Chapter no 35

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

Somehow, I manage to keep breathing, which is impressive given my heart feels like it might shatter in a million pieces, and narrow my gaze on the enemy.

I’ve never seen a gryphon rider before. The dragons usually burn them to ash, along with their half-eagle, half-lion mounts.

“What happened to meeting tomorrow? We don’t have a full shipment,” Xaden says to the gryphon rider, his voice calm and even.

“The shipment isn’t the issue,” the woman says, shaking her head. Unlike our black, the riders’ leathers are brown, matching the darker feathers of their beasts…who are currently staring at me like I’m dinner.

“If they try anything, they’ll be a snack,” Tairn says.

Shipment. I barely process what Tairn says through the shock of the rider’s words. And Xaden knows them. He’s working with them, aiding our enemy. Betrayal cuts my throat like glass as I try to swallow. This is why he’s been sneaking off from the quadrant.

“So you were waiting nearby to chat on the off chance that we’d fly by a full day early?” Xaden asks.

“We were patrolling from Draithus yesterday-it’s about an hour southeast from here-”

“I know where Draithus is,” Xaden retorts.

“Never know, you Navarrians act like nothing exists beyond your borders,” the male gryphon rider snarks. “I don’t know why we’re bothering to warn them.”

“Warn us?” Xaden’s head cocks to the side.

“We lost a village in the vicinity to a horde of venin two days ago. They decimated everything.”

I startle, my eyes flying wide. She just said what?

“Venin never come this far west,” Imogen says from my left.

Venin. Yep, that’s what they both said. What the actual hell? I’d think someone was fucking with me if not for the two enormous gryphons looming behind the pair of riders. But no one is laughing.

“Until now,” the woman replies, turning her gaze back to Xaden. “They were unmistakably venin and had one of their-”

“Don’t say anything else,” Xaden interrupts. “You know that none of us can know the details or we put everything at risk. All it takes is one of us being interrogated.”

“Are you getting this?” I ask Tairn, glancing left and right to see if anyone else noticed the pure ridiculousness spewing from the woman’s mouth, but everyone else looks…horrified, like they actually believe a village was destroyed by mythical creatures.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Details or not, it looks like the horde is heading north,” the male says. “Straight toward our trading post on the border across from your garrison at

Athebyne. Are you armed?” “We’re armed,” Xaden admits.

“Then our job here is done. You’ve been warned,” the male says. “Now we have to go defend our people. As it is, this side trip only gives us about an hour to reach them in time.”

Instantly, the atmosphere changes, intensifies, and the riders around me seem to brace for something.

Xaden looks over his shoulder at me, and instead of laughing at the utter absurdity of what they’re discussing, his face is set in grim lines.

“If you think you’ll ever convince a Sorrengail to risk their neck for anyone outside their own borders, then you’re a fool,” the man says with a sneer in my direction.

Power sizzles painfully beneath my skin, demanding an outlet.

The man leans slightly to the side and looks me up and down in obvious judgment. “I wonder what your king would be willing to pay in order to get back the daughter of his most illustrious general. I’m willing to bet your ransom would be worth enough weaponry to defend all of Draithus for a decade.”

Ransom? Oh, I think not.

Tairn snarls.

“Fuck,” Bodhi mutters, moving closer to me.

“Try. I dare you.” I crook my fingers at them, releasing just enough power that light flashes within the clouds above us.

Shadows race menacingly from the pine trees on the edge of the meadow as Xaden raises his hands at his sides, and both gryphon riders tense when the darkness pauses only inches from their feet. “You take a step toward that Sorrengail and you’ll be dead before you can even shift your weight,” Xaden says, his voice dropping lethally. “She’s not up for discussion.”

The woman glances at the shadows, then sighs. “We’ll be there with the rest of our drift. Just signal if you can get away from the disbelievers.” She walks away, leading the man back toward their gryphons.

They mount within seconds and launch skyward.

Every head turns toward me with looks that vary from expectation to something akin to fear, and my stomach sinks. No one was surprised at the gryphon riders’ familiarity or throwing words like “venin” around. And they all knew Xaden was aiding the enemy.

I’m the outsider here.

“Good luck, Riorson.” Imogen tucks a piece of her pink hair behind her ear, her rebellion relic peeking out above the sleeve of her flight leathers as she turns to give us space.

My stomach drops and my mind races, grasping for anything but the obvious, devastating truth as they all slowly follow Imogen back toward the lake.

There’s a rebellion relic winding up a third-year’s forearm as he passes in front of me.

Garrick’s here. He’s a section leader, but he’s…here, not with any of the Flame Section squads. So are Bodhi and Imogen. That brunette rider with the nose ring is Soleil, I think, and that’s definitely a relic on her left forearm. The second-year from Claw Section? He has one, too.

And Liam…Liam is at my side.

“Tairn.” I keep my breathing as even as possible as Xaden stares at me, his face masked like an emotionless wingleader.

“Silver One?” Tairn’s giant head swings in my direction.

“They all carry rebellion relics,” I tell him. “Everyone in this squad besides me is the child of a separatist.” In the chaos of the flight field, Xaden constructed an all-marked squad.

And they’re all. Fucking. Traitors.

And I fell for it.

I fell for him.

“Yes. They are,” he agrees, resignation in his tone.

My chest threatens to cave in as it truly hits me. This is so much worse than just Xaden betraying me, betraying our entire kingdom. There’s only one explanation as to why my own dragons have been so damned docile in the presence of the enemy.

“You and Andarna lied to me, too.” The treachery of it is too much, and my shoulders dip from the weight of it. “You knew what he was doing.” “We both chose you,” Andarna says, like that makes it any better.

“But you knew.” I look past where Liam dares to stare at me with sorrow, to Tairn, whose lethal focus lies straight ahead like he hasn’t quite decided if he’s going to burn Xaden alive or not.

“Dragons are bound by bonds,” he explains as Xaden approaches. “There is only one other bond more sacred than that of a dragon and its rider.”

A dragon and its mate.

Everyone knew but me. Even my own dragons. Oh gods, is Dain right? Has everything Xaden’s done been a ploy to earn my trust?

The sweet glow of happiness, of love, trust, and affection that burned so brightly in my chest just a few minutes ago sputters painfully, gasping for oxygen like a campfire put out by a bucket of water once it outlives its usefulness. All I can do is watch as the embers drown and die.

Xaden watches me with increasing apprehension the closer he comes, like I’m some kind of cornered animal about to fight her way out with teeth and claws.

How was I ever foolish enough to trust him? How did I ever fall for him? My lungs ache and my heart screams. This can’t be happening. I can’t be this naive. But I guess I am, because here we are. His entire body is a fucking warning, especially the dark relic that’s so glaringly visible on his neck right now. His father may have been the Great Betrayer, may have cost my brother his life, but Xaden’s treachery cuts just as deep.

He flinches as my eyes narrow into a glare.

“Were we ever really friends?” I whisper at Liam, searching for the strength to yell.

“We are friends, Violet, but I owe him everything,” Liam answers, and when I glance up, he’s watching me with so much misery that I almost feel sorry for him. Almost. “We all do. And once you give him a chance to explain-”

There it is. Anger rushes to my aid, overpowering the hurt.

“You watched me train with him!” I shove at Liam’s chest, and he stumbles backward through the grass. “You stood by and watched me fall for him!”

“Oh shit.” Bodhi laces his hands behind his thick neck.

“Violence, let me explain,” Xaden says. He’s always known my true nature, and honestly, the shadows should have clued me in to his. He’s a master of secrets.

Unspent power ripples in my very bones as I turn my back on Liam to face Xaden. “If you even think about touching me, I swear I’ll fucking kill you.” My power flares with my rage and lightning cracks across the sky, jumping from cloud to cloud.

“I think she means it,” Liam warns.

“I know she does.” Xaden’s jaw ticks as our gazes collide and hold.

“Everybody, go back to the shore. Now.”

He watches me with apprehension as he draws closer.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Xaden says in that deceptively soft voice of his, and there’s a flicker of fear in those onyx depths.

“You have no idea what I’m thinking.” Fucking. Traitor.

“You’re thinking I’ve betrayed our kingdom.”

“Logical guess. Good for you.” Another bolt of lightning whips free, streaking cloud to cloud. “You’re working with gryphon riders?” I leave my arms loose at my sides just in case I need my hands free to wield, though I know I’m no match for him. Not yet. “Gods, you are such a cliché, Xaden.

You’re a villain hiding in plain fucking sight.”

He winces. “Actually, they’re called fliers,” Xaden says softly, holding my gaze. “And I might be the villain to some, but not you.”

“I’m sorry? Are we seriously arguing the semantics of your treason?”

“Dragons have riders, and gryphons have fliers.”

“Which you know because you’re in league with them.” I retreat a few steps so I don’t act on the overwhelming urge to punch him in the face. “You’re working with our enemy.”

“Did you ever once stop to think that sometimes you can start out on the right side of a war and end up on the wrong one?”

“In this particular case? No.” I point toward the shore. “I was trained as a scribe, remember? All we’ve done is defend our borders for six hundred years. They’re the ones who won’t accept peace as a solution. What shipments have you been giving them?”


My stomach hits the ground. “That they use to kill dragon riders?”

“No.” He shakes his head emphatically. “These weapons are only to fight venin.”

My jaw unhinges. “Venin are the stuff of fables. Like the book my father -” I blink. The letter. What had he written? Folklore is passed from one generation to the next to teach us about our past.

Was he trying to say… No. That’s impossible.

“They’re real,” Xaden says softly, like he’s trying to lessen a blow.

“You’re saying people who can somehow tap into the source of magic without a dragon or gryphon to channel, corrupting their power beyond all salvation, actually exist.” I say the words slowly just so we’re crystal clear. “They’re not just part of the creation fable.”

“Yes.” His forehead creases. “They drained all the magic out of the Barrens and then spread like an infestation.”

“Well, at least that’s in keeping with folklore.” I fold my arms across my chest. “What was the fable again? One brother bonded to gryphon, one to dragon, and when the third grew jealous, he drew directly from the source, losing his soul and waging war on the other two.”

“Yes.” He sighs. “This was not how I wanted to tell you.”

“Assuming you were ever going to tell me!” I glance to where Tairn watches, his head low as though he might have to incinerate Xaden at any moment. “Care to add to the discussion?”

“Not yet. I’d prefer you come to your own conclusion. I chose you for your intelligence and courage, Silver One. Don’t let me down.”

I barely restrain myself from flipping the middle finger at my own dragon.

“Fine. Were I to believe venin exist and roam the Continent wielding dark magic, then I’d also have to believe they never attack Navarre because…” My eyes widen at the possibility’s logical conclusion. “Because our wards make all non-dragon magic impossible.”

“Yes.” He shifts his weight. “They’d be powerless the second they cross into Navarre.”

Fuck, that makes sense, and I desperately don’t want it to. “Which means I would have to believe that we have no clue that Poromiel is being relentlessly, viciously attacked by dark wielders just beyond our borders.” My brow furrows.

He glances away and takes a deep breath before looking me in the eye. “Or you have to believe that we know and choose to do nothing about it.”

Indignation lifts my chin. “Why the hell would we choose to do nothing about people being slaughtered? It goes against everything we stand for.”

“Because the only thing that kills venin is the very thing powering our wards.”

He doesn’t say anything else as we stand there, the only sound the water lapping against the shore in time with the echo of his words beating against the edges of my heart.

“Is this why there have been raids along our borders? They’re looking for the material we use to power our wards?” I ask. Not because I believe him, not yet, but because he’s not trying to convince me. The truth rarely needs effort, my dad used to say.

He nods. “The material is forged into weapons to fight the venin. Here, take this.”

Raising his right arm, he takes a black-handled dagger from the sheath at his side. I’m brutally aware of every move, horrifyingly aware that he’s been able to kill me whenever he wants, and this moment is no different. Though it would have been a swifter death if he’d simply used one of the swords strapped across his back. He moves slowly, extending the dagger as an offering.

I take it, noting the sharpened blade, but it’s the alloy embedded into the rune-marked hilt that makes me gasp. “You took this from my mother’s desk?” My gaze jumps to his.

“No. Your mother probably has one for the same reason you should. To defend against venin.” There’s so much pity in his eyes that my chest tightens.

The dagger. The raids. It’s all right there.

“But you told me there was no chance we could be fighting something like this,” I whisper, clinging to the last of my hope that this is all a horrible joke.

“No.” He moves closer, reaching for me and then dropping his hand as if he’s thought better of it. “I told you I would hope that if this threat was out there, our leadership would tell us.”

“You twisted the truth to suit your needs.” My hand curls around the dagger’s hilt, and I feel it hum with power. Venin are real. Venin. Are. Real.

“Yes. And I could lie to you, Violence, but I’m not. No matter what you think right now, I have never lied to you.”

Sure. Right. “And how do I know this is the truth?”

“Because it hurts to think we’re the kind of kingdom that would do this.

It hurts to rearrange everything you think you know. Lies are comforting.

Truth is painful.”

I feel the hum of power within the blade and glare at Xaden. “You could have told me at any time, but instead you hid everything from me.”

He flinches. “Yes. I should have told you months ago, but I couldn’t. I’m risking everything by telling you now-”

“Because you have to, not because you want-”

“Because if your best friend sees this memory, everything is lost,” he interrupts, and I gasp.

“You don’t know that-”

“Dain wouldn’t break a rule to save your life, Violet. What do you think he’d do if he had this knowledge?”

What would Dain do? “I have to believe he would not put the Codex above people suffering beyond our borders. Or maybe I could have built shields that would have kept Dain from prying. Or maybe he would continue to respect my boundaries and never look in the first place.” I narrow my eyes. “But we’ll never know, will we? Because you didn’t trust me to know the right thing to do, Xaden, did you?”

He throws his hands wide. “This is bigger than you and me, Violence. And leadership will stop at nothing to sit behind their wards and keep the venin secret.” His voice is raw as he pleads, “I watched my own father executed trying to help these people. I couldn’t risk you, too.” He leans into my space a little more with every word, launching my pulse, but I’m done letting my heart make my head’s choices. “You love me, and-”

“Loved,” I correct him, sidestepping so I can get some fucking space and then taking it.

“Love!” he shouts, stopping me in my tracks and earning us a glance from every rider within hearing distance. “You love me.”

One of those little embers in my chest tries to come back to life, and I squash it before it has the chance to burn.

Slowly, I turn to face him. “Everything I feel-” I swallow, fighting to hold on to the anger so I don’t fall apart. “Felt for you was based on secrets and deception.” Shame burns in my cheeks that I was naive enough to fall for him in the first place.

“Everything between us is real, Violence.” The intensity with which he says it hurts my heart even more. “The rest, I can explain with enough time. But before we get to our assigned outpost, I need to know if you believe me.”

I glance at the dagger and hear the words in my father’s letter as surely as if he’d spoken them. I know you’ll make the right choice when the time comes. He warned me the only way he could have: through books.

“Yes,” I say, handing the dagger back to Xaden. “I believe you. That doesn’t mean I trust you anymore.”

“Keep it.” His posture softens in relief.

I sheathe it at my thigh. “You’re giving me a weapon after just telling me that you’ve been deceiving me for months, Riorson?”

“Absolutely. I have another, and if what the fliers say is true, and venin are headed north, then you might need it. I never lied when I said I can’t live without you, Violence.” He backs away slowly, his lips curving in a sad smile. “And defenseless women have never been my type, remember?”

I’m not remotely ready to joke around with him. “Let’s just get to


He nods, and a few minutes later, we’re midflight.

“We know we didn’t lie. We just didn’t tell you everything,” Andarna says, flying in the pocket of air behind Tairn with the least wind resistance as we make our way to the outpost.

“That’s lying by omission,” I argue. There’s a lot of that going around today.

“She’s right, Golden One.” Tension radiates through every line of Tairn’s body and the very beats of his wings. “You have every right to be angry.”

He banks, following the mountain range along the border. The straps on my saddle bite into my thighs. “We made a choice to protect you-without your consent. It was an error, and one that I won’t make again.” The guilt he feels overwhelms my own emotions, melting the hottest of my anger, and I begin to think.

Really, truly think.

If venin exist, we’d have record. And yet there weren’t any copies of The Fables of the Barren in the Archives-the one location Navarre should have a copy of every book written or transcribed in the last four hundred years, which means Dad didn’t just give me a rare book…but a forbidden one.

Four hundred years of tomes and not a single one-

Four hundred years. But our history spans over six. Everything is a copy of an earlier work. The only original text in the Archives older than four hundred years-around the time we fell into war with Poromiel-are the original scrolls from the Unification over six hundred years ago.

It only takes one desperate generation to change history-even erase it.

Gods, Dad spelled it all out for me. He’d always told me scribes hold all the power.

“Yes,” Tairn says as we curve around the last peak, its jagged top bare of snow from the summer heat, and the mountainside outpost of Athebyne comes into view at the same time as the Cliffs of Dralor. “One generation to change the text. One generation chooses to teach that text. The next grows, and the lie becomes history.”

He banks left, following the curve of the mountain, then slows as we approach the outpost’s flight field.

My hands grip the pommels when we land in front of the looming structure perched on the side of the last peak in this range. Its design is identical to Montserrat, a simple square fortress with four towers and walls barely thick enough to launch a dragon. The military is nothing if not uniform.

I unbuckle from my saddle and slide down his foreleg. “And somehow we’re supposed to be able to concentrate on the War Games,” I mutter, adjusting my pack on my shoulders, thinking about a trading post that may or may not be under attack from mythical creatures soon.

The others dismount, and I look back to see Andarna already curled up between Tairn’s feet.

Xaden walks with Garrick, looking my way with what feels like longing. I gave him everything, and he never truly let me in. Pain rips through my chest with the kind of cut that only heartbreak can give, sharp and jagged. I imagine this is what it feels like to be cleaved apart with a dull, rust-covered blade. It’s not honed enough to slice quickly, and there’s a one hundred percent chance the wound is going to fester. If I can’t trust him, there’s no future for us.

It’s more than tense as the ten of us walk beneath the open portcullis and into the outpost. The very empty outpost.

“What the hell?” Garrick strides across the courtyard in the center of the structure, looking along the gathering spaces that should line the interior just like Montserrat.

“Stop,” Xaden orders, surveying the walls that rise on every side above us. “There’s no one here. Divide and search.” He glances at me. “You don’t leave my side. I don’t think this is a War Game.”

I start to argue that he couldn’t possibly know that, but the whip of wind through the open gate makes me pause. The only sounds in a fortress that should house more than two hundred people are our footsteps on the rocky ground-and he’s right. Everything feels off.

“Awesome,” I reply with more than a small dose of sarcasm, and everyone but Liam-who’s my shadow once again-scatters in groups of two or three, climbing various staircases.

“This way,” Xaden says, beelining for the southwest tower. We climb and climb, finally reaching the top of the fourth floor, where the door leads us to an open-air observation point that overlooks the valley below, including the Poromish trading post.

“This is one of the most strategic garrisons we man,” I say, looking for any sight of the infantry and riders who should be here. “There’s no way they’d abandon it for War Games.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.” Xaden looks out over the valley, then narrows his eyes on the trading post a thousand feet below. “Liam.”

“On it.” Liam moves forward, leaning on the stone battlement as he focuses on the structures in the distance beneath us. The trading post is maybe a twenty-minute walk along the wide gravelly path winding down the mountainside our outpost is perched on. The roofs of several buildings just poke out above the circular stone wall of its defenses, a drift of gryphons and their fliers approaching from the south.

Xaden turns on me, and the look in his eyes is anything but welcoming. “What did Dain say to you before we left? He leaned in and whispered something.”

I blink, trying to remember. “He said something like…” I search my memory. “I’ll miss you, Violet.”

His body goes tense. “And he said I was going to get you killed.”

“Yes, but he always says that.” I shrug. “What would Dain have to do with emptying an entire outpost?”

“I have something!” Garrick calls from the southeast tower, holding what looks to be an envelope as he and Imogen cross the thick rampart, coming in our direction.

“Did you tell him about my trips here?” Xaden questions, his eyes hardening.

“No!” I shake my head. “Unlike some people, I never hid anything from you.”

He draws back, his gaze shifting left and right as he thinks before settling on me again and widening. “Violence,” he says softly, “did Aetos touch you after I told you about Athebyne?”

“What?” My brow furrows, and I shove an errant strand of hair out of my face as the wind swirls around us.

“Like this.” He lifts his hand to my cheek. “His power requires touching someone’s face. Did he touch you like this?”

My lips part. “Yes, but that’s how he always touches me. He would nnever…” I sputter. “I would know if he read my memories.”

Xaden’s face falls, and his hand slips downward, cradling the back of my neck. “No, Violence. Trust me, you wouldn’t.” There’s no accusation in his tone, just a resignation that hurts what’s left of my heart.

“He wouldn’t.” I shake my head. Dain is a lot of things, but he would never violate me like that, never take something I hadn’t offered. Except he tried once.

“It’s addressed to you,” Garrick says, handing the envelope to Xaden.

Xaden drops his hand from my face and breaks the seal. I can read the lettering as he opens the missive.

War Games for Xaden Riorson, Wingleader of Fourth Wing.

I recognize the handwriting-how could I not when I’ve seen it all my life? “That’s from Colonel Aetos.”

“What does it say?” Garrick asks, folding his arms over his chest. “What’s our assignment?”

“Guys, I see something just past the trading post,” Liam says from the battlement. “Oh shit.”

Xaden’s face drains of all color, and he crumples the missive in his fist before looking at me. “It says our mission is to survive if we can.”

Oh gods. Dain read my memories without my permission. He must have told his father to where they’ve been sneaking off. I’ve unknowingly betrayed Xaden…betrayed them all.

“That’s not…” Garrick shakes his head.

“Guys, this is bad,” Liam shouts, and Imogen races to his side.

“This isn’t your fault,” Xaden says to me, then rips his gaze from mine and turns to his friends, who are running down the ramparts to join us.

“We’ve been sent here to die.”

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