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House of Earth and Blood: Part 2 – Chapter 12

Bryce had gone still as death—so unmoving that Hunt wondered if she knew it was a solid tell. Not about her own nerves, but about her heritage. Only the Fae could go that still.

Her boss, the young-faced sorceress, sighed. “Is your 33rd so incompetent these days that you truly need my assistant’s help?” Her lovely voice hardly softened her question. “Though I suppose I already have my answer, if you falsely convicted Philip Briggs.”

Hunt didn’t dare grin at her outright challenge. Few people could get away with speaking to Micah Domitus, let alone any Archangel, like that.

He considered the four-hundred-year-old sorceress on the screen. He’d heard the rumors: that Jesiba answered to the Under-King, that she could transform people into common animals if they provoked her, that she’d once been a witch who’d left her clan for reasons still unknown. Most likely bad ones, if she’d wound up a member of the House of Flame and Shadow.

Bryce breathed, “I don’t know anything about this. Or who wanted to kill Tertian.”

Jesiba sharpened her gaze. “Regardless, you are my assistant. You don’t work for the 33rd.”

Micah’s mouth tightened. Hunt braced himself. “I invited you to this meeting, Jesiba, as a courtesy.” His brown eyes narrowed with distaste. “It does indeed appear that Philip Briggs was wrongly convicted. But the fact remains that Danika Fendyr and the Pack of Devils apprehended him in his laboratory, with undeniable evidence regarding his intention to bomb innocents at the White Raven nightclub. And though he was initially released due to a loophole, in the past two years, enough evidence has been found for his earlier crimes that he has been convicted of them, too. As such, he will remain behind bars and serve out the sentence for those earlier crimes as leader of the now-inactive Keres sect, and his participation in the larger human rebellion.”

Quinlan seemed to sag with relief.

But then Micah went on, “However, this means a dangerous murderer remains loose in this city, able to summon a lethal demon—for sport or revenge, we do not know. I will admit that my 33rd and the Auxiliary have exhausted their resources. But the Summit is in just over a month. There are individuals attending who will see these murders as proof that I am not in control of my city, let alone this territory, and seek to use it against me.”

Of course it wasn’t about catching a deadly killer. No, this was pure PR.

Even with the Summit so far off, Hunt and the other triarii had been prepping for weeks now, getting the units in the 33rd ready for the pomp and bullshit that surrounded the gathering of Valbaran powers every ten years. Leaders from across the territory would attend, airing their grievances, with maybe a few guest appearances from the ruling assholes across the Haldren.

Hunt hadn’t yet attended one in Valbara, but he’d been through plenty of other Summits in Pangera, with rulers who all pretended they had some semblance of free will. The Summit meetings usually amounted to a week of powerful Vanir arguing until the overseeing Archangel laid down the law. He had little doubt Micah would be any different. Isaiah had experienced one already, and had warned him that the Archangel liked to flex his military might at the Summits—liked to have the 33rd in marching and flying formation, decked out in imperial regalia.

Hunt’s golden breastplate was already being cleaned. The thought of donning the formal armor, the seven stars of the Asteri’s crest displayed across his heart, made him want to puke.

Jesiba examined her silver nails. “Anything exciting happening at the Summit this time?”

Micah seemed to weigh Jesiba’s casual expression as he said, “The new witch-queen will be formally recognized.”

Jesiba didn’t let one speck of emotion show. “I heard of Hecuba’s passing,” the sorceress said. No tinge of grief or satisfaction. Just fact.

But Quinlan tensed, as if she’d shout at them to get back to the murder. Micah added, “And the Asteri are sending Sandriel to deliver a report from the Senate regarding the rebel conflict.”

Every thought eddied out of Hunt’s head. Even the usually unflappable Isaiah went rigid.

Sandriel was coming here.

Micah was saying, “Sandriel will arrive at the Comitium next week, and at the Asteri’s request, she will be my guest until the Summit.”

A month. That fucking monster would be in this city for a month.

Jesiba angled her head with unnerving grace. She might not have been a Reaper, but she sure as shit moved like one. “What does my assistant have to offer in finding the murderer?”

Hunt shoved it down—the roaring, the trembling, the stillness. Shoved it down and down and down until it was just another wave in the black, roiling pit inside himself. Forced himself to concentrate on the conversation. And not on the psychopath on her way to this city.

Micah’s stare settled on Bryce, who had turned so pale her freckles were like splattered blood across the bridge of her nose. “Miss Quinlan is, thus far, the only person alive to have witnessed the demon the murderer summoned.”

Bryce had the nerve to ask, “What about the angel in the alley?”

Micah’s face remained unchanged. “He had no memories of the attack. It was an ambush.” Before Bryce could push, he went on, “Considering the delicate nature of this investigation, I am now willing to look outside the box, as they say, for assistance in solving these murders before they become a true problem.”

Meaning, the Archangel needed to look good in front of the powers that be. In front of Sandriel, who would report it all to the Asteri and their puppet Senate.

A murderer on the loose, capable of summoning a demon that could kill Vanir as easily as humans? Oh, it’d be precisely the sort of shit Sandriel would delight in telling the Asteri. Especially if it cost Micah his position. And if she gained it for herself. What was the northwestern quadrant of Pangera compared to all of Valbara? And Micah losing everything meant his slaves—Hunt, Isaiah, Justinian, and so many others—went to whoever inherited his Governor’s title.

Sandriel would never honor Micah’s bargain with Hunt.

Micah turned to Hunt, a cruel tilt to his lips. “You can guess, Athalar, who Sandriel will be bringing with her.” Hunt went rigid. “Pollux would be all too happy to report his findings as well.”

Hunt fought to master his breathing, to keep his face neutral.

Pollux Antonius, Sandriel’s triarii commander—the Malleus, they called him. The Hammer. As cruel and merciless as Sandriel. And an absolute motherfucking asshole.

Jesiba cleared her throat. “And you still don’t know what kind of demon it was?” She leaned back in her chair, a frown on her full mouth.

“No,” Micah said through his teeth.

It was true. Even Hunt hadn’t been able to identify it, and he’d had the distinct pleasure of killing more demons than he could count. They came in endless breeds and levels of intelligence, ranging from the beasts that resembled feline-canine hybrids to the humanoid, shape-shifting princes who ruled over Hel’s seven territories, each one darker than the last: the Hollow, the Trench, the Canyon, the Ravine, the Chasm, the Abyss, and the worst of them all—the Pit.

Even without a specific identification, though, given its speed and what it had done, the demon fit with something belonging to the Pit, perhaps a pet of the Star-Eater himself. Only in the depths of the Pit could something like that evolve—a creature who had never seen light, never needed it.

It didn’t matter, Hunt supposed. Whether the demon was accustomed to light or not, his particular skills could still turn it into chunks of sizzling meat. A quick flash of light and a demon would either turn tail or writhe in pain.

Quinlan’s voice cut through the storm in Hunt’s head. “You said that there was another connection between the murders then and the one now. Beyond the … style.”

Micah looked at her. To her credit, Quinlan didn’t lower her eyes. “Maximus Tertian and Danika Fendyr were friends.”

Bryce’s brows twitched toward each other. “Danika didn’t know Tertian.”

Micah sighed toward the wood-paneled ceiling high above. “I suspect there might have been a good deal about which she didn’t inform you.”

“I would have known if she was friends with Maximus Tertian,” Quinlan ground out.

Micah’s power murmured through the room. “Careful, Miss Quinlan.”

No one took that kind of tone with an Archangel, at least not anyone with nearly zero power in their veins. It was enough to get Hunt to set aside Sandriel’s visit and focus on the conversation.

Micah went on, “There is also the fact that you knew both Danika and Maximus Tertian. That you were at the White Raven nightclub on each of the nights the murders happened. The similarity is enough to be … of interest.”

Jesiba straightened. “Are you saying that Bryce is a suspect?”

“Not yet,” Micah said coldly. “But anything is possible.”

Quinlan’s fingers curled into fists, her knuckles going white as she no doubt tried to restrain herself from spitting at the Archangel. She opted to change the subject instead. “What about investigating the others in the Pack of Devils? None of them might have been a target?”

“It has already been looked into and dismissed. Danika remains our focus.”

Bryce asked tightly, “You honestly think I can find anything, when the Aux and 33rd couldn’t? Why not get the Asteri to send over someone like the Hind?”

The question rippled through the room. Surely Quinlan wasn’t dumb enough to wish for that. Jesiba threw a warning look at her assistant.

Micah, unfazed by the mention of Lidia Cervos, the Republic’s most notorious spy-hunter—and breaker—replied, “As I said, I do not wish for knowledge of these … events to pass beyond the walls of my city.”

Hunt heard what Micah left unspoken: despite being part of Sandriel’s triarii, the deer shifter known as the Hind reported directly to the Asteri and was known to be Pollux’s lover.

The Hammer and the Hind—the smasher of battlefields and the destroyer of the Republic’s enemies. Hunt had seen the Hind a few times in Sandriel’s stronghold and always walked away unnerved by her unreadable golden eyes. Lidia was as beautiful as she was ruthless in her pursuit of rebel spies. A perfect match for Pollux. The only one who might have suited Pollux more than the Hind was the Harpy, but Hunt tried not to think about the second in command of Sandriel’s triarii when he could avoid it.

Hunt smothered his rising dread. Micah was saying, “Crime statistics suggest that it’s likely Danika knew her killer.” Another pointed silence that left Quinlan bristling. “And despite the things she might not have told you, you remain the person who knew Danika Fendyr better than anyone. I believe you can provide unparalleled insight.”

Jesiba leaned toward the screen in her plush hotel room, all grace and restrained power. “All right, Governor. Let’s say you commandeer Bryce to look into this. I’d like compensation.”

Micah smiled, a sharp, thrilling thing that Hunt had witnessed only before the Archangel blasted someone into wind-torn smithereens. “Regardless of your allegiance to the Under-King, and the protection you believe it affords you, you remain a citizen of the Republic.”

And you will answer to me, he didn’t need to add.

Jesiba said simply, “I’d think you’d be well versed in the bylaws, Governor. Section Fifty-Seven: If a government official requires the services of an outside contractor, they are to pay—”

“Fine. You will send your invoice to me.” Micah’s wings rustled, the only sign of his impatience. But his voice was kind, at least, as he turned to Quinlan. “I am out of options, and shall soon be out of time. If there is someone who might retrace Danika’s steps in her final days and discover who murdered her, it would be you. You are the only tie between the victims.” She just gaped. “I believe your position here at the gallery also grants you access to individuals who might not be willing to talk to the 33rd or Auxiliary. Isaiah Tiberian will report to me on any progress you make, and keep a keen eye on this investigation.” His brown eyes appraised Hunt, as if he could read every line of tension on his body, the panic seeping through his veins at the news of Sandriel’s arrival. “Hunt Athalar is experienced in hunting demons. He shall be on protection duty, guarding you during your search for the person behind this.”

Bryce’s eyes narrowed, but Hunt didn’t dare say a word. To blink his displeasure—and relief.

At least he would have an excuse not to be at the Comitium while Sandriel and Pollux were around. But to be a glorified babysitter, to not be able to work toward earning back his debts …

“Very well,” Jesiba said. Her gaze slid to her assistant. “Bryce?”

Bryce said quietly, her amber eyes full of cold fire, “I’ll find them.” She met the Archangel’s gaze. “And then I want you to wipe them off the fucking planet.”

Yeah, Quinlan had balls. She was stupid and brash, but at least she had nerve. The combination, however, would likely see her dead before she completed the Drop.

Micah smiled, as if realizing that, too. “What is done with the murderer will be up to our justice system.” Mild, bureaucratic nonsense, even as the Archangel’s power thundered through the room, as if promising Quinlan he’d do exactly as she wished.

Bryce muttered, “Fine.”

Jesiba Roga frowned at her assistant, noting that her face still burned with that cold fire. “Do try not to die, Bryce. I’d hate to endure the inconvenience of training someone new.” The feed cut off.

Bryce stood in those absurd shoes. Walking around the desk, she swept the silky curtain of red hair over a shoulder, the slightly curled ends almost brushing the generous curve of her ass.

Micah stood, eyes sliding down Bryce as if he, too, noted that particular detail, but said to none of them in particular, “We’re done here.”

Bryce’s dress was so tight that Hunt could see the muscles in her thighs strain as she hauled open the iron door for the Archangel. A faint wince passed over her face—then vanished.

Hunt reached her as the Archangel and his Commander paused outside. She only gave Hunt a winning, bland smile and began closing the door on him before he could step onto the dusty street. He wedged a foot between the door and jamb, and the enchantments zinged and snapped against his skin as they tried to align around him. Her amber eyes flared. “What.”

Hunt gave her a sharp grin. “Make a list of suspects today. Anyone who might have wanted Danika and her pack dead.” If Danika knew her murderer, odds were that Bryce probably did, too. “And make a list of Danika’s locations and activities during the last few days of her life.”

Bryce only smiled again, as if she hadn’t heard a damn word he said. But then she hit some button beside the door that had the enchantments burning like acid—

Hunt jumped back, his lightning flaring, defending against an enemy that was not there.

The door shut. She purred through the intercom, “I’ll call you. Don’t bother me until then.”

Urd fucking spare him.


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