Chapter no 18

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I practically skipped out of that castle.

Weeks out of that place. Weeks away from those stone walls, and those people, and that musty incense smell that reminded me far too

much of two-hundred-odd years ago. It was every gift I’d ever gotten rolled into one. Better than any birthday.

Cairis would stay behind to manage the affairs of the Crown, and Vale, to continue directing the battles across the House of Night. He seemed a little relieved to have an excuse to remain.

Ketura and a few of her most trusted soldiers would come with us. I tried to talk Mische out of it, but this, of course, was futile. She made it about two sentences before she cut me off and said, “Do you want me to let you finish this before I tell you I’m not listening? I’m a bodyguard, remember?”

Then again, maybe it was for the better. Better to be out there with us than to be in this place, alone.

Septimus—of course—insisted on coming himself, too, bringing his second and a small force of Bloodborn guards with him.

Lahor was one of the most remote cities in the House of Night—all the way at the tip of the eastern shores, surrounded by water on three sides. Truly in the middle of nowhere. The journey alone took almost two weeks. We moved quietly, taking advantage of our limited forces to move swiftly, days spent in unassuming inns where no one would ask questions or in makeshift camps on the road. The winged among us flew, while the Bloodborn followed on horseback. I carried Oraya, which was about as awkward as it had been last time. It was impossible to focus on anything

with her quick heartbeat throbbing in my eyes and her steel-sweet scent in my nostrils and her body stiff and uncomfortable next to mine—all these distracting reminders of what we’d been to each other before and just how far away that was now.

We traveled over rolling desert sands, smooth swells of pale moonlight-drenched gold. When I’d first come here, after I’d made it through the worst of my Turning sickness, I still remembered so clearly stumbling to the window in my room in Neculai’s castle. I’d staggered against the glass, eyes glued to those distant dunes.

I had thought, This place has no fucking right to be so beautiful.

I’d never seen the beauty in all the typical trappings of vampire allure.

Their physical appearances, their gold and silver, their fashion.

But as much as I wanted to hate those dunes, I couldn’t.

For days, we flew over the deserts—sand and sand and sand, interrupted by occasional cities and townships and the rare lake or river surrounded by scattered greenery.

But when we grew closer to Lahor, those smooth waves of gold were shattered by sudden gashes of broken stone. First a couple, then more and more as the hours passed, until the ground below us looked like distant crumpled parchment—all hard angles and sharp edges, cut through only by a single road. No movement below from other travelers, only distant roving packs of hellhounds and demons.

Lahor was that kind of place. The kind of place that the world just moved on without.

No one had much of a reason to come here. Except for us.



WHEN WE LANDED, Oraya made a face of such abject disgust, I wished I could capture it and keep it for the next time I didn’t have words to describe how much I hated something.

“Impressed with your ancestral homeland, princess?” I said. The wrinkle over her nose deepened. “What is that smell?

“Viprus weed. It grows on the cliffs near the water here,” I said. “It spreads quick and then rots as soon as it touches air, so whenever the tide goes out—”

“Ugh.” Mische made a sound like a cat hacking up a hairball. “Gross.”

“Would be even worse if you could see it. Looks like entrails. And then it shrivels up like—”

“Oh, I get it.”

“You’ve been here before?” Oraya said.

I shot her a little smirk. “I’ve been everywhere.”

“Aren’t we lucky to have a world traveler as our guide,” Septimus said. He was smoking, of course. His horse, a big white beast with pink-rimmed eyes, snorted and shook its head—as if just as offended by the stench as we were.

He looked up at the gates ahead of us. “Looks like a beautiful city.” The words dripped with sarcasm. Earned sarcasm.

Maybe once, a very long time ago, Lahor had been a beautiful place. With a very active imagination, you could maybe see the ghost of what once stood here. Obitraes was an old, old continent—far older than Nyaxia’s patronage and far older than vampirism.

Lahor, though, actually looked it. Now it was little more than ruins.

The wall that stood before us was formidable, perhaps the only well-maintained part of this city. Black onyx, stretching high above us and out to either side. The skyline beyond the wall, though… it was what bones were to bodies. What had once been buildings were now jagged spires of shattered stone, the mere suggestion of architecture—towers cracked and leaning on uneven piles of stone. The only lights upon this skyline were distant, wild flames along the jagged peaks of a few of the tallest, broken spires.

The towering onyx doors before us remained firmly closed. “How quaint,” Septimus said.

“Quaint,” Ketura echoed, eyeing the road behind us—and the packs of hellhounds yipping and howling not far from us. It was rare that so many of these beasts would come so close to a town. More evidence that Evelaena was not doing much to maintain her homeland.

“So now what?” Oraya said, turning to the door. “We knock?” “It’s your cousin, princess. You tell us.”

Evelaena knew we were coming. Oraya and I had penned a letter to her before we left, announcing our visit—a tour of all notable vampire nobles in the House of Night. Cairis had heaped sickening amounts of flattery into it. We’d ensured that she had received it, but we’d gotten no response.

That didn’t surprise me. Even my own nobles weren’t especially inclined to return my letters.

I jerked my chin towards Septimus’s companions. “You think you can take down this wall?”

“I hope you’re joking,” Ketura muttered. “Stupidest idea.” I was half joking.

Oraya had slowly approached the door, staring up at it. Something about the expression on her face made me pause. I approached her.

“What?” I asked, softly.

“It just feels… strange here.”

She lifted her palm, as if to lay it against the door—

And then a deafening grinding rang out as the stone swung open. The sound was hideous, squealing and cracking, as if the gate protested moving at all after decades or centuries.

The curtains of stone darkness parted, and Lahor spread out before us. It was even worse than it had seemed in silhouette—the road ahead nothing but slabs of broken stone, every building half-open and crumbling, every window nothing but broken shards of glass.

Standing before us was a boy, no older than sixteen at most. He wore a long purple jacket that didn’t fit him well, once fine but now several hundred years out of style. Waves of pale blond hair framed a delicate face and wide, empty ice-blue eyes. Those eyes seemed to stare through us, not at us. And then, just as the grinding finally stopped, they went suddenly sharp, taking us in with eviscerating keenness before sliding back to cow-like vacancy.

He bowed low before us.

“Highnesses. My lady Evelaena welcomes you to Lahor. Come. You must be eager to rest after your long journey.”

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