Chapter no 69

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

The moment my blood touched the stone, I wasn’t here anymore. I wasn’t Oraya anymore. I was somewhere long in the past, pulled into the soul of another.

I recognized him immediately, just as I had the night I yanked the pendant from his father’s wings. I would recognize him anywhere, even from within his own memories.




WATCH her as she observes this place. She looks at it with such amazement, even though it’s little more than a cave. She has always been good at seeing the potential in things. Perhaps this is what drew me to her a year ago. Perhaps she reminds me that I used to be a dreamer once, too.

Yet, I can’t deny I feel some of it, too. It has taken us so long, so many sleepless nights and days, to get here. She has taken the unrefined artifacts I uncovered long ago and turned them into something incredible. And now, here, this place, serves as a physical monument to all that we have accomplished together.

The first layer of our lock has been constructed, the stone smooth and polished beneath my palms. Her cheeks are dusted with black soot from the

hours she has spent carving into it, perfect interlocking circles of spell-work.

“You need to give it something of yourself,” she tells me. Her hands caress the stone like a lover. I watch her delicate fingers move back and forth, back and forth, across the smooth onyx.

“Blood,” I say, blandly.

“It will take more than blood. Just like that took more than your blood.” She nodded to my hip—to the sword hanging there. “You gave that thing a piece of your soul, and this will guard a much more powerful weapon.”

“Soul, then.” I deliberately sound bored, partly because I know it will make her scowl. Sure enough, it does, the wrinkle on her upturned nose scrunching the black marks.

“Belittle it all you want, my king. Just think of something powerful when you spill your blood over this. The stronger the emotion, the better. You can’t choose what this magic will take from you. But you can offer it strong options to choose from.” Her big, dark eyes flick back to me, and she smirks. “Think about, I don’t know, your ravenous desire for power and whatnot. Maybe the last enemy you killed. That kind of thing.”

I scoffed. “Is that who you think I am?”

Her smirk becomes a smile. I watch it bloom across her lips, and the distraction frustrates me.

“Isn’t that who you want to be? Isn’t that why we’re doing this?”

She’s right. Yet, the conclusion is even more aggravating than that nuisance of a smile. I take her dagger and draw it across my hand, then press my palm to the stone, letting my blood pool in the carvings she spent so long on.

I try to think about power and greatness. I try to think about the way my blade felt piercing the heart of Neculai Vasarus. I try to think about the weight of this crown upon my head for the first time. I try to think about the dead body of the father I hated, and my satisfaction when I spat on his grave. Something powerful, she said. These are my most powerful moments.

But I cannot tear my gaze away from her mouth, or the speckles of dust across her nose, or the little scar on one of her eyebrows.

“Come here,” I say, before I can stop myself.

No one disobeys me when I make a command. Not even her. The smile fades. Brief uncertainty glints in her eyes.

She steps closer.

She smells so wonderfully human. Sweet and savory and complex.

Flowers and the earth and cinnamon. She tilts her head back slightly. “Yes?” she murmurs.

Her heartbeat has quickened. Strange, that mine has, too.

It is exhausting to desire. I can no longer remember when this set in, how many days passed with her in my presence before it became maddening. I despise it. I cannot think when she’s near me.

It makes me feel powerless.

My right hand is still pressed to the stone, my blood now dripping over the edge of the wall. But my left comes to her face, wiping away that smudge of black with my thumb, leaving a smear in its wake.

Her skin is so unbelievably warm. Her mouth is warmer.



STAGGERED BACK, clutching my hand, which was now covered in blood. Vincent’s memories and my own tangled. The image of my mother’s face— Goddess, my mother—was seared so clearly into my mind, I could still see its outline when I closed my eyes.

I was so disoriented that I didn’t even feel the ground trembling until I heard the grinding of stone. I blinked away the remnants of Vincent’s memory to see the wall before me lowering, inch by inch, until it was flat against the ground. The carvings on the stone beneath my feet and that of the wall’s lip matched up seamlessly, all pulsing with faint red light, still stained with the remnants of my blood.

The realization of the vision settled into me. This was a lock.

Each wall was a layer, a phase, like the pins within a padlock. And the column in the center was the final piece—the turn of the key.

I drew in a shaky breath and let it out. I took several careful steps to the second ring of stone. The magic in this room seemed to grow thicker, more

noxious, than it was minutes ago. My head pounded. My stomach threatened to empty. My limbs shook.

But far more pressing than any of that was the thought of Raihn, fighting for his life above.

I didn’t have time for this shit.

I pushed myself through it, half-stumbling to the next wall.

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I opened the wound in my hand again, urging forth a streak of fresh blood, and pressed it to the stone.



My hand is already bleeding.

Rage. Utter rage. It’s raining outside, one of those rare, powerful monsoons that occasionally roars over the deserts. My hair drips rainwater onto the carvings. She had finished these not long ago, the dust still settled into the rivulets, collecting with my blood into a black sludge as it pours into the divots.

I hate them. I hate her.

I shouldn’t have come here in this state. This is not the mark I want to leave on something so important. This was supposed to be a thing to make me powerful—instead, it is becoming a monument to my weaknesses. But I needed to come here tonight. Needed to know that she had not betrayed me with her final slight—needed to know that I had enough power to finish what we had started together.

Did she really think that it could end here?

Did she really think that it would stop me if she left?

She called me power-hungry. I called her weak. What right did she have to speak to me that way? She came from nothing. I gave her everything.

I was ready to give her eternity.

I was ready to give her all of it, and she looked into my eyes and spat in my face.

Did she know how many women would have died for such an opportunity? How many humans would kill to be made into vampire


Did she think I wouldn’t smell my own child on her?

With that thought, fear spears my chest. It is difficult to breathe. My child.

A threat. Not just a threat, but the greatest threat. How many kings die at the hands of their children?

If she had stayed—if she had listened— We could have dealt with that.

But now, she is gone, and I will have a child out there in the world, and I am—I am—

I sink to my knees, my forehead pressing to the sharp edge of the wall. My chest hurts fiercely. I stand on a blade’s edge between two emotions, neither of them pleasant, and I hate her for making me feel this way.

I’m ashamed of myself.

I think of every word I said to her. Every flinch of pain across her face.

I never asked for any of this. She was the one who came to my door. She was the one who kept finding ways to stay.

The thought of an empty bedchamber in an empty castle hits me, and it’s more painful than any battle wound I’ve ever endured.

I should go after her. I should hunt her down. I should snip the loose thread in my tapestry, mend this chink in my armor. It’s what my father would have done. It’s what all the prior Nightborn kings would have done.

But she had looked into my eyes and asked me if she would be safe if she left. If years of love and companionship had earned her that right.

I said, “You’re welcome to leave whenever you want. Arrogant of you to assume I’d care enough to go after you.”

Much of that conversation has become a blur, cruelties blending into cruelties. But I remember every word of that answer.

Here, in the face of the magic she created for me, I cannot lie anymore.

And it was, indeed, a lie. A childish one.

Here, I cannot lie to myself.

She’s gone. She is not coming back.

And even if I found her, I wouldn’t be able to kill her.

The weakness in this confession to myself astounds me. Embarrasses me. I hate myself for it.

And yet, I know I would hate myself more, standing over her dead body. I think of another dark-eyed woman, a former queen who had been kind to

me when I hadn’t deserved it, who I had not spared, and feel a little pang of regret.

What I felt for Alana was—is—so much greater than what I once felt for a kind enemy I barely knew. My body physically recoils at the thought of what the wound of her death might feel like.

I force myself back to my feet. My hands are so badly cut that the blood overflows the carvings. I got some of it on my face, stinging my eye.

I raise my gaze to the thing of beauty before me. This fortress, designed to hold a greater power than any king, Nightborn or otherwise, had ever wielded before me.

And yet I concern myself with some human woman?

I force my shame and my hurt away to a dark place in the corner of my mind, never to be acknowledged again.

Let her go, I tell myself.

She isn’t worth anything, I tell myself. I pull my hand away.



FELT SICK. I didn’t even come back to awareness this time until the wall was already down, and I had fallen to the floor with it. I was on my hands and knees on the stone, retching. I’d eaten very little today. Nothing had come up but a few spatters of putrid liquid.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and raised my head.

Now the only thing that stood before me was the column. Column—no, that wasn’t a strong enough word for it. An obelisk. The carvings on this one were, I could see now, a little different than those in the rest of the cave, even if I couldn’t fully articulate how—the strokes a little messier, the circles a little more crooked. The Nightfire had dimmed—or did I imagine that the room was darker now? The angry red glow of the carvings seemed more aggressive with each of my heartbeats, matching them in cadence.

My father’s memories—hurt, anger, fear—burned in my veins. The terrifying dual-blade of his love and his disgust for my mother. I hated feeling it.

I hated him for feeling it.

I stared at that obelisk. I blinked and a tear rolled down my cheek. I didn’t want to.

The memories, the emotions, had only grown more intense as I moved to the center of the room. I was losing my grip on myself. This, I feared, might break me. Worse, it might break whatever fragile image I still had of the father that I’d loved—the father that had loved me.

What a fucking coward it made me, to still treasure that, after everything.

But I came here for a reason. There was only one place to go next. One remaining piece of the lock.

I stood, swaying on my feet. Stepped into the final circle.

I didn’t need to open the gash again. My hand was already covered in blood.

I laid it against the stone.

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