Chapter no 20

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

My arms were empty when I awoke.

I stared at the ceiling for several long seconds. My stomach churned. The mural on the ceiling—a

night sky—streaked as the world spun. I lifted my hand to my chest and felt only the slow rise and fall of my own breath.

No child.

The trial came to me in bits and pieces, assembled in a fractured mosaic. The end of it was just a blurry, poorly rendered suggestion.

The girl. I remembered how limp she had been. How hard we’d hit the ground together. Remembered the guards closing in on me—on her. She was just a small, helpless human.

My hand slid down my body. Yes, I had some nicks and cuts, but the worst of my injuries had been healed. I had survived the second trial.

And I felt nothing.

Raihn was nowhere to be found when I awoke, but Mische was excited to see me conscious. A little too excited, actually, her grin tinged with a manic hint of concern. I had been in rough shape, and unconscious for days.

“It was mostly the blood magic that got you,” she told me.

As a human, I was especially susceptible to it. My blood was weak, easy to manipulate, easy to turn against my mortal flesh. If a body withstood it, recovery could be quick, but the line between survival and death, especially for a human, was very thin.

I thought of that child. How tiny she was, nestled against my chest. Surely too tiny to survive what I barely had.

I listened, numb, as Mische told me of the end of the trial—that eleven contestants had died, leaving twenty-nine of us. Even Ibrihim, miraculously, had managed to drag himself through at the last possible moment.

I sipped the water Mische gave me, but my mouth was still too dry to bring myself to ask the only question I cared about. I let her talk for a full half hour before I scraped up the courage to choke out, “The girl?”

She looked confused. “The what?” “There was a little girl.”

She gave me a weak smile and a pitying shake of her head. “I don’t know.”

I wanted to press, wanted to demand that we find out, but the words were thick in my throat.

Why did I care so much? I shouldn’t care so much. And yet I couldn’t ignore it. Couldn’t escape it. I swallowed down what I could of the food Mische gave me, but the minutes ticked by and I grew antsy, as if everything I was trying to suppress just roiled and thrashed beneath my skin.

Eventually, I rose. Every muscle ached, but at least I could move. I grabbed my jacket from the coat hook.

“Where are you going?” Mische asked, alarmed, as I threw it over my shoulders.

“Just need some air.” “But you should—”

I threw open the door.

“—rest,” she finished as I slammed it behind me.



IT HAD BEEN a while since I’d done three in a single night. My body railed against me for it—and I deserved that, I suppose—but even tired, the fuckers weren’t difficult to kill. They were lazy, and there were too many of them. It had been weeks since I’d walked these streets. Enough time, apparently, to lull these fools into a false sense of security.

I wasn’t surprised.

They were entitled. Selfish, gluttonous, entitled pieces of shit, who saw the people who lived here as nothing more than livestock. I hated them so much that watching them die—watching them watch me, a human, kill them—did nothing to ease my rage. It just made it feel like more of an injustice.

Over the years, I had learned to stitch up that wound, tuck it carefully away with all my other human weaknesses. Now, the bandage I so carefully maintained had been torn off, grasped in the little fingers of an innocent dead child.

I didn’t know how to make it stop. I had been taught young that bleeding was dangerous. And though my wounds had closed, the one deep in my chest bled more than ever. It made me just as vulnerable.

When I left the Moon Palace, I thought I was going to meet Vincent. I was sure that he would be waiting for me. I’d seen the way he looked at me in there. I needed to talk to him, to ask him about my magic, ask him about the humans—where had they come from? How did they get humans that should have been protected? Why children?

He’d have answers.

And yet, maybe that was exactly why I found myself walking in the opposite direction, to the human districts.

Words were complicated. Questions were difficult. And that wound inside of me was bleeding so much that I knew Vincent would smell it. The blood would seep out between my fingers if he ripped it open with an answer I didn’t like.

This was easier. More satisfying. At least it was fucking

doing something.

My third victim looked at me like I was Nyaxia herself as the light left his eyes. I pinned him against the wall, here in the shit-stinking, piss-coated alleyway where he had been stalking young women in the pub across the street. I wasn’t the young woman he wanted, but I was certainly the one he deserved.

He opened his mouth, a waft of his rotting breath floating over my face as he slackened.

I yanked my blade free and let him slump to the ground.

Animal. Fucking rot there with the shit and the piss and the trash, just like all the other rat carcasses.

He had opened a cut on my wrist with his fingernails. I stopped and watched the blood bubble to the surface, and with it came another unbearable wave of rage.

My skin, human skin, was so delicate and easily torn. In this moment, I hated it just as much as I hated the vampire I’d just killed. More, even. Maybe that fragility was responsible for just as much death.

“And here I was thinking that you were visiting with our great and powerful Nightborn King when you ran away in the early hours.”

I spun around, blade out, to see a familiar winged form standing on the rooftop. At the sight, my heart clenched—I didn’t like when they flew above me. I may be the serpent, but even snakes run for cover when hawks soared overhead.

Raihn, I’m sure, would not take kindly to me killing vampires. No vampire would. They would kill each other any day, but none of them liked it when a human did it.

Not that I was in the mood to give a damn, now. “Go away.”

“That’s an uncharacteristically boring retort.” It was. Almost embarrassing.

I ignored him and wiped the blood from my blade. Raihn’s smirk faltered slightly.

“I saw you kill two more in the last hour,” he said, his voice a touch softer than I would have expected. “You’re doing this when you were just on the edge of death? Not a wise use of your time, some might say.”

That wound in my heart bled and bled. His words salted it, and I lashed out at him like an animal.

“Not a good use of my time?” I snarled, jabbing my weapon at him. “Four humans would be dead if I didn’t do this today. But of course, you don’t think their lives are worth an hour and a half of my time.”

His smirk disappeared. “That wasn’t what I meant.” “Fuck you.”

I hoped he couldn’t see my face. It probably revealed too much.

Be careful with those colorful expressions of yours, little serpent, Vincent whispered.

Fuck you, too, I thought, then, moments later, uttered a silent apology in my head.

Behind me, I heard Raihn land on the ground— surprisingly lightly for someone of his size.

“Get out.” I didn’t turn. “These pricks don’t need you defending their honor.”

He scoffed in disgust. “I’m doing no such thing. As far as I’m concerned, you’re doing an important public service.”

My hand stopped mid-movement.

I didn’t turn, didn’t reveal my face, but he chuckled. “What?”

What did he mean, what? Like he didn’t know what. Like he wasn’t perfectly fucking aware exactly how any vampire

—even ones who looked down upon these rats, even ones who disagreed with their actions—would take a human taking it upon herself to kill them. An insult on principle alone.

I didn’t bother saying this to him. We both knew.

Instead, a question swelled in my throat. It was exactly the kind of question I’d come here to avoid, the kind with an ugly answer I didn’t want to hear.

I resumed cleaning my blade. “The girl?” I choked out.

My voice came out higher and weaker than I’d intended.

A long, long silence passed. With each second, my chest tightened.

I heard footsteps approach, but I didn’t move until his hand touched my shoulder. I twitched away, ready to snap at him, but something about the look on his face—oddly gentle—made me pause.

“Come with me,” he said.

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