Chapter no 19

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

My heart pounds erratically as I walk past First and Second Wings’ dragons with the rest of my squad two days later for flight


Kaori stands in front of Fourth Wing, shifting his weight nervously beside Varrish, who watches me with a focus that makes my skin crawl, like he’s mentally tabulating how many strikes he’s going to make me wield in punishment for not producing Andarna. And the way Solas lurks behind him, his one golden eye narrowed on me, makes me wonder if Varrish will even wait until tomorrow.

Because obviously, from his angle, he can see that she isn’t here, and worse, he looks happy about it.

I made it to twenty-seven strikes in an hour this morning with Carr before my temperature spiked, and he seemed disappointed. That makes two of us, considering I didn’t hit a single point I aimed for. My arms feel like dead weight after all that wielding. If Varrish forces me up to that mountainside again today, I’m not sure I’ll come down.

“There is something off about that orange,” Rhiannon notes, adjusting the strap of her flight goggles as we approach Third Wing.

“You mean, like the fact that he torched Third Squad without a second thought?” Ridoc questions, buttoning his flight jacket.

“And Varrish seems so…controlled.” Sawyer stretches his arm across his chest. “Kind of uptight, you know?”

Unlike me, Sawyer’s only seen him at the surface level. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, fighting off the nausea that threatens to expel my breakfast.

“It’s definitely an odd pairing,” Rhi agrees as we reach Claw Section’s dragons. There aren’t any third-years on the field today, leaving more than enough room for the second-year dragons to spread out, but gods forbid Tairn not stand in the front row like the star of the show. I can already see his head above the others from here, and I’m pretty sure I just heard him chuff a sigh of annoyance.

Varrish’s mouth quirks into a polished smile at me, but the glint in his eyes makes the hold I have on my Archives doors weaken, trickling power into my system in preparation to fight.

“And what’s the deal with the way he stares at you?” Sawyer asks, shifting beside me to block Varrish’s view. “He’s always smiling at you like…” He shakes his head. “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“Like he knows something you don’t,” Rhi finishes, giving the Red Clubtail from First Squad a wide berth as we pass. “Is there some history with your mom, maybe? Some bad blood?”

“Not that I know of.” They don’t even know the half of it, but how could they when I haven’t told them? “But he’s obsessed with Andarna.” There, there’s some of the truth.

“She all right?” Sawyer asks. “I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“She’s been resting a lot.” I prepare myself for the utter misery of full leathers in the stagnant late-summer heat, then start buttoning as we approach Tairn. “She can keep up with simple maneuvers, but the stuff we’re doing now? Formation flights and timed rolls? There’s no point in putting her through this kind of stuff.” Selective truths.

“Makes sense.” Sawyer nudges me with his elbow. “See you up there!” “You look a little queasy,” Rhi notes once the guys are out of earshot.

“Everything all right?”

“I’m fine.” I force a quick grin and try to think of anything besides how much it’s going to hurt when Varrish gets ahold of me. “Varrish looks eerily delighted that Andarna isn’t here.”

“I will handle this.”

“Right. Of course you are.” Rhi’s mouth curves into a sad glimpse of a smile before she turns away, heading for Feirge, who waits on Tairn’s other side.

“Fuck,” I mutter, rubbing the bridge of my nose. No matter what I say right now, it’s always the wrong thing. “She’s never going to forgive me for keeping all this from her once she finds out.”

“She will,” he says, his head lowering slightly, but he doesn’t dip his shoulder even as I reach his front left claw. “Humans have the memories of gnats. Dragons hold grudges.”

“I’m going to forget you said that,” I tease back.

“Be alert.” His head swivels and I turn, unsheathing a dagger in the same moment.

“Surely you wouldn’t think of attacking a professor, would you, Sorrengail?” Varrish glances at my weapon, keeping that same mask of a smile in place. “Let alone a vice commandant.”

A low growl works up Tairn’s throat, and he curls his lip just enough to bare the tips of his fangs.

“I attack anyone foolish enough to sneak up behind me this year.” I roll my shoulder back and lift my chin.

“Hmm.” He leans to the side and looks past Tairn’s foreleg. “No little feathertail with you today?”

“Obviously.” Fear slides down my spine.

“How unfortunate.” He sighs, then turns his back on me, his boots crunching in the dry grass as he heads toward Solas. “There will be no maneuvers for you today, Sorrengail.”

My stomach rolls. “I’m sorry?”

Tairn shifts sideways, sweeping his foreleg around me so I stand under his chest scales.

“Not yet,” Varrish says over his shoulder, his brow puckering for a second as he notices Tairn’s stance. “But you will be. Warnings have apparently not worked, and I am hereby charging you with dereliction of duty for your dragon’s refusal to appear for maneuvers. You will mount and fly to your training location with Professor Carr to receive your punishment.”

“That will not be happening.” Tairn’s head lowers fully, and his body crouches into a defensive position.

“What is going on?” Rhi asks, her gaze jumping between Varrish and me as she walks back over to me.

“Obviously, her first punishment wasn’t enough to teach your subordinate, Squad Leader Matthias, so she requires another.” He blinks, tilting his head. “And as the vice commandant, I don’t owe you an explanation. Now mount up for maneuvers before you’re punished alongside her.”

“There will be no punishment!” Tairn roars, and from the abrupt head jerks of the dragons on the field, including Solas, everyone heard him. “It is not within your power to summon a dragon.”

It takes a second for thoughts to relay through riders, and Varrish stiffens. “Your dragon may not fall under my command, Sorrengail, but you do. So unless you’d like to further explore that delicate space between burnout and death, you will mount and present yourself—”

“Even the smallest dragon does not answer to the most powerful of humans, which you are not.” Tairn snaps his teeth, the sound carrying over the valley.

Feirge’s head draws back, and her golden eyes widen.

“Andarna does not answer to you.” Tairn stalks forward, his head and chest so low to the ground that he nearly touches my hair, and Varrish retreats. “I do not answer to you.

Oh shit. This could go very bad very quickly.

“But you”—Varrish points at me—“answer to me!”

“Does she?” Tairn lunges forward, bypassing Varrish entirely and surging toward Solas with an ear-shattering roar, his morningstar tail

lashing the air above me. Solas whips his head toward the ground to guard his most vulnerable area—his neck—but Tairn is faster, bigger, and far stronger. He’s already there, his enormous jaw locked around Solas’s throat. I gasp as Tairn’s massive fangs sink between the joints of Solas’s scales,

piercing his neck, and Kaori sprints to get out of the battleground.

Varrish turns and stiffens as crimson rivulets run over Solas’s orange neck scales, dripping off several of the ridges.

“Tairn…” What will the Empyrean do to him if he kills Solas?

“Only a rider can be the vice commandant of Basgiath,” Tairn warns, and Solas lets out a sound that’s half roar, half shriek. “Without a dragon, you are no rider.”

Oh gods. My heart lurches, the beat rushing to a gallop.

“Fine!” Varrish shouts, his fists balled at his side. “She will not pay a price for her dragon’s refusal to attend.”

“Not good enough.” Tairn’s teeth reach the edges of Solas’s scales as I watch in slack-jawed horror. “This is about you.

Solas half roars, causing his blood to pour even faster down his exposed neck as he whips his tail toward Tairn, but he’s half Tairn’s size and has no hope of making contact, thank Dunne.

“All right!” Varrish staggers forward, and for a second, I feel sorry for him. “All right,” he repeats, putting his hands up. “Humans have no authority to summon dragons.”

Rhiannon sidesteps until her arm brushes my shoulder, and Feirge lowers her head, as do Aotrom and Sliseag. Hell, every dragon I can see in my peripherals takes the same stance.

“Apologize,” Tairn demands, his voice low and sharp. “I’m sorry!” Varrish’s voice breaks.

“Apologize to the one Andarna deemed worthy of her bond.”

I try to swallow, but my mouth has gone dry. “Did he really just…” Rhiannon whispers.

“I think so.” I nod. “His apology isn’t necessary to me, TairnReally.

I’m happy to just not die today.”

“It is necessary to me, Silver One.” His voice rumbles in my head. “I speak for Andarna while she is in the Dreamless Sleep.”

Varrish pivots toward me, hatred and terror filling his gaze. “I am… sorry. It is not in my authority to summon any dragon.”

“On your knees.”

Rhiannon sucks in a breath, and Varrish hits his knees. “You have my most sincere apology—you and your dragon. Both of your dragons.”

“I accept.” My gaze darts frantically to Tairn’s. “I accept!” I shout just in case he didn’t hear me mentally.

Tairn dislodges his jaw with a wet, sucking sound as his fangs slip free of Solas’s neck, and he retreats with arrogant footfalls, not even bothering to lower his head or protect his throat. Rhiannon and I fall into the shade as Tairn blocks out the sun overhead.

And Varrish stares at me with a hatred so bitter I can taste it on the back of my tongue as Solas launches behind him with a roar aimed in my direction—or Tairn’s—leaving behind pools of blood on the grass below. Only once Solas is clear of the flight field does Varrish rise to his feet, and I don’t need words to hear him loud and clear as he sends one last, lethal look my way and then strides for the end of the field and the Gauntlet steps.

“Problem solved.” Tairn’s head swivels, watching Solas’s flight path, and the rest of the dragons in the field raise their heads again.

But my heartbeat doesn’t calm or even slow at the dread that curdles in my stomach. Varrish may have been my enemy before, but I have a feeling this just made Solas my nemesis.

“I thought for sure he’d cancel your leave after Tairn nearly slayed Solas,” Rhiannon says, walking the path toward the flight field with me

three nights later.

“Me too,” I admit as the bells chime a quarter before midnight. “I’m sure when Solas is healed, he’ll be right back in my face. Or worse.”

“It’s been a couple of days.” She glances over at me, and even though there are only a few feet between us, the distance feels insurmountable. “Are you really going to make me use some of those new interrogation tactics we’re learning to pry the truth out of you? Would you rather I go with the empathetic or more directly confrontational approach?”

“About?” I nudge her shoulder.

She shakes her head in frustration. “About Varrish’s little comment that you’d already been punished once before?”

“Oh. Right.” I take a deep breath and focus on my footsteps as we near the Gauntlet. “A few weeks ago, he got mad that Andarna wasn’t feeling up to maneuvers and used my signet training as punishment.”

“He what?” Her voice raises. “Why wouldn’t you tell us that?” “Because I didn’t want you targeted.” It’s the simplest truth.

“And he’s been targeting you?” She sounds incredulous.

“He doesn’t like not getting his way.” I adjust my pack on my shoulders and grimace as we approach the stairs alongside the Gauntlet. This is going to hurt like hell. I subluxated my knee yesterday during a challenge, but at least I won. “You really don’t have to walk all the way out here with me. It’s late.” I change the subject before she can dig deeper about Varrish.

“I don’t mind. I feel like I never see you anymore.”

Gods, I feel so fucking guilty. And frustrated. And…lonely. I miss my friends.

“I’m sorry.” It’s all I can think to say. “Hard to believe that the first-years are about to start training on this thing.” I look out over the Gauntlet, the five ascents of obstacles the first-years will have to complete in order to get to Presentation.

“More like dying on it.” She bites out the words.

“That, too.” My knee protests every step, threatening to buckle with each stair I climb, but the wrap holds it in place as I limp upward, my hand dragging along the rough stone that lines the staircase on either side.

“It’s fucking pointless.” She shakes her head. “Just another way to weed out the weaker—or worse, the unlucky.”

“It’s not.” As much as I hate to admit it, the Gauntlet has its place here.

“Seriously?” She reaches the top of the stairs and waits for me.

“Seriously.” I begin the walk down the flight field. “It made me look at everything differently. I couldn’t climb it in the same way you did, the others did, so I had to find another way. It taught me that I could find another way and still survive.” The moment on Tairn’s back, fighting that venin, plays through my mind, and my hand curls around empty air as if still clutching that dagger.

“I just don’t think it’s worth the lives it costs. Most of what happens here isn’t.”

“It is.” My rebuttal is quiet.

“How can you say that?” She halts, turning toward me. “You were right there when Aurelie fell. Is there any part of you that thinks she would have been a liability to the wing had she survived to Threshing? She was a legacy!”

I look up at the star-filled sky and take a breath before facing her. “No. I think she would have been a phenomenal rider. Better than me, that’s for sure. But I also know that…” I can’t get the words out. They lodge in my throat, held captive by the memory of Aurelie’s eyes widening in that second before she fell.

“I wish that for once you would just say whatever you’re thinking. I never know anymore.”

“You don’t want to know.” It’s the most truthful I’ve been with her since returning.

“I really do, Violet! It’s just us out here. Talk to me!”

“Talk to you,” I repeat, like it’s really that simple, and feel something inside me snap under the weight of both our frustrations. “Fine. Yes, it’s awful that Aurelie fell. That she died. But I think I’m a better rider for having been there, having watched her fall to her death and known that if I didn’t get my ass moving, I was going to be next.”

“That’s…horrible.” Rhiannon’s lips part, and she looks at me like she’s never seen me before.

“So is everything waiting out there for us.” I swing my arms out. “That stupid fucking Gauntlet isn’t just about physically climbing it. It’s about

overcoming the fear that we can’t. It’s about climbing after we see it kill our friends. Parapet, Gauntlet, Presentation—they seem excessive when we’re here, but they prepare us for something way worse when we leave. And until you…” I shake my head. “You don’t know what it’s like out there, Rhi. You can’t understand.”

“Of course I don’t know,” she retorts, her body tensing more with every word. “You won’t talk to me! You’re running with Imogen, or locked away reading, or spending every possible Saturday with Riorson. And that’s fine, I want you to get whatever support you need, but you’re sure as hell not talking to me, so how would you expect me to know anything? Don’t forget, Liam was my friend, too!”

“You weren’t there!” My anger slips from the box I painstakingly built for it, and power whips through me, scalding my veins. “You didn’t hold him, watch the light fade out of his eyes, knowing that there wasn’t a physical thing wrong with him but he was dying because Deigh lay eviscerated just a few feet away. Nothing I did in those moments before mattered! Gods, I held on to him so tightly!” My hands curl into fists, my nails biting into my palms. “My shoulders almost dislocated, he was so damned heavy, but I held on! And it didn’t matter!” Rage burns my throat, devouring me whole. “You haven’t seen what’s out there! What makes me run every fucking morning!”

“Vi,” she whispers, her posture sagging.

“And the look on his face?” My voice breaks and my eyes burn with the memory of Liam’s head in my hands. “You don’t see it every time you try to sleep. You don’t hear him begging you to take care of Sloane. You sure as hell don’t hear Deigh scream…” I lace my fingers on top of my head and look away, waging war with the grief, the pain, the never-ending guilt, and as usual, I lose. There’s only that box and the blessed emptiness I know is achievable if I can get a little control, but the words won’t stop coming. It’s like my mouth has disassociated from my brain and my emotions are running the show.

“And as horrible as it might be, as callous as it might make me, watching Aurelie fall, and Pryor burn, and even Jack-fucking-Barlowe get

crushed under my landslide prepared me for the moment I had to leave Liam’s body on the ground and fight. If I’d sat there and mourned like I wanted to, none of us would be here. Imogen, Bodhi, Xaden, Garrick— everyone—we’d all be dead. There’s a reason they want us to watch our friends die, Rhi.” I tap my chest with one finger. “We are the weapons, and this place is the stone they use to sharpen us.” The energy in my body dwindles, and the heat dissipates.

My stomach hollows out at the utter devastation on Rhiannon’s face.

Tairn’s wingbeats grow louder as he approaches, and the sound helps settle my heartbeat.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “And I’m glad you don’t know what it’s like.” Blinking rapidly clears the blurriness from my eyes. “I’m grateful every single day that you don’t have those memories, that you and Sawyer and Ridoc weren’t there. I wouldn’t wish that day on my worst enemy, let alone my closest friend, and even if I’m quiet lately, that’s what you still are—my closest friend.” But friends tell the truth. Telling her will put her in danger, but not telling her leaves her unprepared, just like we were. Shit. “And you’re right. I should talk to you. You lost Liam, too. You have every right to know—”

“No.” Tairn’s voice blasts through my head and wind gusts at my back a second before he lands behind me. “Solas’s rider.”

“Good evening, Cadet Sorrengail,” Major Varrish says directly from our left, mage lights popping on overhead as he walks around the boulders where he and his guards have been waiting only a dozen feet away. “Cadet Matthias. Sounds like I may have interrupted a discussion?”

His guards follow. Oh gods. I almost—

“But you didn’t,” Tairn says.

“Sir?” Rhiannon’s eyes widen as her gaze swings from me to the vice commandant.

“You know the drill, cadet.” He closes the distance between us and points to the ground. “Or are you going to argue that you’re not under my command at all now?”

Tairn lowers his head and rumbles a low growl.

Apprehension knots my throat, and I step to the side, taking Rhi out of Varrish’s direct path. Indignation isn’t going to help, so I swing my pack from my shoulders and open it, emptying the contents onto the ground. Then I shake the open bag to show him that it’s empty. “Happy?”

“Not yet, but one day.” His smile makes my stomach churn. “I’m patient.”

The rider finishes the search, taking a look inside my bag just to be sure I actually emptied it before handing it back.

“Enjoy your leave while you have it.” Varrish nods, that smile still frozen in place, and the three head off the field.

“Assholes.” I crouch down and Rhi matches the movement, helping me repack the bag. “Thanks.”

“Is that normal?”

“Yes.” We stand once everything is tucked away. “Are we glad they didn’t search you again tonight?”

“We are.”

“But…why?” Confusion lines her forehead. “What is going on? That couldn’t have been about Andarna.”

“They’ll never fully trust Xaden’s last name.” With good reason. I sling my pack over my shoulders and slip my arms through the straps. “I really am sorry for exploding on you back there. There’s no excuse.”

“Don’t be.” She offers me a sad half smile. “I’d rather you scream at me than pretend everything is all right with silence.”

At least there’s one truth I can give her. “Nothing is all right.”

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