Most generals dream of dying in service to their kingdom.
But you know me better than that, my love.
When I fall, it will be for one reason only: to protect our children.
—RECOVERED, UNSENT CORRESPONDENCE OF GENERAL LILITH SORRENGAIL
Thud. Thud. The sound echoes down the ward chamber. “Wyvern bodies,” Andarna tells me, pivoting to peek her head through the doorway. “Please forgive me.” Her golden eyes blink.
“She made a choice,” I whisper, but the tears falling down my cheeks aren’t quite as resigned, nor are the sobs racking Mira’s body, and the blank stare on Brennan’s face is anything but peaceful as he removes his flight jacket in slow, jerky motions and drapes it over Mom’s body.
I’m not sure how much time passes as we’re ushered down the tunnel and through the narrow passage. The stairs are a blur.
“You are alive. You will live today. You will wake tomorrow,” Tairn promises me as I force one foot in front of the other.
“Xaden?” I reach through the bond, but his shields are up.
Thank you, Dunne.
That’s gravity, right? He’s enough to keep my feet grounded. To keep the sun rising.
“He’ll put her body in the quadrant,” someone tells Brennan. A dragon must have brought Mom’s body out of the ward chamber.
We emerge from the southwest tower to the sounds of victory. Cheers and cries of thanks to the gods. Infantry, healers, riders, and fliers alike clog the hallway with their hugs, but we make it through.
Mira, Brennan, and I stand in the doorway of the courtyard, watching the celebration break into full force. None of us seem able to move.
A face appears in front of mine. Brown eyes. Brown hair. Dain.
“Violet?” He lifts a blood-soaked arm to reach for me, then thinks twice. “Are you—”
“Move!” Rhiannon pushes him out of the way, her grin tired and so very beautiful. “You got the wards up!” She cups my face with both hands.
“Yes.” I manage a nod, my gaze skimming over her face. There are a few tears in the thighs of her leathers that might be stab wounds, but I can’t tell. “Are you hurt?”
“It’s nothing,” she assures me. “You should have seen it! The wyvern started falling from the sky like dead weights, and the venin panicked and ran. Leadership is hunting them down.”
“Good. That’s good.” I keep nodding. “The others?”
“Ridoc is all right. Imogen took a swipe on her side, but she’s barely complaining. Quinn has a busted cheek, but I think it’s mostly swelling, and I was just headed to check on Sawyer and the fliers. Want to…” She studies my expression. “Xaden?”
“Alive,” I croak. “According to Tairn.”
She glances at Brennan, then Mira before turning back toward me, understanding dawning as her face falls.
“My mom,” I try to explain, but my throat closes. “She. The wardstone didn’t have any power, and my mom…”
“Oh, Vi.” Rhi takes the step that separates us and pulls me in a hug.
It doesn’t matter that I shouldn’t, that it’s a shameful display of emotion, or that she wouldn’t want it. I break down and sob against Rhiannon’s shoulder, my breaths coming in heaving gasps. With every tear, I feel my feet gain traction on a spinning world, feel the first waves of shock start to pass.
When I look up, Brennan is sitting on the steps that lead into the administration building, looking ready to pass out as he gives orders, and Mira is nowhere to be seen.
“What do you need?” Rhi asks.
I reach out to Xaden, but his shields are still locked up tight, so I drag the backs of my hands across my face and try like hell to pull myself together. “I need to lay eyes on Tairn and Xaden.”
“In the front,” Tairn tells me, and I head in that direction, passing the negotiations between Melgren and Devera and pausing when I hear him laying out terms for our return. An attack, a horde that big? Bodies dropping all over the kingdom? There’s no chance leadership can hide this. It’s only a matter of hours before every Navarrian citizen knows they’ve been lied to. No wonder they want us to return.
I’m not even sure I want to come back. I make my way through the courtyard and then the archway, into the open air.
Bodies of wyvern litter the ground with a few colors mixed in, but I don’t recognize any of the dragons I pass as I make my way to the looming shapes of Tairn and Sgaeyl near the edge of the ravine.
“Are you harmed?” I ask him.
“You would know if I were,” he says, his head swiveling as Andarna approaches, her right wing trembling as she flares them just before landing.
“You two need to catch up. Right now.”
Tairn turns a golden eye on me.
“Right. Now,” I repeat.
His attention fully shifts to Andarna, and I walk toward Sgaeyl, feeling Xaden beyond where she sits guard.
“Are you going to let me pass?” I ask her, keeping my eyes on hers and not the blood beard she’s sporting.
“You fought well today.”
“Thank you.” A reluctant smile tugs at my lips. “You did, too.”
“Yes, well, I’m expected to.” She shifts her forelegs, revealing Xaden standing at the edge of the ravine, his back turned toward me. “Be careful of your words.”
“That’s ironic coming from you,” I mutter but move forward, surveying him. There’s a laceration across his upper back, but that’s all I see as I walk to his side, keeping my toes a few inches from the edge, where his damn near hang over. “What happened?”
“I killed him.” His voice is flat, and so is his expression, the noon sun cutting away almost every shadow from his face. “Snapped whatever tether he had on me and killed him. His body fell into the ravine, and now I keep watching the river like it’s going to pop back up, even though I know he’s miles downstream by now.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here.” I reach for his hand, but he tugs it away.
“I’m not. You saved us.”
“My mother saved us.” My voice cracks. “She had Sloane siphon Aimsir’s power and both their life energies into the wardstone. She’s gone.”
His eyes slide closed. “I’m so fucking sorry.”
“She killed your father. Why would you be sorry?” I swipe at another tear that leaks out.
“I didn’t want her dead,” he says softly. “I could never want anyone you love dead.”
Silence falls over us, and it’s not the comfortable kind.
“Melgren wants us to come back,” I throw out there, looking for some reaction, any reaction.
“Then we come back.” He nods. “Aretia’s wards are already weakening, and these are intact. Which you’ll explain to me later, right?” His gaze flicks sideways at me but quickly leaves, like I’m painful to look at.
“I’ll explain,” I promise.
“Good.” He nods. “It’s safer for you here. This is where we should be.” He drags in a shaky breath, then laughs. “You won’t be as scared under the full wards.”
My brow furrows. “I just fought an entire wyvern army, dark wielders, and raised wards, losing my mother in the process. Please, do tell me what could possibly be scarier than that?”
“You love me,” he whispers.
“You know I do.” I grab hold of his hand, and my stomach twists when he turns toward me but lowers his eyes. “What’s out there that I should be scared of, Xaden? What did he tell you? What did you see?” What could he know that has him this shaken?
Slowly, he drags his gaze up my body, and it feels like it takes years for him to just look at me.
When he finally does, I gasp, my hand tightening on his in reflex.
No. That single word is all I can think, feel, scream internally as I stare up at the man I’m hopelessly in love with.
“Me,” he whispers, a faint, almost indistinguishable red ring emanating from his gold-flecked onyx irises. “You should be scared of me.”