Chapter no 14

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

I jolt awake as the scent of something acrid fills my lungs, and I swing my fist, knocking a hand away from my face. Smelling salts.

“She’s up,” a woman in dark blue announces, backing away to confer with… Professor Grady?

My head buzzes as I sit up, stretching my legs in front of me, and immediately reach for Tairn. “What’s going on?”

My eyes are slow to adjust to the bright light, but it looks like we’re in some sort of forest.

“The course humans wouldn’t have to take if they would simply stay seated, known as RSC,” he growls with surprising frustration, like he’s the one whose just been drugged and dragged out of the quadrant.

Rhiannon, Sawyer, and Ridoc are on my right, all looking as confused as I feel. To my left are four second-year riders with Second Squad, Flame Section, Second Wing designations, looking around the forest in bewilderment. Nice to see we aren’t the only ones befuddled.

“At least it’s not an assassination attempt.” If it was, we’d be dead, especially as fuzzy as I feel.

“It will be if we aren’t back at Basgiath when Sgaeyl arrives tomorrow.”

Oh. Shit. “This can’t last longer than a day.” Can it? “If it does, you should fly back alone.”

Across from us sit two groups of eight infantry cadets—if their blue uniforms are any indication—in hushed conversation. They’re all… homogenous. The four men all have the same military-short haircut, cropped close to their skulls in a fade, and the women wear their hair slicked back in tight buns. Same dark-blue uniforms, same boots, same… everything. Only the name tags above their hearts are different, except for the one with a squad leader designation on their shoulder in each group.

The four of us are all dressed in our summer uniforms, but we’ve each made our own modifications. My lightweight black top has slits down the front that give me direct access to the daggers sheathed in my armor at my ribs. Rhiannon prefers a tunic with sheaths directly sewn in. Sawyer likes his sleeves short, weapons strapped to his upper arms, and Ridoc never took the time to see the uniform tailor—he just ripped his sleeves off. We aren’t even wearing name tags, and the same goes for the squad from Second Wing.

“And leave you to fend for yourself?”

The forest floor is soft and muddy in patches, and the afternoon sun streams in between the branches at an angle, which means we’ve only been unconscious an hour, maybe two at most. It’s nothing but trees as far as I can see.

“I think that’s the point.” I blink, fighting to bring my brain into sharper focus. “Promise me, if I’m stuck out here on land nav, that you’ll see her if you can. We can’t be that far from Basgiath.”

Professor Grady hands each rider a waterskin. “Sorry for the abrupt change of scenery. Hydrate.”

We all uncork our skins and drink. The water is crisp and cold…but there’s something else there, too. Pungent. Earthy. And something bitterly floral that I can’t quite place. I close the skin, cringing at the aftertaste. Professor Grady really needs to take better care of his skins.

“You all right?” I ask Rhi, who is checking her sheaths for weapons. “A little dazed, but yeah. You?”

I nod, running my hands down my sides to make sure my daggers are exactly where I left them. They are. My bag is still strapped to my back,


“They took us in the stairwell?” I look over to see Sawyer rubbing his temples and Ridoc scratching the tattoo on his neck.

“That’s my last memory.” She nods in agreement, studying the squads next to and across from us.

“Anyone know where we are?” Sawyer asks the obviously more alert infantry squads.

The cadets look over at us, but no one answers. Or speaks at all. “I’m going to take that as a no,” Ridoc drawls.

“It’s a no from us.” The rider from Second Wing with a squad leader designation lifts his hand in greeting.

“Do you know where—” I start to say toward Tairn, but the usually crystal-clear connection is muffled, like someone has thrown a blanket over it. Panic clenches my heart as I realize the same is true for Andarna, though I don’t risk waking her with questions. “I can’t reach Tairn.”

Rhi’s gaze snaps to mine, and she cocks her head to the side. “Shit.

Feirge, either. It feels like something is…”

“Smothering the connection,” Sawyer finishes.

I set the waterskin down next to me, and the others catch on, doing the same. What in Dunne’s name did we just drink?

“We’re blocked out,” a rider with a shoulder-length dark-blond braid whispers.

“Breathe, Maribel,” the squad leader orders, shoving his tan hand into his dark curls, like he might actually benefit from that suggestion a little more. “It can’t be for long.”

Ridoc’s hands fist. “This isn’t right. I don’t give a shit if it’s for the course— we’re not supposed to be cut off from them.”

“Tomas?” Rhiannon asks, leaning forward to look past me.

“Hey, Rhi.” The squad leader waves. “This is Brisa.” He points to a woman with a shaved head, rich brown skin, and an observant, quick-moving gaze, and she gives us a curt nod. “Mirabel.” He swings his finger to the blonde with pronounced flight goggle lines in her pale cheeks and a fire-wielder patch on her shoulder, and she waves. “And Cohen,” he

finishes. The rider closest to me, with a fast smile, short black hair, and warm russet-brown skin, lifts his hand in greeting.

“Hi.” Rhiannon nods. “This is Sawyer, Ridoc, and Violet.”

The pleasantries are cut short as Professor Grady marks something in a folder and clears his throat. “Now that you’re all awake, welcome to the first joint land navigation exercise.” He pulls two closed maps from the folder. “In the last two weeks, you’ve been taught how to read a map, and today you’ll put those skills to use in a practical setting. Were this an actual operation with the makeup of an outpost, this unit would consist of the composition you see here.”

He steps away from a woman who must be the infantry professor, revealing two cadets in pale blue sitting beside a scribe. Their hood is down, and they’re wearing cream pants with a cream hooded tunic—not robes—but that’s definitely a scribe.

“Riders and infantry for fighting, a scribe to record the event, and healers for the obvious reasons.” He motions them forward, and all three move to stand at the end of the infantry lineup.

The infantry professor wearing captain rank walks up and stops beside Professor Grady with impeccable posture. “Cadets, rise,” she says.

The infantry squads practically jump to their feet, immediately standing at attention.

I draw back slightly, surprised at my first instinct, which is to tell the infantry captain to fuck off because I don’t answer to her. No rider does.

Professor Grady glances our way and nods.

The eight of us stand, but we’re not even at ease. We just are.

The infantry captain looks at us and barely refrains from rolling her eyes. “This is the shortest course you’ll be conquering together this year, so try to get to know one another. Fourth Wing, you’re attached to fourth squad.” She looks around, and one of the cadets directly ahead raises his hand. “And Second Wing, you’re attached to second squad, just to make it easy.” A cadet raises her hand on the left. “Your objective is to find the location marked on the maps and secure it. Once you do, you’ll be extracted.”

It can’t be that easy.

Professor Grady holds out the maps, and Rhiannon steps forward, taking both and handing one to Tomas.

One of the infantry cadets starts to step forward but stills.

“Two maps,” Professor Grady says. “Two teams but one cohesive unit. You’re not used to working together. You weren’t even warned you would be. But keeping Navarre safe requires teamwork between the segments of our military. There are times in your careers when you’ll need someone you can trust in the air or on the ground, and those bonds are forged here at Basgiath.” He looks between our groups. “We’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

Tomorrow afternoon?

My stomach founders. Tairn won’t see Sgaeyl unless he honors my request and leaves. And me…I’ll miss the few hours Xaden is here. It will be another week until I can see him. The disappointment hurts more than it should.

“Just find the extraction point and secure it? That’s our mission?” Sawyer asks, eyeing the map like it might bite him. This is not his strongest skill, for certain.

“No problem.” Ridoc puffs out his chest.

“Oh. Right,” Professor Grady replies. “You see, we have to level the playing field a little bit. Infantry has been doing land nav since their first year, so naturally, they might be a little better at it than you.”

Ridoc stiffens.

The infantry cadets smirk.

“And you might notice that none of you eight”—Professor Grady looks us over—“has the ability to fully communicate with your dragons.”

“Which is bullshit,” Ridoc says at full volume. A woman on the infantry side gawks.

“It is,” Professor Grady agrees. “It’s not something we do lightly, either, and your dragons loathe it just as much as you do. You’ve all been dosed with a particular mixture of herbs that dulls not only your connections but

your signet as well. As frustrating as it is, we’re actually pretty proud of the concoction, so let us know if you feel any side effects.”

“Besides you cutting off the most important bond we have?” Rhi argues. “Precisely,” Professor Grady replies.

I reach for my power, but only a tingle fills my fingers. Gods, I feel… vulnerable, and it really fucking sucks. My mind flies over what the mixture could possibly be as the two professors walk between our groups.

When Grady reaches the end of our section, he turns, moving backward. “Oh, and did I mention that there are two groups of you out here? The other is on the far side of the forest, and while your dragons will be hunting them, their dragons are hunting you. A few unbondeds joined, too.”

The fuck? My stomach hollows.

Almost every infantry cadet looks faint, and one wobbles where he stands.

“Infantry, the riders are going to need to lean on your land nav expertise, but you won’t live without them should you encounter a dragon.” Grady looks the eight of us in the eye as he backs away. “Try and see that most of them make it out of here, will you?” He flashes a grin and turns around, walking into the forest with the infantry professor, leaving us in the middle of the fucking woods without supplies or our dragons.

We stare at the infantry squad. The infantry squad stares at us.

The healers look comically uncomfortable, and the scribe already has a notebook out, pencil at the ready.

“Well, this should be a good time had by all,” Ridoc mutters.

“Did he insinuate that we could die?” the smaller of the healers asks, his olive skin paling.

“Piss off the dragons and find out,” Sawyer replies.

“You’ll be all right”—I look for his name tag—“Dyre.” I offer him a smile as I pass on my way to the scribe. Soft red hair frames a creamy white face almost overcome with freckles as the short woman blinks up at me with even shorter brown lashes. “Aoife? They drag scribes into RSC?”

“Hi, Violet. I’m currently the first in my year training for the field and not to be an adept,” she says. “You’re the most powerful rider in yours. Dyre and Calvin are the best in their years.” She shrugs. “Naturally they built the strongest team first.”

Ridoc grins. “So you’re saying we’re the team to beat?” “Something like that.” The scribe fights back a smile.

“Then let’s make sure we don’t get beat,” Rhiannon says before turning her attention to the map. “Tomas, what do you think?”

He hands a map to Brisa and consults on Rhi’s.

Two hours and several arguments with the infantry later, we’re four miles from our starting location with another six to go. Rhiannon and Ridoc examined our map—which marked where we’d been dropped and our extraction point but didn’t label our location—discussed a route with Tomas, made sure we all saw it, and then handed it over to the infantry to agree on a route before we started walking.

“I’m telling you, we’re in the Parchille Forest,” Cadet Asshole— otherwise known as Calvin—argues with Rhiannon a few steps ahead. He’s actually gone about fifteen minutes without reminding us that he’s their ranking officer, so I’m sure we’re due any minute now. “That map doesn’t resemble any I’ve ever seen for Shedrick, which means we could be headed the opposite direction we should be. None of these landmarks match.”

“And I think you’re wrong,” Rhiannon counters, keeping her tone even.

I think we’re in the Hadden Woods,” Aoife says, holding her journal closely. She already has three pages of notes taken. “It’s the only forest close enough to bring us all by horse, since I doubt your dragons flew us in.”

I add, “It’s also the only forest close enough for Tairn to stay behind and see Sgaeyl without causing either of us pain from the separation.”

“Their squad leader is the infantry equivalent of Aetos,” Ridoc mutters from my right side.

I nod but keep from chuckling.

Cohen throws his head back on Ridoc’s right and doesn’t bother suppressing his laugh. Guess Dain’s reputation carries across the wings.

“Who is Aetos?” Cadet Quiet asks from Aoife’s left. It’s the first time the curvy brunette has spoken in hours, but her brown eyes are constantly moving, taking in our surroundings. I would bet that she’s tied with Brisa— who is covering our flank with Tomas and Sawyer—for most observant in our group.

“One of our wingleaders,” I answer. “Kind of like your battalion commander.”

“Oh.” She nods as Rhiannon and Asshole continue arguing ahead of us. “You guys function in sections, right?”

“Yep.” The landscape hasn’t changed. The forest is mostly flat, with a few rolling hills that have been easily scalable. But the heat? Damn, it’s stifling. I tied my uniform top around my waist about an hour ago, leaving me in my armor. I have no idea how Aoife is surviving with her hood up, but she hasn’t removed it. “Squad, then section, then wing.”

“What do we do if we come across a dragon?” she asks.

“First we choose a sacrifice,” Ridoc says. “And then we offer it and run.”

Her eyes flare wide.

“Don’t be an asshole.” I elbow him in the arm. “Depends on the color, but a good rule of thumb is to lower your eyes and back away,” I tell the infantry cadet. “But we can usually hear them coming.”

“Then prepare to be digested,” Cohen adds. “Oh gods,” the brunette whispers.

“You are now my favorite year-mate.” Ridoc throws an arm over his shoulder.

“Can I see your map?” Brisa asks from the rear of the formation. “Don’t you have your own?” Calvin retorts.

Rhi’s head whips toward him. “Give it to her or I cut it out of your hands.”

He glares at Rhi but passes it back so we can get it to Brisa.

Gods, this grass is high. It’s nearly up to my waist in the places where the trees don’t shade the ground. I step onto an uneven knob, and my ankle

rolls. Ridoc grabs ahold of me before I can fall, then steadies me without a word as we continue the climb. “Thank you,” I say softly.

“Are your knees wrapped?” Ridoc asks, concern lining his forehead.

I nod. “Yep. Didn’t do the ankles, though, since I wasn’t exactly expecting a hike.”

“I have cloth if you need to wrap something,” Dyre calls out from behind us.

“I’ll keep that in mind, thank you,” I answer.

A guy behind me asks, “Are all scribes this quiet?” “It’s my job to record, not participate,” she answers.

“Not participating will still get you eaten by a dragon,” he argues.

I assure her, my eyes never leaving his, “I’d never let a scribe get eaten by a dragon.”

Rhiannon’s voice rises as the argument ahead of us heats. “Because there’s no way in hell they hauled us out of our rooms and brought us that far away in four hours.”

“Because your dragons can’t fly that quickly?” Calvin is about an inch shorter than Rhi and has no problem glaring up at her.

“Because our dragons wouldn’t carry you, dumbass,” Ridoc responds.

Aoife snorts and Mirabel laughs, flanked by the rest of the infantry squad behind us.

Calvin turns and levels a look at Ridoc. “Have some respect for the rank.” He taps his shoulder, where there’s an open triangle embroidered beneath two oak leaves.

“Your rank means exactly jack and shit to me.”

“What, like you’re so above us infantry?” Calvin counters.

“I mean technically, when we’re flying we’re above everyone,” Ridoc argues. “But if you’re asking if I’m better than you, then the answer is obviously yes.”

I sigh and watch Calvin’s hands just in case he decides to go for the shortsword sheathed at his side. It’s not a bad weapon, but they all carry them. There’s no variation for height or specialization. It’s all so…uniform.

Then again, we were pulled straight out of the hallway, so it’s not like Ridoc is carrying his preferred bow. Sawyer and Rhiannon are missing their favorite swords, too.

“Stop pissing him off on purpose,” Rhiannon says, glancing back at Ridoc as we start trudging up another hill. Maybe this one will give us a better vantage point than the last. “We’re going to need fresh water, or this is going to get ugly fast.”

Ridoc grins. “But it’s so much fun!” She arches a brow.

“Fine.” He puts his hands up. “I’ll let him maintain his delusion of grandeur.”

“Oh, so you’ll listen to her—”

“She’s my squad leader. You’re not.”

“So, you only respect rider squad leaders,” Calvin prods. Aoife furiously writes in her notebook.

“Shut it, Calvin,” a cadet from behind me says with more than a little exasperation.

“You want my respect? Earn it.” Ridoc shrugs. “Cross the parapet, climb the Gauntlet, survive Threshing, and then we’ll be on equal footing.”

“What, like we don’t go through some shit in the Infantry Quadrant?” someone behind us challenges.

“See her?” Sawyer says, and I swear I can feel him pointing at me. “She bonded not only one of the biggest fucking dragons on the Continent, but a second dragon, and then went into combat against the gryphons a couple of months ago and came out alive. You go through that kind of shit in your quadrant?”

The cadets around us fall silent. Even Aoife’s pencil remains poised above her notebook as she stares at me.

Awkward. And wrong. No one in our little group knows what we’re really against out there. And my silence? It’s starting to feel a lot less like self-preservation and more like I’m complicit.

“You’re a Sorrengail, aren’t you?” Mirabel asks. “The commanding general’s daughter?” She winces. “The hair kind of gives you away.”

“Yes.” There’s no use denying it.

“Your mother is terrifying,” she whispers.

The scribe glances between us before putting pencil to parchment again. I nod. “That’s one of her more prominent qualities.”

“Hey, guys?” Brisa raises her voice behind us. “I think I know why it feels like we’re getting nowhere.”

“Why is that?” Rhiannon asks over her shoulder.

“Calvin’s right, but so are you. They gave us two different maps,” she says as the first of us crest the hill…and freeze.

Even my heartbeat comes to a standstill as Rhiannon throws up her hand to stop the rest of the group.

An Orange Club—nope, that’s a Scorpiontail—growls at us low in her throat from where she’s been lying in wait on the other side of the hill. Our heads tilt to follow the movement as she rises to her full height, dominating the skyline, her tail whipping behind her.

Baide. Jack Barlowe’s dragon. Or at least she was.

“Amari help us,” Calvin whispers, his panic palpable.

I drop my eyes in deference just like Kaori taught us as my pulse leaps and my brain fights the urge to panic. “Oranges are the most unpredictable. Eyes down. Do not run,” I whisper. “She’ll kill you if you run. Try not to show any fear.” Shit, this is what we should have been talking about instead of arguing about which quadrant is superior and which forest we’re in.

My chest tightens when my immediate instinct—to reach for Tairn—is denied. With any other dragon, I would bet against risking the anger of our dragons by torching us, but the cadets behind us are a whole other story. And since I killed Jack last year? All bets are off.

She has nothing to lose, and given the hot blast of steam that levels the grass and makes my face sticky, she remembers exactly who I am.

“Riders!” Rhiannon calls out. “Take the front!” She’s obviously thinking the same way. “Infantry, guard the healers and scribe!” She glances at me sideways, careful not to raise her eyes. “Violet, maybe you should—”

Keeping my head down, I push past Calvin to stand in the front, catching movement in my peripheral vision. “I’m not hiding.”

“What are you doing? It’s going to eat you,” one of the cadets behind us hisses.

I look over and see a healer, Dyre, a few feet to my right, staring straight at Baide, his mouth agape.

A growl rumbles up the orange’s throat, and I lunge, gripping the strap of Dyre’s medical pack and yanking him behind us, passing him to Ridoc, who quickly shoves him to safety and moves to my side.

“No, she’s not,” Sawyer says, moving forward with Ridoc so the infantry is behind us. “That’s why we’re taking the front.”

Baide swivels her head, then opens her mouth and curls her tongue, and I chance a quick glance, catching her hazy golden eyes narrowing to slits as she arches her neck, changing her angle instead of lowering her head to strike in the typical—

I inhale sharply. “Rhi, she’s going to blast right past us just like Solas.”

Rhi takes less than a second to assess and decide. “Second Wing,” she calls back. “Halt and cover the infantry where you are!”

Movement behind us ceases as Baide flexes her claws in the ground and swivels again, choosing a target.

“It’s… It’s…” Calvin babbles.

“Drop your eyes and shut up,” Rhi orders.

“Gods, they all smell scared,” Ridoc whispers from my right.

“Exactly how pissed at you do you think she is?” Sawyer asks me from Rhi’s left.

“She dropped a mountain on her rider.” Ridoc sighs like we’re all fucked, and I couldn’t agree more.

My heart leaps into my throat as Baide prowls backward, lowering her head to our level. It’s the perfect angle to torch us, but I resist the urge to look and keep my eyes trained on the grass in front of me.

Hot air gusts in our direction as she scents each of us, starting with Rhiannon and moving to Sawyer. There are a few muffled cries from the infantry cadets as she exhales a dank huff of steam, then breathes in again when directly in front of me.

I fight my racing heart. Last year, I might have accepted death. But this year…this year, I’m bonded to one of the deadliest dragons on the Continent.

That’s right. You might hate me, but I belong to Tairn.

And while there’s a good chance Tairn might die if I do, I’m not sure any dragon is willing to risk his wrath if he doesn’t. Baide draws back, then darts forward with an open jaw, snapping her teeth shut directly in front of my nose and pelting my face with saliva.

Holy. Shit.

Someone behind us screams, then fucking runs.

“No! Gwen!” Calvin shouts as Cadet Quiet breaks to the left, sprinting through the grass.

Baide’s head swings, tracking the movement, and my heart sinks as she drops her jaw, the side of her tongue visible ahead of me as it curls—

“Down!” Rhi shouts as the other squad leader, Tomas, runs after Gwen, catching her within a few strides and yanking her back by her uniform in the same way I’d snatched Dyre from the front, all but throwing her at Calvin as we drop as ordered. She stumbles to the ground at Calvin’s feet just as Baide’s nostrils flare.

Heat consumes the air around us at the same second my chest hits the ground, and I close my eyes like that can block out the sounds of screaming behind us.

“The Northern Esbens are believed to have been the hatching grounds of the orange dragon before unification, though, true to their unpredictable nature, they often chose new valleys in the same range,” I whisper as fire rages past, fighting to keep my heart from seizing.

I haven’t known this type of terror since Tairn began channeling, and definitely not since I manifested my signet.

The blast ceases, and Baide snaps her jaws shut, then swings her massive head in front of us one more time before crouching deeply and launching directly over us. I drop my gaze as her poison-barbed tail comes within a foot of me.

And then she’s gone.

We all scramble to our feet, and riders run…toward nothing. Brisa is the first to reach the charred ground where Tomas had stood. Her hand shakes as she reaches toward the still-smoking earth. My mouth waters as nausea rolls through me, but I keep my breakfast down.

Mirabel isn’t as lucky, retching in the grass a few feet away. “Tomas…” Cohen kneels beside Brisa.

Rhi pivots to face the terrified infantry, her fists clenched at her side. “And that,” she shouts, “is why you don’t fucking run!”

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