Chapter no 5

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

I forced myself to steady my breaths. Panic quickened the heart. A quickening heartbeat meant rushing blood. Rushing blood meant I became even more of a target

than I already was.

Nyaxia’s magic was powerful and inexplicable. She could spirit us away wherever she pleased. My head was still fuzzy, every sensation hazy. I struggled to get my bearings. It felt like I had been drugged.

Take stock of your senses, Oraya.

The voice in my head was Vincent’s.

Smell—blood and must. If the tournament had begun, then I had to be in the Moon Palace. I pressed my hands to the floor. A fine layer of dirt and dust stuck to my palms. The Moon Palace existed solely for this competition. It wouldn’t have been touched for a hundred years.

No one was allowed within these walls outside of a Kejari, but I had studied it many times from the outside. I needed to go up. The tallest spire was covered in windows. No vampire would be caught there once dawn broke. The light would be extremely uncomfortable, if not deadly.

Sound. My ears strained. Screams of pain echoed from all directions—screams that didn’t sound like they belonged to vampires. My stomach turned. Had humans been dropped into the Palace, too? As… prey? Distraction? I

didn’t know whether to be horrified or secretly grateful that they would draw the vampires’ bloodlust. And I could hear that happening, too. The snarls. The distant, graceful beat of footsteps against the floor.

The others were awake. Maybe my humanness had meant I was the last to rise from whatever magic had been cast over us. It may have lowered inhibitions—the vampires sounded abnormally animalistic, even by the standards of a bloodlust frenzy.

I was very, very lucky I was alive right now.

I blinked into the darkness. Unlike vampires, I had no night sight. I couldn’t see anything. Just a wall of black. I tried to call light to my fingertips and failed miserably, releasing only a single spark that quickly dissipated into smoke.

I bit back a silent curse for my useless magic and groped around for my blades, praying they had made the journey with me. If I had been dumped in here unarmed, I was dead.

Searing pain sliced across my hand.


I clamped my lips down on the cry.

I’d found my blade. By the sharp end. Fucking idiot.

Warm blood filled my palm. The dull drip, drip, drip of it hitting the tile floor was deafening, even over the distant screams.

Bleeding was bad. Very bad.

I had to move fast to find safety before someone scented me. I grabbed one dagger—by the hilt this time—and found the other not far from it. Then I rose and carefully stepped back until my shoulder met stone. I followed the wall, keeping my arm against it, blades poised and ready in each hand. My steps were silent and deliberate. When my toe hit a cold, hard block, my heart leapt.

A step. A way up. I had to pray this staircase would take me where I needed to go. I had no other option—not this


I started climbing, clinging to a dusty metal rail sideways, so my back wasn’t left unguarded.

I’d heard stories that the Moon Palace was a magical, mysterious place, blessed—or cursed—by Nyaxia herself. Even Vincent believed it. He told me that hallways moved and rooms shifted. That it had a way of putting you exactly where you did or didn’t want to be, depending on your luck that day.

I promise that if you let me survive this, Nyaxia, I will make this Kejari the most interesting and glorious performance for you in a millennium, I told the Goddess, silently. You are going to be so fucking impressed. I swear it.

The screams faded slowly into the distance, to my relief. I was moving away from them. Good. I continued climbing

—one flight, two, three.

But the Moon Palace wasn’t about to let me go that easily.

At first, I thought I was imagining it. My ears strained so much; it became easy to doubt my own senses. But as my steps continued, the ball of dread in my stomach swelled. No. I was right: the screams were getting closer again. Even though minutes ago they had been fading far behind me. Like I’d been climbing a never-ending spiral staircase that went nowhere.

I nearly stumbled as my feet met flat tile where I expected another step. The sounds of carnage echoed directly above me. I couldn’t keep ascending. I was trapped.

I pressed to the wall. My eyes still uselessly stared into a vat of pitch black. What now? What could I—

One voice in that distant cacophony cut through all the others.

I no longer had to regulate my heartbeat, because it simply stopped.

The scream was cut short, buried beneath so many other distant voices. But I recognized it, even in that split second. I recognized it as the voice that affectionately called me a little brat, punctuated by a husky cough from years of incessant cigar smoking.

My mind emptied except for one name:


You never know—not truly—what it takes to make you discard caution until it’s happening. And Ilana was enough. I left a lifetime of vigilance piled on the ground like a forgotten coat.

Ilana. Ilana was in this Palace. Ilana was in that frenzy.

Another scream, this time louder, closer, right down the hall, as if the fucking place was taunting me with it. And I didn’t think, couldn’t think, I just ran

—Until a powerful force stopped me. A strong grip folded around my shoulders, pulling me back against a firm wall of a body.

“They’re dead.”

The man’s whisper was low and gravelly, so close that his exhale tickled my skin. Stubble scratched my ear, a brush of hair grazing the dip where my neck met my shoulder. Every instinct revolted at this person’s proximity, at their nearness to my throat—a place that no one but Vincent was allowed to go.

“They’re dead, little human,” the voice said again. “And if you go after them, so are you.”

He’s right, the Moon Palace seemed to hum, the darkness shivering in delight.

And I knew it. I knew it, even as another ragged shout of agony rang out, closer than ever.

I knew it and didn’t give a fuck.

I didn’t bother fighting against the grasp that held me. It wouldn’t work. He was too strong.

So I stabbed the bastard.

Apparently he wasn’t expecting that, because he hissed, “Ix’s fucking tits!” and staggered away from me. I had buried my knife deep enough in his thigh that I had to yank hard to pull it out, and then I was sprinting down the hall, fingertips to the wall to guide myself.

Another scream. Louder. More desperate. Mother, it was awful, how vampires sounded when they were well and truly in a bloodlust. You could hear them ripping apart the flesh. It wasn’t quiet, it wasn’t elegant, it wasn’t graceful. It was loud and messy and horrible.

I wanted to call out to her, wanted to tell her I was coming for her, but I couldn’t—it would only attract attention to my position. I settled instead for quickened steps. As fast as I could move.

Ilana’s wails did not grow farther away. But they did not grow closer, either. They just remained forever beyond me, just outside the reach of my blade, as I ran down hallway after hallway after hallway.

The truth dawned on me with every footstep. Her proximity was an illusion. I would never reach her. Her voice was growing weaker, her cries fewer and farther between.

Still, I pushed one more step, one more step.

One more step, as the shrieks rose to a crescendo. One more step, as they lowered to a wet gargle.

As the gargle became a weak moan.

As that familiar voice disappeared beneath the sounds of feeding vampires, looking for something new to occupy them.

Eventually, I stopped, my ribs aching and eyes straining. I pressed myself against the wall. Squeezed my eyes shut, darkness falling deeper into darkness. My heartbeat, my precious blood, rushed deafeningly in my ears.

They’re dead, the voice had whispered. And if you go, so are you.

He was right. And I had never hated anything so much. I lived a life of ugly truths, had gotten used to them—but this one—Mother, this one, it just—

The hairs rose on the back of my neck as I felt a presence behind me. The footsteps were nearly silent. I turned just in time.

“What do we have here?” a low, smooth female voice whispered.

I didn’t wait this time. I struck—hard, and in the exact direction of the voice. I wouldn’t win in a fight. I didn’t wait for her to retaliate. I sprinted, fingertips touching the wall just enough to keep me from running into it. Some skirmish broke out behind me—I wasn’t about to stop and think about what it could be, or, Goddess forbid, join it. The more they fought with each other, the less they would come after me.

At first, I thought I was imagining the faint silver outline before me. Maybe my straining eyes were just inventing what I so desperately wanted to see.

But no, it was no illusion. A wall of humid air hit me as I stumbled through a threshold. My hand bled so heavily that I struggled to grip the hilt of my blade. My muscles screamed at me. I could barely, barely make out the faint outline of—of—


I lifted my eyes to see stars. It was an overcast night, black-gray clouds covering most of the sky. But as the wind shifted, slivers of light peered through. The moon, nearly full, stood in mournful watch. Wrought-iron whorls cradled glass walls, rising into a dome that culminated in a silver crescent.

The earthy scent of damp soil washed over me. A greenhouse. This was a greenhouse.

I pushed my way through the dense foliage until I hit the farthest wall. I could see a little, now, with the help of the moonlight. Sivrinaj’s skyline towered in the distance to my

right, and to my left, dunes rolled in elegant swells and dips. And there, where the sand kissed the horizon line, was a faint streak of purple.


I would need to survive here for another hour, yes, but the moment it arrived, this greenhouse became the safest place I could possibly be. No one could hide from the sun in here for long.

I gripped my weapons tight as I sank into the shadows between the leaves. I would be able to hear the movement of whoever came in, even if I couldn’t see them. The sounds of feeding had quieted, as if the Palace had decided that it had tired of my horror. Or perhaps the vampires had simply tired of gorging themselves.

I barely blinked, staring at the single door into the greenhouse, as the sun—my savior—rose to meet me.

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