The Ashes & the Star-Cursed King

There is nothing more dangerous than a bargain. No greater horrors than those you choose. No worse fate than one you beg for.

The man does not understand this yet.

There was little, actually, the man understands, though he doesn’t know that yet, either. He came from a small life in a small town, and spent most of his time trying to run from it. Of his limited options, he chose the one that gave him the most freedom. He loves freedom, the feeling of the sea wind through his hair. He loves it tonight, as his ship travels through the treacherous waters near Obitraes. They call it Nyaxia’s Hook—that little curved strip of land, given its name because it so often snagged unwitting human sailors like helpless fish on a line. The night is dark. The water is rough. The sky is stormy.

The sailors do not have a chance.

Most of them are killed immediately, when the ship—too small for such a perilous journey—smashes upon the unforgiving rocks of Nyaxia’s beckoning hand. They drown in the salty seas, bodies broken over the rocks or impaled on the remains of their own ship.

But this man, despite his unremarkable upbringing, knows one thing above all:

He knows how to fight.

He is thirty-two years old. He is not ready to die. His body has been mercilessly shattered in the violent impact of the ship. Still, he swims to shore, muscles straining against the churn of the surf. He drags himself onto the beach.

When, barely conscious, he forces his head up to look at the sight ahead of him—the silhouette of a city the likes of which he had never seen before, all ivory curves and moon-cold light—he thinks he has never witnessed anything so beautiful.

The man is so close to death that night.

The gods love to take credit for fate. Is it fate that saves him? Or is it the fickle hand of luck, rolling dice that land in just the right way? If it is the gods’ hands at work, then they are laughing to themselves tonight.

He crawls as far as he can, one inch after another, the sand beneath his hands turning to rock, then soil. He can feel death following him, can feel it bubbling in his every bloody breath. The man once thought himself brave. But no mortal is brave in the face of an untimely death.

Death would have taken him if fate, or luck, had not saved him—or damned him.

The king happens across him at just the right moment.

This king was in the habit of collecting souls, and the young man’s soul is exactly the kind he enjoys. He flips over the half-conscious man, assessing his beaten but well-formed face. Then he kneels beside him and asks him a question that the man will spend the rest of an endless life replaying:

Do you want to live?

The man thinks, What a stupid question.

Of course, he wants to live. He is young. He has a family waiting for him back home. He has decades ahead of him.

No mortal is brave in the face of an untimely death. The man’s answer is a plea:

Yes. Please. Yes. Help me.

Later, he will hate himself for this—for begging so pathetically for his own damnation.

The king smiles, and lowers his mouth to the dying man’s throat.

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