That night, for the first time in a long time, I dreamed of the moon absent from the sky.
The bed, rickety and cheap as it was, was still
enormous compared to my tiny body. I nestled deep under the covers, pulling them up to my nose. Jona and Leesan were asleep, or pretending to be. Momma was whispering hurriedly—Get that lantern off right now, you knew they’d come, you knew—
I was scared, too. But I thought, I should never be afraid, and slipped from the covers. I walked very, very softly to the window. I was barely tall enough to reach the sill. I gripped the splintering wood and peered into the sky.
Once I saw a dead worm with so many ants all over it that it turned into one big wiggling mass of black. Now the sky looked like that. Just a pulsating blanket of darkness.
Except it wasn’t ants in the sky. It was wings.
My momma said my name in that way she did when she was frightened.
Oraya, get away from—!
THE AIR HIT my lungs too hard, like a gulp of salt water. But worse, because it seemed like it was eating me from the inside out.
The coughs seized my entire body. I had barely gained consciousness before I was on the verge of losing it again, rolling over onto all fours as I convulsed. My eyes were dripping, my stomach aching, my vision so blurry I heard, more than saw, the string of vomit fall to the ground. I blinked rapidly in a poor attempt to clear my vision.
I lifted my head.
No wonder I’d dreamed about that night, because this one looked just like it. Just writhing, indistinct movement in a spine-chilling mass of darkness.
Trees surrounded me—tall, sparse, and narrow, with only a few long needle-tipped branches near their tops. The ground beneath my palms was rough and sandy. Rocks piled everywhere. All of it—the dirt, the rocks, the trees— was black, moonlit outlines rendered onto shades of dark-ash gray. Plumes of smoke rose from the ground, hot and gritty. When a gust of wind rolled a puff of it over me, I gasped in pain and shrank away. It burned my skin like acid.
I grabbed my blades and had them at the ready. Movement punctured the forest—too distant for me to make out what I was seeing at first, but the sound was unmistakable. Wet, heavy breathing, and high-pitched shrieks, and the nauseating sound of flesh tearing open.
My mind was addled, maybe from the smoke or from whatever magic had brought us here, but I forced myself through the haze to put together what was happening.
This was the Crescent trial. It had to be. We weren’t in the colosseum—we weren’t even in Sivrinaj, at least not any part of it that I’d seen—but the timing lined up, and the Crescent trial was often the most unique.
But what was the objective?
Footsteps. I turned, and immediately, something slammed into me, knocking me back to the stones. I couldn’t make out the face of my assailant—not with everything so dark and blurry and the smoke pumping up from the ground, each puff bubbling my armor. I struck wildly with my blades, hitting flesh.
Normally, the poison would be enough to at least slow them, but my attacker seemed utterly unconcerned with pain. Bloodlust? Some of the worst I’d ever seen, if so, to be so disconnected from one’s own body.
I drove my blade hard into my attacker’s side, and that, finally, made him falter. He staggered, falling to the ground like his wounds had caught up to him simultaneously, and I pressed over him.
He wasn’t dead yet. And soon he would wake up. I stabbed him through the chest, barely avoiding the wild flail of his limbs as I finished the job. Like a starving wolf lashing out one last time. They really did become animals when things got this bad.
I yanked my blade from his corpse with a wet crunch, just as a wave of that toxic smoke rolled towards me. I had to lurch away, leaving his limp body to be consumed by it.
I needed to figure out where I was. I needed to— Movement rustled the brush behind me. I spun around.
My eyes groped in the darkness. I could only see silhouettes in the distance. Vampires, fighting. And something four-legged. Demons? I’d been so trained to expect the worst that my mind immediately went to threats. When I crept closer and realized that they weren’t predators, but prey—deer, thrashing against the shadowy figures of the vampires that pinned them—I was relieved.
Good. Deer were perfect. The ideal meal to distract the starving vampires. The starvation had gone on long enough that they wouldn’t have a choice but to leap on whatever blood they smelled. And I was glad that these ones had smelled the deer first.
I needed to get away from here, and fast. Then, when I was alone, I could figure out what my objective was, find Raihn, and—
I stopped myself, swallowing a sad pang. Raihn’s name had flitted through my head without my permission. But we had separated. The Halfmoon trial was over. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to fight him, but—
I wasn’t quite out of the clearing yet when a repulsive sound rang out behind me. It was something between a groan and a gurgle—an uncanny, unnatural blend between animal and vampire.
I quickly lowered into the underbrush and watched the creatures in the distance.
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and the moon had reappeared from behind a misty cloud. The cold light illuminated the scene of bloody ruin behind me—the two vampires crouched between jagged rocks, the deer carcass now open before them. One of them was trying and failing to stand, their limbs spasming wildly. The other seemed to be trying to reach for their companion and failing, as if their muscles refused to cooperate.
The first, in strange, lurching movements, jumped on the other. Feral shrieks cut through the night.
I shrank back.
This… this wasn’t hunger. Bloodlust made vampires sloppy, but it didn’t turn them into mindless beasts. These people looked like they didn’t even have control over their own bodies anymore.
The two vampires wailed as they tore each other apart. Unhinged, senseless, animalistic. Fuck. They just went at
each other, not like warriors, but like animals, the deer carcass forgotten at their—
The deer carcass.
Realization snapped into place. I looked around in horror. Looked around at this place that reeked of death, and yet held such a strangely abundant amount of soft, easy-to-catch prey.
Poisoned, trapped prey.
Nyaxia had starved them, and now she offered them tainted gifts they would be powerless to resist.
My head emptied save for his name. Everything I had told myself, every lie I’d hid my concern beneath, withered away.
I didn’t think anymore. I just ran.
IT WASN’T hard to find the vampires. We had been scattered throughout the forest, but they were loud—bloodlust made them careless, and whatever poison was in these animals turned them into something even worse.
I found Raihn not far from the clearing. I recognized him immediately, even in the dark, even from such a distance. I’d learned the shape of him so well that every angle was a native language.
Yet, for all his familiarity, something was also foreign about him right now. The way he moved wasn’t the deliberate poise of the man who shared my home. It was feral, uncontrolled. Still graceful—that was the only thing that made me exhale in relief, because there was nothing of that toxic, lurching insanity—but the movement of a predator released from its cage.
His wings were out. A limp body slumped against an overturned tree trunk—a Shadowborn man, whom, apparently, Raihn had just finished killing. Now he soared through the trees and debris in hunt.
And then, a moment later, saw what he was chasing: the deer, crashing through the rocky brush.
No. I dove after him before I could talk myself out of it.
He moved impossibly fast, weaving through the trees like a leaf caught in a gust of wind. He was swifter than the deer, which darted through the sparse forest in a blind panic.
It was only the panic of the animal, which practically ran in circles, that saved us both. It came too close to an impassable pile of rocks and had to veer left. I tracked the movement to cut it off, putting myself right in Raihn’s path.
I heard Vincent’s voice in my head: You’re about to get yourself killed, you stupid child, throwing yourself in front of a vampire in bloodlust.
But I moved anyway.
“Raihn!” I shrieked as I leapt in front of him, hoisting myself up on one of the rocks, arms spread. “STOP!”
It was a stupid plan for so many reasons. First of all, any other vampire would have gladly replaced the deer with me. And secondly, he had wings—he could have just soared over me, whether I was standing on top of a stupid rock or not.
But Raihn did neither of those things. Instead, his gaze fell to me, and he faltered. Just for a second. And for that moment, I thought I glimpsed my friend there.
But otherwise, he looked so different. His stare was hard and glassy. A streak of harsh moonlight fell across one side of his face, and his eyes were even redder than usual, the pupil narrowed to a slit.
The hairs stood on my arms. Every instinct screamed at me to run, run, run.
Because Raihn in bloodlust was terrifying. The kind of terrifying that made every living thing in a ten-mile radius cower.
Instead, I ran at him.
Throwing myself against Raihn was like hurling a pebble against a brick wall and expecting it to crumble. Still, I hit him with enough force to knock him off balance. We tangled in a mass of flailing limbs. He let out a wordless snarl and fought against me. Pain snaked across my cheek as I was slightly too slow dodging one of his strikes, but I slipped every other. I knew how Raihn fought, and those reflexes still remained, even when he was half out of his mind.
Just as I knew how powerful a fighter he was, I also knew his openings. I knew his left side was a little weaker. And just as he faltered between blows, I hit him right where I knew he would struggle most to counter, right to that knee, forcing him to the ground.
I climbed over him, pinning his body down with mine. “Raihn! Get a fucking hold of yourself!”
Mother, he was going to kill me. I was sure of it when his hands gripped my shoulders hard enough to leave bruises. That horrible glazed-over look in his eyes hadn’t faded.
Come back to me, Raihn. Come back.
“I will fucking stab you again, and you know I will!” I roared. “Snap out of it!”
His fingers loosened. His nose twitched—a movement, however small, that made me tense—but then he closed his eyes and drew in a deep inhale, and when he opened them again…
It was him. It was him. “Oraya.”
He said my name like it was the answer to a crucial question. His voice was thin and hoarse.
I could have wept for it.
But no time for pleasantries. Certainly no time to show him how grateful I was that I had found him. I spoke in quick, clipped sentences. “Welcome back. We’re in a trial. The animals are poisoned. I don’t know what the objective is. Everyone who drinks is going insane. We have to get the fuck out of here. Let’s go.”
I started to push myself up, but he still held my arms— gently, now. A wrinkle deepened between his brows as he touched my cheek. The scratch.
“Did I do this?”
“It doesn’t matter, Raihn. We have to go.”
His expression said it did matter, but I didn’t want to think about that right now, either.
“If I get off of you,” I said, “will you go run after a squirrel?”
I was grateful to see that familiar, long-suffering annoyance. “Oh, fuck you, princess.”
It was a bit of a relief to hear him curse at me again.
I decided I accepted that answer and pushed myself up. Raihn got to his feet right after. He moved slowly now, jerking as his left leg threatened to collapse under him. In movement, I hadn’t noticed the blood all over him.
My heart stopped. The Shadowborn he’d been fighting before had, apparently, gotten a few hits in.
“Seems that way.”
I looked to the sky. Dark, but ever-so-faintly rosy. Dawn wasn’t far off.
“Let’s find somewhere to rest,” I said as we began to walk. “Then we’ll figure out what’s next.”
Raihn made a wordless grunt of agreement. But after three steps, it became obvious that he was struggling to move. I backtracked and tucked myself under his arm.
“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “You’re clearly not fine.”
His jaw clenched, like he wanted to argue this and knew he couldn’t.
And it wasn’t just the leg, I knew. I could hear it in the weakness of his voice. He was injured—and still starving.
No, Raihn was very, very much not fine. But he accepted my help without complaint.