Chapter no 27

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“So all we do is wait for something to happen?” Ridoc asks the next afternoon, leaning back in his chair and putting his boots on the end of the wooden table that runs the length of the briefing room.

“Yes,” Mira says from the head of the table, then flicks her wrist and sends Ridoc flying backward. “And keep your feet off the table.”

One of the Montserrat riders laughs, changing the markers on the large map that consumes the only stone wall in the curved, windowed room. This is the highest turret in the outpost, offering unmatched views of the Esben mountain range around us.

We’ve been split into two groups for the day. Rhiannon, Sawyer, Cianna, Nadine, and Heaton spent the morning with Devera in this room, studying previous battles at the outpost, and are now out on patrol.

Dain, Ridoc, Liam, Emery, Quinn, and I spent the morning on a two-hour flight around the surrounding area, with one extra tagalong-Xaden. He’s been the worst kind of distraction since arriving last night.

Dain won’t stop glaring at him and making snide remarks.

Mira keeps one eye on him at all times as well, suspiciously quiet since last night.

And me? I can’t seem to keep my eyes to myself. There’s a palpable energy in every room he enters, and it brushes over my skin like a caress each time our eyes meet. Even now, I’m aware of every breath he takes as he sits next to me midway down the table.

“Consider this your Battle Brief,” Mira continues, side-eyeing Ridoc as he scrambles back into his chair. “This morning was about a quarter of the patrol we’d regularly fly, so normally we’d just be getting back about now and reporting our findings to the commander. But for the sake of killing time, since we’re in this room as the reaction flight for this afternoon, let’s pretend we’d come across a newly fortified enemy outpost crossing our border”-she turns to the map and sticks a pin with a small crimson flag near one of the peaks about two miles from the Cygnisen borderline -“here.”

“We’re supposed to pretend it just popped up overnight?” Emery asks, openly skeptical.

“For the sake of argument, third-year.” Mira narrows her eyes on him, and he sits up a little straighter.

“I like this game,” another one of the Montserrat riders says from the end of the table, lacing his fingers behind his neck.

“What would our objective be?” Mira glances around the table, noticeably skipping Xaden. Last night, she’d taken one look at the rebellion relic on his neck and walked by without saying a word. “Aetos?”

Dain startles from where he was glowering across the table at Xaden and turns to face the map. “What type of fortifications are there? Are we talking a haphazard wooden structure? Or something more substantial?”

“Like they had time to build a fortress overnight,” Ridoc mutters. “It has to be wooden, right?”

“You are all so fucking literal.” Mira sighs and rubs her thumb over her forehead. “Fine, let’s say they occupied a keep that’s already established.

Stone and all.”

“But the civilians didn’t call for help?” Quinn asks, scratching her pointed chin. “Protocol calls for a distress signal this far into the mountains. They should have lit their distress beacon, alerting patrolling riders, at which time the dragons on patrol would have told all available dragons in the area. The very riders in this room would have mounted first as the reaction force and the others would have been woken from their rests, allowing the riders to prevent the loss of the keep in the first place.”

Mira scoffs and braces her hands on the end of the table, staring us all down. “Everything you’re taught at Basgiath is theory. You analyze past attacks and learn those very…theoretical combat maneuvers. But things out here don’t always go according to plan. So why don’t we talk about all the ways things can go sideways, so you’ll know what to do when they do, as

opposed to arguing that the keep shouldn’t have fallen?” Quinn shifts her weight uncomfortably.

“How many of you have been called out as third-years?” Mira stands straight, folding her arms over her black leathers and the strap that holds her sword to her back.

Emery and Xaden raise their hands, though Xaden’s is barely a gesture.

Dain looks like his head is about to explode. “That’s not correct. We’re never called into service until graduation.”

Xaden presses his lips in a tight line and nods, giving him a sarcastic thumbs-up.

“Yeah, all right.” Emery laughs. “Just wait until next year. I can’t count how many times we’re the ones sitting in these very rooms in the midland forts because their riders have been called to the front for an emergency.” The color drains from Dain’s face.

“Now that’s settled.” Mira reaches under the table and pulls out a set of models, putting a six-inch stone keep in the center of the table. “Catch.” One by one, she tosses painted wooden models of dragons at us, keeping one for herself. “Pretend Messina and Exal don’t exist back there, and we’re the only squad available to take back that keep. Think of the power in this room. Think of what each individual rider brings to the table and how you’d use those powers in unison to conquer your objective.”

“But they don’t teach that to first-years,” Liam says slowly from the other side of me.

Mira glances at the whirls of magic on his wrist, but to Liam’s credit, he doesn’t tug his sleeve down. It’s hard to remember sometimes that the thirdyears are the first riders who will serve with the children of the leaders of the Tyrrish uprising-an uprising that could have left our borders eventually defenseless and the innocent people of Navarre war casualties. Everyone in this room has become accustomed to Liam, Imogen…even Xaden. But those in active service have never flown with anyone marked by a rebellion relic.

The Tyrrish riders who remained loyal to Navarre during the uprising were promoted, not punished, and the riders who turned against king and country were killed or executed. And just like my grief at Brennan’s loss was directed at Xaden that first day at the parapet, there will be more than one rider who misdirects their own anger at marked riders.

I clear my throat.

Mira’s gaze meets mine, and I lift an eyebrow at her in clear warning.

Don’t fuck with my friends.

Her eyes widen ever so slightly, and she directs her attention back to Liam. “They might not teach you this battle strategy as first-years because you’re all busy trying to stay on your dragons. You had your first taste of strategy during the Squad Battle, and it’s almost May, which means final

War Games should be beginning, right?” “Two weeks,” Dain answers.

“Good timing, then. Not all of you will survive the games if you’re not prepared.” She holds my gaze for a beat. “This kind of thinking will give

your squad-your entire wing-an advantage, since I guarantee your wingleader is already assessing every rider for their own abilities.”

Xaden flips his dragon model over his knuckles but doesn’t reply. He hasn’t spoken a word to Mira since arriving.

“So let’s do this.” Mira stands back. “Who is in command?” She glances toward Quinn. “And let’s pretend that I don’t have three years of seniority on even the highest-ranked of you.”

“Then I’m in command.” Dain sits up straight, his chin rising a good inch.

“Our wingleader is here,” Liam argues, pointing at Xaden. “I would say that puts him in command.”

“We can pretend I’m not here, just for the sake of the exercise.” Xaden sets his dragon on the table and leans back in his chair, draping his arm across the back of mine, a move that makes Dain grit his teeth. “Give Aetos here the position we all know he craves.” “Don’t be a dick,” I whisper.

“You haven’t even seen me start to be a dick.”

My head turns so fast that it swims, and my mouth drops open as I stare at the side of Xaden’s face. That was his voice…in my fucking head.

He turns, the golden flecks in his eyes catching the light, and I swear I hear him laughing in my mind, though his lips are closed, tilted in that pulse-quickening smirk of his.

“You’re staring. It’s going to get awkward in about thirty seconds if you don’t stop.”

“How?” I hiss.

“The same way you talk to Sgaeyl. We’re all gloriously, annoyingly linked. This is just one of the perks. Though I’m starting to wish I’d tried it sooner. The look on your face is priceless.” He winks and turns back to the table.

He. Fucking. Winked. And is that a hint of a smile?

“You’re. The. Wingleader.” Every word Dain speaks comes out through clenched teeth.

“I’m not even supposed to be here.” Xaden shrugs. “But if it makes you feel better, for the purpose of War Games, you’d be getting your orders from your section leader, Garrick Tavis, which he’d get from me. You’ll be carrying out your maneuvers as a squad for the good of the wing. Just pretend I’m another member of your squad and use me as you wish, Aetos.” Xaden folds his arms across his chest.

I glance at Mira, who’s watching the play-by-play with raised brows.

“Why are you even here?” Dain challenges. “No offense, sir, but we weren’t exactly expecting senior leadership on this trip.”

“You’re more than aware that Sgaeyl and Tairn are mated.”

“Three days?” Dain fires back, leaning in. “You couldn’t make it three days?”

“It has nothing to do with him,” I interrupt, setting my dragon down with a little more force than necessary. “That’s up to Tairn and Sgaeyl.”

“You never considered that it was you I couldn’t stay away from?”

I crook my right arm and jab it into Xaden’s biceps. He doesn’t mean that. Not when he’s still adamant that kissing me was a mistake. And if he does… I’m not going there.

“Now, now, you’ll give our little communication secret away if you can’t keep from being so…violent.” He barely restrains a smile, obviously loving that he gets the last word.

I need to figure out how the hell he’s doing it so I can mentally argue back.

“Of course you rush to defend him.” Dain hurls a hurt glare at me. “Though how you can forget that this guy wanted to kill you six months ago is beyond me.”

I blink up at him. “I cannot believe you went there.”

“Good job remaining professional, Aetos.” Xaden scratches the relic on his neck I’m all but certain doesn’t actually itch. “Really shows those leadership qualities to their best advantage.”

One of the riders down the table whistles low. “Do you boys just want to whip it out and measure? It would be faster.” Liam smothers a laugh, but his shoulders shake.

“Enough!” Mira slams her hands on the table.

“Oh, come on, Sorrengail,” the rider down the table whines with a wide smile.

Both Mira and I look his way.

“I mean…the older Sorrengail. This is the best entertainment we’ve had in ages.”

I shake my head and look around the table. “Mira has the ability to extend the shield if the wards are down, so the first thing I would do is send her to scout the area with Teine. We need to know if we’re dealing with infantry or gryphon riders.”

“Good.” Mira moves her dragon closer to the castle. “Now let’s assume there are gryphons.”

“You want to do your job?” I ask Dain, smiling sweetly. “I mean, how you can forget you’re the squad leader is beyond me.”

His hand clenches around his own dragon as he rips his gaze from mine.

“Quinn, can you astral project from the back of your dragon?” “Yes,” she answers.

“Then I would have you project into the fortress to check for signs of weakness,” Dain orders. “And have you report back. Same with Liam. We’d use your farsight to see if you can locate where the gryphon riders are and if there are any traps.”

“Good. The weaknesses are the wooden gate,” Mira notes as Quinn and Liam move their dragons into position, “and the Navarrian citizens they have captive in the dungeons.”

“So much for blasting the whole place,” Ridoc says.

“You’re an air wielder, right?” Dain asks Emery. “So you can shape your dragon’s flames, lead them through the occupied parts of the keep without killing civilians.”

“Yes,” Emery answers. “But I’d have to be in the keep.”

“Then you’ll have to get into the keep,” Mira says with a shrug.

Emery’s eyes widen. “You want me to leave my dragon and go on foot?”

“Why do you think we get all that hand-to-hand training? Or are you going to leave all those innocent people to die?” Mira flicks her wrist and Emery’s dragon goes flying out of his hand and into hers. She puts it in the center of the keep. “The real question is, how do we get you close enough without getting you killed?” She glances around the table. “Since I’m guessing the others will be busy fighting off the gryphons that launch once the fireworks start.”

“What’s your signet, Aetos?” Quinn asks.

“Above your pay grade,” Dain answers, glancing around the table and skipping over Xaden, then making the rounds again, finally sighing. “Any ideas?”

Is the quadrant really making Dain keep the memory reading secret? Had him reaching for my head the day Amber burned been a loss of control? How has he gotten this far without telling anyone what his signet is? I shake my head.

“Sure.” I pick up Xaden’s dragon and shove it toward the keep, planting one mental foot in the Archives where I keep my power and using it to lift the dragon figurine into a hover above the structure. “You stop ignoring that you have an incredibly powerful shadow wielder at your disposal and ask

him to black out the area so no one sees you land.”

“She’s not wrong,” Mira agrees, but her words are clipped.

“You can do that?” Dain begrudgingly looks at Xaden.

“Are you seriously asking?” Xaden retorts.

“Just wasn’t sure you could cover an area that-”

Xaden lifts a hand a few inches above the table, and shadows pour from underneath our seats, filling the room and turning it dark as midnight in a blink. My heart jumps as my sight goes black.

“Relax. It’s just me.” A ghost of a touch skims my cheek.

Just him is slightly…terrifying. I shove that thought at him, but there’s no response. Maybe we have a one-way-communication thing going on over here, because I don’t think I can talk to him the way he does me.

What had Sgaeyl said about signets? It reflects who you are at the core of your being. It makes sense. Mira is protective. Dain has to know everything. And Xaden…has secrets.

“Fuck me,” someone says.

“I can surround this entire outpost, but I think that might freak some people out,” Xaden says, and the shadows disappear, racing back under the table.

I draw in a full breath, noting that everyone at the table besides Emery- who has no doubt seen Xaden pull this kind of trick before-looks slightly greenish.

Even Mira, who’s staring at Xaden like he’s a threat she needs to assess.

My stomach turns.

“I hope you didn’t get any ideas while we were in the dark there,” Xaden teases, and just like that, my sympathy for the ass evaporates. I don’t bother to face him, just raise one finger.

He chuckles, and I grit my teeth.

“Get him out of my head,” I toss in Tairn’s direction.

“You’ll get used to it,” Tairn responds.

“Is this normal with all mated pairs and their riders?”

“For some. It’s a great advantage in a battle.”

“Well, it’s a pain in my ass right now.” I miss Andarna. We’re so far apart that I can barely feel her.

“Then shield him out the same way you do me-or start talking back,”

Tairn grumbles. “You have the power to be a pain in the ass, too. Trust me.”

“And how exactly am I supposed to talk back at him?” I give Xaden a heavy dose of side-eye, but he’s engrossed in the ongoing battle we’ve waged against an imaginary keep.

“Figure out which pathway into your mind is his.” Oh joy. That should be easy.

We finish the hypothetical operation, each of us using our power to its best ability…everyone except me. But when it’s time to take the gryphons out in the air, Tairn overpowers every other dragon in the room.

“Good job,” Mira says, glancing at her pocket watch. “Aetos, Riorson, and Sorrengail, I want to see you in the hallway. The rest of you are dismissed.”

It’s not like any of us has an option, so we follow Mira out to the spiral staircase.

She shuts the door behind us and throws up a line of blue energy that covers the entrance.

“Sound shield,” Dain says with a smile. “Nice.”

“Shut up.” Mira spins on the top step, putting her finger in Dain’s face. “I don’t know what bug has crawled up your ass, Dain Aetos, but have you forgotten that you’re a squad leader? That you have a very real chance of becoming a wingleader next year?”

Oh shit, she’s pissed, and that’s not anything I want a part of. I retreat another step, but with Xaden beneath me on the stairs, there’s nowhere left to go.

“Mira-” Dain starts.

“Lieutenant Sorrengail,” Mira responds. “You’re blowing it, Dain. I know how badly you want his job next year.” She points a finger at Xaden. “Don’t forget that we’ve grown up about ten feet apart. And you are blowing it, because what? You’re pissed that Violet bonded his dragon’s mate?”

Heat stings my cheeks. She’s never been one to mince words, but just… damn.

“He is the worst possible thing for her!” Dain counters.

“Oh, I’m not arguing that.” She leans into his space. “But there’s nothing anyone can do about the choices of dragons. They don’t bother with the opinions of mere humans, do they? But whatever is going on between the two of you”-that finger swings between Dain and me-“is fucking up your squad. If I can see it after four days with you, then they sure as hell can tell. And if I’d known that you were going to be such a hard-ass with zero flexibility for the things she can’t control, I never would have told her to find you after crossing the parapet.” She glances at me, then back at him. “You two have been best friends since you were five years old. Figure your shit out.”

Dain is so tense, he looks like he might crack in half, but he glances at me and nods.

I do the same.

“Good, now get back in there.” She motions toward the door with her head, and Dain leaves, walking through the shield. “And as for you.” She walks down two steps and pins Xaden with a glare. “Is this what she can expect next year?”

“Aetos being an asshole?” Xaden asks, leaving his hands loose at his sides. “Probably.”

Mira’s eyes narrow. “Mated dragons typically bond riders in the same year for a reason. You cannot expect your assigned wing or her instructors to let you both fly off every three days.” “Wasn’t my choice.” He shrugs.

“What are we supposed to do? Tell the giant, flame-throwing dragons how it’s going to be?” I ask my sister.

“Yes!” she exclaims, turning toward me. “Because you can’t live this way, Violet. You’ll be the one who ends up missing the training you need, because he’s the more powerful of the two of you right now. But if you don’t get to focus on your training, then that’s how it will always be. You won’t ever become who Tairn can push you to be. Is that what you’re after,


“Mira,” I whisper, shaking my head. “You’re wrong about him.”

“Listen to me.” She grasps my shoulders. “He might wield shadows,

Violet, but give him his way, and you’ll become one.” “That won’t happen,” I promise her.

“It will if he has anything to say about it.” Her gaze flickers behind me. “Killing someone isn’t the only way to destroy them. Keeping you from reaching your potential seems like a great path to the retribution he swore against our mother. Think long and hard. How well do you even really know him?”

I suck in a breath. I trust Xaden. At least, I think I do. But Mira’s right; there are infinite ways to demolish someone without ending their life.

“That’s what I thought.” The look in her eyes turns to something worse than anger. It’s pity. “Do you even know why he hates our mother so much? Why the kids like him are put on the para-”

“I’m right here,” Xaden interrupts, rising to the same step to stand at my side. “In case you didn’t notice.”

“You’re kind of hard to miss,” she retorts.

“You’re not listening.” His voice lowers. “I. Am. Here. Tairn didn’t drag her back to Basgiath. He didn’t break through her shields and pour his emotions into her. He didn’t demand she fly across the fucking kingdom. Your sister is still right here. I’m the one who left my post, my position, and my executive officer in charge of my wing. She’s not missing out on shit.”

“And next year? When you’re a brand-new lieutenant? What shit is she going to miss out on then?” Mira asks.

“We’ll figure it out.” I reach for her hand and squeeze. “Mira, he’s taken every spare minute he has to train me on the mat for challenges or take me flying in hopes I’ll finally figure out how to keep my damned seat without

Tairn holding me in place. He’s-”

She flinches. “You can’t keep your seat?”

“No.” It’s barely a whisper, and the heat of embarrassment scorches my skin.

“How the hell can you not?” Her mouth hangs open.

“Because I’m not you!” I shout.

She rears back like I’ve slapped her, our hands breaking apart. “But you…you look so much stronger now.”

“My joints and muscles are stronger because Imogen makes me lift these horrible weights, but that doesn’t…fix me.”

Mira blanches. “No. I didn’t mean it like that, Vi. You’re not anything that needs to be fixed. I just didn’t know you couldn’t hold your seat. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because there’s nothing you can do about it.” I force a wry smile. “There’s nothing anyone can do about the way I’m made.”

A long, uncomfortable silence stretches between us. For as close as we are, there’s still so much we don’t share.

“She’s getting better,” Xaden offers, his voice calm and even. “The first few weeks were…disastrous.”

“Hey, he caught me before I hit the ground,” I argue.

“Barely,” Xaden grumbles before turning back to Mira. “You don’t have to trust me-”

“Good, because I don’t,” she says. “All of that power in the hands of someone with your history is bad enough, but to know your dragons are so tangled up that you can’t be more than three days from Violet is unacceptable in every possible way I can think-” She goes completely still, her eyes un-focusing.

“There’s a drift of gryphons headed this way!” Tairn bellows.

“Fuck! The wards are down,” Mira mutters, apparently receiving the same alarm from Teine. She clutches my shoulders and yanks me into a hug. “You have to go.”

“We can help!” I argue, but she holds me so tightly that I can’t move.

“You can’t. And if Tairn is using his power to keep you seated, then he’s diminished as well. You have to go. Get out of here. If you love me, Violet, you’ll go so I don’t have to worry about you, too.” She releases me, looking to Xaden as our squad pours out of the door above, thundering by as they run down the steps. “Get her out of here.”

“Let’s go!” Dain shouts. “Now!”

“Even if you don’t trust me, I’m the best weapon you have,” Xaden snarls at Mira.

“If what you say is true, then you’re the best weapon she has. The other half of the squad will be here in moments, and Teine thinks we have about twenty minutes until the gryphons arrive.” Mira’s eyes meet mine. “You have to get to safety, Violet. I love you. Don’t die. I’d hate to be an only child.” There’s no cocky grin like when she left me at Basgiath on Conscription Day.

Xaden hauls me against his side as Mira runs up the remaining stairs toward the roof.

This can’t be happening. There’s no way I can flee to safety and leave my sister here, with absolutely zero way of knowing if she’s alive or dead. This feels like the exact sort of thing we’d never hear about in Battle Brief.

No fucking way. Every cell in my body rebels at the thought.

“No!” I fight, but there’s no point. He’s too strong. “Mira! What if you get hurt? Tairn’s speed could be the only thing that saves you. At least let us stay.”

She looks over her shoulder at the doorway, but there’s steel in her expression. “You want me to trust you, Riorson? Get her the fuck out of here and find a way for her to keep her seat. We both know she’s dead if she doesn’t.”

“Mira!” I scream, clawing at Xaden’s arms, but he’s already half carrying me down the stairs with an arm clamped around my waist as if I weigh less than the sword on his back. “I love you!” I call up the turret, but there’s no way of knowing if she heard me.

“Can I trust you to get your own pack?” Xaden asks as he marches down the hallway of the barracks. “Or am I going to have to carry you out of here without whatever you brought?”

“I’ll get it myself.” I shove at him, and he lets me go.

It takes mere minutes to grab my pack and Rhiannon’s, since we’ve left them intact, even cramming in our cloaks. Then I’m back in the hallway where Xaden waits, his own pack slung over his shoulder. It looks considerably smaller than the one he arrived with, and I don’t want to even think about what he’s left behind in order to force me out faster.

I don’t bother looking at him, marching for the door, but he grabs my elbow and spins me around. “Nope. It’s too dangerous to leave the fortress walls. We’re going up.” He wraps his arm around my waist and all but hauls me to the nearest turret. “Climb.”

“This is bullshit!” I yell at him, uncaring that every other member of our squad who’s climbing the same turret can hear. “Tairn could help them!”

“Your sister is right. You have to make it out, so we’re leaving. Now fucking climb.”

“Dain,” I argue, realizing he’s right in front of us.

He turns around and takes Rhiannon’s pack, slinging it over his own shoulder. “For once, Riorson and I agree. It’s not just you we have to get out, Violet. Think of every other first-year.” The plea in his eyes shuts my mouth. “Are you going to sentence an entire untrained squad to death? Because I’ll make it. Cianna, Emery, and Heaton will, too. And we all fucking know Riorson will. But what about Rhiannon? Ridoc? Sawyer? You want their deaths on your hands?” he asks, his words choppy as we race upward toward the open door.

This isn’t about me.

We burst onto the roof as Emery mounts his dragon, who is precariously perched on the thinner-than-quadrant wall.

Oh gods, I’m never going to be able to mount Tairn at this angle.

“Ridoc and Quinn are already in the air,” Liam tells us as Emery launches skyward, where Cath and Deigh hover, their wings beating the air.

“You’re next!” Xaden shouts at Liam, and Dain nods.

Deigh crumbles the masonry with the force of his landing, and Liam takes off down the narrow walkway toward the large Red Daggertail.

“You next, Aetos,” Xaden barks.

“Vi-” Dain starts to argue.

“That’s an order.” There’s no room for argument in that tone, and we all know it, especially when Cath takes Deigh’s place on the wall. “I’ve got her. Go.”

“Go,” I urge. I’d never be able to live with myself if something happened to Dain on my account. He may have been an ass the last few months, but that doesn’t negate the years he’s been my best friend.

Dain looks like he’s about to fight but finally nods, turning to Xaden. “I’m trusting you to get her out.”

“There’s a lot of that going around today,” Xaden retorts. “Now get on your dragon so I can get her on hers.”

Dain gives me a long, intense look, then turns and runs, racing up Cath’s foreleg in a way that’s so reminiscent of the Gauntlet that I get flashbacks.

“Where are you?” I ask Tairn, seeing empty skies above us.

“Almost there. I was doing what could be done.”

“I can’t do this,” I say to Xaden, turning in his arms to face him. “The others are gone. Call it the favor you owe me, I don’t care. We can stay. I can’t just leave her here. It’s wrong, and it’s something she’d never do to me. I have to stay for her. I just have to.”

There’s so much compassion, so much understanding in his eyes, that when he lets go of my waist, I think he might just let me stay. Then his hands are on my cheeks, sliding back to cup the base of my neck as he brings his mouth to mine.

The kiss is reckless and consuming, and I give it my all, knowing it might be the last one. His tongue licks into my mouth with an urgency I return, angling to take him deeper.

Gods, it’s not just as good as I’d been fantasizing about, remembering that night. It’s so much better. He was careful with me against that wall, but there is nothing hesitant about the way he lays claim to my mouth, nothing cautious about the ache that pulses low in my stomach. He only breaks the kiss when we’re both panting, then rests his forehead against mine. “Leave for me, Violet.”

“Almost there,” Tairn says.

Xaden’s been stalling to give Tairn and Sgaeyl time to arrive. My heart sinks like a rock, pinning my feet in place. “I will hate you for this.”

“Yeah.” He nods, a flash of pure regret crossing his face as he draws away. “I can live with that.” His hands fall away from my face and reach for my arms, lifting them so I’m shaped like a T. “Arms up. Hold tight.”

“Fuck. You.”

The enormous shape of Tairn appears behind him, and Xaden drops to the stone floor just as Tairn flies directly above, his shadow falling over me a second before his foreclaw scoops me up like he’s done countless times when I’ve fallen midflight.

“You have to take us back!”

“I have done everything I can and will not risk your life.” He climbs in altitude, then throws me up onto his back in a practiced maneuver. “Now, hold on so we can outfly them.”

I look over my shoulder and see Xaden on Sgaeyl, approaching quickly, and farther behind them, hundreds of feet below, a dozen gryphons envelop the keep.

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