Chapter no 15

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

When the sun sets the next day and we have yet to reach an extraction point, it’s clear we’ve failed our land navigation exercise.

All because we didn’t stop to make sure the two fucking maps matched and now have no clue where we are. Blisters have long since formed and popped on my feet, my bones ache from sleeping on the ground last night, and the idea of spending another night out here, just to wander aimlessly again in the morning, makes me want to scream in frustration.

How could something as simple as land navigation fuck us up this badly?

We’ve backtracked, crossed two creeks that look like they could belong on either of the maps, and narrowly avoided an encounter with an ornery Red Daggertail who—lucky for us—decided a nearby cow looked tastier than weary, hungry cadets.

As I sit against the trunk of a tree down the slight incline from our makeshift camp, relieving Ridoc of watch, it hits me that I know a slew of new names. Not that infantry dies at Basgiath at the same rate riders do, even though they’re the biggest quadrant, with over a thousand cadets at any given time, but once they get to their units? The upcoming war will devour them at a far faster pace.

“Did you get dinner?” Ridoc asks, brushing grass off his pants as he stands.

“I’ll grab some when I’m done.” I slip my pack from my shoulders and set it next to me. Not only have I been hiking for two days, I’ve carried textbooks with me. We all have. “Infantry caught a good amount of rabbit that should be done cooking any minute.”

“They’re way better at that than we are,” he admits begrudgingly, ruffling his hair. “You don’t think they’ll let us meander out here forever, do you?”

“I think whatever they gave us has to inevitably wear off.” I turn my head and see Cadet Dyre walking toward us with Rhiannon, carrying a plate. “And our dragons aren’t going to let us perish over our inability to work together enough to compare two maps. Then again, maybe they will. We might deserve it, since our stubbornness cost Tomas his life.”

“It’s…” He sighs, waving to the pair as they reach us. “Hey, Rhi. I was just saying that this whole exercise is a little cruel, don’t you think? Practicing torture, I get. Navigating land, I understand. Evading capture, sure. I’ll even make an argument for having to learn what bugs are edible. But it’s not like other dragons are waiting behind enemy lines to kill us.”

“You’d be surprised,” I mutter, exhaustion getting the better of my tongue.

“What?” Rhi questions.

“I mean, we really don’t know what’s out there, do we?” “Hopefully not fire-breathing gryphons,” Ridoc says.

“Right.” Rhiannon tilts her head, studying my face, and I quickly shrug. “Hi, Dyre.” I muster a smile.

“I brought you dinner.” He looks at me with a reverence I don’t deserve. “You didn’t have to do that,” I reply.

“I owe you my life, Cadet Sorrengail.” He hands me a plate of roasted rabbit. “The least I can do is bring you dinner.”

“Thank you.” I set the plate in my lap. “Just do me a favor and keep your head down next time” Another thing infantry has on us? They carry a rudimentary set of survival gear—including a mess kit—in their packs at all times, like they might be deployed at any second. We definitely have a few things to learn from each other.

“Anything you need. I’m at your service. I owe you a life debt.”

Before I can assure him that he doesn’t, Ridoc claps him on the back. “I’m going to take Life Debt back to camp.”

I nod in thanks, and the two walk back up the incline to camp. Dyre is sweet, but he’s been underfoot the entire two interminable days we’ve been lost in these godsforsaken woods.

“You know what’s out there,” Rhi says as she sits next to me, pulling her braids over one shoulder.

“What?” I fumble and nearly drop the plate.

“You’ve been attacked by gryphons.” She stretches out her legs and looks at me skeptically. “So you actually do know what’s out there…right?” “Right.” I nod a little too quickly, then cover a jaw-cracking yawn with my hand. My body is at its limit, but I’m sure I can push another couple of

hours to make it through watch.

Her frown is fast but unmistakable. “I’ve got the watch. Your body needs the extra sleep.”

“I can do it,” I protest.

“You can, but it’s my job to manage the needs of my squad, and you need sleep. Consider it an order.” There’s no room for argument in her tone. This isn’t my best friend speaking—it’s my squad leader.

“Order it is.” I stand, brushing the grass off my leathers with one hand and clutching the plate with the other, then give her a forced, tight-lipped smile before turning toward camp.


I look back.

“Something is going on with you,” she says quietly, but there’s no mistaking the steel in her tone. “I haven’t so much as seen Andarna since you returned, you’re running with Imogen of all people, you won’t open up about whatever’s up with you and Xaden, and you won’t talk about War Games. You might think that I don’t notice that you’re pulling away from everyone, but I do. You barely eat with us, and every chance we get to sneak into Chantara, you’re holed up in your room reading.” She shakes her

head, running her hand along the grass. “If you’re not ready to talk, to tell me what’s going on with you, I want you to know that’s all right—”

“There’s—” My stomach twists as I try to deny it.

“Don’t,” she interrupts softly, her unyielding gaze holding mine. “I’ll be here when you’re ready because your friendship is precious to me. But please, for the sake of that friendship, don’t insult me by lying.”

She looks away before I can think of a response.

There’s no sleep that night, but at least there aren’t any nightmares, either.

A convoy of horses and wagons arrives the next morning, as do the professors, who have choice words for our failure.

“You were in the Hadden Woods, though none of you could work together long enough to figure it out. It’s apparent that we have a lot to learn from each other.” Grady hands each rider a waterskin and smiles as the infantry professor does the same for her cadets. “Seeing as you were our top squads, I can’t deny that I’m disappointed, but at least most of you survived.”

He’s disappointed, but Tomas is dead.

I uncork and drink, tasting something sweet and hard to place as I drain


“Next time, we’ll make sure you have supplies,” he promises. “We

wanted to see how you’d make do this first time out, and now we know.” First time out. Great. We get to do this again.

The blanket thrown over my dragon bonds lifts, and power rushes through my veins. I feel like me again.


“Behind you,” he answers.

Wingbeats fill the air, and the horses prance nervously as our dragons land at the edge of the trees, the ground vibrating with the force of their landings.

“Holy shit,” Calvin says softly, backing away with the other cadets.

“You’re going to have to get used to them.” Ridoc pounds the squad leader’s shoulder. “They’ll be at the outposts you’re all stationed at once you take your commands after graduation.”

“Right…but so close?” he whispers.

“Probably closer,” Ridoc whispers back and nods.

The seven of us in black say our goodbyes, then head to our dragons.

“Does it bother anyone else that they just took away our bonds? Our signets? And then handed them back like it wasn’t…” Sawyer shakes his head. Even the rhythm of his steps is angry.

“Violating?” I suggest.

“Exactly,” he agrees. “If they did it just then, that means they can do it whenever they want.”

“It’s a new development this year,” Tairn says, his eyes narrowing on Professor Grady. “One I do not care for. I could hear you, sense you, but you could not reply.”

“Tairn isn’t a fan, either.” Gods, I’m so tired. Why the hell would leadership be developing ways to weaken us? Because that’s what it felt like, being weakened, being cut off not only from my greatest sources of strength and support—Tairn and Andarna—but the very power I’ve come to depend on.

“See?” Rhiannon says. “I know you don’t believe me, but I’m telling you that things are weird this year. Guarded infirmary doors? Developing elixirs to muffle our bonds? You were nearly assassinated at assessment.”

“Panchek thinks that was someone looking for revenge on my mother, and I didn’t say I don’t believe you,” I counter with selective truths.

“You don’t say much, period.” She shoots a look at me.

Keeping secrets from her is going to shred our friendship. Already, I feel it pulling at the seams. She might be trying to be patient, but it’s her nature to solve problems and I’m a huge one.

Tairn dips his shoulder at my approach.

“Please tell me you got to see Sgaeyl?” I ask, summoning the energy to mount. Not sure how, but I manage to climb to his back and settle into the


“I did for a couple of hours. That’s all the time I was willing to be out of range from you, and only after Baide left.”

“And they’re already gone, right?” Why does it feel like my heart is breaking all over again? Missing Xaden is illogical and annoying and kind of pathetic, but I can’t make the feeling ebb.

“We will see them in a week.”

So why does every instinct I have scream we won’t?

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