You’re going to love Violet. She’s smart and stubborn.
Reminds me a lot of you, actually.
You just have to remember when you meet her:
she’s not her mother.
—RECOVERED CORRESPONDENCE OF CADET LIAM MAIRI TO SLOANE MAIRI
“What do you mean, they’re waiting for you?” I ask once we’re in front of Codagh, facing an open battlefield littered with the corpses of wyvern and dragons alike. A pulsing ache of dread erupts in my chest.
There’s already been so much death, and we haven’t yet faced the worst of their forces. From the look of that line, they’ve held almost all of their dark wielders back.
“That’s one of their teachers,” Xaden says, his eyes locked on the venin riding front and center. “The one who escaped Resson.”
“He was at the cliffs, too.” I fight to keep my voice as calm as possible despite the palpitations of my heart. I need to get those wards up now. They’re the best chance we have of getting out of here alive. But each dragon can only contribute their fire to one wardstone, which means—
“He thought we’d be at Samara. Figured we’d do the honorable thing and answer Melgren’s call.”
“How do you know that?” My brow furrows.
“Do us both a favor and don’t ask.”
Tairn and Sgaeyl prowl out past Aimsir, monitoring the threats both on the ground and in the sky as they head this way. Heart pounding, I glance between them and the slowly lowering figure of the Sage a hundred yards away. He’s coming to the ground.
Shit. I have to be quick.
“If you had to choose to correctly raise the wards here at Basgiath or ours at…” I can’t say it. Not here. “What would you choose?”
Xaden’s brow knits as he tears his gaze from the Sage to look at me.
“You have to choose. I only have the resources to fully raise the wards here or…there.” There’s a blatant plea in my tone. “I could never take that choice from you.” He’s already given so much.
He flinches, then glances toward the hovering horde and the theatrically slow descent of the Sage on his wyvern before bringing his eyes back to mine quickly. “You ward wherever you are, which is here.”
“But your home…” It’s softer than a whisper.
“You are my home. And if we all die here today, then the knowledge dies with us anyway. Ward Basgiath.”
“You’re sure?” My heart beats like the second hand of a clock, ticking down what time we have left.
I nod, then slip my hand from his and pivot, facing down the biggest dragon on the Continent. “I need to talk to you.”
“Holy fuck, Violet.” Xaden turns, putting himself at my side as Codagh slowly lowers his head, tilting toward the end to glare at me with narrowed golden eyes, because even level, I won’t come past his nostrils. “You know what you’re doing?”
“If I don’t, we’re all dead.” And I’d better be quick, because Tairn is almost here. I can feel him dismantling my shields. No rider can keep their dragon out for long if they want in.
Codagh’s nostrils flare, and his lip curls above very sharp, very long, very close teeth.
“You know.” It comes out like the accusation it is. “And you didn’t tell your rider because dragonkind protects dragonkind.”
A blast of steam hits me in the face, and Xaden swears under his breath, shadows curling at his feet.
“Yes. I figured it out. I’ve already used Tairn’s fire on the second wardstone, so if I power the stone at Basgiath, will you come?” I ask, my fingernails cutting into my palms to keep from shaking. This is the one dragon on the Continent besides Sgaeyl who doesn’t fear Tairn on one level or another.
“You don’t need him as the black dragon for Basgiath,” Xaden argues. “You have Andarna.”
“Will. You. Come?” I hold Codagh’s menacing glare. “We’re all dead if you don’t. The Empyrean will end.”
He huffs another breath of steam, softer this time, then dips his chin in a curt nod, lifting his head as Tairn approaches from the left and Melgren appears on the far side of Codagh’s foreleg.
“You court death?” Tairn asks, pushing past my shields.
“I needed to confirm a secret that isn’t mine to share,” I answer. “Please don’t push.”
Tairn’s talons flex in the icy slush beside me.
I turn to Xaden. “I don’t want to leave you, and I have about a million questions as to why you think they’re coming for you, but if I don’t…” Every fiber of my being rebels at the notion of leaving him.
Leaning in, he lifts his hand to the nape of my neck. “You and I both know you can’t raise the wards and stay to fight. When we were in Resson, I held them back while you fought. I trusted you to handle yourself. Now trust me to handle myself while you get the wards up before more people die. End this.” He kisses me hard and quick, then looks at me like this will be the last time he ever sees me. “I love you.”
Oh…gods. No. I refuse to accept the goodbye in his tone.
“You will stay alive,” I order Xaden, then glance to the waiting horde, the figure of the Sage who is nearly to the ground, taking his time as if this is all a game he’s already won, and finally to Tairn. “Stay with him.”
Tairn growls, raising his lip over his fangs.
“Stay with him for me. Don’t you dare let him die!” Turning on my heel, I break into a run without saying goodbye to Xaden. Farewells aren’t needed when I’ll see him shortly. Because there’s no chance I’m going to fail.
“The fliers want to fight,” I say to Melgren. “Let them!”
I pretend I haven’t been in a battle for the last two hours, haven’t wielded to exhaustion, haven’t pushed my body to the breaking point and run.
“Cut the storm so the gryphons can fly!” I shout at my mother as I pass by, sprinting under the archway. Fuck her permission or her understanding. If the wardstone can hold power, I’ll imbue it on my own.
My arms pump and I force my legs to move, despite the jarring pain in my knees. I run through the courtyard, dodging infantry squads, and I run up the central steps. I run through the open door and down the hall with a pounding heart and burning lungs. I run like I’ve been training for it since Resson.
I run because I couldn’t save Liam, couldn’t save Soleil, but I can save the rest of them. I can save him. And if I give myself even a moment to linger on the possibilities of what he might be facing, I’ll turn around and run straight back to Xaden.
Taking the spiral steps at breakneck speed has me dizzy when I reach the bottom of the southwest tower, and I don’t waste my gasped breaths on our first-years standing guard at the doorway as I sprint through, into the tunnel that smells like Varrish and pain.
“Move!” I shout at Lynx and Baylor. Because I remember their names. Avalynn. Sloane. Aaric. Kai, the flier. I know all the first-years’ names.
They dive to opposite sides, and I force my body sideways, shuffling through the narrowest part of the tunnel.
My chest tightens, and I think of Xaden.
Xaden, and the scent of thunderstorms, and books. That’s all I let in as I force my way through the passage. And as soon as it opens up, so do I, pushing myself harder than I ever have, racing down the rest of the tunnel and into the ward chamber lit by morning sunlight.
Only then do I skid to a halt and brace my hands on my knees, breathing deeply to keep from puking. “Does. It. Work?” I ask, looking up at the stone that is miraculously in one piece and standing where it should be.
“Damn, Sorrengail, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you run that fast!” Aaric lifts his brows.
“Here.” Brennan stumbles out from next to Aaric, his reddish-brown waves damp with sweat, and the first-year catches him, slinging his arm over his shoulder to keep my brother standing. “It took everything I had to mend it.”
“Will it hold power?” I ask, forcing myself to stand through the nausea.
“Try,” Brennan suggests. “If it doesn’t, this was all for nothing.”
Every second counts as I step up to the stone. It looks exactly how it did when we arrived last night, with the exception of the powerful hum of energy and the flames.
“Looks just like ours did before we imbued and fired it,” Brennan observes.
“Right, except this stone was actually on fire when we got here,” I tell him, lifting my hand to the black iron.
“Iron doesn’t catch fire,” Brennan argues.
“Tell that to the wardstone,” I counter. Without a conduit, this is harder than I imagined, but I have to know. Opening up the Archives door again, I welcome Tairn’s power in a focused trickle, just like Felix taught me, but instead of powering the conduit, I rest my fingertips on the wardstone and let it flow.
“How long did it take for three to imbue the wardstone at home?” Brennan asks.
“Weeks,” I answer, my fingers tingling painfully, like they’ve just had circulation restored after a lengthy period of numbness, and I watch with more than a little satisfaction when energy streams past the tips. I pull my hand back an inch, just enough to see the white-blue strands connect my fingertips to the stone, and then I increase the power.
Heat prickles my skin, and I push myself to the edge to imbue, which isn’t as far as I’d like it to be after hours of wielding. Sweat pops on my forehead,and my skin flushes red.
“We don’t have weeks,” Brennan says softly, as though talking to himself.
Roars sound in the distance, and I look up through the chamber’s opening to the sky so far above us. My throat closes at the sight of gray clashing with green. With orange. My squad is up there fighting without me. Xaden is battling at the gates. We’re out of time.
I cut my power, then rest my palm on the stone. There’s a tiny vibration, like the ripple of water after a pebble has been skipped into a vast lake. We don’t have enough pebbles. “It can hold power, but we don’t have enough riders who can imbue down here.”
“I’ll have Marbh put the word out,” Brennan says, and we both look skyward when a flash of red is quickly followed by one of gray.
“We need every rider who can make it.” But who the hell is going to stop fighting and risk the battle on a hunch? My heart careens. It looks exactly like what my mother warned us not to let happen—a full-on melee. A dark shape moves at the top edge of the chamber, and I lower my shields for the first time since speaking to Jesinia.
“Get down here,” I say to Andarna, walking around to the back of the stone so no one coming to help imbue will see her.
“I’m not fond of pits—”
“Now.” There’s no room for argument in my tone.
I put my hand on the stone and call my power to rise while she descends, blacking out the sun momentarily on her way down, where no one else can see. Power flows out of me in a steady drip, buzzing the ends of my fingertips as I feed it into the stone.
She lands, sticking to the shadows the morning light doesn’t yet touch.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Her golden eyes blink in the darkness. “Tell you what?”
“I know.” I shake my head at her. “I should have known earlier. The second I saw you after Resson, I knew something was different about the sheen of your scales, but I figured I’d never been around an adolescent, so what would I know?”
“Different.” She cocks her head to the side and steps out of the darkness, her scales shifting from midnight black to a shimmering deep purple. “That’s exactly how I’ve always felt.”
“It’s why you feel like you don’t fit in with the other adolescents,” I note, my hand shaking as I hold the power steady, giving the stone what I can until others arrive to help. “It’s why you were allowed to bond. Gods, you told me yourself, but I thought you were just being…”
“An adolescent?” she challenges, flaring her nostrils.
Nodding, I try to ignore the sounds of battle high above so I can concentrate on saving us, even as anger barrels down the bond from Tairn, and fury… I can’t think about what Xaden’s doing. “I should have listened when you said you were the head of your own den. That’s why no one could fight your Right of Benefaction last year. Why the Empyrean allowed a juvenile to bond.”
“Say it. Don’t just guess,” she demands.
Even a slow breath won’t calm my racing heart. “Your scales aren’t really black.”
“No.” Even now, her scales are changing, taking on the grayish hue of the stone around us. “But he is, and I so badly want to be just like him.”
“Tairn.” It’s not hard to guess.
“He doesn’t know. Only the elders do.” She lowers her head, resting it on the ground in front of me. “They revere him. He is strong, and loyal, and fierce.”
“You are all those things, too.” I wobble under the strain of wielding but keep my balance, keep the power flowing into the stone. “You didn’t have to hide. You could have told me.”
“If you didn’t figure it out, you weren’t worthy of knowing.” She huffs. “I waited six hundred and fifty years to hatch. Waited until your eighteenth summer, when I heard our elders talk of the weakling daughter of their general, the girl forecasted to become the head of the scribes, and I knew. You would have the mind of a scribe and the heart of a rider. You would be mine.” She leans into my hand. “You are as unique as I am. We want the same things.”
“You couldn’t have known I would be a rider.”
“And yet, here we are.”
A thousand questions go through my head, none of which we have the time for, so I give her exactly what I wanted—to be seen for who and what she is. “You are not a black dragon, or any of the six that we know of. You’re a seventh breed.”
“Yes.” Her eyes widen in excitement.
I suck in a quick, steadying breath. “I want you to tell me everything, but our friends are dying, so I need to ask if you are willing to breathe fire for the stone.” Sweat pops on my forehead as my temperature rises, and yet I pull more and more power, my arm trembling with the effort to keep it leashed, keep it trickling instead of striking.
“It is why I was left behind.” She cocks her head to the other side. “At least from what I remember. It has been centuries.”
“Nice to see you, Cam. Your father’s been looking for you.” I hear Mom’s voice from the other side of the stone.
“I’m a bonded rider. There’s nothing he can—”
“Don’t really care. It holds power?”
Mom? What the hell could she be doing here? She should be on the battlefield. “Fly,” I order Andarna, my voice weakening. “I don’t trust her to see you.”
“It holds power,” Brennan replies.
Andarna hesitates, then launches, flying for the top of the chamber. My fingers scrape across the stone as I slowly make my way around the side.
“You are pushing the limits,” Tairn warns, distress tightening his tone.
“I have no choice.” Taking a few staggered steps, I reach for Xaden lightly, not to distract but just to feel— His shields are up, blocking me completely out.
“He fights,” Tairn says, and my vision darkens momentarily before clearing again…with a view of the battlefield. I’m seeing through his eyes just like I had Andarna’s last year.
A swath of gray blocks out the world a second before the sky appears again, red flowing against the clouds in a stream, and then Tairn glances beneath him, watching the wyvern fall with a burst of satisfaction before he scans the ground, spotting Xaden near the edge of the ravine.
My heart beats erratically as I watch the Sage easily block each of Xaden’s shadows with blasts of blue daggers of fire, then stops completely when the dappled sunlight catches on two blades imbedded in the ground behind the staff-wielding venin.
Xaden must have thrown his daggers and missed. I know he carries a third, but will he get to use it? Because the Sage isn’t losing territory. He’s gaining on Xaden, coming closer step by step, backing Xaden against the edge of the ravine.
Green fire streams from overhead, and Tairn jerks his attention upward to Sgaeyl and the three wyvern moving in to attack, one blasting cherry-red fire. Oh gods, there are even more breeds than we know about. Terror floods the pathway, and my vision darkens again, my ears ringing as if I’ve just been hit.
I blink and breathe deeply, forcing air through my throat as it constricts, and the chamber comes back into view. Stumbling one step, then another and another, I drag my hand along the slowly warming stone as I turn the corner to the front of the wardstone chamber, catching sight of Mom, Brennan, and Aaric in the middle of a conversation I can’t hear over the ringing in my ears.
The power not only burns but scorches my veins, my muscles, my very bones.
“You’re burning out,” Andarna warns, her voice pitching high with worry.
The next breath I take singes my lungs.
“Silver One!” Tairn roars.
The wards have to go up. “You both have to live. Promise me you’ll choose to live.”
Because I’m starting to realize the price of imbuing this wardstone in time to save everyone I love, and it’s my life. My power feels so insignificant to a stone this size. It would take all of Tairn’s power—his very life—and I won’t give that. But I can give enough that the riders who make it can finish the job.
I fall to my knees, but I don’t lose contact. I pour and pour, opening my Archives door and taking on the full force of Tairn’s power, shaking with the effort to keep it controlled, focused, constructive instead of violent.
“Violet?” Brennan’s voice sounds from far away.
Heat surges through me in waves as I push power into the stone, and my world narrows to pain, heat, and my racing heartbeat.
“Violet!” Mom rushes to me, her eyes wide with fear as she reaches for my free hand, then gasps, drawing back a red, blistered palm.
The ground rises toward my face, and I throw that hand out to catch myself against the stone floor and keep channeling. So what if my skin sizzles, my fingers redden, my muscles give out, and I surrender to the fire? Nothing matters beyond imbuing this stone, raising the wards that will save my friends, my siblings, Xaden.
“What’s your signet?” Mom shouts, but I lack the strength to lift my head.
“You can’t do this,” Andarna argues in a shriek.
“You have your purpose.” Even my mental voice is a whisper. “Maybe this is mine.”
“Hasn’t manifested,” Aaric answers in a panic.
“What about the others out there?” Mom’s voice rises.
He starts to answer the ones he knows of, and I tune him out to stay focused on control, on lasting long enough to be the most use.
Brennan hits the ground to my left, crouching a few feet away, his lips moving, but I close my eyes and reach for more of the power that’s slowly killing me.
“You will cease!” Tairn orders.
“I’m so sorry.” The muscles in my arm lock from exhaustion. Finally. Now I won’t have to hold it in place. I’m entering the final stages of burnout, just like I had on top of the mountain with Varrish. “You shouldn’t have to lose two riders this way.”
Forcing my eyes open, I stare at the pattern of rock beneath my fingers, and I get it. I finally understand why someone would turn to stealing magic. All of the power in the world is beneath my fingertips, and if I channel, if I take from the earth instead of from Tairn, I’ll have enough power to save—
“You must save yourself,” Tairn demands. “I chose you not as my next, but as my last, and should you fall, then I will follow.”
“No.” Steam rises from my skin.
“Let go,” Andarna pleads, and the rush of air in the chamber paired with the slight tremble of the ground tells me she’s landed.
“I won’t do it!” Sloane’s shout echoes off the walls and breaks through the haze.
Inch by painful inch, I force myself to raise my head, just in time to see Brennan’s eyes widen and Mom’s boot rising toward my shoulder. She makes impact softly, and before I can open my mouth, she kicks with her full strength, sending me sprawling across the chamber floor and breaking my hold on the wardstone.
Power flies into the air with the crack of lightning as I hit my back, and a scream tears from my throat, the sound echoed by Brennan as his face fills my vision and he grasps my hand. Cool relief streaks up my arm, the burn fading, my muscles mending from the strain and releasing.
If I don’t cut the power, he’ll die. He can’t mend me that fast over and over, and the next wave of heat pushes forward—
I shove the Archives door closed with the last of my mental strength, and the power cuts off. The relief from Tairn and Andarna is instant, but all I taste is the sour bite of defeat as I lie there, my brother kneeling next to me as he mends the body I’ve been so reckless with.
And above me, I see a flash of green before the swarm comes into view, the sky darkening with beating gray wings.
“It’s the only way,” Mom yells, and I turn my head as my muscles knit and my skin cools. “You can’t imbue something this big in an instant. Not without hundreds of riders, which we don’t have. If you want to save your friends, you’ll do this!” she shouts at Sloane, her fingers wrapped around the first-year’s wrist as she drags her to the wardstone.
“Mom?” I croak, but she doesn’t answer.
“You’re a Mairi,” Mom says to Sloane.
“Yes.” Her bright blue eyes meet mine, wide with uncertainty.
“I killed your mother.” Mom taps on her chest.
“Mom!” I shout.
Brennan collapses next to me, pale and sweating, and I haul myself to my knees.
“I tracked her down and hauled her to her own execution, remember?” Mom says to Sloane, pushing her against the stone. “You were there. I made you watch. You and your brother.”
“Liam,” Sloane whispers.
Mom nods, picking up Sloane’s left hand and putting it on the lowest circle of the massive rune carved into the stone. “I could have stopped his death, too, if I’d just paid a little more attention last year to what my own aide was doing.”
“No!” I shout, lunging forward. Aaric runs in from the side of the ward chamber, not only catching me but stopping me. “Let me go!”
“I can’t,” he says apologetically. “She’s right. And if I have to choose between her life and yours, I choose yours.”
My life or…hers?
“Andarna!” I scream.
“I’m so sorry. I choose your life, too. You are mine. I can’t let you die.”
Andarna shifts around my side, moving forward so she’s poised to step between my mother and me.
Oh gods. No. Sloane is a siphon.
“Can you hear them up there dying? That’s what’s happening,” Mom says, her tone softer than she’s ever used with me. “Your friends are dying, Cadet Mairi. Tyrrendor’s heir is fighting for his life, and you can stop it. You can save them all.” She picks up her free hand, and to my dread, Sloane doesn’t drop the other from the stone.
“Don’t do it!” I cry. “Sloane, that’s my mother.” This isn’t happening. Maybe Sloane won’t listen to me, but she’ll listen to Xaden. I throw down my shields—
Pain. Agonizing, blistering pain roars down the pathway. Hopelessness and… helplessness? It hits me from every angle, stealing my breath, overwhelming my senses and my strength. My body sags—my full weight in Aaric’s arms—as my mind fights to separate Xaden’s emotions from mine.
He’s… I can’t think around the pain, can’t breathe for the tightness in my chest, can’t feel the ground beneath my feet.
“Xaden’s dying,” I whisper.
Sloane’s gaze snaps to mine, and that’s all it takes.
“You don’t have to do anything but stand there,” my mother promises somewhere in the distance. “Your signet will take over for you. Think of yourself as nothing more than a conduit for power. You’re simply facilitating mine flowing into the stone.”
“Violet?” Sloane whispers.
I drag my gaze to hers, but I’m not here. Not really. I’m dying on the battlefield, the last of my strength fading, burning, consuming my body. But it will be worth it to save the one I love. Violet.
“Fight!” I scream down the bond at all three of them, shouting past blood and vengeance. Wrath and fire. The sour taste of wyvern flesh between her teeth.
“You can do this,” Mom says, her voice soothing.
“Mom!” My voice cracks as she laces her fingers with Sloane’s.
“It’s all right,” Mom says to me, her eyes softening as Sloane’s body goes rigid. “As soon as my power—Aimsir’s power—lives within the stone, fire it. Raise the wards. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you safe. Do you understand? Everything was to get you to this moment, when you’d be strong enough—” She falls to her knees but doesn’t let go of Sloane.
“No, no, no.” I fight Aaric’s arms as my chest threatens to collapse, to crumple in on my heart. Mom blinks in and out of my vision, blurry one second, then clear.
“I’m so sorry,” Aaric whispers.
“You’re everything we dreamed you would be,” Mom says quietly, her skin paling even as Sloane’s flushes scarlet. “All three of you.” She looks down at Brennan. “And I’ll get to see him soon.”
Our father. My eyes flare as I struggle to break free from Aaric.
“Don’t,” Brennan begs, shaking his head. “Don’t do this.” He staggers to his feet, stumbling her direction, but doesn’t get far before falling.
“Live well.” Her head bobs and her eyes roll as her skin takes on a waxy pallor that’s an obscene contrast to her flight leathers as her chest rises and falls slower, in a stuttered, incomplete breath.
Brennan crawls toward her.
Footsteps sound from behind me, coming at us at a run.
“No!” I scream, tearing my throat, ripping into my soul.
A distinct, hair-raising hum emanates from the wardstone as Mom falls forward into Brennan’s arms.
Sloane staggers backward, staring at her palms like they belong to someone else, and Aaric finally lets me go.
I fly forward, hitting my knees in front of where Brennan sits with Mom’s body draped across his lap, his hand trembling as he reaches for her face. My fingers find her neck, but there’s no pulse. No heat. No life.
The only beat I hear are bootsteps racing into the chamber.
“Mom,” Brennan whispers, his face crumpling as he looks down at her.
“What did you do!” Mira drops to her knees and pulls Mom’s body from Brennan, her hands furiously seeking what mine just had, any sign of a heartbeat. “Mom?” She shakes her violently, but Mom’s head rolls onto her shoulder.
I can’t breathe. She’s the tide, the storms, the very air, a force too big to be extinguished without ripping the world itself apart to the core. How can she just be gone?
“I’m so sorry.” Sloane cries softly.
“What did you do?” Mira yells again, the full force of her wrath turned on Brennan.
“Xaden needs you,” Andarna says, but I can’t move. “Tairn and Sgaeyl wait with him.”
“We need to get them out,” Aaric says, and there are hands—his, I think—on my shoulders, pulling me up off the floor and guiding me backward.
Mira follows, hooking her arms under Mom’s and dragging her from the chamber. Sloane helps Brennan, and then we’re all in the tunnel. Someone else carries Mom. One of the first-years?
Mira’s hands are on my face, searching my eyes, as a shape blocks the entrance to the tunnel. “Are you all right?”
“I couldn’t stop her.” Was that my voice? Or Brennan’s?
Heat flares, intense enough to suck the oxygen from my lungs, but it doesn’t touch us.
Andarna is in the doorway, her wings flared to stop the flame that circles the chamber, flowing in from six above and the one who makes all the difference. A pulse of energy runs through me in a wave. The wards.
When Andarna moves, my gaze wanders up the mended wardstone to the iron flame that burns black on top.
It’s all that’s left of my mother.