Chapter no 57

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I didn’t know that the tunnels extended this far beyond the castle grounds. I knew that Vincent hadn’t trusted me with everything, but sometimes, the extent of all he had withheld still threw me. He had

always told me that the passages were through the castle grounds only. But Jesmine led us through a little shack on the outskirts of the city, and through a trap door in its dirty, fully furnished bedroom that led down into the tunnels.

I didn’t even have time to be bothered by this now. Of course Vincent wouldn’t have told me about tunnels beyond the grounds. He wanted me to stay exactly where I was, safely within the walls of his castle.

Why should I be surprised?

We moved swiftly, though the tunnels, narrow as they were, were inefficient for this number of people. We’d prepared ourselves for potential confrontation down here—we couldn’t know how much of the tunnel system Septimus had discovered—but didn’t encounter a soul. A stroke of luck. Any battle within these narrow passages would be a disaster.

The halls were too dark for my human eyes, but the Nightfire at my blade lit the way. I didn’t consciously intend to run—but my steps grew quicker and quicker the closer we got to the heart of Sivrinaj.

Once we encroached upon the inner city, we started to hear the clashes above.

The sounds started off muffled and dull, the distant rumbles of cracking wood and crumbling stone, the sporadic blasts of explosives. Ketura’s troops, traveling over the streets above us, breaking down the barriers

between us and the castle with the help of the demons and the Nightfire explosives.

The sound raised goosebumps on my arms—in anticipation, not dread. This was what we were supposed to be hearing. That, at least, was the sound of progress.

Soon, those echoes grew louder as the tunnels grew wider and better lit. We were reaching the inner city, moving steadily toward our final destination.

That was when things started to change.

The noises from above were now loud enough to vibrate the walls, the worst of them sending waterfalls of dust and dirt falling from the ceiling, the Nightfire flames shivering with the impact. A knot of unease started in my stomach, though I told myself that we were expecting things to get harder as we progressed—we were prepared for this.

But when a particularly loud BOOM made the ground itself lurch, sending both Jesmine and I stumbling against the walls, we exchanged a wary glance.

Jesmine walked faster, shouting urgent commands to those that followed us, but my steps faltered.

It wasn’t the sound, exactly, that did it. It was something deeper, something in the air itself, that I couldn’t put a name to. It buried under my skin, more persistent than the anxiety of battle. A force pulsing against my magic. A toxic smoke clinging to the inside of my lungs.

It was silent, it was invisible, and it was everywhere.

Fifty years ago, a volcano on one of the Nightborn islands erupted, killing every living thing on it—every living thing except for the birds, which all disappeared six hours before, flying off in one sky-darkening flock.

Was this, I wondered, what the birds had felt like that day?

I doubled my pace, catching up to Jesmine, then overtaking her. She shot me a look that had me wondering if she’d felt what I did, too. I’d never seen her show anything close to fear. And still, this wasn’t fear—not quite

—but it was close enough to be almost as unnerving. “Did you—” she started, but I cut her off.

“We need to get up there.” The words flew from my lips before I knew exactly how true they were. “We need to get up there, now.”

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