House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City) (3 page)

BOOK: House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City)
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Tourists milled about, a line of them snaking across the square itself, all waiting for the chance at a photo with the twenty-foot-high landmark.

One of seven in this city, all carved from enormous blocks of quartz hewn from the Laconian Mountains to the north, the Old Square Gate was often called the Heart Gate, thanks to its location in the dead center of Lunathion, with the other six Gates located equidistant from it, each one opening onto a road out of the walled city.

“They should make a special access lane for residents to cross the square,” Bryce muttered as they edged around tourists and hawkers.

“And give tourists fines for slow walking,” Danika muttered back, but flashed a lupine grin at a young human couple that recognized her, gawked, and began snapping photos.

“I wonder what they’d think if they knew that nightstalker’s special sauce is all over you,” Bryce murmured.

Danika elbowed her. “Asshole.” She threw a friendly wave to the tourists and continued on.

On the other side of the Heart Gate, amid a small army of vendors selling food and touristy crap, a second line of people waited
to access the golden block sticking out of its southern side. “We’ll have to cut through them to get across,” Bryce said, scowling at the tourists idling in the wilting heat.

But Danika halted, her angular face turned to the Gate and the plaque. “Let’s make a wish.”

“I’m not waiting in that line.” Usually, they just shouted their wishes drunkenly into the ether late at night when they were staggering home from the White Raven and the square was empty. Bryce checked the time on her phone. “Don’t you have to get over to the Comitium?” The Governor’s five-towered stronghold was at least a fifteen-minute walk away.

“I’ve got time,” Danika said, and grabbed Bryce’s hand, tugging her through the crowds and toward the real tourist draw of the Gate.

Jutting out of the quartz about four feet off the ground lay the dial pad: a solid-gold block embedded with seven different gems, each for a different quarter of the city, the insignia of each district etched beneath it.

Emerald and a rose for Five Roses. Opal and a pair of wings for the CBD. Ruby and a heart for the Old Square. Sapphire and an oak tree for Moonwood. Amethyst and a human hand for Asphodel Meadows. Tiger’s-eye and a serpent for the Meat Market. And onyx—so black it gobbled the light—and a set of skull and crossbones for the Bone Quarter.

Beneath the arc of stones and etched emblems, a small, round disk rose up slightly, its metal worn down by countless hands and paws and fins and any other manner of limb.

A sign beside it read:
Touch at your own risk. Do not use between sundown and sunrise. Violators will be fined
.

The people in line, waiting for access to the disk, seemed to have no problem with the risks.

A pair of giggling teenage male shifters—some kind of feline from their scents—goaded each other forward, elbowing and taunting, daring the other to touch the disk.

“Pathetic,” Danika said, striding past the line, the ropes, and a bored-looking city guard—a young Fae female—to the very front. She fished a badge from inside her leather coat and flashed
it at the guard, who stiffened as she realized who’d cut the line. She didn’t even look at the golden emblem of the crescent moon bow with an arrow nocked through it before stepping back.

“Official Aux business,” Danika declared with an unnervingly straight face. “It’ll just be a minute.”

Bryce stifled her laughter, well aware of the glares fixed on their backs from the line.

Danika drawled to the teenage boys, “If you’re not going to do it, then clear off.”

They whirled toward her, and went white as death.

Danika smiled, showing nearly all her teeth. It wasn’t a pleasant sight.

“Holy shit,” whispered one of them.

Bryce hid her smile as well. It never got old—the awe. Mostly because she knew Danika had earned it. Every damned day, Danika earned the awe that bloomed across the faces of strangers when they spotted her corn-silk hair and that neck tattoo. And the fear that made the lowlifes in this city think twice before fucking with her and the Pack of Devils.

Except for Philip Briggs. Bryce sent a prayer to Ogenas’s blue depths that the sea goddess would whisper her wisdom to Briggs to keep his distance from Danika if he ever really did walk free.

The boys stepped aside, and it only took a few milliseconds for them to notice Bryce, too. The awe on their faces turned to blatant interest.

Bryce snorted.
Keep dreaming
.

One of them stammered, turning his attention from Bryce to Danika, “My—my history teacher said the Gates were originally communication devices.”

“I bet you get all the ladies with those stellar factoids,” Danika said without looking back at them, unimpressed and uninterested.

Message received, they slunk back to the line. Bryce smirked and stepped up to her friend’s side, peering down at the dial pad.

The teenager was right, though. The seven Gates of this city, each set along a ley line running through Lunathion, had been designed as a quick way for the guards in the districts to speak to
each other centuries ago. When someone merely placed a hand against the golden disk in the center of the pad and spoke, the wielder’s voice would travel to the other Gates, a gem lighting up with the district from which the voice originated.

Of course, it required a drop of magic to do so—literally sucked it like a vampyr from the veins of the person who touched the pad, a tickling
zap
of power, gone forever.

Bryce raised her eyes to the bronze plaque above her head. The quartz Gates were memorials, though she didn’t know for which conflict or war. But each bore the same plaque:
The power shall always belong to those who give their lives to the city.

Considering it was a statement that could be construed as being in opposition to the Asteri’s rule, Bryce was always surprised that they allowed the Gates to continue to stand. But after becoming obsolete with the advent of phones, the Gates had found a second life when kids and tourists began using them, having their friends go to the other Gates in the city so they could whisper dirty words or marvel at the sheer novelty of such an antiquated method of communication. Not surprisingly, come weekends, drunk assholes—a category to which Bryce and Danika firmly belonged—became such a pain in the ass with their shouting through the Gates that the city had instituted hours of operation.

And then dumb superstition grew, claiming the Gate could make wishes come true, and that to give over a droplet of your power was to make an offering to the five gods.

It was bullshit, Bryce knew—but if it made Danika not dread Briggs’s release so much, well, it was worth it.

“What are you going to wish for?” Bryce asked when Danika stared down at the disk, the gems dark above it.

The emerald for FiRo lit up, a young female voice coming through to shriek, “
Titties!

People laughed around them, the sound like water trickling over stone, and Bryce chuckled.

But Danika’s face had gone solemn. “I’ve got too many things to wish for,” she said. Before Bryce could ask, Danika shrugged. “But I think I’ll wish for Ithan to win his sunball game tonight.”

With that, she set her palm onto the disk. Bryce watched as her friend let out a shiver and quietly laughed, stepping back. Her caramel eyes shone. “Your turn.”

“You know I have barely any magic worth taking, but okay,” Bryce said, not to be outdone, even by an Alpha wolf. From the moment Bryce walked into her dorm room freshman year, they’d done everything together. Just the two of them, as it always would be.

They even planned to make the Drop together—to freeze into immortality at the same breath, with members of the Pack of Devils Anchoring them.

Technically, it wasn’t true immortality—the Vanir did age and die, either of natural causes or other methods, but the aging process was so slowed after the Drop that, depending on one’s species, it could take centuries to show a wrinkle. The Fae could last a thousand years, the shifters and witches usually five centuries, the angels somewhere between. Full humans did not make the Drop, as they bore no magic. And compared to humans, with their ordinary life spans and slow healing, the Vanir
were
essentially immortal—some species bore children who didn’t even enter maturity until they were in their eighties. And most were very, very hard to kill.

But Bryce had rarely thought about where she’d fall on that spectrum—whether her half-Fae heritage would grant her a hundred years or a thousand. It didn’t matter, so long as Danika was there for all of it. Starting with the Drop. They’d take the deadly plunge into their matured power together, encounter whatever lay at the bottom of their souls, and then race back up to life before the lack of oxygen rendered them brain-dead. Or just plain dead.

Yet while Bryce would inherit barely enough power to do cool party tricks, Danika was expected to claim a sea of power that would put her ranking far past Sabine’s—likely equal to that of Fae royalty, maybe even beyond the Autumn King himself.

It was unheard of, for a shifter to have that sort of power, yet all the standard childhood tests had confirmed it: once Danika Dropped, she’d become a considerable power among the wolves, the likes of which had not been seen since the elder days across the sea.

Danika wouldn’t just become the Prime of the Crescent City
wolves. No, she had the potential to be the Alpha of
all
wolves. On the fucking planet.

Danika never seemed to give two shits about it. Didn’t plan for her future based on it.

Twenty-seven was the ideal age to make the Drop, they’d decided together, after years of mercilessly judging the various immortals who marked their lives by centuries and millennia. Right before any permanent lines or wrinkles or gray hairs. They merely said to anyone who inquired,
What’s the point of being immortal badasses if we have sagging tits?

Vain assholes
, Fury had hissed when they’d explained it the first time.

Fury, who had made the Drop at age twenty-one, hadn’t chosen the age for herself. It’d just happened, or had been forced upon her—they didn’t know for sure. Fury’s attendance at CCU had only been a front for a mission; most of her time was spent doing
truly
fucked-up things for disgusting amounts of money over in Pangera. She made it a point never to give details.

Assassin
, Danika claimed. Even sweet Juniper, the faun who occupied the fourth side of their little friendship-square, admitted the odds were that Fury was a merc. Whether Fury was occasionally employed by the Asteri and their puppet Imperial Senate was up for debate, too. But none of them really cared—not when Fury always had their back when they needed it. And even when they didn’t.

Bryce’s hand hovered over the golden disk. Danika’s gaze was a cool weight on her.

“Come on, B, don’t be a wimp.”

Bryce sighed, and set her hand on the pad. “I wish Danika would get a manicure. Her nails look like shit.”

Lightning zapped through her, a slight vacuuming around her belly button, and then Danika was laughing, shoving her. “You fucking
dick
.”

Bryce slung an arm around Danika’s shoulders. “You deserved it.”

Danika thanked the security guard, who beamed at the attention, and ignored the tourists still snapping photos. They didn’t
speak until they reached the northern edge of the square—where Danika would head toward the angel-filled skies and towers of the CBD, to the sprawling Comitium complex in its heart, and Bryce toward Luna’s Temple, three blocks up.

Danika jerked her chin toward the streets behind Bryce. “I’ll see you at home, all right?”

“Be careful.” Bryce blew out a breath, trying to shake her unease.

“I know how to look out for myself, B,” Danika said, but love shone in her eyes—gratitude that crushed Bryce’s chest—merely for the fact that someone cared whether she lived or died.

Sabine was a piece of shit. Had never whispered or hinted who Danika’s father might be—so Danika had grown up with absolutely no one except her grandfather, who was too old and withdrawn to spare Danika from her mother’s cruelty.

Bryce inclined her head toward the CBD. “Good luck. Don’t piss off too many people.”

“You know I will,” Danika said with a grin that didn’t meet her eyes.

 

3

T
he Pack of Devils was already at her apartment by the time Bryce got home from work.

It had been impossible to miss the roaring laughter that met her before she’d even cleared the second-floor stairwell landing—as well as the canine yips of amusement. Both had continued as she ascended the remaining level of the walk-up apartment building, during which time Bryce grumbled to herself about her plans for a quiet evening on the couch being ruined.

Chanting a string of curses that would make her mother proud, Bryce unlocked the blue-painted iron door to the apartment, bracing for the onslaught of lupine bossiness, arrogance, and general nosiness in all matters of her life. And that was just Danika.

Danika’s pack made each of those things an art form. Mostly because they claimed Bryce as one of their own, even if she didn’t bear the tattoo of their sigil down the side of her neck.

Sometimes she felt bad for Danika’s future mate, whoever that would be. The poor bastard wouldn’t know what hit him when he bound himself to her. Unless he was wolf-kind himself—though Danika had about as much interest in sleeping with a wolf as Bryce did.

That is to say, not a gods-damned shred.

Giving the door a good shove with her shoulder—its warped edges got stuck more often than not, mostly thanks to the romping
of the hellions currently spread across the several sagging couches and armchairs—Bryce sighed as she found six pairs of eyes fixed on her. And six grins.

“How was the game?” she asked no one in particular, chucking her keys into the lopsided ceramic bowl Danika had half-assed during a fluff pottery course in college. She’d heard nothing from Danika regarding the Briggs meeting beyond a general
I’ll tell you at home
.

It couldn’t have been that bad, if Danika made it to the sunball game. She’d even sent Bryce a photo of the whole pack in front of the field, with Ithan a small, helmeted figure in the background.

A message from the star player himself had popped up later:
Next time, you better be with them, Quinlan
.

She’d written back,
Did baby pup miss me?

You know it
, Ithan had answered.

“We won,” Connor drawled from where he lounged on
her
favorite spot on the couch, his gray CCU sunball T-shirt rumpled enough to reveal the cut of muscle and golden skin.

“Ithan scored the winning goal,” Bronson said, still wearing a blue-and-silver jersey with
Holstrom
on the back.

Connor’s little brother, Ithan, held an unofficial membership in the Pack of Devils. Ithan also happened to be Bryce’s second-favorite person after Danika. Their message chain was an endless stream of snark and teasing, swapped photos, and good-natured grousing about Connor’s bossiness.

“Again?” Bryce asked, kicking off her four-inch, pearl-white heels. “Can’t Ithan share some of the glory with the other boys?” Normally, Ithan would have been sitting right on that couch beside his brother, forcing Bryce to wedge herself between them while they watched whatever TV show was on, but on game nights, he usually opted to party with his teammates.

A half smile tugged at a corner of Connor’s mouth as Bryce held his stare for longer than most people considered wise. His five packmates, two still in wolf form with bushy tails swishing, wisely kept their mouths and maws shut.

It was common knowledge that Connor would have been Alpha of the Pack of Devils if Danika weren’t around. But Connor didn’t resent it. His ambitions didn’t run that way. Unlike Sabine’s.

Bryce nudged her backup dance bag over on the coatrack to make room for her purse, and asked the wolves, “What are you watching tonight?” Whatever it was, she’d already decided to curl up with a romance novel in her room. With the door shut.

Nathalie, flipping through celebrity gossip magazines on the couch, didn’t lift her head as she answered, “Some new legal procedural about a pack of lions taking on an evil Fae corporation.”

“Sounds like a real award winner,” Bryce said. Bronson grunted his disapproval. The massive male’s tastes skewed more toward art house flicks and documentaries. Unsurprisingly, he was never allowed to select the entertainment for Pack Night.

Connor ran a calloused finger down the rolled arm of the couch. “You’re home late.”

“I have a job,” Bryce said. “You might want to get one. Stop being a leech on my couch.”

This wasn’t exactly fair. As Danika’s Second, Connor acted as her enforcer. To keep this city safe, he’d killed, tortured, maimed, and then gone back out and done it again before the moon had even set.

He never complained about it. None of them did.

What’s the point in bitching
, Danika had said when Bryce asked how she endured the brutality,
when there’s no choice in joining the Auxiliary?
The predator-born shifters were destined for certain Aux packs before they were even born.

Bryce tried not to glance at the horned wolf tattooed on the side of Connor’s neck—proof of that predestined lifetime of service. Of his eternal loyalty to Danika, the Pack of Devils, and the Aux.

Connor just looked Bryce over with that half smile. It set her teeth to grinding. “Danika’s in the kitchen. Eating half the pizza before we can get a bite.”


I am not!
” was the muffled reply.

Connor’s smile grew.

Bryce’s breathing turned a shade uneven at that smile, the wicked light in his eyes.

The rest of the pack remained dutifully focused on the television screen, pretending to watch the nightly news.

Swallowing, Bryce asked him, “Anything I should know?” Translation:
Was the Briggs meeting a disaster?

Connor knew what she meant. He always did. He jerked his head to the kitchen. “You’ll see.”

Translation:
Not great
.

Bryce winced, and managed to tear her gaze away from him so she could pad into the galley kitchen. She felt Connor’s stare on her every step of the way.

And maybe she swished her hips. Only a tiny bit.

Danika was indeed shoveling a slice down her throat, her eyes wide in warning for Bryce to keep her mouth shut. Bryce noted the unspoken plea, and merely nodded.

A half-empty bottle of beer dripped condensation onto the white plastic counter Danika leaned against, her borrowed silk shirt damp with sweat around the collar. Her braid drooped over her slim shoulder, the few colorful streaks unusually muted. Even her pale skin, usually flushed with color and health, seemed ashen.

Granted, the crappy kitchen lighting—two meager recessed orbs of firstlight—wasn’t exactly favorable to anyone, but … Beer. Food. The pack keeping their distance. And that hollow weariness in her friend’s eyes—yeah, some shit had gone down in that meeting.

Bryce tugged open the fridge, grabbing a beer for herself. The pack all had different preferences, and were prone to coming over whenever they felt like it, so the fridge was crammed with bottles and cans and what she could have sworn was a jug of … mead? Must be Bronson’s.

Bryce grabbed one of Nathalie’s favorites—a cloudy, milky-tasting beer, heavy on the hops—and twisted off the top. “Briggs?”

“Officially released. Micah, the Autumn King, and the Oracle pored over every law and bylaw and still couldn’t find a way around that loophole. Ruhn even had Declan run some of his fancy tech
searches and found nothing. Sabine ordered the Scythe Moon Pack to watch Briggs tonight, along with some of the 33rd.” The packs had mandatory nights off once a week, and this was the Pack of Devils’—no negotiating. Otherwise, Bryce knew Danika would be out there, watching Briggs’s every move.

“So you’re all in agreement,” Bryce said. “At least that’s good.”

“Yeah, until Briggs blows something or someone up.” Danika shook her head with disgust. “It’s fucking bullshit.”

Bryce studied her friend carefully. The tension around her mouth, her sweaty neck. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

The words were spoken too quickly to be believable. “Something’s been eating at you. Shit like this thing with Briggs is big, but you always bounce back.” Bryce narrowed her eyes. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Danika’s eyes gleamed. “Nothing.” She swigged from her beer.

There was only one other answer. “I take it Sabine was in rare form this afternoon.”

Danika just tore into her pizza.

Bryce swallowed two mouthfuls of beer, watching Danika blankly consider the teal cabinets above the counter, the paint chipping at the edges.

Her friend chewed slowly, then said around a mouthful of bread and cheese, “Sabine cornered me after the meeting. Right in the hall outside Micah’s office. So everyone could hear her tell me that two CCU research students got killed near Luna’s Temple last week during the blackout. My shift. My section. My fault.”

Bryce winced. “It took a
week
to hear about this?”

“Apparently.”

“Who killed them?”

Crescent City University students were
always
out in the Old Square, always causing trouble. Even as alums Bryce and Danika often bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t a sky-high electric fence penning CCU students into their corner of the city. Just to keep them from puking and pissing all over the Old Square every Friday night to Sunday morning.

Danika drank again. “No clue who did it.” A shiver, her caramel eyes darkening. “Even with their scents marking them as human, it took twenty minutes to identify who they were. They were ripped to shreds and partially eaten.”

Bryce tried not to imagine it. “Motive?”

Danika’s throat bobbed. “No idea, either. But Sabine told me in front of everyone exactly what she thought of such a public butchering happening on my watch.”

Bryce asked, “What’d the Prime say about it?”

“Nothing,” Danika said. “The old man fell asleep during the meeting, and Sabine didn’t bother to wake him before cornering me.” It would be soon now, everyone said—only a matter of a year or two until the current Prime of the wolves, nearly four hundred years old, had his Sailing across the Istros to the Bone Quarter for his final sleep. There was no way the black boat would tip for him during the final rite—no way his soul would be deemed unworthy and given to the river. He’d be welcomed into the Under-King’s realm, granted access to its mist-veiled shores … and then Sabine’s reign would begin.

Gods spare them all.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Bryce said, flipping open the cardboard lids of the two closest pizza boxes. Sausage, pepperoni, and meatball in one. The other held cured meats and stinky cheeses—Bronson’s choice, no doubt.

“I know,” Danika muttered, draining the last of her beer, clunking the bottle in the sink, and rooting around in the fridge for another. Every muscle in her lean body seemed taut—on a hair trigger. She slammed the fridge shut and leaned against it. Danika didn’t meet Bryce’s eyes as she breathed, “I was three blocks away that night.
Three
. And I didn’t hear or see or smell them being shredded.”

Bryce became aware of the silence from the other room. Keen hearing in both human and wolf form meant endless,
entitled
eavesdropping.

They could finish this conversation later.

Bryce flipped open the rest of the pizza boxes, surveying the culinary landscape. “Shouldn’t you put them out of their misery and let them get a bite before you demolish the rest?”

She’d had the pleasure of witnessing Danika eat three large pies in one sitting. In this sort of mood, Danika might very well break her record and hit four.

“Please let us eat,” begged Bronson’s deep, rumbling voice from the other room.

Danika swigged from her beer. “Come get it, mongrels.”

The wolves rushed in.

In the frenzy, Bryce was nearly flattened against the back wall of the kitchen, the monthly calendar pinned to it crumpling behind her.

Damn it—she loved that calendar:
Hottest Bachelors of Crescent City: Clothing-Optional Edition
. This month had the most gorgeous daemonaki she’d ever seen, his propped leg on a stool the only thing keeping
everything
from being shown. She smoothed out the new wrinkles in all the tan skin and muscles, the curling horns, and then turned to scowl at the wolves.

A step away, Danika stood among her pack like a stone in a river. She smirked at Bryce. “Any update on your hunt for the Horn?”

“No.”

“Jesiba must be thrilled.”

Bryce grimaced. “Overjoyed.” She’d seen Jesiba for all of two minutes this afternoon before the sorceress threatened to turn Bryce into a donkey, and then vanished in a chauffeured sedan to the gods knew where. Maybe off on some errand for the Under-King and the dark House he ruled.

Danika grinned. “Don’t you have that date with what’s-his-face tonight?”

The question clanged through Bryce. “Shit.
Shit
. Yes.” She winced at the kitchen clock. “In an hour.”

Connor, taking an entire pizza box for himself, stiffened. He’d made his thoughts on Bryce’s rich-ass boyfriend clear since the first date two months ago. Just as Bryce had made it perfectly clear she
did not give a fuck about Connor’s opinion regarding her love life.

Bryce took in his muscled back as Connor stalked out, rolling his broad shoulders. Danika frowned. She never missed a fucking thing.

“I need to get dressed,” Bryce said, scowling. “And his name is Reid, and you know it.”

A wolfish smile. “Reid’s a stupid fucking name,” Danika said.

“One,
I
think it’s a hot name. And two,
Reid
is hot.” Gods help her, Reid Redner was hot as Hel. Though the sex was … fine. Standard. She’d gotten off, but she’d really had to work for it. And not in the way she sometimes
liked
to work for it. More in the sense of
Slow down, Put that here, Can we switch positions?
But she’d slept with him only twice. And she told herself that it could take time to find the right rhythm with a partner. Even if …

Danika just said it. “If he grabs his phone to check his messages before his dick’s barely out of you again, please have the self-respect to kick his balls across the room and come home to me.”

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