Chapter no 74

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

For a few long, terrible seconds, nothing happened.

The battle continued. Simon kept slowly pushing himself to his knees. Raihn kept dying.

More tears welled up in my eyes. No. This had to work. It had to.

My arm shook as I held that vial to the sky, held it as high as I could, my eyes staring unblinking into the god-touched night above.

Please, I pleaded, silently. Please, Nyaxia. I know I’ve never been yours. Not really. But I’m begging you to hear me.

And then, as if she heard my silent prayer, there she was.

Time seemed to slow, the figures above moving in slow motion. The breeze through my hair grew cold, the strands suspended in midair. My skin pebbled, as if in the moments preceding a strike of lightning.

Just like last time, I felt her before I saw her. A staggering sensation of overwhelming adoration, and overwhelming smallness.

“What,” a low, melodic voice said, deadly as a drawn blade, “is happening here?”

There was only one thing, I realized in this moment, more terrifying than the presence of a god.

And that was the rage of one. I slowly lowered my eyes.

Nyaxia floated before me.

She was just as beautiful, just as terrible, as I remembered her. Hers was the kind of beauty that made you want to prostrate yourself before her. Her hair floated in tendrils of ink-black night. Her bare feet hovered, delicately

pointed, just above the ground. Her body, dipped in silver, gleamed and shone like moonlight in the darkness. Those eyes, revealing every shade of the night sky, were dark and stormy with utter fury.

The world itself felt that fury. Ceded to it. As if the air was desperate to please her, the stars moving to soothe her, the moon ready to bow to her.

Perhaps the fighting stopped, when Nyaxia appeared, soldiers on all sides shocked by what they were in the presence of. Or perhaps it just seemed that way, because everything else ceased to exist when she arrived.

Her shoulders rose and fell with heavy breaths. Her bloody lips contorted into a snarl.

“What,” she ground out, “is this atrocity?

She spat the word, and with it, a burst of power shook the earth. I cringed, my body folding over Raihn’s as rocks and sand cascaded from the ruins. Wisps of stormy shadow surrounded her, leeching out into the air with the ominous darkness of tragedy.

Simon had managed to get himself up to his knees. He turned to her, bowing, blood spilling from his mouth as he spoke. “My Goddess—”

I didn’t even see Nyaxia move. One moment, she was before me, and the next, she was at Simon, hoisting him up with a single hand and ripping the pendant from his chest with the other.

It was so sudden, so brutal, that I let out a little gasp, my own body bracing tighter over Raihn’s.

Nyaxia let Simon’s corpse, limp and bleeding, fall to the ground without so much as a second glance.

Instead, she cradled the twisted creation of steel and teeth in her hands, staring down at it.

Her face was blank. But the sky grew darker, the air colder. I was shaking—whether with shivers or fear, or maybe both, I wasn’t sure. I still leaned over Raihn, and I couldn’t bring myself to stop, even though I knew it was pointless.

I couldn’t protect him from the wrath of a goddess.

Her fingertips traced the pendant—the broken teeth welded into it. “Who did this?”

I wasn’t expecting that. For her to sound so… broken.

“My love,” she murmured. “Look at what you’ve become.” The pain in her voice was so naked. So familiar.

No, grief never really left us. Not even for the gods. Two thousand years, and Nyaxia’s was still tender as ever.

Then, in an eerily sudden movement, her head snapped up. Her eyes landed on me.

My head emptied of thought. The full force of Nyaxia’s attention was devastating.

The pendant in her hands disappeared, and suddenly, she was before


“How did this happen?” she snarled. “My own children, using the body

parts of my husband’s corpse for their own pathetic gains? What incredible disrespect.”

Talk, Oraya, an urgent voice reminded me. Explain. Say something.

I had to force the words out.

“I agree,” I said. “I’m returning what is rightfully yours. Your husband’s blood, my Mother.”

I opened my fingers, offering her the vial in my shaking palm. Her face softened. A glimmer of grief. A glimmer of sadness.

She reached for it, but I moved it away—a stupid move, I recognized right after I’d done it, when her sadness was replaced by anger.

“I ask for a deal,” I said quickly. “One favor, and it’s yours.” Her face darkened. “It is already mine.”

That was a fair point. I was gambling with something that was not mine to trade, with leverage that was laughable against a goddess. I was so afraid. I was grateful I was kneeling, because otherwise, I was sure my knees would have buckled.

I tethered myself to the sensation of Raihn’s fading heartbeat beneath my palm, and my own heightening desperation.

“I appeal to your heart, my Mother,” I choked out. “As a lover who knows grief. Please. You’re right, your husband’s blood is yours. I know I cannot, and would not, keep it from you. But I—I ask you for a favor in return.”

I swallowed thickly, my next words heavy on my tongue. If I wasn’t so distracted, maybe this would have been funny. My entire life, I’d dreamed of asking Nyaxia for this very gift—but never did I think it would be under these circumstances.

I said, “My Mother, I ask you for a Coriatis bond. Please.” My voice cracked over my plea.

A Coriatis bond. The god-given gift I’d once thought would give me the power I needed to be Vincent’s true daughter. Now, I was giving up my father’s greatest weapon to bind myself to the man I’d once thought was my greatest enemy. To save his life.

Love, over power.

Nyaxia’s gaze flicked down. She seemed to notice Raihn for the first time since she’d arrived, with only passing interest.

“Ah,” she said. “I see. Much has changed, I suppose, since the last time you begged me for his life.”

Before, Nyaxia had laughed when I’d asked her to save Raihn’s life, amused by the antics of her mortal followers. But there was no amusement in her eyes, now. I wished I could read her face.

I wished I had better words for her.

“Please,” I choked out, again. Another tear slid down my cheek.

She leaned down. Her fingertips caressed my face, tipping my chin toward her. She was so close that she could’ve kissed me, close enough that I could count the stars and galaxies in her eyes.

“I told you once, little human,” she murmured. “A dead lover can never break your heart. You did not listen to me then.”

And Raihn had broken my heart that night. I couldn’t deny that.

“You should have let the flower of your love remain forever frozen as it was,” she said. “So beautiful at its peak. So much less painful.”

But there was no such thing as love without fear. Love without vulnerability. Love without risk.

“Not as beautiful as one that lives,” I whispered.

A flicker of something I couldn’t decipher passed over Nyaxia’s face. She reached for the vial in my palm, and this time, I let her. Her fingers touched it tenderly, like the caress of a lover.

She let out a soft, bitter laugh.

“Spoken by someone too young to see the ugliness of its decay.”

Was this what she told herself? Was this how she stifled her grief over her husband’s death? Did she convince herself it was better this way?

The last time I’d met Nyaxia, she had seemed a force greater than any mortal could comprehend.

Now, she seemed… so tragically imperfect. Fallible in all the same ways as us.

“It would have bloomed,” I said softly. “If he had lived. You and Alarus.

Your love wouldn’t have withered.”

Nyaxia’s eyes snapped to me, like I’d startled her by speaking—like she’d gone somewhere far away, forgetting I was here at all.

For a moment, grief collapsed in her beautiful face.

Then she shuttered it behind an ice wall, pristine features going still. She snatched the vial from my hand and drew herself back up to her full height.

“I feel your pain, my child,” she said. “But I cannot grant you a Coriatis bond.”

The words obliterated me.

My skin went numb. My ears rang. I could not hear anything over the sound of my heart shattering at my goddess’s feet.

Please—” I begged.

“I am a romantic,” she said. “It brings me no pleasure to deny you. But you and him—you were created, thousands of years ago, as enemies. Those roles are marked onto your skin. Hiaj. Rishan.”

My chest burned, my Heir Mark pulsing, as if awoken by her mention of it.

“Roles given by you,” I said, even though I knew it was stupid to argue with her—

“Roles given by your forefathers,” she corrected. “Do you know why I created the Hiaj and Rishan lines? Because even before Obitraes was the land of vampires, your peoples fought. A perpetual power struggle that would never end. It is what you are meant to be. If I grant you a Coriatis bond, your hearts would become one, your lines intertwined. It would erase the Hiaj and Rishan legacy forever.”

“It would eliminate two thousand years of unrest.”

And it wasn’t until Nyaxia nodded slowly, giving me a long, hard stare, that I realized:

We were saying the same thing.

Nyaxia had no interest in ending two thousand years of unrest.

Nyaxia liked her children squabbling, constantly vying over each other for her affections and favor.

Nyaxia would not grant me a Coriatis bond with Raihn, would not allow me to save his life, out of nothing but petty stubbornness.

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. My anger swallowed all words.

Nyaxia sensed it anyway, though, a flash of disapproval over her features. She leaned close again. “I’m handing you victory for the second time, my child. Perhaps you should simply take it. Don’t all little girls dream of being queens?”

Did you? I wanted to ask her. Did you dream of becoming this?

Instead, I rasped, “Then tell me how to save him.”

Her perfect lips thinned, another drop of blood rolling down her chin with the shift of her muscles. Her lashes lowered as she took in Raihn’s mangled body.

“He is practically already dead,” she said. “There has to be something.”

Another indecipherable emotion over her face. Perhaps genuine pity. She flicked a tear from my cheek.

“A Coriatis bond would save him,” she said. “But I cannot be the one to give it to you.”

She rose and turned away. I didn’t look up from Raihn’s battered features, which blurred with my unshed tears.

“Oraya of the Nightborn.” I lifted my head.

Nyaxia stood at Simon’s broken body, nudging it with her toe.

“Treasure that flower,” she said. “No one will ever be able to hurt you again.”

And then she was gone.

No one will ever be able to hurt you again.

Her words echoed in my head as I let out the sob I’d been choking back.

I leaned over Raihn, pressing my forehead to his.

His breath, ever-fading, was so weak against my lips. I did not care that Simon was dead.

I did not care that the Rishan were retreating. I did not care if I had won my war.

Raihn was dying in my arms. Slow rage built in my chest. Treasure that flower.

Perhaps you should just take it.

Spoken by someone too young to see the ugliness of its decay.

With every memory of Nyaxia’s voice, it grew hotter. No.

No, I refused to accept it. I had come this fucking far. I had sacrificed so much. I refused to sacrifice this, too.

I refused to sacrifice him.

A Coriatis bond, Nyaxia had said. But I cannot be the one to give it to you.

The answer was right there.

A Coriatis bond could only be forged by a god. And yes, Nyaxia had denied me. But Nyaxia wasn’t the only goddess my blood called to. She was my father’s goddess.

My mother’s was just as powerful.

Crazed hope seized me. I looked up to the sky—the sky still bright and swirling with the thinning barrier between this world and the next. And maybe I imagined it—maybe I was a naive fool for it—but I could have sworn I felt the eyes of the gods on me.

“My Goddess Acaeja,” I cried out, my voice cracking. “I summon you in the name of my mother, your acolyte, Alana of Obitraes, in my greatest time of need. Hear me, Acaeja, I beg you.”

And perhaps I wasn’t insane after all.

Because when I called, a goddess answered.

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