No. No. No. This is too familiar.
Losing Liam was… I can’t lose Rhi. I just can’t.
She surges forward as the wyvern screams, our rate of descent so fast that blood appears to fall upward. I yank on my belt again, but the leather is swollen with rain, wedged tight, and I watch, my heart launching into my throat, as she engages the dark wielder in a series of moves that would have had me on the mat.
He knocks her blade loose with a backhand to her wrist, and it flies from her hand as he kicks her. She skids backward along Tairn’s rain-slick scales, and I reach for her, wrapping my left arm around her waist to steady her and pressing my dagger into her palm with my right hand.
She looks over her shoulder and nods at me, gaining her feet when he’s almost on us. I force myself to look away as their blades clash and mountains rise, alerting me to how low our altitude is as I unstrap the crossbow at my thigh, then quickly open the quiver strapped at my left and slip the arrow into the flight groove. At this range, the wind and rain shouldn’t matter.
“I need you to roll this fucker off you in three—” I start. “Rhi!” I shout out loud, taking aim. “Two.”
She glances back, then throws her body flat between Tairn’s shoulders, and I reach forward, grasping her ankle and pulling the lever without hesitation. “One!”
The arrow hits true, striking the venin in the sternum as Tairn banks hard right.
The dark wielder falls, but the sound of an explosion comes from behind us as I grip Rhi’s ankle, ignoring the screaming protest of my shoulder as the wrap fights to keep the joint in place.
Rhi holds fast to Tairn’s spikes, and he levels to horizontal quickly, pumping his wings to climb as she works backward toward me, then turns, wrapping her arms around me in a tight hug.
I hold on to her, still clutching the crossbow, and breathe deeply as Feirge mirrors Tairn’s wingbeats just beneath us, keeping pace. She’s all right. They’re both all right.
This isn’t Resson, and I didn’t just lose my best friend. “You reckless, irresponsible—” I yell.
“You’re welcome!” she shouts, rain streaming down her face when she pulls away and hands back my blade. “Fix your saddle. I’ll retrieve the dagger from the ground.” She stands, then gives me a flash of a smile before jumping from Tairn’s shoulder.
I track her fall, breathing a sigh of relief when she lands effortlessly on Feirge.
“My saddle is stuck!” I tell Tairn as we climb back to the battle.
“Good. Maybe you’ll stay in it.”
Sunlight glints off Quinn’s labrys as she swings the double-sided battle-ax from Cruth’s back into the shoulder joint of a wyvern trying its best to sink its teeth into Glane.
“Melgren is ten minutes out, but only two of his aides could keep up, and there’s a general consensus that most of the dark wielders are holding back for a second wave.” Tairn passes Cruth, and I look up into a sea of gray and barely suppress the urge to vomit. There have to be at least six riderless wyvern up there. How long can we keep this up? Pivoting in my
saddle, I note Xaden beneath us on Sgaeyl, dragging wyvern by the throat into the side of the mountain one by one at speed as they dive toward them.
“If she wants help, she’ll ask for—”
A pain-filled roar joins the cacophony above, and my chest tightens. “Andarna?” I reach out, my gaze sweeping the blurred mountainside as we fly upward.
“I’m quite annoyingly safe and hidden,” she responds.
“Aotrom!” Tairn bellows, and my stomach sinks. Ridoc.
Tairn sweeps right, avoiding the plummeting body of a wyvern, but there’s another above us with its teeth locked onto Aotrom’s hindquarters, and three more closing in for the kill.
Sawyer and Sliseag fly from the opposite side of our sector, tracking to intercept at the same time, but everyone else is beneath us. I sheathe my dagger at my hip, then load the crossbow and strap that at my thigh as we surge upward.
Tairn’s roar shakes his entire body as we approach, and I hold on to the pommel, bracing for the jarring collision, but he flies past as Sawyer and Sliseag reach the fray, then swings his massive tail into the trio of approaching wyvern.
I pivot as much as the saddle will let me at the crunching sound of bone shattering. A wyvern falls from the fight, half its head bashed in. One down. Three to go.
Tairn pulls the steepest turn I’ve ever experienced on his back, and my vision dims at the edge as he brings us nearly vertical before tipping his wing left and falling into a dive. I blink furiously into the wind and rain as we fly to Aotrom and Ridoc’s aid.
Ridoc’s doing all he can from Aotrom’s back to dislodge the wyvern, stabbing his sword into its snout, but the dammed thing won’t let go.
Sliseag gets there first, slashing out at the wyvern with his swordtail and cutting into a foreleg. When it doesn’t let go, he pivots to close his jaw over its neck, but unlike Tairn, he isn’t strong enough to snap a neck with a bite
and loses precious seconds, leaving himself exposed to the remaining pair of wyvern.
We’re not going to make it in time.
The pair changes course, veering from Aotrom at the last second and aiming for Sliseag.
We’re almost there, but everything happens so fucking fast that it’s as if the rest of the world slows down.
In one heartbeat, the closest wyvern opens its jaws.
In the second, it blasts green fire across Sliseag and Sawyer dives backward out of the seat, narrowly avoiding being burned to death and rolling down Sliseag’s spine with a smoking boot.
In the third, it completes its assault, snapping at Sliseag’s exposed side. Sawyer kicks at the gaping jaws to save his dragon from the bite, but in the next, he takes it himself, his leg disappearing between the wyvern’s massive teeth.
“Sawyer!” Ridoc yells.
Sawyer’s scream rips into my soul, and I nearly echo it when the wyvern’s jaw locks with an audible click as Tairn slows his descent directly overhead, only a dozen feet above Aotrom as the remaining wyvern ducks under the fight.
Tairn’s weight shifts, and I know he’s chosen an angle of attack and is about to dive, but in this position, there’s only time to save Sawyer or Sliseag, not both. Sawyer bellows in pain as the wyvern half drags him off Sliseag, wrenching away its ugly gray head before snapping again.
My stomach twists and my breath threatens to seize. Fuck, there’s nothing left below Sawyer’s knee.
He’s losing blood and his grip.
No. I’m not going to stand by and watch another one of my friends die. I refuse.
Grasping the dagger in my left hand and the crossbow in my right, I slice through the leather strap of my belt as Tairn dips his right wing, giving me the perfect angle for one. Single. Second. “Forgive me.”
“Don’t you dare—”
“Kill the other one quickly for both our sakes!” I’m already moving, sheathing my dagger and lunging from the saddle, gaining one, two, three running steps before I leap.
Andarna. Xaden. My sister. Brennan. They all flash through my mind as my arms swing through the fall, finding only air, but it’s my mother’s face I see in my mind when I land on Aotrom’s back, the soles of my boots finding purchase at the edge of one of his spine scales.
“How’s that for a running landing?” Holy shit, I made it.
Ridoc must think the same, because he stares at me in pure shock for a good second before he yanks his sword free of the wyvern’s nose, then moves to plunge it again as I start running toward him. “I can’t get the fucking thing off him!”
My heart pounds as hard as my feet as Tairn completes the dive to my right, a patch of black filling my peripheral vision. Ignoring the self-preservation instinct that tells me this is a bad idea, I race to Ridoc and shove the crossbow into his hands. “Fire it once I’m on Sliseag and get back in your seat!”
“Once you’re what?”
I don’t pause to answer the question, too busy running onto the nose of the godsdamned wyvern that’s currently having part of its throat ripped out by Sliseag.
I run up the slope between the shrieking wyvern’s eyes as it sinks its teeth deeper into Aotrom, then onto the flat of its head between its horns as Sliseag tears his jaw away.
“I’m going to throttle you myself once”—Tairn growls, and I hear the distinct sound of bone crunching in the distance—“I get you on the ground!”
I nearly roll my ankle on a spike halfway down the wyvern’s gyrating neck and catch myself as Sliseag swings his head back to the wyvern attacking his rider, but Sawyer’s grip along his spine scales is too tenuous for Sliseag to maneuver quickly. The dragon can’t defend his rider without losing him.
He lets loose a skull-shaking roar as the wyvern takes another snap at Sawyer, swinging his tail with no effect.
“Hurry, Vi!” Ridoc yells.
“Sliseag!” I shout, breaking the cardinal rule of all riders. “Let me help him!”
The red swivels its head toward me, pinning me with furious golden eyes, and I nod, praying to Dunne he understands, that he holds still, and then leap from the wyvern’s neck, my feet kicking for distance.
I land just above Sliseag’s eyes and wrap my left arm around one of his horns, using it to both stop my momentum and hold my balance as his head swings toward the wyvern attacking Sawyer, snapping at the wyvern and coming up short.
“Now, Ridoc!” Using Sliseag’s horn for leverage, I hurtle down his neck as an explosion sounds behind me, heat flaring along my back.
Sawyer scoots himself across Sliseag’s spine, and I run faster, passing the seat. If he falls to that side, there’s nothing Tairn can do. We’re too close to the ridgeline below.
“Where are you?” I ask Tairn as Sawyer’s eyes meet mine in a double take.
I ignore the snaps and snarls above me and keep moving.
“Where I’m supposed to be, unlike you!” he bites out just as his gargantuan frame turns in the sky ahead of me, dropping the lifeless body of the fourth wyvern from his jaws.
“Good. Now do me a favor.” I charge past Sliseag’s wings and alongside the enormous, gnashing teeth of the wyvern poised to devour Sawyer.
“Which would be?” Tairn asks, already flying toward us.
“Violet?” Sawyer’s eyes widen with shock as blood pumps out of his leg in sickening rhythmic spurts. He needs a healer now.
I hit my knees, sliding the last few feet and slamming into Sawyer, knocking him farther down Sliseag’s spine toward the dragon’s hindquarters. Wrapping my arms around Sawyer, I clasp my hands behind his back. “Hold on!” I shout as we slide over countless red scales, seconds away from the edge.
Sliseag banks away from the ridgeline, giving us a few hundred much-needed feet of altitude for the inevitable fall, and tips us over.
Sawyer’s arms close around me as we tumble off Sliseag’s back and fall into the open air.
“Catch me.” Wind tears at my hair, my face, my leathers, but I hold on to Sawyer as we drop in total free fall. I can save him. He doesn’t have to die today.
One. Two. Three. Four. I count my heartbeats as we clear the ridgeline.
“What are you doing?” Xaden roars, and there’s a faint, familiar brush of velvet at the base of my neck, as if Xaden’s power has been extended to its limits. Our fall slows, but not by much as a dark wing blocks out the sky. “What the hell does it look like I’m—” The breath is knocked from my lungs as an iron vise closes around us, halting our fall with a whipping
change of momentum. Tairn.
“What part of ‘stay in your saddle’ did you not understand?” Tairn bellows, holding us in the precarious grip of his claw and banking left, toward Basgiath.
“You couldn’t be in two places at once,” I argue, fighting to draw breath as Sawyer goes limp above me, his chin falling against my shoulder. “You had to kill the fourth wyvern, and Sliseag wouldn’t defend himself if it meant losing Sawyer, so I took Sawyer.”
“And you just hoped I’d catch you?” He flares his wings, slowing our speed to a glide.
“As if you wouldn’t.” Air flows into my lungs in a trickle, then a stream.
He scoffs. Then changes the subject with, “Your brother has mended the stone into one piece but does not feel…hopeful.”
My heart rises just to fall. Well, that’s…great.
“Why? Can it not be imbued?”
“Marbh is not keen on details.” Tairn lands on three claws in the small field between the back of the school and the cliff, gently opening the one that holds us.
What the fuck does that mean? Icy slush greets me as rain continues to fall, and I push Sawyer to his back and roll to my knees, putting my fingers to the pulse of his pale, freckled neck.
“Somebody help us!” I scream, my voice echoing off the stone walls of the administration building. The sluggish beat of his pulse jolts my own. He’s losing too much blood too quickly, and there’s no help in sight, though it’s obvious we’re not the first wounded to have landed here.
“I will call for aid,” Tairn replies.
You can’t have him, I tell Malek, shifting to kneel in the scarlet snow.
You took Liam. You may not have Sawyer.
“Sawyer?” I wrench the buckle on the belted sheath around my left thigh, and mercifully, it gives. Knives and all, I wrap it over the wrecked leather beneath Sawyer’s knee, inches above raggedly torn flesh, thread the leather through the buckle, and pull as hard as I can, crying out when pain sings through my left shoulder. “You have to wake up! Open your eyes!”
The bitter taste of fear floods my mouth as I force the metal prong through a smooth section of leather by sheer will. “Please?” I beg him, my voice breaking as my fingers search for his pulse at his wrist, then his neck, leaving crimson fingerprints on his bloodless skin. “Please, Sawyer, please. We said we’d all live until graduation, remember?”
“Aid comes,” Tairn announces.
“I remember,” Sawyer whispers, his eyes fluttering open.
“Oh, thank the gods!” I smile down at him, my lower lip trembling uncontrollably. “Hold on—”
“Violet!” Maren calls from across the field, and I look up to see her on Daja’s back, the gryphon sprinting forward through the rain, covering the distance quickly with Cat and Bragen on foot a bit behind.
Tairn’s head snaps upward toward the battlefield. “Sgaeyl—”
“Go!” If she’s in danger, so is Xaden, and given the giant tendrils of shadow emanating from within a wall of gray on the edge of our sector…
Tairn crouches, then springs upward, launching with heavy beats of his wings against the morning sky as Daja reaches us, dragging a litter behind her.
“What happened?” Maren slides from Daja’s back, her tan leathers streaked with blood.
“Wyvern took his leg.” I glance between them as Bragen and Cat arrive. “Are you all right?”
“It’s not ours,” Bragen says, crouching on the other side of Sawyer. “You’re going to be all right,” he assures him. “Just need to get you to the healers.” He slides his arms under Sawyer, then lifts and carries him to Daja.
The healers. Because mending isn’t an option, not without his leg.
“We’ve been ferrying the wounded,” Maren says over her shoulder, rushing back to Daja as Cat helps Bragen lower Sawyer to the litter.
“Thank you.” I sit back on my heels and look to the sky, letting the strength of my bond with Xaden assure me that he’s well instead of possibly distracting him by asking.
“Don’t thank us,” Maren says, mounting quickly and settling between Daja’s shoulders before taking off for the Healers Quadrant, Bragen following after her.
“You look like shit.” Cat crouches in front of me, her braid as sodden as mine as she looks me over. “I heard what you did up there. Well, Kira saw, and she told me. That took guts.”
“You would have done the same.” Exhaustion sweeps in, my shoulders drooping as adrenaline fades.
“I would have run faster.” She slips one of her alloy-hilted daggers free and hands it to me. “Looks like you’re missing one. I have another.”
“Thank you.” I take it like the peace offering it is.
“I’ll look after Sawyer,” she promises as she stands. “And don’t you dare thank me for that,” she calls back over her shoulder, walking toward the southwest tower without another word.
The conduit falls along my forearm as I wipe the rain from my eyes. I’d completely forgotten the damned thing was even there. Glancing left, then right, I note the scattered wyvern bodies, and one Green Clubtail that makes my heart stumble—
“Is alive,” Tairn promises, already flying back to me. “They are holding the last wave back, and your mother— Behind you!”
I stumble to my feet and whip around to face the cliff…and the venin who stands about twenty feet away, watching me with a curious look on a heart-shaped face that had at some point been undeniably beautiful.
My stomach twists, and my grip tightens around the dagger Cat left me. Cat. I don’t want to draw attention to the retreating flier if the venin doesn’t already see her.
“There’s no point running,” the dark wielder says, walking forward slowly, as if I’m no more of a threat than a butterfly. “We both know I’ll drain the very ground underneath you, and then this all will have been for nothing.” She throws her arms out, gesturing to the mayhem around us.
“Sorrengail!” Cat yells, and I hear the sloshing sound of her running toward me.
“Run, Cat!” I shout, glancing up at Tairn and spotting him mid-dive, about a minute out, but the footsteps don’t slow.
The dark wielder’s eyes flare as she spots Cat, and she drops to a knee, splaying her hand out over the icy ground.
“Stop!” I yell, my heart lurching into my throat and lodging there. This is so much worse than my nightmare. Even if I could run, there’s no telling what she’d do to Cat. Flicking my wrist, I grasp the conduit in my left hand and lift my right—dagger and all—throwing open the doors to Tairn’s power I’d never fully closed.
Slush melts at my feet and steam lifts from my skin as Cat reaches my side. “You have to get out of here.”
“Shut up.” She pulls a dagger from her thigh sheath.
“Oh, you are a powerful one, aren’t you?” The dark wielder cocks her head to the side, a slow, insidious smile curving her mouth as she rises, studying me. “The lightning wielder.”
Thunder booms in the cloud above us as energy gathers in my veins, hot and crackling. I don’t have to run. I can wield.
“Her, I don’t care about.” She glances at Cat. “But you, I’m under orders not to kill, so let’s not make this difficult.”
“Me?” What the hell?
She takes a step forward, and I release a strike, hitting the ground right in front of her, stopping her in her tracks. “You’ll be so much fun for him to wield.”
The nightmare comes back full force, the Sage’s words tumbling over me just enough to make my hand tremble.
A wild look comes over her narrow-set eyes. “And I will be his favorite for delivering you. I will be more than just an asim soon.” Her words flow faster and faster. “I will be given the Vale when this is over!”
“You can kill her at any time now,” Cat reminds me, her gaze locked on the dark wielder.
“I want to know what the hell she means about delivering me,” I murmur under my breath.
“You will turn for something much more dangerous…” Wasn’t that what he said in the nightmare?
“It will be me! Me!” The venin shoves her shaking hand into her scraggly red hair.
Cat’s doing this, heightening the woman’s greed, spinning her out on her own emotions. Have to admit, it’s a pretty badass ability when she’s not using it on me.
“Enough, Wynn.” A dark wielder in leathers the same color as the pulsing veins beside his eyes appears from the left, walking around the body of the fallen green and throwing out his hand.
Cat flies backward with a shout, slamming into the ground behind me. Shit. No more time for curiosity. I wield, heat erupting from every inch of my skin as I draw the strike from the cloud above, hitting Wynn instantly. She falls where she stood, her eyes open and vague, smoke rising from her corpse.
“Fascinating.” The new one strides for me, closing his fist. The conduit flares with intolerable heat.
I drop it, watching in horror as it disintegrates, leaving nothing at the end of the bracelet. He flips his hand, palm upward, and I’m lifted off my
feet, suspended in midair, completely immobilized.
Just like the dream, but that isn’t the Sage.
My throat closes. I can’t lift a hand to wield or even yell for Cat to run while she can. This isn’t a dream. There’s no waking up from this.
“Stay calm!” Tairn orders, nearly on us but not close enough.
“I’m on my way!” Xaden shouts as the venin steps over the body of his counterpart like she’s a feature of the landscape and continues toward me.
They won’t make it in time. I won’t, either.
Which means I’ve killed us all.
But Andarna can live. She just has to hold on, has to choose to survive.
“He’s almost here, so let’s move this along, shall we?” the dark wielder says, less than a dozen feet away now. “The horde tires of hovering, waiting for permission to attack.”
A shape moves in the cliff behind the dark wielder. No, not a shape; part of the cliff itself; a giant…boulder?
A boulder with slivers of golden eyes.
It springs forward from the cliff like a projectile, expanding, changing colors, sprouting wings and claws and black scales.