Xaden drops the shadows, and we both turn at the same time to survey the damage.
My heart seizes, and I reach for Xaden’s hand reflexively. The wardstone lies in two pieces on the ground, and there isn’t a flame in sight.
Holy Dunne, Navarre is defenseless.
There’s no seeing over Baide’s body to check on Mira, so I whip my gaze to the right, meeting Rhiannon’s wide eyes where she stands at the front of the archway, protecting Ridoc and my mother.
Jack stumbles backward from the blow of my dagger, a dazed but elated look twisting his face as he wrenches it from his shoulder and drops it to the floor.
“He only has minutes,” I whisper to Xaden.
Barlow has just killed his own dragon. It’s unfathomable. Impossible. And yet Baide is most certainly dead as Jack falls to his knees and laughs up at the sky fifty feet above us.
Mira appears, moving silently around Baide’s corpse, and Xaden gives her a subtle shake of his head when she lifts her sword. She keeps it poised for attack but doesn’t continue forward.
“You know you’re about to join your dragon, don’t you?” Xaden asks, his voice low as shadows move in riotous swirls at our feet.
“What are you doing?” I palm another dagger.
“Getting whatever information we can.” The utter calmness of his tone is unnerving.
“That’s the thing,” Barlowe says, his blond hair covering his forehead as he falls forward onto a hand. “I’m not. They have us thinking we’re the inferior species, but did you see how easily I controlled her? How easily the energy she bonded us with is replaced?” His eyes slide shut as his fingers splay on the stone.
“Jack! Don’t do this!” Nolon storms past Rhiannon, his features slackening when he takes in the destruction around him. “You…you’re better than this! You can choose!”
My chest tightens. “The way he said that is almost like he expected this.”
“Because he did,” Xaden answers, his gaze locked on Jack. “He wants to mend him. He’s been trying to mend him since May. He’s too weak to shield his intentions now.”
“Mend what? The injuries from the fall?”
Xaden’s brow furrows in concentration. “Jack’s turned venin. Somehow, he managed it within the wards.”
I think I might be sick.
“There is no choice!” Jack shouts. “And if there was, I made mine the second I saw her”—he shoots a glare my way—“bond the most powerful dragon available at Threshing. Why should they determine our potential when we’re capable of reaching for fate all on our own?”
Oh. Gods. His eyes have been bloodshot for so long. When did it happen? Before the fall. It had to have been before I wielded that first time. Back in the gym that day…
And I’ve thrown the wrong dagger.
“Baide,” Tairn growls, and I glance up to see his silhouette block out the stars far above us.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Magic requires balance,” Nolon argues. “It does not give without a price!”
“Does it?” Jack inhales, and the stones around him turn from a dark, slate gray to a dusky beige. “Do you understand how much power is beneath your feet?”
One block pales, then another, and another.
“I know.” Shadows shoot forward, knocking Jack backward and driving him across the floor before lifting him from the ground, pinning him in midair with an X across his torso. “When did you turn?” Xaden asks.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Jack fights the binding, but Xaden closes his fist and the shadows snap even tighter.
“I know you’re going to tell me.” Xaden walks forward. “Because I have nothing to lose by killing you. So tell me when. Earn yourself a little good will.”
“Before his challenge against me,” I answer when Jack refuses to. “He forced power into my body. I just didn’t recognize it for what it is. How? The wards—”
“Do not block all power like the dragons want you to think they do! We can still feed from the ground, still channel enough to survive. Enough to fool them. We might not be at full strength, capable of wielding greater magic under your protections, but make no mistake: we are already among you, and now we’re free.” Jack gestures at Baide, his glare alternating between Xaden and me. “I’ll never know why it’s you he wants. What the fuck makes you so special?”
“This changes everything,” Tairn urges.
“You have no idea what’s coming for you.” Jack grasps at the shadows, his feet kicking against only air, but Xaden wraps another band around his throat, and he stills. “They’re faster than you think they are. He’s coming with a horde of greens. They all are.”
“Might take them a minute to read the map.” Xaden’s tone shifts to taunting. “And you’ll be long gone before they arrive.”
“We need to keep him alive for questioning as long as possible.” I shift my weight carefully to avoid Jack’s attention.
“And what’s your solution for that?” Xaden asks.
We have to cut him off from his power. My gaze swings wide, and I see Nolon creeping up on the left. He’s kept him under control all these—
“The serum,” I tell Xaden. “He must be why they developed the signet-blocking serum.”
Motion near Mira makes me glance her way as Dain edges past her.
“They don’t need a map. Not when I showed them the way. While you were busy smuggling weapons out, we were busy smuggling them in.” Jack’s motions grow weaker, his breaths more labored, just as Liam’s had been. “This whole place will be ours in a matter of hours.” He splays his palms wide and reaches the wall, then shudders as color leaches from the stone.
My heart jolts. We’re underground.
Xaden pulls his alloy-hilted dagger and strides forward, but Dain gets there faster.
“Not yet!” Dain grabs hold of Jack’s head and closes his eyes as stone after stone loses its color.
One. Two. Three. I start to count heartbeats as the desiccation expands. On the fourth beat, Jack wrenches his hands from the wall and grasps
“Xaden?” It’s a request, and we both know it, but he doesn’t act. Dain begins to tremble.
“Xaden!” I shout. “Jack’s draining him!” Power ripples up my fingertips,
ready to strike.
Only when Dain screams in pain does Xaden take the final step and slam the hilt of the dagger against Jack’s temple, knocking him unconscious.
I rush to Dain as he stumbles backward, ripping at his flight jacket, tugging it off and shoving the fabric of his uniform up his arms to reveal a matching set of gray handprints burned into his skin in the same place where Jack grabbed him.
“Are you all right?” Gods, the skin is crinkling.
“I think so.” Dain runs his hands down his arms in turn, then flexes his fingers in appraisal. “Hurts like a fucking ice burn.”
“I’m assuming you know what to do with him? Seeing as you’ve been doing it since May?” Xaden shoots Nolon a withering look.
Nolon nods, reaching Jack and pouring a vial of serum into his mouth. Xaden withdraws his shadows, allowing Jack to crumble to the floor, then leans over and cuts away Jack’s First Wing patch.
“How many riders are here?” Dain asks Nolon, who stares at Jack with a mix of disbelief and horror. Suddenly, I understand why he was always so exhausted this year. He wasn’t mending a soul in the figurative sense, but the literal. “How many riders, Nolon?” Dain snaps.
The mender lifts his tired gaze.
“A hundred and nineteen cadets,” my mother answers, holding her hand to her bleeding head. “Ten leadership. The rest have all been sent to midland posts and Samara.” She glances at me. “Plus the ones you brought.”
“I saw his memories. It’s not enough.” Dain shakes his head. “Well, it has to be,” Mira counters.
“Gather everyone. They’re faster than dragons,” Dain says to my mother.
“We have ten hours. Maybe less. Then we’re all dead.”
A half hour later, nearly every seat in Battle Brief is full, and the lines are clearly drawn between those of us who chose to fight for Poromiel and those who chose to stay to defend Navarre. The Aretian cadets hold the right side of the terraced classroom, and for the first time, I don’t pull out pen and paper to take notes when my mother and Devera take the stage with
The nervous energy in the room reminds me of those moments on top of the turret in Athebyne, where we decided to fight in Resson. Except there’s no choice to make today; we’re here.
This battle began in the wardstone chamber, and we’ve already lost. We just happen to still be breathing. Greim relayed to Tairn that Melgren and his forces won’t arrive until after the approaching horde does, and word came in about an hour ago that there are other wyvern flying in a second wave.
As if the first won’t be enough to destroy us.
Glancing over my shoulder, toward the top seats, I see Xaden standing next to Bodhi with his arms folded across his chest, listening to whatever Garrick tells him. A painful ache erupts in my heart. How can we only have hours left?
As if he senses the weight of my gaze, he looks at me, then winks like we’re not facing certain annihilation. Like we’ve transported ourselves back to last year and this is just another Battle Brief.
“How are the hands?” Sawyer asks Ridoc as leadership confers about something onstage.
“Nolon mended them right after he took care of General Sorrengail.” Ridoc flexes his fingers, showing off unblemished skin. “Dain?” he asks me.
“Nothing he can do for him.” I shake my head. “Not sure if it’s because it’s an unmendable wound or because Nolon’s too exhausted from trying to mend Jack over and over.”
“Fucking Jack,” Rhi mutters. “Fucking Jack,” I agree.
Devera starts the briefing. Intel reports a thousand wyvern headed this way. The good news? They didn’t even bother stopping at Samara, which means casualties are low. The bad news? They don’t seem to be stopping anywhere, which means we won’t get a delay.
Dain steps forward and clears his throat. “How many of you have mastered a tracking rune?”
Not a single hand rises among the Aretian cadets, including Rhi’s and mine. The Basgiath cadets look like Dain is speaking Krovlish up there.
“Right.” Dain shoves his hand into his hair, and his face falls before he masks it. “That complicates things. Dark wielders know exactly where we
are because, according to Barlowe’s memories, he planted lures all over the college and up the path to the Vale.”
Guess Dain’s done keeping his signet classified.
My lips part. That’s the energy Chradh picked up on when we arrived, the same energy that summoned the venin to Resson. Destroying the lures is our best chance of buying time, or at least throwing off further waves.
“I saw where Barlowe put most of the lure boxes but not all of them,” Dain continues as footsteps sound in the doorway.
Every head turns as infantry cadets pour in wearing uncertain, anxious faces. I spot Calvin, the leader of the platoon we were paired with for maneuvers, gawking at the space, his gaze landing and remaining on the map of Navarre. He’s wearing the same insignia as the rest of them, leading me to believe they’ve only sent their quadrant’s leadership.
“The Infantry Quadrant will spend the next few hours trying to hunt them down for us while also preparing themselves…” Dain’s voice drops off, and he swallows.
Devera takes mercy on him, stepping forward. “You’ll be working within your squads tonight. Remember that wyvern are the distraction and the weapon. You take down one of the venin, and you kill the wyvern they’ve created. No one takes on a dark wielder alone. That’s how you get killed. Work together, rely on each other, complement each other’s signets just like it’s the Squad Battle.”
“Except it’s real battle,” Rhiannon says under her breath. Where real cadets will really die.
“Remember that venin will mimic your fighting style, so change it up if you have no choice but hand-to-hand,” Devera continues, the lines of her mouth tense with worry and perhaps a little dread.
The Basgiath cadets murmur among themselves and shift in their seats.
“I’ll bet you all the daggers we’ve brought with us that they didn’t teach them how to fight venin.” Sawyer shakes his head, drumming his fingertips along the desk.
“First-years who haven’t manifested, I expect you packed and ready to fly should we fall. Healers are stocking the infirmary and are preparing.
Scribes are in the process of evacuating with our most important texts.” Devera glances at my mother.
Of course they are. I can only wonder which texts they’ll consider valuable enough to save, and which they’ll conveniently leave behind to burn.
Mom looks up to my right, where Mira stands with a few of her friends, then drops her gaze to me. “The assignments given tonight have been decided with the best interest of Basgiath and the Vale in mind. There are incredibly powerful signets among you. Gifted riders.” She looks in the first row, where Emetterio sits. “And even combat masters. But I will not lie to you—”
“That’s a first,” I mumble, and Rhiannon scoffs softly under her breath. “—we are outnumbered,” Mom continues. “We are underpowered. However, the odds may be against us, but the gods are with us. Whether you left after Threshing or stayed, we are all Navarrian riders, bonded for the purpose of defending dragonkind in the darkest hour, and this is it.”
The darkest hour on the longest night of the year. My stomach churns as I fight off the spiraling weight of hopelessness.
“I want you to leave for Aretia,” I tell Andarna. “Get out before they arrive. Hide where you can and make your way back to Brennan.”
“I will be where I am needed, and it is with you,” she counters.
Every argument I could make to keep her alive doesn’t matter, and we both know it. Humans do not give dragons orders. If she’s determined to die with Tairn and me, there’s nothing I can do about it. I press my lips between my teeth and bite down to ward off the sting that comes to my eyes.
My fingernails bite into my palms as Mom assigns the active riders to cadet squads, splitting the experience among the group. Garrick is assigned to First Squad, Flame Section, and Heaton to First Squad, Claw Section, while Emery is assigned to a squad in First Wing. “Captain Sorrengail.” Mom looks up at Mira. “You’ll be with Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing.”
Our entire squad looks over at Mira, and my eyes widen at the fear that flares in her eyes.
Anger simmers along my bond with Xaden. “Fuck that.”
“With all due respect, General Sorrengail,” Mira replies, rolling her shoulders back, “if we’re to truly use our signets to their best advantage, then I should be paired with you as a last line of defense, since I can now shield without the wards.”
Mom’s eyebrows rise in surprise, and my gaze jumps between them like I’m watching a sporting match.
Mira swallows, then locks eyes with me. “And Lieutenant Riorson should be placed into Second Squad, as his signet has previously proven in battle to complement Cadet Sorrengail’s.” She looks at me like we’re sitting across the dining room table from each other and not in the midst of a pre-battle briefing. “As much as I would love to be her shield, he gives us the highest probability of keeping our most effective weapon alive.”
A tense second passes as I look to our mother.
“So be it.” Mom nods, then finishes the unit changes.
The heat along the bond recedes, and my posture sags in relief. At least we’ll be together.
“We get both of you?” Ridoc offers a quick smile. “Maybe we have a shot of lasting an hour.”
“My money’s on two,” Sawyer chimes in with a nod.
“Both of you shut up before I knock your heads together,” Imogen warns from a seat behind us. “Anything less than four hours is unacceptable.”
How long did Resson last? One? And there were ten riders and seven fliers against four venin.
“Now that that’s settled,” Mom says as Kaori steps onto the floor, throwing up an illusion in the form of a top-down map of Basgiath and the surrounding area. “We’re dividing Basgiath, the Vale, and surrounding areas into a grid of sectors.”
Kaori flicks his fingers, and gridlines appear on the map.
“Each squad will be responsible for a sector of airspace while infantry covers the ground,” Mom continues, nodding to Kaori. Squad insignia appear on different grids, and it takes me a second to locate ours on the side of the Vale, paired with a squad from First Wing. No patches are inside the
space, but there are plenty of unbonded dragons no doubt ready to defend their hatching grounds. “Memorize these grids, because you’re not going to have time to pull out a map when you’re up there. If it’s in your airspace, you kill it. If it crosses into another squad’s airspace, you let them kill it. Avoid leaving your airspace at all costs, or it will turn into a disorganized melee, and that leaves us with inevitable weak grids. We’ll reassign you as necessary as casualties are reported.”
Not if they’re reported.
The grid behind the main campus, where the ward chamber is located, is horrifyingly bare, as though they’ve already surrendered the space.
“This is wrong,” I whisper. “We should be defending the wardstone.” “The broken one?” Sawyer questions quietly.
“Say it,” Rhiannon urges.
“You have a better chance of living through it,” Ridoc mutters, shifting in his seat.
I clear my throat. “It’s a mistake to abandon the wardstone.”
My mother levels a disapproving look on me, and the temperature drops a few degrees. “Why is it that only my daughters speak out of turn?”
“We get it from our mother,” Mira snipes in a dry tone, and that lethal look pivots to her.
“It’s a mistake,” I push on. “We don’t know what power remains in the stone, and it was placed in that exact location because it’s over the strongest natural flow of power, according to Warrick.”
“Hmm.” It’s not my mother looking my way this time. It’s General Sorrengail. “Your opinion is noted.”
Hope surges in my chest. “So you’ll assign a squad?”
“Absolutely not. Your opinion, as noted as it is, is wrong.” She dismisses me without another word, without the reasoning we would have been given had this been a Battle Brief, leaving me half my original size, shrinking in my chair.
A wave of warmth floods the bond, but it doesn’t dim the chill from her rejection.
“You have your orders for the morning,” Mom says. “Riders, find the nearest bed and sleep for as many hours as you can. Most of you who left Basgiath will find your rooms have not been commandeered, and most still contain your bedding. We need you rested to be effective.” She looks over the briefing room like it might be the last time she sees us. “Every minute we hold out gives us a shot at reinforcements making it back. Every second counts. Make no mistake,
we will hold out as long as possible.”
I glance up at the clock. It’s not even eight yet, which means I can keep my mantra for the next few hours. I will not die today.
I can’t say the same about tomorrow.
The stars still wink in the night sky as Xaden and I dress in the relative silence of my room. Turns out the remaining cadets had left all but the
wingleaders’ quarters untouched, as if we’d see the error of our ways and return.
What few hours of sleep we’d gotten had been sporadic at best, leaving me at less than full strength and a little dizzy, but at least I wasn’t plagued with nightmares.
Or maybe my imagination really is that overactive.
Xaden kisses a path down my spine, his lips brushing every inch of skin as he laces me into my armor over the cross-body wrap on my left shoulder that stabilizes the aching joint. My eyes slide shut when he reaches my lower back, and the desire he’d more than sated last night flares anew, flushing my skin. A few simple kisses are all it ever takes, and my body is instantly attuned to his.
“Keep doing that, and you’ll be taking this right off,” I warn him, glancing down over my shoulder.
“Was that a threat or a promise?” His eyes darken as he stands and ties me in, tucking the laces so they don’t come loose. “Because I have no
problem spending our last quiet minutes this morning tangled up in you.” He slides his hand over the curve of my hip as he moves to face me, trailing his fingers along the waistband of my flight leathers, then dipping them between the buttons and my stomach.
We can’t do this, can’t hide away and pretend war isn’t coming for us. Can’t ignore that more than a dozen lures haven’t been destroyed—or even found—when just one was enough to lead the venin to Resson, and we’ve only found half of what Jack left around campus. Can’t deny that the last reports from the few riders brave enough to stay at the midland forts along the route from Samara relayed that attack is imminent in the next couple of hours. But gods do I want to.
“We can’t.” Regret saturates the words, and yet I can’t stop myself from winding my arms around his neck. “No matter how much I would rather lock the door and let the rest of the world burn around us.”
“We can.” He lifts a hand to the back of my neck and tugs me closer, until our bodies meet from thigh to breast. “Say the word, and we’ll fly.”
I stare up into his eyes, marking each fleck of gold just in case I won’t get another chance to. “You could never live with yourself if we abandoned our friends.”
“Maybe.” His brow knits for less than a second, so quick I almost miss it as he leans into my space. “But I know I can’t live without you, so trust me when I say there’s a very real, very loud part of me screaming to carry you out of here and fly for Aretia.”
I know the feeling all too well, so before I dare to give it voice, I rise up on my toes and kiss him. At the first touch of our mouths, heat ignites between us, and he grabs ahold of my ass, lifting me. I sense that we’re moving, turning as I part my lips for his tongue and throw all logical thought out the door.
My ass hits the desk and I hold tighter, kiss him harder as he slants his mouth over mine again and again, taking everything I offer and giving it right back. This isn’t the slow exploration we’d shared last night, lingering on every touch, knowing it might be the last time. It’s frantic and wild, hot and desperate.
My hand spears into his hair, holding him closer, like I still have Andarna’s ability to stop time, like I can hold us in this moment if I just keep kissing him.
He groans into my mouth and his fingers work the buttons on my pants at the same moment I reach for his.
“We’ll be quick,” I promise between soul-consuming kisses, flicking open the first button.
“Quick,” he repeats, sliding a hand down my stomach and into my pants, “isn’t usually what you beg me for.” His fingers brush—
We both freeze, panting hard against each other’s mouths. No. No. No.
“Don’t stop.” If this minute is all we have left, then I want it. Gods, if he would just move his hand a fraction of an inch lower…
His eyes search mine, and then he takes my mouth like the outcome of this kiss will decide the battle we’re facing.
“I know you’re in there!” Rhiannon barks through the door, and the knock changes to a pound. “Stop ignoring me before this becomes the most awkward situation known to Navarre.”
“Five minutes,” I beg as Xaden’s mouth slides down my neck.
“Now,” a deep, familiar voice demands, and Xaden puts a step between us, muttering a curse under his breath.
There’s no way. Is there? But just in case there is, my hands fall from Xaden’s pants and quickly redo the button on mine before I hop off the desk and rush to the door, sparing a second to check that Xaden’s clothes are in place, too.
“Disengage your body parts or whatever you’re doing—”
I unlock my door with a flick of my hand and yank it open to find not only every second- and third-year flier in our squad but a few of our first-years, including Sloane.
Without thought for regulation or decorum, I fling myself into his arms, and he catches me, pulling me tight against his chest. “You came.”
“I left you and Mira here to fight this on your own once before, and I’ll never do it again. I knew I’d fucked up as soon as you left, but gryphons don’t fly as quickly as dragons.” He squeezes harder for a second, then lets me down. “Tell me where I can be of use.”
“Are those fliers?” Every head turns down the hall as my mother approaches with two of her aides, but her steps falter when her gaze shifts toward my brother. “Brennan?”
“I’m not here for you.” He dismisses her without another word in her direction. “Matthias is going to send the fliers to hunt the lures. They’re faster on the ground and better with runes, anyway.”
“We are,” Cat agrees with a casual shrug, assessing the hallway like she’s searching for structural weaknesses. Which she probably is. “And we don’t abandon our drifts. We’ll fight.”
I might not like her, but damn do I respect her. Finding those lures will give us precious time to—
I grab onto Brennan’s arms, and a spark of hope lights within my chest. “Have you ever encountered something you can’t mend?”
“Magic,” he answers. “I can’t mend a relic or anything. Probably not a rune, either.”
If he can do it, we’ll just have to hold on long enough for Codagh to arrive. “What about a wardstone?”
Brennan’s eyebrows shoot up, and I glance past him to Rhiannon. “We have to guard the chamber, at least let him try.”
Rhi nods, then turns to my mother, who’s still staring at Brennan like he’s a hallucination. “General Sorrengail, Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing officially requests permission to guard the airspace above the wardstone chamber.”
Mom doesn’t take her eyes off Brennan. “Granted.”