Chapter no 19

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I narrowly dodged a falling boulder as I dove through the door. The walls undulated. Not just collapsing, I realized—moving.

I almost laughed. Of course. In legend, Alarus’s realm

was ever-evolving. The path to morality was forever changing, and thus the path to the afterlife was, too. If this trial was meant to represent the underworld, the changing maze was just one more thing to conquer.

I ran. With the stone crumbling and floor shifting, I didn’t know how long I had before my path through would be cut off completely. The mist was thicker in here. That strange smell was stronger now, too—that sweet scent.

I made decisions based on nothing but gut instinct—left, right, right, left, right, left. I skidded to a stop as I rounded a corner to see another door, this one bearing an engraving with Alarus’s eyes wide open and a fistful of flowers in his hand. Beautiful—though I had no time to appreciate it, because standing before it was Kiretta, the Shadowborn.

Neither of us hesitated.

We hit each other at the same time—my body slamming against hers as her magic encircled us. I hadn’t gotten the full force of it during the last trial. Green-tinted smoke enveloped me. Pain burst through the back of my head, her magic cracking open my mind.

I pushed her to the ground as she clawed at me.

Squeezed my eyes shut.

Don’t look at her. Don’t listen to her.

Open your eyes, a sing-song voice whispered within my thoughts. Look at me, pretty girl. Look at me.

No. If Kiretta was as good of a caster as Vincent warned, she would be able to charm me this close. The Shadowborn’s gift for mind magic was just as dangerous as any weapon.

It took all my focus to hold her down while resisting her call.

Shadowborn magic was an open passage—they controlled the door, but the hallway went both ways. I pushed through her distractions, turned my mental gaze to the other end of the corridor that connected us.

Pain. Hunger. She was injured. Weak. Reckless. And I saw exactly how sloppy that desperation made her. She was a stronger magic user, but right now, I was the better fighter—and I could see all too clearly how she had underestimated me.

I let her think that she won. Slackened my mental walls. Let my head roll back. Let my eyes open. Her stare, hypnotic and mesmerizing, was so close that even that split second was almost too much. A satisfied smile began to spread over her lips.

And then I drove my dagger into her throat.

Instantly, the poison did its work. A fleeting stab of her agony rushed through my mind before I pulled away from her, severing our mental connection. She clutched her throat on the ground, which heaved and billowed with the shifting halls. She was still fighting for breath, fighting for her feet, when I dragged her onto the stone slab. I didn’t give her the opportunity to pull herself up before I dove through the door.

The scent hit me in a wall, intoxicatingly sweet.

I was now in a field of poppies. Dense white fog hung in a gentle curtain over the flowers, an expanse of bleeding red. The thunderous grind of stone echoed behind me, but here, it was eerily still. Light rippled in delicate dapples over the flower fields.

Poppies were the flowers of the dead. If the hallways behind me had been the path down, then this was the threshold of the underworld. Four arched silver doors stood before me, each revealing paths that soon faded into silver fog. The clash of steel against steel rang out ahead, as did grating rumbles that told me I wasn’t done dodging falling stone.

I had to be near the back of the group. Which meant, as much as it pained me, running towards the sounds of fighting was probably my best choice. I pushed through the middle hallway. Halfway through, I passed a bloody body, which made be hesitate in confusion.

At a glance, I assumed it was a contestant. But the blood was very, very red, and the corpse wore not battle leathers but plain once-white robes, now in tatters. The red smear on the wall implied that he had been flung against it and left to slowly die on the ground.

Human. That was a human body.

I didn’t understand. Why were there humans here?

A strange sound echoed in from down the hall. A sound like—like a cry. At first I thought I must have imagined it, because it didn’t make any sense. Maybe it was a warped noise from the crowd or another contestant, or—

Another quake of the ground jerked me from my trance, a reminder that I didn’t have time to waste. I sprinted down the rest of the hallway, until I reached another arch leading to another field of poppies—fuller now, a sea of red.

The cry echoed once more. Not imagined. Very real.

A door stood open on the other side of the field. I stepped closer. Another lifeless—distinctly human—body

lay on a stone slab. And beside her, clad in the same white robes, was a child.

My mind stopped working. Froze. Stuck on that little girl, who kneeled beside the mutilated body.

This was why my blood didn’t seem to be a draw for the other contestants, even those that were hungry. Because there were many humans here.

The white robes. The white cast on their faces. The humans were not accidents. They weren’t even prey. They were… decorations. Playing the part of the souls that occupied the underworld.

A gift. A distraction. Or simply a dramatic flair.

The little girl wept, tears streaking chalky white over her cheeks. She looked up at me and her eyes went wide— watery blue, peering between oily tendrils of black hair.

Where did these come from? There were no human children in the inner city of Sivrinaj. Did she come from the human districts?

Why was a child here?

Behind me, the sound of grinding stone drew closer. I needed to go. I needed to go right now.

I took several steps towards the door.

Leave her, Vincent’s voice commanded.

And with that came the echo of Raihn’s, from the first night of the Kejari: They’re dead, little human. And if you go after them, so are you.

True. And true.

And yet, I found myself turning back, crouching before the child. She scrambled away from me, terrified.

“Come with me,” I said. “I won’t hurt you.”

She didn’t move, save for terrified shaking. She was stuck, I realized—she had been pressed to the wall when the stone shifted last, leaving her ankle wedged between two slabs of black marble.

How did one interact with a child this young? What was she, four, eight? I’d never even seen a human child up close

like this.

“We need to go now,” I pressed.

No time. The floor began to quiver. I grabbed the girl’s tiny body as tightly as I could and pulled.

She let out a cry of pain. Resistance, then release, as I wrenched her leg free. I tucked her against me with a silent apology, and then I wondered exactly how insane I was as I ran.

A mistake. A mistake on so many levels, Oraya. You can’t fight like this. Can’t evade like this. You’re slower. You smell twice as human. You lose a sword arm. Leave her. She’s dead anyway.

I bolted through three more doors, already open, corpses of humans or contestants mangled over their slabs. I passed several more humans cowering against the walls, donned in white. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them.

The poppies grew denser, each step sluggish through the foliage. The scent was overwhelming. Carvings plastered the walls now, huge eyes that spanned from floor to ceiling, suns and stars spiraling in their depths—the symbol of Alarus, because death always watched.

Another door stood ahead, this one closed. The light had grown bright and feverish, dancing over us at the same pace as my quickening heartbeat. The girl grabbed fistfuls of my hair as she clung to me, trembling. She leaned forward, her head blocking one critical sliver of my peripheral vision.

The Bloodborn man lunged for me before I had the chance to move.

I dropped the child, cringing as I tried to push her out of the way in time for me to whirl to meet the attack. He knocked me to the ground, teeth bared. He got the first shot in, a bone-steel rapier right to my already-injured thigh, which left me jerking in pain. I leapt back to my feet with everything I had, throwing myself against him to regain control—but I only made it a few inches into my

attempted blow before he grabbed my wrist and sank his teeth into it.

I ripped it away, my own blood spattering over my face. Too slow. The hesitation cost me. My back cracked against stone as my opponent caught me and pushed me to the wall. He was small for a vampire, only a few inches taller than me, and I looked right into his stare as he encroached

—red-rimmed pupils dilated, glistening with hunger and glee.

Time stopped. I tried to grip my blade with my injured hand. Couldn’t move fast enough—

The Bloodborn lurched backwards.

I sucked in a sudden gulp of air. Raihn yanked my attacker off me, nearly splitting him in two with a devastating follow-up strike from his Nightsteel sword. In return, the Bloodborn leapt on Raihn like a dying animal in their final throes. Wounds along his arms shivered, the red mist of blood magic surrounding them. Raihn was hurt. The Bloodborn would be able to manipulate his blood, too.

Raihn got in two more hits, but the Bloodborn retaliated with enough force to send him careening against the stone. Still, Raihn gripped his opponent’s arms tight, not letting him pull away—and leaving his back wide open, exposed to me.

Raihn’s gaze met mine over his attacker’s shoulder—


I thrust my blade hard into the Bloodborn’s back, sinking to the hilt. Even from behind, I knew how to pierce a heart.

The man slumped.

Raihn let the body fall as I struggled to free my weapon. He looked me up and down. “So you do know how to be helpful,” he said, already turning to the door. “Let’s go. I saw flames up ahead. Probably Mische. I think we’re close to—where the hell are you going?”

I wasn’t listening. The child had made it halfway across the poppy field. Her leg was clearly broken, more obvious than ever now as she struggled to run away from me. I grabbed her, muttering a hurried apology, and ran back to Raihn, who stared at me.

“And what is that?” He said it like I’d just presented him with a fluffy pink dog.

The ground rumbled. We didn’t have time for this. “Go!” I didn’t stop moving long enough to answer. Raihn dropped the Bloodborn’s corpse on the slab, and we flew through the corridors.

Raihn had to be right that we were near the end of the maze. The next two doors were open, held there by the corpses of a human and Rishan, respectively. Telltale bloodstains adorned the walls—delicate sprays of red, too fine to be from wounds. Evidence of blood magic.

We encountered only two other contestants, and between the child and my injuries, I needed to rely on Raihn’s defense far more than I liked. At least he cut them down easily, just two more corpses left in the halls as we progressed.

“Raihn,” I hissed as we rounded another corner, pointing to the left with my bloody blade—to a gate marked with lit Nightfire torches. This one was bigger than the others, double doors of ornate metal, one of Alarus’s eyes peering from each.

The end? It could be. It had to be.

A single slab sat before us. Raihn and I looked at each other. Then looked at the child, who wept softly, barely conscious.

He’d move for me. I knew it. Me, or the child. The minute he did, my arm swung.

My blade hit the solid leather-clad muscle of his shoulder. His jaw snapped shut, trembling. He glared at me.

“What,” he hissed, between clenched teeth, “the fuck

was that for? I was going for that.”

He pointed his sword to a lifeless body at the far end of the hall, then muttered a string of curses and yanked my blade from his armor.


I adjusted my hold around the child and mumbled something that somewhat resembled an apology, and Raihn told me to go fuck myself. I considered telling him how lucky he was that that blade had no poison left and decided he probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

He hoisted the corpse over his shoulder and was on his way back when the wave of pain hit me—acidic, all consuming, like I was being boiled from the inside out.

I had only a moment to recognize what was happening before Angelika hit me.

I barely managed to stave her off, my single free arm trembling with the strength it took to block her. Red suffused my vision. Each breath burned. The cuts over Angelika’s arms quivered as the mist thickened.

She smiled. “I told you I’d kill you in the ring.”

The child’s body went rigid with pain as she cringed against me. Could a human child survive this?

I heard Raihn’s approaching footsteps running for us. He had gone all the way down the hall. Seconds and he would be here. The smart thing would be to wait for him. I could withstand it—but the girl probably couldn’t.

So I left myself unguarded for one critical moment as I evaded.

The strike to my side was crippling.

I fell. I barely had enough awareness to push the child away from my falling weight before I hit the ground.

Angelika’s clawed hand was at my throat immediately. Squeezed. I found the gates, tall and glimmering with the promise of safety as everything else blurred. I reached for

my magic, and it sputtered uselessly out of reach. Always gone when I needed it most.

I groped at my side. One touch to the dagger she had embedded there made me seize with agony. But it’s amazing what a body could endure to survive.

I yanked the blade out of my flesh and thrust it into Angelika’s.

She cursed and slammed my head against the floor. Everything went white, then black.

I was only partially conscious when Raihn pulled Angelika away. I could not move my gaze from the ceiling. How much time passed? Seconds, minutes? The roar of the crowd swelled to a sudden crescendo. Everything spun.

Raihn leaned over me.

“It’s almost over, Oraya.” He looked like he was shouting but sounded so far away. “Get up. Come on. Quick. We don’t have time.”

I managed to turn my head. Angelika barely moved in a heap on the ground. My eyes fell to the little girl, unconscious, her leg twisted, dark hair falling over her face. So incredibly familiar. Like looking in a mirror.

I dragged myself to my hands and knees, pushing away Raihn’s hand.

“Lemme go,” I slurred.

“For fuck’s sake, princess, I’m not going to—” “Lemme go!”

I crawled to the girl. Gathered her in my arms. Forced myself to my feet. My gaze settled on the gate ahead, though it tilted and smeared.

What was that, ten steps? I could make it ten steps.

Raihn held my arm, perhaps in frustration, perhaps to steady me.

“What are you doing?” he hissed.

I couldn’t answer that even if I wanted to. It took all my energy to make it those final steps.

Still, I would not let him help me. Still, I would not let go of that child.

I crossed the threshold and fell to my knees.

The colosseum spread out before me, gold-gilded and magnificent. Thousands of spectators packed the stands, screaming for blood. And yet, even in that crowd, I found Vincent right away—right there in the front, watching me with abject horror, as if his own heart had been carved out and thrust into my hands.

It struck me, all at once, exactly how much Vincent loved me.

Was that how I had looked, I wondered, when I looked at this little girl? Just like that?

At the thought of her, sudden fear overwhelmed me.

These were predators. All of them. And she was prey.

Her blood and mine ran together as I turned to Raihn. “Don’t let them take her,” I choked out.

The world faded. I didn’t remember falling, but suddenly, I was looking at the sky, my fingernails digging into Raihn’s arm, the other hand desperately clutching the limp child to my chest. Nightborn soldiers encroached upon us.

Don’t let them take her,” I begged again. The edges of my vision grew dark.

And Raihn leaned very close to me—closer than I ever allowed anyone—as he murmured, solemn as a vow, “I won’t.”

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