Feathers everywhere. Black, smothering, so dark that all color curled up and died in them.
Everything was distant and numb. I could not get my mind to work well enough to process any of it.
The feathers shifted. Light seeped between them. Or… no, not light. Eyes. Gold eyes. Terrible, cruel gold eyes.
I blinked, and then the eyes became a face that glared down at me from above. A man, with severe features and a neat beard and long black hair that flew out behind him, mingling with the wings that unfolded around us both.
I had never seen this person before. And yet, the sight of him filled me with paralyzing terror.
I blinked again, and the winged man’s face was replaced with another one. This one, I did know. I knew every angle of it. I pretended I didn’t see it every time I closed my eyes. My old lover leaned close to me, so close the familiar cool of his breath ghosted over my cheek. “Did you miss
me?” he whispered.
I struggled but couldn’t move.
Blink. The two faces merged, changing back and forth with every pulse of my panicked heartbeat.
They grabbed my hand, pressed it to their chest— pressed it to the gaping wound there, right in the center.
They leaned closer. Their lips touched my ear. “Did you miss me?”
Their blood was hot on my hand, running all the way down my forearm, as I struggled, frantic, with nowhere to go.
MY ARM WAS warm and wet. My heartbeat was out of control. Sharp pain shot up my back. I was in pitch darkness, and yet, too many sensations surrounded me— like two different worlds were colliding, each feeding me conflicting senses.
This was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
Oraya! Calm down. Breathe.
But even my own thoughts were lost, like my mind had become a gaping, cavernous maze I no longer knew how to navigate. Something else was here, something was—
ORAYA. CALM THE FUCK DOWN.
So loud it shocked my thoughts into silence. Raihn’s voice. It was Raihn’s voice booming through the back of my skull.
But… in my mind. Not my ears.
Breathe, Oraya. Both of us. We need to—we need to calm down. Alright?
For a moment I questioned my sanity.
I felt a shiver of wry amusement up my spine—a wordless, soundless chuckle—and it was such a bizarre sensation it nearly sent me spiraling again.
You aren’t alone in that, princess.
I put my hands straight out in front of me. I could see nothing, but they lay flat against smooth, toothy stone. The
cold unyielding firmness steadied me.
And yet, even though my palms were now pressed firmly against the wall, I felt something else, too—felt them wrapped around the hilt of a sword. Felt the way my muscles strained to lift it, and a shock of pain up my back as I did.
My hands were here. My hands were there.
“That’s you,” I gasped. “I’m feeling you.”
My physical voice felt dull and flat compared to the one in my head.
Yes, Raihn answered.
A mind bonding. The potion. It must have been a spell. It would take rare, powerful magic to forge a temporary bond like this—but I supposed Nyaxia’s church had all the resources to make the impossible possible.
Ix’s fucking tits.
Another uncanny vibration up my spine. I shuddered.
Don’t do that. What? Laugh? It feels strange.
The laughter is what feels strange? That’s what goes too far for you? How fitting.
Strange was an understatement. Every single part of me railed against the unwelcome presence in my thoughts— each nerve and muscle screamed at the additional weight of another set of senses thrust upon them.
Fuck, Oraya, do you feel this tense all the time?
I was too embarrassed to admit that too often, I did.
Special circumstances, I replied instead. You’re just as bad.
The truth. His anxiety was just as strong as mine. Different—a rolling undercurrent rather than staggering waves—but every bit as powerful.
If it was this overwhelming in just a dark box, what was this going to be like when we were actually in battle? It
almost made me sick just to think about it. I felt the echoing pang of Raihn’s concern, too.
Well, we’d have to make it work. Half of the contestants would die today. We needed to get out of here.
I ran my hands along the wall, and felt Raihn doing the same, wherever he was. Smooth stone here, smooth stone there.
Cells. They were cells.
That made sense. Nyaxia and Alarus had been imprisoned by the gods of the White Pantheon as punishment for their unlawful relationship. Nyaxia might have been a lesser goddess then, and Alarus weakened to a fraction of his former power, but it still proved to be an unwise decision. The two of them fought their way out of captivity, slaughtering exactly half of the keepers of Extryn, the legendary prison of the Pantheon.
This must be our Extryn.
We’ll probably have to fight through whatever’s out there together, when we get out, I told Raihn as we both felt around the walls of our enclosures. Let’s get these open.
Once we found each other, we would be nearly unstoppable. I was certain of that.
I’m touched that you think so, Raihn replied, sensing that thought. I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that he actually was, and I felt it.
My fingertip hit a little patch of metal, high up in the corner of my cell. I pressed down, and stone shifted. Click.
The door swung open, letting in a flood of cool light— from the stars, the moon, and the hundreds of torches floating above the colosseum. It was night, but compared to the darkness of the cell, it blinded me.
I blinked into it for half a second. And when my eyes adjusted, I almost let out a laugh, just because what the fuck else was I supposed to do.
Before me was carnage. Just utter carnage. Most of the contestants hadn’t even made it out of their cells yet, and the sand was already soaked with blood. Monsters tore each other apart in the arena—every kind of beast one could possibly imagine. Demons like the ones from the first trial, this time with knobby, milky-white wings. Massive cats, black with gray spots and bright red eyes—creatures I’d only ever seen in storybooks, from the House of Shadow. Hellhounds—enormous, hunched wolves with pure white fur, darkness rolling from their skin. They roamed the dunes of the House of Night in packs and have been known to slaughter entire settlements.
Far beyond all of that—past all that certain death—was a wall made of piled white stone, cutting across the center of the colosseum. A rocky path led up to its peak. Two golden doorways stood at the top, tall and narrow, pulsing with silver smoke. The stands were packed, a sea of shrieking faces surrounding the arena, thrilled by the most dramatic of the Kejari trials.
Another vision collided with this one as Raihn’s door swung open and he took in a mirror image of this sight— from, I realized, the other side of the wall.
Fuck, he murmured. Fuck was right.
Iron boxes like the one I had just stumbled out of lined the outskirts of the sand pit. The one right beside me was still closed, and the muﬄed sound of wordless screaming came from within. Another door opened and one of the Shadowborn contestants stumbled from their cell, clutching their head, only to wander straight into the jaws of a hellhound.
What the hell was wrong with him?
Many can’t exactly handle the weight of multiple minds,
Raihn answered. Not like this.
Through Raihn’s eyes, I watched another man fall to his knees and struggle to rise. Maybe we were lucky that
Mische wasn’t here, after all. I couldn’t imagine trying to support both of them.
I looked back to the wall and the doorways at its peak. Our goal, clearly. Or… one of them was. Extryn was a place of cruel chance, after all. No doubt one would lead to freedom, and one would lead to damnation.
But between us and that threat were so many more. I steeled myself as I looked out into the sea of teeth and claws and blood before me. Across the colosseum, Raihn did the same.
You ready? I asked him.
He was already lifting his sword. Always.
We threw ourselves into the onslaught.
At first, it was a struggle. The weight of Raihn’s mind weighed heavily on my own. I lost precious seconds to separating his senses from mine. I kept myself alive— barely—as I fought across the first stretch of the arena, but I was clumsy, allowing too many close calls.
Stop resisting it, Raihn snapped at me. Lean into it.
That’s the only way we make it through.
It went against every single instinct I had. But he was right—I couldn’t fight him inside my mind and still focus on keeping myself alive.
We’d trained for this, I reminded myself. Not knowingly, but… we’d learned to accommodate each other, to anticipate and understand each other’s unspoken cues. Our partnership had never been about brute strength. It had always been about compromise.
This? This was just a matter of giving ourselves over to
And once we did that, we became a source of strength to
each other, another well to draw upon. We might have been separated, but it was like we were back fighting side-by-side in the slums. I felt every strike he made, and he felt every one of mine.
Still, even as we found our rhythm, every step grew more treacherous. The beasts—clearly starved—were more numerous and agitated closer to the barrier. Worse, by now, all the other contestants were out of their cells. And we all understood acutely that our primary competition wasn’t the hellhounds or the demons—it was each other.
Only half of us would remain after this. We fought like it.
We were all forced together into the sands. Early in the trial, a Hiaj contestant tried to fly up above the carnage, only to immediately fall to the ground, wings shredded. A barrier. Wings or no, there was no avoiding the pit of death.
I was barely halfway across the arena, and already, I had to strike down someone every step. And perhaps Raihn’s presence in my mind fueled me, but it would have been a hell of a lot more helpful if he was actually beside me.
I don’t understand, I thought, frustrated. What is the point of this? We can’t actually fight together this way.
But before he could respond, pain sliced across my arm. I stumbled, losing precious ground to the Shadowborn woman who had come after me. I glanced down to see smooth unbroken leather armor on my own arm, but Raihn saw a trail of blood over his.
He paid for that moment of distraction as his attacker lunged for him again, again, again. I gritted my teeth and struggled to push back my own, at last shoving her into the grip of a nearby demon. But across the arena, I felt Raihn’s fight continue. He wasn’t faring as well. I flinched with every blow.
The memory of the demons from the first trial hit me, and with it came sudden realization.
Just now, Raihn had been hurt… and I had stumbled.
Who is that? I asked him. His vision came in broken flashes. I couldn’t see a face.
Who is that you’re fighting right now? Look at his face!
I felt Raihn’s confusion, but he obeyed. As he countered the next blow, he showed me his attacker—a Hiaj Nightborn man with fair hair.
I knew him. Nikolai. I racked my memory. Who had he been paired with?
Ravinthe. He has a bad right knee, Vincent had told me at the feast.
I scanned the crowd. We were lucky. Ravinthe wasn’t far from me, just a few strides across the pit. I dove for him. Didn’t give him time to react—my weapon went for his right knee, a direct hit. His leg folded up beneath him, blood spurting. I plunged my blade into his chest before he had time to rise.
And just as I suspected, across the arena, Raihn’s opponent fell.
Shit, he whispered, a spark of pleasure spearing us both as he seized the opportunity to finish Nikolai. You’re good.
We were separated, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t still help each other. With this knowledge, we cut across the battlefield. Yes, we needed to get to those gates as quickly as possible, but each of us sacrificed small gains in speed to help the other, and that give-and-take meant that as a team, we moved swiftly.
But the contestants who still remained were strong, too. The Bloodborn, in particular, knew how to compete together. One of them was the first to broach the wall of stone, fighting her way up the winding path to the top. She had nearly made it by the time I reached the wall. It looked more like a mountain up close, a looming pile of stacked rock. The path to its crest was steep and precarious. Two others were ahead of me, chopping through stray hellhounds and demons that had made their way up.
Three coming up on this side, I told Raihn.
Two over here.
You’d better get here quick.
Only half of us would make it. Eleven.
I could see the path through his eyes, just a few strides ahead. We were both so, so close.
But I made it only a few steps up the path when excruciating pain tore through my back, then my shoulder. My knees hit the ground, a gasp ripping through me.
It took a few seconds to realize it wasn’t my body being slashed open, but Raihn’s. His sight was just a smear of clattering weapons—a cloud of red smoke—a flash of white hair.
I tried to pull myself up, braced against the rocks.
Go, Raihn told me. Keep going. I can handle her.
No. He couldn’t lie, not with our minds locked together. Not when I could feel each wound she opened on his body and how hard he struggled to keep up.
Healthy, Angelika and Raihn were almost evenly matched. But Raihn had just endured hours of torture.
Today, they were not evenly matched.
I didn’t even think about the decision. I turned back.
I have this, Oraya. Go!
I ignored him.
It took me a few minutes to find Angelika’s partner, Ivan, in the escalating chaos. I had to double back far—all the way down the wall. I found him in the thick of the fighting in the sands, dealing a weak finishing blow to a jaguar. He was injured, each step slow and limping.
This would be easy. It would just take me a few minutes to pick him off, and with him, Angelika.
Ivan saw me coming barely in time to react. A wave of acidic agony hit me as the red mist of his magic surrounded us. The wounds on his arms quivered with exertion—with the blood he had to use to fuel it.
I didn’t even let it slow me. I hit his arm, the poison eating at his skin immediately.
In Raihn’s battle, Angelika faltered. He took that opening, levied a strike—
Just as Ivan pulled back, his magic swelling. It nearly crippled me, unbearable paired with Raihn’s wounds. But I pushed through it, rolled, lunged. My blade sliced Ivan’s good leg to the bone.
It collapsed beneath him.
The two of us landed in a tangle on the ground. My battle with Ivan and Raihn’s with Angelika blended together, each reduced to wild flashes of burning muscles and blood and steel and magic.
I rolled on top of Ivan, pinning him. Pain slithered across my ribs.
Not mine—Raihn’s. Running out of time.
I looked right into Ivan’s eyes as I raised my blade, holding him still between my knees, his back pressed to the stone of the wall.
And I was looking so intently at him that I almost didn’t notice the movement out of the corner of my vision.
Raihn looked over Angelika’s shoulder—looked up, at the gates of victory. The Bloodborn woman had reached the top. She paused between the two doors, clearly hesitant. A Shadowborn man was not far behind her. He ran, not slowing, as he crested the top.
And he didn’t hesitate as he shoved her through one of the arches, forcing her to test the decision.
I seized up as the ground shook beneath me. I looked up just in time to see the flash of light from the gate consume everything.
Just in time to hear, in the mind that we shared, Raihn scream my name.
Just in time to feel a wave of pain as Ivan buried his dagger in my side.
And I had no time to react as his magic seized hold of my blood, my muscles. Forced them to move without my permission.
And hurled me into the thick of the bloodthirsty beasts.