My neck aches as I stare up, and up, and up the Cliffs of Dralor to where they disappear into a thick layer of cloud cover.
It’s been four days since we struck the deal with Tecarus. Three nights ago, we delivered the luminary—a ring nearly as tall as Sgaeyl of vibrant blue crystals—to an offshoot of the valley above Aretia where the new forge is located. Yesterday, all cadets were ordered to get a good night’s sleep, pack for a three-day mission, and assemble for flight formation at four in the morning, and now we’re standing in a field west of Draithus, eyeing the drifts gathered on the other side of First Wing as the sun burns off the early morning haze.
“He can’t be serious,” Ridoc says beside me in formation, his neck craned at the same angle as mine. Between the hundred Aretian cadets and an equal number of fliers packed into this grassy field, I’d guess ninety-five percent of us look exactly the same, gawking at the steep, barely visible, narrow trail my brother just pointed at with absolute incredulity.
The series of ledges and switchbacks carved into the granite cliff looks more suitable to a mountain goat than a gryphon and blends so well into the terrain that it’s no wonder the Medaro Pass has been kept secret.
“Agreed.” Visia nods. “He has to be kidding. That’s not a trail—it’s a death trap.”
The path Brennan’s so excited about isn’t wide enough to support a full wagon, let alone the width of a gryphon…and he wants them to hike it? For us to hike it with them while dragons fly patrol?
“Pretty sure he’s serious or we wouldn’t all be here,” Rhiannon says over her shoulder.
“What the hell does he expect us to do besides climb with them?” Aaric asks, keeping his voice down.
“Catch them if they fall off?” Ridoc suggests.
“Right, because we’re capable of catching a gryphon,” Imogen remarks.
My brow furrows as I study the steep trail. It’s not the narrow path or even the gryphon traps Brennan described that worry me, but my own endurance. Twelve hours of constant climbing is going to torture my knees and ankles.
“Watch your back,” Xaden warns, his voice already fading as he flies east with Sgaeyl on a mission I’m not privy to. “I didn’t have time to question every flier about their intentions.”
As if his personal recommendation would help the lack of trust between our two colleges.
“You’ve already warned me,” I remind him, feeling him slip away. “Don’t die. I’ll see you in a few days.” There’s a rush of warmth, and then it fades along with his shadowy presence in my mind.
Ahead of me, Baylor covers a jaw-cracking yawn with his fist as Brennan continues to lecture us about the length of the journey ahead from where he stands on a bound stack of crossbolts, amplifying his voice over the field. “The journey should take you twelve hours, though I recommend taking time to rest along the trail.” His gaze scans over us, as if gauging our reaction, which is mostly…speechless.
The only sound is the fall breeze rustling the leaves from the scrub oak trees at the south end of the field. Even the dragons and gryphons fall silent around us, as if they can’t quite believe what’s being suggested, either.
“So they can push us off?” a rider from Third Wing asks, and I don’t think he’s joking.
“That question is exactly why you’ll be going with them,” Brennan says, avoiding my gaze entirely as Syrena climbs up the pile of bound crossbolts to stand with him. “Not only have the wingleaders been given the locations of the gryphon traps to disarm them, but you need to learn some mutual respect and trust before you can be educated together. No rider will respect a cadet who hasn’t crossed the parapet.” He gestures at the trail behind him. “Behold a parapet for them to cross.”
“It’s narrow, but it’s not that narrow!” Ridoc calls out, earning a few scoffs of agreement from the riders around us.
“And if we were just risking ourselves, perhaps it would be appropriate to deem it inferior to your death bridge at Basgiath,” Syrena states, clasping her hands behind her back and facing the riders’ half of formation. Sunlight catches on the palm-size metal rings that fall at the fronts of her shoulders, connected to the leather above. “But consider while you climb, while you decide if you’ll truly accept fliers into your ranks”—her gaze catches mine
—“that while this trail is perfectly safe for humans, it’s perilous for gryphons. And ask yourself if you would risk the lives of your dragons climbing a trail built specifically to kill them into hostile territory so you can learn how to better destroy your enemy with the very people you considered your enemy up until last week.”
Riders all around me shift their weight.
“She’s right,” I tell only Tairn, since Andarna is more than a three-hour flight away, no doubt in the midst of her morning training with the elders. Yesterday she almost managed a full wing extension. Almost. “I wouldn’t risk either of you.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. Why would you, when I’m quite capable of carrying you all over the world?” I can feel his eyes roll. “You did not bond the inferiority that are gryphons. You bonded dragons. Take them for a walk and let them prove themselves.”
“The way the fliers look at us is more like they expect us to prove
“You were chosen by dragons. That is enough.”
“Each squad will be paired with a drift of equal strength to make the ascent,” Brennan says. “Hopefully by the time you reach the top, you’ve found some mutual ground on which to build a framework of partnership.”
This is all in the spirit of comradery? “Highly doubt it,” Ridoc mutters.
“In the meantime, your dragons will remain close,” Brennan asserts.
“I’ll never be more than a minute’s flight away,” Tairn promises. “Have fun hiking.”
I hold him to it when we’re given our assignment—Cat’s drift.
Three hours later, my calves are screaming from the constant climb, and the silence in our small, forced group has grown from uncomfortable to painfully awkward. Removing my right hand from the sheer rock wall, I adjust the weight of my pack on my shoulders to ease the growing protest in my spine and check on Sloane. She’s climbing steadily a few feet in front of
me, giving the gryphon ahead of her plenty of room to flick its lionlike tail. We’re climbing single file, with Fourth Wing leading the way. Only
Claw Section is above us.
The trail itself is challenging although not unpassable, and while up to six feet wide at parts, it narrows to a quarter of that in places where the path has disintegrated, leaving gaping holes that have the humans hugging the cliff wall to get by. Every time we reach one, the gryphons stretch their grappling talons across while balancing on clawed back paws, and I find myself holding my breath that they make it. Considering the ones we’re walking with are easily a couple of feet wider than the path, I’m surprised only two have fallen that I know of. They’re able to catch themselves for now, but at higher altitudes? It could get ugly.
I look back at Maren, the flier I’ve been paired with until evening, and her gryphon as we approach an already triggered trap, the battering-ram-
size log now lying harmlessly along the cliff wall where the path narrows. “Be careful here.”
“Right at chest height. Nice.” She offers me a pressed-lipped smile. She’s petite for a flier, though still taller than me, with a heart-shaped face under dark hair woven into a long single braid that falls along the bronzed ochre skin of her neck. Her dark, hooded eyes meet mine without hesitance every time I look back to make sure she’s still following, which earns my respect, but she’s also Cat’s best friend, which has me watching my back in more ways than one.
I look back again to make sure they pass safely.
“I’m not going to fall off the cliff,” she promises as we make the sharp turn of the fourth switchback. Or maybe it’s the fifth. The curves are the only places on the trail wide enough to walk in pairs. “Neither is Dajalair.”
The brown-and-white gryphon’s front left claw slips off the trail, and her talon screeches against rock with the most godsawful sound I’ve ever heard as she regains her balance.
Sloane and I trade a look that’s surprisingly empty of hostility.
“Are you certain about that?” I ask Maren as all three of us pause, watching to see if any stones break off the rocky terrain. Anything that falls can be deadly to those climbing below us.
The gryphon arches over Maren and snaps its beak in my direction. Yeah, that thing could definitely crush my head.
“Got it, you’re certain,” I say, putting up my hands and praying to Dunne that gryphons don’t punish humans for speaking to them like dragons do.
Maren nods and scratches the feathered chest of the gryphon. “She’s surefooted and a little temperamental.”
The gryphon makes a chortling sound, and we begin walking again.
The narrow ledge is exactly why they aren’t allowed to fly any portion of the cliff. There’s no guarantee they’ll be able to stick a landing without causing a rockslide and killing everyone beneath them.
“Even if she fell from this height, we’d just have to fly down and start again,” Maren says like a peace offering. “It’s the upper portion of the trail
that worries me. Another five thousand feet, and she’ll struggle to beat her wings. She’s not meant for the summitwing drifts.”
“Summitwing drifts?” I can’t help but ask.
“Those best suited for altitude, for flying the summits of the Esben range,”
she explains. “Daja might not want to admit it, but she’s a lowland girl.” Her smile brightens even as the gryphon snaps her beak rapidly a foot away from Maren’s ear. “Like you wouldn’t rather be stationed with the seawing drifts after graduation?” She laughs softly, no doubt at something the gryphon said. “That’s what I thought. Trust me, we don’t want to be headed into Tyrrendor any more than you want us to be there.”
“So why come?” Sloane asks, walking too close to the next gryphon and getting flicked in the face by its tail.
“Like Syrena said, it’s our best chance of survival—not just for us but for our people, too.”
After another few minutes of tense silence, I ask, “So where are you from?”
“Draithus,” Maren answers. “I’d ask about you, but everyone knows you grew up moving outpost to outpost until your mother was assigned to Basgiath.”
My footsteps almost falter.
Sloane glances back at me with raised eyebrows.
“You’ve been a hell of a ransom target,” Maren explains as we come to a series of carved steps meant to deter wagons. “Honestly, most of us figured Riorson would nab you after harvest his first year and gift you to us.”
“You mean Cat figured.” Sloane’s tone has suspicious bite. “Cat definitely figured,” Maren agrees.
“Harvest?” I ask, skipping over the whole Xaden-should-have-kidnappedme insinuation. “You mean Threshing?”
“Right.” Maren checks on Daja’s progress on the stairs before continuing upward. “Whatever it is you call it. When your dragons either kill you or choose you.”
“So, our entire first year.” Sloane laughs.
“Imagine our surprise when he shows up ready to defend you to the death last year.”
I look back at her because I don’t hear the animosity I’d expect. There’s none of it in her eyes, either. “Were you disappointed?”
She shrugs, the metal rings at her shoulder catching the sunlight with the motion. “I was disappointed for Cat, but I wasn’t exactly rooting for that toxicity any more than you would for your best friend. She’s the one up there with Cat, now, right? Your squad leader?”
I nod, moving forward along the narrowing stairs, keeping my body as close to the cliff wall as I can without scraping up my flight jacket. “Rhiannon doesn’t want Cat trying to hurl me off the trail.”
“She probably would have,” Maren admits, a smile in her voice. “She’s a little…”
“Unhinged?” Sloane offers, keeping a good ten feet between her and the gryphon ahead of her with Ridoc, Visia, and the flier. I think that one is Luella, but I’m not completely sure. “Hopefully she doesn’t try any of her mindwork on Rhiannon, or she might find herself dangling off the edge. Rhi isn’t someone to mess with.”
My eyebrows rise.
“Shocked?” Sloane says over her shoulder at me, keeping her hand on the cliff wall as we reach the end of the stairs. “Don’t be. Liam didn’t hate many people, but Cat was on that list.”
Right. Because he and Xaden were fostered together. He would have met her.
“Angry,” Maren corrects her. “I was going to say ‘angry.’ And relax, Sloane— none of us would dare channel power from our gryphons when they need to stay completely focused on not falling to their deaths.”
“At least it’s not just me you hate.” I bite back a smile at Sloane.
“I don’t hate you,” Sloane says so quietly that I almost question hearing it. “It’s hard to hate you when Liam didn’t.” My confused look must be enough for her to continue. “I’m in the October letters now.”
“Ah, when Xaden forced him to become my bodyguard.” We turn at the switchback and start the next ascent, this one cut a little steeper into the
harsh gray rock of the cliffside. I look up and immediately regret the decision, my stomach churning at the view that’s nearly identical to the one below. It’s cliff and more cliff.
“We both knew my brother well enough to say for certain that no one forced him,” Sloane replies, her shoulders dipping. “I just wish Xaden had asked someone else. Anyone else.”
“Me too,” I admit in a whisper, focusing on my footing where the path has crumbled to nothing more than a few yards.
“Look out!” Panicked voices call out above us. Our attention jerks up.
The sky is gray and falling rapidly toward us. It’s not sky. It’s a boulder.
We’re about to become debris thanks to a triggered trap.
“Take cover!” I shout, throwing up my hands and pushing back against the cliff wall, making myself as small as possible while I reach for Tairn’s power as a boulder hits the edge of the ledge an ascent above and barrels toward us.
My heart beats in my ears. It’s just like turning a door handle. Just like twisting a lock. It’s a lesser magic. I can do lesser magics…
With a boulder the size of a feathertail?
I envision the boulder changing course and twist my hands—
Black streaks through my vision a second before an explosion sounds above me, and I cover my head with my hands as pebbles rain down.
Tairn pulverized the boulder with his tail.
“Thank you.” I sag back against the rock wall and take a couple of deep breaths to slow my hammering heart.
“Vi!” Rhiannon yells from up ahead. “We’re all right!” I shout back.
“Holy shit.” Maren leans next to me, her hand on her chest. “Morningstartail?” Sloane asks.
“Morningstartail,” I confirm, watching Tairn level out, then fly back our direction.
Within seconds, he’s hovering in front of me with precise beats of his wings, his golden eyes narrowing.
Maren ducks her head, and Sloane looks away.
“Hey, that wasn’t my fault. I didn’t slip.” I lift my brows at him.
“It would be a shame to have gone through the last year just to have you kill us on a measly hike.”
I scoff. “Noted.”
He flexes his wings, air gusting against my cheeks before he dives again. “Is…um…that normal?” Maren asks as we resume the trudge, my heart
pounding through the surge of adrenaline.
“Which part? Tairn saving my ass? Or being grumpy about it? Because yes, both are normal.”
“When you walk your parapet, there are rocks thrown at you?” she clarifies.
“Oh.” I shake my head. “No. You just have to cross it, which is harder than it sounds. What do you go through to be chosen?”
“We walk to the edge of Cliffsbane, look out over the river—it’s about thirty feet deep at that point—and wait for the drifts to fly by.” Her tone lightens, and when I glance back, she’s smiling. “When they approach, we jump.”
“You jump?” Sloane whips her head back, her eyes wide.
Maren nods, and a dimple forms in her cheek. “We jump. And if we can land on a gryphon, climb into position, and hold on, they bond us.” She reaches up and scratches under Dajalair’s chin where beak turns to feather.
“That’s pretty badass,” Sloane admits begrudgingly. “What happens if you miss? Do the bodies wash up on the shore?”
We both pause, turning fully to watch Maren respond. Have to admit, I’m curious, too.
Maren blinks. “Bodies? No one dies. It’s just like cliff jumping. If we miss, we swim to shore, dry, and shake off the embarrassment—and pick another branch for service. Infantry and artillery are popular.”
Sloane and I exchange another look. “You just…swim to shore,” I say slowly. “Yeah.” Maren nods, then points between Sloane and me. “And
before you ask, it’s you all who are the weird ones, killing cadets on your conscription day.”
I draw back, letting her words sink in.
“Technically, they’re candidates,” Sloane mutters. “We’re only cadets once we cross.”
“Well, I guess that makes it better,” Maren quips sarcastically. “Hey, are we moving or what?” Sawyer calls from behind us.
“Moving!” I answer, then turn and keep hiking up the incline as a pulse of star-bright energy courses down the bond from Tairn.
“Whoa,” Sloane says, putting her hand over her heart. “What was that?” “I felt it, too.” Maren blinks.
“Aretia’s first hatchling has chosen to emerge,” Tairn tells me, his tone clipped, considering the news.
“We have hatchlings?” I grin. “Why don’t you seem happy about it?” “The hatchling’s choice transforms the valley back into a hatching
ground. It changes the magic. Every channeling creature within a four-hour flight of the valley will know.”
“That’s just us. We’re on the edge of about three hours away.” I glance around, noting that the others seem to be in conversation with their bonded ones, too. “Well, us and the fliers, and they’d find out once we get there anyway.” My smile widens at the thought of an Aretian-born feathertail. “We have to trust them for this to work.”
“I suppose we do.”
By late in the afternoon, I’d rather commend my soul to Malek than take another fucking step up this never-ending trail. No wonder Tyrrendor never suffered an invasion from Poromiel. Their troops would either be exhausted or dead—picked off by patrolling dragons—by the time they
reach the top.
Every muscle aches, somehow simultaneously burning with exertion yet stiff from how calculated my steps have become the higher we’ve climbed, a result of the dizziness I can’t quite shake. Even reciting facts in my head isn’t making it feel connected to my body anymore. My heart beats at a humming, stressed pace, and I would give almost anything to lean against the cliff on my right, stop, and rest for an hour. Or two. Or four.
We’ve halted at least twice in the last hour. The gryphons are slowing to a pace that’s starting to make me worry about reaching the top at all, but at least none have fallen to their deaths.
And the fights breaking out between fliers and riders aren’t helping, either. We’ve had to stop the march three times just to switch up where certain cadets are walking. Brennan might be right that we’ll respect the fliers for having climbed, but a daylong hike isn’t going to solve the years of hatred we’ve borne for each other.
The afternoon is extra fun as we enter a thick layer of cloud that only allows a dozen feet of visibility and our progress slows to what feels like a crawl.
“Hopefully these clouds mean that we’re close to the top, right?” Maren asks, glancing with concern at Daja, whose steps have grown slower with each ascent. Her head hangs and her feathered chest rises faster, shallower with every step. Hypoxia. Maren’s in the same condition, as is the pair in front of us, Cibbelair and his flier, Luella. His silver-specked wings aren’t just tucked in at his side; they’re drooping.
While we riders have been conditioned in the mountains surrounding Basgiath and often fly at twelve thousand feet, the fliers can’t say the same. The highest mountain in Poromiel tops out around eight thousand feet, which explains why only the summitwing drifts would carry out the high-altitude village raids we heard about in Battle Brief.
Even Sloane looks worried.
“Let me check how much farther we have to go,” I tell Maren, softening my tone. “Please tell me we’re almost off this damned cliff?”
“You feel closer. Perhaps three or four ascents from the top,” Tairn answers. “But none of us can see a thing through the fog. Claw Section is
“I think we have less than an hour left.” I offer Maren what I hope is an encouraging smile but probably looks like a weary grimace. “You sure you can’t just pick them up in your claws like the crossbolts and fly them to the top?” I ask Tairn.
“They’d never tolerate the indignity of it. Besides, all they have to do is crest the cliffs. We have wagons waiting to carry the ones who will allow it.”
Right. Because they can’t fly to Aretia. Not in this condition.
“We can make it an hour,” Maren says between huffed breaths. “Luella,” she calls ahead. “It should be about another hour! Are you holding up?”
“We’ll make it,” a weak voice responds ahead of the silver-specked gryphon.
Sloane braces a hand on the cliff and looks back at me. “She and Visia have been arguing,” she whispers. “It’s getting quieter, but I can’t tell if it’s because they worked out their differences or because Luella can’t breathe. And I think she just threw up.”
“Altitude sickness,” I respond just as quietly.
“And you don’t have to whisper,” Maren states. “Gryphons have remarkable hearing.”
“Just like dragons,” I mutter. “No privacy.”
“Exactly.” Maren scratches just above Daja’s beak, reminding me of that spot above her nostrils that Andarna likes. “Gossiping busybodies,” she says with affection. “Don’t worry, Luella will win her over. She’s the nicest of us.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Sloane slows, waiting for us to come up with her. “Visia’s family was killed in the Sumerton raid last year.”
“Lu wasn’t even a cadet when that happened,” Maren argues between shallow breaths.
“If riders torched Draithus,” Sloane quips, arching a brow, “would you care if you were walking with someone from the Northern Wing? Or would you simply loathe all riders?”
“Good point,” Maren admits. “But it’s hard to hate Luella. Plus, she bakes really good cake. She’ll win Visia over with butterscotch once we get to Aretia— just watch.”
A flash of dragon wing appears through the fog, cutting through the cloud like a knife before disappearing again.
“At least they’re still trying to do patrols,” Sloane says as we continue forward.
“Brave, considering they can’t see the cliff’s edge,” I add.
A wave of tension…of awareness barrels down my bond with Tairn.
Guess he’s not too happy about the lack of visibility, either.
“Not there!” a familiar voice shouts up ahead, and the line halts. “You’ll trigger it!”
“What the fuck is he doing back here?” Sloane mutters. It doesn’t matter how many times I explain that Dain didn’t understand the consequences of stealing my memories; Sloane still despises him.
There’s an overwhelming part of me that still does, too.
Cibbelair begins moving, picking his way carefully up the path, and we follow, eventually coming to where Dain stands rigidly against the cliff wall, making himself as small as possible so the gryphon will be able to pass by.
“There’s a pressure trigger,” he warns, gesturing to a section of the trail just ahead of him with a map clutched in one hand and holding out his other arm so Ridoc and Luella don’t continue. “We know it sends out arrows but don’t know from where, so we can’t disarm it. Hence why I’m standing here, warning everyone about that particular section.”
I glance up the cliff wall, noting the numerous cracks in the face that could hide any number of munitions, then back to the trail, where a rope has been laid across the rock to mark the untouchable area. It looks to be five, maybe six feet across, which would already give me a little pause on the ground, but jumping an area that big on an unforgiving ledge, at our level of fatigue—let alone the gryphons’—is flat-out intimidating.
And I can barely see a damned thing past the rope in this fog.
“We have to jump,” Ridoc says, eyeing the trail. “Everyone’s made it across so far.” Dain nods.
“Luella?” Maren leans out over the cliff to see past Cibbelair.
A small flier with pale, nearly white hair and freckles that remind me of Sawyer looks back. “I don’t know. It’s farther than I’ve ever jumped before.”
“She’s the smallest of us.” Maren doesn’t bother whispering. “Like you,” Sloane adds, looking my way.
“Ridoc, can you and Dain throw her across?” I ask.
“You mean can I throw you across?” Ridoc asks with his typical sarcasm.
I snort. “I’ll be able to jump it.” Like hell is Ridoc going to throw me. Luella’s head draws back in offense.
Shit. “I’m used to the altitude,” I remind her, hoping to cover my accidental insult. “What has everyone else done?” I ask Dain.
“Running leap,” he answers. “We’re just making sure whoever’s on the other side is done recovering first so there’s no impact.”
Gods, I wish Xaden were here. He’d simply pluck Luella up with shadows and ferry her across. Then again, he just might let her fall. I never quite know when it comes to other people.
Rhiannon can’t retrieve something as big as a person. Cianna, our executive officer from last year, is up there, but wind wielding isn’t going to help here, either. Our signets are useless for this.
“You jump first, Ridoc,” Dain orders. “So I’m not throwing Luella?”
“She either makes it or she doesn’t, just like Parapet,” Visia says, tying her shoulder-length hair back. “I’ll go first.”
“Cibbe says he goes first,” Luella announces, then all three flatten themselves against the cliff wall next to Dain so the gryphon can pass.
Sloane’s right. Luella’s physically similar to me, small and shorter than average. She’s even my age, since fliers start a year after riders. But she’s suffering from altitude sickness, and I’m not.
I’m just lightheaded, which might be a death sentence up here.
The tip of another dragon wing appears in the mist, the flight pattern coming from the opposite direction. A brown, maybe? “Is that Aotrom?” I ask Ridoc. At this point, I’m about to beg for his aid, flier pride be damned. “No. He’s up top with the others. They just finished carrying the
crossbolts and complaining about being treated like packhorses.” A corner of my mouth rises. “Sounds about right.”
Cibbelair rocks back on his fawn-and-ochre haunches, then launches forward, clearing the trap and skidding on his landing.
Luella sucks in a breath as Cibbe’s talons skim the edge, but he quickly sags against the cliff, his back rising and falling with stuttered breaths.
I’m torn between sighing with relief that the gryphon made it and acknowledging the growing pit in my stomach that tells me there’s no way Luella will.
“Mind asking him if he’d serve as a railing?” I ask the flier. “We’re both going to have to run and leap, and he’d be good at keeping us both from falling off the cliff.”
Cibbe’s head cranes back at an unnatural angle, and he chortles aggressively in my direction.
“He…” A small smile tugs at Luella’s mouth. “He reluctantly agrees.”
“Visia and Ridoc, get over there,” Dain orders. “We need to keep the line moving.”
Visia backs up to where we stand, bounces up on her toes, and runs, pumping her arms and legs, then launches herself across the roped-off area and lands cleanly on the other side.
“See, if she can do it, we’re fine,” I assure Luella, hoping it’s not a lie.
“She’s six inches taller than us and not nearly as winded.” Luella swallows. “And no offense, but you look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I’m not,” I lie, taking a second to adjust the slipping wrap on my left knee. I haven’t had enough water or enough time off my feet today, and my body is more than happy to let me know about the neglect.
Gods, I never would have made it through Gauntlet if I’d felt like this
Gauntlet. An idea takes hold.
“I’ll—” Ridoc starts.
“Wait a second.” I brace my right hand on the cliff to keep from losing my precarious balance and study the area above the trap, noting one of the thinnest cracks in the rock. Ridoc’s the best climber we have, so it just might work.
“What are you thinking?” Dain asks. “Don’t tell me nothing. You have those little lines between your eyebrows.”
“I’m wondering how attached Ridoc is to his sword.” I breathe through the nausea that always accompanies the dizziness.
“It’s standard issue,” Ridoc replies, then follows my line of sight. “Oh.
“Yep.” I glance at Luella so he catches on, and he nods slowly. “I can’t guarantee it will hold.”
“Try.” I lift my brows.
Ridoc reaches for his sword.
“No.” Dain draws his shortsword, leaving the long one sheathed. “Use this one. It has a longer pommel, and it will be easier to work in.” He hands the sword to Ridoc, then looks over at me. “I still know how your mind works.”
Ridoc takes Dain’s shortsword and sheathes it in the empty spot at his left, then climbs up a few feet before scrambling horizontally across the cliff face.
“What is he doing?” Luella asks.
“Watch,” I say quietly so I don’t startle Ridoc.
Hand over hand, he carefully moves across the rock, then plants his feet on a foothold that I can’t even see, let alone trust, about halfway across. He frees the shortsword, drawing his elbow back as far as he can without losing his balance, then jabs it into the cracked rock with full force. The screeching sound is worse than a pissed-off gryphon.
“Rock,” he says to Dain, reaching back with his right hand.
Dain picks up a loose one the size of my fist, then stretches his long arms out toward Ridoc, handing it to him.
Ridoc slams the rock against the pommel, hammering it deeper into the cliff until almost every inch of the blade has disappeared, and I don’t miss the slight flinch on Dain’s face. Ridoc grips the hilt and tests it with one palm, then two.
I hold my breath when he drops all his weight onto it, and thank Dunne, it doesn’t give. He rocks his body backward, then swings forward, letting go at the height of his arc and landing on the other side of the rope.
This might work.
“And suddenly this is the Gauntlet, not Parapet,” Sloane mutters.
“Easy,” Ridoc says, then pivots to face me and holds out his arms. “Let’s go, Vi. I’ll even catch you.”
“Fuck off.” I lift my middle finger but grin across the haze at him. “I’m really hoping you’re right-handed,” I say to Luella.
“Good. That hilt is eight inches—” “Seven,” Dain corrects.
“Imagine a man actually shortening a girl’s estimate,” Maren teases.
I can’t help but smile. “Right. Seven inches. Just have to jump far enough to grab it, then swing across like Ridoc.”
Luella looks at me like I told her we’ll be climbing the rest of this cliff by hand.
“Want me to go first?” I offer. She nods.
“Please take the dizziness and I swear I’ll build you a bigger temple in Aretia,” I pray to Dunne. But maybe that plea should be aimed at Zihnal, because damn do we need some luck. Butterflies attack my stomach.
“You’re sure?” Dain asks. I level a glare at him.
“You’re sure.” He restates it as fact, then backs up to give me more room.
I bounce up on the balls of my feet, then spring forward, planting that last step just before the rope and leaping toward the hilt.
I feel every beat of my heart marking time as I’m airborne.
Reach it. Reach it. REACH IT!
My right hand makes contact first, and I grip hard, slamming my left into the available space and holding tight as my body swings so I don’t fly forward and trigger the trap.
“You’ve got this!” Ridoc shouts, holding out his arms.
“I will kick you in the face if you try to catch me!” I warn.
He grins and backs up a few steps as I take breath after breath, pushing back the blackening edges of my vision with sheer will, refusing to let the dizziness win.
I will not fucking die today.
Rocking my body back, I start to swing just like I’m on a Gauntlet obstacle, whipping my feet forward and back. When I have enough momentum, I mutter another prayer and let go, flying toward that rope line.
I hit the other side, and pain explodes in my knees as I fall forward, catching myself with my palms. You made it, you made it, you made it, I chant, forcing the pain into a neat little box and shoving a lid over it and stumbling to my feet. A quick sweep of hands tells me I haven’t dislocated my kneecaps, though the left argues that it came damn close to abandoning ship.
“See?” I force a smile to my face and turn. “You can do it.”
Maren pats Luella on the shoulder, and whatever she says makes the smaller flier nod as I back up, moving toward the center of the ledge and giving her space to land.
She takes the obstacle just like I did, her feet kicking for distance before she reaches the hilt and holds tight.
“There you go!” I shout. “Now swing until you feel you have the force to carry you.”
“I can’t!” she cries out. “My hands are slipping!” Shit.
“You can,” Dain encourages. “But you’d better move now.” “Move, Luella!” Maren yells.
Luella starts the same rocking pattern Ridoc and I used, swinging her feet to gain momentum, then lets go.
I hold my breath as she hurtles toward the line of safety.
Her feet land just before the rope and her eyes lock on mine, widening with terror as she throws herself forward, like the trap won’t notice her misstep if she’s quick enough.
Oh, fuck. Maybe Dain’s wrong. Maybe the trap is twelve inches before
the rope line. Maybe she’s in the clear. Maybe we all are.
But clearly I have prayed to the wrong god. Everything somehow slows and yet happens at once.
Luella dives forward, hurling her body where she was looking—at me instead of Cibbelair—and I barely have time to open my arms before she impacts, driving me backward at an angle into Visia…toward the edge of the cliff.
“Vi!” Ridoc shouts.
I try to pivot, to heave as much of our weight toward the safety of the wall as I can, but there’s not enough time or strength, and we flounder, tangled in one another.
Feet trip other feet, and I start to fall. We all do.
A hand grasps the waistband of the back of my leathers and pulls, changing the direction of my fall. Ridoc. My feet lose traction as my momentum shifts, and I hit my knees near the edge of the cliff just in time to see Visia and Luella start to slide over.
And I can no longer stop time.
“No!” I scramble forward, rock scraping over my torso, and throw out my arms, reaching for whoever is closest as a sound like gushing wind rushes over my head.
Visia grabs hold of my left hand and Luella grips my right wrist, the weight of both women nearly taking me to join them. My right shoulder pops from the socket, and agony rips from my throat with a scream.
Visia fumbles for a handhold along the cliff wall, but Luella has both hands locked on my wrist, her feet kicking for purchase.
“Pull me up!” Luella shrieks, and I’m in too much pain to verbalize that I can’t.
“Ridoc!” I shout as the edges of my vision blur, then blacken. “Help me!”
Feet pound, but Luella’s grip slips from my wrist to my hand, and I chance a look back over my right shoulder, hoping for rescue as Visia’s weight disappears, plucked from the side of the cliff by a giant beak.
Visia was in his way. The gryphon dumps the rider on the ledge and then cranes his enormous neck toward Luella as bootsteps race down the ascent.
But all I see is Ridoc, staggering backward toward the wall, two arrows piercing the side of his abdomen.
“I’m all right.” He nods quickly, glancing down at the arrows, blood trickling from his mouth.
No. No. NO.
I scream up the cliff for the only person who can save him now. “BRENNAN!”