Raihn and I knew how to fight each other too well. We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and habits. I knew not only when he would move, but how
he would respond when I did. Each lunge was the result of half a dozen calculations based on the innate knowledge of each other that we had accumulated over the last months.
It felt perverse. Depraved. To use that intimacy to kill each other.
I wondered if he was thinking the same thing. There was none of his usual savage joy in this. No snarky comments or half-smiles. No satisfaction in his strikes. The first time I nicked his skin, I winced as if it had hit my own. And in turn, the first time he drew my blood, he jerked back as if to stop himself.
Still, our dance continued. The crowd shrieked with amusement with every clash of steel. I barely heard them. My blood pumped in my ears, roaring.
This was agonizing. Agonizing. I needed it to hurt more everywhere else, so it hurt less in my heart.
As I danced closer to him, I hissed, “You’re holding back.”
You’re holding back, I had said as I took him into my body. I knew he was thinking of it, too.
“So are you,” he said.
Was that what I had to do? Go after him as hard as I could, to make him do the same to me?
“You said we’re doing this,” I spat, drawing back my weapons. “So fucking do it.”
His gaze hardened in a way that sent a chill down my spine.
“As you wish,” he said.
And when he charged at me this time, it was with his Asteris.
He was tired, and that weakened his magic considerably, but it was still a deadly force. I gasped, staggering back. I blocked his sword, but the burst of black-white light tore at my skin, leaving it bleeding and scalded. It was naive of me to be surprised that he so willingly rose to my challenge.
I asked him to come after me, and he had.
Fear is a collection of physical responses, I told myself.
Fear is accelerated heartbeats and rapid breaths and sweaty palms. Fear is a doorway to anger, and anger is a doorway to power.
When I looked into Raihn’s eyes and imagined his blood soaking in this cursed dirt, the fear that stole through my lungs was overwhelming. But all of that was power, too.
When I lunged this time, Nightfire surrounded me.
Something had broken between us. All those delicate little jabs, those careful dances of blocks and dodges, shattered. We went at each other for blood.
Asteris bloomed over Raihn’s every blow, as Nightfire burned in mine. Every time we came together, the two magics burst and sputtered around each other, darkness and light ripping each other to pieces. His magic raked over my skin, leaving it raw and bleeding. Mine blistered over his, searing burns into his exposed flesh.
There were no more lingering stares, no more hesitations. Only brutal efficiency.
I’d always admired Raihn’s skill as a warrior. He wielded a sword the way an artist wielded a paintbrush, each stroke
an exercise in grace and beauty. Now, it awed me, the elegance of his instincts and movements, all these new angles of his brutality visible only as its target. Perhaps I could only appreciate every brushstroke of death once I was the canvas.
I no longer saw or heard the crowd. Nightfire spread across the sand as quietly inevitable as the slow march of death. Raihn had loosened his grip on his magic, each burst of Asteris sweeping the entire arena.
I met his eyes through the flames. They seemed so, so red here, surrounded by the cold blue-white of my magic and the purple-black of his. Within them, I saw only grim resolve. Of course. He had everything to fight for. People relying on him. People he needed to save. Whatever we’d built together had been a bump on that road.
His next strike was to kill.
Raihn was so much bigger than me, so much stronger. I was faster, but not by much—and not when his wings were out. He extended them now, using them to hurl himself at me. I couldn’t react quickly enough.
Pain, as his sword sliced open my arm.
I pulled away, panting, somewhat amazed I was alive. Raihn’s jaw was set, eyes cold.
Why did it surprise me, to see him looking at me that way? Why did it hurt? It shouldn’t. I had told him to fight. I was a human girl he’d known for a few months. A friend, yes. But friends didn’t exist in a place like this.
He came after me hard, again.
I saw my life flash before my eyes. My short, pathetic life. Every dead human I was too late to save. Ilana’s body, little more than tatters of flesh. Barely anything left to burn.
You don’t have to be this, Oraya.
She had told me that once.
I saw death coming for me at the edge of Raihn’s blade, in the focused determination of his stare.
She was right. I didn’t. I could make myself something better.
Raihn’s blow should have been my death. I was already teetering on its precipice.
But something was left inside of me. I rallied with everything I had. Let out a roar of rage. Not at Raihn, but at the world that had put both of us here.
I didn’t have to think. Didn’t have to see. I fought on instinct alone, strike after strike after strike, meeting hard resistance, soft resistance, meeting the pain of Asteris, the burn of Nightfire. Meeting leather armor.
And at last, meeting flesh. Raihn’s flesh.
I froze with the tip of my blade at his chest, some distant instinct screaming, STOP.
The crowd was shrieking in utter delight.
Raihn was beneath me. Nightfire surrounded us. Blisters opened over his skin like decaying roses. I became aware of the agonizing pain of each breath, each movement.
He trembled, too. I’d opened poison-mottled wounds all over his torso, his shoulders, his arms, even one over his cheek. I was bleeding from the ones he’d inflicted on me, too, and badly. As I draped myself over him, pinning him to the ground, his blood and mine mingled—the final strokes of his painting, red and black.
My blade was at his chest. His hand gripped my wrist, hard. His lips curled into a smirk.
And he whispered, “There she is.”
All at once, I realized what he had been doing.
He had been baiting me, just like he had baited the man in the feast all those months ago. He had been fighting me so hard to make me fight back with just as much strength.
I had told myself I would do it.
I had work to do. People to help. Power to gain. I could do none of that as a human constantly struggling to survive.
A trickle of blood at the tip of my blade. My hand shook.
“End it, princess,” Raihn murmured.
End the danger and the fear and the violence. End it, end it, end it—
No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. But Raihn’s hand tightened.
Look them in the eyes as you slide the blade in,
Vincent’s voice whispered.
No. I squeezed my eyes shut. I thought I was pulling away.
But maybe Raihn yanked my wrist. Maybe he drove that blade into his own chest.
Or perhaps my vampire heart won the battle, after all.
Because I felt the blade slip, slip, slip. Felt the breastbone part. Felt the muscle tear. I felt that blade go into my own heart as it slid into Raihn’s.
The crowd erupted into wild, gleeful wails. Warmth covered my hands. The weight below me slackened.
I opened my eyes. I had won.
Raihn was dead.