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House of Sky and Breath: Part 2 – Chapter 38

“This is a dumb fucking idea.”

“You really love to say that, Legs.”

Bryce peered at the two-story iron doors in the back alley of the Old Square, the surface embossed with stars and planets and all matter of heavenly objects. “There’s a reason no one comes to the mystics anymore.” Hel, she’d suggested it while working on Danika’s case this spring, but Hunt had convinced her not to come.

The mystics are some dark, fucked-up shit, he’d said.

Bryce glowered at Tharion and Ithan, standing behind her in the alley. “I mean it. What’s behind those doors is not for the faint of heart. Jesiba knows this guy, but even she doesn’t mess with him.”

Ithan countered, “I can’t think of another alternative. The Oracle only sees the future, not present. I need to know what’s going on with Connor.”

Tharion drawled, “If you can’t stomach it, Legs, then sit out here on the curb.”

She sighed through her nose, trying again. “Only lowlifes use the mystics these days.”

They’d had this conversation twice already on the walk over. She was likely going to lose this round as well, but it was worth a shot. If Hunt had been with her, he’d have gotten his point across in that alphahole way of his. But he hadn’t answered his phone.

He’d probably give her Hel for coming here without him.

Bryce sighed to the baking-hot sky. “All right. Let’s get this over with.”

“That’s the spirit, Legs.” Tharion clapped her on the back. Ithan frowned at the doors.

Bryce reached for the door chime, a crescent moon dangling from a delicate iron chain. She yanked it once, twice. An off-kilter ringing echoed.

“This is a really bad idea,” she muttered again.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ithan said, tipping his head back to study the building. The tattoo of Amelie’s pack was glaringly dark in the sun. She wondered if he wanted to tear the flesh off and start anew.

Bryce set the question aside as one of the planets carved in the door—the five-ringed behemoth that was Thurr—swung away, revealing a pale gray eye. “Appointment?”

Tharion held up his BCIU badge. “The Blue Court requires your assistance.”

“Does it, now?” A croaking laugh as that eye—eerily sharp despite the wrinkles around it—fixed on the mer. It narrowed in amusement or pleasure. “One of the river folk. What a treat, what a treat.”

The planet slammed shut, and Tharion stepped onto the slate front step as the doors cracked open a sliver. Cold air rippled out, along with the tang of salt and the smothering dampness of mold.

Ithan trailed Bryce, swearing under his breath at the scent. She twisted, throwing him a reproachful glare. He winced, falling into step beside her with that sunball player’s grace as they entered the cavernous space beyond.

A gray-robed old male stood before them. Not human, but his scent declared nothing other than some sort of Vanir humanoid. His heavy white beard fell to the thin band of rope that served as a belt, his wispy hair long and unbound. Four rings of silver and gold glinted on one of his withered, spotted hands, with small stars blazing in the center of each, trapped in the nearly invisible glass domes.

No—not stars.

Bryce’s stomach turned over at the minuscule hand that pressed against the other side of the glass. There was no mistaking the desperation in that touch.

Fire sprites. Enslaved, all of them. Bought and sold.

Bryce struggled to keep from ripping that hand clean off the arm that bore it. She could feel Ithan watching her, feel him trying to puzzle out why she’d gone so still and stiff, but she couldn’t tear her gaze from the sprites—

“It is not every day that one of the mer crosses my doorstep,” the old male said, his smile revealing too-white teeth, still intact despite his age. Unless they’d come from someone else. “Let alone in the company of a wolf and a Fae.”

Bryce gripped her purse, mastering her temper, and lifted her chin. “We need to consult your …” She peered past his bony shoulder to the dim space beyond. “Services.” And then I’ll take all four of those rings and smash them open.

“I shall be honored.” The male bowed at the waist to Tharion, but didn’t bother to extend the courtesy to Bryce and Ithan. “This way.”

Bryce kept a hand within casual distance of the knife in her purse as they entered the dimness. She wished she had the reassuring weight and strength of Danika’s sword, but the blade would have stood out too much.

The space consisted of two levels, bookshelves crammed with tomes and scrolls rising to the dark-veiled ceiling, an iron ramp winding up the walls in a lazy spiral. A great golden orb dangled in the center of the room, lit from within.

And beneath them, in tubs built into the slate floor …

To her left, Ithan sucked in a breath.

Three mystics slept, submerged in greenish, cloudy water, breathing masks strapped to their faces. Their white shifts floated around them, doing little to hide the skeletal bodies beneath. One male, one female, one both. That was how it always was, how it had always been. Perfect balance.

Bryce’s stomach turned over again. She knew the sensation wouldn’t stop until she left.

“May I interest you in a hot tea before we begin the formalities?” the old male asked Tharion, gesturing to a thick oak table to the right of the ramp’s base.

“We’re pressed for time,” Ithan lied, stepping up to Tharion’s side. Fine. Let them deal with the old creep.

Ithan set a pile of gold marks on the table with a clink. “If that doesn’t cover the cost, give me the bill for the remainder.” That drew Bryce’s attention. Ithan spoke with such … authority. She’d heard him talk to his teammates as their captain, had seen him in command plenty, but the Ithan she’d known these past few days had been subdued.

“Of course, of course.” The male’s filmy eyes swept around the room. “I can have my beauties up and running within a few minutes.” He hobbled toward the walkway and braced a hand on the iron rail as he began the ascent.

Bryce glanced back to the three mystics in their tubs, their thin bodies, their pale, soggy skin. Built into the floor beside them was a panel covered in a language she had never seen.

“Pay them no heed, miss,” the old male called, still winding his way toward a platform about halfway up the room, filled with dials and wheels. “When they’re not in use, they drift. Where they go and what they see is a mystery, even to me.”

It wasn’t that the mystics could see all worlds—no, the gift wasn’t the unnerving thing. It was what they gave up for it.

Life. True life.

Bryce heard Tharion’s swallow. She refrained from snapping that she’d warned him. Ten fucking times.

“The families are compensated handsomely,” the old male said, as if reciting from a script designed to calm skittish patrons. He reached the controls and began flipping switches. Gears groaned and a few more lights flickered on in the tanks, further illuminating the mystics’ bodies. “If that is of any concern to you.”

Another switch flipped, and Bryce staggered back a step as a full holographic replica of their solar system exploded into view, orbiting the dangling sun in the center of the space. Tharion blew out what she could only assume was an impressed breath. Ithan scanned above them, like he could find his brother in that map.

Bryce didn’t wait for them before trailing the old male up the walkway as the seven planets aligned themselves perfectly, stars glittering in the far reaches of the room. She couldn’t keep the sharpness from her voice as she asked, “Do their families ever see them?”

She really had no right to demand these answers. She’d been complicit in coming here, in using their services.

“It would be upsetting for both parties,” the male said distantly, still working his switches.

“What’s your name?” Bryce advanced up the ramp.

Tharion murmured, “Legs.” She ignored the warning. Ithan kept quiet.

Yet the old male replied, utterly unfazed, “Some people call me the Astronomer.”

She couldn’t keep the bite from her voice. “What do other people call you?” The Astronomer didn’t answer. Up and up, Bryce ascended into the heavens, Tharion and Ithan trailing her. Like the assholes were second-guessing this.

One of the mystics twitched, water splashing.

“A normal reaction,” the Astronomer said, not even looking up from his dials as they approached. “Everyone is always so concerned for their well-being. They made the choice, you know. I didn’t force them into this.” He sighed. “To give up life in the waking world to glimpse wonders of the universe that no Vanir or mortal shall ever see …” Stroking his beard, he added, “This trio is a good one. I’ve had them for a while now with no issues. The last group … One drifted too far. Too far, and for too long. They dragged the others with them. Such a waste.”

Bryce tried to block out the excuses. Everyone knew the truth: the mystics came from all races, and were usually poor. So poor that when they were born with the gift, their families sold them to people like the Astronomer, who exploited their talent until they died, alone in those tubs. Or wandered so deep into the cosmos they couldn’t find their way back to their minds.

Bryce clenched her hands into fists. Micah had allowed it to happen. Her piece-of-shit father turned a blind eye, too. As Autumn King, he had the ability to put an end to this practice or, at the least, advocate to stop it, but he didn’t.

Bryce set aside her outrage and waved a hand to the drifting planets. “This space map—”

“It is called an orrery.”

“This orrery.” Bryce approached the male’s side. “It’s tech—not magic?”

“Can it not be both?”

Bryce’s fingers curled into fists. But she said, a murky memory rippling from her childhood, “The Autumn King has one in his private study.”

The Astronomer clicked his tongue. “Yes, and a fine one at that. Made by craftsmen in Avallen long ago. I haven’t had the privilege to see it, but I hear it is as precise as mine, if not more so.”

“What’s the point of it?” she asked.

“Only one who does not feel the need to peer into the cosmos would ask such a thing. The orrery helps us answer the most fundamental questions: Who are we? Where do we come from?”

When Bryce didn’t say anything more, Tharion cleared his throat. “We’ll be quick with our own questions, then.”

“Each one will be billed, of course.”

“Of course,” Ithan said through his teeth, stopping at Bryce’s side. He peered through the planets to the mystics floating beneath. “Does my brother, Connor Holstrom, remain in the Bone Quarter, or has his soul passed through the Dead Gate?”

The Astronomer whispered, “Luna above.” He fiddled with one of the faintly glowing rings atop his hand. “This question requires a … riskier method of contact than usual. One that borders on the illegal. It will cost you.”

Bryce said, “How much?” Scam-artist bullshit.

“Another hundred gold marks.”

Bryce started, but Ithan said, “Done.”

She turned to warn him not to spend one more coin of the considerable inheritance his parents had left him, but the Astronomer hobbled toward a metal cabinet beneath the dials and opened its small doors. He pulled out a bundle wrapped in canvas.

Bryce stiffened at the moldy, rotten earth scent that crept from the bundle as he unfolded the fabric to reveal a handful of rust-colored salt.

“What the fuck is that?” Ithan asked.

“Bloodsalt,” Bryce breathed. Tharion looked to her in question, but she didn’t bother to explain more.

Blood for life, blood for death—it was summoning salt infused with the blood from a laboring mother’s sex and blood from a dying male’s throat. The two great transitions of a soul in and out of this world. But to use it here … “You can’t mean to add that to their water,” Bryce said to the Astronomer.

The old male hobbled back down the ramp. “Their tanks already contain white salts. The bloodsalt will merely pinpoint their search.”

Tharion muttered to Bryce, “You might be right about this place.”

Now you agree with me?” she whisper-yelled as the Astronomer sprinkled the red salt into the three tanks.

The water clouded, and then turned rust colored. Like the mystics were now submerged in blood.

Ithan murmured, “This isn’t right.”

“Then let’s take our money and go,” she urged.

But the Astronomer returned and Tharion asked, “Is it safe for the mystics to contact the resting dead?”

The Astronomer typed on the pad mounted on a gold-plated lectern fashioned after an exploding star, then hit a black button on a panel nearby. “Oh yes. They do love to talk. Have nothing else to do with their time.” He shot Bryce a sharp glare, gray eyes gleaming like cold knives. “As for your money … there is a no-refunds policy. Says so right there on the wall. You might as well stay to hear your answer.”

Before Bryce could respond, the floor below slid away, leaving the mystics in their tubs. And creating a considerable gap between the base of the ramp and the entryway.

The tubs rested atop narrow columns, rising from a sublevel lined with more books and another walkway descending down, down—to a black pit in the center of the floor. And filling the sublevel, layer after layer of darkness revealed itself, each one blacker than the last.

Seven of them. One for each level of Hel.

“From the highest stars to the Pit itself.” The Astronomer sighed, and typed again into the pad. “Their search may take a while, even with the bloodsalt.”

Bryce sized up the gap between the base of the ramp and the entryway. Could she jump it? Ithan definitely could—Tharion, too.

She found Tharion watching her with crossed arms. “Just enjoy the show, Legs.”

She scowled. “I think you’ve lost the right to call me that after this.”

Ithan said quietly, face pained, “Bryce. I know this sucks. This is … This is not okay.” His voice turned hoarse. “But if it’s the only way to learn what’s going on with Connor …”

She opened her mouth to snap that Connor would have condemned this place and told Ithan to find some other way, but … she could see him. Connor. Shining right there in Ithan’s face, in his eyes—the same hue—and in those broad shoulders.

Her throat ached.

What line wouldn’t she cross to help Connor and the Pack of Devils? They would have done the same for her. Connor might have condemned this place, but if their positions were reversed …

Tharion jerked his chin to the exit far below. “Go ahead, Princess. We’ll see you later.”

“Fuck you,” Bryce snapped. She braced her feet apart. “Let’s get this over with.” From the corner of her eye, she saw Ithan’s shoulders sag. In relief or shame, she didn’t know.

The old male cut in, as if he hadn’t heard a word of their hissed argument. “Most astronomers and mystics have been put out of business these days, you know. Thanks to fancy tech. And self-righteous busybodies like you,” he spat toward Bryce. She snarled at him, the sound more primal Fae than she liked, but he waved that hateful, ring-encrusted hand toward the mystics in their pools. “They were the original interweb. Any answer you wish to know, they can find it, without having to wade through the slog of nonsense out there.”

The female mystic twitched, dark hair floating around her in the suspension pool, black tendrils among the red salt. Dried salt water crusted the slate rim of the tub, as if she’d thrashed earlier and soaked the stones. Salt for buoyancy—and to protect them from the demons and beings they spied on or conversed with. But would those protections fade with the bloodsalt in the water?

The mystic who was both male and female jolted, their long limbs flailing.

“Oh,” the Astronomer observed, scanning the pad. “They’re going far this time. Very far.” He nodded to Bryce. “That was high-quality bloodsalt, you know.”

“For a hundred marks, it had better be,” Ithan said, but his attention remained on the mystics below, his breathing shallow.

Another push of a button, and the holographic planets began to shift, becoming smaller as they drifted away. The sun rose into the ceiling, vanishing, and distant stars came into view. Different planets.

“The mystics made the first star-maps,” the Astronomer said. “They charted more extensively than anyone had before. In the Eternal City, I heard they have a thousand mystics in the palace catacombs, mapping farther and farther into the cosmos. Speaking with creatures we shall never know.”

Hunt had been in those catacombs—their dungeons, specifically. Had he ever heard a whisper of this?

Something beeped on the screen and Bryce motioned toward it. “What’s that?”

“The male is reaching Hel’s orbit.” The Astronomer clicked his tongue. “He’s much faster today. Impressive.”

“Connor’s soul wound up in Hel?” Horror laced Ithan’s every word.

Bryce’s throat closed up. It—it wasn’t possible. How would that have even happened? Had she done something with the Gate this spring that had transported his soul over there?

Silence fell, the temperature dropping with it. She demanded, “Why is it getting colder?”

“Sometimes their powers manifest the environment they’re encountering.” Before anyone replied, the Astronomer twisted a brass dial. “What do you see, what do you hear?”

The male twitched again, red water splashing over the edge of the tub and dribbling into the pit beneath. Tharion peered over the iron rail. “His lips are turning blue.”

“The water is warm.” The Astronomer tutted. “Look.” He pointed to the screen. A graph of rising and falling lines, like sound waves, appeared. “I’ll admit the new tech has some advantages. The old way of transcribing was much harder. I had to reference every single brain wave to find the correlation to the right letter or word. Now the machine just does it for me.”

I don’t care about brain waves, Bryce thought. Tell me what’s happening with Connor.

But the Astronomer rambled on, almost absentmindedly, “When you speak, your brain sends a message to your tongue to form the words. This machine reads that message, that signal, and interprets it. Without you needing to say a word.”

“So it’s a mind reader,” Tharion said, face pale in the lights. Bryce drifted closer to Ithan—the wolf radiated dread.

“Of a sort,” the Astronomer said. “Right now, it is more of an eavesdropper, listening to the conversation the mystic is having with whoever is on the other end of the line.”

Tharion asked, hands behind his back as he peered at the machines, “How does it know what the other person is saying?”

“The mystic is trained to repeat back the words so that we may transcribe them.” The screen began to flash a series of letters—words.

Too dark,” the Astronomer read. “It is too dark to see. Only hear.”

“Can you pinpoint where in Hel your mystic is?” Ithan indicated the holographic levels far below.

“Not precisely, but judging by the cold, I’d say deep. Perhaps the Chasm itself.”

Bryce and Ithan swapped glances. His eyes were as wide as her own.

The Astronomer kept reading. “Hello?” Silence. Nothing but endless silence. “This is very common,” the Astronomer assured them, gesturing them to move closer. Despite herself, despite her objections, Bryce leaned in to read the feed.

The mystic said, I am searching for the soul of a wolf called Connor Holstrom.

Someone, something answered.

No wolves have roamed these lands for eons. No wolf by that name dwells here, living or dead. But what are you?

Ithan shuddered, swaying a step. With relief, Bryce realized—because that was the dizzying, rushing sensation in her body, too.

“Strange,” the Astronomer said. “Why were we drawn to Hel if your friend isn’t there?”

Bryce didn’t want to know. Tried and failed to open her mouth to say they should go.

I am a mystic, the male said.

From where?

A faraway place.

Why are you here?

To ask questions. Will you oblige me?

If I can, mystic, then I shall.

What is your name?

A pause. Then, Thanatos.

Bryce sucked in a sharp breath.

“The Prince of the Ravine.” Tharion fell back a step.

Do you know if Connor Holstrom remains in the Bone Quarter of Midgard?

A long, long pause, the sound waves flatlining. Then—

Who sent you here?

A wolf, a mer, and a half-Fae, half-human female.

How the mystics had known of their presence, Bryce had no idea. Didn’t want to know what sort of perception they possessed while in those isolation tanks.

Thanatos asked, What are their names?

I do not know. Will you answer my questions?

Another long pause. “We need to stop this.” Ithan nodded toward the male’s tub. Ice was beginning to inch over the water.

They are listening, are they?


Again, silence.

And then the demon prince said, Let me see them. Let them see me.

The mystic’s eyes flew open in the tank below.


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not work with dark mode