House of Flame and Shadow: Part 2 – Chapter 58

It took two days of working without rest to help the people of the Meadows. But Ithan didn’t mind, barely thought about the need to go to Avallen to find Sofie’s body or the exhaustion as he dug through the rubble, or carried out the dead or dying, or held down the wounded long enough for Hypaxia or another medwitch to save them. And still there were more. So many more humans, hurt or dead.

There was no sign of the Governor, but the 33rd showed up, at least. The Aux—Fae and a scant number of wolves—arrived soon after. Ithan kept clear of the latter, both to avoid conflict and to avoid being spotted by any Asteri sympathizers who might have come to gloat over the ruins.

But he kept his head down. Kept working. Doing what little he could to help or clear or at least respectfully move the fallen.

There were no Sailings, not for the humans. There’d never been Sailings for them. So their bodies were laid out in rows upon rows inside the lobby of the nearest intact office building.

Barely a dozen wolves had shown up. Only the equivalent of two packs had come to help. It was a disgrace.

Something in this world had to change. And as Ithan piled up the dead, as he laid child after child in that building lobby, he realized that change had to start with him.

Make your brother proud.

He had to get to Avallen. Had to get Sigrid back. Only with her, with an alternate Fendyr heir to lead the wolves … Only then could changes begin.

A new future. For all of them.

For the first five minutes, Tharion didn’t stop monitoring Bryce’s and Hunt’s breathing.

Baxian and Tharion had caught them as they’d suddenly toppled backward, unconscious, and laid them gently on the black salt ground. They didn’t move. Only the rise and fall of their chests showed any signs of life. Whatever was happening, it indeed took place in their minds.

Tharion, Sathia, and Baxian sat a few cautious feet away from their friends. “How long do we give them?” Sathia asked. “Until we try to wake them, I mean.”

Tharion swapped a look with Baxian. “Fifteen minutes?”

“Give them thirty,” Baxian said. Then added, “We’ll keep monitoring them, though.”

Silence fell, interrupted only by their breathing and the sound of the stream trickling through the cavern. Beside Tharion, Sathia was turning the black salt drinking bowl over in her slender hands, again and again. Lost in thought.

“You ever done anything like this?” Baxian asked, noting her unease.

“No,” she said. “I’m not the adventurous sort.”

“Have you gone through your Ordeal?” Baxian asked.

She nodded shallowly. Not a good experience, then.

Part of Tharion wanted to ask about it, but he said, “What happened with you and your brother to put such a divide between you?”

Her eyes slashed to his. “What happened between you and the River Queen to put such a high bounty on your head?”

He gave her an indolent smile. “You don’t know?”

“I’ve pieced bits of it together. You upset her prissy daughter, and had to run. But what did you do to upset her in the first place?”

Tharion drummed his fingers on the cold stone floor. “I wanted to call off our engagement. She didn’t.”

Sathia straightened. “You were engaged? To the River Queen’s daughter?”

“For ten years.”

She set the bowl on the ground. “And she didn’t realize that after ten years, you didn’t want to marry her?”

Tharion glanced to where Bryce and Hunt lay, deathly still. “I don’t really feel like talking about this.”

Yet Sathia pushed, “So you called it off, but she … tried to keep it?”

“And keep me. Beneath. Forever.”

The dismay on her face set him laughing. Laughter was the sole alternative to crying. “Yeah.”

“But you could have swum away.”

“You can’t just swim away from the River Queen. She denies her daughter nothing. She’d have locked me in my humanoid form, to ensure I couldn’t swim out.”

Again, that dismay on her face. “She’d do that to one of her own kind? Destroy your fins to confine you?”

“She isn’t mer,” he said. “She’s an elemental. And yes, she does it to punish mer all the time.”

“That’s barbaric.”

“So is treating Fae females like broodmares and forcing them to marry.”

Sathia only angled her head. “You ran away from marriage to the River Queen’s daughter … only to wind up married to a stranger.”

He knew Baxian was listening closely, though the Helhound kept his focus on Bryce and Athalar. “It seemed like a better option.”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

He sighed. And maybe because they were on some cursed island in the middle of the Haldren, maybe because they were hundreds of feet underground with only Cthona to witness it, he said, “My little sister. Lesia. She, ah, died last year.”

Sathia seemed taken aback at the turn the conversation had taken. “I’m sorry, Tharion,” she said gently. She sounded sincere.

Baxian murmured, “I didn’t know that. My condolences, Ketos.”

Tharion couldn’t stop the memory of Lesia from flashing bright in his mind. Red-haired and beautiful and alive. His chest ached, threatening to cave in on itself.

But it was better than the other memory of her—of the photographs her murderer had snapped of her body. What he’d done to her when Tharion hadn’t been there to protect her.

Tharion went on, “I know you and Flynn have a … tense relationship. But you’re still his little sister. You were in trouble. And I knew that if Lesia had been in the same spot, I’d have wanted a decent male to help her out.”

Sathia’s eyes softened. “Well, thank you. If we make it through all this”—she waved a hand to the caves, the world beyond—“I’ll see if there’s a way to liberate you from this … situation.”

“Trust me, it’s in my best interest to stay married to you until the River Queen’s daughter moves on to some other poor bastard. If I’m single …”

“She’ll come after you.”

Tharion nodded. “It’s cowardly and pathetic, I know. And I mean, her mother will probably come after me and kill me anyway. But at least I won’t have to spend my life as a royal concubine.”

“All right.” Sathia squared her shoulders. “Marriage it is, then.” She gave him a small smile. “For now.” Then she glanced to Bryce and Hunt. “You think they’re really in Hel?”

“Part of me hopes yes, the other part hopes no,” Tharion answered.

“They’re in Hel,” Baxian said quietly.

Sathia twisted toward him. “How do you know?”

Baxian pointed to their slumbering friends. “Look.”

Bryce and Hunt lay peacefully on the black salt ground, hands entwined, their bodies covered in a thin layer of frost.

The black boat that Aidas led Bryce and Hunt into was a cross between the one that had brought them into Avallen and the ones that carried bodies to the Bone Quarter. But in lieu of a stag’s head, it was a stag’s skull at the prow, greenish flame dancing in its eyes as it sailed through the cave. The eerie green light illuminated black rock carved into pillars and buildings, walkways and temples.

Ancient. And empty.

Bryce had never seen a place so void of life. So … still. Even the Bone Quarter had a sense of being lived in, albeit by the dead. But here, nothing stirred.

The river was wide, yet placid. The lap of water against the hull seemed to echo too loudly over the stones, over the ceiling so far above that it faded into the gloom.

“It’s like a city of the dead,” Hunt murmured, draping a wing around Bryce.

Aidas turned from where he stood at the prow, holding in his hands a long pole that he’d used to guide them. “That’s because it is.” He gestured with a pale hand to the buildings and temples and avenues. “This is where our beloved dead come to rest, with all the comforts of life around them.”

“But we’re not … here-here,” Bryce said. “Right? We’re just dreaming?”

“In a sense,” Aidas said. “Your physical body remains in your world.” He glanced over a shoulder. “In Helena’s cave.”

“You knew about it this whole time,” Hunt accused.

Aidas’s eyes gleamed. “Would you have believed me?”

This close to Hunt, Bryce felt every muscle in his body tense. Her mate said, “The truth might have been a good start toward that.”

Before Aidas could answer, the boat approached a small quay leading to what appeared to be a temple. A figure emerged from between the pillars of the temple and descended its front steps. Golden-haired, golden-skinned.

Hunt’s lightning sparked, illuminating the whole city and river.

Apollion lifted a hand. Pure, sizzling lightning danced around it, arcing out to meet Hunt’s.

“Welcome, son,” said the Prince of the Pit.


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