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House of Sky and Breath: Part 2 – Chapter 29

“I think he knows we’re coming,” Bryce whispered to Hunt as they stood on the edge of the Black Dock and peered through the mist swarming the Istros. Thankfully, there had been no Sailings today. But a path through the mists spread ahead—an opening through which they’d sail to get to the Bone Quarter.

She knew, because she’d sailed through it herself once.

“Good,” Hunt said, and Bryce caught his glance at the Starsword she’d sheathed down her back. Ruhn had left it for her with the note: Bring it. Don’t be stupid.

For once in her life, she’d listened.

And Ruhn had listened when she’d encouraged him, in their swift mind-to-mind conversation, not to trust Cormac. His invitation to Ithan had been the result.

She could only pray they’d stay safe. And that Cormac was true to his word.

Bryce shifted, tucking the thoughts away, the half-rotted black wood beneath her shoes creaking. She’d wound up changing into black leggings and a gray T-shirt before leaving. Yet even with the mist, the heat somehow continued, turning her clothes into a sticky second skin. She should have stayed in the skirt. If only because it had allowed her to conceal the gun—which she’d left behind after Hunt had mortifyingly reminded her of its uselessness against anything they’d encounter in the Bone Quarter.

“Well, here goes,” Bryce said, fishing out the onyx coin from the pocket in the back of her waistband. The stifling, earthen smell of mold stuffed itself up her nostrils, as if the coin itself were rotting.

Hunt pulled his coin from a compartment in his battle-suit and sniffed, frowning. “It smells worse the closer we get to the Bone Quarter.”

“Then good riddance.” Bryce flipped the Death Mark with her thumb into the fog-veiled water below. Hunt’s followed. Both only made one ripple before they went rushing toward the Bone Quarter, hidden from view.

“I’m sure a few people have told you this,” a male voice said behind them, “but that is a very bad idea.”

Bryce whirled, but Hunt bristled. “What the fuck do you want, Baxian?”

The Helhound emerged like a wraith from the mist, wearing his own battle-suit. Shadows had settled beneath his dark eyes, like he hadn’t slept in a while. “Why are you here?”

“I’d like to know the same,” Hunt bit out.

Baxian shrugged. “Enjoying the sights,” he said, and Bryce knew it for the lie it was. Had he followed them? “I thought we were supposed to be paired up, Athalar. You never showed. Does Celestina know about this?”

“It’s my day off,” Hunt said. Which was true. “So no. It’s none of her business. Or yours. Go report to Isaiah. He’ll give you something to do.”

Baxian’s attention shifted to Bryce, and she held his stare. His gaze dipped to the scar on her chest, only the upper spikes of the star visible above the neckline of her T-shirt. “Who are you going to see over there?” His voice had gone low, dangerous.

“The Under-King,” Bryce said cheerfully. She could feel Hunt’s wariness growing with each breath.

Baxian blinked slowly, as if reading the threat emanating from Athalar. “I can’t tell if that’s a joke, but if it isn’t, you’re the dumbest people I’ve ever met.”

Something stirred behind them, and then a long, black boat appeared from the slender path in the mists, drifting toward the dock. Bryce reached out a hand for the prow. Her fingers curled over the screaming skeleton carved into its arch. “Guess you’ll have to wait to find out,” she said, and leapt in.

She didn’t look back as Hunt climbed in after her, the boat rocking with his weight. It pulled away from the Black Dock along that narrow path, leaving Baxian behind to watch until the mists swallowed him.

“You think he’ll say anything?” Bryce whispered into the gloom as the path ahead vanished, too.

Hunt’s voice was strained, gravelly as it floated toward her. “I don’t see why he would. You were attacked by Reapers yesterday. We’re going to talk to the Under-King about it today. There’s nothing wrong or suspicious about that.”

“Right.” This shit with Ophion had her overthinking every movement.

Neither of them spoke after that. Neither of them dared.

The boat sailed on, across the too-silent river, all the way to the dark and distant shore.

Hunt had never seen such a place. Knew in his bones he never wanted to see it again.

The boat advanced with no sail, no rudder, no rower or ferryman. As if it were pulled by invisible beasts toward the isle across the Istros. The temperature dropped with each foot, until Hunt could hear Bryce’s teeth clacking through the mist, so thick her face was nearly obscured.

The memory of Baxian nagged at him. Snooping asshole.

But he had a feeling that the Helhound wouldn’t go blabbing. Not yet. Baxian was more likely to gather intel, to shadow their every move and then strike when he had enough to damn them.

Hunt would turn him into smoldering cinders before he could do that, though. What a fucking mess.

The boat jolted, colliding with something with a thunk.

Hunt stiffened, lightning at his fingertips. But Bryce rose, graceful as a leopard, the Starsword’s dark hilt muted and matte in the dimness.

The boat had stopped at the base of worn, crumbling steps. The mists above them parted to reveal an archway of carved, ancient bone, brown with age in spots. Memento Mori, it said across the top.

Hunt interpreted its meaning differently here than in the Meat Market: Remember that you will die, and end here. Remember who your true masters are.

The hair on Hunt’s arms rose beneath his battle-suit. Bryce leapt from the boat with Fae elegance, twisting to offer a hand back to him. He took it, only because he wanted to touch her, feel her warmth in this lifeless place.

But her hands were icy, her skin drab and waxy. Even her shimmering hair had dulled. His own skin appeared paler, sickly. As if the Bone Quarter already sucked the life from them.

He interlaced their fingers as they strode up the seven steps to the archway and tucked all the worries and fears regarding Baxian, regarding this rebellion, deep within him. They’d only be a distraction.

His boots scuffed on the steps. Here, Bryce had once knelt. Right here, she’d traded her resting place for Danika’s. He squeezed her hand tighter. Bryce squeezed back, leaning into him as they stepped under the archway.

Dry ground lay beyond. Mist, and grayness, and silence. Marble and granite obelisks rose like thick spears, many inscribed—but not with names. Just with strange symbols. Grave markers, or something else? Hunt scanned the gloom, ears straining for any hint of Reapers, of the ruler they sought.

And for any hint of Emile, or Sofie. But not one footprint marked the ground. Not one scent lingered in the mist.

The thought of the kid hiding out here … of any living being dwelling here … Fuck.

Bryce whispered, voice thick, “It’s supposed to be green. I saw a land of green and sunlight.” Hunt lifted a brow, but her eyes—now a flat yellow—searched the mists. “The Under-King showed me the Pack of Devils after the attack on the city.” Her words shook. “Showed me that they rested here among shining meadows. Not … this.”

“Maybe the living aren’t allowed to see the truth unless the Under-King allows it.” She nodded, but he read the doubt tightening her ashen face. He said, “No sign of Emile, unfortunately.”

Bryce shook her head. “Nothing. Though I don’t know why I thought it’d be easy. It’s not like he’d be camped out here in a tent or something.”

Hunt, despite himself, offered her a half smile. “So we head to the boss, then.” He kept scanning the mists and earth for any hint of Emile or his sister as they continued on.

Bryce halted suddenly between two black obelisks, each engraved with a different array of those odd symbols. The obelisks—and dozens more beyond them—flanked what seemed to be a central walkway stretching into the mist.

She drew the Starsword, and Hunt didn’t have time to stop her before she whacked it against the side of the closest obelisk. It clanked, its ringing echoing into the gloom. She did it again. Then a third time.

“Ringing the dinner bell?” Hunt asked.

“Worth a shot,” Bryce muttered back. And smarter than running around shouting Emile’s and Sofie’s names. Though if they were as survival-savvy as they seemed, Hunt doubted either would come running to investigate.

As the noise faded, what remained of the light dimmed. What remained of the warmth turned to ice.

Someone—something—had answered.

The other being they sought here.

Their breath hung in the air, and Hunt angled himself in front of Bryce, monitoring the road ahead.

When the Under-King spoke, however, in a voice simultaneously ancient and youthful but cold and dry, the sound came from behind them. “This land is closed to you, Bryce Quinlan.”

A tremor went through Bryce, and Hunt rallied his power, lightning crackling in his ears. But his mate said, “I don’t get a VIP pass?”

The voice from the mist echoed around them. “Why have you come? And brought Orion Athalar with you?”

“Call him Hunt,” Bryce drawled. “He gets huffy if you go all formal on him.”

Hunt gave her an incredulous look. But the Under-King materialized from the mist, inch by inch.

He stood at least ten feet tall, robes of richest black velvet draping to the gravel. Darkness swirled on the ground before him, and his head … Something primal in him screamed to run, to bow, to fall on his knees and beg.

A desiccated corpse, half-rotted and crowned with gold and jewels, observed them. Hideous beyond belief, yet regal. Like a long-dead king of old left to rot in some barrow, who had emerged to make himself master of this land.

Bryce lifted her chin and said, bold as Luna herself, “We need to talk.”

“Talk?” The lipless mouth pulled back, revealing teeth brown with age.

Hunt reminded himself firmly that the Under-King was feared, yes—but not evil.

Bryce replied, “About your goons grabbing my sweet brother and dragging him into the sewer. They claimed they were sent by Apollion.” Hunt tensed as she spoke the Prince of the Pit’s name. Bryce continued, utterly nonchalant, “But I don’t see how they could have been sent by anyone but you.”

The Under-King hissed. “Do not speak that name on this side of the Rift.”

Hunt followed Bryce’s irreverence. “Is this the part where you insist you knew nothing?”

“You have the nerve to cross the river, to take a black boat to my shores, and accuse me of this treachery?” The darkness behind the Under-King shivered. In fear or delight, Hunt couldn’t tell.

“Some of your Reapers survived me,” Bryce said. “Surely they’ve filled you in by now.”

Silence fell, like the world in the aftermath of a boom of thunder.

The Under-King’s milky, lidless eyes slid to the Starsword in Bryce’s hand. “Some did not survive you?”

Bryce’s swallow was audible. Hunt swore silently.

Bryce said, “Why did you feel the need to attack? To pretend the Reapers were messengers of—the Prince of the Pit.” She clicked her tongue. “I thought we were friends.”

“Death has no friends,” the Under-King said, eerily calm. “I did not send any Reapers to attack you. But I do not tolerate those who falsely accuse me in my realm.”

“And we’re supposed to take you at your word that you’re innocent?” Bryce pushed.

“Do you call me a liar, Bryce Quinlan?”

Bryce said, cool and calm as a queen, “You mean to tell me that there are Reapers who can simply defect and serve Hel?”

“From whence do you think the Reapers first came? Who first ruled them, ruled the vampyrs? The Reapers chose Midgard. But I am not surprised some have changed their minds.”

Bryce demanded, “And you don’t care if Hel steps into your territory?”

“Who said they were my Reapers to begin with? There are none unaccounted for here. There are many other necropolises they might hail from.” And other half-life rulers they answered to.

“Reapers don’t travel far beyond their realms,” Hunt managed to say.

“A comforting lie for mortals.” The Under-King smiled faintly.

“All right,” Hunt said, fingers tightening around Bryce’s. The Under-King seemed to be telling them the truth. Which meant … Well, fuck. Maybe Apollion was the one who’d sent the Reapers. And if that part was true, then what he’d said about Emile …

Bryce seemed to be following the same train of thought, because she said, “I’m looking for two people who might be hiding out here. Any insight?”

“I know all the dead who reside here.”

“They’re alive,” Bryce said. “Humans—or part-humans.”

The Under-King surveyed them once more. Right down to their souls. “No one enters this land without my knowledge.”

“People can slip in,” Hunt countered.

“No,” the creature said, smiling again. “They cannot. Whoever you seek, they are not here.”

Hunt pushed, “Why should we believe you?”

“I swear upon Cthona’s dark crown that no living beings other than yourselves are currently on this island.”

Well, vows didn’t get much more serious than that. Even the Under-King wouldn’t fuck with invoking the earth goddess’s name in a vow.

But that left them back at square one. If Emile and Sofie weren’t here, and couldn’t even enter … Danika had to have known that. She’d have been smart enough to look into the rules before sending them here for hiding.

This was a dead end. But it still left Apollion looking for the kid—and them needing to find him before anyone else.

So Hunt said, “You’ve been enlightening. Thanks for your time.”

But Bryce didn’t move. Her face had gone stony. “Where’s the green and sunlight you showed me? Was that another comforting lie?”

“You saw what you wished to see.”

Bryce’s lips went white with rage. “Where’s the Pack of Devils?”

“You are not entitled to speak to them.”

“Is Lehabah here?”

“I do not know of one with such a name.”

“A fire sprite. Died three months ago. Is she here?”

“Fire sprites do not come to the Bone Quarter. The Lowers are of no use.”

Hunt arched a brow. “No use for what?”

The Under-King smiled again—perhaps a shade ruefully. “Comforting lies, remember?”

Bryce pressed, “Did Danika Fendyr say anything to you before she … vanished this spring?”

“You mean before she traded her soul to save yours, as you did with your own.”

Nausea surged through Hunt. He hadn’t let himself think much on it—that Bryce would not be allowed here. That he wouldn’t rest with her one day.

One day that might come very soon, if they were caught associating with rebels.

“Yes,” Bryce said tightly. “Before Danika helped to save this city. Where’s the Pack of Devils?” she asked again, voice hitching.

Something large growled and shifted in the shadows behind the Under-King, but remained hidden by the mists. Hunt’s lightning zapped at his fingers in warning.

“Life is a beautiful ring of growth and decay,” the Under-King said, the words echoing through the Sleeping City around them. “No part left to waste. What we receive upon birth, we give back in death. What is granted to you mortals in the Eternal Lands is merely another step in the cycle. A waypoint along your journey toward the Void.”

Hunt growled. “Let me guess: You hail from Hel, too?”

“I hail from a place between stars, a place that has no name and never shall. But I know of the Void that the Princes of Hel worship. It birthed me, too.”

The star in the center of Bryce’s chest flared.

The Under-King smiled, and his horrific face turned ravenous. “I beheld your light across the river, that day. Had I only known when you first came to me—things might have been quite different.”

Hunt’s lightning surged, but he reined it in. “What do you want with her?”

“What I want from all souls who pass here. What I give back to the Dead Gate, to all of Midgard: energy, life, power. You did not give your power to the Eleusian system; you made the Drop outside of it. Thus, you still possess some firstlight. Raw, nutritious firstlight.”

“Nutritious?” Bryce said.

The Under-King waved a bony hand. “Can you blame me for sampling the goods as they pass through the Dead Gate?”

Hunt’s mouth dried up. “You … you feed on the souls of the dead?”

“Only those who are worthy. Who have enough energy. There is no judgment but that: whether a soul possesses enough residual power to make a hearty meal, both for myself and for the Dead Gate. As their souls pass through the Dead Gate, I take a … bite or two.”

Hunt cringed inwardly. Maybe he had been too hasty in deeming the being before him not evil.

The Under-King went on, “The rituals were all invented by you. Your ancestors. To endure the horror of the offering.”

“But Danika was here. She answered me.” Bryce’s voice broke.

“She was here. She and all of the newly dead from the past several centuries. Just long enough that their living descendants and loved ones either forget or don’t come asking. They dwell here until then in relative comfort—unless they make themselves a nuisance and I decide to send them into the Gate sooner. But when the dead are forgotten, their names no longer whispered on the wind … then they are herded through the Gate to become firstlight. Or secondlight, as it is called when the power comes from the dead. Ashes to ashes and all that.”

“The Sleeping City is a lie?” Hunt asked. His mother’s face flashed before him.

“A comforting one, as I have said.” The Under-King’s voice again became sorrowful. “One for your benefit.”

“And the Asteri know about this?” Hunt demanded.

“I would never presume to claim what the holy ones know or don’t know.”

“Why are you telling us any of this?” Bryce blanched with horror.

“Because he’s not letting us leave here alive,” Hunt breathed. And their souls wouldn’t live on, either.

The light vanished entirely, and the voice of the Under-King echoed around them. “That is the first intelligent thing you’ve said.”

A rumbling growl shook the ground. Reverberated up Hunt’s legs. He clutched Bryce to him, snapping out his wings for a blind flight upward.

The Under-King crooned, “I should like to taste your light, Bryce Quinlan.”


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