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House of Sky and Breath: Part 1 – Chapter 23

Ithan kept a step back from the small crowd of mer emergency workers gathered around Captain Ketos—and the body. He’d scented death before they’d even approached the pristine stretch of the Istros an hour north of Lunathion, a pretty green spot amid the oaks of the small forest. They’d taken wave skimmers up the Blue, as this section of the river was nearly inaccessible by foot. He supposed he might have made the run easily in his wolf form, but after getting one sniff of the corpse from a mile downriver, he was glad not to be in that body.

“Selkie female,” Tharion was saying to the small group assembled, wiping the sweat from his brow. Even in the shadow of the mighty oaks, the sun baked the forest into kindling.

Ithan swigged from his canteen. He should have worn shorts and sandals instead of the black jeans and boots of the Aux. He had no business wearing these clothes anyway.

Tharion went on, surveying the little heap by the river’s edge. It had been found this morning by a passing otter. “Killed execution-style.”

Death was nothing new. Ithan just wished he hadn’t become so well acquainted with it that at age twenty-two, it was already something he barely batted an eye at. But that was the life of a wolf. Of a Holstrom.

Tharion pointed. “Gorsian bullet to the right thigh to keep her from shifting into her seal form, then a slow bleed-out from a slice to her left femoral artery. Repeated lacerations indicate the murderer reopened the thigh incision continuously to keep her bleeding until she died.”

Cthona spare him. “Or until whoever it was got their answers,” Ithan said.

The group—three of Tharion’s people—turned his way. He’d been brought for one reason—to use his nose. Apparently, that hadn’t included speaking.

“Or that,” Tharion said, crossing his arms with a pointedness that said:

Keep it quiet; I have the same instinct you do about this.

At least, that was what Ithan thought it conveyed. He’d gotten pretty good at assessing others’ expressions and tells thanks to his years on the sunball field.

Tharion said to the group, “Right. Continue documenting the scene, then let’s see if we can find a name for her.” People peeled away to follow his orders, and Tharion stepped aside to sniff the air.

A male voice spoke from Ithan’s left. “Hey, you used to play sunball, right?” Ithan found a ruddy-faced mer in a blue BCIU windbreaker standing a few feet away, a walkie-talkie in hand.

Ithan grunted. “Yeah.”

“For CCU—you were that Holstrom kid.”

Were. Everything in his life was were these days. You were Connor’s brother. You were part of a pack. You were in the Aux. You were a sunball player. You were Bryce’s friend. You were normal. You were happy.

“One and only.”

“Why’d you quit? You could be, like, MVP in the pros right now.”

Ithan didn’t smile, tried his best to appear disinterested. “Had other plans.”

“Than playing sunball professionally?” The male gaped. As if a selkie’s ravaged body didn’t lie mere feet away.

Everyone was watching now. Ithan had grown up with eyes on him like that—had triumphed and failed spectacularly in front of thousands of people, day after day, for years. It didn’t make it easier.

“Holstrom.” Tharion’s voice cut through the air, mercifully drawing him from the conversation. Ithan gave the male a nod and aimed for where the captain stood beside the river. Tharion murmured, “Smell anything?”

Ithan inhaled. Blood and rot and water and iron and—

Another sniff, taking him deeper, pulling back layers. Salt and water and seal. That was the selkie. Then— “There’s a human scent here. On her.” He pointed to the selkie left amid the leaves and bone-dry brush. “Two of them.”

Tharion said nothing, idly twirling a ribbon of water between his fingers. The mer were similar to the water sprites in that regard—able to summon water from thin air.

Ithan began to pace through the clearing, careful of the tracks—noting and scenting the slight disturbances in the dirt and leaves and sticks.

He sniffed again, brain downloading and sorting all those scents.

“Wouldn’t your wolf form be easier?” Tharion asked, leaning against a tree.

“No,” Ithan lied, and kept moving. He couldn’t bear to take that form, to feel that empty-souled wolf.

He sniffed a few more times, then stalked up to Tharion and said quietly, “There’s a human female scent all over this scene. But the second scent—it’s a human male. A little strange, but human.” Exactly as Ithan would have described a part-thunderbird human. “It’s only on the selkie. A little whiff.”

“So what does that tell you?” Tharion asked with equal quiet, monitoring the others documenting the crime scene.

“My guess?”

“Yeah, tell me your gut impressions.”

Ithan noted the mer around him. Their hearing might not be as keen as his, but … “I think we should be somewhere more secure.”

Tharion made a hmm of contemplation. Then he called to the group of investigators, “Any further insights, kids?”

No one answered.

Tharion sighed. “All right. Let’s get her bagged up and brought back to the lab. I want tests done as soon as possible, along with an ID.”

The others broke apart, heading to the aquatic vehicles lined up along the Blue River’s edge, tethered in place with their water magic. Leaving Ithan and Tharion with the body.

The mer male arched a brow. “I need to head to the Blue Court, but I’d like to hear your findings while they’re fresh. Do you have time?”

“I got nothing but time,” Ithan answered.

He wondered when having all that time would stop feeling like such a chore.

“So, let’s hear it,” Tharion said as he slumped into his office chair and turned on his computer.

Ithan Holstrom stood at the wall of glass, gazing out at the deep blue of the Istros, observing the fish and otters dart past. The wolf had said little while Tharion had brought him Beneath, though from his wide eyes, it was clear he’d never been here before.

Ithan said without turning, “Let’s assume the players involved are the ones we think they are. I think the selkie found the kid, helped him on his way toward Lunathion. Not soon afterward, given how his scent is still on her clothes, the selkie was found and tortured by a human woman for intel on Emile’s location. From what we know about her, my guess is Pippa Spetsos.”

Tharion’s mouth twisted to the side. “My techs said the kill was about a day old. That line up with your info?”

“Yeah, though probably less than a day. But the kid’s scent on her clothes was older than that. Only by six hours or so.”

“Why?” Tharion propped his chin on his hands.

“Because she couldn’t have gone in the water—or changed her clothes, if the scent was still on her. As far as I know, selkies rarely go a day before shifting and swimming. The water would have washed the kid’s scent from her.”

Tharion considered, turning over the information in his mind. “We didn’t pick up any tracks from the kid in the clearing, though.”

“No,” Ithan agreed, turning back to him. “Emile was never in that clearing. The selkie must have come there afterward.”

Tharion peered at the map of Crescent City and its surrounding lands behind his desk. “That spot is between the boat I investigated and the city. If he linked up with the selkie somewhere around there, he is indeed moving toward Lunathion. And if that kill is less than a day old, he might have just gotten here.”

“And Pippa Spetsos, if that’s whose scent was on the female, could be here as well.”

“Or one of her soldiers, I guess,” Tharion admitted. “Either way, Lightfall is near. We need to be careful.”

“Pippa is a human woman.”

“She’s a dangerous rebel, capable of killing Vanir thanks to those gorsian bullets. And a psychopath who delights in killing even the most innocent. We’re not going near her without prep and thought.” Hopefully they would find Emile first and not need to deal with Pippa at all.

Ithan snorted. “We can take her. My brother took down Philip Briggs.”

“Something tells me Pippa might be worse than Briggs.”

“Come on,” Ithan said, scoffing.

Tharion didn’t bother to keep the gravity from his face. “I like being alive. I’m not going to risk death because you’ve got an outsize view of your wolf skills.”

“Fuck you.”

Tharion shrugged. “My river, my rules, pup.”

Thunder from far above echoed in the quiet halls, rattling even the thick glass.

“I can go after her on my own.”

Tharion smirked. “Not while you’re stuck down here.”

Ithan sized him up. “Really? You’d trap me?”

“For your own safety, yeah. You know what Bryce would do to me if you wound up dead? I’d never get to fondle her underwear again.”

Ithan gaped at him. Then burst out laughing. It was a rich sound, a little hoarse—like he hadn’t done it in a while. “I’m surprised Athalar lets you live.”

“You know what Bryce would do to Hunt if I wound up dead?” Tharion grinned. “My sweet Legs has my back.”

“Why do you call her that?” Ithan asked cautiously.

Tharion shrugged again. “You really want me to answer that?”


Tharion smirked. “Anyway, the real question is whether Emile is headed toward the place Danika hinted at in her email.”

Holstrom had already filled him in on the papers and news clippings he and Bryce had uncovered yesterday, but none had any link to a potential rendezvous location.

The door to Tharion’s office opened, and one of his officers, Kendra, strode in. The blond sentinel stopped short upon seeing Ithan, hair swaying around her. She looked to Tharion, who nodded. She was free to speak around the wolf.

“Boss wants you in her quarters. She’s, ah … in a mood.”

Fuck. “I thought I heard thunder.” Tharion jerked his chin at the door as Kendra left. “There’s a lounge down this hall on the left. Feel free to watch TV, help yourself to snacks, whatever. I’ll be back … soon. Then we can start sniffing around for the kid.” And hopefully avoid Pippa Spetsos.

He used the walk to his queen’s quarters to steady his nerves against whatever storm was brewing. It had to be bad, if it was raining Above during the dry summer months.

Bryce fanned her face in the summer heat, thanking Ogenas, Bringer of Storms, for the rain that was moments away from falling. Or whatever Vanir might be throwing a temper tantrum. Judging by how swiftly the storm had swept in to ruin the otherwise flawless blue sky, odds were on the latter.

“It’s not that hot,” Ruhn observed as they walked down the sidewalk toward the Aux training facility on the edge of the Old Square and Moonwood. The empty, cavernous chamber was usually used for large meetings, but he’d reserved it once a week at this hour for their standing training.

They’d have a newcomer today. At least, if Prince Cormac deigned to show up to begin her training, as he’d promised.

“I don’t know how you’re wearing a leather jacket,” Bryce said, her sweaty thighs sticking together with each step.

“Gotta hide the weapons,” Ruhn said, patting the holsters beneath the leather jacket. “Can’t have the tourists getting skittish.”

“You literally carry a sword.”

“That has a different impact on people than a gun.”

True. Randall had taught her that a long time ago. Swords could mean hope, resistance, strength. Guns meant death. They were to be respected, but only as weapons of killing, even in defense.

Bryce’s phone rang, and she checked the caller ID before shutting off the ringer and sliding it into her pocket.

“Who’s that?” Ruhn asked, glancing at her sidelong as thunder grumbled. People began clearing the streets, darting into shops and buildings to avoid the downpour. With the arid climate, summer storms were usually violent and swift, prone to flooding the streets.

“My mom,” Bryce said. “I’ll call her later.” She fished out a postcard from her purse and waved it at Ruhn. “She’s probably calling about this.”

“A postcard?” On the front, it said Greetings from Nidaros! in a cheery font.

Bryce slid it back into her purse. “Yeah. It’s a thing from when I was a kid. We’d get into a huge fight, and my mom would send me postcards as a weird kind of apology. Like, we might not be talking in person, but we’d start communicating again through postcards.”

“But you were living in the same house?”

Bryce laughed again. “Yeah. She’d put them under my door and I’d put them under hers. We’d write about everything but the fight. We kept doing it when I went to CCU, and afterward.” Bryce riffled through her bag and pulled out a blank postcard of an otter waving that said, Keep It Fuzzy, Lunathion! “I’m going to send her one later. Seems easier than a phone call.”

He asked, “Are you going to tell her about … everything?”

“Are you crazy?”

“What about the engagement being a ruse? Surely that’d get her off your back.”

“Why do you think I’m avoiding her calls?” Bryce asked. “She’ll say I’m playing with fire. Literally, considering Cormac’s power. There’s no winning with her.”

Ruhn chuckled. “You know, I would have really liked to have her as my stepmom.”

Bryce snickered. “Weird. You’re, like, twenty years older than her.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t need a mom to kick my ass every now and then.” He said it with a grin, but … Ruhn’s relationship with his own mother was strained. She wasn’t cruel, merely out to lunch. Ruhn took care of her these days. He knew his father certainly wouldn’t.

Bryce spoke before she had the chance to consider it. “I’m thinking of going home to Nidaros for the Winter Solstice. Hunt’s coming. You want to join?” Now that she and Hunt had adjusted their timeline, Bryce supposed she could be a decent human being and go home for the holiday.

That is, if her mom forgave her for the engagement. And not telling her about it.

Rain splattered the pavement, but Ruhn stopped. His eyes filled with such hope and happiness that Bryce’s chest hurt. But he said, “Bringing Hunt home, huh?”

She couldn’t help her blush. “Yep.”

“Big step, bringing home the boyfriend.”

She waved him off, but cringed at the rain that now became a deluge. They still had five blocks to the training center. “Let’s wait it out,” she said, ducking under an empty restaurant’s awning. The Istros lay a block away, close enough that Bryce could see the veils of rain lashing its surface. Even the mer weren’t out in this.

Rain streamed off the awning, thick as a waterfall, joining the veritable river already flowing down to the gaping sewer entrance at the corner of the block. Ruhn said over the din, “You really want me to come home with you?”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.” Assuming they were still alive by December. If this rebellion shit hadn’t killed them all.

Ruhn’s tattooed throat bobbed. “Thanks. I normally spend it with Dec and his family, but … I don’t think they’ll mind if I skip this year.”

She nodded, awkward silence setting in. They usually had the training to occupy them during any tense silences, but now, trapped by the rain … she kept quiet, waiting to see what Ruhn might say.

“Why won’t you touch the Starsword?”

She twisted, gesturing to the black hilt of the blade peeking over his shoulder. “It’s yours.”

“It’s yours, too.”

“I’ve got Danika’s sword. And you found it first. Doesn’t seem fair of me to claim it.”

“You’re more Starborn than I am. You should have it.”

“That’s bullshit.” She backed up a step. “I don’t want it.” She could have sworn the rain, the wind, paused. Seemed to listen. Even the temperature seemed to drop.

“Aidas said you’ve got the light of the true Starborn Queen. I’m just the heir to some rapist asshole.”

“Does it matter? I like that you’re the Chosen One.”


“Because …” She hooked her hair behind her ears, then fiddled with the hem of her T-shirt. “I already have this star on my chest.” She touched the scar gently. The hair on her arms rose as if in answer. “I don’t need a fancy sword to add to it.”

“But I do?”

“Honestly? I think you don’t know how special you are, Ruhn.”

His blue eyes flickered. “Thanks.”

“I mean it.” She grabbed his hand, and light flared from her chest. “The sword came to you first for a reason. When was the last time two Starborn royals lived peacefully side by side? There’s that dumb prophecy that the Fae have: When knife and sword are reunited, so shall our people be. You have the Starsword. What if … I don’t know. What if there’s a knife out there for me? But beyond that, what’s Urd playing at? Or is it Luna? What’s the end goal?”

“You think the gods have something to do with all this?”

Again, the hair on her arms rose; the star on her chest dimmed and went dark. She turned to the rain-lashed street. “After this spring, I can’t help but wonder if there is something out there. Guiding all this. If there’s some game afoot that’s … I don’t know. Bigger than anything we can grasp.”

“What do you mean?”

“Hel is another world. Another planet. Aidas said so—months ago, I mean. The demons worship different gods than we do, but what happens when the worlds overlap? When demons come here, do their gods come with them? And all of us, the Vanir … we all came from elsewhere. We were immigrants into Midgard. But what became of our home worlds? Our home gods? Do they still pay attention to us? Remember us?”

Ruhn rubbed his jaw. “This is some seriously sacrilegious shit for a lunchtime conversation. The postcards with your mom, I can handle. This? I need some coffee.”

She shook her head and closed her eyes, unable to suppress the chill down her spine. “I just have this feeling.” Ruhn said nothing, and she opened her eyes again.

Ruhn was gone.

A rotted, veilless Reaper, black cloak and robes clinging to its bony body, rain sluicing down its sagging, grayish face, was dragging her unconscious brother across the drenched street. Its acid-green eyes glowed as if lit by Helfire.

The rain must have covered the creature’s approach. The hair on her arms had been raised but she’d chalked it up to their dangerous conversation. No one was on the street—was it because everyone had somehow sensed the Reaper?

With a roar, Bryce darted into the driving rain, but she was too late. The Reaper shoved Ruhn into the gaping sewer drain with too-long fingers that ended in cracked, jagged nails, and slithered in after him.


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