Chapter no 26

The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

I forced my eyes open.

Pain shocked my body, but I couldn’t place where it was coming from, only that it was overwhelming.

It was dark. I struggled to make out forms in the shadows. The only

light emanated from two Nightfire lanterns above an unlit hearth. It smelled like mold and dust and civilizations long dead. No windows, only stone. A few half-decayed pieces of broken furniture. A strong, cold draft from somewhere I couldn’t place.

Evelaena stood before me, holding the Taker of Hearts. “I was wondering what had become of this,” she said.

Shit. She’d gone through my possessions. I cursed myself for bringing it at all—at the time, it had seemed much safer to keep it with me rather than leaving it unguarded in Sivrinaj. Now, it seemed foolish.

I tried to move and was rewarded with a stab of pain so sharp it left me breathless. I twisted my neck and drew in a strangled gasp.

My hands were tied together in front of me. But those weren’t the restraints that kept me immobile—no, those were the nails driven through my wings, which had been stretched out along the brick wall. My blood, bright crimson, ran down the leathery black in streaks that echoed my Heir-red marks.

Cold, unrelenting terror fell over me. I tried to spirit them away—but how did one do that? Raihn hadn’t told me. Wishing them away, even desperately, did nothing but make my heart race in panic.

I drew in a deep breath, trying to calm myself as my eyes continued to adjust to the darkness. Several of Evelaena’s child companions were

scattered about the room, too, standing against the wall or curled up on the broken furniture. I jumped as I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and turned my head to see one of the youngest-looking ones crawling on the ground near my feet, lapping at drips of blood falling from my wings.

“Get the fuck away from me,” I spat, kicking at the girl like a stray cat, and she gave me an appropriate hiss before skittering away.

“Don’t speak to my children that way.” Evelaena moved swiftly, with all of Vincent’s smooth grace. She still wore the bloody dress from our fight. She was close enough now that I could see the burns on her hand. When she carried the sword, she did so with a wad of fabric around it, now stained black with her blood. She couldn’t wield it, either.

Her lip curled as she glanced down at it. “I wondered where this had gone. If the usurper had taken it or managed to destroy it. Turns out, he just gave it to his wife.”

Something glinted in the darkness as she leaned closer to me—the pendant, now dangling around her neck. Her dress was open low, the mottled scar tissue forming a grotesque halo around the moon.

Her head cocked, eyes predator-sharp. “Can you wield it, cousin?” “No one can wield it but him. You know that.”

Evelaena laughed, high and manic. She leapt closer still, her free hand coming to my throat, then sliding down—over the bare skin of my upper chest, where she’d opened up my leathers to reveal my Heir Mark.

“I had to see if this was real,” she said. “Tried to scrub it off you while you were out.”

If only it was so fucking easy.

“Get off of me,” I hissed, but she only pressed harder against my chest, making the nails tug at the delicate skin of my wings.

“I thought it would be me,” she said. “was Vincent’s closest living relative. spent my whole life training to be queen one day. Do you think it’s easy? Learning how to rule all by yourself?” She thrust the sword behind her, wildly gesturing to her child soldiers. “I needed subjects to rule! Do you know how hard it was to bring this damned place back from the dead? And I was all alone! All alone!

Her voice cracked. The scent of something burning hit my nostrils. The dim cold light hit Evelaena’s chest, revealing that the pendant was burning

her, too, where it lay against her skin. Every time it swung back against her, she winced.

“But then there was youYou, who he kept alive. You, who smell so—so human.” Her nostrils flared. She leaned closer still, our bodies now nearly flush.

Every muscle stiffened.

Too close. Too fucking close. “Get off of me,” I snarled.

Nightfire. There was Nightfire in this room. I just had to reach for it, call to it. Even if my own refused to come to me. I’d done it before. I—

“Why do you deserve this? You, a human?”

And then the next thing I knew, Evelaena’s mouth was at my throat. Pain, as her teeth dug into my skin.

A wave of sickening dizziness as her venom hit my veins.

I gasped, flailing out against her, my knee coming up to strike her and failing to make contact. Her grip on me was impossibly strong. With every gulp of blood she took from me, my vision blurred.

It was Evelaena’s mouth on my skin. The Ministaer’s.

My old lover’s.

Panic set in, artificially dimmed by the venom. I was trapped. Helpless.

Heir Mark or no. Wings or no.

Evelaena released me, throwing her head back and licking blood from the side of her mouth.

“You taste human,” she hissed. “You look human. You smell human.”

My head lolled. I forced myself back to consciousness through the fog of the venom.

Think. I had to think.

“And it was you.” She laughed, hoarse and raw. She straightened, and the pendant fell against her chest, and again, she flinched.

She froze, going abruptly still. Her eyes gleamed with tears.

“I always thought he meant to leave me alive,” she said, barely louder than a whisper. “Always thought it was his plan. That he chose me. But—”

Her hand clutched the pendant, white-knuckle tight, blood bubbling between her fingers.

Suddenly, I understood.

She didn’t just flinch because of the pain of the burns. But she had experienced what I did when she touched that thing. Pieces of Vincent. Distant shards of his memory.

His memory of the night he had tried to kill her, a five-year-old child. And had failed. Not because he intended to. Not because he meant to spare her. But because he had killed so many children that night that he was a little sloppy, and she wasn’t important enough to risk going back for.

And for an odd moment, I understood her so completely that it twisted a knife in my heart. She was obsessed with Vincent. She loved him because he was her only tenuous connection to power and hated him because of what he had put her through. She survived for centuries by building up fairy tales around him, around Lahor, around a crown she might wear one day.

And now she was realizing that she had meant nothing to him. There was no plan. No secret. No fate.

Just a careless, bloodthirsty man and motives that did not make sense.

I saw myself in Evelaena as clearly as if I was looking into a mirror. Both of us built and broken by the same man. She had prayed for fate and gotten feckless luck. I had hinged my life on luck and gotten secrets.

I got power. She got nothing.

But at least she could get revenge.

You are not like them.

Vincent’s words echoed in my head. I hated him for them. And yet, in this moment, I latched onto them with ugly certainty.

He was right. I wasn’t.

I was one of the most powerful vampires in the House of Night. In all of Obitraes. I had that power, even if I didn’t know how to access it. It was in me.

This bitch did not get to be the one to kill me.

An idea solidified in this understanding—a risky one.

“You’re still his blood,” I whispered. “Whether he recognized that or not.”

She scoffed, but I went on, “I don’t want bad blood between us, cousin.

You deserved more. And I—I would give you the sword. If you want it.” She hesitated. One of the children, a little girl, stood, interest piqued,

her fair gaze spearing me—like she saw what I was doing.

“You’re owed that much, don’t you think?” I said. “For what he did to you?”

Evelaena’s eyes fell to me, then the sword in her hands. And then back to me again.

They shone with lust. Evelaena was a creature driven wild with starvation—for blood, for power, for love, for validation. The only reason I was alive right now was because she had so gorged herself the night before, but the hint of blood lust still visible in her face right now was due to a much deeper hunger, one that had been following her, I suspected, for two hundred years.

She didn’t even know what she wanted to do with me. Love me, hate me, eat me, fuck me, kill me. Hell, all of those things, maybe.

This seemed like a revelation.

I’d spent my entire life fixated on all the ways vampires were different than me. I’d been so certain that all my confusion and frustration was because of my fragile human nature.

But Raihn was right. Vampires were every bit as fucked up.

I didn’t even need to be that good of an actress. Evelaena was desperate to believe me.

“You can’t wield it now,” I said, “because it’s mine. It belongs to the Hiaj Heir.”

I nodded down—to my chest, and the tattoo pulsing across it. “But,” I said. “I could transfer ownership to you.”

“I’m not foolish enough to let you hold that blade.”

“You don’t have to,” I said. “Just let me touch it. That’s all. And it’s yours.”

She went still—that unnatural vampire still. I could see the calculation behind her eyes.

She’d kill me anyway, of course. That was what she was thinking. She wanted it all—the companionship, the Heir Mark, the sword, the crown, my blood. She wasn’t willing to give up any of those things after centuries of constant sacrifice.

“Fine,” she said.

She brought the sword closer to me, holding it out, while maintaining a strong grip on it over the cloth.

“I need my hands,” I said.

Her mouth thinned. Still, she nodded to one of her children. The little girl, the one who had been watching me so warily, approached me with a little dagger. Her abrupt slice through the binding cut my wrist, too.

Hands free. That was something. Not enough. But something.

I gave her a weak smile and gingerly pulled back the cloth wrapped around the blade. The red glow seemed much stronger than usual now, warming my face and reflecting in Evelaena’s eyes, which were wide and unblinking.

I stared at it. My father’s blade, supposedly carrying a piece of his heart. Just being this close to it again made me feel as if Vincent was standing just over my shoulder, forever out of sight.

If you are, I thought, you’d better help me here. You owe me that.

That’s a rude way to speak to your father, Vincent replied, and I almost scoffed aloud.

I took a deep breath and opened my palms over the blade, just an inch or two from the surface. I closed my eyes and tried to look very, very serious.

I was bullshitting so fucking hard.

Use this moment, Vincent commanded in my ear. This may be an act, but it might be the only time you get to prepare yourself.

He had a good point. I used this moment to connect to the forces around me, feeling the room.

Feeling the Nightfire.

I was probably too weak to generate it myself right now, or at the very least too inconsistent to be certain I could, but… I could feel it pulsing in those torches, the energy familiar, if weak and distant.

I could work with that.

All I needed was a few seconds of distraction. I opened my eyes to meet Evelaena’s.

“It’s done,” I said. “Try it.”

She looked wary. “Are you sure it worked?”

“This is powerful magic. It knew you were blood.”

Telling her what she so desperately wanted to believe. The flare of desire in her eyes showed me she’d bought it.

The little girl was still giving me that wary stare, and she tugged on Evelaena’s skirt, as if in silent protest.

Evelaena ignored her as she unwrapped the sword. “Take its hilt,” I said. “It’s ready to accept you.”

She was definitely going to see through this. How could she not?

But hope was a strange, potent drug, and Evelaena was at its mercy. She took the hilt and drew the sword.

For a moment, nothing happened. The room was utterly silent. A slow smile of glee spread over her lips.

She started, “It’s—”

—And then she let out a shriek of pain.

The steady glow of the blade flickered in erratic spurts. The scent of burnt flesh filled the room. The sound Evelaena was making rose from a moan to a scream, but she wouldn’t release the sword—or maybe the sword refused to release her. Several of the children ran to her side, pulling at her in panic. The rest hugged the walls, watching wide-eyed.

Move, Vincent roared. Move now!

One chance. One opening.

Fear is the fucking key to it, Oraya, Raihn had screamed at me, during the Halfmoon trial.

He had been right. The key was all the ugliness, all the weakness I refused to look at. Everything the sword had pulled up in me. Everything that had hurt me.

I reached deep.

Deep into my heart and my past and the memories.

My rage, my grief, my confusion, my betrayal. I took all of it. I ripped it all open inside myself.

Beneath it all was sheer power.

The brightness of the Nightfire seared my vision. Evelaena’s screams were so loud, so constant, they faded to a distant din beneath the blood rushing in my ears. Her form was difficult to make out around the fire, but she was stumbling, unable to control herself, still clutching the sword.

I leaned forward, ignoring the pain as the nails tugged at my wings, and grabbed her.

She was half limp. She turned to me, wide-eyed, and in that split-second, I saw exactly what she must have looked like as a five-year-old child, the night that Vincent had driven his blade through her chest.

For a moment, she looked at me like I might save her. I didn’t. I pried the sword from her hands.

The moment my own closed around its hilt, the pain took me. I thought I couldn’t feel pain anymore, compared to what had been done to my wings. I had been wrong. This was deeper than flesh. Deeper than nerves.

For a moment, I wasn’t here anymore. I was in a dozen different places at once.

I was in a ruined tower in Lahor.

I was in Sivrinaj, in a colosseum full of screaming spectators, kneeling before a goddess.

I was in the Nightborn castle, sitting at my desk.

I was in my private training arena in the castle, training with my daughter, my daughter who needed to be better than this if she was to have any hope of surviving this world.

I was lying in the sands, my daughter holding me, death looming over her shoulder.


But the images kept coming—more than images, sensations. I lost my grip on the world around me. The tide swept me away.


Focus, Oraya.

It wasn’t Vincent’s voice in my head this time. It was my own.

You have one chance. Right now. Take it!

I barely managed to claw myself back to awareness. The sword hurt to hold, but I refused to let it go.

I cut through the ropes binding my legs and stumbled forward. Pain flooded me as my full weight pulled against my wings.

The Nightfire had overtaken the room. Several of the children now climbed up the debris on the side of the walls, trying to stay away from the flames. Evelaena had pushed herself to her hands and knees, crawling toward me, a sword clutched in her burned-up hands.

No time to figure out how to get rid of my wings.

I pushed off against the wall and screamed as the delicate flesh ripped free.

I flung myself at Evelaena, pinning her to the ground. Her sword went sliding across the floor.

She reached for me. “Cousin—” I didn’t let her speak.

I drove Vincent’s sword into her chest, right through the scar he had left two hundred years ago—straight into her heart.

She went slack beneath me, her eyes filling with betrayal before going vacant.

My breath was labored. The Nightfire still clung to the corners of the room.

I tried to get up—

Someone struck me from behind. I went toppling to the ground. The little girl, the same one who had been staring at me, leaned over me, red dotting her face.

She lifted her knife in both hands over her head, ready to bring it down. I tried to counter, tried to—

A blast rocked the room. My vision blurred, dimmed. A moment or minutes or hours passed.

I forced my eyes open.

Raihn leaned over me, brow furrowed with concern.

I was hallucinating, clearly, or dreaming again. Someone pried my hands free and I let out a choked cry.

“It’s alright,” Raihn murmured, leaning close to me.

I hated these dreams, the ones where I dreamed of the way Raihn had once looked at me, when we fought together in the Kejari. Like his heart was outside his body.

Made it hard to reconcile all he had done to me, when he looked at me that way.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, as he gathered me in his arms, and I faded away.

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