We didn’t speak to each other much when nightfall came, and I was grateful for that. I was on edge, and I didn’t trust myself not to snap at Raihn and
start a whole other fight before the trial even began. After muttered good evenings, we followed our now-familiar little trail of shadow until we met with the rest of the contestants in the great room.
It was the first time I’d seen the others since the last trial. The energy had palpably changed. Gone was the excited anticipation from our first gathering, replaced with a more desperate frenetic anxiety. Several sets of eyes jumped to me the moment I walked into the room, noses twitching, the whites of their eyes bright.
I knew that look. Raihn and Mische had stolen enough blood to sustain them these last weeks, but clearly, not everyone was so lucky.
Raihn seemed to notice this too, and was surprisingly disconcerted by it, stepping a bit closer to me as he drew his sword. And equally surprisingly, I let him, my own weapons gripped tight in my hands.
No one spoke.
We knew what to expect this time. Just when the silence began to feel awkwardly long, the world fell away.
EVEN PREPARED, the roar of the crowd momentarily stunned me, violent in contrast to the Moon Palace’s silence.
I took stock of my surroundings fast.
Raihn and Mische were gone. No one stood beside me. The sand beneath my feet quivered with distant impact. I blinked into white mist, which undulated in lazy furls, illuminated by the blue light of Nightfire torches. Black stone walls surrounded me on three sides, cradling a glass ceiling, presumably to stop the winged contestants from flying above them. The ceiling wasn’t smooth, but crafted into dips and valleys like an inverted topography of the earth.
I squinted into the mist. Between the smoke and the darkness, I had only a few feet of visibility in front of me. I could see no movement, nor hear anyone else nearby. I pressed my palm to the wall and felt only rock. It was rough and unfinished. The hall before me wound into the darkness.
I inhaled the harsh scent of smoke and… something else, something light and ominously pleasant that I couldn’t place.
I took a few cautious steps. Echoes of clashes rang out in the distance, as if some of my fellow contestants had met their opponents—whoever or whatever they were.
The hallways bent to a single sharp turn to the left.
Weapons ready, I followed it.
I found myself face-to-face with Ibrihim, who had just emerged from around another corner straight ahead.
We both stopped, glancing at each other, then the corridor before us. Halfway between us, another hallway veered to the right. Our path had split three ways—the
route I had come from, the one Ibrihim had, and the path forward.
A maze. This was a maze. I touched the uncut stone and looked up at the strange ceiling with new insight. It was the underside of the earth—because this was intended to mimic the journey to the underworld. Nyaxia had wandered for weeks after escaping the realm of the gods before at last finding her way to Alarus’s territory. She had been lost, so we would be, too.
Ibrihim and I both stilled, the realization hitting him as it had me. I could barely see his face through the layers of unearthly mist, but I knew he watched me just as closely, and I knew better than to underestimate him.
Slowly, I edged down the hall, craning my neck to peer around the corner. A massive silver door stood there, light playing off an embossed tableau of a man’s stern, eyeless face—Alarus. It was firmly closed. No handle.
Ibrihim had come closer, too, and I kept one eye on him as I approached the door. Something shifted beneath my feet. I looked down. I’d stepped on a block of stone, which now sank slightly into the sand.
A dull grinding sound shook the air.
The door before us opened, leading to another hallway. In the foggy distance beyond, I could make out another turn, the sounds of distant violence closer.
Ibrihim and I peered at each other warily. He made no move for me, so I didn’t move, either. Instead, I stepped closer to the door—
—and it immediately slammed down with enough force to shake the ground.
I lurched backwards, nearly tripping over the slab.
When I stepped back onto it, the door began to rise again.
I stepped off. The door slammed back down.
I looked at Ibrihim. Understanding settled over us at the same time.
The door would not remain open without weight on the stone. But it needed to be dead weight, because whoever was left here wouldn’t be able to make it to the other side alone.
He gave me a weak, lopsided smile, revealing scarred gums.
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t here to win,” he said, somewhat apologetically, before he hurled a fucking star at me.
This was what Ibrihim’s parents, after all, had been so worried about. He had been a quiet child, but he was also an innately talented warrior. So they did everything they could to make him a less efficient killer. They ruined his legs. They tore his wings. They took his teeth. But they couldn’t take away his use of magic.
Which, unfortunately, was also very, very good.
I dropped to the ground just in time to keep my face from becoming a scalded mass of flesh. His magic, which drew upon the power of stars, wasn’t as strong as Asteris, but it was still plenty deadly. He flung those streaks of light like they were nothing.
I dove around the corner, heading back to my dead end. I pressed to the wall, listening—waiting. My arm ached, the burn blistering where he had grazed my shoulder. Two minutes into this thing and I was already injured. Fabulous start.
He couldn’t shoot me here without coming after me. And he would need to, because he needed my bodyweight to get that door open.
Long seconds passed. Ibrihim wasn’t stupid. He knew what I was doing. Knew he was putting himself at a disadvantage, and that he had to do it anyway.
I strained over the sounds of the crowd and the distant fighting in a futile attempt to hear his footsteps—fuck, what
I wouldn’t give now for that vampire hearing— The moment he approached, I leapt on him.
I had one shot. I needed to hit skin before he had time to react.
He hadn’t been expecting the poison, reeling away with a gasp of pain as it ate through the first wound, a slash across his forearm. Our fight devolved into wild chaos immediately—him forcing himself not to pull away as the poison scorched his skin, me suffering through the burns of his starlight on my hands as I tried to pin his down.
Normally, I would be trying to bury my blade as deep into his chest as possible. Impossible now. I didn’t have the time, distance, or leverage for a shot powerful enough to get to the heart. But I could still devour him with a hundred little bites. Let that poison do its work, slowly.
Injured or no, he was bigger than me. I got him to the ground, crawled over his body, opening mark after mark after mark in his armor. But that lasted only for a couple of minutes before he flung me away. I let out an oof as my back smacked the sand, knocking the breath out of me.
No time to catch it as he crawled over me. I barely managed to move my left hand down, so it was trapped between our bodies as his weight pinned me. Suffocating. I couldn’t move. He grabbed my right hand and wrenched it above my head with a violent CRACK.
“I always liked you,” he panted.
“Me too,” I said, and twisted my left arm just enough to bury the blade in his gut.
His eyes widened. He opened his lips—maybe he intended to speak, but the only thing that came out was a wet, wordless grunt of pain. The poison worked fast, sizzling as it dissolved his skin. It ate at my hand, too, where his blood dripped down.
I pushed him off me. He was alive, but barely conscious, clawing at his abdomen. It had become a disgusting mess of tattered leather, pus, and blood.
I grabbed his arms and pulled. Fuck, he was heavy. I dragged him over to the slab and dropped him onto the stone.
The door opened behind me, but I stared down at Ibrihim as his head lolled, eyes slitted to meet mine.
He’d live. Miserably, and even more maimed than he was before, but he’d live. I had to put an end to that.
It shouldn’t have been hard. I had killed countless times. I didn’t know why I found myself hesitating as Ibrihim looked up at me. Maybe because we had always seen something familiar in each other, even if we never acknowledged it.
“I’m sorry.” The words slipped from my lips without my permission as I prepared to slide my blade through his chest.
But before I could bring it down, the ground shook. A deafening groan filled my ears.
My head snapped up just in time to see the walls crumbling.