Chapter no 12

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

There are 169 of us by the time the morning is done and, even with my penalty for the rope, we’ve placed eleventh out of the thirty-six squads for Presentation-the piss-inducing parade of cadets before this year’s dragons willing to bond.

Anxiety seizes my legs at the thought of walking so close to dragons determined to weed out the weak before Threshing, and I suddenly wish we’d placed last.

The fastest up the Gauntlet was Liam Mairi, of course, earning him the Gauntlet patch. Pretty sure that guy doesn’t know how to take second place, but I wasn’t the slowest, and that’s good enough for me.

The box canyon that makes up the training field is spectacular in the afternoon sun, with miles of autumn-colored meadows and peaks rising on three sides of us as we wait at the narrowest part, the entrance to the valley. At the end, I can make out the line of the waterfall that might be just a trickle of a creek now but will rush at runoff season.

The leaves of the trees are all turning gold, as though someone has brought in a paintbrush with only one color and streaked it across the landscape.

And then there are the dragons.

Averaging twenty-five feet tall, they’re in a formation of their own, lined up several feet back from the path-close enough to pass judgment on us as we walk by.

“Let’s go, Second Squad, you’re up next,” Garrick says, beckoning us with a wave that makes the rebellion relic on his bared forearm gleam.

Dain and the other squad leaders stayed behind. I’m not sure if he’ll be thrilled I made it up the Gauntlet or disappointed that I bent the rules. But I’ve never felt more thrilled.

“Into formation,” Garrick orders, his tone all business, which doesn’t surprise me given that his leadership style is more mission first, niceties last. Go figure he seems to be so close to Xaden. Unlike Xaden, though, the right side of his uniform has a neat line of patches proclaiming him Flame’s section leader as well as more than five patches advertising his skill with a multitude of weapons.

We comply, and Rhiannon and I end up near the back this time.

There’s a sound like rushing wind in the distance that stops as quickly as it starts, and I know someone else has been found lacking.

Garrick’s hazel eyes skim over us. “Hopefully Aetos has done his job, so you know that it’s a straight walk down the meadow. I’d recommend staying at least seven feet apart-”

“In case one of us gets torched,” Ridoc mutters from ahead.

“Correct, Ridoc. Cluster if you want, just know if a dragon finds disfavor with one of you, it’s likely to burn the whole lot to weed one out,” Garrick warns, holding our gazes for a beat. “Also, remember you’re not here to approach them, and if you do, you won’t be making it back to the dormitory tonight.”

“Can I ask a question?” Luca says from the front row.

Garrick nods, but the ticking of his jaw says he’s annoyed. I can’t blame him. Luca annoys the shit out of me, too. It’s her constant need to tear everyone down that makes most of us keep our distance.

“Third Squad, Tail Section of Fourth Wing already went through, and I talked to some of the cadets…”

“That’s not a question.” He lifts his brows.

Yep, he’s annoyed.

“Right. It’s just that they said there’s a feathertail?” Her voice pitches upward.

“A f-feathertail?” Tynan sputters from directly in front of me. “Who the hell would ever want to bond a feathertail?”

I roll my eyes, and Rhiannon shakes her head.

“Professor Kaori never told us there would be a feathertail,” Sawyer says. “I know because I memorized every single dragon he showed us. All hundred of them.”

“Well, guess there’s a hundred and one now,” Garrick replies, looking at us as if we’re children he’d like to be rid of before glancing back over his shoulder at the entrance to the valley. “Relax. Feathertails don’t bond. I can’t even remember the last time one has been seen outside the Vale. It’s probably just curious. You’re up. Stay on the path. You walk up, you wait for the entire squad, you walk back down. It really doesn’t get any easier than this from here on out, kids, so if you can’t follow those simple instructions, then you deserve whatever happens in there.” He turns and heads over to a path before the canyon wall where the dragons are perched.

We follow, breaking away from the crowd of first-years. The breeze bites at my bare shoulders from where we ripped my sleeves for bandages, but we got the blood flow stopped at my hands.

“They’re all yours,” Garrick says to the quadrant’s senior wingleader, a woman I’ve seen a few times in Battle Brief murmuring to Xaden. Her uniform still has her signature spikes on the shoulders, but this time they’re gold and look sharp as hell-like she wanted to throw in a little extra badass today.

She nods and dismisses him. “Single file.”

We all shuffle into a line. Rhiannon is at my back and Tynan just ahead of me, which means I’ll be treated to his commentary the whole time, no doubt. Awesome.

“Talk,” the senior wingleader says, folding her arms across her chest.

“Nice day for a Presentation,” Ridoc jokes.

“Not to me.” The senior wingleader narrows her gaze on Ridoc, then motions to the line of cadets before her. “Talk to your nearby squadmates while you’re on the path, as it will help the dragons get a sense of who you are and how well you play with others. There’s a correlation between bonded cadets and level of chatter.”

And now I want to switch places.

“Feel free to look at the dragons, especially if they’re showing off their tails, but I would abstain from eye contact if you value your life. If you come across a scorch mark, just make sure nothing’s currently on fire before continuing along.” She pauses long enough for that bit of advice to sink in, then adds, “See you after your stroll.”

With a sweep of her hand, the senior wingleader steps to the side, revealing the dirt path that leads through the center of the valley, and up ahead, sitting so perfectly still that they might be gargoyles, are the hundred and one dragons who have decided to bond this year.

The line starts, and we give one another the suggested seven feet before following.

I’m hyperaware of every step as I walk down the path. The trail is hard beneath my boots, and there’s a definite lingering odor of sulfur.

We pass a trio of red dragons first. Their talons are almost half my size.

“I can’t even see their tails!” Tynan shouts from in front of me. “How are we supposed to know what breed they are?”

I keep my eyes locked at the level of their massive, muscled shoulders as we walk by. “We’re not supposed to know what breed they are,” I respond.

“Fuck that,” he says over his shoulder. “I need to figure out which one

I’m going to approach during Threshing.”

“Pretty sure this little walk is so they can decide,” I retort.

“Hopefully one of them will decide you don’t get to make it to Threshing,” Rhiannon says, her voice quiet so it barely reaches me.

I laugh as we approach a set of browns, both slightly smaller than my mother’s Aimsir, but not by much.

“They’re a little bigger than I thought they would be,” Rhiannon says, her voice rising. “Not that I didn’t see the ones at Parapet, but…”

I look over my shoulder to see her wide gaze flickering between the path and the dragons. She’s nervous.

“So do you know if you’re having a niece or nephew?” I ask, continuing to walk forward past a handful of oranges.

“What?” she answers.

“I’ve heard some of the healers can make pretty good guesses once a woman is further along in her pregnancy.”

“Oh. No,” she says. “No clue. Though I’m kind of hoping she’ll have a girl. I guess I’ll find out once we finish the year and can write our families.”

“That’s a bullshit rule,” I say over my shoulder, lowering my gaze immediately when I accidentally make eye contact with one of the oranges. Breathe normally. Swallow the fear. Fear and weakness will get me killed, and since I’m already bleeding, the odds aren’t exactly in my favor here.

“You don’t think it encourages loyalty to the wing?” Rhiannon asks.

“I think I’m just as loyal to my sister whether I’ve had a letter from her or not,” I counter. “There are bonds that can’t be broken.”

“I’d be loyal to your sister, too,” Tynan says, turning around and grinning as he walks backward. “She’s one hell of a rider, and that ass. I saw her right before Parapet and damn, Violet. She’s hot.”

We pass by another set of reds, then a single brown and a pair of greens.

“Turn around.” I make the spinning motion with my finger. “Mira would eat you for breakfast, Tynan.”

“I’m just wondering how one of you got all the good traits and the other looks like she got the leftovers.” His gaze skims down my body.

Full-body-shudder gross.

“You’re an asshole.” I flip him the middle finger.

“Just saying, maybe I’ll write a letter of my own once we get privileges.” He turns and continues walking.

“A nephew would be good,” Rhiannon says, like the conversation was never interrupted. “Boys aren’t too bad.”

“My brother was awesome, but he and Dain are my only experience with growing up around little boys.” We pass more dragons, and my breathing starts to settle. The smell of sulfur disappears, or maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to it. They’re close enough to torch us, the half dozen singe marks testify to that, but I can’t hear them breathing or feel it, either. “Though I think Dain was probably a little more rule-abiding than most kids. He likes order and pretty much detests anything that doesn’t fit neatly into his plan. He’s probably going to give me shit about how I got up the

Gauntlet, just like Amber Mavis did.” We pass the halfway mark and continue.

Is the way the dragons stare at us scary as hell? Absolutely, but they want to be here the same as we do, so at least I hope they’ll be judicious with their firepower.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the rope plan? Or the dagger?” Rhiannon asks, hurt pitching her tone. “You can trust me, you know.”

“I didn’t think of it until yesterday,” I answer, taking the time to look over my shoulder so I can see her. “And if it didn’t work, I didn’t want you to be an accomplice. You have a real future here, and I refuse to bring you down with me if I didn’t make it.”

“I don’t need you to protect me.”

“I know. But it’s just what friends do, Rhi.” I shrug as we walk by a trio of browns, the soft crunch of our boots on the dark gravel path the only sound for a few minutes.

“You keeping any other secrets up there?” Rhiannon eventually asks.

Guilt settles in my stomach when I think of Xaden and his meeting with the other marked ones. “I think it’s impossible to know everything there is to know about someone.” I feel like shit but keep from lying, at least.

She snorts a laugh. “If that wasn’t skirting the question. How about this?

Promise me that if you need help, you’ll let me give it to you.”

A smile spreads across my face despite the terrifying greens we’re walking by. “How about this,” I toss over my shoulder. “I promise that if I need help you’re capable of giving, I’ll ask, but only”-I hold up my forefinger-“if you promise the same.” “Deal.” She smiles wide.

“You guys done bonding back there?” Tynan sneers. “Because we’re almost to the end of the line, if you haven’t noticed.” He pauses in the middle of the path, his gaze swinging right. “And I still can’t figure out which one I’m going to choose.”

“With arrogance like that, I’m sure any dragon would feel lucky to share your mind for the rest of your life.” I pity whatever dragon-if any- chooses him.

The rest of the squad is gathered ahead of us, facing our direction at the end of the path, but all their attention is focused to the right.

We pass the last brown dragon, and I inhale sharply.

“What the hell?” Tynan stares.

“Keep walking,” I order, but my gaze is transfixed.

Standing at the end of the line is a small golden dragon. Sunlight reflects off its scales and horns as it stands to its full height, flicking a feathered tail around the side of its body. The feathertail.

My jaw drops as I take in the sharp teeth and quick, darting movements of its head as it studies us. At its full height, it’s probably only a few feet taller than I am, like a perfect miniature of the brown next to it.

I walk straight into Tynan’s back and startle. We’ve reached the end of the path, where the rest of the squad has been waiting.

“Get off me, Sorrengail,” Tynan hisses and shoves me back. “Who the hell would bond that thing?”

My chest tightens. “They can hear you,” I remind him.

“It’s fucking yellow.” Luca points right at the dragon, disgust curling her lip. “So not only is it obviously too small to carry a rider in battle, but it’s not even powerful enough to be a real color.”

“Maybe it’s a mistake,” Sawyer says quietly. “Maybe it’s a baby orange.”

“It’s full grown,” Rhiannon argues. “There’s no way the other dragons allow a baby to bond. No human alive has ever seen a baby.”

“It’s a mistake all right.” Tynan looks at the golden one and scoffs. “You should totally bond it, Sorrengail. You’re both freakishly weak. It’s a match made in heaven.”

“It looks powerful enough to burn you to death,” I counter, heat flushing my cheeks. He called me weak, and not just in front of our squad but in front of them.

Sawyer lunges between us, grabbing Tynan’s collar. “Don’t ever say that about a squadmate, especially not in front of unbonded dragons.”

“Let him go-he’s just saying what we’re all thinking,” Luca mutters.

I turn slowly to stare at her, my mouth slightly agape. Is this what happens to us the second we’re out of hearing range of any superior cadet? We turn on one another.

“What?” She gestures to my hair. “Half your hair is silver and you’re… petite,” she finishes with a fake smile. “Golden and…small. You match.”

Trina puts her hand on Sawyer’s arm. “Don’t make a mistake in front of them. We don’t know what they’ll do,” she whispers. And now we’re grouped up.

I shuffle backward a little as Sawyer drops Tynan’s collar.

“Someone should kill it before it bonds,” Tynan sputters, and for the first time in my life, I actually want to kick someone while they’re down…and keep kicking until they stay down. “It’s just going to get its rider killed, and it’s not like we get a choice if it wants to bond us.”

“You’re just picking up on that now, are you?” Ridoc shakes his head.

“We should go back,” Pryor says, his gaze darting around the group. “I mean…if you think we should. We don’t have to, of course.”

“For once in your life,” Tynan says, pushing past Pryor to start down the path, “make a damn decision, Pryor.”

We take off one by one, leaving the suggested space between us. Rhiannon goes before me this time and Ridoc follows behind, with Luca bringing up the rear.

“They’re pretty incredible, aren’t they?” Ridoc says, and the wonder in his voice makes me smile.

“They are,” I agree.

“They’re honestly a little underwhelming after seeing that blue at Parapet.” Luca’s voice carries all the way to Rhiannon, who turns around with an incredulous look.

“Like this isn’t stressful enough without you insulting them?” Rhi asks.

I need to defuse this quickly. “I mean, it could be worse. We could be walking past a line of wyvern, right?”

“Oh please, Violet, do give us one of your nervous-babble story times,” Luca says sarcastically. “Let me guess. Wyvern are some elite squad of gryphon riders created because of something we did at a battle only you can manage to remember with your scribe brain.”

“You don’t know what a wyvern is?” Rhi asks, then begins walking again. “Didn’t your parents tell you bedtime stories, Luca?” “Do enlighten me,” Luca drawls.

I roll my eyes, continuing along the path. “They’re folklore,” I say over my shoulder. “Kind of like dragons but bigger, with two feet instead of four, a mane of razor-sharp feathers streaking down their necks, and a taste for humans. Unlike dragons, who think we’re a little gamey.”

“My mom used to love telling my sister Raegan and me that we’d be plucked right off the front porch by one if we talked back, and their eerieeyed venin riders would take us prisoner if we took treats we weren’t allowed to have,” Rhi says, flashing a grin at me, and I can’t help but notice that her step is lighter.

Mine is, too. I notice each dragon as we pass, but my heartbeat steadies. “My dad used to read to me those fables every night,” I tell her. “And I seriously asked him one time if Mom was going to turn into a venin because she could channel.”

Rhiannon chuckles as we walk by a set of glaring reds. “Did he tell you people supposedly only turn into venin if they channel directly from the source?”

“He did, but it was after my mom had a really long night while we were stationed near the eastern border, and her eyes were bloodshot red, so I freaked out and started shrieking.” I can’t help but smile at the memory. “She took my book of fables away for a month because the outpost guards all came running, and I was hiding behind my brother, who couldn’t stop laughing, and, well…it was a mess.” I keep my eyes front and center as a large orange sniffs the air when I pass.

Rhiannon’s shoulders shake with laughter. “I wish we’d had a book like that. I seriously think Mom just altered the stories to scare us whenever we stepped out of line.”

“That sounds like some border-village nonsense.” Luca scoffs. “Venin? Wyvern? Anyone with a modicum of education knows that our wards stop all magic that isn’t channeled directly from dragons.”

“They’re stories, Luca,” Rhi says over her shoulder, and I can’t help but notice how much ground we’ve covered. “Pryor, you can walk a little faster if you want up there.”

“Maybe we should slow down and take our time?” Pryor suggests from ahead of Rhiannon, rubbing his palms along the sides of his uniform. “Or I guess we can go faster if we want to get out of here.”

A red steps out of line, putting one claw forward toward us, and my stomach drops to the ground from the weight of the dread filling my entire body. “No, no, no,” I whisper, freezing in place, but it’s too late.

The red opens its mouth, exposing sharp, glistening fangs, and fire erupts along the sides of its tongue, streaming through the air and into the path ahead of Rhiannon.

She yells in shock.

Heat blasts the front of my face.

Then it’s over.

The scent of sulfur and burned grass…burned…something fills my lungs, and I see a charred patch of ground in front of Rhiannon that hadn’t been there before.

“Are you all right, Rhi?” I call forward.

She nods, but the movement is hurried and jerky. “Pryor is… He’s…”

Pryor’s dead. My mouth waters like I’m going to vomit, but I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth until the feeling passes.

“Keep walking!” Sawyer shouts from farther down the path.

“It’s all right, Rhi. You just have to…” She just has to what? Walk over his corpse? Is there a corpse?

“Fire’s out,” Rhiannon says over her shoulder.

I nod, because there’s nothing I can say to reassure her.

Holy shit are we insignificant.

She walks forward and I follow, maneuvering around the pile of ash that used to be Pryor.

“Oh my gods, the smell,” Luca complains.

“Could you please have some level of decency?” I snap, turning around to level a glare at her, but Ridoc’s face makes me pause.

His eyes are as wide as saucers, and his mouth hangs open. “Violet.”

It’s a whisper, and I wonder briefly if I heard him as much as I saw the word forming on his lips.


A warm huff of steam blows against the back of my neck. My heart thunders, the beat increasing erratically as I take what might be my last breath and turn toward the line of dragons.

The golden eyes of not one but two greens meet mine, consuming my field of vision.

Oh. Fuck.

To approach a green dragon, lower your eyes in supplication and wait for their approval. That’s what I read, right?

I drop my gaze as one chuffs another breath at me. It’s hot and appallingly wet, but I’m not dead yet, so that’s a plus.

The one on the right chortles deep in its throat. Wait, is that the sound of approval I’m looking for? Shit, I wish I’d asked Mira.

Mira. She’s going to be devastated when she reads the rolls.

I lift my head and suck in a sharp breath. They’re even closer. The one on the left nudges my hands with its giant nose, but I somehow stand my ground, rocking back on my heels to keep from falling over.

Greens are the most reasonable.

“I cut my hands climbing the obstacle course.” I lift my palms, like they can see through the black fabric binding my wounds.

The one on the right sets its nose right at my breasts and chuffs again.

What. The. Hell.

It inhales, making that noise in its throat, and the other shoves its nose into my ribs, making me raise my arms just in case they feel like taking a little nibble.

“Violet!” Rhiannon whisper-shouts.

“I’m all right!” I call back, then wince, hoping I didn’t just seal my fate by screaming in their ears.

Another chuff. Another chortle, like they’re talking to each other as they sniff me.

The one under my arm moves its nostrils to my back and sniffs again.

Realization hits and I choke out a tight, surreal laugh. “You smell Teine, don’t you?” I ask quietly.

They both draw back, just far enough for me to look them in their golden eyes, but they keep their jaws shut, giving me the courage to keep talking.

“I’m Mira’s sister, Violet.” Slowly lowering my arms, I run my hands over my snot-covered vest and the armor carefully sewn into it. “She collected Teine’s scales after he shed them last year and had them shrunk

down so she could sew them into the vest to help keep me safe.” The one on the right blinks.

The one on the left sticks its nose in again, sniffing loudly.

“The scales have saved me a few times,” I whisper. “But no one else knows they’re in there. Just Mira and Teine.”

They both blink at me, and I lower my gaze, bowing my head because it feels like the thing to do. Professor Kaori taught us every way to approach a dragon and exactly zero ways to disengage one.

Step by step, they retreat until I see them take up their places in line in my peripherals, and I finally raise my head.

Taking several deep breaths, I try to lock my muscles to keep from trembling.

“Violet.” Rhiannon is only a few feet away, a look of terror in her eyes. She must have been right behind their heads.

“I’m fine.” I force a smile and nod. “I have dragon-scale armor under the vest,” I whisper. “They smell my sister’s dragon.” If she wants trust, there it is. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t,” she whispers. “You’re all right?”

“Other than having a few years of my life shaved off.” I laugh. The sound is shaky, bordering on hysteria.

“Let’s get out of here.” She swallows, her gaze darting toward the line of dragons.

“Good idea.”

She turns and walks back to her place, and once there’s fifteen feet between us, I follow.

“I think I just shat myself,” Ridoc says, and my laughter only pitches higher as we move through the field.

“Honestly, I thought they were going to eat you,” Luca remarks.

“Me too,” I admit.

“I wouldn’t have blamed them,” she continues.

“You’re insufferable,” Ridoc calls back.

I focus on the path and keep walking.

“What? She’s obviously our weakest link after Pryor, and I don’t blame them for snuffing him out,” she argues. “He could never make a decision,

and no one wants someone like that as their rider-” A blast of heat singes my back and I halt.

Don’t be Ridoc. Don’t be-

“Guess the dragons think she’s insufferable, too,” Ridoc mutters. Our squad is down to six first-years.

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