Chapter no 36

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Rage shines in his eyes as Xaden holds his sword in his right hand and a dagger in his left, both dripping blood, both aimed to strike Dain.

Oh gods.

“No!” I shout, lurching to put myself in front of Dain, but my feet don’t cooperate and the ground rushes up to meet me.

“Shit!” Steel rattles against the floor as Dain catches me with both hands.

The edges of my vision turn black as pain threatens to pull me under. Every inch of my body screams in protest as I find my feet. But it’s not just Dain’s arms holding me—there are soft bands of shadows at my hips and beneath my arms. Two Xadens appear, then merge into one as I fight to stay conscious. “He saved me,” I whisper. “Don’t kill him.”

Stabbing Varrish earns Dain a chance…right?

Xaden’s gaze flickers to mine, and then he does a double take.

“Gods, Violet.” Shadows explode around us, cracking stone and decimating the wooden slab of a bed marked with my blood.

Guess my face is just as beaten as the rest of me.

“You came.” I stumble forward, and Dain is smart enough to let me go.

Xaden catches me, shadows grasping his sword as he splays his hand over my back and cradles me against his chest with a light touch, like he’s afraid I might break. “There’s nowhere in existence you could go that I

wouldn’t find you, remember?” He drops his lips to the dirty, frayed, blood-spattered remains of my braid and kisses the top of my head.

Leather and mint overpower the iron-and-moss scent of the cell and, for the first time since Nolon drugged me, I feel safe. Tears soak his chest—his or mine, I’m unsure.

“Godsdamn,” Garrick says from behind Xaden. “You took off running and then couldn’t save a single one for me? Took me forever to clear the barricade of bodies in the staircase.”

My smile splits my lip all over again as I turn my face to rest my cheek above Xaden’s strong, steady heartbeat. “Hi, Garrick.”

He blanches, dropping his swords to his sides, but covers it with a quick smile. “You’ve looked better, Violet, but I’m glad you’re alive.”

“Me too.”

“It’s chaos up there,” Garrick tells Xaden, sparing a questioning glance for Dain. “Leadership is launching all over the place to get to the border.”

“Then it worked,” Xaden states.

Varrish groans and our heads all whip in his direction. “You’re turning traitor?” he accuses Dain as he struggles to his feet, still holding the wound in his side.

“Oh, is that what’s happening?” Garrick asks, looking between Dain and Varrish.

“Your father will be so disappointed,” Varrish hisses through bloody, clenched teeth. Coughing up blood means he doesn’t have long.

“If he already knows what Violet showed me, then I’m the one disappointed

in him,” Dain counters, picking up his sword and raising it at Varrish.

“No,” Xaden snarls. “Not you.” His hand flexes at my back, and shadows wrap around Varrish a second before they drag him across the floor. Horror widens his eyes as the strands of black dump him into the chair, then bind his wrists and ankles in place of the shackles. “That honor belongs to Violet, if she wants it.”

“She does,” I reply instantly.

Xaden shifts his grip, wrapping his arm around my waist and watching my reactions. “I don’t know where I can touch you.”

“That’s fine,” I promise, gripping the alloy-hilted dagger in my right hand as my left lies uselessly at my side.

Dain steps back, lowering his sword as Xaden helps me walk, my feet shuffling over dried patches of my own blood on the stone floor.

Varrish’s eyes narrow despite the pallor of his skin, and Xaden holds me steady as I lift the dagger to his chest with a trembling, weak grip, resting the point above his heart, right between his ribs.

“I promised you’d die in this room,” I whisper, but I’m shaking too hard to push the blade home. It’s taking everything I have just to stay standing.

Xaden’s hand wraps around mine, and he jabs forward, driving the blade into Varrish’s heart. I memorize the look on Varrish’s face as the life fades out of him, just so I can reassure myself that he’s really dead when the nightmares inevitably come.

I stare, and stare, and stare as the weight of everything that’s happened closes in on me, threatening to steal my air. My throat squeezes shut and my eyes burn with prickling heat as my thoughts spiral. I just killed the vice commandant of the quadrant.

What the fuck am I supposed to do now? Go back to class? And Xaden…Xaden risked everything by coming here.

“Give us a second, and keep Aetos breathing for now,” Xaden orders, and I hear the room clear before he carefully pivots to face me, turning us away from Varrish’s body. “You’re alive. No matter what happened in this room, what was said, you’re alive and that’s all that matters.”

“I didn’t break,” I whisper. “Dain… He saw right before he stabbed Varrish, but I didn’t break, I promise.” I shake my head, and my vision blurs then clears as water trickles from my eyes.

“I trust you.” He cradles the back of my head, his beautiful gaze boring into mine, swallowing me whole. “But it wouldn’t matter to me if you had. We’re leaving. I’m getting you the fuck out of here.”

I blink. “We can’t go now. They’ll follow us, and Brennan’s not ready.” My face crumples. “You’ll forfeit access to Basgiath’s weapons—”

“I don’t give a fuck. We’ll figure it out once we’re there.”

“You’ll lose everything you’ve worked for.” My voice breaks. “Because of me.”

“Then I’ll have everything I need.” He lowers his face, leaning in so he’s all I see, all I feel. “I will happily watch Aretia burn to the fucking ground again if it means you live.”

“You don’t mean that.” He loves his home. He’s done everything to protect his home.

“I do. I’m sorry if you expect me to do the noble thing. I warned you. I’m not sweet or soft or kind, and you fell anyway. This is what you get, Violet—me. The good, the bad, the unforgivable. All of it. I am yours.” His arm wraps around the small of my back, holding me steady and close. “You want to know something true? Something real? I love you. I’m in love with you. I have been since the night the snow fell in your hair and you kissed me for the first time. I’m grateful my life is tied to yours because it means I won’t have to face a day without you in it. My heart only beats as long as yours does, and when you die, I’ll meet Malek at your side. It’s a damned good thing that you love me, too, because you’re stuck with me in this life and every other that could possibly follow.”

My lips part. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, ever needed to hear. “I do love you,” I admit in a whisper.

“Glad you didn’t forget.” He leans in and brushes his lips over mine lightly, careful not to hurt me. “Let’s get out of here together.”

I nod.

“We have to move,” Garrick calls out.

“Clear the staircase!” Xaden orders. “And tell Bodhi to track down whatever antidote she and the rest of her squad need.”

“On it,” Garrick says. “My squad?”

Xaden looks back at me. “They’re fine, but they were put under guard in the interrogation classroom after they tried to mount a rescue mission yesterday. Can you walk out of here?”

“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully. “I lost track of what’s broken and what Nolon mended. I know my left arm is fractured, plus at least three of my ribs on my right side. My hip feels like it’s not entirely where it’s supposed to be, either.”

“He’ll die for his part.” He pivots and walks us out of the cell, past Nora’s body and into a fucking bloodbath. There are at least half a dozen bodies between us and the stairwell. He makes quick work of sheathing all my daggers where they belong but doesn’t take the one I still have clutched in my hand.

Dain passes him supplies from a nearby locker, and Xaden splints my arm as quickly as possible. I bite down on my torn lip to keep from crying out, and he wraps my ribs over my armor.

“Xaden!” Garrick calls out from the stairwell. “We have a problem!”

“Fuck,” Xaden mutters, glancing between the swords leaned against the wall and me.

“I can carry her,” Dain offers.

Xaden shoots him a look that promises a slow, painful death. “I haven’t decided whether or not to let you live yet. You can bet your ass I’m not trusting you with her.”

“I can walk. I think.” But the second I try, the room tilts. And for the first time in my life, I feel weak. That’s what that monster did to me in this room. He took my strength.

“But he didn’t break you, Violet,” Liam says softly from the corner of the room, and my chest squeezes tight as he takes a step back toward the shadows. Then another.

“How about this—I promise the next time I’m beaten for five days straight, I’ll let you carry me out of the prison,” Xaden says, sheathing his swords behind his back.

“Thank you,” I say—to both men.

Xaden lifts me into his arms, tucking me tight against his chest without putting pressure on my ribs. “Follow me or die. It’s your choice, but make it now,” he tells Dain as shadows surround us, forming a circle of blades as Xaden moves, carrying me up the mage-lit staircase.

My head falls onto his shoulder and I wince, but what does the pain matter if we’re leaving? If we’re both alive? He came.

“What kind of problem, Garrick?” Xaden asks as we round the corner of the staircase.

“A general-size one,” Garrick answers, his hands in the air. My mother’s blade is at his throat.

Oh shit.

I lift my head, and Xaden stops cold, his body tensing against mine.

Her eyes meet mine from where she stands on the step above Garrick, the lines of her face strained with…wait, is that worry? “Violet.”

“Mom.” I blink. It’s the first time she’s said my name since before Parapet.

“Who did you kill?” She directs the question at Xaden. “Everyone,” he responds unapologetically.

She nods, then drops her blade.

Garrick breathes in deeply, moving away from her and putting his back to the wall.

“Here.” She reaches into the rib pocket of her uniform and draws out a vial of clear liquid. “It’s the antidote for the serum.”

I stare at the vial, and my heart speeds from a dull thud to a gallop. How do I know that’s what’s actually in there?

“I would have come sooner if I’d known,” my mother says, her voice softening along with her eyes. “I didn’t know, Violet. I swear it. I’ve been in Calldyr for the last week.”

“So your return is just what? Coincidence?” I ask.

Her mouth purses, and her fingers curl around the vial. “I’d like a moment alone with my daughter.”

“That’s not happening,” Xaden counters.

Her eyes harden when she looks at him. “You of all people know the lengths I’ll go to in order to protect her. And since I’m pretty sure you’re the reason we’re getting reports of dragons dropping wyvern carcasses at every outpost we have along our border, the reason this college is emptying

itself of most of the leadership in a rush to contain the problem, the least you can do is give me a chance to say goodbye to her.”

“You what?” My gaze swings to Xaden’s, but he keeps his locked on my mother.

“Would have done it sooner, but it took a couple of days to hunt them down and kill them,” Xaden replies to her.

“You’ve threatened our entire kingdom.” Her eyes narrow.

“Good. You allowed her to be tortured for days. I don’t give a shit whether it was by your absence or your negligence. It happened on your watch.”

“Three minutes,” she orders. “Now.” “Three minutes,” I agree.

Xaden’s gaze flies to mine. “She’s a fucking monster.” His voice is soft, but it carries.

“She’s my mother.”

He looks like he might fight me for a second, but then he slowly lowers me to stand and braces me against the wall. “Three minutes,” he whispers. “And I’ll be at the top of this staircase.” That warning is given to my mother as he starts up the steps with Garrick leading the way. “Aetos, did you decide to follow?”

“Apparently,” Dain says, waiting a few steps beneath me. “Then fucking follow,” Xaden orders.

Dain grumbles, but he marches up the steps, leaving my mother alone with me.

She’s the picture of composure, her posture straight, her face expressionless as she holds out the vial. “Take it.”

“You’ve known what’s happening out there for all these years.” I white-knuckle my weapon.

She steps forward, her gaze jumping from the dagger in one of my hands to the splint on the other, then selects a pocket in my uniform top and slides the vial in. “When you have children, we can discuss the risks you’ll take, the lies you’ll be willing to tell in order to keep them safe.”

“What about their children?” My voice rises.

“Again.” She hooks her arm around my upper back, sliding her hand under my shoulder, and hauls me against her side. “When you are a mother, talk to me about who you’re willing to sacrifice so your child lives. Now walk.

I grit my teeth and put one foot in front of the other, fighting the dizziness, the exhaustion, and the waves of pain to climb the stairs. “It’s not right to let them die defenseless.”

“I never said it was.” We take the first turn, climbing slowly. “And I knew you’d never see it our way. Never agree with our stance on self-preservation. Markham saw you as his protégé, the next head of the scribes, the only applicant he thought smart enough, clever enough to continue weaving the complicated blindfold chosen for us hundreds of years ago.” She scoffs. “He made the mistake of thinking you’d be easy to control, but I know my daughter.”

“I’m sure you think that.” Each step is a battle, jarring my bones and testing my joints. Everything feels abominably loose yet so tight I might split open from the pressure.

“I might be a stranger to you, Violet, but you are far from a stranger to me. Eventually, you’d discover the truth. Maybe not while in the Scribe Quadrant, but certainly by the time you made captain or major, when Markham would start bringing you into the fold, as we do with most at those ranks, and then you would unravel everything in the name of mercy or whatever emotion you’d blameand they would kill you for it. I’d already lost one child keeping our borders safe, and I wasn’t willing to lose another. Why did you think I forced you into the Riders Quadrant?”

“Because you think less of the scribes,” I answer.

“Bullshit. The love of my life was a scribe.” Steadily, we climb, twisting along the staircase. “I put you into the Riders Quadrant so you’d have a shot at surviving, and then I called in the favor Riorson owed me for putting the marked ones into the quadrant.”

I stop as the door at the Archives level comes into view. “You did what?” She didn’t just say what I think she did.

She tilts her head to look me in the eye. “It was a simple transaction. He wanted the marked ones to have a chance. I gave him the quadrant—as long as he took responsibility for them—in return for a favor to be named at a later date. You were that favor. If you survived Parapet on your own, all he had to do was see that no one killed you outside of challenges or your own naivete your first year, which he did. Quite a miracle, considering what Colonel Aetos put you through during War Games.”

“You knew?” I’m going to be sick.

“I discovered it after the fact, but yes. Don’t give me that look,” she chastises, pulling me up another step. “It worked. You’re alive, aren’t you? Though I’ll admit I didn’t foresee the mated dragons or whatever emotional entanglement you’ve involved yourself in. That was disappointing.”

It all clicks into place. That night at the tree last year when he should have killed me for catching the meeting of the marked ones. The challenge where he had every opportunity to exact his revenge on my mother by ending me—and instructed me instead. Nearly intervening at Threshing…

My ribs feel like they’re cracking all over again. He’s never had a choice when it came to me. His life—the lives of those he holds dearest—has always been tied to mine. And suddenly, I have to know. “Are those your knife marks on his back?”

“Yes.” Her tone is bland. “It’s a Tyrrish cust—”

“Stop talking.” I don’t want to hear a single explanation for such an unforgivable act.

But of course she doesn’t listen. “It seems that by putting you into the Riders Quadrant, all I did was hasten our own end,” she remarks as we climb the last four steps, coming out in the tunnel by the Archives.

Xaden reaches for me, and my mother’s arm falls away.

“I trust you’ll use the chaos to get her out?” she asks him, but we both know it’s an order.

“Planning on it.” He tucks me in against his side.

“Good. Don’t tell me where. I don’t want to know. Markham is still in Calldyr with the king. Do with that information what you will.” She looks

at Dain, who waits off to the side with Garrick, his face ashen. “Have you made your choice now that you know?”

“I have.” He squares his shoulders as a group of scribe cadets runs by, their hoods in disarray, panic written on their faces.

“Hmm.” She dismisses Dain with a single sound, then looks at Xaden. “And so the war of the father becomes that of the son. It is you, right? Stealing the weaponry? Arming the very enemy trying to rip us apart?”

“Regret letting me into the quadrant yet?” He keeps his voice deceptively calm, but there are shadows rising along the tunnel walls.

“No.” Her gaze drops to me. “Stay alive, or this all will have been for nothing.” She skims the backs of her fingers along my swollen face. “I’d tell you to take arnica and see a healer, but you already know that. Your father made sure you’d know everything you needed or where to find it. You’re all that’s left of him, you know.”

But I’m not. Mira has his laugh, his warmth, and Brennan…

She doesn’t know about Brennan, and in this moment, I have no regrets about keeping that secret.

The smile she gives me is tight and so full of sadness that I wonder if I’m hallucinating. It falls as quickly as it appeared, and she turns away from us, headed back to the stairwell that will carry her up to the main campus. “Oh, and Violet,” she calls back over her shoulder. “Sorrengails walk or fly off the battlefield, but they’re never carried.”

Unbelievable. I watch until she disappears up the stairwell.

“No wonder you’re so warm and fuzzy, Violet,” Garrick mutters.

“We’re leaving,” Xaden announces. “Gather the marked ones and meet us at the flight field—”

“No.” I shake my head.

Xaden looks at me like I’ve sprouted a few more limbs. “We just talked about this. We can’t stay here, and I won’t leave you.”

“Not just the marked ones,” I clarify. “If Markham is gone and most of the leadership is flying for the border, then it’s our only chance.”

“To leave?” Xaden lifts his brows. “Good, then we’re in agreement.”

“To give everyone a choice.” I glance at the empty tunnel. “They’re going to lock this place down once the cadre returns, once they know they can’t stop the spread of information, and our friends…” My head shakes. “We have to give them a choice, Xaden, or we’re no better than leadership.”

Xaden narrows his eyes.

“Dragons will vouch for the ones who want to leave for the right reasons,” I whisper.

He grits his teeth but nods. “Fine.”

“It won’t be safe here for you. Not after what you just did.” I look to Dain and lift my brows. It’s one thing to protect me in private, or to face down my mother, whom he’s known his entire life. It’s another to be known as the rider who ripped this place apart.

“Not that it will be safe for him where we’re going.” Garrick glances between Dain and Xaden. “You can’t be serious. We’re going to trust this guy?”

“If he wants our trust, he’ll earn it,” Xaden says.

A muscle in Dain’s jaw flexes, but he nods. “Guess my last official act as wingleader will be to call a formation.”

“That’s where the leadership is now! Trying to hide the bodies of over a dozen dead wyvern!” Dain finishes, his voice carrying over the

courtyard a half hour later as we stand on the dais in front of formation, the other wingleaders to his right. The sun has fallen beneath the peaks behind us, but there’s more than enough light for me to see the shock, the disbelief on the face of almost every rider.

It’s only the marked ones and my squad who don’t begin to argue amongst themselves, some quiet, some outright yelling.

“Was this what you had in mind?” Xaden asks me, his gaze swinging over the crowd.

“Not exactly,” I admit, leaning heavily on him but managing to stay on my feet. My uniform is clean, my rucksack packed, and I’m wrapped and

braced from ankle to broken arm, but more than one cadet is staring at my face. After a quick look in the mirror, I understand why.

Nolon must have only mended the most severe of my injuries, because my face is a collage of new, purple-black bruises and older, greenish ones, and that pattern only continues beneath the cover of my uniform.

Xaden damn near shook the entire time it took for me to change. “If you don’t believe me, ask your dragons!” Dain shouts.

“If their dragons agree to tell them,” Tairn says, on his way back from the Vale. I’d finally trusted my mother enough to drink the antidote about ten minutes ago—which Tairn had claimed was the only logical move, and he bonded me for my intelligence, after all.

“What has the Empyrean decided?” We aren’t the only ones making choices tonight.

“It will be up to the individual dragon. They will not interfere, nor will they punish those who choose to leave and take their clutches and hatchlings with them.”

It’s better than the alternative, which was full-scale slaughter of the dragons choosing to fight. “Are you really okay?” I ask him again. The bond between us feels strange, like he’s holding back more than usual.

“I lost Solas in a network of caves while I was hunting him, so I was unable to kill him and Varrish myself for their actions. When I do find him, I will prolong his suffering before death.”

I understand the feeling. “And Andarna?”

“Being made ready for flight. We’ll pick her up on our way out.” He hesitates.

“Prepare yourself. She still sleeps.”

Knots of apprehension twist in my stomach. “What is wrong? What aren’t you telling me?”

“The elders have never seen an adolescent remain in the Dreamless Sleep this long.”

My heart plummets.

“You’re lying!” Aura Beinhaven shouts, snapping my attention back to the current situation as she charges toward Dain, blade in hand.

Garrick steps into her path, drawing his sword. “I have no problem adding to my body count for the day, Beinhaven.”

Heaton draws their axe at the base of the steps, the purple flames dyed into their hair matching the shade of my pinkie finger, and faces the formation alongside Emery, who already has his sword ready with Cianna protecting his back.

Xaden was busy for the five days I spent in that cell. He came back with every graduate who bears a rebellion relic and a good share of their classmates. But not all.

“We’d better hurry this along.” I look up at Xaden. “The professors are going to be here any minute.” The distraction Bodhi engineered in the flight field bought us time to meet without teachers noticing, but not much, especially considering that Devera, Kaori, Carr, and Emetterio are among those on campus still.

“By all means,” Xaden replies, a look of boredom on his face. “Feel free to convince them.”

“Share the memory of Resson but nothing further,” I tell Tairn. “It’s the easiest way for them to all have the same information.”

“I loathe that idea.” He’s complained before that sharing memories outside of a mating bond isn’t exactly comfortable.

“Have a better one?”

Tairn grumbles, and I can see the moment it happens. There’s a ripple through formation of tilted heads and gasps.

“There we go.” I shift my weight to the less injured knee, and Xaden’s hand tightens around my waist, leaving his dominant arm free.

Xaden sighs. “I guess that’s one way to accomplish the goal, though I wish you’d left some parts out.”

Parts like Liam’s death.

“It’s true!” someone in Second Wing yells, stepping out of formation and stumbling in shock.

“What the hell are you talking about?” another shouts, looking at the rest in confusion.

“If your dragons don’t choose—” Dain starts, but his voice is overpowered by the outbreak of mayhem within the ranks.

“How’s it going there, wingleader?” Sarcasm drips from Xaden’s tone. “You think you can do better?” Dain turns a slow glare his way.

“Can you stand on your own?” Xaden asks me.

I nod, grimacing through the sharp bites of protest all throughout my body as I straighten.

He steps forward, raises his arms, and shadows rush in from the wall at our back, engulfing the formation—and us—in complete darkness. There’s a glimmer of a caress across my cheek, right where it’s split to what feels like bone, and more than one cadet screams.

“Enough!” Xaden bellows, his voice amplified, shaking the very dais under our feet.

The courtyard falls silent.

Shadows recede in a rush, leaving more than one cadet gawking at Xaden.

“Fucking show-off,” Garrick mutters over his shoulder, still squared off with Aura.

A corner of Xaden’s mouth rises. “You are all riders!” he shouts. “All chosen, all threshed, all responsible for what happens next. Act like it! What Aetos has told you is the truth. Whether or not you choose to believe is up to you. If your dragon has chosen not to share what some have seen, then your choice has been made for you.”

Wingbeats fill the air, and a murmur rises among the formation. I lock eyes with Rhi where she stands at the head of our squad. She nods subtly toward the rotunda.

I glance that way and catch a trio of figures in cream, led by Jesinia, all carrying packs. Thank gods, they came. Now I just need three dragons willing to carry them.

“Already taken care of,” Tairn promises. “And only this once.”

This once is all we need to save their lives.

“Wars do not wait for your readiness,” Xaden continues, “and make no mistake about it—we are at war. A war in which we are outmatched not

only in strength of signet but air superiority as a whole.”

“Is this your idea of a pep talk?”

“If they need to be roused, they shouldn’t be coming with us.”

Fair point.

“Whatever you decide in the next hour will determine the course—and perhaps the end—of your life. If you come with us, I cannot promise you’ll live. But if you stay, I guarantee you will die fighting for the wrong side. The venin will not stop at the border. They will drain every ounce of magic in Poromiel, and then they’ll come for the hatching grounds in the Vale.”

“If we go with you, they’ll hunt us down as traitors!” a voice from Third Wing calls out. “And we would be!”

“Defining yourself as a traitor requires declaring your allegiance,” Xaden counters. “And as for hunting us down…” His shoulders rise and fall with a deep breath. “They won’t be able to find us.”

My heart starts to pound with the growing roar of wingbeats in the air.

The door to the Gauntlet and flight field flies open, and a dozen professors rush out, anger and shock lining their faces.

“What have you done?” Carr shouts, running for us, his wispy hair flying in all directions as he lifts his hands. “You’ll end us all, over who? People you’ve never met? I won’t allow it!”

“Bodhi!” Xaden orders as Carr reaches Third Wing.

Fire erupts from Carr’s hands, streaming toward the dais, and my stomach drops.

Time seems to slow as Bodhi steps forward and twists his hand like he’s turning a dial.

The fire dies, extinguishing like it was never there and leaving Carr staring at his hands.

“You taught us well, Professor,” Bodhi says, holding his hand in place. “Maybe a little too well.”


“He can counter signets,” Xaden tells me. Well, that’s fucking terrifying.

The rest of the professors look upward as dragons fill the skyline, their wings flaring on approach.

Green. Orange. Red. Brown. Blue. I look up, spotting Tairn’s rapid descent. Black.

Xaden grabs my waist as the walls shake under the weight of the mass landing. Claws dig in, shredding the masonry as dozens of dragons—maybe more—perch on every available space. Some fill the mountainside behind us, and others claim the top of the turrets in the quadrant, hovering like living sculptures.

“We won’t stop you,” Devera says to Xaden, then shifts to where her own dragon perches beside the parapet. “In fact, some of us have been waiting to join you.”

“Really?” Bodhi grins.

“Who do you think left the news about Zolya all over Battle Brief?” She nods.

A smile lifts my mouth. She’s exactly who I’ve always thought she is.

“We’re leaving within the hour,” Xaden calls out. “Your choice is as simple as it is personal. You can defend Navarre, or you can fight for the Continent.”

We’re in the air less than an hour later, flying south in the biggest riot I’ve ever seen: two hundred dragons and a hundred and one riders—nearly half the quadrant—strong. And more are coming, taking a slower route with hatchlings.

Tairn had lain in front of the dais and begrudgingly allowed Xaden to help me into the saddle, but we made it. He hooked onto Andarna, the smaller black dragon’s body frighteningly limp with sleep, and now we’re flying. I sleep most of the trip, too, draped across the front of my saddle, my body claiming the rest it sorely needs to knit itself back together.

It was too hectic to catch every face, but I’m proud that every single member of my squad is with us, even the first-years who are still fighting to keep their seats. They hold them into the morning and all throughout the next day, the riot pushing itself to the limit.

Marked ones take position at the edges of the flight formation, hiding us from Melgren’s sight should he decide to battle us, and we fly the least populated route possible, but it’s hard to disguise a veritable cloud of dragons, even at this altitude.

It must not have been just leadership that were pulled to the border. We don’t encounter a single patrol as we cross into Tyrrendor, flying high over the Cliffs of Dralor onto the plateau.

“We’re almost there,” Tairn tells me as we pass over the crystal waters of the Beatha River.

“I’m all right.”

“Don’t bother lying to me. I can feel it all. The exhaustion. The pain. The crackling of unset bone in your left arm. The chapped wounds on your face. The throbbing in your left knee that only eases—”

“Point made.” I shift in the saddle, trying to alleviate some of it.

“You’re the one who hasn’t stopped for water in twelve hours.”

“And I could fly another twelve if need be. You’re an incredibly needy species compared to ours.”

By the time we approach Aretia, I’m all but dead in the saddle.

Tairn and Sgaeyl fly ahead, breaking from formation as we fly over the town, heading for Riorson House while the rest of the riot flies for the valley high above.

“You cannot make the hike down in your condition,” Tairn decrees. I’m too fucking tired to fight him.

My body jolts in protest when Tairn flares his wings, the change in momentum sending me deeper into the seat as he lands gently in consideration of Andarna in the middle of the courtyard in front of Riorson House.

Tairn’s head turns toward the door as it’s thrown open, and mine follows, slow from weakness and lack of sleep.

“Violet!” Brennan shouts, running down the marble steps.

I undo the buckle of my saddle and force myself to dismount, despite the agony of feeling my bones grate against one another. Cradling my splinted

arm, I slide down Tairn’s foreleg, right into Xaden’s arms, and nearly crumple on the spot.

“I’ve got you,” he whispers against my hair, supporting me against his side as we turn to face Riorson House and the rapidly approaching furious face of my brother.

Tairn launches behind me before I can turn to see Andarna.

“What the fuck did you get her into this time?” Brennan shouts at Xaden. “He got me out,” I promise.

“Oh? Then why is it she’s half dead every time you bring her to me?” The look Brennan levels on Xaden makes me reconsider which of them might be the more violent one. Brennan reaches for my face but stops just short of touching me. “Oh gods. Violet, you’re… What did they do to you?”

“I’m all right,” I say once more. I step forward, and Brennan hugs me carefully. “I could probably use some mending.”

His head tilts as the sound of the wind approaches a dull roar, and I follow his line of sight as the massive riot approaches the town, en route to the valley. “What have you two done?”

“Ask your sister,” Xaden responds.

Brennan looks down at me, his eyes wide with shock and a touch of fear. “I mean…” I try to force a smile, but it only splits my lip yet again. “You

did say that you needed riders.”

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