Chapter no 18

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

The wooden library cart squeaks as I push it over the bridge that connects the Riders Quadrant to the Healer, and then past the clinic doors into the heart of Basgiath.

Mage lights illuminate my way down the tunnels as I take a path so familiar that I could walk it with my eyes shut. The scent of earth and stone fills my lungs the deeper I descend, and the stab of longing that’s hit me nearly every day for the past month since I was assigned to Archives duty isn’t quite as sharp as it was yesterday, and that wasn’t as sharp as the day before.

I nod to the first-year scribe at the entrance to the Archives and he jumps out of his seat, hurrying to open the vault-like door.

“Good morning, Cadet Sorrengail,” he says, holding the entrance open so I can pass. “I missed you yesterday.”

“Good morning, Cadet Pierson.” I offer him a smile as I push the cart through. As quadrant chores go, I’ve scored my favorite. “I wasn’t feeling well.” I’d had dizzy spells all day, no doubt from not drinking enough water, but at least I’d been able to rest.

The Archives smell like parchment, book-binding glue, and ink. They smell like home.

Rows of twenty-foot-high shelves run the length of the cavernous structure, and I soak in the sight as I wait by the table nearest the entrance, the place where I spent the majority of my hours these past five years. Only scribes may pass any farther, and I am a rider.

The thought brings a smile to my lips as a woman approaches in a cream tunic and hood, a single rectangle of gold woven onto her shoulder. A firstyear. When she pulls the fabric from her head, baring long brown hair, and brings her gaze to meet mine, I full-on grin. I sign, “Jesinia!”

“Cadet Sorrengail,” she signs back. Her bright eyes sparkle, but she smothers her smile.

For just this second, I abhor the rituals and customs of the scribes. There would be nothing wrong with pulling my friend into a hug, but she’d be chastised for a loss of composure. After all, how could we know how earnest the scribes are about their work, how dedicated they remain, if they were to crack a smile?

“It’s really good to see you,” I sign and can’t quit grinning. “I knew you’d pass the test.”

“Only because I studied with you for the past year,” she signs back, pressing her lips together so they don’t curve upward. Then her face falls. “I was horrified to hear about you being forced into the Riders Quadrant. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I assure her, then pause to search my memory for the correct sign for a dragon bond. “I’m bonded and…” My feelings are complicated, but I think about the way it felt to soar on Tairn’s back, the gentle nudges from Andarna to keep going when I thought my muscles might give out during Imogen’s training sessions, and my relationships with my friends, and I can’t deny the truth. “I’m happy.”

Her eyes widen. “Aren’t you constantly worried you’re going to-” She glances left and right, but there’s no one near enough to see us. “You know…die?”

“Sure.” I nod. “But oddly enough, you kind of get used to that.”

“If you say so.” She looks skeptical. “Let’s get you taken care of. Are these all returns?”

I nod and reach into the pocket of my pants for a small scroll of parchment and hand it to her before signing, “And a few requests from Professor Devera.” The rider in charge of our small library sends a list of requests and the returns every night, and I fetch them before breakfast, which is probably why my stomach is growling.

Burning all the extra calories from a combination of flight, Rhiannon’s sparring lessons, and Imogen’s torture sessions means I have an all-new capacity for food.

“Anything else?” she asks after putting the scroll in a hidden pocket in her robes.

Maybe it’s being in the Archives, but a stab of homesickness nearly bowls me over. “Any chance you guys have a copy of The Fables of the Barren?” Mira was right, I had no business bringing the book of fables with me, but it would be nice to spend an evening curled up with a familiar story.

Jesinia’s brow furrows. “I’m not familiar with that text.”

I blink. “It’s not for academics or anything, just a collection of folklore my dad shared with me. A little on the dark side, honestly, but I love it.” I think for a moment. There’s no sign for wyvern or venin, so I spell them out. “Wyvern, venin, magic, the battles of good and evil-you know, the good stuff.” I grin. If anyone understands my love of books, it’s Jesinia.

“I’ve never heard of that one, but I’ll look for it while I pull these.”

“Thank you. I’d really appreciate it.” Now that I’m going to be the one wielding magic, I could use a few good folktales of what happens when humans defile the power channeled to them. No doubt they were written as a parable to warn us of the dangers of bonding dragons, but in Navarre’s six-hundred-year history of unification, I’ve never read of a single rider losing their soul to their powers. The dragons keep us from that.

Jesinia nods and pushes the cart, disappearing into the shelves.

It usually takes about fifteen minutes to gather the requests that come in from both professors and cadets in my quadrant, but I’m more than content to wait. Scribes come and go, some in groups as they train to become our kingdom’s historians, and I find myself staring at every hooded figure, searching for a face I know I can’t find-searching for my father.


I turn to the left and see Professor Markham leading a squad of first-year scribes. “Hello, Professor.” Keeping my face emotionless around him is easier because I know he’ll expect it.

“I didn’t realize you had library chore duty.” He glances toward the spot in the shelves where Jesinia disappeared. “Are you being helped?”

“Jesinia-” I cringe. “I mean, Cadet Neilwart is most helpful.”

“You know,” he says to the squad of five as they arc around me, “Cadet Sorrengail here was my prized student until the Riders Quadrant stole her away.” His gaze meets mine under his hood. “I had hopes she would return, but alas, she has bonded to not one but two dragons.”

A girl to his right gasps, then covers her mouth and mutters an apology.

“Don’t worry, I felt the same way,” I tell her.

“Perhaps you can explain something to Cadet Nasya over here, who was just griping that there’s not nearly enough fresh air in here.” Professor Markham turns his focus to a boy on his left. “This group is just starting their rotation in the Archives.”

Nasya turns beet red under his cream hood.

“It’s part of the fire mitigation system,” I tell him. “Less air, less risk of our history burning to the ground.”

“And the stuffy hoods?” Nasya lifts a brow at me.

“Makes it harder for you to stand out against the tomes,” I explain. “A symbol that no one and nothing is more important than the documents and books in this very room.” My gaze darts around the chamber, and a new pang of homesickness hits me.

“Exactly.” Professor Markham levels a glare at Nasya. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, Cadet Sorrengail, we have work to attend. I’ll see you tomorrow in Battle Brief.”

“Yes, sir.” I step back, giving the squad room to pass.

“You are sad?” Andarna asks, her voice soft.

“Just visiting the Archives. No need to worry,” I tell her.

“It’s hard to love a second home as much as the first.”

I swallow. “It’s easy when the second home is the right one.” And that is what the Riders Quadrant has become to me-the right home. The longing for the kind of peace and solitude I found only here can’t match the adrenaline rush of flight.

Jesinia reappears with the cart, laden down with the requested books and bits of mail for the professors of my quadrant. She signs, “I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t find that book. I even searched the catalog for wyvern-I think that’s what you said-but there’s nothing.”

I stare for a second. Our Archives have either a copy or the original of almost every book in Navarre. Only ultrarare or forbidden tomes are excluded. When did folklore become either of those? Though, come to think of it, I never came across anything like The Fables of the Barren on the shelves while I was studying to become a scribe. Chimera? Yes. Kraken? Sure. But wyvern or the venin that create them? None. Bizarre.

“That’s all right. Thank you for looking,” I sign back.

“You look different,” she signs, then hands the cart over.

My eyes widen.

“Not bad different, just…different. Your face is leaner, and even your posture…” She shakes her head.

“I’ve been training.” I pause, my hands hanging by my sides while I consider my answer. “It’s hard, but great, too. I’m getting quicker on the mat.”

“The mat?” Her brow furrows.

“For sparring.”

“Right. I forget that you guys fight each other, too.” Sympathy fills her eyes.

“I’m really all right,” I promise her, leaving out the times I’ve caught Oren gripping a dagger in my presence or the way Jack seethes in my direction. “How about you? Is it everything you wanted?”

“It’s everything and more. So much more. The responsibility we have not only to record history but to speed information from the front lines is more than I ever could have imagined, and it’s so fulfilling.” She presses her lips together again.

“Good. I’m happy for you.” And I mean it.

“But I worry for you.” She sucks in a breath. “The uptick in attacks along the border…” Concern etches lines into her forehead.

“I know. We hear about them in Battle Brief.” It’s always the same, striking at faltering wards, ransacking villages high in the mountains, and more dead riders. My heart breaks every time we get a report, and a part of me shuts down with each attack that I have to analyze.

“And Dain?” she asks as we head for the door. “Have you seen him?”

My smile falters. “That’s a story for another day.”

She sighs. “I’ll try and be here around this time so I can see you.”

“Sounds wonderful.” I refrain from pulling her into a hug and walk through the door she opens.

By the time I return the cart to the library and make it through the lunch line, our time is almost up, which means I’m busy shoveling food in my mouth as fast as I can while the members of our original squad chat around me. The newbies, two first-years and two second-years we took on when the third squad was dissolved, are a table away. They’ve refused to sit with anyone with a rebellion relic.

So, fuck them.

“It was the coolest thing ever,” Ridoc continues. “One second he was sparring against that third-year with the wicked broadsword skills, and then Sawyer-”

“You could let him tell the story,” Rhiannon chides, rolling her eyes.

“No thank you,” Sawyer counters, shaking his head, staring at his fork with a hefty dose of fear.

Ridoc grins, in all his glory telling the story. “And then the sword just twists in Sawyer’s hand, curving toward the third-year even though Sawyer was way off the mark.” He grimaces in Sawyer’s direction. “Sorry, man, but you were. If your sword hadn’t decided to warp and go straight for that guy’s arm-”

“You’re a metallurgist?” Quinn’s eyebrows rise. “Really?”

Holy crap, Sawyer can manipulate metals. I force down a little more turkey and openly stare at him. As far as I know, he’s the first of us to display any form of power, let alone a signet.

Sawyer nods. “That’s what Carr says. Aetos dragged me straight to the professor when he saw it happen.”

“I’m so jealous!” Ridoc grabs his chest. “I want my signet power to manifest!”

“You wouldn’t be so excited if it meant you weren’t sure if your fork would stab into the roof of your mouth because you can’t control it yet.” Sawyer shoves his tray away.

“Good point.” Ridoc looks at his own tray.

“You’ll manifest when your dragon is ready to trust you with all that power,” Quinn says, then finishes off her water. “Just hope your dragons trust you before about six months and-” She makes a sound like an explosion and mimics it with her hands.

“Stop scaring the children,” Imogen says. “That hasn’t happened in”- she pauses to think-“decades.” When we all stare at her, she rolls her eyes. “Look, the relic your dragons transferred onto you at Threshing is the conduit to let all that magic into your body. If you don’t manifest a signet

and let it out, then after a bunch of months, bad things happen.” We all gawk.

“The magic consumes you,” Quinn adds, making the explosion sound again.

“Relax, it’s not like a hard deadline or something. It’s just an average.” Imogen shrugs.

“Fuck me, it’s always something around here,” Ridoc mutters. “Feeling a little luckier now,” Sawyer says, staring at his fork. “We’ll get you some wooden utensils,” I tell Sawyer. “And you should probably avoid the armory or sparring with…anything.”

Sawyer scoffs. “That’s the truth. At least I’ll be safe during flight this afternoon.”

Adding flight classes to our schedule has been essential since Threshing. The wings rotate for access to the flight field, and today is one of our lucky days of the week.

I feel a tingle in my scalp and know if I turn, I’ll find Xaden watching us. Watching me. But I don’t give him the satisfaction of looking. He hasn’t said so much as a word to me since Threshing. That doesn’t mean I’m alone -oh, I’m never alone. There’s always an upperclassman somewhere near when I’m walking the halls or headed to the gym at night.

And they all have rebellion relics.

“I like it better when we have it in the morning,” Rhiannon says, her face souring. “It’s way worse after we’ve eaten breakfast and lunch.” “Agreed,” I manage between mouthfuls.

“Finish the turkey,” Imogen orders. “I’ll see you tonight.” She and Quinn clear their trays, taking them back to the window for scullery.

“Is she any nicer when she’s training you?” Rhiannon asks.

“No. But she’s efficient.” I finish the turkey as the room begins to clear, and we all make our way toward the scullery window. “What’s Professor Carr like?” I ask Sawyer, then tuck my tray onto the stack. The wielding professor is one of the only ones I haven’t met, since I haven’t manifested a signet.

“Fucking terrifying,” Sawyer answers. “I can’t wait for the entire year to start wielding lessons so everyone can enjoy his particular brand of instruction.”

We head out through commons and the rotunda and into the courtyard, all buttoning up our coats. November has hit hard with gusty winds and frosted grass in the morning, and the first snow isn’t far behind.

“I knew it would work!” Jack Barlowe says ahead of us, dragging someone under his arm and thumping her head affectionately.

“Isn’t that Caroline Ashton?” Rhiannon asks, her mouth hanging open as Caroline heads toward the academic wing with Jack.

“Yeah.” Ridoc tenses. “She bonded Gleann this morning.”

“Wasn’t he already bonded?” Rhiannon watches them until they disappear into the wing.

“His rider died on our first flight lesson.” I focus on the gate ahead that leads to the flight field.

“So I guess the unbonded still have that shot they’re looking for,” Rhiannon mutters.

“Yeah.” Sawyer nods, his features tense. “They do.”

“You only fell about a dozen times that trip,” Tairn remarks as we land on the flight field.

“I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or not.” I take deep breaths and try to calm my racing heart.

“Take it as you wish.”

I mentally roll my eyes and scoot out of the seat as he dips his shoulder so I can slide down his foreleg. The move has become so practiced that I barely even notice that other riders are capable of leaping to the ground or descending the proper way. “Besides, you could make it easier, you know.”

“Oh, I know.”

“I’m not the one putting us into spirals with steep banks while Kaori is teaching plain dives.” My feet hit the ground of the field, and I arch an eyebrow at Tairn.

“I’m training you for battle. He’s teaching you parlor tricks.” He blinks a golden eye at me and looks away.

“Do you think we can get Andarna to join us next week? Even if it’s just to fly along?” I do all the checks Kaori has taught us, looking for any debris that could have lodged between the long, taloned toes of Tairn’s claws or between the rock-hard scales of his underbelly.

“I’m not foolish enough to not know that I have something stuck in my flesh. And I wouldn’t ask Andarna to join us unless she requested it. She can’t keep up the speed, and it would only draw unwanted attention.”

“I never get to see her,” I blatantly whine. “I’m always stuck with your grumpy ass.”

“I’m always here,” Andarna answers, but there’s no flicker of gold. She’s most likely in the Vale as usual, but at least she’s protected there.

“This grumpy ass just caught you a dozen times, Silver One.”

“Eventually you could call me Violet, you know.” I take the time to examine every row of his scales. One of the biggest dangers to dragons are the smallest things they can’t remove that penetrate between the scales, causing infection.

“I know,” he repeats. “And I could call you Violence like the wingleader.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” I narrow my eyes as I move forward, checking where his chest begins to rise. “And you know how much that ass annoys me.”

“Annoys you?” Tairn chuckles above me, the sound like a chuffing cat.

“Is that what you call it when your heart rate-”

“Don’t even start with me.”

A growl rumbles through Tairn’s chest above me and vibrates my very bones. I pivot, my hands hovering along my sheathed daggers as Dain approaches.

“It’s just Dain.” I walk out from between Tairn’s forelegs when Dain pauses a dozen feet away.

“Anger does not suit him.” He growls again, and a puff of steam hits the back of my neck.

“Relax,” I say and glance back over my shoulder at him. My eyebrows shoot up.

Tairn’s golden eyes are narrowed in a glare on Dain, and his teeth are bared, dripping saliva as another growl rumbles.

“You’re a menace. Stop it,” I say.

“Tell him if he harms you, I’ll scorch the ground where he stands.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Tairn.” I roll my eyes and walk to Dain, whose jaw is locked, but his eyes are wide with apprehension.

“Tell him, or I’ll take it up with Cath.”

“Tairn says if you harm me, he’ll burn you,” I say as dragons to the left and right launch skyward without their riders, headed back to the Vale. But not Tairn. Nope, he’s still standing behind me like an overprotective dad.

“I’m not going to harm you!” Dain snaps.

“Word for word, Silver One.”

I blow a breath out slowly. “Sorry, he actually said, if you harm me, he’ll scorch the ground where you stand.” I turn and look over my shoulder.

“Better?” Tairn blinks.

Dain keeps his eyes on me, but I see it there, the swirling anger Tairn warned me about. “I would rather die than harm you, and you know it.” “Happy now?” I ask Tairn.

“I’m hungry. I think I’ll partake in a flock of sheep.” He launches with great beats of his wings.

“I need to talk to you.” Dain’s voice drops, and he narrows his eyes.

“Fine. Walk me back.” I motion at Rhiannon to go on without me, and she walks ahead with the others, leaving Dain and me to bring up the rear.

We fall back at the edge of the field.

“Why didn’t you tell me you can’t keep your fucking seat?” he shouts at me, grabbing my elbow.

“I’m sorry?” I yank my arm out of his hold.

Tairn growls in my mind.

“I’ve got this,” I shout back at him.

“All this time, I’ve been letting Kaori teach you, thinking he must have everything under control. After all, if the rider of the strongest dragon in the quadrant couldn’t keep her seat, then surely we’d all know.” He rips his hand over his hair. “Surely I would know if my best friend fell every fucking day that she flew!”

“It’s not a secret!” Anger bubbles in my veins. “Everyone in our wing knows! I’m sorry if you haven’t been keeping tabs on your squad, but trust me, Dain. Everyone knows. And I’m not going to stand here while you lecture me like I’m a child.” I stalk off, my strides eating up the ground as I follow my wing.

“You didn’t tell me,” he says, anger in his voice giving way to hurt as he catches up, more than matching my pace.

“There’s not a problem.” I shake my head. “Tairn can keep me buckled in magically if he needs to. I’m the one asking him to loosen the restraints. And I’d think twice before you question him. He’s more of the char-firstask-questions-later type.”

“It’s a huge problem, because he can’t channel-”

“His full powers?” I ask as we make it out of the field, heading toward the steps that descend next to the Gauntlet. “I know that. Why do you think I’m up there asking him to loosen up?” Frustration is a living, breathing thing inside me, eating up all rational thought.

“You’ve been flying for a month, and you’re still falling.” His voice follows me down the staircase.

“So is half the wing, Dain!”

“Not a dozen times, they aren’t,” he shoots back. He’s on my heels as I pick up my pace toward the path that will lead back to the citadel, the gravel crunching beneath my boots. “I just want to help you, Vi. How can I help?”

I sigh at the plaintive tone in his voice. I keep forgetting this is my best friend, and he’s having to watch me risk my life every day. I don’t know how I’d feel if our roles were reversed. Probably just as concerned. So I try to lighten the mood and say, “You should have seen me a month ago when it was three dozen times.”

“Three dozen?” His voice rises on the last word.

I halt at the mouth of the tunnel and offer a smile. “It sounds worse than it is, Dain. I promise.”

“Will you at least tell me what part of flight you have trouble with? At least let me help you.”

“You want a list of my flaws?” I roll my eyes. “My thighs are too weak, but I’m building muscle. My hands can’t grip the pommel, but they’re getting stronger. It took weeks for my biceps to heal, so I’m training that one, too. But you don’t have to worry about me, Dain-Imogen is training me.”

“Because Riorson asked her to,” he guesses, folding his arms across his chest.

“Probably. Why does it matter?”

“Because he doesn’t have your best interest at heart.” He shakes his head, looking more like a stranger than I’ve ever seen him before. “First, it was bending the rules to make it up the Gauntlet, and yes, Amber lit into me for

an hour about how you acted dishonorably.” Dishonorably? Fuck this.

“And you just took her word for it? Without asking me what happened?”

“She’s a wingleader, Vi. I’m not about to question her integrity!”

“I proved myself with the Codex, and Riorson accepted it. He’s a wingleader, too.”

“Fine. You made it up. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t stand myself if something happened to you, whether you were handling the trial the right or wrong way. And then I thought you’d be fine if you survived Threshing, but even bonded to the strongest of them…” He shakes his head.

“Go ahead. Say it.” My hands curl into fists, my nails biting into my palms.

“I’m terrified you’re not going to make it to graduation, Vi.” His shoulders slump. “You know exactly how I feel about you, whether or not I can do anything about it, and I’m terrified.”

It’s that last line that does me in. Laughter bubbles up through my throat and escapes.

His eyes widen.

“This place cuts away the bullshit and the niceties, revealing whoever you are at your core.” I repeat his words from this summer. “Isn’t that what you said to me? Is this who you really are at your core? Someone so enamored with rules that he doesn’t know when to bend or break them for someone he cares about? Someone so focused on the least I’m capable of

doing, he can’t believe I can do so much more?” The warmth drains from his brown eyes.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Dain.” I take a step closer, but the distance between us only widens. “The reason we’ll never be anything more than friends isn’t because of your rules. It’s because you have no faith in me. Even now, when I’ve survived against all odds and bonded not just one dragon but two, you still think I won’t make it. So forgive me, but you’re about to be some of the bullshit that this place cuts away from me.” I move to the side and march past him through the tunnel, forcing air through my lungs.

Other than the last year, when he entered the Riders Quadrant, I can’t remember a time without Dain in my life.

But I can’t take his constant pessimism about my future anymore.

Sunlight overpowers me for a second as I walk into the courtyard. Classes are out for the afternoon, and I see Xaden and Garrick leaned up against the wall of the academic building like gods surveying their domain.

Xaden arches a dark eyebrow as I pass by.

I flip him the middle finger.

I’m not taking his shit today, either.

“Everything all right?” Rhiannon asks as I catch up to her and the guys.

“Dain is an ass-”

“Make it stop!” someone screams, rushing down the steps of the rotunda and holding his head. It’s a first-year in Third Wing who sits two rows beneath me in Battle Brief and perpetually drops his quill. “For gods’ sake, make it stop!” he shrieks, stumbling into the courtyard.

My hands hover over my blades.

A shadow moves to my left, and a glance tells me Xaden has moved, casually putting himself just ahead of me.

The crowd hollows, forming a circle around the first-year as he screams, clutching his head.

“Jeremiah!” someone shouts, coming forward.

“You!” Jeremiah spins, pointing his finger at the third-year. “You think I’ve lost it!” His head tilts, and his eyes flare. “How does he know? He shouldn’t know!” His tone shifts, like the words aren’t his own.

Chills race down my spine, dragging my stomach to the ground.

“And you!” He spins again, pointing at a second-year in First Wing. “What the hell is wrong with him? Why is he screaming?” He turns again, focused on Dain. “Is Violet going to hate me forever? Why can’t she see that I just want to keep her alive? How is he…? He’s reading my thoughts!” The impression is uncanny, embarrassing, and terrifying.

“Oh gods,” I whisper, my heart thundering so loud, I can hear the pounding blood in my ears. Forget the embarrassment. Who cares if people know Dain is thinking about me? Jeremiah’s signet power is manifesting. He can read minds-an inntinnsic. His power is a death sentence.

Ridoc stumbles backward on my left-shoved aside-and I don’t need to look to know whose muscled arm now brushes my shoulder. The scent of mint somehow steadies my heartbeat.

Jeremiah unsheathes his shortsword. “Make it stop! Can’t any of you see? The thoughts won’t stop!” His panic is palpable, clogging my own throat.

“Do something,” I beg Xaden, glancing up at him.

His unwavering, lethal focus is on Jeremiah, but his body tenses at my plea, poised, ready to strike. “Start mentally reciting whatever bookish shit you’ve learned.”

“I’m sorry?” I hiss up at him.

“If you value your secrets, clear your thoughts. Now,” Xaden orders.

Oh. Shit.

Nothing comes to mind, and we’re clearly in imminent danger. Um… Many Navarrian defense posts exist beyond the safety of our wards. Such posts are considered to be in a zone of imminent danger and should only be staffed by military personnel and never the civilians who usually accompany them.

“And you!” Jeremiah turns, his gaze locking on Garrick. “Damn it all to hell. He’ll know about-” The shadows around Jeremiah’s feet snake up his legs in a heartbeat, winding around his chest until they cover his mouth in bands of black.

I swallow the boulder in my throat.

A professor pushes through the crowd, his shock of white hair bouncing with every step of his large frame.

“He’s an inntinnsic!” someone shouts, and that seems to be all that’s necessary.

The professor grips Jeremiah’s head with both hands, and a crack echoes off the walls of the silent courtyard. Xaden’s shadows melt away and Jeremiah falls to the ground, his head at an unnatural, macabre angle. His neck is broken.

The professor bends down and lifts Jeremiah’s body with surprising strength, carrying him into the rotunda.

Xaden inhales sharply beside me, then walks away with Garrick, headed toward the academic wing. Nice to see you, too.

“Maybe I don’t want a signet power after all,” Ridoc murmurs.

“That death is merciful compared to what will happen if you don’t manifest one,” Dain says, and I swear I start to feel my relics burn across my back even though my dragons haven’t started channeling.

“And that,” Sawyer says from Rhiannon’s side, “was Professor Carr.”

“You always have to check your sources,” Dad tells me, ruffling my hair as he stands beside me at the table in the Archives. “Remember that firsthand accounts are always more accurate, but you have to look deeper, Violet. You have to see who is telling the story.”

“But what if I want to be a rider?” I ask with the voice of a muchyounger version of me. “Like Brennan and Mom?”

“WAKE.” A familiar, consuming voice rumbles through the Archives. A voice that doesn’t belong here.

“You’re not like them, Violet. That’s not your path.” Dad offers me an apologetic smile, the usual kind that says he sympathizes but there’s nothing he can do, the kind he gives me when Mom makes a choice he doesn’t agree with. “And it’s for the best. Your mother has never understood that while riders may be the weapons of our kingdom, it’s the scribes who have all the real power in this world.”

“Wake before you die!” The bookshelves in the Archives tremble, and my heart jolts. “Now!”

My eyes fly open, and I gasp as the dream disintegrates. I’m not in the

Archives. I’m in my room in the Riders- “Move!” Tairn bellows.

“Fuck! She’s awake!” Moonlight reflects off a sword slicing through the air above me.

Oh. Shit. I roll toward the opposite side of my bed, but not fast enough, and the blade slams into the side of my back with a force even my thick winter blankets can’t diffuse.

Adrenaline camouflages the pain as the sword rebounds, unable to split the dragon scales.

My knees slam into the hardwood floor, and I thrust my hands beneath my pillow, drawing back two daggers as I untangle from the covers and gain my feet. How the hell did they get my door unlocked?

Blowing my unbound hair out of my face, I meet the wide, shocked eyes of an unbonded first-year, and he’s not the only one. There are seven cadets in my room. Four are unbonded men. Three are unbonded women-I gasp with recognition-make that two as she runs for the door and slams it on the way out.

She opened the door. There’s no other explanation.

The rest are all armed. All determined to kill me. All standing between my unlocked door and me. My hands curl around the hilts of my daggers and my heart rate skyrockets. “Guess it won’t do me much good to ask you to leave nicely?”

I’m going to have to fight my way out of here.

“Get away from the wall! Don’t let them trap you!”

Good point. But there’s not exactly a lot of places to go in this tiny room.

“Damn it! I told you her armor is impenetrable!” Oren hisses from the other side of the room, blocking my exit. Fucking asshole.

“I should have killed you during Threshing,” I admit. My door is closed, but surely someone will hear if I sc-

A woman lunges for me, scrambling across my bed, and I dodge, sliding along the icy pane of the window. The window!

“It’s too high. You’ll fall to the ravine, and I can’t get there fast enough!” No window. Got it. Another woman throws her knife, rending the fabric of my nightgown’s sleeve as it lodges in the armoire, but she missed any flesh. I spin, leaving the sleeve behind as it rips away, and flick my dagger as I round the end of my bed. It lands in her shoulder, my favorite target, and she goes down with a cry, clutching her wound.

The rest of my weapons are stored near the door. Shit. Shit. Shit.

“No more throwing things. Keep ahold of that weapon!”

For someone who can’t help, Tairn has no problem dishing out opinions.

“You have to go for her throat!” Oren shouts. “I’ll do it myself!”

I move my blade to my right hand and fend off one attack from the left, slicing her down her forearm, and then another to the right, stabbing into a man’s thigh. I kick out with my heel and catch another in the gut as he attacks, sending him careening back onto my bed, his sword tumbling after him.

But now I’m cornered between my desk and the armoire.

There are too many of them.

And they all rush at the same damn time.

My dagger is kicked out of my hand with appalling ease, and my heart seizes as Oren grips my throat, yanking me toward him. I sweep out for his knees, but my bare feet make no impact as he lifts me off the ground, cutting off my air supply as I kick for purchase.

No. No. No.

I dig my hands into his arm, my fingernails puncturing his skin as I claw, drawing blood. He might bear my scars after this, but his grip doesn’t ease as he crushes my throat.

Air. There’s no air.

“He’s almost there!” Tairn promises, panic lacing his tone.

He who? I can’t breathe. Can’t think.

“Finish her!” one of the men yells. “He’ll only respect us if we finish her!”

They’re after Tairn.

Tairn’s roar of rage fills my head as Oren lowers my body, flipping me around as he curls his arm so my back is against his chest. At least my feet are on the ground, but the edge of my vision goes dark, my lungs fighting for oxygen that isn’t there.

The greedy eyes of a bleeding first-year stare back into mine. “Do it!” she demands.

“Your dragon is mine,” Oren hisses in my ear, and his hand falls away, replaced by a blade.

Air rushes into my lungs as cold metal caresses my throat, the oxygen flooding my blood and clearing my head enough to realize this is it. I am going to die. From one heartbeat to what will probably be my last, an overwhelming sorrow seizes my chest, and I can’t help but wonder if I would have made it. Would I have been strong enough to graduate? Would I have become worthy of Tairn and Andarna? Would I have finally made my mother proud?

The knife tip touches my skin.

My bedroom door flies open, the wood splintering as it slams against the stone wall, but I don’t have a chance to turn to see who is standing there before a shriek pierces my vision.

“Mine!” Andarna screams. Skin-prickling energy zings down my spine, then rushes to my fingertips and toes, and the next breath I take is in total, complete silence.

“Go!” Andarna demands.

I blink and realize the first-year in front of me doesn’t. She isn’t breathing. Isn’t moving.

No one is.

Everyone in this room is frozen in place…except me.

You'll Also Like