Chapter no 10

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

I look up, and up, and up, fear coiling in my stomach like a snake ready to strike.

“Well, that’s…” Rhiannon swallows, her head tilted just as far back as mine as we stare at the menacing obstacle course that’s carved into the front of a ridgeline so steep, it might as well be a cliff. The zigzagging death trap of a trail rises above us, climbing in five distinct switchbacks of 180-degree turns, each increasing in difficulty on the way to the top of the bluff that divides the citadel from the flight field and the Vale.

“Amazing.” Aurelie sighs.

Rhiannon and I turn, both staring at her like she must have hit her head.

“You think that hellscape looks amazing?” Rhiannon asks.

“I’ve been waiting years for this!” Aurelie grins, her normally serious black eyes dancing in the morning sun as she rubs her hands together, shifting from one toned leg to the other in glee. “My dad-he was a rider until he retired last year-used to set up obstacle courses like this all the time so we could practice, and Chase, my brother, said it’s the best part of being here before Threshing. It’s a real adrenaline rush.”

“He’s with the Southern Wing, right?” I ask, focusing on the obstacle course running up the side of a fucking cliff. It looks more like a death trap than an adrenaline rush, but sure, we can go with that. Positive thinking for the win, right?

“Yep. Pretty much desk duty for all the action they see near the Krovlan border.” She shrugs and points about two-thirds up the course. “He said to watch out for those giant posts jutting from the side of the cliff. They spin, and you can get crushed between them if you’re not fast enough.”

“Oh, good, I was wondering when it might get difficult,” Rhiannon mutters.

“Thanks, Aurelie.” I locate the series of nearly touching, three-foot-wide logs that jut out from the rocky terrain like a set of round steps rising from the ground to the switchback above it and nod. Go fast. Got it. You could have included that tidbit, Brennan.

The obstacle course is the embodiment of my worst nightmare. For the first time since Dain begged me to leave last week, I consider Markham’s offer. There are no death courses in the Scribe Quadrant, that’s for certain.

But you’ve already made it this far. Ahh, there she is, the little voice that’s been riding my shoulder lately, daring to give me hope that I might actually survive Presentation.

“Still not sure why they call it the Gauntlet,” Ridoc says from my right, blowing into his cupped hands to ward off the morning chill. The sun hasn’t touched this little crevice, but it’s shining above the last quarter of the course.

“To ensure dragons keep coming to Threshing by weeding out the weaklings.” Tynan sneers from Ridoc’s other side, folding his arms over his chest as he casts a pointed look at me.

I shoot him a glare and then shake it off. He’s been pissy ever since Rhiannon handed his ass to him on the mat at assessment.

“Knock it the fuck off,” Ridoc snaps, earning the entire squad’s attention.

My eyebrows lift. I’ve never seen Ridoc lose his temper or use anything but humor to defuse a situation before.

“What’s your problem?” Tynan shoves a strand of thick, dark hair from his eyes and pivots like he’s going to stare some intimidation into Ridoc, but it doesn’t really work out, seeing as Ridoc is twice as wide and half a foot taller.

“My problem? You think because you made friends with Barlowe and Siefert that you have the right to be a dick to your own squadmate?” Ridoc challenges.

“Exactly. Squadmate.” Tynan gestures toward the obstacle course. “Our times aren’t just ranked individually, Ridoc. We’re scored as a squad, too, which is how the order for Presentation is decided. Do you really think any dragon wants to bond a cadet who walks in after every other squad in the processional?”

Fine, he has a point. It’s a shitty one, but it’s there.

“They’re not timing us for Presentation today, asshole.” Ridoc takes a step forward.

“Stop.” Sawyer shuffles between the two, shoving Tynan’s chest hard enough to make him stagger back into the girl behind him. “Take it from someone who made it through Presentation last year: your time doesn’t mean anything. The last cadet to walk in last year bonded just fine, and some of the cadets in the first squad onto the field were passed over.” “Little bitter about that, aren’t you?” Tynan smirks.

Sawyer ignores the barb. “Besides, it’s not called the Gauntlet because it weeds out cadets.”

“It’s called the Gauntlet because this is the cliff that guards the Vale,” Professor Emetterio says, walking up behind our squad, his shaved head glinting in the growing sunlight. “Plus, actual gauntlets-armored gloves made of metal-are slippery as hell, and the name stuck about twenty years ago.” He cocks a brow at Tynan and Sawyer. “Are you two done arguing? Because all nine of you have exactly an hour to get to the top before it’s another squad’s chance to practice, and from what I’ve seen of your agility

on the mat, you’re going to need every second.”

There’s a grumble of assent in our little group.

“As you know, hand-to-hand challenges are on hold for the next two and a half weeks before Presentation so you can focus here.” Professor Emetterio flips a page on the little notebook he carries. “Sawyer, you’re going to show them how it’s done, since you already have the lay of the land. Then Pryor, Trina, Tynan, Rhiannon, Ridoc, Violet, Aurelie, and Luca.” A smile curves the harsh line of his mouth as he finishes calling out every name in our squad, and we file into order. “You’re the only squad to remain intact since Parapet. That’s incredible. Your squad leader must be very proud. Wait here for a second.” He walks past us, waving at someone high up on the cliff.

No doubt that someone has a watch.

“Aetos is especially proud of Sorrengail.” Tynan gifts me with a mocking sneer once our instructor is out of hearing range.

I see red. “Look, if you want to talk shit about me, that’s one thing, but leave Dain out of it.”

“Tynan,” Sawyer warns, shaking his head.

“Like it doesn’t bother any of you that our squad leader is fucking one of us?” Tynan throws out his hands.

“I’m not-” I start, indignation getting the best of me before I can take a deep breath. “Honestly, it’s none of your godsdamned business who I’m sleeping with, Tynan.” Though if I’m going to get accused, can’t I have some of the perks? If I know Dain, he’s hung up on the whole fraternization-is-discouraged-within-the-chain-of-command thing like this asshole. But surely Dain would actually make a move if he really wanted to, right?

“It is if it means you get preferential treatment!” Luca adds in.

“For fuck’s sake,” Rhiannon mumbles, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Luca, Tynan, shut up. They’re not sleeping together. They’ve been friends since they were kids, or do you not know enough about our own leadership to know his dad is her mom’s aide?”

Tynan’s eyes widen, like he’s actually surprised. “Really?” “Really.” I shake my head and study the course.

“Shit. I’m…sorry. Barlowe said-”

“And that’s your first mistake,” Ridoc interjects. “Listening to that sadistic ass is going to get you killed. And you’re lucky Aetos isn’t here.”

True. Dain would more than take exception to Tynan’s assumptions and probably assign him cleanup duty for a month. Good thing he’s on the flight field this time of day.

Xaden would just beat the shit out of him.

I blink, shoving that comparison and any other thought of Xaden Riorson far out of my head.

“Here we go!” Professor Emetterio walks to the head of our line. “You’ll get your time at the top of the course, if you make it, but remember, you’ll still have nine practice sessions before we rank you for Presentation in two and a half weeks, which will determine if the dragons find you worthy at Threshing.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to let first-years start practicing this thing right after Parapet?” Rhiannon asks. “You know, to give us a little more time so we don’t die?”

“No,” Professor Emetterio replies. “The timing is part of the challenge.

Any words of wisdom, Sawyer?”

Sawyer blows out a slow breath, his gaze following the treacherous course. “There are ropes every six feet that run from the top of the sheer cliffside to the bottom,” he says. “So if you start to fall, reach out and grab a

rope. It’ll cost you thirty seconds, but death costs you more.” Awesome.

“I mean, there’s a perfectly good set of steps over there.” Ridoc points to the steep staircase carved into the cliff beside the wide switchbacks of the Gauntlet.

“Stairs are for reaching the flight field on the top of the ridgeline after Presentation,” Professor Emetterio says, then lifts his hands toward the course and flicks his wrist, pointing at various obstacles.

The fifteen-foot log at the start of the uphill climb begins to spin. The pillars on the third ascent shake. The giant wheel at the first switchback starts its counterclockwise rotation, and those little posts Aurelie mentioned? They all twist in opposite directions.

“Every one of the five ascents on this course is designed to mimic the challenges you’ll face in battle.” Professor Emetterio turns to look at us, his face just as stern as it is during our usual combat training. “From the balance you must keep on the back of your dragon, to the strength you’ll need to hold your seat during maneuvers, to”-he gestures upward, toward the last obstacle that looks like a ninety-degree ramp from this angle-“the stamina you’ll need to fight on the ground, then still be able to mount your dragon at a second’s notice.”

The posts knock a chunk of granite loose, and the rock tumbles down the course, smacking every obstacle in its path until it crashes twenty feet in front of us. If there was ever a metaphor for my life, well…that’s it.

“Whoa,” Trina whispers, her brown eyes wide as she stares at the pulverized rock. I’m the smallest of our squad, but Trina is the quietest, the most reserved. I can count on both hands the number of times she’s spoken to me since Parapet. If she didn’t have friends in First Wing, I’d worry, but she doesn’t have to open up to us to survive the quadrant.

“You all right?” I ask her in a whisper.

She swallows and nods, one of her auburn ringlet curls bouncing against her forehead.

“What if we can’t make it up?” Luca asks from my right, securing her long hair in a loose braid, her usual haughtiness not so in-your-face today.

“What’s the alternative route?”

“There’s no alternative. If you don’t make it, you can’t get to Presentation, can you? Take your position, Sawyer,” Professor Emetterio orders, and Sawyer moves to the beginning of the course. “After he makes it past the final obstacle, so everyone can learn from this cadet completing the course, the rest of you will start every sixty seconds. And…go!”

Sawyer is off like a shot. He easily runs the fifteen feet across the single log spinning parallel with the cliff face and then the raised pillars, but it takes him three rotations inside the wheel before he jumps through the lone opening, but other than that, I don’t see a single misstep in the first ascent. Not. One.

He turns and rushes toward a series of giant hanging balls that makes up the second ascent, jumping and hugging one after another. His feet back on the ground, he turns again and heads up the third ascent, which is divided into two sections. The first part has giant metal rods hanging parallel to the cliff wall, and he easily swings arm over arm, using his body’s weight and momentum to swing the bar forward and reach the next bar hanging half a foot higher than the previous as he climbs the side of the cliff. From the last bar, he jumps onto a series of shaking pillars that make up the second half of this ascent before finally leaping back onto the gravel path.

By the time he reaches the fourth ascent, the spinning logs Aurelie’s brother warned us about, Sawyer’s made it all look like child’s play, and I start to feel a bubble of hope that maybe the course isn’t as difficult as it looks from the ground.

But then he faces a giant chimney formation rising high above him at a twenty-degree angle and pauses.

“You got this!” Rhiannon yells from my side.

As though he heard, he sprints toward the leaning chimney and flings himself upward, grabbing onto the sides by forming an X with his body, then starts hopping up the conduit until he reaches the end and drops down in front of the final obstacle, a massive ramp that reaches up to the top of the cliff’s edge at a nearly vertical climb.

My breath catches in my throat as Sawyer sprints toward the ramp, using his speed and momentum to carry him two-thirds of the way up the ramp. Just before he starts to fall, he reaches up with one arm and grasps the lip of the ramp and hauls himself over the edge.

Rhiannon and I scream and cheer for him. He made it. In an almost flawless approach.

“Perfect technique!” Professor Emetterio calls out. “That’s exactly what you should all be doing.”

“Perfect, and yet he was still passed over at Threshing,” Luca snarks.

“Guess the dragons have some sense of taste.” “Give it a rest, Luca,” Rhi says.

How could someone as smart and athletic as Sawyer not bond? And if he didn’t, what the hell kind of hope is there for the rest of us?

“I’m too short for the ramp,” I whisper to Rhi.

She glances over at me, and then back to the obstacle. “You’re wicked fast. If you get your speed up, I bet the momentum will take you to the top.”

Pryor-the shy cadet from the Krovlan border region-struggles on the swinging steel rods in the third ascent due to some rather predictable hesitation on his part, but he makes it just as Trina nearly falls at the shaking pillars, reaching for a rope. I can only make out the flash of red from her hair when she starts the rotating stair steps, but I hear her scream all the way to my toes as that particular rope sways near the ground.

“You can do it!” Sawyer shouts down from the top.

“They go in opposite directions!” Aurelie calls up.

“Tynan, start,” Professor Emetterio orders, watching his pocket watch and not the course.

My heart thuds in my ears when Trina makes it past the steps, and the drumming doesn’t let up as Rhiannon is called to start. She passes the first ascent with the grace I’ve come to expect from her before coming to a halt.

Tynan hangs from the second of five buoy balls on the second ascent, right where the ground drops out. If he falls, he’s got a minuscule chance of hitting the single spinning log from the first ascent and overwhelming odds of dropping thirty feet to the ground below.

“You have to keep moving, Tynan!” I shout, though it’s doubtful he can hear me from here. He might be a gullible ass, but he’s still my squadmate.

He shrieks, his arms wrapped around the swinging ball. It’s impossible for him to reach his hands completely around-that’s the point, and he’s slipping.

“He’s going to screw her time,” Aurelie says, blowing out a bored sigh.

“Good thing this is only practice, then,” Ridoc says, then bellows up at Tynan. “What’s the matter, Tynan? Scared of heights? Who’s the liability now?”

“Stop.” I elbow Ridoc in the side. He’s not quite as lean now. The last seven weeks have put some muscle on him. “Just because he’s a dick doesn’t mean you have to be.”

“But he’s giving me so much material to work with,” Ridoc replies, a corner of his mouth lifting into a smirk as he backs away, heading toward the starting position.

“Swing to the next one!” Trina suggests from the top of the course.

“I can’t!” Tynan’s shriek could break glass as it echoes down the mountain, and it makes my chest tighten.

“Ridoc, start!” Professor Emetterio commands.

Ridoc charges over the log.

“Rhi!” I shout up. “The rope is between the first and second!”

She nods down at me, then jumps for the first buoy ball, clasping it up top, near where the chains hold it to the iron rail above, and swinging her weight around the side.

It’s an utterly inspired approach, one that might just work for me.

Gravel crunches beneath my boots as I move to the starting position. Oh, look, it is possible for my heart to beat faster. The damned thing practically flutters as I wipe my clammy palms on my leather pants.

Rhiannon gets the rope into Tynan’s hand, but instead of using it to swing to the next ball, he climbs…down.

My jaw practically unhinges as he descends. Definitely didn’t see that one coming.

“Violet, begin!” Emetterio orders.

Be with me, Zihnal. I haven’t spent nearly enough time at temple for the god of luck to care much about what happens to me right now, but it’s worth a shot.

I bolt up the first part of the ascent, coming to the spinning log within seconds. My stomach feels like it’s being stirred by this balance beam from hell. “It’s just balance. You can balance,” I mumble and start across. “Quick feet. Quick feet. Quick feet,” I repeat all the way across, jumping off the end to land on the first of four granite columns, each one higher than the last.

There are about three feet between them, but I manage to leap from one pillar to the next without skidding off the ends. And this is the easy part. A knot of fear works its way up my throat.

I jump into the rotating wheel and run, leaping over the only opening as it flies by once, then watching it come around a second time. Timing. This one is all about timing.

The opportunity comes and I seize it, racing through the opening and turning back onto the gravel path of the second ascent. The buoy balls are just ahead, but I’m going to fall on my ass if I don’t calm down and get my palms to stop sweating.

Feathertail dragons are the breed we know the least about, I recite in my mind, needing every ounce of my lung capacity as I spring from the edge of the path onto the first ball, grasping it up top like Rhiannon did. The immediate strain on my shoulders makes me tense every muscle to keep the joints from dislocating.

Stay calm. Stay calm.

Throwing my weight, I force the ball to rotate, swinging me toward the next one. This is because feathertails reportedly abhor violence and are not suitable for bonding.

I repeat motions, grasping from one ball to the next, keeping my eyes on the chains and nothing else.

Though this scholar cannot be certain, as one has never left the Vale within my lifetime. I continue reciting from memory as I reach the fifth and final ball. With one last swing, I throw myself sideways, releasing the ball and landing on the shoulder-wide gravel path without rolling an ankle.

It’s all momentum for the next ascent.

“Green dragons,” I mutter under my breath, “known for their keen intellect, descend from the honorable Uaineloidsig line, and continue to be the most rational of dragonkind, making them the perfect siege weapons, especially in the case of clubtails.” I finish as I line my body up with the first metal rod and get ready to sprint forward.

“Are you…studying?” Aurelie calls up from where she leaps onto the first ball below.

“Calms me down,” I shoot back in quick explanation. There’s no time to be embarrassed here-that can wait for later.

There are three iron rails in front of me, each lined up like a battering ram toward the next. “The Scribe Quadrant is looking pretty good right now,” I grumble under my breath, then launch myself toward the first. At least the texture gives me something to keep hold of as I work my way hand over hand. The ache in my shoulders grows into a throbbing pain when I reach the end of the first rail, swinging my feet to work up the momentum for the next.

The first clang of iron as the rails meet makes my fingers slip, and I gasp as terror claws its way out of my stomach. Orange dragons, coming in various shades of apricot to carrot, are the most-I throw myself to the next rail-unpredictable of dragonkind and therefore always a risk. I move across the rail with the same hand-over-hand motion, ignoring the outright protests of my shoulders. Descending from the Fhaicorain line-

My right hand loses purchase and my weight swings me into the face of the steep mountainside, my cheek slamming into the rock. A high-pitched ringing erupts in my ears and my vision darkens at the edges.

“Violet!” Rhiannon shouts from the top.

“Next to you! The rope is next to you!” Aurelie calls up.

Iron scrapes my fingertips as my left hand slips, but I spot the rope and take hold, bracing my feet on the knot beneath me and clinging tight until the ringing fades in my head. I have to swing over or climb down.

I’ve survived seven weeks in this damned quadrant, and this course isn’t going to beat me today.

Pushing off the edge, I swing out for the rail and make it, immediately starting the hand over hand to get me to the next one and then the next, until I finally let go, landing on the first shaking iron pillar. My brain is rattled as the thing shudders violently, and I leap to the next, barely gaining a foothold before jumping to the gravel path at the end of the ascent.

Aurelie is right behind me, landing with a grin. “This is the best!”

“You clearly need to see the healers. You must have hit your head if you think this is fun.” My breaths are choppy gasps, but I can’t help but smile at her obvious joy.

“Just run straight across this one,” she says as we reach the twisting staircase posts jutting straight from the side of the cliff face.

Each three-foot-wide timber rotates from its base in one of the steepest sections of the course. I quickly calculate if you fall off one of the posts, you’d probably drop at least thirty or forty feet onto the rocky terrain below. I swallow down the terror trying to crawl up my throat and focus on the possibility my agility and lightness will give me an edge on this particular obstacle.

She continues. “Trust me. If you pause, it’ll roll you right off.”

I nod and bounce on my feet, dredging up whatever courage I have left. Then I run. My feet are quick, making contact with each post only long enough to push off for the next, and within a few heartbeats, I’m on the other side.

“Yes!” I shout, throwing my fist up in celebration as I get out of the way for Aurelie.

“Go, Violet!” she shouts. “Here I come!” Her footwork is more agile than mine as she springs from spinning post to post.

A roar sounds from overhead, and I jerk my gaze up just in time to see the underbelly of a Green Daggertail as it flies directly over us, headed back to the Vale.

I’m never going to get used to that.

Aurelie cries out and my head snaps toward hers just in time to see her wobble and slip on the fifth post. The air freezes in my lungs as she careens forward, her belly hitting the next-to-last spinning log as if in slow motion.

“Aurelie!” I scream, lunging for her, my fingertips skimming the seventh post.

Our eyes meet, shock and terror filling her wide black eyes as the post rolls her away from me and she falls. Halfway down the cliff.

The sun burns my eyes as we stand in morning formation.

“Calvin Atwater,” Captain Fitzgibbons reads, his voice solemn like always.

First Squad, Claw Section, Fourth Wing. He sits two rows behind me in Battle Brief. He sat.

There’s nothing special about this morning. Our first trial on the Gauntlet has made the roll longer, but it’s just another list on just another day… except it’s not. The exceptional cruelty of this ritual has never hit me this hard before. It’s not like the first day anymore. I know more than half of the names as they’re called. My vision blurs. “Newland Jahvon,” he continues.

Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing. He had breakfast duty with me.

We have to be in the twenties by now. How can this be all there is? We say their names once and then go on as if they never existed?

Rhiannon shifts her weight at my side, and she abruptly sniffles, the motion jerking her shoulders once.

“Aurelie Donans.”

A single tear escapes and I bat it away, ripping open one of the scabs along my cheek. A trickle of blood follows as the next name is called, but I let that one stain me.

“You’re sure about this?” Dain asks the next night, two worried lines between his brows as he clasps my shoulders.

“If her parents aren’t coming to bury her body, then I should be the one to handle her things. I’m the last person she saw,” I explain, rolling my shoulders to adjust the weight of Aurelie’s pack.

Every Basgiath parent has the same option when their cadet is killed. They can retrieve the body and personal effects for burial or burning or the school will put their body under a stone and burn their effects themselves.

Aurelie’s parents have chosen door number two.

“And you don’t want me to go with you?” he asks, palming my neck.

I shake my head. “I know where the burn pit is.”

He mutters a curse. “I should have been there.”

“You couldn’t have done anything, Dain,” I say softly, covering his hand with mine so our fingers lightly lace. “None of us could have. She didn’t even have time to reach for the rope,” I whisper. I’ve replayed that moment over and over in my head, coming to the same conclusion each time.

“I never got the chance to ask you if you made it all the way up,” he says.

I shake my head. “I got caught at the chimney formation and had to use a rope to get back down. I’m too short to span the distance, but I’m not thinking about that tonight. I’ll figure something out before the official timed Gauntlet on Presentation day.”

I’ll have to. They don’t allow cadets to climb back down on the final day.

You either complete the Gauntlet-or you fall to your death.

“All right. Let me know if you need me.” He lets me go.

I nod and make every excuse to get out of the dormitory hallway. The weight of Aurelie’s pack is staggering. She was strong enough to carry so much over the parapet, and yet she fell.

And I’m somehow still standing.

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m carrying her with me as I climb the stairs of the academic tower’s turret, past the Battle Brief room and up to the stone roof, going by a few other cadets on their way down. The burn pit is nothing more than an extra-wide iron barrel, whose only purpose is to incinerate, and the flames burn bright against the night sky as I stumble out onto the roof, my lungs straining for oxygen.

A couple of months ago, I couldn’t have carried a pack this heavy.

There’s no one else up here as I slip the bag from my shoulder.

“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, my fingers digging into the wide strap of the pack as I fling it up and over the metal edge of the bin.

The flames catch and whoosh as it becomes more fuel for the fire, just another tribute to Malek, the god of death.

Instead of walking back down the stairs, I make my way to the edge of the turret. It’s a cloudy night, but I can make out the shadows of three dragons as they approach from the west and even see the ridge where the Gauntlet lays, waiting to claim its next victim.

It won’t be me.

But why? Because I’ll conquer it? Or because I’ll give in to Dain’s request and hide in the Scribe Quadrant? My entire being repels against the second option, which makes me question everything as I stand here, letting minutes tick by before the bells sound for curfew. I climb back down the stairs without a solid answer as to why.

I walk through the courtyard, empty but for a couple who can’t decide if they’d rather kiss or walk near the dais, and I avert my gaze, heading for the alcove where Dain and I first sat after Parapet.

It’s almost been two months, and I’m still here. Still waking every morning to the sunrise. Doesn’t that mean something? Isn’t there a chance, no matter how small, that I might just be enough to make it through Threshing? That I might just belong here?

The door that leads to the tunnel we took to cross the ridgeline to the Gauntlet this morning opens along the courtyard wall, just left of the academic building, and my brow furrows. Who would be returning this late?

Sitting back against the wall, I let the darkness conceal me as Xaden, Garrick, and Bodhi-Xaden’s cousin-pass under a mage light, headed in my direction.

Three dragons. They were out…doing what? There were no training ops that I know of tonight, not that I’m privy to everything third-years do.

“There has to be something more we can do,” Bodhi argues, looking to Xaden, his voice low as they pass by me, their boots crunching on the gravel.

“We’re doing everything we can,” Garrick hisses.

My scalp prickles and Xaden stops mid-step ten feet away, the set of his shoulders rigid.


He knows I’m here.

Instead of the usual fear that spikes in his presence, only anger rises in my chest. If he wants to kill me, then fine. I’m over waiting for it to happen. Over walking through the halls in fear.

“What’s wrong?” Garrick asks, immediately looking over his shoulder in the opposite direction, toward the couple who definitely decided making out is more important than getting into the dorms by curfew.

“Go on. I’ll meet you inside,” Xaden says.

“You sure?” Bodhi’s forehead puckers, and his gaze sweeps over the courtyard.

“Go,” Xaden orders, standing completely still until the other two walk into the barracks, turning left toward the stairwell that will take them to the second- and third-year floors. Only when they’re gone does he turn and face the exact spot where I’m sitting.

“I know you know I’m here.” I force myself to stand and move toward him so he doesn’t think I’m hiding or worse-scared of him. “And please don’t prattle on about commanding the dark. I’m not in the mood tonight.”

“No questions about where I’ve been?” He folds his arms across his chest and studies me in the moonlight. His scar looks even more menacing in this light, but I can’t seem to find the energy to be scared.

“I honestly don’t care.” I shrug, the movement making the throb in my shoulders intensify. Awesome, just in time to practice on the Gauntlet tomorrow.

He cocks his head to the side. “You really don’t, do you?”

“Nope. It’s not like I’m not out after curfew myself.” A heavy sigh blows through my lips.

“What are you doing out after curfew, first-year?”

“Debating running away,” I retort. “How about you? Feel like sharing?” I ask mockingly, knowing he’s not about to answer me. “The same.”

Sarcastic ass.

“Look, are you going to kill me or not? The anticipation is starting to annoy the fuck out of me.” I lift a hand to my shoulder and roll it, pressing in on the sore muscles, but it doesn’t help the ache.

“Haven’t decided yet,” he answers, like I’ve just inquired about his dinner preferences, but his gaze narrows on my cheek.

“Well, could you?” I mutter. “It would definitely help me make my plans for the week.” Markham or Emetterio. Scribe or rider.

“Am I affecting your schedule, Violence?” There’s a definite smirk on those lips.

“I just need to know what my chances are here.” My hands curl into fists.

The ass has the nerve to smile. “That’s the oddest way I’ve ever been hit on-”

“Not my chances with you, you conceited prick!” Fuck this. Fuck all of this. I move past him, but he catches my wrist, his grip light but his hold firm.

His fingertips on my pulse make it skitter.

“Chances at what?” he asks, tugging me just close enough that my shoulder brushes his biceps.

“Nothing.” He wouldn’t understand. He’s a damned wingleader, which means he’s excelled at everything in the quadrant, even somehow managing to get past his own last name.

“Chances at what?” he repeats. “Do not make me ask three times.” His ominous tone is at odds with his gentle grasp, and shit, does he have to smell so good? Like mint and leather and something I can’t quite identify, something that borders between citrus and floral.

“At living through all of this! I can’t make it up the damned Gauntlet.” I half-heartedly tug at my wrist, but he doesn’t let go.

“I see.” He’s so infuriatingly calm, and I can’t even get a grip on one of my emotions.

“No, you don’t. You’re probably celebrating because I’ll fall to my death and you won’t have to go to the trouble of killing me.”

“Killing you wouldn’t be any trouble, Violence. It’s leaving you alive that seems to cause the majority of my trouble.”

My gaze swings up to clash with his, but his face is unreadable, cloaked in shadow, go figure.

“Sorry to be a hassle.” Sarcasm drips from my voice. “You know the problem with this place?” I tug my arm back again, but he holds fast. “Besides you touching things that don’t belong to you?” My eyes narrow on him.

“I’m sure you’re going to tell me.” My stomach flutters as his thumb brushes my pulse and he releases my wrist.

I answer before I can think better of it. “Hope.”

“Hope?” He tips his head closer to mine, as if he wasn’t sure he heard me right.

“Hope.” I nod. “Someone like you would never get it, but I knew coming here was a death sentence. It didn’t matter that I’ve been trained my entire life to enter the Scribe Quadrant; when General Sorrengail gives an order, you can’t exactly ignore it.” Gods, why am I running off at the mouth to this man? What’s the worst he’ll do? Kill you?

“Sure you can.” He shrugs. “You just might not like the consequences.”

I roll my eyes, and to my utter embarrassment, instead of pulling away now that I’m free, I lean in just a little, like I can siphon off some of his strength. He certainly has enough to spare.

“I knew what the odds were, and I came anyway, concentrating on that tiny percentage of a chance that I would live. And then I make it almost two months and I get…” I shake my head, clenching my jaw. “Hopeful.” The word tastes sour.

“Ah. And then you lose a squadmate, and you can’t quite get up the chimney, and you give up. I’m starting to see. It’s not a flattering picture, but if you want to run off to the Scribe Quadrant-”

I gasp, fear punching a hole in my stomach. “How do you know about that?” If he knows…if he tells, Dain is in danger.

A wicked smile curves Xaden’s perfect lips. “I know everything that goes on here.” Darkness swirls around us. “Shadows, remember? They hear everything, see everything, conceal everything.” The rest of the world disappears. He could do anything to me in here and no one would be the wiser.

“My mother would definitely reward you if you told her about Dain’s plan,” I say softly.

“She’d definitely reward you for telling her about my little…what did you call it? Club.”

“I’m not going to tell her.” The words sound defensive.

“I know. It’s why you’re still alive.” He holds my gaze locked with his. “Here’s the thing, Sorrengail. Hope is a fickle, dangerous thing. It steals your focus and aims it toward the possibilities instead of keeping it where it belongs-on the probabilities.”

“So I’m supposed to what? Not hope that I live? Just plan for death?”

“You’re supposed to focus on the things that can kill you so you find ways to not die.” He shakes his head. “I can barely count the number of people in this quadrant who want you dead, either as revenge against your mother or because you’re just really good at pissing people off, but you’re still here, defying the odds.” Shadows wrap around me, and I swear I feel a caress along the side of my wounded cheek. “It’s been rather surprising to watch, actually.”

“Happy to be your entertainment. I’m going to bed.” Spinning on my heel, I head toward the entrance to the barracks, but he’s right behind me, close enough that the door would slam in his face if he wasn’t so unnaturally fast at catching it.

“Maybe if you stopped sulking in your self-pity, you’d see that you have everything you need to scale the Gauntlet,” he calls after me, his voice echoing down the hallway.

“My self-what?” I turn around, my jaw dropping.

“People die,” he says slowly, his jaw ticking before he drags in a deep breath. “It’s going to happen over and over again. It’s the nature of what happens here. What makes you a rider is what you do after people die. You want to know why you’re still alive? Because you’re the scale I currently judge myself against every night. Every day I let you live, I get to convince myself that there’s still a part of me that’s a decent person. So if you want to quit, then please, spare me the temptation and fucking quit. But if you want to do something, then do it.”

“I’m too short to span the distance!” I hiss, uncaring that anyone could hear us.

“The right way isn’t the only way. Figure it out.” Then he turns and walks away.

Fuck. Him.

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