Chapter no 23

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

The key can be found in my desk drawer.

As far as secret phrases go, that one is laughably uncreative, but nevertheless, it’s the one I’m quietly given after we enter the training facility. The entrance is so well hidden in the cliffside under the foundation walls of the quadrant that I’ve never seen it in all the years I’ve lived here. It’s remarkably accessible for its intended purpose.

The antechamber of the windowless, guarded cave isn’t too bad as far as torture chambers come. It could even double as an office. A large wooden desk consumes the center of the space, with a high-backed chair on one side and two on the other. They disarm us as soon as we arrive, our weapons taking up a respectable amount of the desk’s surface.

But it’s the two chambers beyond that make me wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast. Both doors are braced with steel, and both have a barred window currently held closed by a steel latch.

“You’ve all been given your classified information to protect,” Professor Grady says, leading us into the chamber on the right. There’s a scarred wooden table in the center of the dome-shaped room with six chairs, and along the cobblestone walls are five wooden beds with no mattresses and a door that I’m desperately hoping leads to a bathroom or things are going to get awkward over the next couple of days. “Have a seat.” He gestures to the table.

We all do as we’re told. Rhiannon and I take the chairs across from Sawyer and Ridoc, the wood scraping the stone as we sit, all managing it without the use of our hands.

“For right now, we’re in what’s called a classroom setting. Remember what that means?” Professor Grady reaches behind Sawyer, and a second later, Sawyer’s hands are free.

“It means we’re not in the graded scenario,” Rhiannon answers. “We can ask questions.”

“Correct.” Professor Grady moves to Ridoc and does the same. “The purpose of this exercise really is to teach you how to survive capture,” he assures us. “These next couple of days are instructional only.” He reaches for my bonds next, untying the rope with surprising gentleness. “It’s an assessment.”

“So you know which buttons to push when it’s the real thing,” Ridoc says, rubbing his wrists.

“Exactly.” Professor Grady smiles. “Is it going to be fun? Absolutely not. Are we going to show you mercy? Also, no.” He moves on to Rhiannon once my hands are free. “And Vice Commandant Varrish seems to have taken an interest in your squad, no doubt because you have quite the legacy here in Cadet Sorrengail. So unfortunately, it looks like we’ll all be evaluated in how we handle this.”

Two riders walk in with trays of food and pewter mugs, setting them down on the table. There are more than enough biscuits for the four of us and a jar of what looks to be strawberry jam.

“Eat and drink,” Professor Grady says, gesturing to the trays. “You won’t have the opportunity once we enter the scenario. Also”—he flashes a grin— “there’s a patch up for grabs if you manage to escape. Though from what I hear, no squad has managed it in the last decade.”

“It’s as good as ours,” Ridoc responds.

“Confidence.” Professor Grady nods at Ridoc. “I like that in a second-year.” He moves toward the door, then turns. “I’ll let you know when we begin the scenario. Until then, you all need to share a secret. Something no one else outside the four of you could possibly know. And yes, we’re going

to try and force it out of you, along with the secret phrases you’ve already been given. Remember the coping mechanisms you’ve been taught in class so far, and this will be over before you know it. Every rider who graduates has sat where you’re sitting and made it through what you’re about to experience. Have faith in yourself. We’re doing this for you, not to you.” He offers a final reassuring smile, then takes his leave, shutting the door behind him.

Rhiannon moves immediately to the door, examining the bars and sealed hatch. “It’s not sound-shielded that I can tell, but if we keep our voices down, we should have a modicum of privacy.” She tries the handle. “And we’re definitely locked in.”

Sawyer parcels out the food onto the four plates we’ve been given. “It’s all so…civilized,” I note as he slides a plate in front of me.

Rhiannon checks the other door. “And that’s a bathroom, thank gods.”

“I wonder if they take it away during the actual test,” Ridoc muses, slathering jam onto his biscuit with the lone knife we’ve been provided.

“Fuck, I hope not,” Sawyer says, taking the knife from Ridoc. “Anyone else wondering if we’re expecting company?” He nods toward the bed on the end.

“Statistically, five second-years are alive in each squad at this point,” I say, reaching for one of the mugs on the tray. “We lost Nadine.”

Silence falls for a second, then two.

“Well, we’re not losing anyone else. The four of us will make it to graduation,”

Rhiannon says, grabbing a mug for herself, too. She sniffs at it, then sets it down. “Smells like apple juice. All right. We don’t know how much time we have, so let’s go. Pick a secret—any secret—and share with the group.” The knife and jam go to her next. “I’ll start. Last year while we were at Montserrat, Violet and I snuck out so I could see my family.”

“You what?” Sawyer’s brows rise.

Ridoc swallows his bite. “Badass. Didn’t know you had it in you to break the rules, Violet.”

“Oh, Violet’s full of secrets, aren’t you?” Rhiannon shoots a look my way and hands me the knife.

“Really?” I dish out the jam a little too aggressively.

“Whoa.” Ridoc glances between us. “Am I picking up on some tension?”

“No,” Rhi and I simultaneously answer, then look at each other. Both our shoulders sag, and she sighs, looking away. I guess that’s where our line is drawn. This thing we’re going through is just between us. “We’re fine,” she says.

Somehow that makes me feel a little better, but not much.

I bite into the biscuit and chew thoroughly just in case whatever they put us through makes me puke it up later. I need a secret I can share that won’t get any of them killed.

“I didn’t tell my parents I had to repeat,” Sawyer says, his gaze locked on his plate. “They didn’t even question my first letter this year. They assumed that Riders Quadrant cadets couldn’t write for the first two years, and I let them believe it. I just didn’t want them to be embarrassed of me.”

“You’re not an embarrassment,” I say softly, reaching for my mug. “And I’m sure they’re just glad you’re alive. So many of us aren’t.”

“Agreed.” Ridoc nods, his hands wrapped around his mug. “I’m terrified of snakes.”

“That’s a shitty secret,” Sawyer counters, his mouth lifting into a smile. “Surprise me with one, and you’ll see just how shitty. Besides, you

didn’t know it, so I think it qualifies.” Ridoc shrugs. “We’re not supposed to have a weakness in the quadrant, right? That’s my weakness. I scream like a toddler every time I see one.”

Everyone looks my way. Here we go. “I’m in love with Xaden Riorson.” Mira. Them. I seem to be able to say the words to anyone who isn’t Xaden.

“Hate to break it to you, but that’s not a secret,” Ridoc says, shaking his head. “Yes, it is,” I argue, my grip tightening on the mug.

“No,” Sawyer chimes in. “It’s really not.”

“Hasn’t been for a while,” Rhi adds, giving me the first real smile I’ve seen from her in weeks. “You’re going to have to do better than that.”

They’re supposed to be my center, my backbone, my safe place. That’s why squadmates are forbidden from killing each other. Venin. Wyvern. The daggers. The wards. Andarna. Brennan. Aretia. I have too many secrets to count, and none of them are safer for it—they’re just blissfully ignorant.

“Can’t my secret be the same as Rhiannon’s?” I ask. “No,” they all answer.

One thing. There has to be one thing I can tell them that might help prepare them for what’s coming. “Our infantry is killing Poromish civilians at the border.”

“What?” Sawyer leans in, his freckles standing out as the blood drains from his face.

“There’s no way,” Ridoc argues. Rhiannon stares silently at me.

“Happened while I was at Samara.” I look them each in the eye. “Whether or not we’re getting updated at Battle Brief, it’s happening. Good enough secret?”

They all nod, and I look away when I catch Rhiannon studying me.

“Good,” I say, lifting my mug. The others do the same. I breathe in, tilting the mug to drink— “Stop!” I hiss. “Don’t drink it.” I set it down like the poison it is.

“What the hell?” Ridoc asks, putting his mug on the table.

“It smells like the water they gave us before the land navigation course,” I whisper.

Rhi and Sawyer set theirs down, too.

“They’re trying to disconnect us from our dragons,” Sawyer notes. “Or dull our signets,” Rhiannon adds. “Did anyone drink?”

We all shake our heads.

“Good. Don’t tell them. Fake the disconnect.” She rises quickly and we follow, each dumping the content of our mugs in the toilet. “We can survive for three days without water, and we should be out of here tomorrow. No matter how thirsty we get, we’ll live. We hold the line.”

Now I understand the biscuits. My mouth feels like I’ve been eating sand. “We hold the line,” Sawyer agrees as we return to the table and sit.

“Fuck tomorrow. I say we break out tonight,” Ridoc whispers. “There have to be keys that you can transport, right?” he says to Rhi.

“Not through walls.” She shakes her head. “I’m close but not there yet.” “Or you can bend the metal hinges?” That one is directed to Sawyer.

“Hell, I can pull moisture out of the air and force ice through the lock.” He turns to me.

“I’m of absolutely no use in this situation.” I lean back in my chair. The door swings open and Professor Grady walks in.

“We can’t reach our dragons,” Rhi says, lifting her chin. “You tricked us.”

“Lesson number one.” He holds up a finger. “We’re always in scenario.” Ten minutes later, we find out what the second chamber holds—not much— when they chain Ridoc, Rhiannon, and Sawyer to the rock wall they’ve been ordered to sit against. They’re close enough together that they can almost but not quite touch as their wrists are cuffed in hanging manacles. There are at least six other sets on either side of the trio, and the

mage lights above us show every dried blood spatter on the stone.

“I’m guessing the seat is for me?” I ask Professor Grady, eyeing the stained wooden chair in the center of the cylindrical room and its shackles along each armrest and leg. My heart pounds like it has a chance of escaping my chest, escaping this room. There’s a drain under the chair, but I refuse to even think about what it’s for.

“It is.” He motions, and I sit, ignoring every instinct to flee. Panic threatens to choke me as he locks my right arm into the shackle, then does the same with both of my legs, leaving my dislocated shoulder in the sling. “Here is where I leave you.”

“You what?” Ridoc pulls against the shackles at his wrists, but they don’t give.

“I’ll read the reports and give you my advice before the exam,” he tells us. “But we learned a long time ago that it doesn’t exactly foster trust between cadets and professors if we’re the ones doing the questioning.” He looks at each of us in turn. “Remember what you’ve been taught. They’ll try to separate you, turn you against one another, or make you think that

talking is an act of mercy. Use the strategies from your reading. Lean on one another. I’ll be just outside the entrance. You make it to me, you earn that patch. Good luck.” He smiles like he didn’t just serve us up to be beaten, then leaves.

“Is now a good time to admit that I haven’t done this portion of the reading?” Ridoc asks once we’re alone.

“No!” Rhiannon shoots him a glare.

“Violet, are you all right?” Sawyer asks.

“I’m the only one in a chair, so I feel like I’m one up on you guys,” I joke, but it falls flat as the door opens behind me.

Two riders I’ve never seen before—one man, one woman—enter. The man offers us a smile. “Well, hello there. You are all prisoners selected for interrogation,” he says, leaning against the wall, just out of reach from Sawyer. He’s average, unremarkable in height, looks, even his hair. I could have passed him a dozen times in the halls of Basgiath, or any of the outposts, and not noticed him. Same goes for the woman. It’s as if being unmemorable is necessary to the job.

The woman circles me, a vulture scenting for weakness. I lift my chin, determined to show none.

“You each have one piece of information we need,” the man says. “Give it up now, and this all ends. It’s as easy as that.”

“My map is under my mattress,” Ridoc says. My jaw fucking drops.

“Ah, going with the start-lying-immediately-so-they-won’t-know-when-youtell-the-truth strategy.” The man grins. “Good one. But unfortunately for you, my signet is similar to Lieutenant Nora’s and has to do with your bodily functions. In layman’s terms, I’ll know when you’re lying, and you are lying.”

The woman lashes out, the back of her hand striking my cheek so hard that my head snaps to the side. Pain bursts and I blink rapidly, then run my tongue over my teeth. No blood.

“Silver One!”

“Not now.” I slam my shields up to spare him this.

“Violet!” Ridoc shouts, surging against his chains.

“I’m all right,” I tell him, tell all of them. I do what I always do, compartmentalize the pain and push past it, forcing a smile. “See? Fine.”

Rhiannon quickly masks her horror, but Sawyer doesn’t bother to hide his disgust with our captors.

“You’re the weakest. That’s why you’re first up,” the woman says, disdain dripping from her low voice. “We’ve read the files on all of you.” She drops to a crouch in front of me, then looks me over, her attention catching on my hair, the sting of heat at my cheek that I’m sure bears her handprint, and finally the sling. “How did someone as frail as you survive your first year?”

“You three carried her, didn’t you?” the man says, looking at my squadmates. “What an unfair burden to put on first-years.”

“Don’t tell them anything they can use against us,” Rhiannon orders.

The woman laughs. “As if we don’t know everything already.” She stands slowly. “Tell us the secret you’re keeping.”

“Fuck off.” I brace, and sure enough, her hand flies at my face. This time, I taste blood, but none of my teeth are loose. I build a mental wall around the pain, picturing it disappearing beneath the box I build for it, just like I do with my shields.

“Quite the mouth for a general’s daughter,” the woman sneers. “Who do you think I got it from?”

Her facade slips, and she genuinely smiles for a heartbeat before masking it. “How about this? Any of you give up your secret, and I won’t shatter her pretty little face.”

“It’s going to take a lot more than that to break us,” Rhiannon says.

“I couldn’t agree more. Don’t watch,” I tell my squadmates, then brace.

She hits from the other side, striking higher, and my cheek explodes. At least that’s how it feels. The initial wave nauseates me, then dissipates into a dull throb. My vision in my right eye blurs and something wet trickles down my cheek.

“Maybe she’s not the key,” the woman says, backing away from me and heading for the others. “Maybe you’re all sick and tired of having to carry

her frail weight.” She tips Ridoc’s head up. “Or maybe she’s only strong for herself.” She closed-fist punches him in the face. Blood and saliva hit the wall next to him.

Rage overtakes the pain, and I try to rock forward, but not only are my arms and legs shackled, the chair is bolted to the floor.

She looks over her shoulder at me. “You have the power to make it stop.” She hits again.

I close my eyes and wish I could close my ears when I hear his grunt after the next punch. And the next. And the next. When I open my eyes— correction, eye, we’ve all taken a hit.

“Let them sit with that for a minute,” the man suggests. “They’ll soften up in a couple of hours.” The woman agrees and they leave us, shutting the door but not the hatch on the window.

“Well, this fucking sucks.” Sawyer spits blood onto the floor. “Violet, your eye…” Rhiannon says softly.

“It’s swelling shut, not falling out.” I shrug with my good shoulder.

“If that’s their opening, what’s next?” Ridoc asks. His cheek is split wide open.

“They’ll try to turn us against one another,” Rhiannon answers. “We don’t break. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” We all say it.

The worst part isn’t the pain or the swollen eye. It’s the hours of waiting, the not knowing when they’re going to come back and dish out worse. And then worse comes and leaves us all with more bruises in various places.

I’m pretty sure that last blow left Sawyer concussed.

Without windows, it’s impossible to know how much longer we have to hold out for when we don’t know what time it—

“What time is it?” I ask Xaden, lifting my shields just enough to communicate.

“Almost midnight,” he answers. “Are you—”

“Don’t finish that question. You know what happens down here.” “Yeah. I do.”

“It’s almost midnight,” I tell the others quietly. “We still have all night to go.”

“Is Tairn listening for the bells?” Sawyer asks, turning his face against his shackled arm to clear some of the blood off.

“Not exact—”

The door opens and the man walks in carrying a pewter mug. “Who’s thirsty?” He drops down in front of Sawyer, blocking my view of his face. “It’s right here. And you don’t even have to give me your secret. You just have to tell me one of their personal ones.” He motions down the line. “It doesn’t count as breaking. It’s just a personal detail that doesn’t mean anything.”

“Fuck you.”

“Pity.” The man tilts his head. “You’re just not thirsty enough yet. Don’t worry. You’ll get there.” He moves to Rhiannon, then Ridoc, then me. Our answers are all the same.

“Tight-knit group, aren’t they?” Chills race down my spine as Varrish walks in, eyeing us all with unfettered joy.

“They are, sir,” the man says.

Varrish rubs his thumb across his chin. “Doesn’t someone usually give up a personal detail by now?”

“They do, sir.”

Pride flares behind my ribs.

Varrish leans down and flicks the green Iron Squad patch on Ridoc’s chest.

“I’m guessing that’s how they earned this last year.” He stands and sighs. “This is taking too long.”

“Sir, we’re using standard interrogation protocol,” the woman says, entering the chamber.

“Then it’s a good thing that I’m here.” His cheery disposition scares me more than the woman’s fist. “This is my area of expertise—interrogation. And I have just the thing to crack them in record time.” He looks toward the hallway, then crooks his fingers. “Come on in. Don’t be shy.”

Rhiannon’s eyes flare, her gaze jumping from the doorway to me. The fear I see there hits me like a punch to the stomach.

“I believe you all know Wingleader Aetos?”

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