Chapter no 22

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

Lahor was, so far, not very helpful.

Evelaena had given us all suites near each other. They were once-grand apartments that were now dusty and rat-infested, with cracked

windows that let in flecks of the overnight rain over the tile floor. When Mische pulled back the covers of her bed and several roaches ran out, she simply stared down at it with a look of utter disgust on her face, threw the covers back into place, and said brightly, “This can be Septimus’s room.”

This, Ketura had found exceedingly amusing. I think it was the only time I’d seen the woman laugh.

Not that we were doing much sleeping, anyway. The keep had gone eerily quiet, even to the vampires and their far superior hearing. That was when we acted. We went through the libraries, the studies, the empty bedchambers. Septimus’s companions were excellent at slipping through hallways unnoticed, bringing back anything that looked even remotely as if it could be useful. Soon, our chambers were full of a comically mismatched assortment of objects—books, jewelry, weapons, artwork, sculptures. All of them were seriously damaged, reeking of mold or rust. All were presented to me with a silent raised eyebrow of, Well?

After a dozen instances of this, I held the half-rotted atlas between two fingers. A few bugs scurried from between the pages, irritated at having their home disturbed for the first time in what appeared to be centuries.

Clearly, this was it. The answer to all our problems. The key to historically unknown power.

I gave Septimus a deadpan stare that must have said everything my words didn’t.

“We came all this way,” he said, letting out a puff of cigarillo smoke through his nostrils. “Have a little patience, dove.”

“Evelaena said that Vincent never returned here.”

“Evelaena doesn’t seem like the most reliable person. Not to insult a host.”

“No,” Raihn said, “but she doesn’t seem like she would just forget that the uncle she’s obsessed with showed up.”

“Unless she’s keeping it from us intentionally. He kept plenty of memorabilia from this place. Why else would he do that?”

“Nostalgia?” Mische offered, but even she didn’t sound convinced. Vincent had no love for this place. I’d suspected that before, and now,

there was little doubt of that in my mind. He wasn’t the type to wax nostalgic about the past, especially not parts of it that he felt little affection for. Lahor certainly fell into that category.

If he’d kept any connection to this place… it would have been for a reason.

I sighed.

“What am I supposed to do?” I muttered. “Just touch everything in this castle and see… what, exactly?”

Septimus shrugged. “You’ll know.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Then we wasted a trip and will try something else.”

More time to search. More time for the Bloodborn to sink their claws into this kingdom. More time for Raihn to establish his hold on it, too.

I heaved another exasperated sigh and kept wading through objects. Hours and hours and hours of useless shit.



EVENTUALLY, we gave up. So much of the keep was so badly damaged. Even the artifacts that seemed like they had once been quite valuable were now little more than junk. I doubted that I would just magically “know”

when I would come across a possession of Vincent’s, but even still, it was obvious to me that these were worth nothing to him.

Eventually, when we’d made it through all the unoccupied, safe rooms of the keep, we allowed ourselves to rest.

My suite had only one bedroom—Raihn, to my relief, took the couch without complaint, leaving Mische to sleep beside me. She was snoring within minutes of crawling into bed, limbs sprawled out in all directions.

I curled up into a little ball and stared at the window at the glimpse of night-drenched Lahor through the opening in the curtains. Dawn was still at least an hour away. Sleep called to me, but I didn’t want to know what I’d see in its depths.

Eventually, I couldn’t just lie there anymore.

I slipped out of bed and grabbed my blades, going out to the sitting room to see—

“Where are you going?”

Raihn stopped mid-movement. He was half-shrouded by gauzy curtains, leaning out the open window.

He looked me up and down, an eyebrow raised. “Did you sleep in your armor?”

I glanced down at myself, briefly self-conscious.

“Where are you going?” I asked again, instead of answering. “Probably the same place you were. Feeling restless, too?”

I didn’t want to admit it aloud.

I glanced back at the open bedchamber door, and Mische sleeping beyond it. Reading my face, Raihn said, “Oh, don’t worry about her. Nothing wakes her.”

Then he outstretched his hand. “Come on. Let’s go get into some trouble.”

I didn’t move. Fine, he was right, I was going to sneak out into the city.

Admitting that to him was a whole different concession.

He sighed.

“I know you, Oraya. Don’t tell me you aren’t curious.”

I peered over his shoulder, out the open window to the eerie, desolate skyline beyond.

He smiled. “I thought so. Come on. Let’s go.” This was a stupid idea.

I took his hand anyway.



LAHOR HAD SEEMED ABANDONED WHEN we first arrived here, and the strangeness of the keep—seemingly occupied only by Evelaena and her stable of Turned children—had only made that sensation stronger. But the city, while dilapidated, was not deserted. People did indeed actually live here, congregating in the few habitable buildings throughout the city.

Or maybe “living” was too generous a term.

Raihn and I wandered through uneven, cracked roads and paths through dilapidated piles of brick. Those within peered at us with hungry, wary eyes, whispers falling to silence as we passed.

“Do you think they recognize us?” I whispered to Raihn.

“No,” he said. “No way these people know what a couple of royals from hundreds of miles away look like. They don’t recognize us, but they definitely recognize outsiders.”

That wasn’t hard. The people who lived here were twisted shadows of vampires or humans—all equally hungry. The eyes that stared at us were shadowed, more akin to those of starving animals than sentient beings. Unlike most cities in Obitraes, the city wasn’t divided into vampire and human territory—instead, everyone seemed to scurry for whatever workable shelter they could find.

Life anywhere in the House of Night was always dangerous and bloody. But here? The feral desperation festered like an infected wound. Raihn and I passed several vampires crouched over another, lying open and bleeding in the middle of the street.

A vampire body. Blood that wouldn’t even be able to keep them alive on its own, providing only the temporary pleasure of relief. But hunger that intense didn’t care.

It was hard not to shiver at the way their heads snapped up when we passed. The way their eyes followed me.

Raihn stepped a little closer to me after that, his hand on my back. We made the silent, mutual decision to drift away from the populated areas, instead wandering out toward the dunes.

Eventually, we came to the edge of a lake. It was an eerie, beautiful scene, the body formed by a crater in the ruins, remains of past destruction now cradling glassy water. Broken remnants of marble slabs jutted from the water’s surface, ghostly under the moonlight. Beyond it, several of Lahor’s tallest towers, spires of shattered stone, loomed over us.

Goosebumps rose on my arms.

“Must’ve been something,” Raihn murmured. “Long time ago.” Yes. It was as beautiful as it was sad.

Raihn’s head turned. “Look.”

He nudged my arm and lifted his chin to our left. At the edge of the lake, a woman knelt down, filling a bucket. A human—I recognized that immediately. Her stupidity was mind-boggling to me. Why a human would be out after nightfall—even so close to dawn—in this place was beyond me.

But then again, living in constant danger made one numb to it. I knew that too well.

She didn’t see the Hiaj vampire flying overhead, landing on one of the nearby ruins and slowly climbing down, his eyes on her.

But we did.

I stiffened.

“Want to take care of that?” Raihn murmured in my ear. “I get the impression you’ve been anxious to kill something lately.”

I rubbed my fingertips together.

He thought right, as much as I hated to admit it. I craved death like an opiate addict craved their fix. And yet, a part of me was afraid.

Afraid to pierce another chest when the last one I had pierced was Raihn’s.

Afraid to hear my father’s voice in my ear.

Afraid of whatever I might not feel anymore. The vampire crept closer.

“If you don’t move,” Raihn said, “then I will.”

But the words weren’t even out of his mouth before my decision was made.

I slipped through the ruins to circle around behind my target. I was out of practice. The terrain was unfamiliar. I wasn’t as silent as I usually was in my nighttime hunts in Sivrinaj. The vampire had turned to meet me by the time I reached him.

That was fine. I wanted more of a fight.

He came at me with his claws, but my blade was faster.

I nearly took his arm off when he swung at me. Blood dotted my face, iron-sweet when my tongue ran over it.

My target hissed and dove for me. I sidestepped, let him run himself into the wall. He wasn’t used to fighting, not really. Even compared to the laziest of Sivrinaj’s hunters, he was sluggish and unfocused. Starving. Untrained. Practically an animal.

Wings first, Vincent reminded me, and I tore two slashes through each one. Hiaj wings—so satisfyingly easy to pierce.

His claws opened a cut over my cheek. I didn’t even flinch. A strike to his leg, to make him stumble. His right shoulder, to take out his dominant arm. And then finally I had him, pinned.

He didn’t know my name or my title. He only smelled my human blood

—the blood that made me unworthy of being anything other than food in his mind.

And now there was fear in his eyes.

For a brief moment, there it was. Power. Control.

Push hard to make it through the breastbone, Vincent whispered.

But I didn’t need my father’s advice anymore. My strike was quick and true, piercing cartilage, sliding right into his heart.

Too late, the memory hit me—of the way that this same blade had felt sliding into Raihn’s chest. That rust-red stare, urging me on.

End it, princess.

I snapped my eyes open, forced myself to replace Raihn’s face with this one. This person who deserved it. Uncomplicated. Easy.

I yanked my blade free. The vampire started to slide down the rock. But I couldn’t stop myself before I stabbed again. Again. Again.

And finally, when the vampire’s chest was little more than pulp, I let the body slump to the ground.

I stared down at him, my shoulders heaving. His chest was a mess of broken flesh. For some reason, I thought of Evelaena’s scar, and how she might have looked lying on her bedroom floor, blood all over her chest, too.

“She got away.”

Raihn’s voice startled me. He’d flown up and perched atop the ruins. He nodded toward the lake. The human woman now wandered back down the path, bucket balanced against her hip, seemingly oblivious to how close she had just come to death.

I glanced down at the dead body. Another starving beast raised to see humans as nothing more than something to use. Another animal who was only a tool to those above him. On, and on, and on.

The futility of it was, all at once, dizzying.

“I feel like you usually take much more joy in this,” Raihn said.

“Just needed to be done,” I said, sheathing my weapon. “So we did it.” “You did it. I watched.”

I glanced at him, and he smiled. “Enjoyed the view.”

I turned away and didn’t say anything. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his face fall.

I started to walk back to the path we’d taken, but he lingered behind. He tilted his head back, squinting into the distance. Then he pointed.

“Let’s go up there.”

I followed his gaze, to the spires of ruined towers that loomed over us. “Why?” I asked.

“Because look at it. Must be a hell of a view.”

I squinted up at it. He was, I had to admit, probably right. He didn’t give me a chance to argue with him, anyway, before he extended his hand again.

I really did think about arguing. But curiosity got the better of me. So, I took his hand, and let him pick me up again.

Immediately, I regretted that decision. This—flying with him—never stopped being awkward. I had to work very hard at not noticing the way his arms folded around me, how close they pulled me, how a tiny primal part of me enjoyed the warmth of his skin. And I had to work especially hard at ignoring the reassuring sweep of his thumb over my lower back, and the way it made it so hard not to think of this version of Raihn as the man I had allowed into my bed, and my body, and even, perhaps, my heart.

Our eyes found each other’s briefly, the moonlight cold over the warmth in his rust-red irises, before I looked away.

With several powerful pumps of his wings, we launched into the air. My uncomfortable feelings about our closeness dissolved when I looked up to see the stars growing closer above us, as if wrapping us in an embrace.

It was like a drug, that feeling. Made it so easy to let go of all the complicated things I’d left on the ground.

Raihn picked up speed as we rose, and we approached the top of the tower with such incredible swiftness that I had no idea how he was going to make that landing.

A second later, I realized: he wasn’t.

He flew straight past the tower. Higher than its tallest rocky peak. Higher than the next, and the next. Moisture clung to my cheeks, the air damp and cold. The moon, a cloud-coated, pregnant gibbous, felt so close I could caress it.

“Look down.”

Raihn’s breath was warm on my ear. I did.

The sea spread out before us, an endless expanse of rippling glass. Behind, the landscape of Lahor, tragic and beautiful in its disrepair, the ugly reality we had been walking through invisible from up here. Even Evelaena’s castle was so small from this distance, just a little child’s collection of bricks. Beyond Lahor, the deserts of the House of Night rolled endlessly on, smatterings of lights glowing in the far distance, consumed by the foggy mist.

My eyes stung—maybe with wind, maybe not.


I hadn’t meant to speak aloud. Raihn murmured, “It is.”

He hovered here, holding me tight. It was cold this high up, but I didn’t feel it. Perhaps I should have been afraid that nothing but his grip was keeping me from death. I wasn’t.

“Sometimes,” he said, “when I’m down there, it seems like nothing about this place can ever be peaceful. But…”

But then, there’s this.

I swallowed. Nodded. Because I couldn’t even deny that I knew exactly what he meant.

Finally, he dipped. We soared back down, returning to the earth, and gracefully landed at the top of the stone tower. Half the wall had collapsed, leaving the uppermost room to be little more than a circular stone ledge against a crumbling semi-circle of brick. The place must have been even older than it looked from the ground. Even the suggestion of windows had been worn away by the elements over the years.

Raihn put me down, then turned to take in the view—a vast panorama of the land and the sea, Lahor on one side, the ocean on the other.

“Not as good as up there,” he said, “but still good.” “Definitely not as good as up there,” I said.

He glanced over his shoulder at me. From this angle, the moonlight silhouetted him, painting a silver line along his face, catching a peculiar look in his eye.

“What?” I said. “Nothing.”

He didn’t stop staring at me. It didn’t feel like nothing.

Then he said, “It’s just that I should have guessed that you were half vampire. Right from the first time we flew together.”


“Because you’ve never looked so happy as you do when you’re up there. Should’ve been obvious that you were made for it.”

Something about the way he just said that made my brow furrow. I shot him a quizzical look.

“Well,” I said. “I’m not made for it.” “I disagree, princess.”

I scoffed and motioned to my back for emphasis—distinctly wingless. “I don’t know. I think I lack some important parts.”

But Raihn seemed unmoved.

“Wings are conjured,” he said simply. “You’re half Nightborn. You probably have the ability to use them.”

I blinked. It took a moment for his words to sink in. “That’s—”



The first time Raihn took me flying, I did feel like I had found a missing piece of myself in the sky. Like it was as natural to be there as it was to breathe air.

He’s wrong, I told myself, clamping down on the hint of hope.

He stepped closer. “You haven’t even stopped to think about all the things you might be capable of, Oraya.”

I scoffed. “This is ridiculous.”

Another step. His eyes sparkled with amusement.

I now had to tip my chin back to meet his stare. His lips curled as he leaned closer. His breath warmed my mouth.

“You want to find out?”

Time slowed, stilled. My heartbeat was fast. I should have moved away.

I should have pushed him back. I didn’t.

The tip of his nose brushed mine. For a moment, the overwhelming— traitorous—urge to close that small distance between us seized me. A primal, nonsensical desire, low in my stomach. Desperate.

His gaze flicked down to my mouth. Back to my eyes.

“Do you remember,” he whispered, “that time you threw me out of the window?”

My brow furrowed. “Wh—”

He gave me a firm, forceful push, and then I was falling.

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