Chapter no 7

The Serpent and the Wings of Night

Come nightfall, a call rang out through the halls of the Moon Palace—three melancholy notes of Nyaxia’s hymn. At the sound, I peered through the foliage to

see a single, smoky thread of shadow leading through the greenhouse to the door and into the hallway beyond.

The message was obvious: I was being summoned.

My eyes were sandy and my joints aching when I rose and followed. Ilana’s bloodless, torn-up face still lingered behind every blink. I had clutched that purple scarf all night, the blood from my wounded hand soaking the silk.

I didn’t cry. No. I was fucking furious. Sadness was a futile, weak emotion. At least anger was useful—a sharp edge to cut another’s heart, or a hard shell to protect your own.

The thread of shadow grew thicker as more streaks joined the main corridor. The summons had been sent, it seemed, to every contestant who had survived the previous night. The Moon Palace was not pitch dark as it had been before. Now, warm light rippled over the hall, emanating from the torches lining the walls and the candles that floated above us in the vaulted ceilings. As I walked, I watched that light shiver over the not-quite-smooth mosaic tile and felt foolish when I realized what I hadn’t during the day: the floors were made of shattered bone and teeth.

The group of us grew larger as we moved down the hallway, more and more joining with each turn or doorway we passed. We sized each other up silently. By the time we reached our destination—the great room—there were, by my rough estimation, about fifty contestants. Most were clearly members of the House of Night—an even split between Hiaj and Rishan, based on those who had their wings out—but I counted about ten members of the House of Blood, and fifteen or so members of the House of Shadow. Some looked around anxiously. Sizing up their competition? Or searching for someone who was missing?

How many of us had died last night?

Most ignored each other, though the Bloodborn vampires remained close together in one tight pack. That made sense, I supposed. No one else would have them. I eyed the woman at the center of their group. She was taller than all the others. Her armor left her shoulders bare, revealing impressively cut muscles. Her hair hung in a long silver braid down her back. She had to be their leader, judging by how the others deferred to her.

I hung back, watching my competition with a lump in my throat. I’d spent my entire life trying to avoid being in this situation: trapped with powerful vampire warriors twice my size.

Across the room, Ibrihim caught my gaze. He gave me a grim, humorless almost-smile, as if maybe he knew we were both thinking the same thing.

On the balcony, a tall, thin man with a bald head and wan skin stretched tight over his skull regarded us. He wore simple black robes and a sash across his body that bore three sigils: a moon, a mask, and a weeping woman— the symbols of the three kingdoms of Nyaxia. The church was independent of the three vampire houses, operating across all Nyaxia’s subjects as a nebulously powerful and mysterious force. Most powerful and mysterious of all was

the Ministaer himself, who was said to not even be a living being anymore, but merely a flesh-vessel for Nyaxia’s will.

This, to me, sounded like bullshit.

It was impossible to follow the Ministaer’s gaze—his eyes were solid milky-white, with no iris or pupil—but his chin lowered, and I couldn’t shake the skin-crawling sense that he looked directly at me.

I met that stare without flinching, even though I wanted to shudder and look away.

The Ministaer didn’t especially seem like the embodiment of a god. He mostly seemed like a lecherous old man. I’d met him a few times at various religious feasts. No matter how big the crowd, he was always far, far too interested in me. After one night when he practically trapped me in a corner when I was thirteen years old, Vincent never left my side when he was in my presence ever again.

If Nyaxia needed a flesh-vessel—which she probably didn’t—this one didn’t seem like a wise choice.

Several other acolytes joined the Ministaer on the balcony to his right, and to his left was the leadership of the House of Night—Vincent and his Cabinet. He wore a long, dark cloak embroidered with silver stars. His wings were on display, the threads of red stark against the black, and he even exposed his Heir Mark, leaving several buttons at the top of his jacket undone to reveal the swirls of red ink on his throat.

The intent would not be lost on anyone here. Simply revealing his wings and his Mark served as a warning: I am stronger than any of you. I stood where you stood, and I won.

It was odd to see Vincent flaunting his power so brazenly, but maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising. Rulers of the House of Night often killed the Kejari’s victors. Anyone that strong was inherently a threat. And as

I looked around the room, so many of these bloodthirsty warriors stared at Vincent with such lustful hate.

I felt a bit naive for not realizing earlier Vincent’s other selfish reason for encouraging me to enter the Kejari: if I won, it meant these people wouldn’t. And there was absolutely no one in this world—not a single soul—that Vincent trusted, except for me.

The Ministaer cleared his throat, and an eerie hush fell over the room.

“Welcome,” the Ministaer said, “to the Kejari, the greatest honor in the name of our lady Nyaxia, Mother of the Ravenous Dark, Womb of Night, of Shadow, of Blood. In her name, I thank you for the offering of your presence. Aja saraeta.”

Aja saraeta.” The echoing prayer rose from the contestants in a misty murmur.

“I have overseen twenty-one Kejaris, now,” he went on. “Two thousand years of tribute to our Mother of the Ravenous Dark. And every time, this eve is the one that is the most meaningful. Such possibility. Such potential.”

A too-long silence as he surveyed us. Then: “You have survived the initial call, and the initial cull. At sundown tomorrow, the Kejari officially begins. It will continue for the next four months. When you made your oaths, you gave our Dark Mother your life. You gave her your blood. You gave her your soul. And she shall keep all three. Even if you survive the trials, a part of you shall always belong to her. Aja saraeta.

Aja saraeta,” we all repeated.

“There will be five trials, each designed to pay tribute to the story of our goddess’s escape from the clutches of the White Pantheon and rise to power. The Full Moon trial. The Waning trial. The Halfmoon trial. The Crescent trial. The New Moon trial. Each trial will take place three weeks after the prior. The details of each test shall be revealed as it begins and not before. For the entire length of the Kejari,

you shall reside here, in the Moon Palace. You may leave its walls between sundown and sunrise, if it pleases Nyaxia, but you must always be within its doors come dawn. Countless worshippers have lived here before you. Countless others will come long after your blood has dried from the floors. Through the Moon Palace, Nyaxia shall provide for you as she sees fit.”

As she sees fit. That sounded appropriately ominous. The Moon Palace provided shelter, food, water—until it didn’t. It provided safety—until it didn’t. The Moon Palace was not a place of rest. It was a trial all its own.

“Regarding the spilling of blood within the Moon Palace…”

I didn’t know it was possible for the room to get even more breathlessly silent. We had all, it seemed, been waiting for this. Sometimes, Kejari contestants were forbidden from killing each other outside of trials. Other years, no such restriction existed.

That was the thing about the Kejari. It had its rules and conventions, yes, but it was a little different every year, subject, like so many things, to Nyaxia’s whims.

“You may defend yourself against aggressors,” the Ministaer said. “However, the Goddess appreciates the gift of blood within her trials.”

What the hell did that mean?

I wasn’t the only one wondering. Bodies shifted uncomfortably—eyes scanned the room in confusion. This wording was… unhelpful.

The Goddess appreciates the gift of blood within her trials.

Did that mean, Try to wait to kill each other until there’s an audience, if you can? If not, oh well!

Or did that mean, Save it for the trials and face Nyaxia’s wrath if you don’t?

I couldn’t decide which I preferred. If killing was outlawed this year, it might allow me at least a little bit of

peace within the Moon Palace’s walls—maybe, given the lure of my human blood. Then again, it might be easier for me to pick off my opponents when they weren’t expecting it than it would be in the ring.

“You bind yourself to these rules when you offer your soul to Nyaxia in service of the Kejari,” the Ministaer said. “And you shall abide by them until the moment the tournament concludes, or until the moment she releases you from your oath. Aja saraeta.”

Aja saraeta,” we murmured.

“You will be summoned at sundown tomorrow for the Full Moon trial. May the Mother guide you.”

The Ministaer lifted his hand, as if casting some great invisible blessing over us all, and turned away without another word. There was no final speech, no inspiring goodbye, no wrought-out prayer.

With eerie silence, the double doors beneath the balcony swung open, revealing what appeared to be a dining room. Above us, the priests and priestesses filed away. Vincent caught my gaze just before he went with them. An unspoken agreement passed between us. He inclined his chin, and I nodded in response before following the others through the double doors.



THE FEAST in the dining hall put the one at Vincent’s party to shame. I’d spent many of the daylight hours combing through the greenhouse trying to identify edible plants, just in case—I wasn’t sure whether we would be given food at all, and if so, whether any of it would be safe for humans. But despite my shaky nerves and exhaustion, my mouth watered at the sight of the spread before me. Two long

tables had been laid out with platters, each seating perhaps twenty-five or thirty chairs. We all filed into the room and lingered near the walls, as if we all feared that the feast might explode if we got too close to it.

Finally, a tall Hiaj man muttered, “Fuck it,” sat down, and seized a goblet of blood. That was enough to break the tension. The crowd descended upon the feast. I grabbed a plate, hastily piled it with food that at least appeared to be human-edible, and backed away, instead choosing to sit at one of the small end tables scattered around the outskirts of the room. A better spot for watching.

Some contestants gulped down blood like they thought they might never eat again—a fair concern. Others, though, seemed uninterested, instead stuffing provisions into their pockets or packs.

My lips thinned. My fingers curled tight enough to leave nail marks in my palm.

Of course they weren’t hungry. They had gorged themselves last night.

Only one ignored the feast completely. A dark-haired man moved about the room frenetically, circling the tables. I recognized him—I’d see him looking around, a bit panicked, before the Ministaer’s speech. Now, my suspicion from earlier became a certainty. He was clearly looking for someone, and growing increasingly frantic when he couldn’t find them. After three quickening laps around the table, he ran out the door, pushing roughly through two Shadowborn who scowled after him.

A few minutes later, a feral, animalistic roar sliced through the air like shattering glass.

Every head snapped up. Hands went to weapons. My own gripped the hilts of my blades.

My first thought was that it was some sort of monster. That they’d lulled us into a false sense of security with this meal and figured they’d pick off a few more of us before the trial tomorrow.

But no, it wasn’t a monster that came barreling back into the dining hall—it was the dark-haired man, howling, face mottled with sheer rage. I realized that his screeching actually formed words: “My brother! They killed my fucking brother!

His wings were out now, outstretched, the feathers many different shades of brown-black.

…Just like the wings of the Rishan man who’d been covered in Ilana’s blood.

And when this man spun around, his eyes wild, I realized they looked just like the ones that had stared into mine last night as I slowly sank my knife into his heart.

I stiffened.

“Who fucking did it?” the man howled. “You think you can kill an Ajmai and get away with it? Which one of you bastards did it? I’ll fucking kill you!

No, you certainly will not.

I almost—almost—wanted to confess to it.

To my surprise, Ibrihim was the first to move, rising from his chair with his palms up. “Easy, brother. We don’t need any more death before—”

Brother?” the man snarled. “You’re not my fucking

brother. My brother is dead.”

The group of Bloodborn sniggered amongst themselves, and I thought surely that would be the thing to send this man on a murderous rampage. His mouth contorted into a sharp-toothed snarl, his fists quaking. But just as he was about to lunge—at whom, or what, even he didn’t seem to know—a deep, smooth voice came from the far corner of the room.

“Oh, please. It isn’t any of our fault that your brother was such a fucking idiot he got himself killed before the tournament even started, Klyn.”

The voice was oddly familiar.

The man—Klyn, apparently—whirled. Heads swiveled. The source of the voice took a long, long drink of blood. It

was difficult to see him—we were seated at opposite corners of the room, with four rows of people between us— but I glimpsed a broad form and wavy, dark hair with a red sheen, which rustled slightly as he threw back his head to drink, unperturbed by the fuss.

When Klyn’s gaze fell to the man, he seemed to forget the rest of the room existed.

You,” he breathed. “Raihn fucking Ashraj. You hadn’t gotten over that thing in the outer city. I should have known we shouldn’t have trusted—”

The man—Raihn—set down his goblet and laughed. It was a low sound that slithered through the air like a snake. Klyn turned purple. Perhaps he was senseless with his own rage, but he was still a vampire, and that meant he was strong and fast. He crossed the room in several

graceful strides. “You did this!”

And just as quickly, Raihn was on his feet, meeting him halfway.

I drew in a sharp inhale.

The man I had seen at the feast. I recognized him right away, because here, just as he had at the ball, he stood out as markedly different than any other vampire. Everything about him seemed rough and unfinished, right down to the way he held himself—with an untamed, threatening ease, stark in contrast to elegant vampire beauty.

And when he stood, I realized all at once why his voice had sounded so familiar. There it was: the bloody bandage wrapped around his thigh. Right where, say, a short human girl might have plunged a dagger when trying to break out of his grasp.


Even across the room, I could see that his knuckles were white as he gripped Klyn’s wrist, seizing the sword mid-strike.

“You think I killed your brother?” Raihn said. “Me?”

“Don’t fucking toy with me, Raihn. I know you did it.” “Oh, didn’t kill your brother.”

Raihn’s eyes—rust-red—slipped right across the room.

Landed right on me. And he smirked.

Goddess fucking damn it. I didn’t expect to have to fight my way out of a pack of vampires before the tournament even started, but I would do it if I had to.

I started to rise, my hands going to my swords. “This is ridiculous, isn’t it?”

I nearly jumped halfway across the room. I spun around to see a slender, curly-haired woman leaning against the wall beside me, rolling her eyes.

The very same woman I’d seen at Vincent’s party the other night.

“We should be saving our energy,” she sighed. She glanced at me like she expected an answer.

I said nothing. Mostly, I wanted to ask her what she was doing here. She didn’t exactly seem like the tournament-to-the-death type. But I could barely tear my gaze from the scene across the room.

Now, Klyn was inches from Raihn’s face. “Yes, you did! I know you did!”

“No,” Raihn said calmly, “I did not. Wish I had, though, because he was a repulsive asshole.”

“He was,” the girl agreed, beside me. “The worst.” She leaned close and whispered, “You did it, didn’t you?”


“You did it. Right?” “I—”

Across the room, Raihn said, “And I’m warning you, right now, not to go for that sword again, Klyn.”

“Oh, no,” the girl muttered. Klyn went for his sword.


Klyn’s body hit the wall with enough force to send two of the grand antique paintings crashing to the ground, their wood frames splintering under the force of the impact. Raihn pinned him against arabesque wallpaper now dotted with spatters of black-red blood. Klyn’s sword arm dangled from his body at an odd angle, clearly broken. His head lolled.

Half the people in the hall had now gotten to their feet, watching wide-eyed. Everyone held their breath, waiting for the answer to the question no one was voicing: Would he do it?

Klyn’s attitude had changed dramatically in the last five seconds. “You can’t kill here,” he croaked. “You heard the Ministaer. He said you can’t kill until the trials.”

“Oh no,” the girl said again, not seeming all that distressed.

We were all thinking the same thing. Thinking of the Ministaer’s cryptic words. I knew someone would test the boundary. I just didn’t know it would happen so soon.

Raihn smiled. “Oh, I can’t?”

The blast shook the room. I gasped, the air yanked from my lungs in one dramatic pulse. Pitch black consumed me, followed by blinding white, followed by a coughing fit as I found myself blinking hard, shaking away goosebumps.

Sun fucking take me.

Everyone gaped at the rust-eyed man, jaws hanging, questioning what we’d just seen.

Raihn let Klyn’s very, very dead body slide down the wall into a wobbly, boneless heap on the ground.

Silence. No one blinked. Raihn looked up, as if waiting for Nyaxia to strike him down. Five seconds passed, then ten, then thirty.

“Hm,” he said, at last. “Well, I suppose that answers that.”

He sat down and resumed eating.

The girl sighed. “So dramatic.”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak. That was fucking Asteris.

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