Chapter no 38

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

We found shelter in a cave created by some of the collapsed stones. It certainly wasn’t the opulence of the Moon Palace, but it was dark and deep, with

plenty of places to hide and only one entrance to guard. I wondered how many of the contestants already fell victim to the poisoned prey. We didn’t pass another living soul on our way to the cave—only one convulsing rabbit.

I brought us deep enough into the cave that no light reached us from the outside. We reached shelter just in time. The sky was now faintly pink with dawn. The cave was so dark that Raihn had to mutter guidance to me as we went, because I could see nothing. By then he was leaning heavily on me. When we found our place to stop, he practically collapsed against the wall.

“Give us some fire. Good thing you’ve been doing all that practicing.”

I could hear the smirk in his voice. Could also hear the exhaustion.

Practice or no, I’d been struggling to use my magic consistently. But when I thought about the way I felt when confronted with Raihn’s obvious weakness, the Nightfire came to my fingertips easily. Raihn’s face, hollowed and drawn, bloomed from the darkness.

I looked away and focused very hard on sculpting my little orbs of light.

“Didn’t think I’d see you again,” he said. “Mm.”

I didn’t even know how to explain to myself why I went after him, never mind explain it to him.

It was a stupid decision, Vincent said in the back of my mind, and frankly, I agreed with him.

I didn’t regret it, though. “Thank you,” he said.

I shifted uncomfortably and was grateful I had something to do with my hands. What was I going to say? You’re welcome?

“I would have been…” He swallowed thickly. I made another little ball of Nightfire, so it was now light enough for me to see every movement of his expression.

And to see every sign of weakness.

He gave me a pained smile. “You were right, princess.” “We don’t have to do this.” I said it more sharply than I

meant to.

“We do. I do. I just… I owe you that, don’t I?” “You don’t owe me anything.”

“Ix’s tits, Oraya. Let me fucking talk.” “You can barely talk as it is.”

“Never stopped me before.”

I managed a laugh despite myself. It sounded more like a gasp of pain. Felt like it, too.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

My hands froze mid-movement, hovering around that sphere of light.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “You were right to tell me to leave.”

The apology hit me like a strike. So blunt and direct. No battle of wills or egos.

“I didn’t want you to see me that way,” he went on. “So I pretended that version of myself didn’t exist. It does. And

I’m—I don’t like people to see it. I didn’t want you to see it.”

I’m not a fucking animal, he had spat at me yesterday. And suddenly the anger in his voice then sounded so similar to the shame in it now.

I didn’t like feeling things. Emotions were ever-shifting and devoid of logic, and they gave me no way to sink my blade into them. But I felt too many of them now, bubbling up under the surface of my steel exterior.

I didn’t say anything. The Nightfire glowed a little brighter in erratic spurts.

“We need to do something about your injuries,” I said.

He was more than hurt. He was starving. Vampires could heal extremely quickly, but he wouldn’t be able to if he didn’t get blood.

I glanced at him. His eyes had slipped off to the distance. I could see little in the darkness, but his superior sight was probably looking to the path leading out of the cave.

“I need to go back out there.”

I scoffed. “Don’t be a fucking idiot.”

Healthy, he might be able to survive an hour in sunlight

—perhaps more if there was cloud cover, though it would be painful. In this state, though? There was no way.

“Then… I might need to ask you to hunt for me.” He said this as if it physically pained him to do so.

“Those animals are poisoned. You saw what they did to the others.”

“Then maybe it’s better to die here,” he said, “than to die out there, out of my mind.”

A beat of silence. And in that silence, my mind ran through our situation, tracing the paths between our options. The decision snapped into place, a new immovable truth.

I stood and faced the wall of the cave. Unbuttoned the top button of my leathers. Then the second.

I made it halfway down by the time Raihn noticed what I was doing.

“No. No, absolutely not.”

“You said it yourself. You don’t have a choice.”

My voice sounded like it was coming from a stranger. Like I was watching myself from the outside. I couldn’t believe I was doing this. My hands were clammy—my heart a beat too fast.

And yet I had no doubts about it. None at all.

I unfastened the rest of my leathers. Cool air rushed against my flesh, chilling the sweaty camisole beneath.

I turned to him. His throat bobbed, eyes darkening.

I knew that look, too. A different kind of hunger. It passed quickly, but I still felt it linger on my skin—making me suddenly self-conscious of the amount of my body that was now exposed.

He rasped, “I can’t do that, Oraya.”

“What are your alternatives? You die in the sun. You die a mindless beast from poisoned blood. Or you die before the sun sets here, doing nothing. And I’m not going to just sit next to you while you die, Raihn. I’m just—I’m just not.”

Neither of us acknowledged the slight crack to my voice. I approached him. I felt every step—every increase in our proximity. He leaned against the wall. I kneeled before

him, so our gazes aligned, and his eyes searched my face. “You think I don’t know?” he choked. “You think I don’t

know what this means for you? I can’t.”

Maybe I should have been surprised that Raihn understood what I’d never told him—that he’d pieced together a portrait of my past from every moment of anger or fear I let slip through my walls.

Maybe I should have been surprised when his fingertip gently caressed my throat, not in hunger, but in sadness— at the scar there, those two little jagged white lines.

Maybe I should have been surprised that he knew me more than I wanted him to.

But I wasn’t.

Words were too weak to convey what I wanted to tell him now.

Perhaps he thought that I would think less of him after seeing him in bloodlust. But I didn’t. He had been terrifying then, yes. But now I understood exactly how hard he had been trying. It would have been so easy for him to succumb to it in the Moon Palace, take the easy solution. After the Halfmoon, I was nothing but a liability to him. No one would have blamed him for doing what he had to. And yet, he’d rather have remained in that apartment, winding himself tighter and tighter, rather than leave me or hurt me. It must have been agonizing.

Offering myself to a starving vampire was more than dangerous. Practically suicide.

And yet… I trusted him absolutely.

I didn’t know how to say any of that. So I settled on, “I’m not afraid of you, Raihn.”

And I saw in his eyes how much those words meant to him. Like he had been given something he had been waiting his entire life for.

I swallowed. “So. What’s—what’s the best way to do this?”

He would need my throat. Sometimes wrists or arms or

—I shivered at the thought—inner thighs worked well, too, but he needed a lot of blood fast, and the throat would be the best way to do it.

I thought he might still protest. But after a moment, he said, “Come here. Lean over me.”

I inched closer, then swung my legs over his thighs and around his hips, straddling him.

I tried not to think about the fact that he felt beneath me exactly how I’d imagined he would. Tried not to think about how good, how right, it felt to feel the warmth of his body pressed against mine, my inner thighs, my stomach.

And I tried not to notice that he clearly noticed all these things, too. That the muscles of his throat, so close now, flexed with a swallow. That his hands fell to my waist immediately, like they had already been waiting for me.

“Like this?” I asked. “That’s perfect.”

It wasn’t quite perfect, actually. I was so much shorter than Raihn that even with the extra height of his lap, I needed to push myself up a bit, and he would have to crane his neck to reach mine.

His fingertips brushed the angle of my jaw, and for one terrifying moment I thought that he was going to kiss me— it would be so easy, barely a tilt of his head. But instead, his fingers moved down, grazing my shoulder, then my waist, then reaching for my dagger at my belt. He unsheathed it and wrapped my fingers around the hilt, then angled the blade so it pointed to his chest.

“You are in control of this,” he murmured. “Alright?” Now I understood. He wanted me here, in this position,

because I could pull away if I wanted to.

I nodded. My grip around that dagger was sweaty. I wondered if he could hear my heartbeat.

That was a stupid thought. Of course he could hear it.

Smell it.

“You can still say no,” he said softly. “Stop telling me that,” I barked.

He let out a weak laugh. “There she is.”

And as if he took that as his cue, he pulled me closer— his arms sliding over my back, tugging me forward until our bodies were pressed together, save for the dagger that I still gripped between us.

I’d thought I was prepared for this, but I wasn’t prepared for how gentle the movement was. Like he was cradling something precious.

I tilted my head back, staring hard at the darkness of the stone. Harder still, as I felt his breath against the

sensitive skin of my throat.

“It won’t hurt much. But you might feel… ah…” “I know,” I said, too sharply.

Horny. That was what he was trying to explain to me.

Vampire venom had an overwhelming effect on human prey. The biological intent was to make them soft and pliable. Sometimes that presented as a muddled, intoxicated haze, as it had with the Ministaer’s bite—given his age, the location of the bite, and my distaste for him. But more commonly, it manifested as intense arousal.

And especially if one already felt…

I didn’t finish the rest of that thought. “Just do it,” I snapped.

He chuckled. “As you wish, princess.” And then his lips were on my throat.

Every muscle tensed. I braced myself for pain. Instead, though, I felt only a caress. Just the soft touch of his mouth against my flesh, the faintest brush of his tongue, as if asking permission to enter.

My cringe melted into a shiver.

“You’re safe,” he whispered against my skin. And then he bit.

He was quick and forceful, his fangs striking deep once and hitting their mark immediately.

He let out an involuntary groan that vibrated through my entire body.

The venom could not possibly have worked that fast. Yet, my eyelashes fluttered. Everything—every remaining doubt

—withered away beneath the warm touch of his mouth, the press of his body against mine. My breasts, suddenly sensitive, peaked beneath the too-thin fabric of my camisole—so tight against his chest that I could feel every inhale, ragged and quickening. His tongue rolled against my skin as he took his first swallow, one languid, slow movement.

I imagined that this is what he would feel like inside me, too. This deep and all-consuming.

Unmistakable hardness formed beneath me.

My palm pressed flat against the wall behind his shoulder, the one last holdout in keeping me propped up against him. And I still clutched that dagger, though I’d let it slacken, no longer braced so tightly against his chest.

My hips rolled—I couldn’t help it, not with the rigid length of his desire right there—and Raihn let out a serrated hiss against my throat.

This time I echoed it, the moan escaping me in a choked exhale. We were aligned so perfectly that when I shifted my hips, I pressed against the full, thick length of him, even through the heavy fabric of his pants. And even that stroke, with so much between us, sent sparks up my spine. Sent every nerve begging, pleading, demanding, More.

It wasn’t enough.

The venom ate away the final dregs of my self-control, unleashing a wave of desire that utterly ravaged me and left nothing behind.

I wanted every layer between us torn away. I wanted to run my hands, my lips, my tongue over every inch of his skin, taste every scar. I wanted to offer every expanse of my flesh to him, let him do this—this, this fucking amazing thing—to every part of me. I wanted his magnificent length inside of me, taking me so deep I couldn’t remember my own name, and I wanted him to remind me of it when he came. I wanted to watch him go.

His arms gripped me tight, pulling me closer in one desperate lurch, like he’d been trying to hold himself back and failing. My camisole was gripped in a fist in one of his hands, like that was all he could do not to tear it off of me. He drank deeper, his tongue moving against my skin like he was making love to me.

I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I rolled my hips again, and now, there was nothing hidden about my moan.

And this time, he moved with me.

I let the dagger fall to the ground with a deafening clatter I didn’t hear. I pressed my hand instead straight to his chest, because even through the leather of his armor I wanted to touch more of him, sense his heartbeat quickening in time with mine.

I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to give all of myself to him.

And the most frightening part of all—the part that would have scared me away, if my logical mind had been at all functional in this moment—was that it wasn’t the venom. No, all of this had already been there, simmering. This was only what made it bubble over.

I abandoned my hold on the wall for his shoulder, gripping him tighter.

I moved against him again—I couldn’t help it anymore. My body was nothing but nerves and raw want, exposed and tender and desperate—desperate—for him.

The low growl in his throat echoed through all of me. And I knew I should be afraid of him, of how much I knew he wanted me. Just as much as I did. He wanted more than I was giving him now.

But I wasn’t afraid.

You’re safe, Oraya, he had whispered to me, and I believed him.

And even now, he didn’t touch me more, not even in all the places I blindly wanted him to. I could feel him tensing like a drawn bowstring. Could feel the urgency building in the way his tongue moved against my throat.

I wanted it. I spread my thighs wider, opened the sensitive passage between us more.

I didn’t mean to say his name. Didn’t mean to throw myself against him, starving for as much of his body as I could get, selfishly taking every inch of that hard length between us against my core.

Stars exploded over my vision. His name fell from my lips in a gasp. Every muscle coiled, and then released.

Nothing existed but him.

Him and everything that I still wanted.

The first thing I became aware of when the sparks of my climax faded—oh, Mother, I had actually just done that— was his muscles trembling. His hands were drawn into fists against my back, gripping my camisole so tightly that I was certain it had ripped, but not pulling me closer.

He was being careful, I realized. Careful not to pull me so close I couldn’t get away.

He was no longer drinking. Instead, his lips ghosted over my skin, over the wound he had opened there, in tiny, gentle kisses. Kisses over the fresh scar I had asked for. Kisses over the old one I had not.

I felt dizzy, boneless, my mind coated in a blur of want. My orgasm hadn’t sated me. If anything, it reminded me of everything I still wanted. I wanted his skin. I wanted him inside me. I wanted—

He pulled away. His chest was rising and falling heavily beneath the press of my palm. When he met my eyes, the sight of him cut through the haze of my desire.

He looked like a man undone. Destroyed.

A trickle of red fell at the corner of his mouth. I wanted to taste it. Taste myself on him.

His lips parted, and I kissed him before words could come out.

My blood tasted like warm iron. But that was nothing compared to the way he tasted. He smelled like the sky—he tasted like falling. His lips met mine like he’d been waiting his entire life for this kiss and had known exactly what he would do when he got it. We kissed like we fought together, responding to each touch, each movement. We understood each other by now.

But he jerked back abruptly after too-few seconds. I barely recognized my own voice when a frustrated whimper

left my throat.

“No.” He panted the word. “No, that’s enough.”

That was insulting. It wasn’t enough. Not for either of us. The way his cock strained beneath me was evidence of that.

I saw no reason now not to take what we wanted. “You aren’t yourself,” he said.

“Don’t pretend you don’t want to.”

Mother, I didn’t even know who this version of myself was.

He made a sound between an exhale and a scoff.

“You don’t even know, Oraya.” The corner of his mouth, where a little smudge of my blood remained, curled as he shook his head. “The things I’ve thought about. ‘Want’ doesn’t even fucking cover it. I have a list.”

A chill ran up my spine. I’d known he desired me, even if I didn’t want to acknowledge that. But it still felt strange to hear him confirm it aloud.

I liked it.

“But I want you to want those things too. You. Not the venom.”

The rejection stung a little. I pulled away from him. He chuckled. “That face. There she is.”

“Fuck you,” I managed. “You wish I would.”

His smile faded. My scowl faded. It wasn’t banter anymore because we both knew it was true.

Raihn staggered to his feet—he was unsteady, but already looked so much better than before. Meanwhile, when I stood, I nearly fell back to my knees.

He caught me. “Easy. You’ve lost a lot of blood. Your body is a bit shocked.”

He was right. I had lost a lot of blood. Given him so much. And yet… not too much. Even in starvation, even two steps from bloodlust, he had stopped long before he risked me.

“Sleep,” he said. “Let yourself recover.”

Sleep. Sleep sounded good. Not as good as sex. But good.

I allowed Raihn to lower me gently to the ground. And I allowed him to lay down beside me, the warmth of his body, big and solid, curling around mine.

My eyelids immediately began to flutter. His hand rested on my waist, offering quiet stability and nothing more.

But then his hair tickled my face. His mouth, warm and now too-familiar, brushed against my cheek. And his words shivered over the crest of my ear as he whispered, “Thank you.”

“It was the practical thing,” I choked, like we were just talking about the blood and not the—the—everything.

He lay back down behind me. The world started to blur. And the last thing I heard as sleep took me was Raihn’s voice, so quiet it seemed like he might be speaking to himself.

“You are the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen, Oraya.”

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