Xaden hands Garrick the missive, and the rest of us rush to the battlements to see what we’re up against, but I can’t spot any threat in the valley below or the plains that stretch beyond for miles before the Cliffs of Dralor.
“Something is off,” Tairn says. “I felt it at the lake, but it’s stronger here.”
“Can you pinpoint what it is?” I reply as panic creeps up my throat. If Dain’s dad knows Xaden and the others have been supplying weapons to the gryphon fliers, there’s every chance this is an execution.
“It’s coming from the valley below.”
“I can’t see shit down there,” Bodhi says, leaning over the edge of the masonry.
“Well, I can,” Liam replies, “and if those are what I think they are, we’re fucked.”
“Don’t tell me what you think they are-tell me what you’re sure of,” Xaden orders.
“The letter says this is a test of your command,” the section leader reads behind us. “You have the choice of abandoning the village of our enemy or abandoning command of your wing.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Bodhi reaches back and takes the letter.
“They’re testing our loyalty without actually saying it.” Xaden folds his arms over his chest, standing at my side. “According to the missive, if we leave now, we’ll make it to the new location of headquarters for Fourth Wing at Eltuval in time to carry out our orders for War Games, but if we leave, the trading post of Resson and its occupants will be destroyed.” “By what?” Imogen asks.
“Venin,” Liam responds.
My stomach drops.
“You’re positive?” Xaden asks.
Liam nods. “As sure as I can be without having actually seen them before. Four of them. Purple robes. Distended red veins spidering all around bright red eyes. Creepy as shit.”
“Sounds about right.” Xaden’s weight shifts.
“I liked it better when we just delivered the weapons,” Bodhi mutters.
“Oh, and one guy with a giant-ass staff,” Liam continues. “And I swear to Dunne, one second the plain was clear and the next they were just… there, walking toward the gates.” His eyes are wide, his pupils blown as he uses his signet to see to the bottom of the valley.
“Red veins?” Imogen asks.
“Because magic corrupts their blood as they lose their souls,” I murmur, looking up at Xaden, wondering if he remembers what Andarna said the night we took the tunnel to the flight field. “Nature likes everything in balance.”
Every head but Liam’s swings my way.
“If the fables are true, at least.” A part of me hopes they are, or I know next to nothing about the enemy below. Of course, if they’re true… “Seven gryphons have landed next to us,” Tairn tells me.
Everyone else stiffens, no doubt receiving the same message from their dragons.
“Andarna, stay with Tairn,” I say. Xaden might trust the fliers, but Andarna is damn near defenseless.
“All right,” she answers.
“The guy with the staff just-” Liam starts.
An explosion sounds, echoing up the sparsely treed valley, followed by a plume of blue smoke. My heart jolts at the sight.
“Those were the gates,” he finishes.
“How many people live in Resson?” Bodhi asks.
“More than three hundred,” Imogen answers as another boom cracks through the valley. “That’s the post they do the yearly trades at.”
“Then let’s get down there.” Bodhi turns and Xaden steps back, blocking his path with an outstretched hand. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“We have no idea what we’re walking into.” Xaden’s tone reminds me of that first day after Parapet. He’s in full command mode.
“So we should just stand here while civilians die?” Bodhi questions, and I tense. We all do, watching Xaden.
“That’s not what I’m saying.” Xaden shakes his head. He has to choose. That’s what the War Games missive said. He can abandon that village or his command, who’s now waiting for him at Eltuval. “This isn’t a fucking training exercise, Bodhi. Some-if not all-of us are going to die if we go down there. If we’d been assigned to an active wing, there would be far older, more experienced leadership making this decision, but there aren’t. If we weren’t marked with rebellion relics, if we hadn’t been aiding the enemy”-his gaze darts to mine briefly-“we wouldn’t even be here with this choice. So, all command structure aside, what are your thoughts?”
“We have the numbers,” Soleil says, narrowing her brown eyes on the field and tapping her bright green fingernails rhythmically on the stone
crenelations of the battlement. “And air superiority.”
“At least there aren’t any wyvern.” I scan the skies just to be sure.
“Uh. What?” Bodhi’s eyebrows rise.
“Wyvern. Fables say venin created them to compete with dragons and, instead of channeling from them, channel power into them.” Let’s hope there’s something in that book that isn’t true.
“Yeah, let’s not borrow trouble.” Xaden shoots a look sideways at me, then studies the sky.
“There are four venin and ten of us,” Garrick says, walking away from the edge of the battlement.
“We have the weapons to kill them,” Liam says, turning his back on the valley. “And Deigh told me seven gryphon fliers-”
“We’re here,” the older brunette from the lake says, striding down the battlement from the southeast corner of the outpost. “I left the rest of the drift outside once we noticed that your outpost seems to be…abandoned.” She glances over the rampart at the clouds of smoke rising from the valley beneath with a look of resignation, her shoulders dipping. “I’m not going to ask you to fight with us.”
“You’re not?” Garrick’s eyebrows rise.
“No.” She gives him a sad smile. “Four of them is tantamount to a death sentence. The rest of my drift are making peace with our gods.” She turns toward Xaden. “I came to tell you to leave. You have no clue what they’re capable of wielding. It only took two of them to bring down an entire city last month. Two. Of. Them. We lost two drifts trying to stop them. If there’re four down there…” She shakes her head. “They’re after something, and they’re going to kill every single person in Resson to get it. Take your riot and go home while you can.”
Fear squeezes my chest, but my heart aches at the thought of leaving them to die. It goes against everything we stand for, even if they aren’t Navarrian civilians.
“We have dragons,” Imogen says, her pitch rising. “Surely that has to count for something. We’re not afraid to fight.”
“Are you afraid to die? Have any of you seen combat?” The brunette’s gaze sweeps over us, and suddenly I feel…young as we reply with our silence. “Thought not. Your dragons do count for something. They can fly you far and fast. Dragon fire won’t kill them. Only the daggers you’ve been bringing, and we have those.” She looks at Xaden. “Thank you for everything you’ve done. You’ve kept us alive these last couple of years and given us a fighting chance.”
“You’re going down there to die,” Xaden says matter-of-factly.
“Yes.” She nods as another explosion sounds. “Get your riot out of here. Fast.” Pivoting on her heel, she strides back down the rampart, her head held high before she disappears into the tower on the opposite end.
Xaden’s jaw clenches, and I can see the battle raging in his eyes.
An unbearable heaviness settles in my stomach.
If we leave, they’ll all die. Every civilian. Every flier. We won’t have killed them, but we’ll be complicit in their deaths all the same.
If we fight, we’ll likely die with them.
We can live as cowards or die as riders.
Xaden’s shoulders straighten, and the rock in my stomach turns to nausea. He’s made a decision. I can see it in the lines of his face, the resolve in his posture. “Sgaeyl says she has never run from a fight, and today will not be the first. And I’m not going to stand by while innocent people are dying, either.” He shakes his head. “But I’m not going to order any of you to join me. I’m responsible for all of you. None of you crossed that parapet because you wanted to. None of you. You crossed it because I made a deal. I’m the one who forced you into the quadrant, so I won’t think less of anyone who wants to fly for Eltuval instead. Make your choice.” He tears his hand through his hair. “I don’t want you in harm’s way.”
In a perfect world, that would be all I need to hear. “If the others get to make a choice, then so do I.”
His jaw flexes.
“We’re riders,” Imogen says as another explosion sounds. “We defend the defenseless. That’s what we do.”
“You saved every single one of us here, cousin,” Bodhi says. “And we’re thankful. Now, I’d like to do what we’ve trained for, and if it means I don’t go home, then I guess my soul will be commended to Malek. I wouldn’t mind seeing my mother anyway.”
“I’ll tell you the same thing I did after Threshing our first year when we decided to start smuggling weaponry out,” Garrick says. “You kept us alive all these years; we get to decide how we die. I’m with you.”
“Exactly!” Soleil says, drumming her fingertips just above the dagger sheathed at her thigh. “I’m in.”
Liam steps forward so he stands at my side. “We watched as our parents were executed because they had the courage to do the right thing. I’d like to think my death would be just as honorable.”
My chest tightens. Their parents died to expose the truth while mine sacrificed my brother to keep this heinous secret.
“Agreed.” Imogen nods.
They all do.
One by one, everyone agrees, until there’s only me.
Xaden captures my gaze.
If you think you’ll ever convince a Sorrengail to risk their neck for anyone outside their own borders, then you’re a fool. Isn’t that what the flier said at the lake?
“Tairn?” It’s not just me going to war. “We will feast on their bones, Silver One.” Graphic, but point made.
I will not leave innocent people to die, no matter what side of the border they live on. I will not let my squadmates risk their lives while I run, despite the plea I see in Xaden’s eyes.
At least Rhiannon, Sawyer, and Ridoc aren’t here. They’ll live to be second-years.
Mira will understand. I have no doubt that she would do the same.
And as for Mom… The dagger on her desk means she knows and has done nothing to stop it. Guess I’ll be the second child she sacrifices to keep the existence of venin a secret.
“I’ve been defenseless,” I tell Xaden, lifting my chin. “And now I’m a rider. Riders fight.”
The others shout in agreement.
A thousand emotions cross his face, but Xaden only nods as he walks toward the battlements. “Liam. Give me a report.”
His foster brother moves to his side and focuses. “The fliers are engaged, all seven-six of them. Looks like they’re trying to draw fire away from the civilians, but damn, the venin are wielding a kind of fire I’ve never seen among riders. Three surround the city, and one is making his way toward a structure in the middle. A clock tower.”
Xaden nods, then divides us according to objectives. Garrick and Soleil will do a perimeter sweep for reconnaissance while the rest of us target the venin on various sides of Resson, keeping an eye on the advance on the clock tower as we near it on each pass through town. “The only way to take them out is by dagger.”
“That means we’ll have to dismount and fight once we get the townspeople to whatever safety we can find,” Garrick adds, his face set in grim lines. “Don’t throw your only weapons unless you’re certain of your aim.”
Xaden nods. “Save as many people as you can. Let’s go.”
We make our way down the steps and through the silent courtyard, Xaden leading the way. When we emerge from the outpost, our dragons wait, all perched on the edge of the ridgeline, shifting their weight in agitation as they survey the trading post below.
I walk directly between Tairn and Sgaeyl.
“I knew you’d make the right choice,” Sgaeyl says, glancing toward where Xaden approaches with Liam, their footsteps dangerously close to the cliffside at my left. “He did, too. Even if he doesn’t like you putting yourself in danger, he knew you would.”
“Well, he knows me a great deal better than I know him.” I lift a brow at her.
She blinks. “You’re a far cry from the trembling girl who stood in the courtyard and tried to mask her fear after Parapet. I approve.”
“I wasn’t asking for your approval.” If I’m going to die, I might as well be honest in my last moments.
She chuffs and nudges Tairn’s head with hers, but he’s solely focused on the trading post.
The rocky terrain crunches under my boots as I walk beneath Tairn to where Andarna stands between his forelegs, watching the attack unfold beneath us. I put myself right in front of her, blocking her view of what has to be carnage. “Stay here and hide.” I’m not taking a kid into battle, period.
“‘Stay here,'” she grumbles sarcastically in response.
I bite back a sad smile. It’s really too bad I won’t get to see her go through her rebellious adolescent years.
“Agreed.” Tairn dips a shoulder for me. “You’re a target, little one.”
“I mean it,” I order Andarna, stroking my hand over her scaly nose. “If we’re not back by morning, or if you think venin are approaching, you fly
home to the Vale. Get behind the wards no matter what.”
Her nostrils flare. “I’m not leaving you.”
My chest hurts so badly, I fight the urge to rub the area above my heart, but I square my shoulders instead. It has to be said. “You’ll feel the moment when you’ll know that there’s nothing to leave. And it might break your
heart, but when you feel it, you fly. Promise me you’ll fly.” Heartbeats pass before Andarna finally nods.
“Go,” I whisper, stroking her beautiful jaw one last time. She’ll be fine. She’ll make it back to the Vale. I can’t let myself believe any differently.
She turns around and heads for the outpost, and I pull my shit together and walk between Tairn’s forelegs, taking one last, quick look at the valley. Xaden and Liam stand to my right, doing the same.
A screech rends the air, and an enormous gray dragon emerges from a valley two ridgelines to the south…across the Poromish border. It tucks its two legs up under its massive body as it flies away from us, heading straight for Resson.
“Do we have a riot nearby?” Liam asks.
“No,” Xaden answers.
It’s as though the ground beneath my feet shifts.
I could have sworn I saw a riot of dragons across the border. Isn’t that what Mira said at Montserrat?
The dragon shrieks again, spewing a streak of blue fire down the mountainside, setting some of the smaller trees on fire before it reaches the plains where Resson stands. Blue. Fire.
No. No. No. “Wyvern.” My heart launches into my throat. “Xaden, it has two legs, not four. It’s not a dragon. It’s a wyvern.” Maybe if I say it a few more times, I’ll believe what I’m seeing.
Holy. Shit. Is this what leadership has been redacting?
They’re supposed to be myth, not flesh-and-blood beings. But then again, so are venin.
“Well, there went our air superiority,” Imogen says across from us, then shrugs. “Fuck ’em. They can die, too.”
“They have created abominations,” Tairn says, a low growl rumbling in his chest.
“Did you know?”
“I suspected. Why do you think I’ve been so hard on you during flight maneuvers?”
“You and I are going to have to work on our communication skills.” “Guess we know all the details now,” Liam says.
“Anyone want to change their minds?” Xaden asks down the line. None of us answer.
“No? Then mount up.”
I walk toward Tairn’s shoulder as Xaden strides over to me.
“Turn around, Violence,” he orders, and I pivot, looking up at him. He unsheathes one of his daggers and slides it in the empty spot I have at my ribs. “Now you have two.”
“You’re not going to lecture me about staying safe in the outpost?” I ask, my emotions rioting at his nearness. He hid all of this from me, and yet my chest aches just looking at him.
“If I asked you to stay behind, would you?” His eyes bore into mine.
“Exactly. I try not to pick fights I know I can’t win.”
My eyes flare. “Speaking of knowing you’ll win fights, General Melgren will know what’s happened here. He’ll be able to see the outcome of the battle even now.”
He shakes his head slowly and points to his neck, to the rebellion relic snaking around his throat. “Do you remember how I told you I realized it was a gift, not a curse?”
“Yes.” Back when I was in his bed.
“Just trust me-because of this, Melgren can’t see a fucking thing.”
My lips part, remembering Melgren saying he liked to lay eyes on Xaden once a year. “Any other secrets you’re keeping from me?”
“Yes.” He cups my neck and leans into my space. “Stay alive, and I promise I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
The simple confession makes my heart clench. As angry as I am, I can’t imagine a world without him in it. “I need you to survive this, even if I hate that I still love you.”
“I can live with that.” A corner of his mouth lifts as he drops his hand and turns away from me, heading toward Sgaeyl.
Tairn dips his shoulder again and I mount, settling into the saddle and strapping my thighs in after I secure my pack behind the seat. It’s time. “Find a good hiding place, Andarna. I can’t stand the thought of you being hurt.”
“Go for the throat,” she says, walking into the abandoned outpost.
Sgaeyl launches to my right, and I hold the pommels tight when Tairn springs skyward with great, heavy beats of his wings.
“There’s something in that trading post. We all feel it,” Tairn says as he banks with Sgaeyl, plummeting from the ridgeline into a steep dive that leaves my stomach behind. The saddle straps dig into my thighs, but they do their job and keep me seated as I lower my riding goggles to shield my eyes from the wind. We fly into the shade, the sun sinking behind the Cliffs of Dralor and throwing the afternoon into shadow.
Another explosion hits, this time taking out a chunk of the post’s high stone walls as Tairn pulls up, narrowly missing a gryphon rider and bringing us level across the post, flying too fast to hear anything more than the screams of townspeople as they run through the streets, fleeing for the exodus at the post gates.
“Where did the wyvern go?” I ask Tairn.
“Retreated into the valley. Don’t worry-it will come back.” Oh. Joy.
My gaze sweeps the rooftops of the little post until I see it-him- whatever. There’s a figure standing at the top of a wooden clock tower, wearing purple floor-length robes that billow in the wind while he hurls blue flames like daggers at the civilians below.
He’s more terrifying than any illustrator could have depicted, rivers of red veins fanning in every direction around soulless eyes consumed by magic. His face is gaunt, with sharp cheekbones and thin lips, a gnarled hand gripping a long red cane made of some misshapen wood.
“Yes, let’s.” Tairn banks away from Sgaeyl, pulling us in a hard turn and taking us into the village. A few beats of his wings later, fire streams from his mouth, and he incinerates the clock tower on a flyby.
“Got him!” I turn in the saddle, watching as the wooden structure collapses in the blast. It’s only a matter of seconds before the venin walks out of the flames, though, and there isn’t a scratch on him. “Oh, fuck. He’s still there,” I call out as we cut back across the post to get to our assigned area, mentally kicking myself for thinking it could have been that simple. There’s a reason these creatures are what make up most Navarrians’ nightmare stories-and it isn’t because they’re easy to kill. We have to get close enough to get a dagger in him.
I turn forward just in time to see a giant mass of wings and teeth cut across our path with an earsplitting screech, and Tairn’s tail smashes into the stone walls behind me, knocking the masonry loose as he dodges the wyvern. We just barely evade the hissing curl of blue fire that streams from its mouth, catching a nearby tree on fire.
“The wyvern is back!”
“That’s a different one,” Tairn barks. “I’m relaying orders to the others.”
Of course he is. Xaden might command the riders on this field, but Tairn is clearly leading the dragons.
The wyvern swings around and heads toward the town’s center, tucking up two legs and beating spiderwebbed wings. It bears a female rider in maroon flight gear that resembles our own, and her eyes are the same eerie red color as the venin on the clock tower.
“Xaden, there’s more than one wyvern.”
There’s a moment of silence, but I can feel Xaden’s palpable shock, then rage. “If you get separated from Tairn, call out, then fight until I get there.”
“No chance of that happening. I’m not letting her off my back, wingleader,” Tairn growls as I get my first good look at the airspace above the city, flooded with dragons, gryphons, and wyvern, just like in the creation fable.
“Soleil found a sealed entrance to what looks to be a mine,” Xaden says.
Tairn turns abruptly, veering toward the mountains.
“-you to see if you can put down some cover so Garrick and Bodhi can get the townspeople evacuated,” he finishes. “Liam is on his way.”
“On it.” My pulse leaps. “Tairn, I can’t aim.”
“You will,” he says like it’s a foregone conclusion. “Orders are being dispersed amid the gryphons.”
“Dragons can speak to gryphons?” My eyebrows shoot up.
“Naturally. How do you think we communicated before humans got involved?”
I hunker down across his neck as we dart above the city, passing over a clinic, what looks to be a school, and rows and rows of an open-air market that’s currently on fire. There’s no sign of the purple-robed venin we first saw as we sail over the shriveled body of a gryphon and its rider near the center of town. My stomach turns, especially when I see a wyvern circling back toward them-and Sgaeyl is on an intercept course.
“She can hold her own,” Tairn reminds me. “And so can he. We have orders. Focus.”
We pass families scurrying from their ruined homes, then over the city walls, heading toward the opening in the side of the mountain where Soleil’s Brown Clubtail swings its tail into the wood planks covering the abandoned tunnel. There are a few outbuildings lining the road but not much else.
Tairn pulls hard to the left as we approach, the strap digging into my legs as my weight shifts in the saddle with the abrupt motion. Then he flares his wings to hover in front of Soleil, facing Resson and the screaming crowd that runs the hundred yards between the city walls and us, led by a pair of gryphons and their fliers who continuously look behind them, scanning the skies.
But what they don’t see is the venin striding our way from north of the gate, watching the crowd’s movement with a narrowed red gaze. The veins on both sides of her eyes are more pronounced than the earlier rider’s, and her long blue robe reminds me of the staff bearer who survived the clocktower blast.
“I’ve already told Fuil. She’ll protect Soleil,” Tairn says, angling toward the threat.
“Get us away from the crowd.” Power already sizzles beneath my skin.
A child stumbles on the dirt road, and my heart lurches as her father scoops her into his arms and continues to sprint.
Deigh passes, and I see him land out of the corner of my eye as I lift my arms and let my power rip free, focusing on the venin.
Lightning cracks. A section of the city wall crumbles.
“Keep going. Deigh says they need more time!” Tairn urges.
I make the mistake of turning in the saddle, noting that both Liam and Soleil are unseated, ushering the townspeople into the mine, while Deigh and Fuil guard separate sides of the evacuation path. If anything happens- if one of those wyvern circling the town decides to take notice-they’re vulnerable. But so are the people they’re protecting.
A trio of gryphons flies in, all three dangling townspeople from their talons, dropping them off at the entrance to the mine and looping back for another run.
Energy rips through me as I aim a bolt for the venin, this one shattering an outbuilding along the hillside to our right. Boards split and wood flies as it collapses.
The venin’s attention whips upward, and my stomach twists when she spots me. There’s pure malice in her red eyes as she reaches forward with her left hand, then flips it, fisting air.
Rocks tumble down the mountainside.
Soleil throws up her hands, stopping the slide before it can crush the people running into the mine below. Her arms shake, but the boulders fall on either side of the evacuation path, leaving the escape clear.
I whip back toward the venin and gasp.
Raw power is palpable in the air, lifting the hairs on my arms as the venin stands with her palms lowered to the ground. The grass around her turns brown, then the flowers of the wild clover bushes wilt and the leaves curl, losing all their color.
“Tairn, is she…”
“Channeling,” he growls.
I fling another flare of energy as the blight spreads outward from the venin, as though she’s draining the very essence of the land, but it hits too close to the road, and the straggler racing toward safety, for my comfort.
“Watch out. Deigh says that building on the other side of the road has a crate of something marked with Liam’s family crest,” Tairn tells me as I fire off another blast that lands nowhere near the venin. “He says it’s highly… unstable,” he finishes, pausing as he relays the information.
“Not worried about the building,” I reply as the circle of death expands under Tairn’s beating wings, and I draw more power from Tairn, poising to strike again.
Soleil charges toward the venin with Fuil on her heels, her dagger palmed and ready as the rest of the group of townspeople make it into the tunnel.
This is all worth it as long as they survive.
The wave of death pushes forward from the venin, flowing outward and catching up with the fleeing civilian in the middle of the road. He falls, then screams soundlessly, curling in on himself as his body becomes nothing but a husk of a shell.
Air freezes in my lungs and my heart stutters. The venin just…
“Soleil!” I yell, but it’s already too late. The third-year stumbles a few steps into the dead zone, her dragon reaching for her as they both buckle and fall, Fuil throwing up a cloud of dirt with her heavy impact.
They desiccate in a matter of seconds, their bodies shriveling. A vise clamps around my chest, and for a second, I can’t breathe. The venin has even more power now.
“Tell Deigh!” I look back over my shoulder to see Liam sprinting for Deigh. He needs time.
“Already done.” Tairn rolls left as a fireball churns up at us, the first of a volley that causes us to retreat across the road.
“We lost Soleil,” I tell Xaden.
The only acknowledgment is a wave of sorrow, and I know it’s his.
The gryphons take flight, their riders wielding what looks to be lesser magic at the venin as two wyvern approach, both riderless.
“Tell them to change tactics. They don’t stand a chance if they can’t get close to that venin,” I tell Tairn.
The gryphons change course, and I loose my power again, hitting closer to the venin. She glares up at me, then turns at the sound of flapping wings.
Garrick and the other marked third-years are coming. She’s outnumbered, and damn, I hope she knows it.
The gryphons team up, tearing into one of the approaching wyvern as Liam mounts and Deigh launches, escaping the spreading ring of death, but the other wyvern dips low, heading for the venin.
Right on course to pass by the outbuilding.
“You said that building has unstable material in it, right?” I ask. “Yes.”
I can’t be sure I’ll hit it, but- “Excellent idea.”
Tairn puts us into position, hovering about twenty feet aboveground as Liam flies for the gryphons above us, wielding spears of ice into the injured wyvern’s throat. Blood streams as the wyvern falls from the sky with an ear-piercing cry.
The venin reaches the road, and the wyvern skids to a landing on the dirt path so she can mount.
“Now!” I shout.
Tairn breathes in deep and exhales pure fire as the wyvern takes off, sending the outbuilding up in a blaze that ignites whatever is within. Heat rushes my face, singeing my cheek as the building explodes, engulfing everything around it.
The firestorm nearly catches us, but Tairn banks left, narrowly missing the blast.
I shout, throwing up my fist as we circle back, the wind easing the sting in my cheek. We have one wyvern down, a good share of the townspeople evacuated, and there’s no way anything survived that blast.
Tairn dips his right wing low and we turn sharply, getting set up to make another run through town. I glance to the right and gasp. Not only did that blast not kill the wyvern, but its rider is alive and well, too, flying toward- Shit. Shit. Shit.
There are more wyvern than dragons exiting the valley to the south, and I’m trying hard not to panic when blazing-hot blue fire streams past us. I pivot in the saddle and see a wyvern on our tail, approaching frighteningly fast as we circle the post walls.
“Any idea how to kill that many wyvern?” I ask Tairn, panic sitting on my chest like an anchor that threatens to pull me under into the chaos of my thoughts.
There are at least six wyvern, from what I can see, all with terrifying wingspans and sharp teeth, and they’re heading straight for us.
“The same methods that can kill us,” Tairn says, leading the wyvern away from the post’s center, where Garrick and Bodhi are both on foot, chasing down the venin from the clock tower, daggers in hand.
“I don’t exactly have a cross-bolt handy!”
“No, but you do have lightning, and a bolt of that will stop any dragon’s heart.”
“Tell me you warned the others how Soleil and Fuil died.” Everyone touching the ground is vulnerable.
“They all know what they risk.”
Gods, there are still kids down there, some screaming, others heartbreakingly silent as their mothers drag their dead bodies from the streets.
There are no words.
“We need to draw them away from the city,” I tell Xaden, turning back in the saddle as far as the bands across my thighs will let me to get a better vantage point of the airspace and the wyvern, some of which seemed to have slowed in order to circle the remains of the clock tower.
“Whatever they want must be there,” Tairn says.
“Agreed on both counts. Do what you can to give the rest time to evacuate,” Xaden responds. “We’re clearing the edge of town now.” He pauses, and a ripple of worry pushes through our emotional barrier. “Try not to die.”
“Working on it.”
A wyvern dives only to climb again with a human leg hanging from between its teeth.
We circle back, then head south through the trading post, away from the city’s center and whatever Bodhi and Garrick are doing. “They’re not
following,” Tairn grunts. “We’ll need to draw them out.”
“That venin didn’t seem to like when I wielded lightning.”
“You’re a threat.”
“So let’s get their attention and threaten.” He growls in approval.
I open the floodgates of Tairn’s power, letting it roil and billow beneath my skin.
As soon as we’re outside the walls, I throw my hands up and let it burst free.
Lightning streaks the sky, earning us the notice of the horde of wyvern, one of which peels off its flight pattern and soars in our direction, its poison-barbed tails flicking behind it.
Maybe this wasn’t the best idea.
“We’re committed now,” Tairn reminds me.
They’re finally outside the city walls.
I summon more power and wield, my arms trembling with the effort to control the deluge of raw energy. Lightning strikes once, missing the wyvern by more than I’d like to admit. Dread fills my mouth with the taste of ash. I’m not ready for this.
“I don’t have enough control-” “Try again!” Tairn demands.
I wield again, ripping down the walls between Tairn and me, and more of the energy he channels rips through me. Lightning splits the dusk-hued sky in a blast so bright, I blink.
I let the power overcome me again and again, concentrating on the location of the wyvern as Tairn dodges blasts of blue fire. Finally, a strike hits the one behind us, dropping him from the sky. It hits the hillside with a satisfying crash.
“What about the venin it’s bonded to?” I tremble with the effort of controlling the power, fighting to keep it from overtaking me. Sweat drips down my face.
“Hopefully they’re like us. Kill the wyvern and the rider dies, but it’s hard to tell with so many riderless ones.”
“‘Hopefully’ isn’t the best word right now…” I turn in the saddle and watch in horror as two more riderless wyvern fly out of the valley. “The
civilians need more time to reach the mine. Let’s give it to them.” Tairn growls in agreement, and we speed back over the post.
Xaden has one wyvern by the throat, strangling it with shadows as a third-year hurls ice at its rider, and the other four are doing everything they can to drive the newcomers back with a combination of dragon fire and magic.
Power jolts through me in wave after burning wave as I wield more lightning than I ever have in practice. I swing my arm around and aim another bolt at a wyvern flying near the front gate-or what used to be the front gate. I miss the wyvern but hit an empty tower, sending stone flying in all directions, a large chunk hitting a wyvern in the tail and causing it to spin in midair.
Tairn banks another hard turn and we come back around. I take a deep breath, then call a lightning bolt-this one striking a wyvern directly in its upper back with a satisfying sizzle. The giant beast shrieks, then smashes into a nearby hillside with a thunderous boom.
Coming back around again for another pass, and heady from my recent kill, I throw out three more bolts of lightning in quick succession. Unfortunately, more speed doesn’t translate to more accuracy, and the adrenaline rush isn’t helping my aim, either. I manage to cause three more alarming explosions, though-one of which distracts a rather large wyvern that had been on Bodhi’s tail, giving him a moment’s advantage, which his dragon seizes by banking hard left and coming up behind the wyvern and sinking its teeth into its leathery gray neck. There’s an ominous crack, and then Bodhi’s dragon releases the wyvern’s lifeless body, letting it fall to the ground fifty feet below.
“On the left!” I shout as two more wyvern come into view on our rear flank.
I leave the evasive maneuvers up to Tairn and concentrate on bringing down as many strikes as possible as the wyvern gain speed on us. My arms tremble, growing weaker and weaker with each bolt I try to control to keep from hitting our own riders.
Sgaeyl is on the west side of the outpost, and my heart crawls into my throat when she flies low and Xaden does an impressive running jump off her back, landing with a roll onto the street below. Almost immediately, shadows pull in every direction and cover the people screaming as they try to run for cover from the snarling jaws of a hungry wyvern.
One of the wyvern on my tail must notice Xaden out of the saddle, because it tucks its wings for a moment, diving for the ground, only to widen them and pull out at the last minute, gliding mere feet above the silky shadows. Shit. It’s heading straight for Xaden, its jaws opening wide as though it plans to just snatch Xaden up like a quick bite to eat.
“Xaden!” I scream out loud, but he’s already noticed the wyvern, throwing a rope of shadows high above the buildings in a perfect lasso around Sgaeyl’s head, and she yanks him up off the ground and out of the path of the oncoming wyvern. One minute Xaden is dangling from the shadow rope and the next he’s back in his saddle as Sgaeyl banks for another low pass through town.
But I was so focused on Xaden, I completely forgot about the wyvern on my own tail. Tairn hasn’t, though, and starts to climb higher and higher, leading the wyvern from the post as he gains altitude nauseatingly fast. “Violence!” Xaden screams. “Beneath you!”
I look down and gasp. A stream of blue fire billows up toward us. “Bank!”
Tairn rolls left, and my ass leaves the saddle, held in only by the straps as he rolls us upside down to narrowly avoid the blast. But when he straightens, the wyvern is still on us. My heart lurches into my throat as its mouth gapes open, its sharp, bloodied teeth snapping as it lunges for Tairn’s side.
“No!” I lift my arms to throw a bolt in its direction and prepare for impact.
A blur of blue shoots between us, and the wyvern is knocked away by the body of a navy dragon-Sgaeyl. Her jaws tear through the side of the wyvern in several rapid, brutal bites, flesh ripping and blood spraying in the most vicious midair meal I have ever seen. Then she flips and catches the devoured wyvern by the head with her daggertail, sending its dead body sailing several hundred feet before crashing to the ground.
Sgaeyl picks up speed, banks, and flies right by us, her wing gliding under Tairn’s almost affectionately-which is in complete contrast to the menacing glare that seems directed at me, wyvern blood still dripping from her jaws. Message received. It’s her job to keep an eye on Xaden’s back, and mine is to watch Tairn’s.
I do a quick turn in my saddle, checking all our sides for more wyvern, then tell Tairn, “Let’s climb so we can get a better count of what we’re facing.”
We’ve barely made it a hundred feet above the town when I spy Liam and Deigh flying hard and fast in the opposite direction, with a venin riding a wyvern on his tail.
“Liam needs help!” I rush to explain.
“On it,” Tairn says, flipping us in midair. We hang in the sky for a second before his massive wings catch the air and turn us so that we’re heading straight for Liam.
The venin raises a staff of some sort, sending balls of blue flame at Deigh, but he manages to avoid them all as Liam stands up and runs along Deigh’s spine toward his daggertail. At the last second, Deigh uses his tail to whip Liam up into the air toward the wyvern. I don’t even have time to scream before he lands in a crouch on the wyvern’s rear and pulls out one of the runed daggers like the two Xaden gave me.
The venin whips around, raising his staff, but Liam is brutally fast and slits the venin’s throat with sickening precision. The wyvern stops beating its wings within seconds, its heavy body free-falling to the ground, and Liam leaps from his back just as Deigh flies beneath, easily catching him.
A wyvern flies at us from the left, approaching with great beats of its wings.
“Tairn!” Power fills my veins and I lift my hands, but Tairn rolls, flipping my world upside down as he rakes his claws and morningstartail along the wyvern, from throat to tail, splitting it open in midair, then leveling out as the wyvern streaks a bloody path to the ground.
The rush in my head is a result of more than Tairn’s acrobatics.
For the first time since we agreed to try to defend the civilians in this trading post, since we were told there were four venin and no way we could win, a little bit of the panic sitting on my chest starts to ease. We might actually be able to survive today. Maybe.
Just then, another wyvern drops out of a cloud above us, diving at Tairn, gaining speed as it tucks in its wings, becoming a teeth-tipped spear.
There’s no time for evasive maneuvers. It’s seconds away-but red fills my vision and Deigh is there, driving into the side of the massive gray beast.
There’s no breath of relief as the collision sends Liam hurtling off Deigh’s back and across the base of Tairn’s neck at breakneck velocity.
“Liam!” I catch his scrambling hands as he slides by and hold on, a cry escaping as my shoulders pop and subluxate from the strain of catching his weight, and Tairn pitches in a sharp turn to follow Deigh. “Hold on!”
Grimacing, Liam crawls forward on his elbows despite the impossible angle, then grasps the pommels of the saddle. I throw myself over him, sheltering his head and holding on with everything I have as Tairn rolls and banks to keep close but clear of Deigh and the massive gray wyvern.
Locked in battle only a few feet away, their talons shred through the scales of the other amid snapping teeth-and Deigh’s catastrophic roars of pain. They’re too close for me to act, and there’s no guarantee I’ll hit the wyvern and not Deigh with my lightning.
There’s nothing I can do but secure Liam.
Grabbing the lap belt I never use, I wind it around Liam’s torso and buckle it. “That should hold you until we can get you back to Deigh, but I can’t wield without hitting him!” I yell as wind whips around us.
The agony in his eyes steals my breath.
“Why did you do that?” I cry, my fingers searching for purchase on his leathers to pull him closer. I settle for the back of his collar and yank. “Why would you risk it?” Gods, if anything happens to them…
His gaze collides with mine. “That thing was going to take a chunk out of Tairn. You’ve saved my life and now it’s my turn. No matter what you think of me for keeping secrets, we’re friends, Violet.”
Response is impossible as Tairn rolls again, lifting Liam’s entire body, and the leather belt slips to just under his arms. I fist my hands in the back of his flight leathers, but there’s not much to grab on to. Heartbeats pass and I can’t breathe, can’t think past the desperation to keep Liam safe, until Tairn levels out again, trying to stay as close as he can to Deigh without risking any of us in the process.
But then Deigh’s scream slices me to the bone as the two lock into a dive. “Can’t you do something?” I beg Tairn.
“Working on it!” He pitches right and plummets, positioning himself around the downward-spiraling duel to strike. It should be us fighting for our lives, not Liam and Deigh.
And gods, Deigh is losing, which means Liam- My throat constricts. No. Not going to happen.
“Get over here!” I shout at Xaden. Energy crackles through my hands, but there’s no clear target. They’re moving too fast.
“I’m hunting the venin at the walls!” he answers.
“Deigh is fighting for his life!”
The heartbeat of terror squeezing my chest like a vise isn’t mine. It’s Xaden’s. “If I leave, these civilians are all dead!”
We’re on our own. A quick glance at the field tells me every other dragon is locked in its own battle.
Tairn’s tail swings out, slamming into the wyvern’s hindquarters, and comes away bloody, but the fucking thing doesn’t release Deigh. Its claws flex, burrowing deeper beneath the red’s scales.
“Deigh!” Liam’s scream is raw, his voice breaking at the end.
Tairn lunges, snapping at the wyvern’s shoulder and drawing blood, but it’s not enough. He swings around to get a better angle on the wyvern, and the force nearly costs Liam his grip, but the buckle holds.
Another riderless wyvern flies at us from the right. “On the right!”
Tairn whips his body faster than I’ve ever felt and rips out the throat of the new threat, shaking the wyvern like a doll, then releases his jaws and lets the thing fall hundreds of feet to the mountainside below.
Then Tairn dives to catch up with Deigh and the wyvern as they race toward the ground.
Dread settles in my chest, ominous and heavy.
“We’re on our way!” Xaden says.
But he’ll be too late.
“Violet!” Liam shouts over the wind, and I rip my attention from the gruesome battle alongside us as we spiral downward. “We have to take out the riders.”
“I know!” I reply. “We will!” He just needs to hang on. They both do.
“No, I mean that’s the-”
Tairn lunges again, and we’re thrown sideways as he rips another hole in the wyvern’s wings with his teeth, raking down its tail with his talons, but the creature has Deigh in a death lock. Its wings are shredded now, but it doesn’t seem to care as its claws dig into Deigh’s underbelly, like it’s willing to mindlessly die to make the kill.
“It’s going to be all right,” I promise Liam, wind stinging my cheeks. It has to be all right; even though the ground rushes at us, closer and closer each second, it just…has to be.
Deigh screams again, the sound weaker and higher-pitched than the last.
It’s a cry.
“We have to pull up!” Tairn warns.
“He’s dying!” Liam lunges across Tairn’s back, reaching for his dragon as if so he can touch the Red Daggertail one last time.
“Just hold-” I start, but Deigh’s shriek of pain closes my throat, strangling the words. He’s being eviscerated, and there’s nothing we can do.
The wyvern roars in victory a heartbeat before they crash into the hillside with a sickening thud. The wyvern limps away on its hind legs and the talons that tip its wings.
Deigh doesn’t move.
Liam’s raw scream shatters my heart, and Tairn flares his wings, banking hard to keep us from the same gruesome fate.
“DEIGH.” Tairn’s grief blasts through my body as he streams fire at the wyvern’s retreating back, and Andarna’s cry fills my head.
No. If Deigh…
“Is he-” I can’t bring myself to finish.
“He’s gone.” Tairn reverses course, barreling for the hillside outside the city walls where Deigh has fallen.
No. No. No. That means…
“Liam!” I grab for my friend as we land at speed, Tairn’s claws digging into the ground to stop us close to Deigh’s body.
“You only have minutes,” Tairn warns.
“Deigh,” Liam whispers, falling limp against Tairn’s back.
“I’ll get you to him,” I promise, already fumbling with the strap’s buckle. “Deigh’s gone,” I cry to Xaden, my voice a trembling mess. “Liam is dying.”
“No.” I feel his terror, his sorrow, and his overpowering anger wrap around my mind, mixing with my own until it hurts to breathe.
Minutes. We have minutes.
“Just hold on,” I whisper to Liam, fighting not to cry as he looks up at me with those sky-blue eyes, wide with shock and pain. After everything Liam has given up for me, this is the least I can do for him. I can get him to Deigh the same way I know he would carry me to Tairn or Andarna. Tairn lies down completely, flattening his massive frame as much as possible as I unstrap my thighs. Then I wrap my arms around Liam’s bulky frame and we slide down Tairn’s side, hitting our feet on the rocky hillside far from the trading post.
Deigh lies a couple of dozen feet away, his body folded at an unnatural angle.
This isn’t fair. This isn’t right. Not Deigh. Not…Liam. They’re the strongest of our year. They’re the best of us.
“Can’t make it,” Liam says, stumbling forward and tripping.
I rush to catch him as he goes down, but his substantial weight is too much for me, and we both fall to our knees. “We can make it,” I force out through my tightening throat, trying to hook his arm over my shoulders.
We’re so close.
If a venin comes along, then I’ll deal with it.
“We can’t.” He crumples against me, sliding down my side. I fall back on my heels and his head lands in my lap as his body goes limp. “It’s all right, Violet,” he says, looking up at me, and I shove my goggles on top of my head so I can see him clearer.
He’s struggling to breathe.
“It’s not all right.” I want to scream with the injustice of it, but that won’t help. My hand trembles as I slide his riding goggles up to his forehead, then brush his blond hair back off his forehead. “None of this is all right. Please stay,” I beg, tears I can’t fight rolling unchecked down my cheeks. “Fight to stay. Please, Liam. Fight to stay.”
“At Parapet-” His face twists in pain. “You have to take care of my sister.”
“Liam, no.” I choke on the words as tears clog my throat. “You’ll be there.” I stroke his hair. He’s fine. He’s physically, perfectly fine, and yet I’m watching him slip away. “You have to be there.” He has to smile at the sister he’s missed for years and flash that dimple of his. He has to give her the stack of letters he’s written. He deserves it after all he’s been through.
He can’t die for me.
“Tairn,” I cry. “Tell me what to do.”
“There’s nothing you can do, Silver One.”
“We both know I won’t. Just promise you’ll take care of Sloane,” he begs, his eyes searching mine as his breaths grow ragged. “Promise.”
“I promise,” I whisper, taking his hand and squeezing, not bothering to wipe my tears. “I’ll take care of Sloane.” He’s dying and there’s nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do. How can all this power be so fucking useless?
The pulse under my thumb slows.
“Good. That’s good.” He forces a weak smile, and that dimple makes a faint appearance before his expression falters. “And I know you feel betrayed, but Xaden needs you. And I don’t just mean alive, Violet. He needs you. Please hear him out.”
“All right.” I nod, fighting to force a watery smile. He could ask for anything right now, and I’d give it to him. “Thank you, Liam. Thank you for being my shadow. Thank you for being my friend.” He blurs in my vision as the tears come faster.
“It’s been. My honor.” Liam’s chest rattles as his lungs struggle.
A gust of wind blows the loosened strands of my braid back from my face. Seconds later, I feel Xaden racing toward us, a torrent of his emotions overwhelming my own.
“No, Liam,” Xaden chokes out as he crouches in front of us, the muscles in his face working to control his expression, but there’s no hiding the despair that pushes at our mental connection.
“Deigh,” Liam pleads in a strangled whisper, turning his head toward Xaden.
“I know, brother.” Xaden’s jaw flexes and our gazes lock above Liam as tears overflow my eyes. “I know.” He leans forward and lifts Liam into his arms, then stands, carrying him. “I’ll take you.”
He walks slowly across the gravelly terrain to Deigh’s body, saying things I can’t hear from where I kneel, the rocks digging into my knees through the fabric of the leather as I watch Xaden say goodbye.
Xaden lowers Liam, sitting him against Deigh’s unblemished shoulder, then kneels beside him, nodding slowly at whatever Liam has said.
The cry of a wyvern splits the air above us, and I look up instinctively.
A cloud of flapping gray wings moves toward us from higher up the valley. Wyvern. Dozens and dozens of wyvern.
“Look up at the valley!”
Liam’s head rolls slowly as they both look.
Xaden’s head bows, and my breath freezes in my lungs as shadows momentarily whip out around him, like a blast of menace and sorrow.
Seconds later, his soundless, soul-rending scream fills my head with such force that my heart shatters like glass against a stone floor.
I don’t need to ask. Liam is gone.
Liam, who never complained about being my shadow, never hesitated to help, never bragged about being the best of our year. He died protecting me. Oh gods, and I just asked him if we’d ever really been friends an hour ago.
Just one of those beasts managed to kill my friend; what the hell can that many accomplish?
A bloodied wyvern dives for us, and Tairn throws his wing over me. I hear the sound of his teeth snapping and a sharp cry above me before his wing retracts.
“We’re targets on the ground,” Tairn says as the wyvern flies away.
“Then let’s be the ones who hunt.” I stumble to my feet in time to see Xaden running my way.
“Violence!” Xaden grasps my shoulders, determination lining his features. “Liam told me to tell you that there are two riders with that horde.”
“Why would he tell me and not-” An anvil sits on my chest.
“Because he knew I’d have to be the one who holds off the wyvern as long as possible.” He studies my face like he’ll never see it again.
“And I’m the one who can kill them all.” It will kill me to wield that many times, but I’m the best shot we have. The best shot he has to survive.
“You can kill them.” He yanks me close and kisses my forehead. “There is no me without you,” he says against my skin.
Before I can react, he turns toward the valley and lifts his arms- throwing up a wall of shadow that consumes the space between the
ridgelines. “Go! I’ll give you as much time as I can!”
Every second matters, and these are bound to be my last-our last.
In the span of one heartbeat, I look over my shoulder, past Tairn, and see the flaming ruins of the trading post. Townspeople run from the city walls, fleeing the wyvern that circle above. My stomach drops at our failure-we haven’t managed to evacuate all the civilians.
At the second beat, I draw a stuttered breath of smoke-laden air as a lone gryphon flies through the haze, followed by Garrick and Imogen on their dragons, and I can only hope the others are still alive.
In the third heartbeat, I turn back toward Liam’s and Deigh’s lifeless bodies, and rage floods my veins faster than any lightning strike I’ve ever wielded. The horde of wyvern behind Xaden’s wall will tear into Tairn and Sgaeyl just like Deigh.
And Xaden… No matter how strong he is, Xaden won’t be able to hold them forever. His arms already shake with the effort of controlling so much power. He’ll be the first to die if I’m not exactly what he called me under that tree all those months ago. Violence.
There are dozens of wyvern and one of me.
I have to be as strategic as Brennan and as confident as Mira.
I’ve spent the last year trying to prove to myself I’m nothing like my mother. I’m not cold. I’m not callous. But maybe there is a part of me that’s more like her than I care to admit.
Because right now, standing near the dead body of my friend and his dragon-all I want is to show these assholes exactly how violent I can be.
I pull my goggles down as I turn to Tairn’s shoulder, mounting quickly. There’s no need to ask him to launch, not when our emotions are aligned like this. We want the same exact thing. Revenge.
I buckle the straps across my thighs as Tairn springs upward, taking off with heavy beats of his massive wings. The bloodied wyvern has doubled back, and Tairn flies straight at it. I don’t even care if it’s the same one that just killed our friends. They’re all going to die.
As soon as we get close enough, I throw my hands out, letting all my power loose with a guttural scream. Lightning hits the wyvern on the first shot, sending the monster plummeting to the ground near the city walls.
But I never see the one coming at us from the left. Not until I feel Tairn’s roar of pain.