Chapter no 10

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

I stare in shock for the length of a heartbeat as the first-year drops Nadine’s body to the ground. It falls with a sickening thud, her head twisted at an

unnatural angle.

She’s dead.

No. Not again.

“Nadine!” Rhiannon yells, rushing to kneel at her side.

“Nadine?” the first-year asks, his thick eyebrows knitting into one. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Emetterio barks.

“No one interferes,” I demand, and two of my daggers are in hand before I even realize I’ve reached for them.

The giant jerks his gaze from Nadine’s body to my daggers, to my hair.

“I’m Violet Sorrengail.” My heart pounds, but no one else will die in my name. Using a pinch grip, I don’t wait for his response, flinging both daggers. But he’s fast for someone his size and throws up his arms—where both my blades sink to the hilt.

Damn it.

“Violet!” Andarna shouts.

“Sleep!” I slam my shields up to block everything—everyone out.

Xaden’s gone. Protecting me is what killed Liam.

It doesn’t matter why this guy is trying to kill me right now. Either I’m strong enough to survive or I’m not.

The first-year rips the bloodied daggers out of his forearms in quick succession with an angry grunt, letting them clatter to the ground. His mistake. He might be almost a foot taller, but he’ll need those blades if he wants to kill me. His build, though…that’s going to be hard to overcome.

Stop going for bigger moves that expose you. Xaden’s words from last year ring in my head as if he is standing right beside me. I have to use what I have— my speed—to my advantage.

I charge toward him at a run, and he swings meaty fists at my head, but I drop to my knees before they can make contact. Ignoring the shattering pain in my legs from impact, I use my momentum to slide by, clipping the tendons alongside his knee as I pass.

He yells and falls forward like a fucking tree, slamming into the floor. “Violet!” Dain shouts from somewhere behind me.

I scramble to my feet and turn back to the giant, who has already flipped himself onto his back as if impervious to pain, but he can’t stand with what I’ve done to him. He can, however, reach for one of the daggers he dropped and throw it at me.

Which he does.

“Shit!” I spin sideways to avoid my own blade, and he kicks out with the leg I didn’t slice.

His boot catches me behind my thigh.

The blow cuts my feet out from under me, and all I see is ceiling as I fall back, smashing my hip with the full force of my weight. Pain blinds me for a heartbeat when my head smacks against the floor, white-hot and so sharp my ears ring. But at least I haven’t stabbed myself with my blades. One is still in my hand, but my eyes blur and tell me it’s really two.

The first-year grabs hold of my right thigh and pulls, dragging me with the distinct squeaking sound of leather against the shiny floor. If I put my dagger through his hand, I’ll strike my own muscle.

So I swipe out at his arm instead, my reach only catching him with a cut across the forearm. My heart launches into my throat as people around me yell my name, but they can’t interfere. I’m a second-year, and this asshole isn’t in my squad.

His grip secure, he drags me feetfirst toward him, his puddled blood soaking the back of my neck and wetting my hair.

If I don’t get free, I’m dead.

I bring up my left leg and kick as soon as I’m close enough, catching him in the jaw, but he doesn’t let go. Tenacious bastard.

A crunch sounds with my next kick, breaking his nose. Blood flies, but he shakes it off, lurching upward and rolling onto me, pinning me to the floor with his incomprehensible weight.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I swing out with my knife, but he catches my right hand, pinning my wrist to the ground. Then he wraps his other hand around my throat and squeezes.

“Fucking die, already,” he seethes, his voice blending into the ringing in my ears as he lowers his face to mine.

There’s no air as his grip tightens on my windpipe.

“Secrets die with the people who keep them,” he whispers, bringing his nose an inch from mine. His eyes are light brown but rimmed in red as though he’s on some kind of drug.


Fear floods my mind, breaking past my shields, but it’s not mine. I can’t focus on Tairn’s fear. That way lies shock and death.

And I’m not about to die under some no-name first-year.

My vision tunnels as I grab one of the daggers sheathed along my ribs with my free left hand, draw quickly, and plunge the blade into the giant’s back, angling right where Xaden taught me. His kidney. Once. Twice. Thrice. I lose count as I stab over and over and over, until the grip on my throat releases, until the first-year sags on top of me.

He’s dead weight.

My lungs fight to expand as I put the last of my strength into shoving him off of me. He’s heavier than an ox, but I manage to push him sideways enough to slide out from under him.

Air—beautiful, precious air—fills my chest, and I gasp for it, breathing past the fire in my throat, and stare up at the beams of the ceiling. Pain. My

entire body is nothing but pain.

“Violet?” Dain’s voice shakes as he crouches beside me. “Are you all right?”

Secrets die with the people who keep them.

No, I’m not all right. His father just tried to have me assassinated.

I force myself to the familiar headspace beyond the pain and roll to my hands and knees. Nausea sweeps through me in waves, and I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth until I can push it back down.

“Say something,” Dain begs in a frantic whisper.

I walk back on my hands until I’m kneeling, then arch my neck, wincing as I pull breath after breath.

“Vi—” He stands and offers me a hand, and the worry in his familiar eyes—

Fuck no.

I throw all my energy into my shields.

“Don’t. Touch. Me,” I grind out, my voice like sandpaper, and stand slowly, more than aware of the number of eyes on me. My head spins, but I fight the dizziness as I retrieve all five of my daggers. Everyone in the nearby area watches as I bend over and use the dead first-year’s uniform to wipe the blood off my blades before sheathing them.

The fear flooding my pathways changes to relief.

“I’m all right,” I tell Tairn and Andarna.

“Matthias and Henrick, take the bodies,” Dain orders. At least I think it’s him. The ringing in my ears muffles everything farther than twelve inches away.

Emetterio appears before me. “May I touch you?” he asks. Clearly, I made that demand of Dain rather loudly.

I nod, making sure my shields are in place, and Emetterio grasps my face, searching my eyes. He blocks the light, then lifts his hand. A fresh wave of nausea churns in my stomach.

“You’re concussed. Want to skip the rest of the session?” He drops his hand from my face and holds me steady by gripping my arms when I sway.

“No.” I’m not leaving assessment day the same way I did last year.

“I’ve got her,” Imogen says, taking my elbow. Emetterio’s mouth purses, his dark eyes narrowing.

“I’m not going to try and kill her this year. Promise.” She draws me to her side but doesn’t hold on to me, just lets me lean a little.

Fine, a lot.

“You were just strangled, Cadet Sorrengail,” Emetterio reminds me.

“Not the first time,” I respond, the razor blades in my throat making my voice raspy. “I’ll heal. I’m staying.”

He sighs but eventually nods and heads back to his place at the head of the mat, picking up the clipboard he’d apparently dropped.

“Aetos sent him,” I whisper to Imogen. “I think we’re being targeted.” Gods, I hope that’s not why Xaden didn’t show yesterday.

Her green eyes flare a second before Ridoc appears at my other side, his shoulder brushing mine.

“Damn, Sorrengail,” he mutters, offering me an arm I don’t take.

“It’s always something, isn’t it?” I try to smile as the two of them walk slowly back to the edge of the mat, giving me enough support that I don’t fall to either side.

“He was probably sent as a message to your mother,” Emetterio says, shaking his head. “Same thing happened to your older sister during her years.”

The first-years stare in wide-eyed horror as I glance around the bloody mat, noting that Rhiannon, Dain, and Sawyer are missing. Right. Because they have to take Nadine and the nameless first-year’s body.

Nadine is dead because she said she was me.

Heavy, eye-prickling sorrow threatens to take me out at my throbbing knees, but I can’t allow myself to feel it. Can’t let it in. Not with everyone watching. It goes into the box where I keep every other overwhelming emotion.

Sloane and Aaric stand in the middle of the mat, watching me with varying shades of shock on their face. There’s far more concern on Aaric’s face than Sloane’s.

“Is someone going to clean up that mess and fight, or what?” I ask, ignoring the drip of thick liquid down the back of my neck. Standing here covered in his blood is better than lying there soaked in mine.

“And you wanted to take her on, Mairi.” One of the first-years scoffs from across the mat. He has deep-set brown eyes under angular brows and a wide square jaw, but I don’t know his name. I don’t fucking want to know his name.

I already know Sloane’s and Aaric’s, and that’s too much. I knew Nadine’s.

We stand shoulder to shoulder as the first-years mop up the blood then finish their assessment, and I focus on cataloging every single thing that’s wrong with Sloane’s fighting style, which is…a lot. In fact, she looks like she’s spent nearly no time training for the quadrant.

That can’t be right. Liam was the best fighter in our year, and every marked one knows they have to report to the Riders Quadrant when they’re of age. Surely she’s trained.

“You sure she’s Liam’s sister?” Ridoc asks.

“Yep,” Imogen answers with a long sigh. “But she sure wasn’t fostered with fighters, and it shows.”

Aaric puts her on her ass six times with little to no effort.

Well, shit. This complicates some things. Like keeping her alive.

An hour later, I make it through physics under Rhi’s watchful gaze, more than aware of the first-year’s blood drying on my skin and holding my head high when other cadets stare. It’s easier once the ringing in my ears lessens, but I’m still nauseated as hell after class.

I beg off from dinner and turn down Rhi’s offer of help to get to my room, slowly but surely taking the steps up to the second-years’ floor. Every bone, every muscle, every fiber of my being aches.

A heartbeat before I reach for my door handle, I feel it, the familiar midnight-tinted shadow wrapping around my mind.

Relief courses through me as I push open the door and see Xaden leaning against the wall between my desk and my bed, looking ready to kill someone as usual, his arms folded over his chest.

“It’s been eight days,” I croak, wincing.

“I know,” he counters, pushing off the wall and crossing the room in a few steps. “And from what Tairn showed Sgaeyl, I should have told my commander to fuck off and gotten here sooner.” He takes my face in his hands in a way that feels completely different from the way Emetterio had earlier, and the rage shining in his eyes is at odds with the gentleness of his touch as he takes stock of my injuries.

“The blood is his.” My throat feels like I swallowed fire.

“Good.” His jaw flexes as his gaze drops to the bruises I know are around my neck.

“I don’t even know what his name was.”

“I know.” His hands fall away, and I immediately mourn their loss. “Colonel Aetos sent him.”

He nods, the motion curt. “I’m sorry I couldn’t kill him first.” “The first-year? Or Aetos?”

“Both.” He doesn’t smile at my attempt at a joke. “Let’s get you clean and wrapped up.”

“You can’t go around killing cadets. You’re an officer now.” “Watch me.”

“What’s it like at Samara?” I ask him hours later as I sit cross-legged on my bed, bathed and choking down the bowl of soup he brought

up for me from the mess in the main campus. Every swallow hurts, but he’s right—I can’t afford to weaken myself by not eating.

“Look at you, asking questions.” A corner of Xaden’s mouth rises as he leans back, taking over the armchair in the corner of my room, sharpening his daggers on a strap of leather. He ditched the flight leathers while I was in the bath, but he somehow looks even better in his new uniform. I can’t help but notice he didn’t add patches to this one, either. He’d only ever worn his wingleader insignia and wing designation while he was in the quadrant.

“I’m not fighting with you about your question game tonight.” I shoot a glare his way, spotting the two tomes Jesinia loaned me on the bookshelf next to him. But any thought of telling him about my research disappeared at his reminder that I’m not granted the full truth when it comes to him.

“Wanting you to ask what you want to know isn’t a game. You and me? Not a game.” He drags his blade over the leather again and again. “And Samara is… different.”

“The one-word answers aren’t going to cut it.”

He looks up from his work. “I have to prove myself all over again at what’s arguably the cruelest outpost we have. It’s…annoying.”

I crack a smile. Leave it to Xaden to be annoyed. “Do they treat you differently?”

“You mean because of this?” He taps the side of his neck with the flat of his blade, touching the relic.


He shrugs. “I think the last name does it more than the relic. The older riders are easier on Garrick, which I’m thankful for.”

I set the spoon down in the bowl. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s nothing worse than what I expected, and my signet’s enough to give most of them pause.” He puts the leather strap into his rucksack, then sheaths his last blade as he stands. “You know what it’s like. People judge you by your last name all the time.”

“I think it’s safe to say you have it worse.”

“Only within the borders.” He flips my armor over where it’s drying on the back of my desk chair, then crosses the room to sit on the end of my bed. It’s not as big as his was last year, but there’s room for both of us if I ask him to stay. Which I won’t. It’s hard enough to be this close and not kiss him. Sleeping next to him? I’d break for sure.

“Fair point.” I put the bowl on my nightstand and pick up my brush, my gaze drifting to the door when I hear Rhiannon’s voice in the hallway a second before she shuts her door. Which reminds me… “Did you ward my room from visitors before you left?”

He nods. “It’s warded against sound, too.” He crosses his ankle over his knee, keeping his boots off my bed. “One-way, of course. You can hear what’s going on out there, but they can’t hear what’s going on in here. Figured you might like your privacy.”

“For all the people I can’t bring in?”

“You can bring in whomever you want,” he counters.

“Really?” Sarcasm drips from my voice as I drag the brush through my damp hair. “Because Rhiannon tried to walk in and ended up on the other side of the hallway.”

The corners of his mouth lift into a glimpse of a smile. “Tell her to hold your hand next time. The only way in here is by touching you.”

“Wait.” I pause, then finish pulling the brush through my snagged ends. “So you didn’t ward it for only you and me?”

“It’s your room, Violet.” His eyes track the movement of the brush through my hair, and the way his fingers curl in his lap makes me swallow. Hard. “The room is warded to let in whomever you pull through.” He clears his throat and shifts his weight as I finish another pass with the brush. “And selfishly, me.”

I fucking love your hair. If you ever want to bring me to my knees or win an argument, just let it down. I’ll get the point.

My breath catches at the memory. Has it really only been a few months since he said that? It feels simultaneously like forever…and yesterday.

“You warded my room for complete privacy for me and anyone I want to bring in?” I lift my eyebrows at him. “In case I feel like…”

“Doing whatever you want.” The heat in his gaze makes my breath catch. “No one will hear a thing. Even if you wreck an armoire.”

I fumble the brush and it falls into my lap, but I quickly recover. Kind of. “This particular one seems pretty solid. Nothing like the flimsy piece I had in my room last year.” The one we accidentally turned into firewood the first time we’d gotten our hands on each other.

“Is that a challenge?” He glances at the furniture. “Because I guarantee we can take it down once you’re healed.”

“No one’s ever fully healed around here.”

“Good point. Just say the words, Violet.” The way he looks at me is enough to raise my temperature a few degrees. “It only takes three.”

Three words?

Oh, like hell am I going to tell him that I want him. He already has too much power over me.

Can and should are two different things,” I manage to say. My willpower when it comes to Xaden is pure shit. One touch, and I’ll be back in his arms, accepting whatever he deems as enough of the truth instead of the full access I deserve…no, need. “And we definitely shouldn’t.”

“Then tell me how your week was instead.” He changes topics smoothly. “I couldn’t watch them all,” I admit. “At Parapet. I tried, but I…


“You were on the tower?” His brow furrows.

“Yes.” I shift, tucking my sore knees to the side. “I promised Liam I’d help Sloane, and I couldn’t do that from the courtyard.” A sarcastic laugh escapes my lips. “And she fucking hates me.”

“It’s impossible to hate you.” He stands and walks to where his rucksack is leaned up against the wall. “Trust me. I tried.”

“Trust me. She does. She actually wanted to challenge me at assessment.” I lean back against my headboard. “She blames me for Liam’s death. Not that she’s wrong—”

“Liam’s death wasn’t your fault,” he interrupts, his body going rigid. “It was mine. If Sloane wants to hate anyone, she can aim it all right here.” He taps his chest as he turns, setting his rucksack on the desk.

“It wasn’t your fault.” It’s not the first time we’ve had the argument, and something tells me it won’t be the last. I guess there’s enough guilt for two to carry.

“It was.” He opens the top and rifles through the bag. “Xaden—”

“How many candidates fell this year?” He pulls out a folded paper, then closes the bag.

“Too many.” Even now I can hear some of their screams.

“It’s always too many.” He sits on my bed again, this time close enough that my knees brush his thigh. “And it’s okay that you couldn’t watch the younger ones die. It means you’re still you.”

“As opposed to turning into someone else?” My stomach twists at the flat expression on his face, the wall mentioning Liam’s death put solidly between us. “Because I feel like I am. I don’t even want to know the first-years’ names. I don’t want to know them. I don’t want it to hurt when they die. What does that make me?”

“A second-year.” He says it matter-of-factly, the same way he’d declared that he couldn’t save every marked one last year, only the ones willing to help themselves.

Sometimes I forget how ruthless he is. How ruthless he can be on my behalf.

“I’ve seen death before,” I respond. “I was practically surrounded by it last year.”

“It’s not the same. Seeing our friends—our equals—die on the Gauntlet, at Threshing, in challenges, or even in battle is one thing. Everyone in here is just fighting to survive, and it prepares us for what happens out there. But when it’s the younger candidates…” He shakes his head and leans forward.

I grip my brush to keep from reaching for him.

“The first year is when some of us lose our lives,” he says softly, tucking my damp hair behind my ear. “The second year is when the rest of us lose our humanity. It’s all part of the process of turning us into effective weapons, and don’t forget for a second that’s the mission here.”

“Desensitizing us to death?” He nods.

A knock sounds at the door, and I startle but can’t help but notice Xaden doesn’t. He sighs and stands, heading for the door.

“Already?” he asks after opening it, blocking me from view. Or blocking the view from me.

“Already.” I recognize Bodhi’s voice.

“Give me a minute.” Xaden shuts the door without waiting for a response.

“Let me come with you.” I swing my feet over the side of the bed.

“No.” He crouches in front of me, putting us at eye level, the parchment from his bag still clutched in his fist. “Sleep is the fastest way to heal unless you plan on seeking out Nolon, and from what I hear, he’s hard to come by these days.”

“You need sleep, too,” I protest around the dread filling my throat. We only have hours, and I’m not ready for him to go. “You flew for half a day.”

“I have a lot to get done before morning.” “Let me help.” Shit, now I’m begging.

“Not yet.” He reaches out to cup my face, then drops his hand as if rethinking the move. “But I need you to pay close attention to what happens when you leave in seven days with Tairn.” He presses the paper into my hand. “Until then…here.”

“What is this?” I spare a glance downward, but it only looks like folded parchment.

“You told me once that I was scared you might not like me if you got to really know me.”

“I remember.”

“Every time we’re together, we’re training or fighting. There’s not a lot of time for long walks by the river or whatever passes for romance around here.” He squeezes my hand gently, but I can feel every callus he’s built from mastering his weaponry. “But I told you I’d find a way to let you in, and right now, this is all I have.”

My gaze jerks to his and my heart flies into my throat.

“I’ll see you at Samara.” He stands and grabs his rucksack and the two swords leaned up against the wall next to the door.

“How do I find you once I’m there?” My fingers clench the folded parchment. I’ve never even seen Samara. Mom has never been stationed there.

He turns at the door and looks back at me, holding my gaze. “Third floor, south wing, second door on the right. The wards will let you in.”

His barracks room.

“Let me guess—warded for sound and to let in you, me, and anyone you tug through?” The idea of him using that soundproofing for breaking armoires with someone else is enough to curdle the soup in my stomach.

We might not be together, but jealousy’s not exactly a rational emotion. “No, Violet.” He lifts both swords overhead, then slips them into the

sheaths on the pack behind him with practiced expertise and a hint of a smirk. “Just you and me.”

He’s gone before I can even think of a reply.

With trembling hands, I unfold the paper—and smile. Xaden Riorson wrote me a letter.

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