fit. Fortunately, you took control of the situation before our intervention was required,” he said, smiling at Bryce.
“A lot of people died,” Ithan growled. “Children died.”
“And more will soon die in this war,” Aidas countered coolly. “Hel’s armies shall strike at your command, Bryce Quinlan.”
The words dropped like a bomb.
“Bullshit,” Ruhn said, face crinkling as he snarled. “You’re waiting for the right moment when we’re all at war with each other, so you’ll be able to find a way into this world at last.”
“Not at all,” Aidas said. “I already know the way into this world.” He pointed with a paw to Bryce and inclined his head. “Through my lovely Bryce and the Horn on her back.” Hunt suppressed a growl at the word my as all of them looked to her. Her eyes remained fixed on Aidas, her lips a thin line. The Prince of the Chasm said, “It’s your choice in the end. It has always been your choice.”
Bryce shook her head. “Allow me to get this straight: You’re here to convince me to rebel against the Asteri in front of all these people? And what—sign up with Ophion? No, thank you.”
Aidas only chuckled. “You should have looked more carefully at the cats picking through the trash in the alley of Ink Street this morning. Should have picked a more discreet location to discuss the rebellion with Fury Axtar.” Bryce hissed, but said nothing as Aidas went on, “But yes—by all
means, turn rebel. Help Ophion, if you need some authority to answer to. I can tell you before you undoubtedly ask, I have no information about the connection between Danika Fendyr and Sofie Renast.”
Bryce growled, “I don’t even know any Ophion rebels.”
Aidas stretched out his front paws, back arching. “That’s not true.” Hunt stilled as the demon yawned. “There’s one right behind you.”
Bryce whirled, Hunt with her, lightning poised to strike.
Cormac Donnall stood in the doorway, shadows fading from his shoulders.
“Hello, Agent Silverbow,” Aidas crooned, then vanished.