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Chapter no 16

Heir of Fire

Of all the spaces in the Omega, the mess hall was by far the most dangerous.

e three Ironteeth Clans had been divided into rotating shifts that kept them mostly separated

—training with the wyverns, training in the weapons room, and training in mortal warfare. It was smart to separate them, Manon supposed, since tensions were high, and would continue to run high until the wyverns were selected. Everyone wanted a bull. ough Manon fully expected to get one, perhaps even Titus, it didn’t keep her from wanting to punch out the teeth of anyone who even whispered about coveting a bull of her own.

ere were only a few overlapping minutes between their three-hour rotations, and the coven leaders did their best to keep them from running into each other. At least Manon did. Her temper was on a tight leash these days, and one more sneer from the Yellowlegs heir was likely to end in bloodshed. e same could be said of her irteen, two of whom—the green-eyed twins Faline and Fallon, more demon than witch—had gotten into a brawl with some Yellowlegs idiots, unsurprisingly. She’d punished them just as she’d punished Asterin: three blows each, public and humiliating. But, like clockwork, ghts still broke out between other covens whenever they were in close quarters.

Which was what made the mess hall so deadly. e two daily meals were the only time they all shared together—and while they kept to their own tables, the tension was so thick Manon could slice it with her blade.

Manon stood in line for her bowl of slop—that was the best name she could give the doughy goop the mess hall served— anked by Asterin, with the last of the Blueblood witches in the line ahead of her. Somehow, the Bluebloods were always rst— rst in line for food, rst to ride the wyverns (the

irteen had yet to get airborne), and likely to get rst pick of the beasts. A growl rumbled deep in her throat, but Manon pushed her tray along the table, watching the pale-faced server heap a grayish-white ball of food into the bowl of the Blueblood in front of her.

She didn’t bother to note the details of his features as the thick vein in his throat pulsed. Witches didn’t need blood to survive, but humans didn’t need wine, either. e Bluebloods were picky about whose blood they drank—virgins, young men, pretty girls—but the Blackbeaks didn’t particularly care one way or another.

e man’s ladle began shaking, tip-tapping along the side of the cauldron.

“Rules are rules,” drawled a voice to her left. Asterin let out a warning snarl, and Manon didn’t have to look to know that the Yellowlegs heir, Iskra, lurked there. “No eating the rabble,” the dark–haired witch added, shoving her bowl in front of the man, cutting the line. Manon took in the iron nails and teeth, the calloused hand so blatantly making a show of dominance.

“Ah. I was wondering why no one’s bothered to eat you,” Manon said.

Iskra shouldered her way farther in front of Manon. Manon could feel the eyes in the room shifting toward them, but she reined in her temper, allowing the disrespect. Mess hall posturing meant nothing. “I hear your irteen are taking to the air today,” said the Yellowlegs heir as Manon received her own ration.

“What business is it of yours?”

Iskra shrugged her toned shoulders. “ ey say you were once the best ier in all three Clans. It would be a shame if it were just more gossip.”

It was true—she’d earned her spot as coven leader as much as she’d inherited it.

Iskra went on, sliding her plate along to the next server, who spooned some pale root vegetable onto her slop. “ ere’s talk of skipping our training rotation so we can see the legendary irteen take to the skies for the rst time in a decade.”

Manon clicked her tongue in pretend thought. “I also heard there’s talk that the Yellowlegs need all the help they can get in the sparring room. But I suppose any army needs its supply drivers.”

A low laugh from Asterin, and Iskra’s brown eyes ashed. ey reached the end of the serving table, where Iskra faced Manon. With their trays in hand, neither could reach for the blades at their sides. e room had gone silent, even the high table at which the three Matrons sat.

Manon’s gums stung as her iron teeth shot from their slits and snapped down. She said quietly, but loud enough for everyone to hear, “Any time you need a lesson in combat, Iskra, you just let me know. I’d be happy to teach you a few things about soldiering.”

Before the heir could reply, Manon stalked across the room. Asterin gave Iskra a mocking bow of the head, followed by identical gestures from the rest of her irteen, but Iskra remained staring at Manon, simmering.

Manon plunked down at her table to nd her grandmother smiling faintly. And when all of Manon’s twelve sentinels were seated around her, irteen from now until the Darkness embraced them, Manon allowed herself a smile, too.

ey were going to y today.

As if the open cli face weren’t enough to make the two gathered Blackbeak covens shift on their feet, the twenty-six tethered wyverns in a tight space, none of them that docile, made even Manon twitchy.

But she showed no fear as she approached the wyvern at the center. Two lines of thirteen stood chained and ready. e irteen took the rst. e other coven took the one behind. Manon’s new riding gear was heavy and awkward—leather and fur, capped with steel shoulder-guards and leather wrist-braces. More than she was used to wearing, especially with her red cloak.

ey’d already practiced saddling the mounts for two days, though they’d usually have handlers around to do it for them. Manon’s mount for the day—a small female—was lying on her belly, low enough that Manon easily climbed her hind leg and hauled herself into the saddle at the spot where the long neck met the massive shoulders. A man approached to adjust the stirrups, but Manon leaned to do it herself. Breakfast had been bad enough. Coming close to a human throat now would only tempt her further.

e wyvern shifted, its body warm against her cold legs, and Manon tightened her gloved grip on the reins. Down the line, her sentinels mounted their beasts. Asterin was ready, of course, her cousin’s gold hair tightly braided back, her fur collar ru ing in the biting wind from the open drop ahead of them. She ashed Manon a grin, her dark, gold- ecked eyes bright. Not a trace of fear—-just the thrill.

e beasts knew what to do, the handlers had said. ey knew how to make the Crossing on instinct alone. at’s what they called the sheer plunge between the two mountain peaks, the nal test for a rider and mount. If the wyverns couldn’t make it, they’d splatter on the rocks far below. With their riders.

ere was movement on the viewing platforms on either side, and the Yellowlegs heir’s coven

swaggered in, all of them smiling, none more broadly than Iskra.

“Bitch,” Asterin murmured. As if it weren’t bad enough that Mother Blackbeak stood on the opposite viewing platform, anked by the other two High Witches. Manon lifted her chin and looked to the drop ahead.

“Just like we practiced,” the overseer said, climbing from the open-faced pit to the viewing platform where the three Matrons stood. “Hard kick in the side sends ’em o . Let ’em navigate the Crossing. Best advice is to hold on like hell and enjoy the ride.” A few nervous laughs from the coven behind her, but the irteen remained silent. Waiting. Just as they would faced with any army, before any battle.

Manon blinked, the muscles behind her golden eyes pulling down the clear lm that would shield her vision from the wind. Manon allowed herself a moment to adjust to the thickness of the extra lid. Without it, they’d y like mortals, squinting and streaming tears all over the place.

“Ready at your command, lady,” the man called to her.

Manon studied the open gap ahead, the bridge barely visible above, the gray skies and mist. She looked down the line, into each of the six faces on either side. en she turned ahead, to the drop and the world waiting beyond.

“We are the irteen, from now until the Darkness claims us.” She said it quietly, but knew all could hear her. “Let’s remind them why.”

Manon kicked her mount into action. ree galloping, thunderous steps beneath her, surging forward, forward, forward, a leap into freezing air, the clouds and the bridge and the snow all around, and then the drop.

Her stomach shot right into her throat as the wyvern arced and angled down, wings tucked in tight. As she’d been instructed, Manon rose into a crouch over the neck, keeping her face close to the leathery skin, the wind screaming in her face.

e air rippled behind her, her irteen mere feet away, falling as one, past rock and snow, shooting for the earth.

Manon gritted her teeth. e blur of stone, the kiss of mist, her hair ripping out of her braid, waving like a white banner above her.

e mist parted, and Darkness embrace her, there was the Gap oor, so close, and—

Manon held on to the saddle, to the reins, to conscious thought as massive wings spread and the world tilted, and the body beneath her ipped up, up, riding the wind’s current in a sheer climb along the side of the Northern Fang.

ere were triumphant howls from below, from above, and the wyvern kept climbing, swifter than Manon had ever own on her broom, past the bridge and up into the open sky.

at fast, Manon was back in the skies.

e cloudless, endless, eternal sky held them as Asterin and then Sorrel and Vesta anked her, then the rest of the irteen, and Manon schooled her face into cool victory.

To her right, Asterin was beaming, her iron teeth shining like silver. To her left, red-haired Vesta was just shaking her head, gaping at the mountains below. Sorrel was as stone-faced as Manon, but her black eyes danced. e irteen were airborne again.

e world spread beneath them, and ahead, far to the West, was the home they would someday reclaim. But now, now . . .

e wind caressed and sang to her, telling her of its currents, more an instinct than a magical gift.

An instinct that had made her the best ier in all three Clans.

“What now?” Asterin called. And though she’d never seen any of her irteen cry, Manon could have sworn there were tears shining in the corners of her cousin’s eyes.

“I say we test them out,” Manon said, keeping that wild exuberance locked up tight in her chest, and reined her mount toward where the rst canyon run awaited them. e whoops and cackles of her irteen as they rode the current were ner than any mortal music.

Manon stood at attention in her grandmother’s small room, staring at the far stone wall until she was spoken to. Mother Blackbeak sat at the wooden desk, her back to Manon as she pored over some document or letter. “You did well today, Manon,” her grandmother said at last.

Manon touched two ngers to her brow, though her grandmother still studied the papers.

Manon hadn’t needed to be told by the overseer that it was the best Crossing he had witnessed to date. She’d taken one look at the empty platform where the Yellowlegs coven had been and known they’d left as soon as Manon didn’t splatter on the ground.

“Your irteen and all the Blackbeak covens did well,” her grandmother went on. “Your work in keeping them disciplined these years is commendable.”

Manon’s chest swelled, but she said, “It’s my honor to serve you, Grandmother.”

Her grandmother scribbled something down. “I want you and the irteen to be Wing Leader—I want you leading all the Clans.” e witch twisted to look at Manon, her face unreadable. “ ere are to be war games in a few months to decide the ranks. I don’t care how you do it, but I expect to crown you victor.”

Manon didn’t need to ask why.

Her grandmother’s eyes fell on Manon’s red cloak and she smiled faintly. “We don’t yet know who our enemies will be, but once we are done with the king’s war and reclaim the Wastes, it will not be a Blueblood or Yellowlegs sitting on the Ironteeth throne. Understand?”

Become Wing Leader, command the Ironteeth armies, and keep control of those armies once the Matrons eventually turned on one another. Manon nodded. It would be done.

“I suspect the other Matrons will give similar orders to their heirs. Make sure your Second keeps close to you.”

Asterin was already outside, guarding the door, but Manon said, “I can look after myself.”

Her grandmother hissed. “Baba Yellowlegs was seven hundred years old. She tore down the walls of the Crochan capital with her bare hands. And yet someone slipped into her wagon and murdered her. Even if you live to be a thousand, you’ll be lucky to be half the witch she was.” Manon kept her chin high. “Watch your back. I will not be pleased if I have to nd myself another heir.”

Manon bowed her head. “As you will it, Grandmother.”

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