We have tried every method we know of, as you requested.
There is no cure. There is only control.
—MISSIVE FROM LIEUTENANT COLONEL NOLON COLBERSY TO GENERAL LILITH SORRENGAIL
Every note of Sgaeyl’s terror plays down my spine as I hang suspended mere feet above the battlefield, my muscles frozen, my power locked uselessly inside of me. Even if he let me go, I’m not sure I’d have enough strength left to wield. He wore me down for fucking fun.
I was never a match for him. None of us are.
Every nerve in my body screams from the pain of incineration, the heat from wielding too much for too long burning me alive. But worse than the pain is the defeat.
“It hurts, doesn’t it? Nearing burnout?” The Sage walks a slow circle around me, his blue robes darker at the hem from the melting snow, mere feet from the ravine I had to cross to prove I could cut it in this place. “Magic does like everything in balance. Take too much and she’ll consume you for overstepping.”
I tear at the bonds he has wrapped around me, invisible strings of power that bind me like a trussed chicken.
“You strike. I block. You throw. I dodge.” He sighs, dragging his staff in the dirt behind him.
Just like my fucking nightmares.
Except the sweat dripping down the back of my neck reminds me that this is very much my reality. That Violet is beneath Basgiath, fighting to raise the wards; that Tairn is picking off the wyverns tearing at Sgaeyl above me to keep her from my side. What is it about me that fails the females in my life?
“So, I’m going to give you one last chance to make the right choice so we can get this over with,” the Sage says, stopping in front of me and smiling up at me with those eerie red-rimmed eyes and spider-webbed veins. He retreats a handful of steps, then taps the staff on the ground.
Gravity claims me, and I fall, passing my feet and slamming into the ground on my hands and knees.
“I told you once that you’d turn for love,” he says, holding his arms out. “And so you shall.”
“You don’t know shit about me.” I stumble for my feet and fall again, landing on my knees as Sgaeyl roars in pure fury overhead.
“I know more than you think.” He lowers his staff and leans on it like a walking stick.
“Because you’re a Sage?” I spit, grounding my feet on that hillside in Tyrrendor and reaching for my power.
“A Sage?” He laughs. “I am a general.”
Fire races down my arms and shadows stream from beneath me, wrapping around the arrogant asshole’s torso. Satisfaction courses through me in a high better than churram. “Generals die the same as soldiers.” I fight with my own arms to get them to move, but they don’t obey, having gone into muscle failure long before he hefted me into the sky.
“Do they?” He laughs again, wrapped in darkness. “Come on, shadow wielder. Turn. It’s the only way to save her.”
“Fuck you.” I throw myself down the bond and feel Violet slipping, burning, intending to… My shadows slip, but the general doesn’t move.
She’s going to sacrifice herself to save me.
She intends to die.
My heart vaults into my throat, and I taste it again, the same as it was when I sat by her bedside after Resson—fear.
“You know what will happen when you fail?” the general taunts, flicking at the weak bands of shadow that curl around his throat. “I’ll step over your dead body and find her. Then I’ll wrap my hands around her delicate little neck—”
Fury surges in my veins, the blast of adrenaline enough to solidify the bands of shadow and yank them tight, but no matter how hard I tug, he won’t move.
“—and drain her.”
I slam one hand onto the ground and clench my other fist, my arm shaking with the effort it takes to hold him there as I delve to the depths of Sgaeyl’s power and let the fire consume me.
“Hold him!” she demands.
But I can’t.
He’s too strong, and I have nothing left. But I’ll be damned if Violet suffers the consequences. He won’t get his hands on her. Not today. Not ever. The slush beneath my palm melts, and I feel… There’s something beneath me.
A steady flow of unmistakable…power.
“You cannot!” Sgaeyl shrieks. “I chose you!”
But Violet chose me, too.
My heart stammers and I gasp for air, jolting upright in bed. I check the back of my neck, but it’s dry. No dripping sweat. No aching muscles. No exhaustion.
Just Violet, sleeping beside me, her cheek resting on the pillow, her breaths deep and even thanks to the exhaustion that’s left bruises under her eyes, her arm bent as though reaching out for me even in her dreams.
I watch her long enough to calm my racing heart, my gaze skimming over every part of her I can see from the silvery lines of her hard-won scars to the silvery half of her hair on the pillow. She’s so fucking beautiful I can barely breathe. And I almost lost her.
My fingertips trail over the smooth, soft skin of her cheek, spotting the tracks her tears left. She lost her mother today, and while I won’t mourn the loss of Lilith Sorrengail, I can’t stand the pain Violet’s suffering.
And yet I’m about to be the biggest cause of it.
“I love you,” I whisper, just because I can, and then I climb from the bed as quietly as possible and dress quickly in the moonlight.
Silently, I leave the room, then make my way down the hall and to the staircase, surrounding myself in the warmth of my shadows as I descend floor by floor to the tunnels of Basgiath.
I don’t bother reaching for Sgaeyl. She’s been eerily silent since the battle ended.
The doors to the bridge open at my command, as do the ones on the far side when I reach them, keeping myself wrapped in darkness as I pass the overflowing clinic where we’d spent hours waiting for Sawyer to come out of surgery earlier.
I sidestep two drunken infantry cadets and keep walking down the tunnel, only turning when I reach the guarded staircase that leads to my target. The guard cracks a yawn, and I slip by unnoticed thanks to the increase in my signet… or whatever this is.
The last time I walked these stairs, I’d just murdered everyone who stood between me and Violet. It’s ironic that’s the cell I end up standing in front of now, peering through the barred window at Jack-fucking-Barlowe.
“You look good,” the second-year says, sitting up on the reconstructed bunk and smiling. “You here to dose me? Pretty sure I’m not due until tomorrow morning.”
“What’s the cure?” I fold my arms across my chest.
“For the serum?” He scoffs. “The antidote.”
“You know what I fucking mean.” Shadows scurry in from the edges of the walls in his cell. “Tell me what the cure is, and I won’t send for the Rybestad Chest that will hold you in the air until you mummify.”
He stands slowly, cracking his neck before he moves to the center of the room, where the chair they’d tortured Violet in had been bolted. “Cures are for diseases. What we have is power, and that, dear Riorson, isn’t curable. It’s enviable.”
“Bullshit. There’s a way to get rid of this,” I seethe.
His smile grows even wider. “Oh no. There’s no cure. You can never give back what’s taken—you’ll only hunger for more.”
“I’d rather die than become one of you.” Fear flavors the words because I feel it, the power beneath the college, the craving to sate the need for it.
“And yet, you just did.” Jack laughs, and the sound curdles my blood. “All this time, you’ve been convincing everyone you’re the hero, and now you’ll be the villain…especially in her story. Welcome to our fucked-up family. Guess we’re brothers now.”