Chapter no 19

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

What. The. Hell.

It’s as if everyone in my room has turned to stone, but I know that can’t be true. Oren’s body is warm behind me, his skin malleable under my fingers as I shift my grip and shove his bloody forearm, forcing the blade away from my neck.

A single drop of blood drips from the sharp tip, splattering on the hardwood, and there’s a trickle of wetness down my throat.

“Quick! I can’t hold it!” Andarna urges, her voice thready.

She’s doing this? I gulp heaving breaths through my battered windpipe and duck under Oren’s forearm, freeing myself, then sidestep quickly in the silence.

Complete, unearthly silence.

The clock on my desk isn’t ticking as I squeeze between Oren’s elbow and a giant guy who used to be from Second Wing. No one breathes. Their gazes are frozen. To the left, the woman I sliced open is hunched over, clutching her forearm, and the man I stabbed is leaned against the wall on the right, staring in horror at his thigh.

I mark time in thunderous heartbeats as I stumble into the only open space in my room, but my path to the now-open door isn’t clear.

Xaden fills the doorway like some kind of dark, avenging angel, the messenger of the queen of the gods. He’s fully dressed, his face a mask of veritable rage as shadows curl from the walls on either side of him, hanging in midair.

For the first time since crossing the parapet, I’m so fucking relieved to see him that I could cry.

Andarna gasps in my mind-and chaos resumes.

Nausea clenches my stomach.

“It’s about damned time,” Tairn rumbles.

Xaden’s gaze snaps to mine, his onyx eyes flaring in shock for no longer than a millisecond before he strides forward, his shadows streaming before him as he stands at my side. He snaps his fingers and the room illuminates, mage lights hovering above us.

“You’re all fucking dead.” His voice is eerily calm and all the scarier for it.

Every head in the room turns.

“Riorson!” Oren’s dagger clatters to the floor.

“You think surrendering will save you?” Xaden’s lethally soft tone sends goose bumps up my arms. “It is against our code to attack another rider in their sleep.”

“But you know he never should have bonded her!” Oren puts his hands up, his palms facing us. “You of all people have reason enough to want the weakling dead. We’re just correcting a mistake.”

“Dragons don’t make mistakes.” Xaden’s shadows grab every assailant but Oren by the throat, then constrict. They struggle, but it doesn’t matter. Their faces turn purple, the shadows holding tight as they sag to their knees, falling in an arc in front of me like lifeless puppets.

I can’t find it in my heart to pity them.

Xaden prowls forward as though he has all the time in the world and holds out his palm as yet another tendril of darkness lifts my discarded dagger from the floor.

“Let me explain.” Oren eyes the dagger, and his hands tremble.

“I’ve heard everything I need to hear.” Xaden’s fingers curl around the hilt. “She should have killed you in the field, but she’s merciful. That’s not a flaw I possess.” He slashes forward so quickly that I barely catch the move, and Oren’s throat opens in a horizontal line, blood streaming down his neck and chest in a torrent.

He grabs for his throat, but it’s useless. He bleeds out in seconds, crumpling to the floor. A crimson puddle grows around him.

“Damn, Xaden.” Garrick walks in, sheathing his sword as his gaze rakes over the room. “No time for questioning?” His glance sweeps to me as if cataloging injuries, catching on my throat.

“No need for it,” Xaden counters as Bodhi enters, doing the same quick assessment Garrick had. The similarity between the cousins still gives me pause. Bodhi has the same bronzed skin and strong brow line, but his features aren’t as angular as Xaden’s, and his eyes are a lighter shade of brown. He looks like a softer, more approachable version of his older cousin, but my body doesn’t heat at the sight of him the way it does around Xaden. Or maybe Oren just strangled the common sense out of me.

An illogical laugh bubbles up through my lips, and all three men look at me like I’ve hit my head.

“Let me guess,” Bodhi says, rubbing the back of his neck. “We’re on cleanup?”

“Call in help if you need it,” Xaden answers with a nod.


I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive. I repeat the mantra in my head as Xaden wipes the blood from my dagger on the back of Oren’s tunic.

“Yes. You’re alive.” Xaden steps over Oren’s body and two others, retrieving my dagger from the fallen woman’s shoulder before reaching my armoire. I don’t even recognize her, and yet she tried to kill me.

Garrick and Bodhi haul out the first bodies.

“I didn’t realize I’d said that out loud.” The trembling starts in my knees, and then nausea overpowers me. Fuck, I thought I’d worked past this kind of reaction to adrenaline, but here I am, shaking like a leaf as Xaden sorts through my armoire like he hasn’t just taken out half a dozen people.

As if this kind of slaughter is commonplace.

“It’s the shock,” he says, whipping my cloak from its hook and retrieving a pair of boots. “Are you hurt?” His words are clipped and break whatever temporary block I had on the pain. It comes flooding back in a throbbing wave that centers in my back. So much for the adrenaline rush.

Every breath feels like I’m shoving my lungs against broken glass, so I keep them short and shallow. But I manage to stay on my feet, retreating until I feel the stone wall against my uninjured side, letting it take my weight.

“Come on, Violence.” His cajoling words are at odds with his terse tone as he folds my cloak over his arm and brings my boots through the remaining bodies he’s left on my floor. “Pull your shit together and tell me where you’re hurt.” He’s killed six people without so much as a spot of blood on his midnight-black leathers. My boots hit the ground next to my feet and my cloak lands on the little armchair in the corner.

I can barely breathe, but can I risk admitting my current weakness to him?

His fingers are warm under my chin as he tilts my head up so our gazes collide. Wait…is that a hint of panic swirling in his? “You’re breathing like crap, so I’m guessing it has to do with-”

“My ribs,” I finish before he can guess. Trying to mask the pain isn’t going to work with him. “The one by the bed hit the side of my ribs with the sword, but I think they’re just bruised.” There hadn’t been that telltale snap that comes with broken bones.

“Must have been a dull sword.” He cocks a dark eyebrow. “Unless it has something to do with why you sleep in your leather vest.” “Trust him,” Tairn demands.

“It’s not that easy.”

“It has to be for now.”

“It’s dragon-scale.” I lift my right arm and pivot slightly so he can see the gaping hole in my nightdress. “Mira made it for me. It’s why I’ve lived this long.”

He glances between our bodies, his mouth tensing before he nods once. “Ingenious, though I’d say there are multiple reasons for why you’ve made it this far.” Before I can argue that point, his gaze shifts to my throat and narrows at what I imagine has to be the purple imprint of a hand. “I should have killed him slower.” “I’m fine.” I’m not.

His focus snaps back to my eyes. “Never lie to me.” He says it with such ferocity, bit out through gritted teeth, that I can’t help but nod in promise. “It hurts,” I admit.

“Let me see.”

I open and shut my mouth twice. “Is that a request or a demand?”

“Your pick as long as I get to see if that fucker broke your ribs.” His hands curl into fists.

Two other men walk in through the open door, Garrick and Bodhi following closely after. They’re all…dressed. Fully clothed at-I glance at the clock-two a.m.

“Take those two, and we’ll get the last ones,” Garrick orders, and the others get to work, carrying the last of the bodies out through the door. I can’t help but notice they all have rebellion relics shimmering up their arms, but I keep the observation to myself.

“Thank you,” Xaden says, then flicks his hand and my door shuts with a soft click. “Now, let me see your ribs. We’re wasting time.”

I swallow, then nod. Better to know now if they’re broken anyway. I turn my back on him, but I can see his face in the full-length mirror as I shrug out of the billowing sleeves of my nightdress, holding the material above my breasts as it dips in the back to my waist. “You’ll have to-”

“I know how to handle a corset.” His jaw flexes once, and something that reminds me of raw hunger flitters across his expression before he locks it down, drawing my hair over my shoulder with surprising gentleness.

His fingers skim my bare skin and I suppress a shiver, locking my muscles so I don’t arch into his touch.

What the hell is wrong with me? There’s still blood on my floor and yet my breaths are tight for the entirely wrong reason as he makes quick work of the laces, starting at the bottom. He wasn’t lying. He absolutely knows his way around a corset.

“How the hell do you get yourself into this thing every morning?” he asks, clearing his throat as inch after inch of my back is exposed.

“I’m freakishly flexible. It’s part of the whole bones-snapping, jointstearing thing,” I answer over my shoulder.

Our eyes meet, and warmth flutters through my stomach. The moment is gone as quickly as it came, and he pulls my armor apart, inspecting my right side. Gentle fingers stroke over the abused ribs, then prod carefully.

“You have one hell of a bruise, but I don’t think they’re broken.”

“That’s what I thought. Thank you for checking.” It should be awkward, but somehow it isn’t, even as he laces me back up, securing the ends.

“You’ll live. Turn around.”

I do, tugging my nightdress back over my shoulders, and he drops to his knees on the floor before me.

My eyes widen. Xaden Riorson is kneeling before me, his black hair at the perfect level for me to run my fingers through the thickness. It’s probably the only thing that’s soft about him. How many women have felt those strands between their fingers?

Why the hell do I care?

“You’re going to have to walk through the pain, and we have to do it fast.” He grabs a boot, then taps my foot. “Can you lift it up?”

I nod, lifting my foot. Then he robs me of every logical thought by putting on my boots and lacing them one at a time.

This is the same man who had no problems with my death just a few months ago, and my brain can’t seem to wrap itself around the different sides of him.

“Let’s go.” He wraps my cloak around my shoulders and buttons it at my collar like I’m something precious. Now I know I’m in shock because I’m anything but precious to Xaden Riorson. His gaze drifts over my hair and he blinks once before tugging my hood up over the fading dark-to-light mass. Then he grasps my hand and tugs me into the hallway. His fingers are strong as they curl around mine, his grip firm but not too tight.

Every other door is shut. The attack wasn’t even loud enough to rouse my neighbors. I’d be dead by now if Xaden hadn’t shown up, even if I had managed to get out of Oren’s hold. But how did that happen?

“Where are we going?” The hallways are dimly lit by blue mage lights, the kind that signal it’s still night for those without windows.

“Keep talking loud enough for others to hear, and someone will stop us before we get anywhere.”

“Can’t you just hide us in shadows or something?”

“Sure, because a giant black cloud moving down the hallway isn’t going to look more suspicious than a couple sneaking around.” He shoots me a look that keeps me from countering.

Point taken.

Not that we’re a couple.

Not that I wouldn’t climb the man like a tree if presented with the right set of circumstances. I cringe as we make it to the main hallway of the dormitory. There will never, ever be a right set of circumstances when it comes to him, let alone right after he’s executed half a dozen people.

But in my defense, and in a sick, twisted way, his rescue was pretty damned hot, even if he is hauling me down the hallway at an untenable speed. Even if he only did it because my life is tied to his. My chest screams for a break, but there’s none to be found as he leads me past the spiral staircase that leads up to the second- and third-year dorms and into the rotunda.

It’s going to take weeks for my ribs to fully heal.

Our boots against the marble floor are the only sounds as we pass into the academic wing. Instead of turning left, toward the sparring gym, he takes us right, down a set of stairs that I know leads to storage.

Halfway down the steps, he pauses, and I nearly run into the sword strapped to his back. Then he gestures with his right hand, keeping mine in his left.

Click. Xaden pushes on the stones and a hidden door swings open.

“Holy shit,” I whisper at the expansive tunnel revealed before us.

“Hope you’re not afraid of the dark.” He pulls me inside, and suffocating darkness envelops us as the door closes.

This is fine. This is absolutely fine.

“But just in case you are,” Xaden says, his voice at full volume as he snaps. A mage light hovers above our head, illuminating our surroundings.

“Thanks.” The tunnel is supported by arches of stone and the floor is smooth, as though it’s been traveled more than its entrance lets on. It smells like earth but isn’t dank, and it goes on for what seems like an eternity.

He drops my hand and starts walking. “Keep up.”

“You could-” I wince. Fuck, my chest hurts. “Be a little more considerate.” I trudge after him, dropping my hood.

“I’m not going to baby you like Aetos does,” he says without turning around. “That’s only going to get you killed once we get out of Basgiath.”

“He doesn’t baby me.”

“He does and you know it. You hate it, too, if the vibe I’m picking up on is any indication.” He falls back to walk at my side. “Or did I read that wrong?”

“He thinks this place is too dangerous for someone…like me, and after what just happened, I’m not sure I can really argue with him.” I was asleep. That’s the only time we’re supposed to be guaranteed safety around here. “I don’t think I’ll bother sleeping again.” I shoot a look sideways at his irritatingly gorgeous profile. “And if you even think about suggesting that you sleep with me for safety from now on-”

He scoffs. “Hardly. I don’t fuck first-years-even when I was one-let alone…you.”

“Who said anything about fucking?” I fire back, cursing myself as the ache in my ribs only intensifies. “I’d have to be a masochist to sleep with you, and I can assure you, I’m not.” Fantasizing about it doesn’t count.

“Masochist, huh?” A corner of his mouth quirks into a smirk.

“You hardly give off snuggly morning-after vibes.” A smile of my own curves my lips. “Unless you’re worried about me killing you while we sleep.” We round a corner, and the tunnel continues.

“I have zero concern about that. As violent as you are, and skilled with those daggers, I’m not even sure you could kill a fly. Don’t think I didn’t notice that you managed to wound three of them and never went for a kill shot.” He shoots a disapproving look my way.

“I’ve never killed anyone,” I whisper like it’s a secret.

“You’re going to have to get over that. All we are after graduation are weapons, and it’s best if we’re honed before leaving the gates.”

“Is that where we’re going? Are we leaving the gates?” I’ve lost all sense of direction in here.

“We’re going to ask Tairn what the hell just happened.” Xaden’s jaw flexes. “And I’m not talking about the attack. How the hell did they get past your locks?”

I shrug but don’t bother to explain. There’s no way he’ll believe me. I barely believe it myself.

“We’d better figure it out so it doesn’t happen again. I refuse to sleep on your fucking floor like some kind of guard dog.”

“Wait. This is another way to the flight field?” I do my best to mentally wall off the pain in my throat and ribs. “He’s bringing me to you,” I tell Tairn.

“I know.”

“Are you going to tell me what that was in there?”

“I would if I knew.”

“Yes,” Xaden says, and the path curves again. “It’s not exactly common knowledge. And I’m going to ask you to tuck this little tunnel into the file of secrets you keep on my behalf.”

“Let me guess, and you’ll know if I tell?”

“Yes.” Another smirk appears, and I look away before he can catch me staring.

“Are you going to promise me another favor?” The path begins to climb, and the ascent is anything but gentle. Every breath reminds me of what happened less than an hour ago.

“Having one of my favors is more than enough, and we’ve already reached mutually assured destruction status, Sorrengail. Now, can you push through it, or do you need me to carry you?”

“That sounds like an insult, not an offer.”

“You’re catching on.” But his pace slows to match mine.

The ground shifts beneath my feet as though it’s rocking, but I know better. It’s my head, the result of the pain and stress. My steps wobble.

Xaden’s arm wraps around my waist, steadying me. I hate how his touch elevates my heart rate as we continue the climb, but I don’t protest. I don’t want to be grateful for anything when it comes to him, but man if that minty scent of his isn’t delicious. “What were you doing tonight anyway?” “What makes you ask?” His tone clearly insinuates that I shouldn’t.

Too bad.

“You made it to my room within minutes, and you’re not exactly dressed for sleeping.” He’s strapped with a sword for crying out loud.

“Maybe I sleep in my armor, too.”

“Then you should pick more trustworthy bedmates.”

He snorts, a flash of a smile appearing for a heartbeat. A real one. Not the fake, forced sneer I’m used to seeing or the cocky little smirk. An honest, heart-stopping smile that I’m anything but immune to. It’s gone as fast as it appears, though.

“So you’re not going to tell me?” I ask. I’d be frustrated if I didn’t hurt so damned much. And I’m not even going to touch why he needed to haul us all the way to Tairn when I can chat with him anytime I want.

Unless he wants to talk to Tairn, which is…ballsy.

“Nope. Third-year business.” He lets go when we reach the stonewalled end of the tunnel. A few hand gestures and another click sounds before he pushes open the door.

We step out into crisp, freezingly cold November air.

“What the hell,” I whisper. The door is built into a stack of boulders on the eastern side of the field.

“It’s camouflaged.” Xaden waves a hand and the door closes, blending into the rock as if it’s a part of it.

There’s a sound I now recognize as the steady beat of wings, and I look up to see the three dragons block out the stars as they descend. The earth shudders as they land in front of us.

“I’m guessing the wingleader wants a word?” Tairn steps forward and Sgaeyl follows, her wings tucked in tight, her golden eyes narrowing on me.

Andarna scurries between Sgaeyl’s claws, galloping toward us. She skids the last dozen feet, paws digging into the ground to stop just in front of me, bringing her nose to my ribs as an urgent sense of anxiety fills my head, swamping me with feelings I know aren’t mine.

“No broken bones,” I promise, stroking my hand over the bumpy ridges of her head. “They’re just bruised.”

“You’re sure?” she asks, worry widening her eyes.

“As sure as I can be.” I force a smile. Trudging out here in the middle of the night is worth it to alleviate her anxiety.

“Yes, I want a word. What the hell kind of powers are you channeling to her?” Xaden demands, staring up at Tairn like he isn’t…Tairn.

Yep. Ballsy. Every muscle in my body locks, sure that Tairn is about to torch Xaden for impudence.

“None of your business what I choose or do not choose to channel toward my rider,” Tairn answers with a growl.

This is going well.

“He says-” I start.

“I heard him,” Xaden counters, not sparing me a glance.

“You what?” My eyebrows hit my hairline, and Andarna retreats to stand with the others. Dragons only talk to their riders. That’s what I’ve always been taught.

“It’s absolutely my business when you expect me to protect her,” Xaden retorts, his voice rising.

“I got the message to you just fine, human.” Tairn’s head swivels in that snakelike motion that puts me on alert. He’s more than agitated.

“And I barely made it.” The words come out clipped through clenched teeth. “She would have been dead if I’d been thirty seconds later.”

“Seems like you had thirty seconds gifted to you.” Tairn’s chest rumbles with a growl.

“And I’d like to know what the fuck happened in there!” I inhale sharply.

“Don’t hurt him,” I beg Tairn. “He saved me.” I’ve never seen someone so much as dare to speak to another rider’s dragon, yet alone yell at one, especially not one as powerful as Tairn.

He grumbles in response.

“We need to know what happened in that room.” Xaden’s dark gaze cuts through me like a knife for a millisecond before he glares back at Tairn.

“Do not dare to try and read me, human, or you’ll regret it.” Tairn’s mouth opens, his tongue curling in a motion I know all too well.

I move between the two and tilt my chin at Tairn. “He’s just a little freaked out. Don’t scorch him.”

“At least we agree on something.” A feminine voice sounds through my head.


In awe, I blink up at the navy-blue daggertail as Xaden moves to my side. “She talked to me.”

“I know. I heard.” He folds his arms across his chest. “It’s because they’re mates. It’s the same reason I’m chained to you.”

“You make it sound so pleasant.”

“It’s not.” He turns to face me. “But you and I are exactly that, Violence. We’re chained. Tethered. You die, I die, so I damn well deserve to know how the hell you were under Seifert’s knife one second and across the room in another. Is that the signet power you’ve manifested with Tairn? Come clean. Now.” His eyes bore into me.

“I don’t know what happened,” I answer honestly.

“Nature likes all things in balance,” Andarna says like she’s reciting facts, just like I do when I’m nervous. “That’s the first thing we’re taught.” I pivot to face the golden dragon, repeating what she said to Xaden.

“What is that supposed to mean?” he asks me, not her.

Guess that means he can hear Tairn, but not Andarna.

“Well, not the first thing.” Andarna sits, flicking her feathertail along the frost-laden grass. “The first thing is we shouldn’t bond until we’re fullgrown.” She cocks her head to the side. “Or maybe the first is where the sheep are? I like goats better, though.”

“This is why feathertails don’t bond.” Tairn sighs with a hefty dose of exasperation.

“Let her explain,” Sgaeyl urges, clicking her talons like nails on the ground.

“Feathertails shouldn’t bond because they can accidentally gift their powers to humans,” Andarna continues. “Dragons can’t channel-not really-until we’re big, but we’re all born with something special.”

I relay the message. “Like a signet?” I ask out loud so Xaden can hear. “No,” Sgaeyl answers. “A signet is a combination of our power with your own ability to channel. It reflects who you are at the core of your being.”

Andarna sits up and tilts her head proudly. “But I gave my gift directly to you. Because I’m still a feathertail.”

I repeat again, staring at the smaller dragon. Almost nothing is known about feathertails because they’re never seen outside the Vale. They’re guarded. They’re… I swallow. Wait. What did she say? “You’re still a feathertail?”

“Yep! For another couple of years, probably.” She blinks slowly and then cracks a yawn, her forked tail curling.

Oh. Gods. “You’re…you’re a hatchling,” I whisper.

“I am not!” Andarna puffs steam into the air. “I’m two! The hatchlings can’t even fly!”

“She’s a what?” Xaden’s gaze swings between Andarna and me.

I glare up at Tairn. “You let a juvenile bond? A juvenile train for war?”

“We mature at a much faster rate than humans,” he argues, having the nerve to look affronted. “And I’m not sure anyone lets Andarna do anything.”

“How much faster?” I gasp. “She’s two years old!”

“She’ll be full-grown in a year or two, but some are slower than others,” Sgaeyl answers. “And if I thought she’d actually bond, I would have objected harder to her Right of Benefaction.” She chuffs at Andarna in obvious disapproval.

“Hold on. Is Andarna yours?” Xaden walks a step toward Sgaeyl, and the tone in his voice is one I’ve never heard. He’s…hurt. “Have you hidden a hatchling away from me these last two years?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sgaeyl blows out a blast of air that ruffles Xaden’s hair. “Do you think I’d let my offspring bond while still feathered?”

“Her parents passed before hatching,” Tairn answers.

My heart sinks. “Oh, I’m sorry, Andarna.”

“I have lots of elders,” she responds, as though that makes up for it, but having lost my dad…I know it doesn’t.

“Not enough to keep you off the Threshing field,” Tairn grumbles. “Feathertails don’t bond because their power is too unpredictable.


“Unpredictable?” Xaden questions.

“The same way you wouldn’t hand a toddler your signet, would you, wingleader?” Tairn grunts when Andarna sags against his foreleg.

“Gods, no. I could barely control it as a first-year.” Xaden shakes his head.

It’s odd to imagine Xaden ever not being in control. Hell, I’d pay good money to see him lose it. To be the one he lost it with. Nope. I shut that thought down immediately.

“Exactly. Bonding too young allows them to give their gift directly, and a rider could easily drain them and burn out.” “I would never!” I shake my head.

“That’s why I chose you.” Andarna’s head flops against Tairn’s leg. How could I not see it before now? Her rounded eyes, her paws…

“Of course, you wouldn’t know. Feathertails aren’t supposed to be seen,” Tairn says, glancing sideways at his mate.

She doesn’t even roll her eyes.

“If leadership knew riders could take her gifts for themselves, rather than depending on their own signets…” Xaden says, staring at Andarna as she blinks slower and slower.

“She’d be hunted,” I finish quietly.

“Which is why you can’t tell anyone what she is,” Sgaeyl says. “Hopefully she’ll mature once you’re out of the quadrant, and the elders are already placing more…stringent protections on the feathertails.”

“I won’t,” I promise. “Andarna, thank you. Whatever you did saved my life.”

“I made time stop.” Her mouth drops open into another jaw-cracking yawn. “But only for a little bit.”

Wait. What? My stomach hits the ground as I stare into Andarna’s golden eyes and forget the pain, the solid earth beneath my feet, even the need to breathe as shock rolls through me, robbing me of logic.

No one can stop time. Nothing can stop it. It’s…unheard of.

“What did she say?” Xaden asks, gripping my shoulders to steady me.

Tairn growls and a puff of steam blasts us both.

“I’d take your hands off the rider,” Sgaeyl warns.

Xaden loosens his grip but continues to cradle my shoulders. “Tell me what she said. Please.” His mouth tightens and I know that last bit cost him.

“She can pause time,” I force out, stumbling over my words. “Briefly.” Xaden’s features slacken, and for the first time, he doesn’t look like the stalwart, lethal wingleader I met on the parapet. He’s flat-out shocked as his gaze swings to Andarna. “You can stop time?”

“And now we can stop it.” She blinks slowly, and I can feel exhaustion wafting off her. Channeling that gift to me tonight cost her. She can barely keep her eyes open.

“In small increments,” I whisper.

“In small increments,” Xaden echoes slowly, like he’s absorbing the information.

“And if I use it too much, I can kill you,” I say softly to Andarna.

“Kill us.” She stands on all four paws. “But I know you won’t.”

“I’ll do my best to be worthy.” The ramifications of this gift, this exceptional power, hit me like a death blow, and my stomach bottoms out. “Is Professor Carr going to kill me, too?”

Every gaze whips toward me, and Xaden’s grip tightens on my shoulders, his thumbs stroking in a soothing motion. “Why would you think that?”

“He killed Jeremiah.” I push the panic away and focus on the tiny golden flecks in Xaden’s onyx eyes. “You saw him snap his neck like a twig right in front of the whole quadrant.”

“Jeremiah was an inntinnsic.” Xaden’s voice lowers. “A mind reader is a capital offense. You know that.”

“And what are they going to do if they find out I can stop time?” Terror freezes the blood in my veins.

“They’re not going to find out,” Xaden promises. “No one is going to tell them. Not you. Not me. Not them.” He motions with one hand toward our trio of dragons. “Understand?”

“He’s right,” Tairn says. “They can’t find out. And there’s no saying how long you’ll have the ability. Most feathertail gifts disappear with maturity when they begin to channel.”

Andarna cracks another yawn, looking nearly dead on her feet.

“Get some sleep,” I tell her. “Thank you for helping me tonight.”

“Let’s go, Golden One,” Tairn says, and they all bend slightly, then launch, wind gusting against my face. Andarna struggles, her wings beating twice as hard, and Tairn flies up underneath her, taking her weight and continuing on to the Vale.

“Promise me you won’t tell anyone about the time-stopping,” Xaden asks as we head back into the tunnel, but it feels an awful lot like a command. “It’s not just for your safety. Rare abilities, when kept secret, are the most valuable form of currency we possess.”

My brow furrows as I study the stark lines of the rebellion relic that winds up his neck, marking him as a traitor’s son, warning everyone that he’s not to be trusted. Maybe he’s telling me to keep quiet for his own gain, so he can use me later down the road.

At least that means he intends for me to be alive at a later date.

“We need to figure out how unbonded cadets got in your room,” he says.

“There was a rider there,” I tell him. “Someone who ran away before you arrived. She must have unlocked it from the outside.”

“Who?” He halts, taking my elbow gently and turning me toward him.

I shake my head. There’s no way he’ll believe me. I barely believe it myself.

“At some point, you and I are going to have to start trusting each other, Sorrengail. The rest of our lives depend on it.” Fury swims in Xaden’s eyes.

“Now tell me who.”

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