Chapter no 11

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

The next practice sessions of the Gauntlet are no more successful than my first, but at least we don’t lose another squadmate. Tynan has quit running his mouth, since he can’t seem to make it up fully, either.

The buoy balls are his downfall.

The chimney is mine.

By the ninth-and next-to-last-session, I’m ready to set the entire obstacle course on fire. The section of the course that’s my downfall is meant to simulate the strength and agility it takes to mount a dragon, and it’s becoming clear that my size is going to fuck me.

“Maybe you can climb up onto my shoulders and then…” Rhiannon shakes her head as we study the crevice that’s become my nemesis.

“Then I’m still stuck halfway up,” I answer, wiping the sweat from my forehead.

“Doesn’t matter. You can’t touch another cadet on the route.” Sawyer folds his arms beside me, the tip of his nose now bright red from the high sun.

“Are you here to squash hopes and dreams, or do you have a suggestion?” Rhiannon retorts. “Because Presentation is tomorrow, so if you’ve got any bright ideas, now is the time.”

If I’m going to run to the Scribe Quadrant, then tonight is the night. My heart clenches against the thought. It’s the logical choice. The safe choice.

There are only two thoughts stopping me.

One, there’s no guarantee my mother won’t find out. Just because Markham would keep quiet doesn’t mean the instructors there will.

But most importantly, if I go, if I hide…I’ll never know if I’m good enough to make it here. And while I might not survive if I stay, I’m not sure I can live with myself if I leave.

“Doria Merrill,” Captain Fitzgibbons says from the dais. Every one of his features is crystal clear, not only because the sun is behind the shade of the clouds but because I’m closer. Our formation gets tighter with every cadet who falls.

According to Brennan and statistics, today will be one of the deadliest for first-years.

It’s Presentation Day, and in order to get to the flight field, we’ll have to climb the Gauntlet first. Everything about the Riders Quadrant is designed to weed out the weak, and today is no exception.

“Kamryn Dyre.” Captain Fitzgibbons continues to read from the roll.

I flinch. His seat was across from mine in Dragonkind.

“Arvel Pelipa.”

Imogen and Quinn-both second-years-suck in a breath ahead of me. First-years aren’t the only ones at risk; we’re just the most likely to die.

“Michel Iverem.” Captain Fitzgibbons closes the roll. “We commend their souls to Malek.” And with that final word, formation breaks.

“Second- and third-years, unless you’re on Gauntlet duty, head to class. First-years, it’s time to show us what you’ve got.” Dain forces a smile and skips right over me as he looks at our squad.

“Good luck today.” Imogen tucks an errant strand of pink hair behind her ear and aims a sickly-sweet smile right at me. “Hopefully you won’t fall… short.”

“See you later,” I reply, lifting my chin.

She stares at me with complete loathing for a second, then walks off with Quinn and Cianna, our executive officer, her shoulder-length blond curls bouncing.

“Best of luck.” Heaton-the thickest third-year in our squad, with red flames cut and dyed into their hair-taps their heart, right over two of their patches, and offers us all a genuine but flat-lipped smile before heading to class.

As I stare at their retreating back, I wonder what the circular patch on their upper right arm with water and floating spheres means. I know the triangular patch to the left of that one, with the longsword, means they’re not to be messed with on the mat. Since Dain told me about the patch denoting his top secret signet, I’ve been paying close attention to the patches other cadets have sewn into their uniforms. Most wear them like badges of honor, but I recognize them for what they really are-intelligence that I might one day need to defeat them.

“I didn’t realize Heaton actually knew how to speak.” Two lines appear between Ridoc’s brows.

“Maybe they figure they should at least say hi before we’re potentially roasted today,” Rhiannon says.

“Back into formation,” Dain orders.

“Are you going with us?” I ask.

He nods, still not looking at me.

The eight of us fall into two lines of four, the same as the other squads around us.

“Awkward,” Rhiannon whispers from my side. “He seems kind of pissed at you.”

I glance up over Trina’s slim shoulders as the breeze whips at the braid I’ve woven like a crown. It’s working a few of Trina’s ringlet curls loose,

too. “He wants something I can’t give him.” Her eyebrows rise.

I roll my eyes. “Not like…that.”

“I wouldn’t care if it was like that,” she replies under her breath. “He’s hot. He has that whole boy-next-door-who-can-still-kick-your-ass vibe going for him.”

I fight a smile because she’s right. He so does.

“We’re the biggest squad,” Ridoc notes behind us as the squads farthest left-from First Wing-file out through the western gate in the courtyard.

“What are we down to?” Tynan asks. “Hundred and eighty?”

“Hundred and seventy-one,” Dain answers. Squads from Second Wing begin to move, led by their wingleader, which means Xaden is somewhere ahead of us.

My nerves are reserved for the obstacle course, but I can’t help but wonder which way his scales will tip today.

“For a hundred dragons? But what will we…” Trina asks, nerves cutting off her words.

“Stop letting fear leach into your voice,” Luca snaps from behind Rhiannon. “If the dragons think you’re a coward, you’ll be nothing but a name tomorrow.”

“She says,” Ridoc narrates, “inducing more fear.”

“Shut up,” Luca fires back. “You know it’s true.”

“Just portray confidence, and I’m sure you’ll be fine.” I lean forward so our squadmates behind us can’t hear me as Third Wing begins to march for the gate.

“Thanks,” Trina whispers in reply.

Dain’s narrowed gaze finally locks on mine, but at least he doesn’t call me a liar. There’s enough accusation in his eyes that I might as well be tried and convicted of it, though.

“Nervous, Rhi?” I ask, knowing we’re about to be called next.

“For you?” she asks. “Not at all. We’ve got this.”

“Oh, I meant about the history test tomorrow,” I tease. “There’s nothing going on today to panic about.”

“Now that you mention it, the whole Treaty of Arif might just be the death of me.” She grins.

“Ahh, the agreement between Navarre and Krovla for mutually shared airspace for both dragons and gryphons over a narrow strip of the Esben Mountains, between Sumerton and Draithus,” I recall, nodding.

“Your memory is terrifying.” She shoots me a smile.

But my memory isn’t going to get me up the Gauntlet.

“Fourth Wing!” Xaden calls out from somewhere in the distance. I don’t even need to see to know that it’s him who gave the order and not his executive officer. “Move out!”

We file off, Flame Section, then Claw, and finally Tail.

There’s a bit of a bottleneck at the gate, but then we’re through, walking into the mage-lit dimness of the tunnel that we take every morning to reach the Gauntlet. Shadows blanket the edges of the rocky floor along our path.

What are the limits of Xaden’s power anyway? Could he use shadows to choke out every squad in here? Would he need to rest or recharge after?

Does such a vast power come with any sort of checks or balances?

Dain falls back so he walks between Rhiannon and me. “Change your mind.” It’s barely a whisper.

“No.” I sound way more confident than I feel.

“Change. Your. Mind.” His hand finds mine, concealed by our tight formation as we descend through the passage. “Please.”

“I can’t.” I shake my head. “Any more than you would leave Cath and run to the scribes yourself.”

“That’s different.” His hand squeezes mine, and I can feel the tension in his fingers, his arm. “I’m a rider.”

“Well, maybe I am, too,” I whisper as light appears ahead. I didn’t believe it before, not when I couldn’t leave because my mother wouldn’t let me, but now I have a choice. And I choose to stay.

“Don’t be-” He cuts himself off and drops my hand. “I don’t want to bury you, Vi.”

“It’s inevitable that one of us will have to bury the other.” It’s not macabre, just fact.

“You know what I mean.”

The light grows into an archway that’s ten feet high, leading us to the base of the Gauntlet.

“Please don’t do this,” Dain begs, not bothering to lower his voice this time as we emerge into the mottled sunlight.

The view is spectacular as always. We’re still high on the mountain, thousands of feet above the valley, and the greenery seems to stretch endlessly to the south, with random clusters of squat trees among colorful slopes of wildflowers. My gaze turns to the Gauntlet carved into the face of the cliff, and I can’t help but follow each obstacle higher and higher until I’m staring at the top of the ridgeline that the maps I’ve studied show leads into a box canyon-the flight field. I bite my lip as I stare at the break in the tree line.

Normally, only riders are allowed on the flight field-except for Presentation.

“I don’t know if I can watch,” Dain says, drawing my attention back to his strong face. His perfectly trimmed beard brackets full lips drawn tight into a frown.

“Then close your eyes.” I have a plan-a shitty one, but it’s worth a try.

“What changed between Parapet and now?” Dain asks again, a wealth of emotions in his eyes that I can’t begin to interpret. Well, except the fear.

That doesn’t need any interpretation.


An hour later, my feet fly over the spinning posts of the staircase, and I jump to the safety of the gravel path. Third ascent complete. Two more to go. And I haven’t touched a single rope.

I swear I can feel Dain staring from the bottom of the course, where Tynan and Luca have yet to start their climb, but I don’t look down. There’s no time for what he thinks will be one last look, and I can’t afford the delay of comforting him when there are still two obstacles ahead of me.

Which means there’s one I haven’t even had the chance to practice-the nearly vertical ramp at the end.

“You can do it!” Rhiannon yells from the top as I reach the chimney structure.

“Or you can do us all a favor and fall!” another voice yells. Jack, no doubt. At least it’s only been our squad at practice sessions, but every firstyear can watch now, either from the base of the course or the edges of the cliff above.

I look up at the hollow column I’m supposed to climb, then dart back a few feet along the path.

“What are you doing?” Rhiannon shouts as I grab one of the ropes and drag it horizontally across the surface of the cliff, sending pebbles into free fall.

It’s heavy as hell and protests the stretch, but I manage to get the bottom portion onto the chimney structure. Pulling the rope as tight as it can go, I plant one foot on the side of the shaft and give the rope a tug, then send up a prayer to Zihnal that this is going to work.

“Can she do that?” someone snaps.

I’m doing it now.

Then I lift my other foot and begin to climb up the chimney, using only the right side, walking up stone and leveraging my weight with the rope, hand over hand. The line slips about halfway up as the rope scrapes over a large boulder, but I quickly take up the slack and keep climbing. My heart thunders in my ears, but it’s my hands that are killing me. It feels like flames are eating my palms, and I grit my teeth so I don’t cry out.

There it is. The top.

The rope barely cuts the corner of the structure now, and I use what’s left of my upper-body strength to pull myself up, scrambling to my hands and knees on the path.

“Hell yes!” Ridoc yells, hooting from the top. “That’s our girl!”

“Get up!” Rhiannon shouts. “One more!”

My chest heaves and my lungs ache, but I make it to my feet. I’m on the last ascent, the final path to the flight field, and standing in front of me is a ramp made of wood that juts out ten feet from the cliff wall, then curves upward like the inside of a bowl, the highest point level with the cliff top ten feet above.

The obstacle is meant to test a cadet’s ability to scale a dragon’s foreleg and reach its saddle. And I’m too short.

But Xaden’s words that the right way wasn’t the only way have played over and over in my head all night long. By the time the sun rose and chased away the darkness, I had a plan.

I only hope I can actually pull it off.

I unsheathe my largest dagger from home and wipe away the sweat on my forehead with the back of my dirty palm. Then I forget the agony in my hands, the throbbing of my shoulders, and the twinge in my knee from landing wrong after the pillars. I block out all the pain, lock it behind a wall like I’ve done my entire life, and focus on the ramp as though my life depends on making it.

There’s no rope here. There’s only one way I’m getting over this.

Sheer fucking will.

And so I charge, using my speed to my advantage.

There’s a drumlike sound as my feet beat against the ramp and the incline sharpens. Just because I haven’t personally conquered this obstacle doesn’t mean I haven’t watched my squadmates take it over and over again. I throw my body forward and momentum carries me upward, running up the side of the ramp.

I wait until I feel the precious shift, the moment gravity reclaims my body almost two feet from the top, and I swing my arm up and slam my dagger into the slick, soft wood of the ramp-and use it to fling myself the last foot upward.

A primal scream rips from my throat as my shoulder cries in protest just as my fingers graze the lip of the edge. I throw my elbow over the top to gain more leverage and pull myself up and over, using the handle of my dagger as a final step before lurching onto the top of the cliff.

Not done yet.

On my stomach, I turn to face the ramp, then reach over the side and yank my dagger free, sheathing it at my ribs before I stagger to my feet. I made it. Relief sucks the adrenaline straight out of my body.

Rhiannon’s arms sweep around me, taking my weight as I gasp for air. Ridoc hugs my back, squeezing me like I’m the filling of a sandwich as he hollers in happiness. I’d protest, but right now they’re all that’s keeping me upright.

“She can’t do that!” someone shouts.

“Yeah, well, she just did!” Ridoc tosses over his shoulder, loosening his grip on me.

My knees shake, but they hold as I suck in breath after breath.

“You made it!” Rhiannon takes my face in her hands, tears filling her brown eyes. “You made it!”

“Luck.” I draw in another breath and beg my galloping heart to slow.

“And. Adrenaline.”


I turn toward the voice. It’s Amber Mavis, the strawberry-blond wingleader from Third Wing who was Dain’s close friend last year, and there’s nothing but fury on her face as she charges toward Xaden, who’s only a couple of feet away with the roll, recording times with a stopwatch and looking rather bored with it all.

“Back the hell up, Mavis,” Garrick threatens, the sun flashing off the two swords the curly-haired section leader keeps strapped to his back as he puts his body between Amber and Xaden.

“The cheater clearly used foreign materials not once but twice,” Amber yells. “It’s not to be tolerated! We live by the rules or we die by them!”

No wonder she and Dain are so close-they’re both in love with the Codex.

“I don’t take kindly to calling anyone in my section a cheater,” Garrick warns, his massive shoulders blocking her from view as he turns. “And my wingleader will handle any rule-breaking in his own wing.” He moves to the side, and I’m met with Amber’s glaring blue eyes.

“Sorrengail?” Xaden asks, arching an eyebrow in obvious challenge, a pen poised over the book. I notice not for the first time that other than his Fourth Wing and wingleader emblems, he doesn’t wear the patches others are so fond of displaying.

“I expect the thirty-second penalty for using the rope,” I answer, my breaths steadying.

“And the knife?” Amber’s gaze narrows. “She’s disqualified.” When Xaden doesn’t answer, she turns that glare on him. “Surely she’s out! You can’t tolerate lawlessness within your own wing, Riorson!”

But Xaden’s gaze never leaves mine as he silently waits for me to respond.

“A rider may only bring to the quadrant the items they can carry-” I start.

“Are you quoting the Codex to me?” Amber shouts.

“-and they shall not be separated from those items no matter what they may be,” I continue. “For once carried across the parapet, they are considered part of their person. Article Three, Section Six, Addendum B.”

Her blue eyes flare wide as I glance at her. “That addendum was written to make thievery an executional offense.”

“Correct.” I nod, looking between her and the onyx eyes that see straight through me. “But in doing so, it gave any item carried across the parapet the status of being a part of the rider.” I unsheathe the chipped and battered blade with a sharp bite of pain in my palms. “This isn’t a challenge blade. It’s one I carried across and therefore considered part of myself.”

His eyes flare, and I don’t miss the hint of a smirk on that infuriatingly decadent mouth of his. It should be against the Codex to look that good and be so ruthless.

“The right way isn’t the only way.” I use his own words against him.

Xaden holds my gaze. “She has you, Amber.”

“On a technicality!”

“She still has you.” He turns slightly and delivers a look that I never want directed at me.

“You think like a scribe,” she barks at me.

It’s intended as an insult, but I just nod. “I know.”

She marches off, and I sheathe the dagger again, letting my hands fall to my sides and closing my eyes as relief shucks the weight from my shoulders. I did it. I passed another test.

“Sorrengail,” Xaden says, and my eyes fly open. “You’re leaking.” His gaze drops pointedly to my hands.

Where blood is dripping from my fingertips.

Pain erupts, pushing past my mental dam like a raging river at the sight of the mess I’ve made of my palms. I’ve shredded them.

“Do something about it,” he orders.

I nod and back away, joining my squad. Rhiannon helps me cut off the sleeves of my shirt to bandage my hands, and I cheer our last two squadmates up the cliff. We all make it.

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