Chapter no 5

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

“Welcome to your first Battle Brief,” Professor Devera says from the recessed floor of the enormous lecture hall later in the morning, a bright purple Flame Section patch on her shoulder matching her short hair perfectly. This is the only class held in the circular, tiered room that curves the entire end of the academic hall and one of only two rooms in the citadel capable of fitting every cadet. Every creaky wooden seat is full, and the senior third-years are standing against the walls behind us, but we all fit.

It’s a far cry from history last hour, where there were only three squads of first-years, but at least the first-years in our squad are all seated together. Now if I could only remember all their names.

Ridoc is easy to remember-he cracked wise-ass comments all through history. Hopefully he knows better than to try the same in here, though. Professor Devera isn’t the joking kind.

“In the past, riders have seldom been called into service before graduation,” Professor Devera continues, her mouth tensing as she paces slowly in front of a twenty-foot-high map of the Continent mounted to the back wall that’s intricately labeled with our defensive outposts along our borders. Dozens of mage lights illuminate the space, more than making up for the lack of windows and reflecting off the longsword she keeps strapped to her back.

“And if they were, they were always third-years who’d spent time shadowing forward wings, but we expect you to graduate with the full knowledge of what we’re up against. It’s not about just knowing where every wing is stationed, either.” She takes her time, making eye contact with every first-year she sees. The rank on her shoulder says captain, but I know she’ll be a major before she leaves her rotation teaching here, given the medals pinned on her chest. “You need to understand the politics of our enemies, the strategies of defending our outposts from constant attack, and have a thorough knowledge of both recent and current battles. If you cannot grasp these basic topics, then you have no business on the back of a dragon.” She arches a black brow a few shades darker than her deep-brown skin.

“No pressure,” Rhiannon mutters at my side, furiously taking notes.

“We’ll be fine,” I promise her in a whisper. “Third-years have only been sent to midland posts as reinforcements, never the front.” I’d kept my ears open around my mother enough to know that much.

“This is the only class you will have every day, because it’s the only class that will matter if you’re called into service early.” Professor Devera’s gaze sweeps from left to right and pauses on me. Her eyes flare wide for a heartbeat, but she gives an approving smile and nod before moving on. “Because this class is taught every day and relies on the most current information, you will also answer to Professor Markham, who deserves nothing but your utmost respect.”

She waves the scribe forward, and he moves to stand next to her, the cream color of his uniform contrasting with her stark black one. He leans in when she whispers something to him, and his thick eyebrows fly high as he whips his head in my direction.

There’s no approving smile when the colonel’s weary eyes find mine, only a sigh that fills my chest with heavy sorrow when I hear it. I was supposed to be his star pupil in the Scribe Quadrant, his crowning achievement before he retires. How absolutely ironic that I’m now the least likely to succeed in this one.

“It is the duty of the scribes not only to study and master the past but to relay and record the present,” he says, rubbing the bridge of his bulbous nose after finally tearing his disappointed gaze from mine. “Without accurate depictions of our front lines, reliable information with which to make strategic decisions, and-most importantly-veracious details to document our history for the good of future generations, we’re doomed, not only as a kingdom but as a society.”

Which is exactly why I’ve always wanted to be a scribe. Not that it matters now.

“First topic of the day.” Professor Devera moves toward the map and flicks her hand, bringing a mage light directly over the eastern border with the Poromiel province of Braevick. “The Eastern Wing experienced an attack last night near the village of Chakir by a drift of Braevi gryphons and riders.”

Oh shit. A murmur rips through the hall, and I dip my quill into the inkpot on the desk in front of me so I can take notes. I can’t wait to channel so I can use the type of coveted pens Mom keeps on her desk. A smile curves my lips. There could definitely be perks to being a rider. There will be.

“Naturally, some information is redacted for security purposes, but what we can tell you is that the wards faltered along the top of the Esben Mountains.” Professor Devera pulls her hands apart and the light expands, illuminating the mountains that form our border with Braevick. “Allowing the drift not only to enter Navarrian territory but for their riders to channel and wield sometime around midnight.”

My stomach sinks as a murmur rises from the cadets, especially the firstyears. Dragons aren’t the only animals capable of channeling powers to their riders. Gryphons from Poromiel also share the ability, but dragons are the only ones capable of powering the wards that make all other magic but their own impossible within our borders. They’re the reason Navarre’s borders are somewhat circular-their power radiates from the Vale and can only extend so far, even with squads stationed at every outpost. Without those wards, we’re fucked. It would be open season on Navarrian villages when the raiding parties from Poromiel inevitably descend. Those greedy assholes are never content with the resources they have. They always want ours, too, and until they learn to be content with our trade agreements, we have no chance of ending conscription in Navarre. No chance of experiencing peace.

But if we’re not on high alert, then they must have gotten the wards rewoven, or at least stabilized.

“Thirty-seven civilians were killed in the attack in the hour before a squad from the Eastern Wing could arrive, but the riders and dragons managed to repel the drift,” Professor Devera finishes, folding her arms over her chest. “Based on that information, what questions would you ask?” She holds up a finger. “I only want answers from first-years to start.”

My initial question would be why the hell the wards faltered, but it’s not like they’re going to answer a question like that in a room full of cadets with zero security clearance.

I study the map. The Esben Mountain Range is the highest along our eastern border with Braevick, making it the least likely place for an attack, especially since gryphons don’t tolerate altitude nearly as well as dragons, probably due to the fact that they’re half-lion, half-eagle and can’t handle the thinner air at higher altitudes.

There’s a reason we’ve been able to fend off every major assault on our territory for the last six hundred years, and we’ve successfully defended our land in this never-ending four-hundred-year-long war. Our abilities, both lesser and signet, are superior because our dragons can channel more power than gryphons. So why attack in that mountain range? What caused the wards to falter there?

“Come on, first-years, show me you have more than just good balance. Show me you have the critical-thinking skills to be here,” Professor Devera demands. “It’s more important than ever that you’re ready for what’s beyond our borders.”

“Is this the first time the wards have faltered?” a first-year a couple of rows ahead asks.

Professors Devera and Markham share a look before she turns toward the cadet. “No.”

My heart jolts into my throat and the room falls pin-drop quiet.

It’s not the first time.

The girl clears her throat. “And how…often are they faltering?”

Professor Markham’s shrewd eyes narrow on her. “That’s above your pay grade, cadet.” He turns his attention to our section. “Next relevant question to the attack we’re discussing?”

“How many casualties did the wing suffer?” a first-year down the row to my right asks.

“One injured dragon. One dead rider.”

Another murmur rises from the hall. Surviving graduation doesn’t mean we’ll survive service. Statistically, most riders die before retirement age, especially at the rate riders have been falling over the last two years.

“Why would you ask that particular question?” Professor Devera asks the cadet.

“To know how many reinforcements they’ll need,” he answers.

Professor Devera nods, turning toward Pryor, the meekest first-year in our squad, who has his hand up, but he lowers it quickly, scrunching his dark eyebrows. “Did you want to ask a question?”

“Yes.” He nods, sending a few locks of black hair into his eyes, then shakes his head. “No. Never mind.”

“So decisive,” Luca-the catty first-year in our squad I’ll do just about anything to avoid-mocks from next to him, tilting her head as cadets laugh around them. A corner of her mouth tilts up into a smirk, and she flips her long brown hair over her shoulder in a move that’s anything but casual. Like me, she’s one of the few women in the quadrant who didn’t cut her hair. I envy her confidence that it won’t be used against her, but not her attitude, and I’ve known her less than a day.

“He’s in our squad,” Aurelie-at least I think that’s her name-chastises, her no-nonsense black eyes narrowing on Luca. “Show some loyalty.”

“Please. No dragon is bonding to a guy who can’t even decide if he wants to ask a question. And did you see him at breakfast this morning? He held the entire line up because he couldn’t choose between bacon or sausage.” Luca rolls her kohl-rimmed eyes.

“If Fourth Wing is done picking at one another?” Professor Devera asks, lifting a brow.

“Ask what altitude the village is at,” I whisper to Rhiannon.

“What?” Her brow furrows.

“Just ask,” I reply, trying to keep Dain’s advice in mind. I swear I can feel him staring at the back of my neck from seven rows behind me, but I’m not going to turn and look, not when I know Xaden’s up there somewhere, too.

“What altitude is the village at?” Rhiannon asks.

Professor Devera’s eyebrows rise as she turns to Rhiannon. “Markham?”

“A little less than ten thousand feet,” he answers. “Why?”

Rhiannon darts a dose of side-eye at me and clears her throat. “Just seems a little high for a planned attack with gryphons.” “Good job,” I whisper.

“It is a little high for a planned attack,” Devera says. “Why don’t you tell me why that’s bothersome, Cadet Sorrengail? And maybe you’d like to ask your own questions from here on out.” She levels a stare on me that has me squirming in my seat.

Every head in the room turns in my direction. If anyone had an inkling of doubt about who I am, it’s long gone now. Awesome.

“Gryphons aren’t as strong at that altitude, and neither is their ability to channel,” I say. “It’s an illogical place for them to attack unless they knew the wards would fail, especially since the village looks to be about what… an hour’s flight from the nearest outpost?” I glance at the map to be sure I’m not making a fool of myself. “That is Chakir right there, isn’t it?” Scribe’s training for the win.

“It is.” A corner of Professor Devera’s mouth lifts into a smirk. “Keep going with that line of thought.”

Wait a second. “Didn’t you say it took an hour for the squad of riders to arrive?” My gaze narrows.

“I did.” She looks at me with expectation.

“Then they were already on their way,” I blurt, immediately recognizing how silly that sounds. My cheeks heat as a mumble of laughter sounds around me.

“Yeah, because that makes sense.” Jack turns around in his seat from the front row and openly laughs at me. “General Melgren knows the outcome of a battle before it happens, but even he doesn’t know when it will happen, dumbass.”

I feel the chuckling of my classmates reverberate in my bones. I want to crawl under this ridiculous desk and disappear.

“Fuck off, Barlowe,” Rhiannon snaps.

“I’m not the one who thinks precognition is a thing,” he retorts with a sneer. “Gods help us if that one ever gets on the back of a dragon.” Another round of laughter has my neck flaming, too.

“Why do you think that, Violet-” Professor Markham winces. “Cadet Sorrengail?”

“Because there’s no logical way they get there within an hour of the attack unless they were already on their way,” I argue, shooting a glare at Jack. Fuck him and his laughter. I might be weaker than he is, but I’m a hell of a lot smarter. “It would take at least half that long to light the beacons in the range and call for help, and no full squad is sitting around just waiting to be needed. More than half those riders would have been asleep, which means they were already on their way.”

“And why would they already be on their way?” Professor Devera prods, and the light in her eyes tells me I’m right, giving me the confidence to take my train of thought a step further.

“Because they somehow knew the wards were breaking.” I lift my chin, simultaneously hoping I’m right and praying to Dunne-the goddess of war -that I’m wrong.

“That’s the most-” Jack starts.

“She’s right,” Professor Devera interrupts, and a hush falls over the room. “One of the dragons in the wing sensed the faltering ward, and the wing flew. Had they not, the casualties would have been far higher and the destruction of the village much worse.”

A little bubble of confidence rises in my chest, which is promptly popped by Jack’s glare, telling me he hasn’t forgotten his promise to kill me.

“Second- and third-years, take over,” Professor Devera orders. “Let’s see if you can be a little more respectful to your fellow cadets.” She arches a brow at Jack as questions begin to fire off from the riders behind us.

How many riders were deployed to the site?

What killed the lone fatality?

How long did it take to clear the village of the gryphons?

Were any left alive for questioning?

I write down every question and answer, my mind organizing the facts into what kind of report I would have filed if I’d been in the Scribe Quadrant, which information was important enough to include, and what was extraneous.

“What was the condition of the village?” a deep voice asks from the back of the lecture hall.

The hairs on my neck rise, my body recognizing the imminent threat behind me.

“Riorson?” Markham asks, shielding his eyes from the mage lights as he looks toward the top of the hall.

“The village,” Xaden restates. “Professor Devera said the damage would have been worse, but what was the actual condition? Was it burned? Destroyed? They wouldn’t demolish it if they were trying to establish a foothold, so the condition of the village matters when trying to determine a motive for the attack.”

Professor Devera smiles in approval. “The buildings they’d already gone through were burned, and the rest were being looted when the wing arrived.”

“They were looking for something,” Xaden says with complete conviction. “And it wasn’t riches. That’s not a gem mining district. Which begs the question, what do we have that they want so badly?”

“Exactly. That’s the question.” Professor Devera glances around the room. “And that right there is why Riorson is a wingleader. You need more than strength and courage to be a good rider.”

“So what’s the answer?” a first-year to the left asks.

“We don’t know,” Professor Devera answers with a shrug. “It’s just another piece in the puzzle of why our constant bids for peace are rejected by the kingdom of Poromiel. What were they looking for? Why that village? Were they responsible for the collapse of the ward, or was it already faltering? Tomorrow, next week, next month, there will be another attack, and maybe we’ll get another clue. Go to history if you’re looking for answers. Those wars have already been dissected and examined. Battle Brief is for fluid situations. In this class, we want you to learn which questions to ask so all of you have a chance at coming home alive.”

Something in her tone tells me it’s not just third-years who might be called into service this year, and a chill settles in my bones.

“You seriously knew every answer in history and apparently every right question to ask in Battle Brief,” Rhiannon says, shaking her head as we stand on the sidelines of the sparring mat after lunch, watching Ridoc and Aurelie circle each other in their fighting leathers. They’re evenly matched in size. Ridoc is on the smaller side, and Aurelie is built just like Mira, which doesn’t surprise me because she’s a legacy on her father’s side. “You’re not even going to have to study for tests, are you?”

The rest of the first-years stand on our side, but the second- and thirdyears line the others. They’re definitely at an advantage here, considering they’ve already had at least a year of combat training.

“I was trained to be a scribe.” I shrug, and the vest Mira made me shimmers slightly with the movement. Other than the times the scales catch the light under the camouflaging mesh, it fits right in with the tops we’d been given from central issue yesterday. All the women are dressed similarly now, though the cuts of their leathers are chosen by preference.

The guys are mostly shirtless because they think shirts give their opponent something to grab onto. Personally, I’m not arguing with their logic, just enjoying the view…respectfully, of course, which means keeping my eyes on my own squad’s mat and off the other twenty mats in the massive gym that consumes the first floor of the academic wing. One wall is made entirely of windows and doors, all left open to let in the breeze, but it’s still stiflingly hot. Sweat trickles down my spine under my vest.

There are three squads from each wing here this afternoon, and lucky me, First Wing has sent their third squads, which include Jack Barlowe, who’s been glaring at me from two mats over since I walked in.

“Guess that means you’re not worried about academics,” Rhiannon says, her brows rising at me. She’s chosen a leather vest, too, but hers cuts in above the collarbone and secures at her neck, leaving her shoulders bare for movement.

“Stop circling each other like you’re dance partners and attack!” Professor Emetterio orders from across the mat, where Dain watches Aurelie and Ridoc’s match with our squad executive leader, Cianna. Thank God Dain’s shirt is on, because I don’t need another distraction when it’s time for my turn.

“I’m worried about this,” I tell Rhiannon, tilting my chin toward the mat.

“Really?” She shoots me a skeptical look. Her braids are twisted into a small bun at the nape of her neck. “I figured as a Sorrengail, you’d be a hand-to-hand threat.”

“Not exactly.” At my age, Mira had been training in hand-to-hand for twelve years. I have a whopping six months under my belt, which wouldn’t matter as much if I wasn’t as breakable as a porcelain teacup, but here we are.

Ridoc launches toward Aurelie, but she ducks, sweeping out her leg and tripping him. He staggers but doesn’t go down. He pivots quickly, palming a dagger in his hand.

“No blades today!” Professor Emetterio bellows from beside the mat. He’s only the fourth professor I’ve met, but he’s definitely the one who intimidates me most. Or maybe it’s just the subject he teaches that has me envisioning his compact frame as giant. “We’re just assessing!”

Ridoc grumbles and sheathes his knife just in time to deflect a right hook from Aurelie.

“The brunette packs a punch,” Rhiannon says with an appreciative smile before glancing my way.

“What about you?” I ask as Ridoc lands a jab to Aurelie’s ribs.

“Shit!” He shakes his head and backs up a step. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Aurelie holds her ribs but lifts her chin. “Who said you hurt me?”

“Pulling your punches does her a disservice,” Dain says, folding his arms. “The Cygnis on the northeast border aren’t going to give her any quarter because she’s a woman if she falls from her dragon behind enemy lines, Ridoc. They’ll kill her just the same.”

“Let’s go!” Aurelie shouts, beckoning Ridoc by curling her fingers. It’s obvious that most cadets have trained their whole lives to enter the quadrant, especially Aurelie, who slips a jab from Ridoc and twists to land a quick tap to his kidneys.


“I mean…damn,” Rhiannon mutters, giving Aurelie another look before turning back to me. “I’m pretty good on the mat. My village is on the Cygnisen border, so we all learned to defend ourselves fairly young. Physics and math aren’t problems, either. But history?” She shakes her head. “That class might be the death of me.”

“They don’t kill you for failing history,” I say as Ridoc charges Aurelie, taking her to the mat with enough force to make me wince. “I’m probably going to die on these mats.”

She hooks her legs around his and somehow leverages him over until she’s the one on top, landing punch after punch to the side of his face. Blood spatters the mat.

“I could probably offer some tips to survive combat training,” Sawyer says from Rhiannon’s other side, running his hand over a day’s growth of brown stubble that doesn’t quite cover his freckles. “History isn’t my strongest subject, though.”

A tooth goes flying and bile rises in my throat.

“Enough!” Professor Emetterio shouts.

Aurelie rolls off Ridoc and stands, touching her fingers to her split lip and examining the blood, then offers her hand to help him up.

He takes it.

“Cianna, take Aurelie to the healers. No reason to lose a tooth during assessment,” Emetterio orders.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Rhiannon says, locking her brown eyes with mine. “Let’s help each other out. We’ll help you with hand-to-hand if you help us with history. Sound like a deal, Sawyer?”


“Deal.” I swallow as one of the third-years wipes down the mat with a towel. “But I think I’m getting the better end of that.”

“You haven’t seen me try to memorize dates,” Rhiannon jokes.

A couple of mats over, someone shrieks, and we all turn to look. Jack Barlowe has another first-year in a headlock. The other guy is smaller, thinner than Jack, but still has a good fifty pounds on me.

Jack yanks his arms, his hands still secure around the other man’s head.

“That guy is such an ass-” Rhiannon starts.

The sickening crack of bones breaking sounds across the gym, and the first-year goes limp in Jack’s hold.

“Sweet Malek,” I whisper as Jack drops the man to the ground. I’m starting to wonder if the god of death lives here for how often his name must be invoked. My lunch threatens to reappear, but I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, since it’s not like I can shove my head between my knees here.

“What did I say?” their instructor shouts as he charges onto the mat.

“You broke his damned neck!”

“How was I supposed to know his neck was that weak?” Jack argues.

You’re dead, Sorrengail, and I’m going to be the one to kill you. His promise from yesterday slithers through my memory.

“Eyes forward,” Emetterio orders, but his tone is kinder than it has been as we all look away from the dead first-year. “You don’t have to get used to it,” he tells us. “But you do have to function through it. You and you.” He points to Rhiannon and another first-year in our squad, a man with a stocky build, blue-black hair, and angular features. Shit, I can’t remember his name. Trevor? Thomas, maybe? There are too many new people to remember who is who at this point.

I glance at Dain, but he’s watching the pair as they take the mat.

Rhiannon makes quick work of the first-year, stunning me every time she dodges a punch and lands one of her own. She’s fast, and her hits are powerful, the kind of lethal combination that will set her apart, just like Mira.

“Do you yield?” she asks the first-year guy when she takes him to his back, her hand stopped mid-hit just above his throat.

Tanner? I’m pretty sure it’s something that starts with a T.

“No!” he shouts, hooking his legs around Rhiannon’s and slamming her to her back. But she rolls and quickly gains her feet before putting him in the same position again, this time with her boot to his neck.

“I don’t know, Tynan, you might want to yield,” Dain says with a grin.

“She’s handing you your ass.” Ah, that’s right. Tynan.

“Fuck off, Aetos!” Tynan snaps, but Rhiannon presses her boot into his throat, garbling the last word. He turns a mottled shade of red.

Yeah, Tynan has more ego than common sense.

“He yields,” Emetterio calls out, and Rhiannon steps back, offering her hand.

Tynan takes it.

“You-” Emetterio points to the pink-haired second-year with the rebellion relic. “And you.” His finger swings to me.

She’s at least a head taller than me, and if the rest of her body is as toned as her arms, then I’m pretty much fucked.

I can’t let her get her hands on me.

My heart threatens to beat out of my chest, but I nod and step onto the mat. “You’ve got this,” Rhiannon says, tapping my shoulder as she passes me.

“Sorrengail.” The pink-haired girl looks me over like I’m something she’s scraped off the side of her boot, narrowing her pale green eyes. “You really should dye your hair if you don’t want everyone to know who your mother is. You’re the only silver-haired freak in the quadrant.”

“Never said I cared if everyone knows who my mother is.” I circle the second-year on the mat. “I am proud of her service to protect our kingdom -from enemies both without and within.”

As her jaw tightens at the dig, a bubble of hope rises in my chest. Marked ones, as I’d heard some people this morning refer to those carrying rebellion relics on their arms, blame my mother for the execution of their parents. Fine. Hate me. Mom often says the minute you let emotion enter a fight, you’ve already lost. I’ve never prayed harder that my ice-in-her-veins mother was right.

“You bitch,” she seethes. “Your mother murdered my family.”

She lunges forward and swings wildly, and I quickly sidestep, spinning away with my hands up. We do that for a few more rounds, and I land a few jabs, start to think that my plan might just work.

She growls low in her throat as she misses me again, and her foot flies at my head. I easily duck, but then she drops to the ground and kicks out with her other foot, which lands square in my chest, sending me backward. I hit the mat with a thud, and she’s already above me, so damn fast.

“You can’t use your powers in here, Imogen!” Dain shouts.

Imogen is trying her best to kill me.

Her eyes are above mine, and I feel the quick slide of something hard against my ribs as she smiles at me. But her smile fades as we both look down, and I can’t help but notice a dagger being re-sheathed.

The armor just saved my life. Thank you, Mira.

Confusion mars Imogen’s face for just a second, long enough for me to send my fist into her cheek and roll out from under her.

My hand screams with pain even though I’m sure I formed the fist right, but I block it out as we both gain our feet.

“What kind of armor is that?” she asks, staring at my ribs as we circle each other.

“Mine.” I duck and dodge as she comes at me again, but her movements are a blur.

“Imogen!” Emetterio shouts. “Do it again, and I’ll-“

I swerve the wrong way this time and she catches me, taking me to the floor. The mat smacks my face, and her knee digs into my back as she pulls my right arm behind me.

“Yield!” she shouts.

I can’t. If I yield on the first day, what will the second bring? “No!” Now I’m the one lacking common sense like Tynan, and I’m far more breakable.

She pulls my arm farther, and pain consumes every thought, blackening the edges of my vision. I cry out as the ligaments stretch, shred, then pop.

“Yield, Violet!” Dain yells.

“Yield!” Imogen demands.

Gasping for breath against the weight of her on my back, I turn my face to the side as she wrenches my shoulder apart, the pain consuming me.

“She yields,” Emetterio says. “That’s enough.”

I hear it again-the macabre sound of snapping bone-but this time it’s mine.

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