The screaming of the crowd shook the ground. Light blinded me—so bright that at first I questioned whether it was somehow sunlight.
But no. Torches. Thousands. Lining the rounded rim of the colosseum, floating hundreds of feet above of our heads, clutched in the thousands upon thousands of hands of the thousands upon thousands of spectators—all of whom were screaming, screaming, screaming—
Screaming like Ilana had screamed—
For a moment, nothing existed but the sky and the light and the roar of the spectators. I craned my neck up to the stars that were barely visible over the flare of the lanterns. They smeared in a circular blur, punctuated by rails of silver metal—like the top of the greenhouse. A glass ceiling. Move, Oraya! a voice roared in the back of my head—
Vincent’s voice, it was always Vincent’s voice—and I did, just in time.
Massive claws shredded the packed sand where I had been standing seconds ago.
The world snapped into violently harsh focus.
Another shriek rang out, much closer, as a Hiaj contestant was torn to pieces—one shattered wing clenched in a dripping maw, his body clutched in claws, black-red blood pouring onto the dirt.
Not just a beast. A fucking demon.
I’d only seen a demon in real life once, and I had been so injured that I barely remembered it. Even that horror had been nothing compared to these. They moved on all fours, hairless and dark-gray, with blackened veins that pulsed beneath their skin. Serrated black claws capped too-long fingers on hands made for grabbing and killing. Their faces
—flat, with sharp cheekbones, slit noses, and white, mucus-coated eyes—were mostly mouth, which extended from pointed ear to pointed ear, dripping with blackened saliva over layers of jagged teeth. They were, at once, chillingly animalistic and sickeningly… humanoid.
They moved so fast I couldn’t count them—so fast that they crossed the arena in the time it took me to blink. More than five. Less than ten.
I pressed my back to the glass. It shook as something slammed violently against the wall in the next enclosure. The colosseum had been split into many smaller rings, separated by glass domes. I was trapped here with several Hiaj vampires. One Rishan. One Bloodborn. Kiretta, the Shadowborn magic wielder Vincent had warned me about. And—I let out a rough laugh, because it fucking figured— Raihn.
As the demons tangled in the center of the ring, momentarily distracted by the still-twitching body of the vampire they’d just ripped apart, the rest of us looked around warily. We were all thinking the same thing: Was the objective to kill the demons, or each other?
I had no time to think about it as one of the demons lunged for me. I rolled out of the path of those razored hands—but then my body seized up. My muscles railed against me, as if they wanted to keep me in the demon’s path, wanted to—
Fuck. Blood magic.
I glanced up just in time to see the Bloodborn contestant meet my eyes, red mist around his raised hands, his magic in my blood. He could only maintain his focus for a moment, but that was enough to send me tumbling under the demon’s claws.
Move move move—
Pain skewered me. The moment I broke free of the magic hold, I grabbed one of my swords and plunged it into the roof of the demon’s mouth, just as those teeth were coming down upon me.
A horrific burning smell filled my nostrils—the poison in action. The demon let out a high-pitched, hollow wail. Puffs of black surrounded us as I yanked my sword from its flesh. When its jaw snapped closed, the skin was melting, top jaw dripping into bottom.
Mother, this shit was strong. I thanked Vincent silently and scrambled from my attacker’s grasp as it staggered back into the pack.
On the opposite side of the enclosure, Raihn went after a demon with sweeping strikes of his sword. An impressive weapon, even from a distant glimpse. It was Nightborn steel, like my blades, with streaks of red-tinted darkness following every swing.
To my right, the Bloodborn man dodged as one of the demons leapt for him, sinking its teeth into his leg. His lips twisted into a grim smile, hands raised and ready.
But then he froze. Horror fell across his face that had nothing to do with pain—as if he had just made a terrible realization. It distracted him long enough for the beast to yank him closer. A sheen of black-red beaded over its skin, followed by a fog of crimson.
Unnatural goosebumps rose on my arms, a burning sensation ghosting over my flesh as I leapt away from its swinging tail. Strange. Unsettling. Familiar. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but—
The Bloodborn man tried to fight now, but it was too late. His body crumpled like moist paper beneath the demon’s claws.
Puffs of shadow filled the enclosure as Kiretta unleashed the full force of her magic, fragments of darkness wrapping around demon limbs and throats to little effect. One of the Rishan had risen to the top of the glass dome and shot arrows at the monsters below, lurching and dipping to avoid their barbed tails, but they barely reacted to the blows. Blood spurted across my cheek as another Hiaj contestant fell.
Four. Four of us remained.
I fought until I couldn’t feel my own body anymore. Kiretta was slowly being worn down. The Rishan with the arrows had more and more difficulty dodging. Even Raihn’s seemingly unstoppable blows appeared to be slowing. My hands were so slick with putrid black blood that I struggled to grip my swords, drips of poison leaving my skin raw.
We hadn’t managed to kill a single demon. Even the one I’d injured had torn its mouth back open and was acting like it had never been hurt at all.
Across the ring, a demon lunged for Raihn, and he leapt smoothly out of the way… majestic, feathered wings unfurling from his back. He stretched them wide as he rose to the top of the enclosure, red-black feathers tinted purple beneath strokes of silvery moonlight.
So he was Nightborn. A Rishan, of course. I should have fucking known.
I rolled out of the way of another attack, one eye still on him. I watched him plunge, watched him thrust his sword into the ribs of a demon—
And the beast diving for me—the one I hadn’t even struck yet—flinched.
Everything faded except for that single twitch. That one little seize of muscle. My attacker recovered fast, leaving
me scurrying across the sand, but in my mind I replayed that moment, over and over.
No, I hadn’t imagined it. The demon had flinched, and
exactly where Raihn had hit the other one.
I thought of the look of horror on the Bloodborn vampire’s face as the demon drank from him. Of the red sheen that covered their bodies now, the mist, the strange burning sensation of my skin—
Realization shook me.
It was blood magic. Sloppy and unrefined, yes, but blood magic all the same. And if the demons were using gifts exclusive to the vampires of the House of Blood…
I stabbed the hand of a monster that came for me and found fresh horror in its terrible wail of agony. Mother, it did almost sound like… like a voice.
These were not just demons. These were demons that had once been vampires—Bloodborn, cursed vampires.
Transfiguration. I knew the curse made Bloodborn vampires something terrible in their final days, but nothing like this. So these had been changed. Created. Were they linked, somehow? I watched their movements with the split seconds I could spare between dodges or strikes—watched their dynamics.
A pack. They moved together, as if connected. And maybe that meant there was a leader. A heart at the core of the rotten flesh. If these were transfigured vampires, perhaps one was the original, and the others its spawn.
“Do that again!” I screamed to Raihn, who had risen back into the air. He cocked his head in confusion. The din of the crowd swallowed my words.
I jabbed my finger to the demon, then tapped my forehead—where it bore a single white mark between its eyes. “THAT ONE, YOU FUCKING IDIOT!”
I didn’t know if he’d understand what I was trying to tell him, or if he would help me even if he did.
I cut through the pack of beasts. I was betting everything on this theory. There was no way I’d survive this if I wasn’t right. Getting into the pack was difficult—getting out of it would be impossible. I levied strike after strike with my poisoned blades, making the demons falter, but had no time to make them fall. Precise. Fast.
The red mist, which had grown thicker with the demons’ every kill, burned my skin. The writhing bodies blended into each other, slick gray against slick gray, but I refused to take my eyes off my target, refused to blink—
My mark let out a sickening scream, its limbs flailing in all directions. Black blood spattered over my face as a massive blade plunged into its side. Raihn’s body trembled with exertion as he pinned the beast, barely dodging its tail and claws. His gaze met mine through the chaos and red smoke—and he nodded.
I couldn’t even believe these words crossed my mind, but I thought, Nyaxia bless him.
If this demon had once been a vampire, that meant we needed its heart. And that meant I had to slide under this thing. I dropped to my knees, poised my blade, and—
Pain exploded through my hip.
My vision blurred. A POP rang out in my ears as the sound of the crowd and the demons faded to a distant din.
I didn’t realize I hit the ground until I saw my hands braced against the dirt. I looked down at myself. An arrow protruded from my thigh.
Fuck, I thought, just before all the demons were on me.