I lost Jaevid and Mavrik in the fray almost immediately.
In front of me, my riding partner, Lieutenant Darion Prax, was leaning into his dragon’s speed as we made our final approach. Behind me, a dozen more riders were following us in. Below me, the city of Barrowton boiled with the fury of battle. Our lines of infantry were broken, but trying to reform. The gray elves fought like savages, wielding spears, bows, and scimitars. Some of them rode on the backs of jungle monsters, others were zipping around us through the sky on creatures called shrikes. Our natural enemies.
Prax gave me a few brisk hand signals, instructing me to move into place and get ready. I twisted my saddle handles slightly, applying a bit of pressure under the saddle. With a few heavy beats of her wings, my dragon caught up with him and flew right underneath him. Nova was a big girl, bigger than most male dragons twice her age. But what she lacked in speed she made up for in other ways—something the gray elves were about to figure out
We dropped down lower. Arrows sailed past my helmet. One bounced off my breastplate and gave me a scare. I leaned down closer to Nova’s body for shelter from the hail of fire coming from below. Unlike most of the other dragons, gray elf arrows couldn’t pierce her thick hide.
I checked Prax out of the corner of my eye. He was giving me one finger and a closed fist. First target. Time to hit hard. I clenched my teeth and twisted the saddle handles, giving Nova the signal.
Prax and I dove as one, our dragons spiraling in unison towards the ground. We pulled out of the dive flying side-by-side, barely a hundred feet off the ground behind the enemy lines. I squeezed Nova’s sides with my boot heels, and I felt her take in a deep breath.
Together, our dragons showered the ground with a storm of their burning venom.
Gray elf warriors screamed. They fired at us with everything they had. But our rain of fire didn’t end until Nova had to stop for another breath.
We broke skyward and began preparing to make another coordinated pass.
But the second time wouldn’t be so easy. The trail of flames and burning corpses we’d left behind had gotten the attention of a few warriors on shrikes. I spotted four of them heading straight for us.
I gave Prax the news—we had company.
He quickly replied with a plan.
I was slower, so I was bound to be their first target. But that was fine; I was ready.
When his volley of arrows failed, the first gray elf rider had his shrike attack us outright. The bizarre creature was like a furious mirage of mirrored glass scales. It wrapped around Nova’s neck and started clawing at her eyes. Nova roared and slung her head back and forth. The shrike’s rider was twisting in his saddle, drawing another arrow that was aimed right at me.
“Better make that shot count,” I yelled and drew my sword.
Suddenly, Prax blurred past us.
There was a crunching sound and a shrike’s yelp of pain as his dragon got a tasty mouthful of the monster. I saw the gray elf rider fall from the saddle and begin to plummet toward the ground. A very small part of me felt bad for him. The rest of me still remembered he’d just tried to kill me.
Another shrike hit Nova. Then another. One was wrapped around her head again while the other hit much closer to the saddle—closer to me—right at the base of her tail. I twisted the one saddle handle I was still hanging onto and Nova pitched into a violent roll. She spun, getting faster and faster.
The shrike on her head lost his grip. He flew backwards, bouncing along her body and whooshing past me. One well aimed thrust of my sword made sure he wouldn’t be coming back around for a second try.
The last shrike and rider were a problem, though. She was trying to cut my saddle straps. Clever. Effective, too, if she managed it.
But I wasn’t about to give her that chance.
I sheathed my sword and twisted the handles again, hanging on for dear life. Nova snapped her wings in tight against her body and dropped from the sky like a giant, scaly stone. The further we fell, the faster we went. The wind howled past my helmet. The ground was getting closer and closer.
I bit back a curse and looked back. It was working. The shrike was losing his grip, sliding further away from me down Nova’s tail.
I squeezed my heels against her ribs.
Nova spat a burst of flame directly in front of us, and I hunkered down against her as she wrapped her wings around herself. Everything went dark. I could smell the acrid venom in the air. It made my eyes sting. I could feel the heat of the flames as I panted for breath.
Dragon venom is funny stuff. It’s sticky like sap and highly acidic. It’ll burn through just about anything—except a dragon’s own hide.
Nova flew through her own burst of flames, shielding me with her wings. When we came out the other side, she flared her wings wide and caught the air like a kite. Below us, a shrike-shaped fireball crashed into the ground.
Prax appeared next to us, giving me hand signals again. You okay?
I gave him a thumb’s up.
Good. Time for another pass.
The battle was over.
The shouting voices and clashing blades had gone quiet. Now, there was only the crackling of the flames still smoldering in what was left of Barrowton. It was a wasteland – barely more than a charred crater littered with the bodies of the fallen.
Yet another ugly scar on Maldobar’s landscape.
We’d only just gotten back to the citadel at Northwatch—our little slice of paradise where the forces assigned to protecting the northern border were housed. Group after group of dragons and their riders continued to land on the platform and file into the tower. One hundred proud warriors had left to retake the city only a few days before. Less than forty of us returned.
Still, I was only looking for one.
“Where is he? Does anyone see him?!” I shouted at the top of my lungs and shoved my way through the other dragonriders. I called his name over and over, hoping to spot him or his blue dragon making their way down the corridor ahead of me. They must have fallen behind.
I searched every bloodied, war-beaten face that came walking in from the rain. Before I knew it, I was standing back at the open gateway that led out onto the platform.
Jaevid Broadfeather was nowhere to be found.
Someone grabbed my shoulder. A bolt of hope shot through me as I spun around, hoping to see him standing there.
It wasn’t him.
It was my riding partner, Lieutenant Prax, standing over me like a giant in blood-spattered battle armor. He was much older than I was and a far more seasoned rider. That’s why the look on his face absolutely terrified me.
“No one saw him or Jace depart with us.”
I was instantly sick. I couldn’t accept that. Jaevid wouldn’t just roll over and die—not this easily. We’d made it this far, gone through all of our dragonrider training together from beginning to end – so I knew he could fight. Sure, I’d teased him plenty about sucking at hand-to-hand combat, but I’d never met anyone faster or better with a blade. He was half gray elf, for crying out loud. Granted, he hid it well, but I knew he had that elven killer instinct buried down deep in his soul. I’d seen it surface once or twice before when someone pushed him too far.
I had to believe he was here somewhere. I just hadn’t found him yet.
I turned around with every intention of standing out on the platform in the driving rain until I saw him land. Boy, was he in for it. That little jerk should have known better than to pull a stunt like this after our first battle, the one time I hadn’t been standing right next to him while we did something ridiculously dangerous to make sure he didn’t get killed.
Prax grabbed my arm to stop me. There was no shaking off his grip. “We can’t go out there. They want the platform clear for the riders still landing. We’ll have to wait in the stable.”
I stole another glance out of the gateway. The skies were choked with rumbling black storm clouds and the rain was falling hard enough to obscure the city below. Every couple of minutes, the ominous, dark shape of a dragon appeared through the gloom, wings spread wide and legs outstretched to stick the landing. As they landed, infantrymen rushed out to help the riders dismount and escort them inside. Some of them had to be carried because of their injuries. Their cries of pain were drowned out by the sound of the thunder.
“Come on.” Prax shook me a little to break my trance. “You need to look after your lady. Then I’ll wait with you back at his stall.”
I didn’t like it. I wanted to be standing right here when Jae finally dared to show his face after making me stress out like this. But Prax was right. My dragon, Nova, was still dressed in her saddle and I needed to get her settled in before I did anything else.
The work was distracting. It kept me from staring at the gateway every single second while I unbuckled her saddle strap-by-strap and checked her over for injuries. Thankfully, she was unharmed. Her scales really were as strong as iron plates. And judging by a few nicks and scrapes I found around her chest and neck, that trait had saved her life more than once.
Once she was fed and nestled into a bed of hay for the night, I closed the door to her stall and immediately made a break for the platform. I had every intention of waiting there again. I didn’t make it there, though.
Everyone was waiting on me. The other surviving riders in Emerald Flight had gathered outside Nova’s stall.
“They still haven’t come back yet?” I looked at Prax, expecting an answer.
He didn’t have to give a verbal one. Once again, his expression said it all. Jaevid and his senior partner, Lieutenant Jace Rordin, still hadn’t returned.
So we waited.
Sitting outside Jaevid’s empty dragon stall, we watched the rest of our dragonrider brothers tending to their mounts like I had. It wasn’t looking good. The elves had made an impressive stand at Barrowton and our ranks had taken a beating. Less than half of us had returned and many of those were wounded or grounded because their mount had been injured. The riders landing now were barely able to limp in out of the rain. Some of them even had to be carried.
I watched one rider who had to be dragged off the platform by the infantrymen. He was shouting like a madman, still crazed from battle. I couldn’t figure out what he was saying or why he was so upset until a big group of soldiers rushed past us to help restrain him. Then I heard why.
His dragon had managed to carry him back safely to the tower, but the creature had died on the platform shortly after.
The rider’s grief-stricken screams mingled with the constant rush of the rain. It was a sound I’d never forget.
I couldn’t watch anymore after that. I leaned against the stall door with my eyes closed, trying not to think about or imagine anything. Then, infantrymen rolled the iron grate down over the passage that led out onto the platform. It made an awful clanging sound.
That was it. The last of us who survived the battle had landed.
It was over. We all knew it, and yet none of us wanted to be the first to get up and leave.
It didn’t feel real. I didn’t want to believe it was. There had to be some kind of mistake. He was going to pull off another miracle, come wandering in with that weird, self-conscious smile on his face and start apologizing—he had to. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
“Jace was set on going head- to- head with that gray elf princess again.” Someone finally spoke up and broke the heavy silence. “He must’ve dragged Jaevid into it, too. Poor kid wouldn’t stand a chance in a skirmish like that.”
I pushed away from the door and started walking away. I didn’t want to hear this. I didn’t care how he died. He was gone. The how didn’t matter.
I thought I managed to get away without any of them following me. But I should’ve known better than to think Prax would let me go. I heard his heavy footsteps and the clinking of his armor as he fell in right behind me.
He waited until we were well away from the others, standing just inside the stairwell that spanned the full height of the fifty-story tower, to catch me by the shoulder. “I’m sorry, boy.”
“Sorry won’t bring my best friend back from the dead. Sorry never did anyone any good. It’s a waste of everyone’s time,” I snapped.
He let me go. I could see sympathy in his eyes as he stared down at me. It pissed me off. For a few seconds, neither of us said a word. Then he shook his head. “We’ve all lost someone today, Felix. Every last one of us. So go do whatever you have to do. Work it out. Then clean up your armor and get ready again. You and I are some of the few who are still battle-ready.”
I already felt like a total failure for letting my best friend down. I’d let him die alone in battle. And now I felt worse knowing I’d offended Prax, although there wasn’t a lot I wanted to do about it right now. All I knew was that my insides hurt. I couldn’t think beyond the rage that was burning in my body like hellfire. I could practically taste the flames crackling over my tongue. I needed a way to let it out.
Three days. That’s how long it took Prax to resurface and try talking to me again.
I knew he’d be coming. I was already on borrowed time. At any given moment, orders could come down and I’d be sent back to the battlefront somewhere to kill more elves in the name of peace and justice. A bunch of crap, really. Neither existed in my world.
My knuckles were bleeding through the strips of bandages I’d wrapped them in. It probably had something to do with me facing off with a sparring bag every day at dawn, pounding at it with all my strength until I was too weak to stand. I didn’t stop to eat and sleeping was totally out of the question so I didn’t even bother trying.
Honestly, I didn’t know what else to do. I was asking myself a lot of hard questions while whaling against the sand-filled training bag, and most of those questions I no longer had an answer for.
Why was I here? Punch. What was this all for? Punch. Could I even justify not being at my estate now? Punch.
“Felix.” Prax’s voice interrupted the rhythm of my internal interrogation.
I stopped and let my arms drop. They were so numb I couldn’t even feel my fingers anymore. I turned around, wiping away the sweat that was dripping into my eyes.
I expected to see Prax there, giving me one of those cautious, sympathetic gazes. But I hadn’t expected to see the guy next to him. I didn’t know him. Rather, I’d never laid eyes on him before. But I knew right away who he must be.
Jae had never been all that chatty when it came to his family. I could sympathize. My own family life hadn’t been great, but it didn’t hold a candle to what I suspected Jae had put up with.
When we’d first met, he looked like a pulverized, half-starved puppy. Some of the other guys training with us liked to pick on him because he was one heck of an easy target—but they weren’t the cause of all those bruises. Some of those marks had been older. Much older. He’d gotten them long before he’d darkened the door of the dragonrider academy. So I went out of my way to ask Sile about them. Needless to say, the answer had been unsavory.
My father had never beaten me, even when I probably deserved it. He didn’t have the strength or the audacity. He popped me across the cheek a few times for mouthing off, sure, but that was more embarrassing than anything else.
Jae, though? He probably weighed eighty pounds soaking wet when we first met. And that father of his had been beating him mercilessly for years, according to Sile.
Now I was looking at the one person who should have stuck up for the little guy whenever his dad decided to use him like a doormat. I knew this had to be his older brother. The family resemblance was strong, even if this guy wasn’t a half elf like Jae. Same piercing eyes. Same strong jawline.
“Roland, I presume?” I glanced him up and down. He was taller than me, unsurprisingly. Chalk that up to yet another Broadfeather family trait. “You look like hell.”
It wasn’t an insult. He really did look awful. His right arm was sealed in a plaster cast all the way up to his shoulder and he had bloody bandages wrapped around a wound on his head. He was obviously one of the lucky infantrymen who made it back to the citadel from Barrowton—the uniform tipped me off. Except for the stubble on his chin, he looked so much like Jae it would make anyone stop and take a second look. Granted, this guy had a lot more muscle to throw around, but he had the same piercing eyes, squared jaw, and high cheekbones.
“I don’t believe we’ve met.” He was looking at me cautiously. I suspected being in the dragonrider quarters was making him uneasy. Infantrymen weren’t supposed to be up here.
“We haven’t,” I replied. I left it at that, hoping Prax would take the hint that I wasn’t really up for a heart-to-heart discussion with this guy.
I walked past them to a corner of the sparring room where I’d stashed a few of my things, including a towel to wipe myself off with. I could hear them both following me.
“Colonel Bragg has issued his official statement. Medics swept the battlefield at Barrowton looking for any remaining survivors and taking record of the dead,” Prax spoke up.
I stopped. All the little prickly hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. “And?”
“They never found his body—or Jace’s for that matter. But his dragon was sighted in the area with an empty saddle,” he answered quietly. “Some of the other riders report having seen them engaging the gray elf princess in aerial combat. They saw her shoot Jace’s mount down. Jaevid was right on his tail, so . . . we can only assume . . .”
“—That he’s dead. Yep. Thanks. Figured that much out on my own, you know, when he didn’t come back.” I scowled at them both, hoping it would be enough to stop this conversation from going any further.
Prax turned his attention to the silent infantryman standing next to him. “We cleaned out their room. There wasn’t much left behind, but Jae’s brother here insisted you should have it.”
That’s when I noticed Roland was holding something. It was a mostly empty burlap sack. He held it out to me with a tense expression. “They tell me you two were close.”
I didn’t want to take it. Just the thought of seeing what was in there made me start to feel nauseated all over again. “Shouldn’t this be given to his family?”
“That’s why I’m giving it to you.” Roland fixed his gaze right on me. “I know how you must feel about me. And you’re right to despise me. I can only imagine the things Jaevid told you about me let alone the rest of our family. I won’t deny any of it. But I never laid a hand on him. Not even once.”
I snatched the bag away from him. “Some might argue that joining in and just standing by and watching it happen are basically the same thing.”
Roland hesitated. Slowly, his eyes moved down until he was staring at the floor. “We were both trapped in that house, both suffering at the hands of the same man. Jaevid never knew how many beatings I took for him, how many nights I would sleep by my bedroom door so I’d hear if Ulric went outside after him. My every waking thought was about how I could get out of there. But I couldn’t just run away and leave Jaevid there alone. I would have never done that to him. So I waited until Ulric came back from Blybrig and told us he’d been adopted by the dragonriders. Then I left.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over us. I’m sure Prax was learning a lot more about the Broadfeather family than he ever cared to. After a few seconds I cleared my throat, crammed the bag of Jae’s belongings under the rest of my gear, and nodded. “Actually, he didn’t talk about his family life much.”
“I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me,” Roland sighed. “I just thought, since you were closest with him, you ought to have what was left of his things. He’d probably want it that way. And considering the circumstances, I wanted to thank you in person.”
“Yes. I’m not trying to be condescending. But I am grateful that you were willing to step in and befriend him. Someone of your social standing—”
I stopped him right there. “That never had anything to do with it. It wasn’t charity.”
He nodded. “I understand. I’m just saying that there aren’t many others who would be willing to jeopardize their reputation. You’re a better man than most. And I want you to know I appreciate that.”
“Ah.” This was beginning to make me really uncomfortable. I began picking up my stuff and planning a quick exit.
“I also wanted to ask if there was anyone else we should inform,” Roland added, as I slung my bag of gear over my shoulder. “Did he ever mention having a lover?”
Once again, my body locked up involuntarily. I hadn’t even thought about her. Did she know? Who was I kidding . . . of course she didn’t know. I cursed under my breath and flashed Prax a telling glance. Someone was going to have to tell Beckah Derrick what had happened.
“I’m willing to do it,” Roland offered. I guess he could read my expressions well enough to tell what I was thinking.
I clenched my teeth. “No. I’ll do it. She should hear it from me. I’m the one she’ll blame.”
The trouble was, I didn’t know how I was going to find her. Beckah lurked on the edge of every battlefield, haunting our blind spots like some kind of avenging angel. To my knowledge, she’d been keeping her distance from the riders otherwise, which was smart since she was playing a dangerous game. Being the only female dragonrider wasn’t something to be proud of. It might earn her the hangman’s noose or the business end of a sword if anyone found out her real identity.
If anyone could actually catch her, that is. Being paired up with a king drake, the biggest and baddest of all the dragons in Maldobar, put her at a big advantage over the rest of us.
I had my work cut out for me. As soon as I managed to shake off the pity brigade, I headed straight for my room and started thinking of ways to get in contact with her. I didn’t know where she was hiding out between battles, though. Jae might have known, but if they had a secret lovey-dovey rendezvous spot, he’d never spoken a word about it to me. That sneaky devil.
I decided to look for clues when I got back to my room. I dumped out the burlap sack of his belongings onto my bed and began to look through them. There wasn’t much. It was mostly spare uniform pieces and a few bundles of letters tied together with twine. I hesitated to go through those because that kind of stuff was probably pretty personal. What right did I have to go digging around in his private life?
Then again, what did it matter now? And one of those letters might contain a clue about how to get in touch with Beckah.
Hesitantly, I untied one of the bundles and opened up a few of the letters. None of them were helpful, really, and going through them gave me an eerie feeling. It just felt wrong.
Finally, I came to one that looked like it hadn’t been opened in a while. The address scribbled across the front said it was from Saltmarsh, a town down on the southern coast. I’d never been there, never had a reason to. It was a port city, home to mostly fisherman and hired hands looking for shifts on the merchant ships that came and went from the harbor.
Seeing that address struck a chord in my memory. Jae had mentioned to me before that Beckah and the rest of her family lived there. He’d visited them before the start of our avian year. When I opened up the letter, I found only one line scribbled inside. There wasn’t a signature, either. Just two initials:
— B. D.
They had to be Beckah’s.
I knew she wouldn’t be there. It was a long flight between Saltmarsh and Northwatch, too long for her to be going back and forth every time there was a battle. Heck, I couldn’t even be sure her family still lived at that address, either. Sile struck me as kind of a shady character, like he had something to hide. He might just pick up and leave without saying anything. But this was the best lead I had. I was going to have to start there and hope for the best.
I lit a candle and took out a few sheets of fresh paper. I wrote three letters. The first one was to Sile Derrick, letting him know what happened and where he could find me. The second one was to my commanding officer, Colonel Bragg, who was in charge of all the dragonriders here at the citadel.
And the last one . . . was to my mom.