The crowd’s shouts were barbaric and bloodthirsty, like the hungry roar of wolves as they tore their prey apart.
The stands were packed. From this distance, the audience was visible only as a wave of people, hands raised in fists, screaming for violence. Above them, the wings of the Rishan, bloody feathers pinned open, were reduced to mere dots of death.
I took this in only for a moment, before I had to roll out of the way of a streak of fire.
Not Nightfire. Fire.
I barely managed to move in time. Heat singed the tips of my hair. My clumsy roll slammed me against a wall—no, not a wall, a door, bolted shut. I leapt back to my feet and turned.
The arena had been divided up. I was in a smaller enclosure, the door behind me locked. No Raihn, Ibrihim, or Angelika.
Instead, three figures circled me, two men and a woman. All three of them had empty, glowing black eyes and blank faces, wearing tattered robes that seemed like an insulting parody of religious garb. The string of fire had cut directly across my arena, leaving me scrambling to avoid the blazing path.
It came from the figure on the right. Flames surrounded him, crawling up the flowing ribbons of his robes. A crooked, tarnished crown fit poorly on his head, a chipped white circle mounted upon it.
The woman beside him wore a gown of pink, spattered with black and red. A flower circlet sat upon her stringy red hair. Two wilting roses had been shoved into her eyes. In her hands was a bow, cocked with a luminescent arrow of rusted thorns.
And at last, the final man—tall and slender, shirtless to reveal a scarred body half-marred with decay. His chin lolled, mouth gaping and blackened.
Gods, I realized.
False mimicries of them.
This was the final trial. It represented Nyaxia’s ultimate rise to power. In a fit of rage and grief over her husband’s death, she had turned upon her former brothers and sisters. She had fought her way through all twelve gods of the White Pantheon—and she had won.
The woman raised her bow and let her shot fly. It moved faster than air should have been able to carry it. I barely managed to dodge it.
The arrow—rusted steel, shaped like the thorny stalk of a rose—buried itself in the sand two inches from my nose. The sand around it blackened and smoked.
I kept running. Behind me, steady thunk, thunk, thunks trailed my steps, growing ever-closer as arrows struck the packed sand.
The one with the fire had to be Atroxus, the god of the sun and the king of the White Pantheon. And the arrows… that had to be Ix, goddess of sex and fertility. Her arrows were said to plant seeds in wombs, though I was fairly certain that wasn’t what they were going to do to me.
These were puppets, after all. Not the real gods, but parodies intended to mock them.
The third, though… I racked my brain. He wore no crown, carried no weapon—
The air split in two. The high-pitched sound made my muscles seize without my permission. I tripped over my own feet and landed hard in the sand. Pain erupted through my shoulder as one of Ix’s arrows grazed my flesh, opening a smoldering tear in my armor.
Fuck. That sound. It paralyzed me. Turned my mind inside out. I forced my head up to look at them—at the third figure, whose blackened lips gaped like a fish.
As if singing.
Kajmar. God of seduction, art, beauty… and music.
His song stopped as abruptly as it had begun. I seized the moment just in time to avoid another encroaching wave of fire. Atroxus did not move, instead hovering inches above the sand, hands open as if in prayer and flames pooling around him in expanding waves. But Kajmar and Ix both jerked and danced across the enclosure, as if dangled on strings held by some invisible puppet-master, their limp feet dragging along the ground.
I called upon the Nightfire, and was grateful when, fueled by my adrenaline, it bloomed easily to life in my hands. But I struggled to use it with precision—I couldn’t shoot it at Ix or Kajmar, not when they were moving so fast, and my sloppy attempt to send a surge of it to Atroxus simply withered and died beneath the strength of his far more powerful wall of fire.
Another screech of Kajmar’s song nearly ended me as I took an especially ill-timed tumble. Fire nipped at my heels. I had to fight to drag myself three inches, just out of its reach.
The moment the sound released me, I was running again, pain disappearing beneath the pounding of my heart. Everything narrowed to the steps I needed to take to stay alive.
Who was I going after first?
I couldn’t get close to Atroxus; he would need to come later. And Ix’s arrows had been a problem, but only because Kajmar’s voice stunned me.
I needed to get rid of him. It was too dangerous to allow myself anywhere near the others so long as he could freeze me at any moment.
I had nothing but blades. So that meant there was no strategy to this next part. I just had to run.
My gaze locked to Kajmar, who danced in erratic fits and starts across the room. I readied my blades, braced myself, and sprinted for him with everything I had.
I didn’t notice the smell until I got within two strides of him, but once I did, it was impossible to ignore. It was putrid, wringing my stomach into knots and forcing bile up my throat. He was half-decomposed. Thick paint smeared his face, cracking over slackened muscles.
He was a corpse.
And not just a corpse, but one I recognized. It was the Rishan man Raihn had killed the first night of the Kejari. Our own fallen rivals, dragged back for one final fight.
Kajmar was already preparing to move away from me before I closed the distance between us. But I pushed myself harder, threw myself at him in those final seconds.
My dagger slid far too easily into his chest. But Kajmar didn’t fall.
I tumbled to the ground as he jerked away from me, then seized when another screeching song paralyzed my mind. I barely evaded an arrow, then forced myself back to my feet.
Kajmar’s wound gushed thickening globs of blood down the center of his chest. Yet still, he moved.
I’d hit the heart. I was certain of it.
But of course he hadn’t fallen. He wasn’t alive. That heart wasn’t doing anything for him anymore.
Atroxus continued to fill the arena with layers of flame. The heat was becoming unbearable. The free space I had to
move around grew smaller and smaller.
I had minutes. Less, maybe.
I threw myself at Kajmar again. And this time, instead of stabbing him, I dug my fingernails into his necrotic flesh and dragged him closer, holding back vomit at the stench.
They weren’t real gods. Just puppets. I couldn’t kill what wasn’t alive, so I needed to dismantle him.
His mouth was only open because his jaw was slack. Up close, I could see the unnatural swell in his neck—whatever spell or enchantment had been wedged down his throat sat there, surely. Nyaxia had no sound magic. Whatever spell made this, it would be an object that had been obtained from a different god.
How grimly funny. Something that Kajmar’s magic had once touched was now being used to mock him.
I hacked through his throat as hard as I could.
His body spasmed and thrashed like a fish caught on a line. The explosion of sound felt like it would rupture my eardrums. It tore through me like a bundle of razor blades.
But I couldn’t stop. Not for a second.
I slashed at him again. Again. Again. Old blood spattered my face.
I let out a roar with my final strike.
The sound went suddenly silent. My blade cut clean through the corpse’s spine. Glass shattered, glints of it emerging from the gored throat.
Kajmar’s body fell to the ground at my feet, still twitching, while his head remained in my hand, my fingers gripping the tangle of his hair.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ix lift her bow. In the opposite direction, the flames swelled again. I couldn’t avoid both at once.
I forced all of my muscles to work in a final burst, pushed them against all odds, and hurled the head at Ix with all of my strength as I dove.
I rolled across the sand. Dimly, above the sound of the roaring crowd, I heard a dull thump. I recovered fast, already running by the time I hit the ground.
Seconds from the fire engulfing the pit.
I’d struck my target. Ix struggled to right herself, now a collection of uncoordinated limbs that sagged against the wall, her bow tangled in broken fingers.
I didn’t slow as I hit her, blade out. I went right for her hands, slicing them off at the wrist. The nice thing about month-old flesh is that it cuts easily. The bow fell with her decaying hands.
I seized it before it hit the ground.
The arrow was already prepared. I pressed myself to the wall. Aimed.
Across the ring, Atroxus floated there in his ring of fire. Whatever magic trickery fueled his flames sat in his chest, the flare of it visible beneath the paper-thin rotted skin of his ribcage.
I didn’t hear the rapid screams of the crowd, or the crack of the flames, or even the pound of my own heartbeat.
I called and called and he wouldn’t come.
I only heard Mische’s sobs over the abandonment of the god to whom she had given her life.
Nightfire tore over the length of my arrow. It became a shooting star of fury as I let it fly.
It buried right into Atroxus’s chest, the core of his power. For a moment, his fire and mine—warm light and cold—clashed with each other.
The flash blinded me. I staggered against the wall. When I opened my eyes again, the fire was gone. The corpse that lay in the center of the pit didn’t even remotely resemble Atroxus. Actually, it didn’t look like a person at all.
The door groaned open. The shriek of the audience reached a crescendo.
I wiped my bloody hands on my bloody clothes, grabbed my blades, and walked through without looking back.
I STEPPED through the door with my weapons ready, but this part of the arena was empty. It was a semi-circle against the barrier of the stands with three other doors built into the walls that divided the colosseum. Two of them remained closed.
I looked up at the audience—at the sea of blood-drunk faces. I heard some echoes of my name, here and there. I didn’t know if they were cheering for my victory or for my death. Maybe both. Who cared, so long as it was a good show?
Thousands of faces, and yet my eyes fell to Vincent’s as if they already knew where to find him. He was in the front row, standing alone in his box. The chair there was designated for him, but he wasn’t sitting. Instead, he stood against the rail, clutching it.
The expression on his face rearranged everything inside me, like one of Ix’s poison arrows to my gut.
After our fight, I’d expected to see Vincent the king here. I saw him look at me as a threat that night, even if it was only for a few seconds. And once Vincent saw a threat, he never saw anything else.
And yes, this man had all the trappings of Vincent the wartime king—the visible wings, the exposed Heir Mark, the crown perched over his brow.
But those wings were pulled in tight, as if his nerves had tied his muscles in knots. The exposed Mark seemed less of
a show of strength and more like his heart was open and vulnerable. And his face—he looked at me like he felt every stab, every burn, every wound on my skin.
I was so ready to hate him. I wanted to hate him.
I could hate Vincent the king, who had slaughtered whatever family I had left, who had overseen the torture of my people, who had relentlessly killed and destroyed.
But how could I hate Vincent, my father, who looked at me that way?
My anger made everything certain and easy. My love made everything complicated and difficult.
I allowed myself to be distracted.
It was Vincent’s eyes, flicking up a split second before I turned, that saved me.
I whirled around just in time to dodge the arrow. A breath later, and it would have been buried in my back. Instead, I let it soar over my left shoulder, a streak of black smoke—magic—trailing it. The crowd laughed and shouted as it landed in the audience, causing a flurry of activity behind me.
Ibrihim limped from the second open door.
I didn’t know how he was alive.
He held his bow in an iron grip, but he’d let his arrow fly, and now he struggled to ready another one. His once-good leg now dragged behind him, twisted and mangled. His hands were so covered in blood that I couldn’t tell how they were injured, only that they were, and badly. If there was any doubt, the fact that he couldn’t even reach for his quiver put it to rest.
He lifted his head, his mouth twisted into a grim line of determination. One eye was missing, blood running down his face.
Mother, he had fought. He had fought so hard.
I approached him. He didn’t take his one eye off me as he fumbled with his weapon.
Behind me, the sound of the crowd changed in a way I couldn’t make out at first. It was only as I was two strides before Ibrihim that I realized…
They were laughing at him.
Ibrihim managed to ready his bow. But his hands were trembling so badly that his fingers kept slipping from the string. He would never be able to draw it.
He jerked his chin up, a sneer at his lip. He had recognized that sound before I did. But then, he probably had been hearing it his whole life.
“You pity me?” he rasped out. I shook my head.
No. I felt no pity for Ibrihim. He had fought, and fought well.
Maybe we were the same. Both of us had been raised in a world that had hobbled us. Both of us learned to fight twice as hard to make up for everything we weren’t. Both of us had everything to hate.
I was only two steps from him. Close enough to see his shoulders lower slightly, and the flicker over his face.
He was considering giving up.
“No. Don’t stop.” I unsheathed my other blade. “Fuck them. Don’t let them mock you. Give me a fair fight, and I’ll give you a fair death, Ibrihim.”
His jaw tightened. After a moment, he forced open his shaking fingers and let his bow fall to the ground. When he drew his sword, he could barely support the weight of it. Still, he threw everything he had into those final strikes.
I didn’t patronize him. It took me seconds.
And when I wrenched him close, when I prepared my killing blow, that one remaining eye met mine, as if looking into a mirror.
“I’m glad it was you,” he said, quietly.
And I made sure my aim was true as I slid my blade right into his heart.