Chapter no 25

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“Tap out!” Rhiannon screams as a rider out of Second Wing fights to drag himself forward on the mat, his hands splayed wide, his fingernails digging in as Liam holds him in a leg lock, forcing his back into what should be an impossible arch.

My heart pounds as the excitement of today’s matches reaches a fever pitch.

It’s the last challenge of this portion of the Squad Battle, and the crowd pushes at our backs, forcing me to continuously struggle not to fall over onto the mat. After two events, we’re in seventh out of twenty-four on the leaderboard, but if Liam wins, we’ll jump to third.

My flight time in the gauntlet sky race was the slowest in squad, but that’s because I kept forcing Tairn to release his magical hold on me-and then we’d lose precious seconds while he had to dip to catch me and toss me back in the saddle. Over and over and over again. I swear, the bruises on my ass from landing in the hard divot hurt less than Tairn’s scoff that I’d humiliated his entire family line as we crossed the finish line last.

Mikael cries out in pain, the sound sharp, near earsplitting, and pulling my attention back to the action in front of me. Liam holds fast and presses his advantage.

“Fuck me, that looks like it hurts,” I mutter over the cheering first-years.

“Yeah, he’s not walking for a while,” Ridoc agrees, cringing as the arc of Mikael’s back looks like a broken spine waiting to happen.

With another cry, Mikael slams his palm into the mat three times, and the crowd roars.

“Yes! Go, Liam!” Sawyer screams from behind me, and Liam drops Mikael to the mat, where he sprawls out, exhausted.

“We won!” Liam rushes for us, and I’m swept up into a tangle of arms and shouting and joyous squadmates.

I’m pretty sure I even see Imogen in this little melee.

But I don’t see Dain. Where the hell is Dain? He would never miss this.

“Your winner!” Professor Emetterio shouts, his voice ringing through the gym and quieting the zealous energy as Liam steps out of our crushing hug. “Liam Mairi from Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing!”

Liam puts up both hands in victory and turns in a small circle, and the sound of cheering makes my ears ring in the best way.

Commandant Panchek steps onto the mat, and Liam joins the rest of our squad, sweat pouring off his skin. “I know you were all expecting the last portion of the Squad Battle to happen tomorrow, but the cadre and I have a surprise.”

He has every single rider’s attention now.

“Instead of telling you what the final, unknown task will be and giving you tonight to plan for it, your final task will begin this hour!” He grins, throwing out his hands and turning just like Liam had.

“Tonight?” Ridoc whispers.

My stomach hits the ground. “Dain isn’t here. Neither is Cianna.” “Oh shit,” Imogen whispers, looking over the crowd herself.

“As you may have noticed, your squad leaders and their executive officers have been…shall we say, sequestered with your section leaders and wingleaders, and no, before someone asks, your task is not to find them.” He continues to walk in a small circle, addressing each side of the mat. “You are to break into your squads and accomplish a unique mission this evening without the leadership and instruction of your squad leaders.”

“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having squad leaders?” someone asks across the mat.

“The purpose of a squad leader is to form a tightly knit unit that can carry on with a mission after their demise. Consider your leaders…demised.” Panchek shrugs with a gleeful smile. “You’re on your own, riders. Your mission is simple: find and acquire, by any means necessary, the one thing that would be most advantageous to our enemies regarding the war effort.

Leadership will serve as unbiased judges, and the winning squad will be awarded sixty points.”

“That’s enough to put us into first!” Rhiannon whispers, linking her arm with mine. “We could win the glory of going to the front!” “What are the boundaries?” someone to the right asks.

“Anything within the walls of Basgiath,” Panchek answers. “And don’t you dare let me see you trying to haul a dragon back here. They’ll incinerate you out of sheer annoyance.”

The squad to our left mutters their disappointment.

“You have”-Panchek pulls out his pocket watch-“three hours, at which time we’ll expect you to present your stolen treasures in the Battle Brief room.”

We all stare at him in silence. Out of everything I imagined the third and final task to be…well, this wasn’t anywhere near that list.

“What are you waiting for?” Panchek shoos his hands at us. “Go!” Pandemonium ensues.

This is what happens when you remove our leadership. We’re…a hot freaking mess.

“Second Squad!” Imogen yells, putting her hands up. “Follow me!”

Sawyer and Heaton make sure we’re all ducklings, following in Imogen’s wake as she leads us across the gym to the weight room.

“You did great,” I tell Liam as he walks at my side, still struggling to catch his breath.

“It was epic.” Ridoc hands Liam a waterskin, which Liam promptly drains.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” Imogen says, ushering us through the open door. She does a quick head count and then closes the door, wielding to lock it.

I find a seat on one of the benches, flanked by Rhiannon and Liam.

“First thing. Who wants to be in command?” Imogen asks, looking at the ten of us.

Ridoc throws his hand in the air.

Rhiannon turns and forces it back down. “No.” She shakes her head.

“You’ll turn this into some kind of prank.” “Fair point.” He shrugs.

“Liam?” Quinn asks, lifting her eyebrows.

“No.” He shakes his head, but his gaze darts in my direction, giving his reasoning away.

“No one is going to try and off me while we’re out tonight,” I argue.

He turns back toward Imogen and shakes his head one more time.

Of course she nods. They’re both on Team Xaden.

“You keep command,” Rhiannon suggests, looking at Imogen. “You’ve gotten us this far.”

A murmur of agreement goes around the room.

“Emery? Heaton?” Imogen asks. “As third-years, it’s your right.” “No thanks.” Heaton leans back against the wall.

“Nope. There’s a reason neither of us wanted to be in leadership,” Emery adds, sitting next to Nadine. “Any reason you wouldn’t be all right following Imogen’s command for a few hours, Nadine?”

Every one of us turns to face the first-year who hasn’t been remotely subtle about her hatred of marked ones. Knowing now that she’s from a northern village on the border of the provinces of Deaconshire and Tyrrendor, I can see her reasoning. I just don’t agree with it, hence why I’m not exactly friendly with her.

She visibly swallows, her nervous gaze skittering over all of us. “I’m fine with it.”

“Good.” Imogen folds her arms across her chest, the wrist with her rebellion relic peeking out from under her tunic. “We have a little less than three hours. What are your ideas?”

“What about a piece of weaponry?” Ridoc suggests. “A cross-bolt would be deadly to any of our dragons in the hands of our enemies.”

“Too big,” Quinn says decisively. “There’s only one in the museum, and honestly, it’s not even the bolt that’s deadly, it’s the launching system.” “Next?” Imogen glances at each of us.

“We could steal Panchek’s underw-” Ridoc starts before Rhiannon slams her hand over his mouth.

“And that’s why we don’t let you lead.” She arches a brow at him.

“Come on, guys! Think! What’s the most useful thing to our enemy?” Imogen’s brow puckers over her pale green eyes.

“Information,” Liam answers. He swings his gaze toward me. “Violet, what about stealing the news missives from the Archives? The ones that come in from the front?”

I shake my head. “It’s after seven. The Archives are locked, and it’s the kind of vault that even wielding isn’t going to touch. The whole room is sealed up airtight in case of fire.”

“Damn.” Imogen sighs. “That was a good one.”

The entire room breaks into conversation, each voice louder than the next as suggestions are hurled into the open.

Information. My stomach twists as an idea takes form. It would be a showstopper, something no one else could compare to. But… I shake my head. It’s too risky.

“What are you thinking, Sorrengail?” Imogen asks and the room falls silent. “I can see the little gears turning in your mind.”

“It’s probably nothing.” I glance at the members of our squad. But is it nothing?

“Get up here and work it out in your head,” Imogen orders.

“Seriously, it’s mad. Like, undoable. We’d get thrown in the brig if we’re caught.” I snap my mouth shut before I say anything more.

But it’s too late-Imogen’s eyes are sparkling with interest.

“Get. Up. Here. And. Work. It. Out,” she orders, making sure I know it’s not a suggestion.

“We can wield, right?” I stand, brushing my hands down my sides and the hilts of the six daggers sheathed there.

“By all means necessary,” Heaton repeats, nodding.

“All right.” I rock back on my heels, letting my mind whirl through a plan. “I know Ridoc can wield ice, Rhiannon can retrieve, Sawyer can manipulate metal, Imogen can mind-wipe recent memories-” “And I’m fast,” she adds.

Something she has in common with Xaden.

“Heaton, what about you?” I ask.

“I can breathe underwater,” they answer.

I blink. “Awesome, but I don’t think that’s going to come in handy if we do this. Emery?”

“I can control wind.” He grins. “A lot of wind.”

All right, that one could be defensively useful, but not quite what I’m looking for.

My boots squeak on the floor as I turn to face her. “Quinn?”

“I can astral project. Keep my body in one place and then walk around somewhere else.”

My mouth hangs open, matching about half the squad.

“I know, it’s pretty awesome.” She winks, pulling her curls up into a bun. “Yes. That we can use.” My head bobs as I parcel through the easiest way to do this.

“What are you thinking, Sorrengail?” Imogen prompts, tucking the short hair on one side of her shaved head behind her ear.

“You’re going to tell me I’ve lost my mind, but if we pull it off, we’ll win for sure.” I might not be enough like my mother to win her approval, but I know where she keeps the most valuable information.


“We’re going to break into my mother’s office.”

“You are so fucking creepy.” Ridoc squirms two hours later, leaning away from Quinn, well, from Quinn’s astral form. Her body is currently with Heaton, guarded in the weight room.

The rest of us are sneaking through the hallways past the Healer Quadrant. We’ve already run into a squad from Second and another from Third, but none of us had time to question or deter the others.

We’ll rise or fall on our own merit with this timeline, and we’ve wasted the last two hours waiting for night to fall so it would even be possible.

“I’ve never been farther than this,” Emery says as we pass the last door to the clinic.

“You’ve never even been to the Archives?” Imogen asks.

“I avoid that duty like the plague,” Emery answers. “Scribes freak me out. Quiet little know-it-alls, acting like they can make or break someone by writing something down.”

I grin. There’s more truth to that statement than most people realize.

“Infantry is still out camping.” Rhiannon points out the windows to the dozens of campfires illuminating the field below.

“Must be nice to get a break,” Nadine remarks, but there’s no snotty tone I’ve come to expect, just the same exhaustion I think we all feel. “Scribes will all go home for the summer. Healers get to spend their weekends on those mind-body-health retreats, and the infantry might have to practice making and breaking camp in the snow through winter, but at least they spend those months around a campfire.”

“We’ll get to go home,” Imogen argues.

“After graduation,” Rhiannon retorts. “For what? A couple of days?”

We come to a fork in the path, where we can follow the tunnel down to the Archives or climb into the fortress of the war college.

“There’s no turning back from here,” I say to the group, looking up the spiral staircase I’ve climbed so many times that I know each step by heart. “Lead on!” Quinn orders, and we all jump about a foot in the air. “Shhh!” Imogen hisses. “Some of us can get caught, you know.” “Right. Sorry.” Quinn cringes.

“Everyone, remember the plan,” I whisper. “No one deviates. No one.”

They all nod, and we begin our silent climb up the dark stairs, then cling to the shadows as we cross the stone courtyard of Basgiath.

“Sure could use Xaden right about now.”

“You’re doing great,” Andarna assures me in the happiest of tones. I swear, nothing bothers her. She’s the most fearless kid I’ve ever met, and I grew up with Mira.

“It’s six flights straight up,” I whisper when we reach the next set of stairs, and we continue to climb as fast as we can without making any noise. Anxiety spikes, and my power rises in response, the relic in my back heating to an uncomfortable burn. It’s always there lately, simmering beneath my skin, reminding me that performing lesser magics isn’t going to be enough to vent it if I don’t manifest a signet soon.

Eventually, we reach the top of the steps, and Liam leans out just far enough to see down the length of what’s always felt like the world’s longest hallway. “There are mage lights in sconces,” he whispers. “And you were right.” He withdraws into the safety of the stairwell. “There’s only one guard stationed at the door.”

“Was there any light under the door?” I ask quietly. My heart sounds like it’s loud enough for the whole college to hear, even the infantry cadets sleeping hundreds of feet below us.

“No.” He turns to Quinn. “The guard looks about six feet tall, but he seems pretty athletic. The other stairwell is down the hallway to the left,

which means you’ll have to get his attention and then book it.”

Quinn nods. “No problem.”

“Everyone else know what they’re doing?” I ask.

There are eight nods.

“Then let’s do this. Quinn, you’re up. Everyone else, circle back down so he can’t see us if he looks this way.” I can’t believe we’re actually about to do this. If she catches us, there won’t be any mercy. It’s not in her nature.

We retreat, and Quinn charges up the stairs. Her voice is muffled by the stone walls, but we hear the guard’s pounding footsteps clear as day as he charges past the stairway.

“Get back here! You can’t be here!” “Now!” Imogen orders.

We launch, leaving Rhiannon and Emery in the stairwell as we fly into the hallway. Sawyer rushes toward the opposite staircase, throwing the door shut and twisting the metal joints with his powers as we bolt down the hall.

I’ve never run this fast in my life, and Nadine is already at the door, trying to unweave whatever wards my mother has used.

Liam steps into the spot where the guard stood and lifts his chin in the air, taking the same posture. “Are you all right?”

“Yep,” I answer, my chest heaving as Imogen steps in to help Nadine. Nadine’s signet is the ability to unweave wards, which I never thought would come in this handy. Riders are always out there building the wards, keeping the shields up around Navarre. Then again, not many riders try to break into the commanding general’s office. “And I’ll be fine in there,” I assure him, a smile tugging at my lips. “Which is funny, since I didn’t think the same way the last time I was standing here.”

“Got it!” Nadine whispers, nudging the door open.

“If you hear me whistle-” Liam starts, worry lining his forehead.

“We’ll go out the window or something,” I assure him as Ridoc and Sawyer rush past. “Relax.” Leaving Liam to stand watch, I join the others in Mom’s office.

“Don’t touch the mage lights or she’ll know,” I warn them. “You have to make your own.” I flick my wrist, twisting my power into a bright blue flame and letting it drift over me. It’s one of the things I’m actually good at.

“How nice is this?” Ridoc flops down onto the red couch.

“We don’t have time for you to be…you,” Sawyer lectures, heading for the bookcase. “Help me search for something useful.”

“We’ll take the table.” Imogen and Nadine start sorting through papers on the six-seater conference table.

“Which leaves me and the desk,” I mutter, walking around the intimidating piece of furniture and praying I don’t trigger any wards she’s set. There are three folded missives in the middle, and I pick up the first, revealing a sharp dagger with an alloy-infused hilt and what looks to be a Tyrrish rune in the handle that she must be using as a letter opener or something. I unfold the letter with as much care as I can.

General Sorrengail,

The raids around Athebyne have spread the wing too thin. Being posted beyond the safety of the wards comes with considerable hazards, and though I am loath to request reinforcements, I must. If we do not reinforce the post, we may be forced to abandon it. We are protecting Navarrian citizens with life, limb, and wing, but I cannot adequately relay how dire the situation is here. I know you receive the dailies from our scribe attachment, but I would be remiss in my duties as executive officer of the Southern Wing if I did not write to you personally. Please find us reinforcements.


Major Kallista Neema

I breathe past the ache that erupts in my chest at the plea in her letter. We’ve discussed nearly daily attacks in Battle Brief, but nothing on that scale.

Maybe they don’t want to scare us.

But if it’s that terrifying out there, we have every right to know-we’ll likely be called into service before we graduate. Maybe even this year.

“These are all…numbers,” Imogen says, rifling through the conference table papers.

“It’s April,” I say, reaching for the next missive. “She’s working on next year’s budget.”

Everyone stops and turns to look at me, all wearing expressions of varying degrees of disbelief.

“What?” I shrug. “Did you think this place ran itself?” “Keep looking,” Imogen orders. I unfold the next missive.

General Sorrengail,

Protests regarding conscription laws are growing within the province of Tyrrendor. Knowing that due to Tyrrendor’s size, it provides the majority of our conscripts to replenish our front lines, we cannot afford to lose the support of the people again. Perhaps an influx of defensive spending on outposts here would not only bolster the province’s economy and remind the

Tyrrish how needed they are to the defense of our kingdom, but also ease the unrest. Please consider this solution as an alternative to suppressing the unrest with force.


Lieutenant Colonel Alyssa Travonte

What the hell? I close the letter and put it back on Mom’s desk, then turn to the giant map hanging on the wall directly above me.

Unrest isn’t new to Tyrrendor, nor is the sentiment against conscription, but we certainly haven’t heard any political rumblings in Battle Brief. Other than to quell discontent, it would make no sense to increase defensive spending there, especially since it holds our fewest number of outposts due to the natural barrier provided by the Cliffs of Dralor, which are unscalable by gryphons. Tyrrendor should already be one of the safest provinces on the Continent. Well, except Aretia. Where that capital should be, there is only a scorch mark, as though the burning of the city has singed the map as well.

I study the map for precious seconds, noting the battlement markers dotted along the countryside. Logically, there are more outposts along our more active border zones and, according to this map, more troops in those locations.

It shows all of Navarre, Krovla to the south, Braevick and Cygnisen to the southeast, and even the barriers of the Barrens, the ruined deserted lands at the southern tip of the Continent. It also shows each of our outposts and supply routes within Navarre.

A slow grin spreads across my face.

“Hey, Second Squad. I know what we need to steal.”

It takes a matter of minutes for us to haul the map down and cut it away from its frame, then another to roll it, securing it with leather ties Imogen pulls out of her satchel.

Liam whistles, and my heart nearly leaps out of my chest.

“Shit!” Ridoc races to the door and cracks it open as we all prepare to flee. “What’s going on out there?”

“He’s pounding at the hall door! It’s going to give any second. We have to go now,” Liam whisper-shouts, holding the door open as we all race into the hallway. The map is too big for one person to carry, and Sawyer and Imogen struggle through the doorway as the guard kicks in the door farther down the hall.

My stomach hits the floor, and panic threatens to overwhelm logical thought.

“And we’re fucked,” Nadine announces.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the guard shouts, charging toward us.

“We’re dead if he catches us with the map.” Ridoc bounces on his toes like he’s preparing to fight. On any given day, I’d argue that riders are the superior fighters-we have to be-but that Basgiath guard might just give us a run for our money.

“We can’t hurt him,” I protest.

The guard barrels past the first stairwell and Rhiannon steps into the middle of the hallway, her arms outstretched.

“Please work. Please work. Please work,” Imogen chants.

The map disappears out of her hands and reappears down the hallway in Rhiannon’s.

I barely have time to register that it worked as the guard stumbles, but he keeps running. Any closer and he’ll see my face.

“This was not part of the plan.” Liam moves to my side.

“Adapt! Emery!” Imogen hisses, and the third-year steps to the front of our little raiding party.

“I’m so sorry, man.” He holds out his hands and pushes. A torrent of air rushes down the hallway, ripping tapestries from the walls and knocking into the guard, sending him flying against the stone wall. “Run!”

We sprint down the hall toward where the guard lies limp. “Put him in here,” I hiss, forcing open the next door, the one that belongs to one of my mother’s undersecretaries.

Liam and Ridoc haul the guard in, and I put my fingers to his neck. “Good strong pulse. He just knocked him out. Open his mouth.” I snag the vial hidden in the pocket of my leathers, uncork it, and then let the tonic

flow into the guard’s mouth. “He’ll sleep the rest of the night.”

Liam’s wide eyes meet mine. “You’re kind of terrifying.”

“Thank you.” I grin, and we get out of there, running as fast as we can.

Fifteen minutes later, our chests are still heaving as we skid into the Battle Brief room, just under the clock.

We’re the last to arrive, and the tick of Dain’s jaw from where he sits in the top row with the other leadership tells me we’re going to get an earful about it.

I drag my gaze away, and we find our seats as presentations begin in order of squad, giving us enough time to recover from our sprinting session before we have to take the stage.

A squad in First Wing stole Kaori’s handwritten manual on the personal habits and flaws of all active dragons. Impressive.

A squad in Second Wing elicits an appreciative murmur when they reveal the uniform of one of the Infantry professors, fully intact with something riders never bear-a name tag. That would grant any enemy access to our outposts, given the rank on the shoulder.

Third Wing’s best offering is a stunned, wide-eyed scribe, stolen straight from his bed, and given the way his mouth isn’t moving… Yep, someone’s signet power takes away speech. The poor thing is going to be traumatized when they finally let him go.

When it’s our turn to take the stage, Sawyer and Liam, the two tallest in our squad, hold the top corners of our map so it’s visible to all as it unrolls.

I stand back next to Imogen and search the leadership for a certain pair of onyx eyes. There he is.

Xaden is leaning against the wall near the other wingleaders, watching me with a pulse-quickening mix of curiosity and expectation.

“It was your idea,” Imogen whispers, nudging me forward. “Present.”

Markham’s eyes flare wide as saucers as he forces himself to stand, followed quickly by Devera, whose mouth hangs so wide, it’s almost comical.

I clear my throat and gesture to the map. “We have brought the ultimate weapon for our enemies. An up-to-date map of all current outposts of Navarrian wings, to include troop strength of infantry battlements.” I point to the forts along the Cygnisen border. “As well as the locations of all

current skirmishes in the last thirty days. Including last night.” A murmur rips through the quadrant.

“And how do we know this map is, in fact, current?” Kaori asks, holding his reclaimed journal under one arm.

There’s no stopping the smile that spreads across my face. “Because we stole it from General Sorrengail’s office.”

Absolute mayhem breaks out, some of the riders rushing the stage as professors battle their way toward us, but I ignore it all as Xaden tilts one corner of that beautiful mouth and tips an imaginary hat to me, bowing his head for a heartbeat before bringing his gaze back to hold mine. Satisfaction fills every ounce of my being as I smile up at him.

It doesn’t matter how the vote comes down. I’ve already won.

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