Chapter no 24

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I sat on top of those towering ruins for a long time, trying and failing to feel nothing.

The sky slowly warmed, cold moonlight replaced by the gold touch

of dawn, revealing all the ugliest truths of this city.

He had been so eager to forget this place. But this place never forgot him. Never recovered from the nonchalant cruelty of his departure.

I hated how familiar that felt.

All of it was like the room that Evelaena now kept as a twisted shrine to him. Nothing but discarded trash, and she projected such meaning onto it. A shoe. A hairbrush. A stupid scribble of ink—

I blinked.

A scribble of ink.

Recognition nagged at the back of my mind. Somewhere I had seen this view before—

I stood, then took several steps back, watching the way the landscape shifted with my perspective. The sea a bit to the right, the tower slightly overlapping it…

No. Not quite. But close.

I closed my eyes and pictured it: the ink drawing on Vincent’s desk, perfectly preserved for centuries.

Then I opened my eyes and peered around the edge. Another tower stood just slightly to the south of this one—it somehow managed to look even older. But by my estimation, the viewpoint would line up. If I was right… the sketch of Lahor that Vincent had made might’ve been drawn from those ruins.

I hesitated, taking a moment to flex my back muscles. They were fiercely sore, and every movement felt clumsy with the wings attached to them. I didn’t regret sending Raihn away, exactly—no, I told myself, I definitely didn’t regret it—but it might’ve been wise to get some more wing instruction before I had.

I wasn’t going to let you fall. But more importantly, I knew you weren’t going to let you fall.

The words floated through my mind unprompted. Mother, I hoped he was right.

I kept my eye on my target, and I jumped.

Whatever I did to get from one tower to the other was probably better described as “controlled falling” than “flying.”

But I made it. Barely.

I let out an ugly oof as my side jammed against a pile of ancient brick. Pain tore through my left wing as it scraped a stray shard of rock—it was amazing how disorienting it was for the boundaries of your own body to suddenly be twice as wide in both directions. The impact threw me, sending me rolling across the brick floor with a collection of ragged grunts.

I pushed myself to my hands and knees, collecting myself. I was more shaken than I’d like to admit. Wings were sensitive, apparently, because the cut hurt fiercely. I craned my neck to try to see the injury with little success.

I lifted my head, and suddenly my wound didn’t matter anymore. “Fuck,” I whispered.

Wings spread out over the wall before me.

Hiaj wings, slate gray with tinges of purple. They were life-size, or maybe bigger, pressed against the crumbling remains of the stone wall. Growths that at first looked like bulging veins spread along their length, clinging to the formation of the bones and reaching across the expanses of skin, tinted red, forming a knot at the center that pulsed bright crimson.

A heart. It looked almost exactly like a heart.

But as I pushed myself up and dragged myself closer, I realized the growths weren’t veins at all. They were some kind of… fungus, maybe, though one that looked sickeningly lifelike. The heart at the center of the wings, though… that looked so real. Was it flesh, petrified like the wings? Or something else?

I didn’t remember getting to my feet, nor crossing the room, but the next thing I knew, I was standing right before it.

The veins and the heart pulsed in small, rhythmic movements, slowly quickening. I realized, after a moment, that they mirrored my breathing. The hairs stood upright on the back of my neck. I’d never been so repelled by something and simultaneously so drawn to it. It was disgusting. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

One part of me thought, I need to get far, far away from whatever this is.

The other part thought, Septimus was right. I do just know.

Simple, uncomplicated fact. This was what we had been looking for. It was beyond questioning.

And I’d just found it alone.

My hand was outstretched before I even told my body to move.

My fingertips brushed the heart-like growth. It was so cold I almost jolted away. But before I could react, several veins slid along the surface of it, reached for me, and—

I let out a hiss of pain. Drops of my blood, bright human red, smeared against the fungus as the veinlike cords slithered back around the heart. It momentarily seemed as if the wings were flexing, stretching—an illusion of shifting muscles.

Then the fibers pulled away, retreating along the walls of the ruins, and the thing that had so resembled a heart opened.

Warmth suffused the air. The red glow drenched the shadows. I stared into it, blinking, forcing my eyes to adjust.

The heart had shifted, now mimicking open, cupped hands. At its center was a crescent moon of polished, gleaming silver, painfully white against the fading red surrounding it. It was perhaps the size of my palm, the two tips sharp as blades—so sharp that at first, I thought that maybe it was intended to be a weapon, until I noticed the delicate silver chain attached to one end.

A pendant.

Once the light faded, it was unremarkable, if very pretty. I reached for it—



MY FATHERblood is hot and slick on my hands. The wings are still warm. I need to keep wiping the blood on my shirt. I look like what I am—a monster, just like the ones that crawl through the ruins of Lahor every night.

I do not have regrets.

This is not what the historians will write one day about me.

No one will remember the names or faces of the children that I killed tonight. A Nightborn tradition of power, killing children. My father killed my younger brother minutes after he drew his first breath. I was sixteen years old when I watched him throw that little bloody wad of fabric over the railing, feeding it to the demons circling below. He always made it clear that I was to function as his heir, but never as a threat.

I hid so carefully, all these years. Tramped down every scrap of my power. Endured every abuse. I did it all with a placid stare on my face, never letting him see the hatred beneath.

It was not useful to hate my father. It was useful to learn from him. So I learned.

It was so satisfying to see it on his face when he realized his mistake.

That he had underestimated me my entire life.

Whenever I think of the faces of the children, my nieces and nephews and cousins, I replace them with that of my father. The realization of his hubris, his miscalculation.

It made every year in this shithole worth it.

I think only of my father as I nail his wings to the wall, muttering spells beneath my breath.

I think only of my father. I think of the Kejari.

I think of a crown on my head. I do not have regrets.

I do not have regrets.



COULDNT BREATHE. My stomach churned. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t feel.

My hand hurt—Mother, my hand hurt so fucking much. It was that pain that rooted me back to the world, and I clung to it. I forced my eyes open. My vision was blurry, as if I’d just been staring directly into the sun, though this tower was still dim with only the warm beginnings of sunrise slipping through the shattered stone.

I looked down.

My hand was covered in blood. I flipped it over to see that I’d been clutching the pendant, so tightly that the sharp edges had carved a perfect imprint of the crescent moon into my palm.

What the hell had just—

“Do you know,” a light, childlike voice came from behind me, “how long I have been trying to access that?”

A chill fell over me.

I forced myself to my feet and was rewarded with a wave of dizziness so strong I staggered against the wall. I righted myself and turned to see Evelaena standing silhouetted against the sunlight, one of her child companions, a stoic-faced little boy, beside her.


It was past dawn. How could they be here?

The beginnings of sunburns—a dark, purplish cast—had started on Evelaena’s cheeks, though she wore a heavy cloak with the hood pulled low over her face. Her wings were creamy, fleshy pink, and the burns on them were worse, especially since the cloak couldn’t have covered them as she was flying.

If they bothered her, though, she didn’t show it. She didn’t blink. Her blue eyes were wide and eerily bright in the dim light, smile tight and unwavering.

She was looking at me like I was something to be devoured. Like she wanted to peel my face off and wear it over her own.

“I discovered it about a decade ago, you see,” she chirped. “It wasn’t there two-hundred years ago. I knew it was his right away. He must have come without telling me, must have—” She blinked, like she lost her train of thought mid-sentence. “But I could never open it.”

I said nothing.

Drip, as my blood hit the stone floor.

The child’s eyes locked to it. His throat bobbed. Evelaena’s nostrils flared.

I slid the pendant into my pocket and reached for my blade. I tried not to show it, but I was still leaning against the wall. My head ached with the exertion of forcing my eyes to focus. Fragments of—of whatever I had experienced when I touched the pendant slipped into the corners of my vision without my permission, a gritty, grainy version of the world.

“And the wings,” she added, still not blinking. “How interesting.” Drip.

My blood hit the ground again. The child lunged for me.

He was fast. I barely had time to respond before he was on me, teeth sinking into my arm. I let out a curse and flung myself against the wall, sending him careening to the stone.

Move, little serpent, Vincent whispered to me, hurriedly. Move. She’s coming for you.

I knew she was. She was coming and I couldn’t move quickly enough.

I heard her before I saw her. I whirled around as fast as I could, nearly sending myself back into the stone, lashing out at her with my blades. I caught flesh—her arm.

She drew back, face contorted into a hiss. She wielded a rapier, similar in style to the one Vincent had once wielded. Not a coincidence, I was sure.

I barely managed to deflect her when she lunged again.

My body felt as if it was a half-step disconnected from my mind. My wings, which I had no idea how to disappear, drastically altered my balance. Evelaena was no great warrior, certainly not compared to those I fought in the Kejari—but she was still strong and fast, her movements eerily similar to Vincent’s in style. Efficient, precise, graceful—but half a step from bloodlust, sloppier with every drop of my blood.

She was taller than me, but at least I was used to that. I blocked her from above with one blade and used the opening to drive my second into

her side.

She snarled and retaliated with a blow so devastatingly strong, my back slammed against the wall.

Pain. A moment of blurred vision. When I focused again, Evelaena’s face was right in front of mine, our noses brushing. My arm trembled violently as I blocked her sword between us.

I’d been in exactly this position countless times before. I could use her momentum, force her against the wall. Blade through the heart. Always so satisfying, because this was always where they thought they had me.

But it took a massive burst of strength to do that. I didn’t know if I had it. If I tried and failed, I’d expose myself to her.

I didn’t have a choice. I took the shot.

With a ragged scream, I pushed back against her with everything I had, reversing our positions against the wall. She hadn’t been expecting it—her shock worked to my advantage. Good. I was glad someone still underestimated me.

I did not hesitate. I drew back my blade, ready to plunge it into her chest

Agonizing pain ripped through me.

I couldn’t even place it, at first, only that I knew it was some of the

worst I’d ever felt, like fire and steel at once.

I staggered backward, whirling to fling away my attacker. The child went rolling across the ground.

I tried to turn and tripped. My body wasn’t cooperating with me. I glanced down and realized that he had stabbed my already-wounded wing. It now dragged on the ground, hindering my movements.



She was already lunging for me. I raised my weapon to meet her— Too late.

She was on top of me before I could react.

Slender, clawed fingers grabbed my face, nails digging into my cheeks. “Such a rude guest,” she murmured.

She smiled at me, and then slammed my head against the ground.

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