Brave, p.32
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       Brave, p.32

         Part #3 of A Wicked Trilogy series by Jennifer L. Armentrout
 

  with you.”

  I smiled even though my stomach was filled with knots, chasing away the languid bliss. Planning for later was amazing, but it was also scary as hell. “I’d like that.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Yeah.”

  Ren pulled me closer to his side. “Good.”

  I tried to smile again, but I couldn’t. Not when balls of dread and unease were piling atop each other in my stomach. Would we have a tonight?

  Would we have a tomorrow?

  After sleeping most of the day and resting as much as possible, our crew minus Tink arrived at the house next to the infamous LaLaurie Mansion just after seven. We climbed out on Royal, because there was no way that SUV was going to make it down the narrow road without taking out tourists.

  Nervous energy filled me, something I felt many times before, but there was a razor sharp quality to it this time. Knowing that we were about to face the most dangerous fae known brought the entire world into stark clarity.

  Everything had changed since the last time I walked Royal, but in a way, nothing had. I was still the same Ivy who walked this street and entered the house all those weeks ago, prepared to fight and to die to protect the city. I was still her. Yeah, I carried a little more baggage with me. Yeah, I’d been lied to and betrayed, but I was stronger. I was more prepared, and I was ready to protect this city again.

  Stepping onto the sidewalk of Royal was like . . . God, it was like finally coming home. It had been so long since I walked these streets. Too long. I glanced down the street, taking in the old buildings and sidewalks crowded with tourists and locals, and I listened to the laughter and shouts, the blaring horns and distant whirling sirens.

  Home.

  This was home—my home, our home. I wasn’t going to let some Queen Bitch bring some kind of army through this gateway, laying waste to this city. Hell no. Resolve filled me.

  “I’ll be damned if I let her win.”

  “What?” Ren asked, stepping up on the curb.

  Turning to him, I smiled a little. “Just thinking out loud.”

  He slid me a sidelong glance as the brothers passed us. People stopped and stared as they rounded the corner to what used to be called Hospital Street. Couldn’t blame them. The two were well over six feet and looked like Viking conquerors.

  Faye and Kalen followed us as we trailed behind the brothers. The house was just as creepy and rundown as I remembered, but a Summer fae stood outside this time, guarding the building.

  That was different.

  Strange days.

  Walking inside, there was no suppressing the shudder the place always brought on, even with the rooms full of people. Miles was already there, as were several Order members.

  So relieved to see Jackie, I shot forward and gave her a quick hug. It obviously surprised her, because it took a moment for her to return the gesture.

  I turned and looked at Dylan. He stepped back, and I knew he was going to be a no-go on the whole hug thing. “I’m really glad to see you two.”

  Jackie eyed me intensely while Dylan stared at my ears. “What happened to you, Ivy?”

  “Long story,” I said, aware that Ren was watching us and definitely listening. “But I’m not—”

  “Evil?” Jackie suggested. “Halfling or not, you’ve always been a little evil.”

  “No truer words have ever been spoken,” Dylan said.

  My lips twitched into a small grin. “True.”

  “Freaking sucks about Daniel though.” Jackie shook her head. “I wouldn’t have believed it, but . . .”

  “But there have been too many unexplained Order deaths in the last couple of weeks, most of them being found dead at home.” A muscle ticked along Dylan’s jaw. “Skilled members not careless enough to be followed home. Once we talked to Miles, it just started to make sense.”

  “Daniel’s wife?”

  Jackie’s shoulders tensed. “No one has heard from her in weeks. We don’t know if she’s dead or not, but we checked out their house after talking to Miles. Her purse was there, so was her phone, but she wasn’t.”

  “That’s not a good sign,” I said.

  “Nope,” Dylan agreed. “We don’t know if she was aware of what Daniel was doing or not, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. We’ve lost over half of our active members here.”

  A ball of emotion filled my throat. Their deaths were so unfair, so freaking senseless. “So, the city is really screwed if the Queen comes back through this gateway with a horde of Otherworld creatures?”

  Jackie nodded.

  “Hey.” Ren nodded at the two as he curled an arm around my shoulders. Dipping his head, he kissed my cheek, and my heart squeezed in the best possible way. I loved all those quick kisses, and I’d never grow tired of them. I just hoped I had a chance to prove that. “I’m going to head upstairs.”

  “Okay. Be right up.”

  Ren walked ahead, scoping out the interior. Nothing had changed since the last time we’d been in here. At least as far as I remembered, but the air . . . yeah, the air was heavier. I didn’t think it had anything to do with the doorway being here, but more so with all the death that had occurred the first time it had been opened.

  I had a horrible feeling tonight we’d be adding to that heaviness.

  “Ivy.”

  Stiffening at the sound of the Prince’s voice, I turned. Tension seeped into my muscles as my gaze met his.

  He stopped in front of me. “Are you ready for tonight?”

  I lifted a shoulder. “As ready as I can be. Are you?”

  There was a twitch to his lips, as if he wished to smile but didn’t know how. “As ready as I can be.”

  “Cool.” I started to turn away.

  “I’m sorry,” he said, speaking those two words in a low voice.

  My breath caught as I faced him once more. “What?”

  “I am sorry. I know my apology means nothing. The things I’ve done to you, the things I tried to do . . .” He trailed off, his voice hoarse. “I do not ask for your forgiveness for things I could never forgive myself for, but I am sorry for the pain and terror I’ve caused—”

  “Stop,” I rasped out, briefly closing my eyes. The bitter tangle of emotions curled around my heart. “I . . . I appreciate the apology. I do, but I . . .” I thought back to what felt like a lifetime ago. “I once was under the compulsion of a fae. How I’d ended up under a compulsion had been my fault. I’d been stupid and I paid for that. Completely under their glamour, I’d let fae into a house where they killed everyone who was important to me. So I know what it feels like to have no control and do things you never would, but I . . .”

  “I understand,” he simply said after a long moment.

  My gaze shot to his, and I thought . . . I thought that maybe he did understand what I couldn’t even put into words. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand he hadn’t been in control. He’d even been under a spell, devoid of conscious choice or will, and I guessed that was worse than anything Ren and I had suffered. I understood that, but it was still hard. That I could understand how he became the Prince that terrified me, how he hadn’t been responsible, but all that knowledge didn’t change the fact that forgiving and forgetting may never be in the cards.

  The Prince gave me a curt bow and then he stepped around me, heading upstairs, and I was left standing there, staring at the place where he once was.

  Sucking in a sharp breath, I pushed that mess of memories and emotions associated with my capture and headed upstairs. Now was not the time to dwell on any of that. I needed to have a clear head if I had any chance of surviving this night.

  Miles followed me up, and I made my way down the narrow, dark hallway. A wave of goosebumps spread over my skin as I neared the entrance to the bedroom.

  As I walked through the door and found Ren standing by a boarded-up window near a wooden chair, my heart started kicking around in my chest, doing an erratic dance.

  “It’s kind of like w
e came full circle, isn’t it?” I said to Ren.

  He nodded as he eyed the sealed closet door—the gateway. Right now it just looked like any normal door in an old-as-hell house with a white ceramic handle that most likely jiggled. There was a gap between the top of the door and the frame. It sat slightly crooked.

  “It is.” Ren paused as a lopsided grin appeared. “In a really messed up way.”

  Curling an arm around him, I didn’t care what it looked like to the others. I wanted to feel his tattooed skin under mine for as long as I could.

  I didn’t know how much time had passed. Maybe a handful of minutes. Maybe an hour. It felt like time had slowed down to a crawl and also sped up at the same time.

  But we didn’t have to wait long.

  The Prince stiffened and then turned to the doorway. A strange stillness permeated the room. “It’s time.”

  Chapter 34

  A shiver snaked its way down my spine, and my hands automatically went to the iron stakes on my thighs. Tiny hairs rose on my body. All around me, people began to react to the peculiar tension seeping into the house.

  Dylan blew out a terse breath and it puffed into a misty cloud. “Is it just me or did the temps just drop by twenty degrees?”

  “It’s not just you,” Ren replied.

  Ice formed over the doorframe and seeped over the walls as a soft, highly feminine giggle rose from downstairs. A bone-cold wind whipped through the room.

  “They’re here,” Jackie whispered, tendrils of her hair lifting.

  A horrible sense of déjà vu slipped over me as I heard the pounding feet and creaking floorboards. We’d been here before. It all started here, and it had been a bloodbath.

  I looked at Ren.

  His gaze met mine.

  He winked.

  One side of my lips kicked up. “I love you.”

  “Prove it to me later.”

  “I will,” I promised as the air caught in my throat.

  The Summer fae stepped forward, lifting crossbows as the Queen’s fae reached the hallway, and then they were here.

  The first through the iced-over doorway was an ordinary fae, and Kalen caught it in the chest with a quick, clean strike. And then there was another, and Jackie took out that one next.

  And then they just kept coming, spilling through the open doorway like a plague of locusts. There were so many that they filled the room, and the floor rattled like dry, angry bones under the weight. The wave of Queen’s fae swallowed ours, taking them down. Screams ripped through the air as daggers and teeth tore through flesh.

  I forced my lungs to inflate and then I let go of the fear and dread that always came with this kind of battle. I sprang into action, like I’d been trained to do—born to do. I caught the nearest fae, slamming the dagger home. Instinct took over. I spun, extending my arm and catching another fae just as Ren launched forward as the first Knight appeared.

  They wouldn’t be as easy to kill.

  Dipping down, he caught the Ancient in the stomach with his shoulder. The force of the broad blow flipped the Ancient over. He landed on his back with a grunt of surprise. Ren spun skillfully, thrusting the thorn stake deep into the Ancient’s chest. Ren whirled, shoulders tense, mouth nothing but a slash of a line.

  I turned at the sound of pounding feet. An Ancient was gunning for me, eyes full of hatred. My muscles tensed liked they always did before engaging in battle with an enemy that wasn’t going to be taken down easily. I waited for the perfect moment, knowing I had to be smart about this. He had a ton more muscle on him than I did, but I was stronger than the last time I stood in this house. He reached for me, and I darted under his arm. Springing up behind him, I slammed my foot into his back. He let out a roar of pain as I dragged the iron dagger along the back of his neck, using everything in me to cut through bone and tissue. Blood sprayed, dotting my chest and face. His roar ended in a gurgle as the dagger punched through the other side. Jerking my arm to the right, I severed his head. His body fell forward and his head went straight down, landing in a splat that turned my stomach.

  Gross.

  So freaking gross.

  A harsh shout drew my attention, and I spun around. My heart dropped like a stone. Ren was surrounded, two Ancients at his back and three fae at his front. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth as he ducked a blow that would’ve most likely knocked him out or worse. He was pushed back and a fae jumped on his back. Literally. Like a freaking spider monkey.

  I shot forward and gripped the back of the fae’s shirt, yanking him off of Ren. I threw it to the floor and swooped down, jabbing the dagger deep into its chest. That fae was no more by the time I straightened and looked over my shoulder.

  Ren had taken out one of the Ancients based on the headless body next to him, but he was still surrounded and there was an ugly gash along his forehead that stole my breath. I started toward him just as I caught sight of the Princes. The brothers were tearing through the fae like they were nothing but paper. I couldn’t see Kalen or Faye or anyone else in the mess. I hoped that they were still standing.

  Grabbing the fae closest to Ren, I spun her around. The fae’s eyes widened in shock as the stake cut through her skin like a hot knife through butter. I jerked the weapon out, my gaze already swinging toward—

  A body slammed into me. Knocked off balance, I fell onto my side. A burst of panic hit me as I rolled onto my knees. I started to get up, but pain exploded along my back as a boot came down, knocking my legs and arms out from underneath me. I didn’t even know how I managed to hold on to my weapons as my chin knocked off the wood floor.

  Grinding my jaw through the pain, I grunted as hard fingers dug into my shoulders, roughly flipping me over. I didn’t even have a chance to react. A heartbeat later, an Ancient was on top of me, hands encircling my throat.

  My oxygen was cut off as he squeezed down, putting pressure on fragile bones. He was going to snap my neck like a twig! Panic exploded in my stomach. I reacted without thought. Lifting both of my arms, I jabbed the stakes into either side of the Ancient’s neck. The fae’s hands left my throat, but it was too late to stop me. Screaming, I cut through, severing the spinal cord. Blood spurted as the Ancient trembled and then fell to the side.

  Rolling away, I sprang to my feet and spun back to Ren. I came up behind the two fae, slamming my stake into the back of one. The other whirled on me, screeching.

  “Hi!” I chirped, dipping down as it swung at me. I launched up, kicking out and swiping the legs out from underneath her. “Bye!”

  Thrusting the dagger down, I took out the fae and then popped up. Slipping under Ren’s arm, I went straight for the Ancient sneaking up on him. Flipping the stake, I swung my arm out just as the Ancient’s body jerked in front of me. His eyes widened and then flames erupted from his sockets. His mouth dropped open and fire crawled out, licking along his cheeks and down his throat. He tipped forward—

  I jumped out of the way as he fell and my gaze swung to where he’d once stood. The Prince stood there.

  “Fire?” I said stupidly. I’d seen what Fabian had been capable of, but that—that was something else.

  The Prince’s gaze flickered over me. “You have blood . . . everywhere.”

  “Yeah,” I whispered under my breath, stumbling back a step. “That nifty trick would’ve been helpful about a minute ago.”

  “Sorry. Been busy.” He spun toward the door.

  I turned, finding a female fae charging me, practically impaling herself on my dagger. I blinked as she imploded. “Well then.”

  Then I spotted Faye.

  She sprang onto a chair nimbly and spun like a dancer. Aiming the crossbow, she fired off several shots, one after another. Each arrow found a home, striking down three fae. As they fell, I finally saw Miles. He was bruised and bloody but still standing. Relief filled me.

  “Get down!” Fabian shouted.

  I whipped around just as Ren popped up beside me. Circling an arm around my waist, he dragged me
down to the floor just as the
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