Xaden. For the first time, the sight of him fills my chest with hope. He won’t let this happen. He might hate me, but he’s a wingleader. He can’t just watch them kill a dragon.
But I know the rules probably better than anyone else in this quadrant.
He has to. Bile rises in my throat, and I tilt my chin to quell the burning. What Xaden wants, which is always debatable, doesn’t matter here. He can only observe, not interfere.
I’m going to have an audience for my death. Fantastic.
So much for hope.
“And if we don’t want to rethink our actions?” Jack shouts.
Xaden looks toward me, and I swear I can see his jaw clench, even from this far away.
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. Xaden’s words come back to me with alarming clarity, and I rip my gaze from his and concentrate on the three probabilities in front of me.
“There’s nothing you can do, right? Wingleader?” Jack bellows.
Guess he knows the rules, too.
“It’s not me you should worry about today,” Xaden responds and Sgaeyl tilts her head, nothing but menace in her eyes when I glance over.
“You really going to do this?” I ask Tynan. “Attack a squadmate?”
“Squads don’t mean shit today,” he seethes, menace curling his lips into a sinister smile.
“So I guess that’s a no on the flying?” I toss over my shoulder again, and the golden dragon chuffs low in its throat in response. “Great. Well, if you
can back me up with those claws, I’d really appreciate it.” It chuffs twice, and I spare a glance down at its claws.
Or should I say…paws.
“Oh, fucking hell. You don’t have any claws?”
I turn back to the three men just as Jack roars a battle cry and sprints toward me. I don’t hesitate. I whip my blade across the rapidly closing space between us, and the dagger finds its mark in the shoulder of his sword arm. His sword falls as he hits his knees, crying out this time in pain.
But Oren and Tynan have charged at the same time, and they’re almost on me. I fling my second dagger at Tynan and catch him in the thigh, slowing but not stopping him.
Oren swings for my neck and I duck, unsheathing another blade and slicing him along the ribs just like I did during our challenge. My ankle isn’t going to let me kick, or even land a decent punch, so it’s up to my blades.
He recovers quickly and pivots with the sword, catching me at my stomach in a clean slice that would eviscerate me if not for Mira’s armor.
Instead, the blade skims the scales, sliding right off me.
“What the hell?” Oren’s eyes fly wide.
“She’s destroyed my shoulder!” Jack cries, stumbling to his feet and distracting the others. “I can’t move it!” He clutches the joint, and I grin.
“That’s the thing about having weak joints,” I say, palming another blade. “You know exactly where to strike.”
“Kill her!” Jack orders, still clutching his shoulder as he backs away a few steps, then turns and runs in the opposite direction, disappearing into the tree line in no time.
Tynan jabs with his sword and I spin away, white-hot pain stealing my sight for a heartbeat before I swipe backward, plunging my dagger into his side, then pivoting, shoving my elbow up into Oren’s chin as he attacks, rattling his head.
“You fucking bitch!” Tynan screams, pressing his palm against his oozing side.
“Such an original”-I take advantage of Oren’s dazed expression and slice open his hip-“insult!”
The move costs me, and a scream rips from my throat as Tynan’s sword cuts into my upper right arm, along the direction of the bone.
The armor keeps it from penetrating my ribs, but I know I’ll have a hell of a bruise tomorrow as I wrench myself away, blood flowing freely as I peel myself off the sword.
“Behind you!” Xaden shouts.
I pivot to see Oren’s sword held high, ready to separate my head from my shoulders, but the golden dragon snaps its jaw and Oren stumbles to the side with terror-filled eyes, as if he’s just now realized that it has teeth.
I sidestep and knock the handle of my blade against the base of his skull.
He crumples, unconscious, and I don’t wait to see him fall before turning back toward Tynan, who has his bloodied sword ready.
“You can’t interfere!” Tynan shouts at Xaden, but I don’t dare look away from my opponent long enough to see how the wingleader reacts.
“No, but I can narrate,” Xaden retorts.
He’s obviously on my side here, which confuses the hell out of me, since more than anything, I’m certain he wants me dead. But maybe it’s not my life he’s protecting but the golden dragon’s.
I chance a quick glance. Yeah, Sgaeyl looks pissed. Her head undulates in a serpentine motion-a clear sign of agitation-and those narrowed golden eyes of hers are focused on Tynan, who is now trying to circle me like we’re on the mat, but I won’t let him get between me and the little golden dragon.
“Your arm is shot, Sorrengail,” Tynan hisses, his face pale and sweaty.
“I’m used to functioning in pain, asshole. Are you?” I raise the dagger in my right hand just to prove that I can despite the blood that runs down my arm and drips from the tip of my blade, saturating the wrap across my palm. My gaze drops meaningfully to his side. “I know exactly where I sliced into
you. If you don’t get to a healer soon, you’ll bleed out internally.” Rage contorts his features, and he moves to strike.
I try to flick my knife at him, but it slips from my blood-soaked hand and lands with a thud in the grass several feet away.
And I know my bravado won’t be enough to save me now.
My arm is shot. My leg is shot. But at least I made Jack Barlowe run away before I died.
As a last thought, that’s not a bad one.
Just as Tynan reaches up to two-hand his sword, preparing for a killing blow, I catch a glimpse of movement to my right. It’s Xaden. And rules be damned, he steps forward as though he intends to stop Tynan from killing me.
I barely have a moment to register surprise that Xaden would ever save me, for any reason, when a gust of wind slams into my back, and I stumble forward onto my destroyed ankle, flinging my arms out to keep my balance and grimacing at the shooting pain.
Tynan’s mouth hangs open and he staggers backward, his head tilting so far back it’s nearly perpendicular to his torso. Shade envelops us both as he continues to back away.
Chest heaving, my lungs desperate for air, I chance a look over my shoulder to see why Tynan’s retreating.
And my heart lurches into my throat.
Standing with the golden one tucked under an enormous, scarred black wing is the biggest dragon I’ve ever seen in my life-the unbonded black dragon Professor Kaori showed us in class. I don’t even come close to reaching its ankle.
A growl resonates through its chest, vibrating the ground around me as it lowers its gigantic head, baring dripping teeth.
Fear ripples through every cell in my body as its hot breath blows over me.
“Step aside, Silver One,” a deep, gruff, definitely male voice orders.
I blink. Wait. What? Did he just speak to me?
“Yes. You. Move.” There’s zero room for argument in his tone, and I limp to the side, nearly stumbling over Oren’s unconscious body as Tynan breaks into a screaming run, fleeing for the trees.
The black dragon’s eyes narrow to glare at Tynan and he opens his mouth wide a second before fire shoots across the field, blasting heat against the side of my face and incinerating everything in its path…including Tynan.
Flames crackle at the edges of the blackened path, and I turn slowly to face the dragon, wondering if I’m about to be next.
His giant golden eyes study me, but I hold my ground, tilting my chin upward.
“You should end the enemy at your feet.”
My eyebrows jerk upward. His mouth didn’t move. He spoke to me, but…his mouth didn’t move. Oh shit. Because he’s in my head. “I can’t kill an unconscious man.” I shake my head, though whether it’s in protest at his suggestion or a result of my confusion is up for debate.
“He would kill you if given the same chance.”
I glance down at Oren, still unconscious in the grass beside my feet. It’s not like I can argue that astute assessment. “Well, that’s a statement on his character. Not mine.”
The dragon only blinks in response, and I can’t quite tell if that’s a good thing or not.
There’s a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye, then a whoosh of air as Xaden and Sgaeyl take off, leaving me here with the giant black dragon and the little golden one. Guess Xaden’s momentary concern for my life is over.
The dragon’s giant nostrils flare. “You’re bleeding. Stop it.” My arm.
“It’s not that simple when you’ve been run through with a-” I shake my head again. Am I seriously arguing with a dragon? This is so fucking surreal. “You know what? That’s a great idea.” I manage to cut off what remains of my right shirtsleeve and wrap it around the wound, holding one end of the fabric with my teeth as I tie it tight to apply pressure and slow the bleeding. “There. Better?”
“It will do.” He tilts his head at me. “Your hands are bound, too. Do you bleed often?”
“I try not to.”
He scoffs. “Let’s go, Violet Sorrengail.” He lifts his head, and the golden dragon peeks out from under his wing.
“How do you know my name?” I gawk up at him.
“And to think, I’d almost forgotten just how loquacious humans are.” He sighs, the gust of his breath rattling the trees. “Get on my back.” Oh. Shit. He’s choosing…me.
“Get on your back?” I repeat like a fucking parrot. “Have you seen you? Do you have any idea how huge you are?” I’d need a damned ladder to get up there.
The look he gives me can only be described as annoyance. “One does not live a century without being well aware of the space one takes up. Now get on.”
The golden one moves out from under the shelter of the big one’s wing. It’s tiny compared to the monstrosity before me, and apparently completely defenseless with the exception of those teeth, like a playful puppy. “I can’t just leave it,” I say. “What if Oren wakes up or Jack comes back?” The black dragon chuffs.
The golden one bends down, flexing its legs, and then launches into the sky, its golden wings catching the sun as it flies off, skimming the tops of the trees.
So it can fly. That would have been nice to know twenty minutes ago.
“Get. On,” the black dragon growls, shaking the ground and trees at the edge of the field.
“You don’t want me,” I argue. “I’m-” “I’m not going to tell you again.” Point taken.
Fear grasps my throat like a fist, and I hobble over to his leg. This isn’t like climbing a tree. There are no handholds, no easy path, just a series of hard-as-stone scales that don’t exactly give me a foothold. My ankle and arm aren’t doing me any favors, either. How the hell am I going to get up there? I raise my left arm and suck in a breath before placing my hand on his front leg.
The scales are larger and thicker than my hand and surprisingly warm to the touch. They layer into the next above them in an intricate pattern that leaves no space to grab hold.
“You are a rider, are you not?”
“That seems up for debate at the moment.” My heart thunders. Is he going to cook me alive for being too slow?
A low, frustrated grumble sounds in his chest, and then he shocks me to the core as he stretches forward, his front leg becoming a ramp. Dragons never supplicate for anyone, and yet here he is, bowing to make it easier for me to climb on. It’s steep but manageable.
I don’t hesitate, crawling up his front leg on my hands and knees to balance my weight and spare my ankle, but the strain on my arm has me gasping by the time I climb over his shoulder and reach his back, dodging the pointed spikes that ripple down most of his neck like a mane.
Holy shit. I’m on the back of a dragon.
I see the seat-the smooth, scaly divot, just in front of his wings-and sit, bending my knees like Professor Kaori taught us. Then I grab ahold of the thick ridges of scales we call the pommel, where his neck meets his shoulders. Everything about him is bigger than any model we practiced on. My body isn’t built to stay on any dragon, let alone one of his size. There’s no way I’ll be able to stay seated. This is about to be the first and last ride of my life.
“My name is Tairneanach, son of Murtcuideam and Fiaclanfuil, descended from the cunning Dubhmadinn line.” He stands to his full height, bringing me eye level with the canopy of trees around the clearing, and I squeeze a little tighter with my thighs. “But I’m not going to assume that you’ll be able to remember that once we reach the field, so Tairn will do until I inevitably have to remind you.”
I inhale swiftly, but there’s no time to process his name-his history- before he bends slightly and launches us into the sky.
It feels like I imagine a stone does after being flung from a catapult, except it takes every ounce of strength I have to stay on this particular stone.
“Holy shit!” The ground falls away as we soar, Tairn’s enormous wings beating the air into submission and pitching upward.
My body lifts off his back, and I dig in with my hands, trying to keep anchored, but the wind, the angle, it’s all too much, and my grip falters.
My hands slip.
“Fuck!” Scrambling for purchase, my hands rake down Tairn’s back as I skid past his wings, rapidly approaching the sharp scales of his morningstar tail. “No, no, NO!”
He banks left and whatever hope I had of getting a handhold tumbles right off with me.
I’m in free fall.