Chapter no 39

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I woke up warm. Unusually warm. Pleasantly warm. The sort of warm I dreamed about in the crooked bed with the scratchy blanket.

Safe warm.

Except I wasn’t in a bed, I was lying on hard, gritty

stone. And the source of the warmth wasn’t a blanket but a wall of a man, whose chest was pressed to my back and chin rested on the top of my head, arms loosely holding me. The events of the day before came back to me slowly.

Raihn’s body under mine. His mouth against my throat. My hips rolling against him and—

A flush rushed to my face. I stirred, suddenly too conscious in too many different ways of Raihn’s arms around me.

Apparently, he was already awake. I rolled over to see him looking down at me, hair hanging around his face in red-black tendrils, a smirk at his lips.

“Did you know that you snore?”

Spoken with the casual lilt of our usual banter on the surface, but I heard the note of awkwardness beneath it. Like he didn’t quite know how to interact with me after that, either.

I cleared my throat and sat up as he stood. I was… disheveled. I ran my fingers through my hair, which I was

certain looked as messy and undone as I felt. The effects of the venom had worn off, leaving me strangely well-rested, slightly groggy, and extremely self-conscious.

“Well.” I eyed him up and down. “You seem better.”

That was an understatement. He looked like himself again, rather than the shade of a person he had been the night before. His wounds had already healed dramatically, and he moved around unencumbered.

“I feel it,” he said.

I stood, and the silence stretched. Raihn looked like he was getting a little too close to giving me another “thank you” that meant too much and lingered too long.

Who knew the man was such a sap. “I—” he started, right on cue.

“This is meant to be Nyaxia’s rescue of Alarus, right?” I cut him off, curt and businesslike. “When they captured him.”

The darkest part of Nyaxia’s story. She and her husband had broken out of prison once, but Alarus was lured back to the White Pantheon with the promise of amnesty for Nyaxia. Instead, the other gods dragged him out to the empty plane between the divine and mortal worlds. When Nyaxia realized what had happened, she tore apart the deadlands looking for him.

But she was too late. By the time she reached him, her husband had been decapitated and left to rot.

“These are the deadlands,” I said. “There must be an end point that we need to reach.”

Raihn’s face shifted. For a moment, I thought he was going to try yet again to talk about what had happened between us the night before.

I breathed a sigh of relief when instead, he just nodded. “Probably.”

The two of us went to the mouth of the cave, our weapons drawn. Unlike last night, it was now eerily quiet— so quiet I questioned whether the poisoned contestants had

all died off. There were no voices or screams, only distant wails of animals and a hissss that slithered through the air as smoke rolled in waves over the gray dirt. That deadly mist was worse than last night—soupy and thick, stinging my eyes even from this distance. It even pooled in the sky, a blanket covering the stars and moon completely.

A few minutes later, it dissipated just enough to reveal the ghostly silhouette of the landscape. Not that there was much to see. Only a few gnarled, broken trees dotted the land, emerging like silent, mournful sentinels. Jagged rocks dotted the empty expanse, vicious as bared teeth.

Last night, this place had seemed dead. Now? It seemed more than that—not just dead but murdered, grieving in violent death throes.

A strange sensation prickled at the back of my neck. A nagging thought that lingered just out of reach.

“There.” Raihn’s voice was very close to my ear. I followed his pointing hand. “There’s something over there. Gold. See it?”

I couldn’t. “Your eyesight is better than mine.” “It’s there. It must be the end.”

“How far?”

“Miles.” Fantastic.

“The smoke is…” I rubbed my arm, where the leather bubbled. “I don’t know what it is, but it hurts.”

And worse, there was now so much more of it than the night before.

“I remember,” Raihn said, touching his own burnt armor. “So we can’t just walk through the center. And you can’t

fly above it, because it just collects up there.”

I craned my neck around the opening of the cave. The cliff—if that was even what this place was; it was so hard to tell when everything was so jagged and formless—extended straight in both directions, before devolving into an unstable-looking pile of rocks. But, the land was raised

along its edge—as if the broken forest before us was a crater, and we had found shelter at the edge of its rim. The ridge curved in both directions, gradually climbing up, before my weak human eyes lost track of it in the darkness.

“Could we climb along that?”

Raihn followed my gaze. “It’s less direct, but it would take us to the gate. And there would be less smoke.”

Less, but not none. I watched the smoke billow up from the ground in puffs. Thicker for several seconds, then thinning as the breeze shifted it. Then thicker again, as a new wave rose from the earth.

I started counting silently.

“What if—” Raihn started, but I barked, “Shh!” and tried not to lose my count.


Ninety seconds.

“It’s predictable,” I said. “The way the smoke moves.


This time, Raihn watched with me.

“See?” I said, when the billow swelled again. “Ninety seconds. It’s predictable. And it takes a long time for the cloud to get up there.” I pointed to the crest of the rim. “We would be able to see the wave coming.”

“And do what?” “Hide?”

“Where does one hide from smoke?” “Behind… a rock?”

I knew even as I said it that it was a stupid idea.

Raihn gave me a look that said, That’s a stupid idea.

I threw my hands up. “Well, what’s your brilliant suggestion, Raihn?”

He was quiet for a long moment, thinking. Then his mouth curled. “The man I killed yesterday was Shadowborn, wasn’t he?”



COULDNT BELIEVE we were risking our lives for a fucking cloak.

The only reason I didn’t object more to this was because Raihn’s fight had not been far from here. Still, we had to do some strategic guessing to figure out where the body might be—if it was even still there at all—and the consequences of being wrong were dire.

We decided Raihn would go alone. He could fly faster than I could run, and the smoke would affect him less than me.

“Wait until it’s thinnest,” I told him. “And if you don’t find him, come back right away. Don’t waste time.”

“I know.”

All I could think about was how weak Raihn had been just hours ago—how, even now, I could see the remnants of it.

I swallowed and said, as coldly as I could manage, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

He looked back, narrowing his eyes at me. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were worried, princess.”

“I don’t want to have to make that climb alone on foot.”

He just chuckled. “Sometimes I have my doubts, but you really do like me, don’t you?”

And before I had time to snap at him again, he was gone. His magnificent wings spread as the smoke thinned, and he soared down into the pit.

Ten seconds passed. Twenty. Thirty-five.

I unsheathed my blade.

If he wasn’t back by sixty, I would go, I decided.

My eyes ached from not blinking as I stared into that smoke.

For some reason, my mind went to Nyaxia. How she must have felt fighting her way across the deadlands, all alone, desperate to save her husband. It struck me with sudden clarity just how terrible it must have felt to be out of reach of someone you cared for—to feel utterly powerless to protect them.

Fifty-five seconds.

That was it. I was going.

I drew in a deep breath and held it. As if that would do anything.

I started running—

—And then something knocked me away. I was ready to fight, but a low laugh and a now-familiar hold on my shoulders stopped my hand before it moved. Raihn had yanked me back away from the smoke, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. His wings were still out, glistening every shade of night like melted paint in the darkness.

“Were you coming to rescue me?”

“For a second time,” I muttered, and sheathed my blades.

“I’m touched. No need, though. Look.”

He released me and grabbed the fabric he’d bunched up in his other hand, letting it fall. It was dark silver—a favorite of the House of Shadow—and looked as light as air. It shimmered and rippled like moonlight itself.

“Avathrian silk,” Raihn said. “Just like I thought. One of the Shadowborn’s finest creations. Looks fragile, but this shit filters out everything. A bitch to cut through, too.”

I thought of the Shadowborn man’s corpse, practically split in two. Hadn’t stopped Raihn last night.

“Why don’t they make all their clothes out of it?”

“It’s expensive and very hard to work with. So they tend to use it for simple things.” Raihn affixed the cloak to his shoulders, then raised the hood. He looked as if he was

covered in molten steel. Even dirty and wounded, he was a sight to behold. Fearsome and majestic.

“Will it be enough?” I asked.

He shrugged, making the silken fabric ripple. “Let’s hope so.”

“That inspires confidence.”

“Oh, right. My idea is the stupid one. Let’s hide behind a rock instead.”

I pursed my lips. Fair. It was the best option we had.

So, we decided, Raihn would wear the cloak, carry me, and move us both as quickly as possible across the rocky crest in ninety seconds. Then we would stop, take cover beneath the cloak, wait the next ninety counts for the wave of smoke to dissipate, and continue. We had no idea what we would encounter up there—monsters, competition, or both—and Raihn would be unable to defend us while moving. That would be my job. He’d be the wings. I’d be the teeth.

Repeat, until we arrived at the gate.

Or until someone else attacked and killed us.

Or until the smoke penetrated the Shadowborn fabric and ate us alive.


We prepared ourselves, and Raihn scooped me up in his arms again, holding me tight to his chest while I readied my blades. From the first time he held me this way, it had felt… different than I expected it to, even if I wasn’t ready to admit it. Now, in the wake of last night, I was very conscious in a very different sort of way of all the places our bodies touched.

His lips ducked close to my ear. “Ready?” Not really. But as close as I was going to be. “Ready.”

And then we were rushing into the deadly mist.

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