Chapter no 23

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“I don’t even know what I was thinking,” I say to Rhiannon as I sit crosslegged on her bed, watching her pack her satchel with books for the afternoon. The relic on my back burns today, as if it needs to remind me that I can channel now, and I roll my shoulders to try and relieve the sensation, but it’s impossible. My clock has started.

“I can’t believe you managed to wait this long to tell me.” She lifts the canvas strap over her head and turns, leaning back against her desk. “And that’s not judgment. Far from it. I’m all for you exploring…whatever it is you want to explore.”

“I’ve been with Liam from the second I walked out the door this morning, and last night I was a little too discombobulated to put it into words.” The knot between my shoulders has me rolling my neck, looking for some relief. With flight lessons and Imogen using weight training to strengthen the muscles around my joints in hopes they won’t subluxate as often-which is hit or miss right now-I’m a mass of aches and tightness. “Between Tairn finally channeling and then everything else, it was just a night.”

“Good point.” A grin shapes her mouth and her brown eyes sparkle. “Was it good? Tell me it was good. That man looks like he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

“It was just a kiss.” Heat sings in my cheeks at the blatant lie. “But yeah. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” My brow furrows, my imagination running through the thousand different consequences of what I did last night just like it has been all morning.

“Second thoughts?” She tilts her head, studying me. “You look like maybe there are third thoughts, even.”

“No.” I shake my head. “Well, maybe? But only if it makes stuff between us weird.”

“Right. Because you’re stuck with him for the rest of your careers. Lives, too. Have you guys talked about what happens after he graduates?” Her eyebrows rise. “Oh, I bet you get the choice of duty stations. Wingleaders always get to pick.”

“He’ll get to pick,” I grumble, toying with an errant string on my satchel. “I will have to follow. Tairn and Sgaeyl haven’t been separated for years. Her last rider died almost fifty years ago, and as far as I know, she flew wherever and whenever she wanted to be near Tairn before Naolin-his last rider-died in Tyrrendor. It’s a two-day flight to that part of our border, depending on where he’s stationed, so what are we going to do next year and the year after?”

Her lips purse. “Not sure. Feirge said we won’t be able to be apart more than a couple of days, so does that mean one of you has to always follow the other?”

“No clue. I think that’s why most mated pairs bond within the same year, so they don’t have these issues. How am I supposed to remain competitive next year if I’m constantly flying off to the front line with Tairn? How is Xaden supposed to be effective if he has to fly back here all the time?” My face scrunches. “He’s the most powerful rider of our generation. He’s going to be needed on the front, not here.”

“For now.” Rhiannon stares at me with intention, lifting her brows. “He’s the most powerful rider in our generation for now.”


Three knocks have both of us looking toward her door.

“Rhi?” Liam asks, panic evident in his voice. “Is Sorrengail in there with you? Because-”

Rhiannon opens the door, and Liam stumbles inside, catching his balance before his gaze sweeps the room, finding mine.

“There you are! I went to the bathroom, and you disappeared!”

“No one’s trying to assassinate her in my room, Mairi.” Rhiannon rolls her eyes. “You don’t have to be with her every second of every fucking day. Now give us five minutes and then we’ll start walking to class.” She pushes at his chest and he retreats, his mouth opening and shutting like he’s trying to think of an argument but can’t as she forces him out the door and shuts it in his face.

“He’s…” I sigh. “Dedicated.”

“That’s one word for it,” she mutters. “You’d think that guy owes Riorson his life or something, the way he sticks to you like glue.”

He’s pretty much told me that he does, but I keep that confidence to myself. Between Xaden’s meetings, stopping time, and Andarna’s age, I’m starting to keep too many secrets.

“Oh!” Her eyes light up, and she sits on the edge of the bed next to me.

“Something happened with me last night, too.”

“Yeah?” I pivot to face her. “Do go on.”

“All right.” She takes a deep breath. “I’ve only done it three times. Twice last night and once this morning, so be patient for a second.” “Of course.” I nod.

“Watch the book on my desk.”

“Got it.” My gaze locks on the history textbook on the left-hand side of the desk. A minute passes, but I don’t look away.

Then the thing vanishes.

“What the hell, Rhi?” I fly to my feet and whip my head toward her.

“What just-” My mouth drops.

She’s holding the book, looking up at me with a wide grin.

“Is that the same book?” I lean in just to see. Yep, it’s the same.

“I guess I can summon.” Her grin grows even wider.

“Holy shit!” I grasp her shoulders in excitement. “That’s amazing! That’s…incredible! I don’t even have words for what that is!” Moving objects and locking doors are the small magics, the baseline of wielding that comes from our constant connection to our dragons through our relics once they begin channeling. But making something disappear and bringing it to you? I haven’t read about a signet power like that in a century. It’s a hell of a signet.

“Right?” She clutches the book to her chest. “I can only do it from a few feet away, and I can’t go through walls or anything.”

“Yet,” I correct her, joy bubbling through me. “You can’t go through walls yet. Rhi. That’s the kind of rare signet that’s going to make your entire career!”

“I hope so.” She stands, putting the book back on her desk. “I just have to develop it.”

“You will.” I say it with the same assurance I feel.

The three of us walk toward the academic wing minutes later, joined by Sawyer and Ridoc as they come out of commons, fresh from the library.

“I finished this for you,” Liam says, handing me a figurine as we climb the wide spiral staircase to the third floor.

It’s Tairn. He’s even mastered his snarl. “This is…incredible. Thank you.”

“Thanks.” Liam gives me a grin, flashing his dimple. “I wanted to carve Andarna first, but I’m not around her as much, you know?”

“She’s pretty private.” We break off from the crowd headed to the fourth floor, and I stash the dragon in my bag, then reach out and give him a hug. “Really, I love it. Thank you.” The hallway is crowded but clears as we walk farther down, nearing Professor Carr’s room.

“You’re welcome.” He turns to Rhiannon. “I’m starting Feirge next.”

Rhiannon jokes with Liam that she hopes he captures her full badassery, but I lose the rest of the conversation as I glance toward the floor-to-ceiling window before the entrance to the Battle Brief tower and my breath catches.

Xaden is standing with the other wingleaders, locked in what looks to be a tense discussion, his arms folded across his chest. It took the commandant all of five minutes to appoint Lamani Zohar as wingleader for Third Wing after Amber was executed, but since she was already executive officer, it made the most sense.

I’ll never get over how quickly people move on around here, how callously death is swept under a rug and trampled on minutes later.

Gods, Xaden looks good today, his brow slightly furrowed as he listens intently to something Lamani says, then nods. Hard to believe I had that mouth on mine last night, those arms wrapped around me. Forget second thoughts. I just want more.

As if he feels me staring, Xaden lifts his head, his gaze colliding with mine across the space with the same effect as a touch. My pulse skitters and my lips part.

“We’re going to be late,” Rhi reminds me, glancing back over her shoulder.

Xaden looks behind me, and his mouth tenses.

“Vi, can we talk?” Dain asks, a little out of breath, like he’s run to catch up to me.

“Now?” I rip my gaze from Xaden’s and turn to face the person I thought was my best friend.

Dain grimaces, rubbing a hand behind his neck, and nods. “I tried to catch you after formation, but you disappeared pretty quickly, and after what happened last night, I figure now is better than later.”

“It might be convenient for you to want to talk after weeks of ignoring me, but I have class right now.” I grip the strap of my satchel.

“We have a couple of minutes.” The plea in his eyes is so heavy that I feel the weight of it on my chest. “Please.”

I glance at Rhiannon, who is glaring at Dain with her true feelings for once, instead of the deference owed him as our squad leader. “I’ll be right in.”

She glances at me and then nods, heading into Carr’s room with the rest of our squad.

I follow Dain out of the doorway, to a place along the wall where we won’t obstruct traffic.

“You let Tairn share your memory with everyone instead of just showing me yourself,” he blurts, his hands falling to his sides.

“I’m sorry?” What the hell is he talking about?

“When all that shit went down with Amber, I asked you to show me what happened, and you refused.” He shifts his weight, just one of his nervous tells, and the motion strips away some of my anger.

When push comes to shove, he’s my oldest friend, even if he’s being an ass.

“I didn’t believe you, and that part is on me.” He raises his hand over his heart. “I should have believed you, but I couldn’t reconcile the woman I knew with what you were saying, and you didn’t come find me after the attack, either.” Hurt laces his tone. “I had to hear about it in formation, Vi. Regardless of the fight we had on the flight field, you’re still…you to me. And my best friend had been viciously attacked, nearly killed, and you didn’t say a single word about it.”

“You didn’t ask,” I say softly. “You reached for my head like you were entitled to my memory after blatantly telling me you didn’t believe me, and you demanded I show you.” It’s everything I can do to keep my voice even.

Two lines appear between his eyebrows. “I didn’t ask?”

“You didn’t ask.” I shake my head. “And after being told countless times that I’m not tough enough for this place, not strong enough…well, what happened on the flight field was a long time coming between you and me. The worst part is that I knew you wouldn’t believe me. It’s why I almost didn’t tell Xaden who it was, because I was sure he wouldn’t believe me, either.”

“But he did.” Dain’s voice drops, and his jaw ticks. “And he was the one who killed them in your bedroom.”

“Because Tairn told Sgaeyl.” I fold my arms across my chest. “Not because he was already there or anything. And I know you hate him-”

“You have every reason to hate him, too,” he reminds me, reaching for me before thinking better of it and drawing his hand back.

“I know that,” I counter. “His father put an arrow in Brennan’s chest, according to battlefield reports. I live with that knowledge every day. But don’t you think he sees me and remembers that my mother put his father to death? It’s…” The right words are hard to find. “It’s complicated between us.” Images of last night flood my mind, from Xaden’s first smile to the last brush of his lips, and I shove them away.

Dain flinches. “You trust him more than you trust me.” It’s not an accusation, but it stings all the same.

“That’s not it.” My stomach twists. Wait. Is it true? “I just…I have to trust him, Dain. Not with everything, of course.” Shit, I’m tying myself into knots here. “Neither of us can do anything about Sgaeyl and Tairn being mated, and trust me, neither of us likes the situation, but we have to figure

out a way through it. We don’t have a choice.”

Dain mutters a curse, but he doesn’t disagree.

“I know you just want to keep me safe, Dain,” I whisper. “But keeping me safe is keeping me from growing, too.” He blinks at me, and something shifts between us. Like maybe, just maybe, he’s finally ready to hear me. “When you told me that this place strips everything away from you to reveal what’s underneath, I was afraid. What if underneath the brittle bones and frail ligaments, there was just more weakness? Only this time, I wouldn’t be able to blame my body.”

“You’ve never been weak to me, Vi-” Dain starts, but I shake my head.

“Don’t you get it?” I interrupt. “It doesn’t matter what you think-it only matters what I think. And you were right. But the Riders Quadrant stripped away the fear and even the anger about being thrown into this quadrant, and it revealed who I really am. At my core, Dain, I’m a rider. Tairn knew it. Andarna knew it. It’s why they chose me. And until you can stop looking for ways to keep me in a glass cage, we aren’t going to get past this, no matter how many years of friendship we have between us.”

He glances over my shoulder. “And what? Riorson gets a free pass for his control issues? Because last time I checked, Liam was moved into our squad specifically to shadow you.”

It’s an excellent point. “Liam is around because even the strongest rider can’t watch their back from more than thirty unbonded cadets gunning for them. And if I die, Xaden dies. What’s your excuse?”

Dain tenses like a statue, only the muscle in his jaw ticking before he eventually leans forward and whispers, “Look, you don’t know everything there is to know about Xaden, Vi. I have a higher security clearance due to my signet, and you need to be careful. Xaden has secrets, reasons to never forgive your mother, and I don’t want him to use you to get his revenge.”

My hackles rise. There’s a sliver of truth in what he’s saying, but I don’t have time to focus on the confusion that is Xaden right now. One screwedup relationship at a time.

I narrow my gaze as Dain shuffles his feet again, a kernel of a suspicion growing in my chest. “Wait, did you keep begging me to leave Basgiath because you didn’t think I could survive here-or because you were trying to get me away from Xaden?”

I shake my head before he can answer. “You know what? It’s irrelevant.” And I mean it. “You only want to keep me safe. I appreciate that. But it stops now, Dain. Xaden is tied to me because of Sgaeyl. Nothing more. I do not need protection, and if I do-I’ve got two badass dragons who have my back. Can you respect that?”

He reaches up to cup my cheek, and I hold his gaze, determined for him to understand he either starts valuing my choices or we are never going to fix our friendship. “All right, Vi.” His eyes crinkle at the sides as his mouth turns up into a half smile. “How can I argue with someone who has two badass dragons?”

A weight shifts in my chest, and suddenly I can breathe again. I toss him a cheeky grin. “Exactly.”

“I’m sorry for not asking for the memory.” He drops his hand to my shoulder. “You’d better get to class.” And then he squeezes my shoulder gently before walking away.

I let out a shaky breath and turn back to the door for Carr’s class. The hallway is empty.

I head into Carr’s room, a massively long chamber with padded walls and no windows. The entire length is lit by chandeliers of mage lights bright enough to emulate daylight over three dozen students from Third and Fourth Wing, who are seated in rows on the floor, evenly spaced to give one another the most room.

Rhiannon and Liam meet me at the door and Professor Carr raises his bushy white brows at me when we approach where he’s positioned at the front of the room, dominating the space by doing nothing more than standing there. The man isn’t just imposing, he’s intimidating as fuck.

I swallow, remembering how he snapped Jeremiah’s neck.

“Finally ready to join us, Cadet Sorrengail?” There’s no kindness in his eyes, merely shrewd, clinical observation.

“Yes, sir.” I nod.

He studies me like I’m a bug pinned to the wall in the biology room. “Signet power?”

“Not yet.” I shake my head, keeping the whole time-stopping thing to myself like Xaden suggested. You trust him more than you trust me. In this regard, Dain is right, and guilt drops my stomach.

“I see.” He clucks his tongue, glancing over at me. “You know your siblings were both gifted by extraordinary signet powers. Mira’s ability to manifest a ward around her and her squad has been an absolute asset to her wing, and she’s been highly decorated for her valor behind enemy lines.”

“Yes. Mira is an inspiration.” I force a smile, more than aware of my sister’s prowess on the battlefield.

“And Brennan…” He looks away. “Menders are so very rare, and to lose one so young was tragic.”

“I think losing Brennan is the tragedy.” I heft my satchel up higher on my shoulder. “But the loss of his signet was a definite blow to the wings.”

“Hmm.” He blinks twice and turns his chilling gaze back on me. “Well, it seems the Sorrengail line is blessed, even in a rider as…well, delicate as you are. With Tairn having chosen you, we’ll expect nothing but an earthshattering signet from you. Take a seat. You can at least start with the lesser magics through your relic.” He waves me off.

“No pressure,” I mutter as we walk to obviously empty places in the line with the rest of our squad.

“Don’t stress,” Rhiannon says as we take our seats on the padded floor.

“That’s what I was trying to remind you of earlier. You are Tairn’s rider.” “What do you mean?” I set my satchel down next to me.

“You’re all worried about the integrity of the wing because Riorson might have to visit to keep his dragon happy but, Violet, he’s not the most powerful rider of our generation. You are.” She holds my gaze just long enough to let me know she means it.

My heart lurches into my throat.

“Now let’s begin!” Carr calls out.

December turns to January.

Ground. Shield. Imagine closing your door. Build your wall. Sense who and what has access around you. Trace the bond to your dragon. Dragons in my case. Build a second entrance-a window-into the archive of my power for Andarna’s golden energy. Block those bonds as far as you can.


Imagine a knot of power-not too intricate; no one’s ready for that yet- in front of you, then untangle it. Unlock the door.


Keep one foot firmly grounded at all times. You’re useless unless you’re connected to your power, and you’re dangerous if you can’t contain it. There is only the in-between that makes you a great rider.

Envision your power like a hand, gripping that pencil and bringing it toward you. Pick it up. No. Not like that. Try again. No, again.


I study for tests. I prep for flights. I lift weights with Imogen. I wonder how long Xaden is going to make me put in hours on the mat with Rhiannon. I win my first challenge, earning a dagger from a girl in Second Wing. But the most exhausting assignment is spending endless hours in the archive of my mind, learning which door is Tairn’s and which belongs to Andarna, then working diligently to separate the two.

It turns out that while my power might flow from my dragons, the ability to control it comes from my own exertion, and there are nights I fall into bed, plunging into sleep before I even remove my boots.

By the end of the second week in January, I’m not only pissed that Xaden hasn’t bothered to talk to me about that kiss but exhausted, and that’s without a signet power manifesting, draining my energy to control it.

Ridoc can wield ice, which might be a more common signet, but it’s impressive to see.

Sawyer’s metallurgy powers grow every day.

Liam can see a single tree miles away.

I guess I can stop time, but I’m not willing to drain Andarna just for the sake of trying again, not when it took her more than a week of straight sleeping to recover. Without a signet, all I can wield are the lesser magics. I finally use an ink pen, lock a door, and open it. I’m a party trick.

By the third week in January, I earn yet another dagger in a challenge against a guy in Third Wing, my second without weakening my opponent with poisons. It leaves me with a sore wrist, but my joints are intact.

And in the fourth week, during the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced at Basgiath, I sneak out in the middle of the night to see the challenge board.

Jack has finally been given the chance to end me on the mat tomorrow.

“He’s going to kill me.” That’s all I can think as I dress for the morning, sheathing all of my daggers in the most advantageous places.

“He’s going to try.” Tairn is up early.

“Any advice?” I know Liam is waiting for us to make the library run before breakfast.

“Don’t let him.”

I scoff. He makes it sound so damned simple.

We’re already on our way back from the library when I finally work up the nerve to talk to Liam about it. “If I tell you something, will you report it to Xaden?”

His head whips in my direction as he pushes the cart over the bridge between the quadrants. “Why would you think-”

“Oh, come on.” I roll my eyes. “We both know you report just about everything I do. I’m not ignorant.” Snow pelts the windows, making a dull, chiming sound.

“He worries. I alleviate worries.” He glances at me again before looking forward. “I know it’s not fair. I know it’s a breach of your privacy. But it’s nothing compared to what I owe him.”

“Yeah. I got that part.” I hurry ahead and open the thick, heavy door into the citadel so he can pass through. “Maybe I should rephrase my question. If I were to tell you something and ask you specifically to keep this one thing between the two of us, would you agree? Are we friends, or am I just your assignment?”

He pauses while I shut the door, and I can tell he’s thinking by the way he drums his fingers on the handle of the cart. “Would me keeping it to myself alter your safety in any way?”

“No.” I catch up to him and we start along the incline that will eventually split into two tunnels-one toward the dormitory and the other toward

commons. “There’s nothing you can do, and that’s the point.”

“We’re friends. Tell me.” He grimaces. “I’ll keep it to myself.”

“Jack Barlowe is going to be allowed to challenge me today.”

He stops walking, so I do, too. “How do you know that?”

“And that is why I’m asking you to keep it to yourself.” I cringe. “Just… try to trust that I know.”

“The instructors can’t let that happen.” He shakes his head, panic creeping into his eyes.

“They’re going to.” I shrug, forcing a tight smile. “He’s been asking since the first day, so it’s not like we didn’t see this coming. Point is, Jack is going to challenge me today, and when he does, you can’t step in, no matter what.”

His blue eyes widen. “Vi, if we tell Riorson, he can put a stop to it.”

“No.” I reach for his hand and lay mine on top of it. “He can’t.” My stomach twists, but at least I’m not puking like I did when I found out. “There’s only so much Xaden can do to protect me both here and once we’re on the front lines. You and I both know that if he stops this, there will be an uproar in the quadrant after what happened to Amber.”

“And you expect me to stand there and watch whatever happens… happen?” he asks, incredulous.

“Just like you have the last two challenges.” I force another smile. “Don’t worry. I’m going to use everything I have to my advantage.” And everything I have is currently in a vial tucked into the tiny pocket at my waist.

“I don’t like this.” He shakes his head.

“Yeah, well, that makes two of us.”

There’s no flight field today-the dragons have deemed it too cold to fly over the last week, which means we’re all headed to the sparring gym after formation. I don’t bother with breakfast, but I pay close attention to every single thing on Jack’s tray as I walk by, noting what’s there…and what isn’t.

My heart pounds a chaotic, nauseating rhythm by the time all eighty-one of the surviving first-years gather in the gym.

Professor Emetterio calls out the challenges one by one, assigning them to a mat. At least we’ll all fight at once, which means not every rider will be watching.

At least Xaden isn’t here, which means Liam kept his word.

“Mat seventeen, Jack Barlowe from First Wing versus…” His eyebrows rise, and he takes a deep breath. “Violet Sorrengail.”

Thank gods Rhiannon’s already across the floor, ready to challenge a woman from Third Wing, so she doesn’t have to see how the blood drains from Liam’s face. She shouldn’t have to see any of this. Sawyer’s gone, too, over at mat nine.

“No fucking way,” Ridoc mutters, shaking his head.

“Finally!” Jack throws his hands in the air like he’s already won.

“Let’s do this.” I roll my shoulders and head for the mat. Neither Liam nor Ridoc is called to the mat today, so they walk at my sides.

“Tell me I can break the promise,” Liam begs, and the pleading look in his eyes tells me exactly what a shitty position I’ve put him in.

“The third-years are off doing third-year things,” I tell him as my toes touch the mat. “You can’t get him here in time, but I know what it means to

you to keep your word. Especially with him. Go ahead.”

He looks from me to Ridoc. “Guard her like you’re me.”

“You mean like I’m six inches taller and built like a bull?” Ridoc gives him a thumbs-up. “Sure. I’ll do my best. In the meantime, you’d better run.”

Liam’s gaze finds mine. “Stay alive.”

“Working on it, and not just for my sake.” I give him a smile. “Thanks for being a great shadow.”

His eyes widen a split second before he sprints out of the gym.

“Barlowe and Sorrengail,” Emetterio calls from the opposite side of the mat. “Weapons?”

Jack bounces like a kid who’s just been given a gift. “Anything she can hold in those puny hands of hers.” The look in his eyes sends a shiver of apprehension down my spine.

I step onto the mat, and Jack does the same, walking forward until we’re at the center, facing each other.

“No wielding,” Emetterio reminds us. “Tap out or knockout earns you a victory.”

Pretty sure everyone gathered around this mat knows that Jack isn’t going for either of those options. If he gets his hands around my neck, I’m dead.

“That whole I-die-Xaden-dies thing is really just a hypothesis, right?” I ask, unsheathing the daggers that are hardest to reach during a fight, the ones in my boots.

“One I’d rather not put to the test,” Tairn growls.

I stand, gripping the handles of my daggers, as Jack faces me with a single knife. “You’re kidding, right? Only one?” “I only need one.” He grins with sickening excitement.

“Go for the gullet,” Tairn suggests.

“I don’t have the energy to block you out right now, so I’m going to need you to be quiet for a few minutes here.”

An answering growl is the only response I get.

“Keep it clean,” Emetterio warns. “Go.”

My heart drums so loudly, I can hear it in my ears as we begin to circle each other.

“Offense. Now. Strike first,” Tairn snaps.

“Not helping!”

Jack lunges, striking out with his knife, and I slice my dagger across the back of his hand, drawing first blood.

“Shit!” He jumps back, his cheeks blotching.

That’s what I want, what I need to win this match, for him to get so angry that he acts without thinking and makes a mistake.

He dances forward and then kicks out, aiming for my midsection, and I stumble back, narrowly avoiding the blow. “Bet you wish you could throw that blade, don’t you?” he taunts, knowing I won’t break a rule when it can hurt someone in the matches going on around us.

“Bet you wish you didn’t know what it feels like to dig out one of my knives, don’t you?” I retort.

His lips press into a thin line before he comes at me in a series of punches and swipes with his dagger. I can’t deflect-he’s too strong for me, as evidenced by the dagger he easily kicks out of my hand-so I use my speed, ducking and diving while getting in another cut, this one along his forearm.

“Damn it!” he rages, twisting to follow as I come around his back. He catches me off guard, locking onto my arm and flipping me over his back to the mat.

I take the blow on my shoulder and wince, but there’s no sound of tearing or snapping. Thanking Imogen will be my first order of business if I make it out of this.

Keeping my arm locked, Jack thrusts his knife straight at my chest, but it’s deflected by my vest, skimming along my ribs to lodge in the mat. “He’s using death blows!” Ridoc shouts. “That’s not allowed!” “Pull it back, Barlowe!” Emetterio bellows.

“What do you think, Sorrengail?” Jack whispers in my ear, holding me immobile with my arm behind my back. “Admit it. You and I both knew it would be like this between us. Quick. Embarrassingly easy. Fatal. Your precious wingleader isn’t here to save you.”

No, but Xaden will suffer…if not worse if Jack achieves his goal. The thought spurs me to action. Ignoring the pain, I throw my weight into a roll, subluxating my shoulder but freeing myself from his grip when he gets tangled in my legs.

Then I kick him straight in the balls.

He hits his knees as I gain my feet, clutching himself as his mouth opens in a silent scream.

“Tap out,” I order, picking up the dagger I dropped. “I can cut you open at any second. Both you and I know if this were real life, you’d be done.”

“If this were real life, I would have killed you the second you stepped onto the mat,” he seethes through gritted teeth.

“Tap. Out.”

“Fuck off!” He throws his dagger.

I throw up my hands to block, but it lodges in my left fucking forearm. Blood streams and pain sears the nerves along my arm, erupting with alarming poignancy, but I know better than to remove it. Right now, it’s holding that wound as shut as it can.

“No throwing!” Emetterio shouts from the sidelines, but Jack is already moving, barreling toward me with a series of kicks and punches that I’m not ready for. His fist slams into my cheek, and I feel the skin split.

His knee forces the air from my body when he rams it into my stomach.

But I stay on my feet until his hands clasp my face. Agony fills every cell in my body as violent, vibrating energy rips through me with an intensity that makes it feel like he’s cleaving ligament from bone, muscle from tendon.

I scream as I’m shaken by an internal force I don’t understand, as though he’s forcing his own power into my body, shocking me with a thousand stings of vibrating energy.

Now. If I don’t do it now, he’ll kill me. My vision is already darkening at the edges.

I reach a trembling hand into the pocket of my leathers and thumb open the stopper on the vial.

His sadistic grin and a red rim around his eyes are all I can see as he forces more and more power into my body, but his hands are occupied and he’s too obsessed with his victory to hear that I’ve stopped screaming, to see that I’m moving.

“He’s using his powers!” Ridoc roars, and from the corner of my decreasing vision, I see movement on both sides.

I shove the vial against Jack’s smile so hard, I feel one of his teeth break.

Hands reach for us both, and I hear Ridoc and Emetterio cry out, jerking their hands away after contact. Whatever Jack is doing is transferring from me to them by touch.

My teeth rattle as the pain consumes me, my body fighting to pass out, to escape the unbearable torture, but I refuse to succumb to the darkness until Jack wheezes.

His eyes fly impossibly wide, and he drops his hands, clutching his own neck as his airway closes.

My knees give way, my body still shuddering as I hit the mat, but so does Jack, heaving and clawing at his neck as his face turns purple.

Ridoc’s face is in mine within seconds. “Breathe, Sorrengail. Just breathe.”

“What the hell is wrong with him?” someone asks as Jack writhes.

“Oranges,” I whisper to Ridoc as my body finally gives out. “He’s allergic to oranges.” I fall into nothingness.

When I wake, I’m not on the mat, and I can tell by the windows of the Healer Quadrant infirmary that night has fallen. I’ve been out for hours.

And that’s not Ridoc lounged in the chair next to my bed, glaring at me like he’d like to kill me himself.

It’s Xaden. His hair is tousled, like he’s been tugging at it, and he’s flipping a dagger end over end, catching it by the tip without so much as looking at it before sheathing it at his side. “Oranges?”

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