Chapter no 10

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I fucking knew it.

If there wasn’t so much death all around me, I might’ve reveled in that a bit more. As it was, it was hard to appreciate my sense of


I was lucky I made it through the explosion alive. Many Rishan warriors hadn’t. Someone had managed to breach the armory walls and plant sigils, apparently, because the explosion came before the Hiaj or the demons did. I was walking through the halls when it happened, and I felt it a second before the Nightfire split the air.

You smell that? Blood.

Well, I certainly smelled it now. It was the first sense that came back to me as I regained consciousness after the explosion. Then I pushed myself up, and staggered into hell.

Nightfire everywhere, silhouettes of Hiaj and Rishan soldiers alike running through the blaze. Nightborn demons—four-legged, hairless beasts

—darted through the flames at impossible speeds. A distant wail rang out as they clamped their teeth around some unlucky soldier, halls away. They were identical to the ones that had been planted at the Moon Palace all those months ago.

An intentional choice, I was sure. All of it. The Nightfire. The demons. A deliberate, downright artful imitation of that night. Jesmine’s little fuck you for the attack I’d refused to confess to.

Was it terrible that I was a little relieved?

I wasn’t the best king. Not even an especially good general, like Vale, with his affinity for strategy and politics.

But I was a fucking incredible warrior. Really, really good at killing things. It was comforting to sink back into something familiar as I cut my way through the carnage.

Ever since Neculai’s death, I’d felt his power—the power of the Rishan Heir line—pulsing deep beneath my skin. I’d always been relatively strong since I’d Turned, but when he died… if the Mark wasn’t enough to tell me what I was, I would have been able to feel it, like a new spring of power inching to the surface.

For a couple of centuries, I’d done my best to ignore it. I didn’t want to accept what I was. Neculai’s fingerprints were already all over me. He’d made me everything that I was. I didn’t want my power to become his, too.

But ever since Nyaxia’s gift—ever since she restored the full power of the Rishan Heir line—there was no more ignoring it. I’d felt it from that first night, after I carried an unconscious Oraya back to the castle and returned to help retake the city. I’d felt it when I’d ripped Martas’s head off his body. And I felt it now, with every Asteris-laced swing of my blade, power spilling from my pores with such magnitude that I couldn’t have hidden it even if I still wanted to.

I hated how much I loved it.

I turned a corner and cut through another demon. Easy enough, but wherever I killed one, more were ready to charge from the smoke. Above, I could hear voices and footsteps—Hiaj warriors, who had dived down from the cloudy sky, taking advantage of the poor visibility. Closer, Vale’s voice rang out through the halls, commanding our soldiers to push them back before they could make it to the ground floors.

It was almost funny, just how many stars aligned to make this night a perfect deadlock.

If we’d pulled our forces like we’d originally planned, the Hiaj would have taken over easily. If the Rishan nobles had sent support like they were supposed to, we would have outnumbered our attackers. If the Bloodborn were still stationed here, then we would have crushed the Hiaj before their assault could even begin.

But as it stood, we were matched one-to-one. Our soldiers were healthier, but the Hiaj were more skilled, and they had the benefit of surprise and the demons on their side. I passed several corpses on my way downstairs, people who were so evenly matched in their respective battles that they’d killed each other instead of finding a victor.

I hit the bottom floor. I needed to get to the back—close the gates. I turned a corner and stopped short.

I recognized her immediately, even through the smoke. The Nightfire seemed to bow to her—warping around her body as if conscious of every curve and angle. Tendrils of long black hair flew out behind her. She was fighting with a sword, a shitty one, which she was clearly uncomfortable with—and I knew that right away, because I knew her and how she moved and how she fought, knew her so well that all it took was one split second to know when she was off-balance.

She was fighting a wayward demon, which let out a keening wail as she impaled it, releasing a putrid spray of black blood. With a strangled roar, she pushed its limp body away from her. Then turned around and lifted her head.

Those fucking eyes. Silver as steel. Just as sharp. Just as deadly. Every time, I felt that little pulse in my chest, the urge to rub the scar that didn’t exist.

Her face went hard and cold, and for a split second, I was so relieved to see that look. Fight.

There she is.

That one moment of relief drowned out all the other reasonable thoughts, the thoughts I was supposed to be having, and those hit me in an avalanche soon after.

She got out.

She came here.

She knew to come here.

She was trying to escape. Or… Or she was responsible for this.

She leapt away as soon as she saw me, taking a few strides backwards. The Nightflame around her surged and danced, clinging to her form. I wondered if she knew that it did that. Was it conscious, or just a new part of her, like my magic was?

“Let me pass,” she said. A command, not a request.

I smiled a little. “Or what? You’ll stab me again? For what, the third time now?”

The Nightflame flared again, curling around her body.

I should have hated that Oraya had gotten a burst of power of her own from her ascension to Heir. But damn if I didn’t love to see it. Just like I

loved to see the strength in her stare as she gritted her teeth and stepped closer.

“I’m not fucking around, Raihn. Let me go.” “I can’t do that, Oraya.”


It was shockingly earnest—a wrinkle between her brows and everything. She took another small step, gaze never leaving mine. It was a throwing knife of a word, already drenched in her blood. “Why?

It struck me harder than it should have.

It was a bigger question, I knew—we both knew—than the single word. Bigger than two people in this hallway. It was a why did you betray me? question, spoken with the same devastating tone as when she’d hurled the reality at me in Vincent’s wing: You killed my father.

I could practically see the accusation in her eyes. No, more than that— an observation. Because like always, she saw right through me.


Because if I let you go, I’m committing treason against my own throne.

Because if I let you go, I’ll have no choice but to fight against you out there.

Because if I let you go, you become my enemy in earnest. And I can’t kill you, princess. I’ve tried. I can’t.

Too many damned words. Too much honesty.

I settled for, “You know why, Oraya. I’m not done with you.”

A sliver of the truth, mixed in with the goad: Come on. Fight me.

I wanted her to fight. I’d missed seeing that in her. I’d been begging her for this for weeks.

I raised my sword. She did the same. The Nightfire danced with her every breath, rising with the hatred in her face.

Then her gaze rose. Eyes widened.

I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see a lithe female form with outstretched featherless wings rushing towards me, sword drawn.

Jesmine. You don’t forget the face of someone who spent hours torturing you.

I barely dodged her attack, countering, our weapons clashing together. She’d drawn blood, her blade slicing open my left shoulder, where I’d been a little too slow to dodge. A stupid mistake.

She moved like a dancer, well-trained, elegant, unemotional. Her expression was focused, calm as the surface of a winter pond beneath the marks of battle—dirt, blood, scorched burns.

She glanced at Oraya, and I made the mistake of doing so, too—a stupid distraction at a critical moment. Jesmine’s next strike was to kill.

Stop!” Oraya’s voice cut through the steel and chaos. “Stand down.” Jesmine’s face contorted in confusion.

Oraya stepped closer, a sneer at her lip. “He’s mine, Jesmine. Stand down. Get to the others.”

I wouldn’t hurt Oraya, but I had none of the same affection for Jesmine.

When she hesitated, baffled by her queen’s order, I seized the opportunity.

I could barely even regulate the new depths of my power now—I didn’t even have to call the Asteris before it danced at the edge of my blade. Jesmine was good, good enough to dodge despite her distraction, good enough to barely redirect the swing of my blade with hers—but the force of it sent her flying across the hall, her body crumpling in the ruined stone.

She’d barely fallen before Oraya was on me.

I felt her coming because of the Nightfire—that telltale buzz in the air a split second before she ran at me.

I could’ve killed her. Could’ve turned just enough to levy a blast of Asteris strong enough to pull her flesh from her bones. Instead, I had to take that extra precious moment just to make sure I’d reeled it in, holding myself back before I blocked her.

It put us on equal footing, and Oraya seized on that opening.

It had been weeks now since she’d fought, but if that break in practice hurt her, she didn’t show it. If anything, the pent-up energy seemed to fuel her every strike.

Still… so much was the same.

We fell into our steps like a well-practiced dance, the intensity of every move turned up double, triple what it was months ago. Our magic, her Nightfire and my Asteris, surrounded us like thickening clouds, light and darkness, heat and cold. Every strike I blocked reverberated through my entire body, despite Oraya’s small size—she threw that much force into each one. And she was quick, forcing me to strain to keep up with her.

She was so good. I honestly couldn’t help but admire it.

And yet, neither of us drew blood. The Nightfire collecting around her sword did its work on me, yes, but each of her lunges were half-measures,

making shallow cuts if they got past my blocks.

Still, she was fast. Too fast. Faster with each blow, like she was letting go, losing control.

The Nightfire grew brighter and brighter.

Three strikes, the last one so fast I couldn’t dodge it, pain snaking across my chest—a line from my shoulder to my hip.

If she thought I didn’t see the little flinch across her face when she saw the blood, like it jerked her out of her haze, she was wrong.

I used that hesitation against her, countering before she could move, reversing our positions. She was against the wall, her sword barely holding mine back, my body pinning her against the stone.

The Nightfire was so bright now, I couldn’t see anything but her face.

It was all her. Deadly and stunning. Even her hatred was fucking beautiful.

We remained there, locked together, both panting. Just like it had been in the Kejari. Like fighting a mirror.

“You’re holding back,” she said.

A throb in my chest, in the ghost of a wound that didn’t exist.

I smiled. “So are you,” I said, completing our script. I leaned closer, close enough that my lips almost touched her ear—and for a moment the urge to skim my teeth along her earlobe, to press my mouth against her throat, was overwhelming. The scent of her, stronger than ever now, made it hard to focus.

“You’re dying to kill me,” I murmured. “So what the fuck are you waiting for?”

I didn’t move, but I felt the cold press of her blade to my chest— stinging where the tip threatened to break skin. I pulled back just enough to look at her, our foreheads touching. Her eyes, big and round as the moon, stared into mine.

Sometimes, I felt like I knew Oraya better than anyone I had ever met. Sometimes, she was the most confounding mystery. Now, she was both— her hidden pain so obvious, and yet her trembling grip around her blade a question that I didn’t know how to answer.

A trickle of blood ran down the center of my abdomen. Oraya’s breath, shaky and quick, mingled with mine.

“Well?” I rasped. “Are you going to kill me, princess?”

I really wanted to know. Maybe tonight would finally be the night.

Oraya didn’t speak. Her teeth gritted, mouth snarling. The flames encircled us like a lover’s embrace.

Another drip of blood down my chest. But she didn’t move.

She wouldn’t do it.

She wouldn’t do it.

This truth hit me with sudden certainty. A confirmation of something that honestly confused me.

Because Oraya did have every reason to kill me.

For the briefest moment, her rage gave way to something else, something she closed her eyes and looked away to avoid showing me, but I grabbed her chin and tilted her head back to me.

My mouth opened.

—And then blood spattered over my face, as Oraya jolted, an arrow now lodged in her flesh.

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