Chapter no 30

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

I tell them everything. Every moment that transpired from the minute I made the decision to leave our squad with Xaden for War Games to the

second I fell from Tairn’s back after being stabbed. But when it comes to revealing how and where I woke up, my tongue ties. I just can’t do it.

It’s not because I don’t trust them, but because it isn’t my secret to tell, and to do so betrays Xaden…and Brennan. It risks every life in Aretia.

So, I tell them almost everything that happened after Resson. Andarna, the assassination attempts, the daggers, supplying friendly drifts, Jesinia sneaking me classified books about the wards, even the theory that Navarre knows how to lure the venin—the rest spills out of my mouth in a deluge of words as they stare at me, their expressions varying from shocked to disbelief.

“I was right. Deigh wasn’t killed by gryphons.” Rhi sits on her bed, staring at the wall, her eyes unfocused as she processes.

“Deigh wasn’t killed by gryphons.” I shake my head slowly, sitting beside her.

“And you let him—let Riorson—lie for you.” Sawyer folds his arms across his chest.

I nod, a pit opening in my stomach as I wait for them to condemn me, to shout, to kick me out of the room, to end our friendship.

“And you’re sure the dragons know?” Ridoc tilts his head to the side, and his eyes slowly widen as if he’s talking to Aotrom. “The dragons know.”

“Feirge does, too.” Rhi grips the edge of her bed. “She’s stunned that I do. That you do.”

“Tairn says the Empyrean is split. Some of the dragons want to act, and others don’t. Without the Empyrean taking an official stance, none of the dragons are willing to put their riders in danger by telling them if they don’t already know.”

“And people are dying beyond the wards. All that propaganda is real.” Ridoc paces between the window and door.

“Yes.” I nod.

“They can’t keep a lie this big,” Ridoc argues, rubbing his hand over his recently buzzed hair. “It’s impossible.”

“It’s not.” Sawyer leans against Rhiannon’s desk. “Living in Luceras, I promise you the only news we got along the coast came from what the scribes put out as official announcements. It’s as easy as Markham choosing which news gets published and which doesn’t. We aren’t even open to trading vessels from the isle kingdoms.”

Ridoc shakes his head. “Fine, then what about the wabern, or whatever you called them?”

“Wyvern?” Rhiannon offers.

“Right. If you killed all those dragon-size monsters, then where are the bodies? They can’t hide an entire killing field, and Resson is close enough to Athebyne that someone would see. Liam wasn’t the only rider with farsight.”

“They burned them,” Rhiannon says quietly, looking away in thought. “The patrol reports from Battle Brief said the trading post was charred for miles and we’d have to find a new location for the quarterly trades.”

“How long do we have?” Ridoc stops pacing. “Until those things are at the border?”

“Some say a year, some say less. A lot less.” I turn to Rhi. “You need to get your family to leave. The farther from the border, the better.”

She lifts her brows. “You want me to tell my parents to leave the business they worked their entire lives for and uproot my sister and her family without telling them why?”

“You have to try,” I whisper. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t tell you.” Guilt threatens to swallow me whole. “And the truth of it is that you still don’t know everything. There are things I can’t tell you, at least not until you’re all capable of shielding Dain out. And I know that sounds like a bunch of bullshit because I’ve basically been lying to you for the last few months. And you have every single right to be angry at me, or to hate me, or to feel however you want to feel…of course.” A self-deprecating laugh slips free. “Because it’s exactly why I’ve been so pissed at Xaden.” I end on a whisper.

“Stop.” She takes a deep, shuddering breath and drags her gaze to meet mine.

“I’m not pissed at you.” I draw back, speechless.

“I’m a little pissed,” Ridoc mutters.

“I’m stunned but not angry,” Sawyer adds, shooting Ridoc a look.

“I’m not pissed at you, Vi,” Rhiannon repeats, her gaze locked on mine. “I’m just really sorry you didn’t feel like you could tell me. Am I disappointed and more than a little frustrated that you didn’t trust me earlier? Absolutely, but I can’t imagine how heavy this has been for you to carry.”

“But you should be pissed.” My eyes burn and a boulder forms in my throat as I look at them all in turn. “You should all be pissed.”

Rhiannon lifts her brows at me. “So, I only get to feel however I want as long as I rip you apart for not telling me? Not sure that’s fair.”

Breathe. I have to breathe, but the boulder feels like a mountain, now. “I do not deserve you.” Her reaction to my outright deception couldn’t be more different from how I’d torn Xaden to shreds. “Any of you.”

She yanks me into a hug, setting her chin on my shoulder. “Even if it makes me a target to know all of this, you put your own life at risk and shared your boot with me at Parapet when we were complete strangers.

How can you think I wouldn’t want to share this risk with you now that you’re my best friend?”

I hold her tight, torn between the absolute relief of her knowing—them all knowing—and ice-cold fear that all I did was expose them.

“We don’t run.” Sawyer moves toward us, then clasps my shoulder, squeezing lightly.

Ridoc walks over slowly and rests his hand on my upper back. “The four of us stick together. That’s the deal. We make it to graduation, no matter what.”

“If there’s a Basgiath to graduate from,” Sawyer remarks.

“I do have one question.” Rhiannon pulls back, and the others drop their hands. “If we only have months, then what are we doing about it?” There’s no fear in her eyes, just a steely determination. “We have to tell everyone, right? We can’t just let them show up at the border and start sucking the life out of people.”

Leave it to Rhiannon to jump into problem-solving mode. For the first time since returning to Basgiath after Resson, I don’t feel so alone. Maybe keeping his distance works for Xaden, but I need my friends.

“We can’t. Not until we have everything in place to fight. They’ll kill us all before we even get the chance to spread the truth, just like they did during the Tyrrish rebellion.”

“You can’t expect us to twiddle our thumbs while Riorson and his marked ones run around with the fate of the Continent in their hands.” Sawyer rubs the bridge of his nose.

“He’s right.” Rhiannon nods. “And if you think that establishing a second set of wards is the way to save people, then let’s do that. We’ll leave the marked ones to their weapons smuggling and focus on helping you research.”

“Solid plan,” Ridoc agrees, picking up the alloy-hilted dagger and studying it.

“Are you guys really volunteering to spend your time reading dozens of classified books on wards?” I look between them with raised brows.

“If it means we get to spend time in the Archives, I’m in.” Sawyer nods enthusiastically.

“And we all know why, my friend.” Ridoc grins and claps him on the back.

A spark of hope ignites in my chest. We’ll be able to read four times as fast, cover four times as many books. “There has to be a record somewhere about how the First Six created the first wards. Jesinia has been looking, but she doesn’t have access to every classified tome, and everything I’ve read has been edited or redacted during translation, including an account from the first of the scribes. It’s like they hid the knowledge when they changed our history, which I think happened about four hundred years ago.”

“So we’re looking for a book older than four hundred years.” Rhiannon drums her fingers on her knee as she thinks. “One that hasn’t been through a set of hands to translate or change.”

“Exactly. And Jesinia has already given me the oldest book she has access to on ward-weaving curricula, and it only covers expansion, not creation.” My shoulders fall as I sigh. “What we really need is a primary source, and I doubt the First Six sat around writing books after they founded Basgiath. They were a little busy.”

“Not too busy to keep personal journals.” Ridoc sets the dagger’s hilt in the center of his palm and tries to balance it.

Our heads turn in his direction, and my heart threatens to stop. “What?” Rhiannon asks.

“They kept journals,” he says with a shrug, moving as he tries to keep the blade upright. “At least two of them. War—” He catches us staring and quickly grabs the dagger by the handle. “Wait. Do I actually know something about the Archives that you don’t?” A grin flashes across his face. “I do, don’t I?”

“Ridoc…” Rhiannon warns, leveling a look on him I want nothing to do with. “Right. Sorry.” He sets the dagger on the desk and then sits beside it. “Lyra’s and Warrick’s journals are here. At least according to a classified ledger in your mom’s office, they are.”

“My mom’s office?” My jaw hangs.

“The ledger, not the journals.” He shrugs. “I thumbed through it when we were looking for something to steal during the Squad Battle, but it listed them in a sublevel vault, and you’d already said the Archives were closed, and then you suggested the map—”

“There aren’t any sublevel vaults.” I shake my head. “That you know of,” he counters.

I blink. “Jesinia would know if we had those books, let alone a sublevel vault.” My father would have told me…wouldn’t he?

Ridoc scoffs. “Right. Because the scribes have kept the biggest secret in Navarre’s history safe all these years by granting access to second-years.”

“He makes a good point,” Sawyer notes.

He does. “I’ll ask her to look.” And it hits me that I would have known this ages ago if I’d just trusted my friends. “But if I don’t even know about the vault, then they’re beyond classified. Retrieving them could definitely get us killed.”

Ridoc rolls his eyes. “Oh, good. I was wondering when it was going to start getting dangerous around here again.”

Jesinia knows nothing about a sublevel vault, so while she hunts, the rest of us pore over every book about ward-weaving and the First Six she

can give us.

Research goes a lot faster when four people are doing it. And I have to admit, it’s nice to look across my room during the hours we study and see my friends again.

But we don’t find answers. And Andarna remains suspiciously asleep. And Tairn kindly telling me not to worry feels like a giant trigger to do exactly that, so I do.

I never get a chance to tell Xaden about our discovery—or lack thereof. That next Saturday, our squad is pulled into another session of land nav with the infantry, this time with First Wing, and I spend two days wandering

the steep terrain of the mountains near Basgiath, avoiding Jack Barlowe— who is weirdly nice to everyone—at all costs.

“It’s like he met Malek and decided to come back a decent guy,” Rhiannon observes when we catch him tutoring first-years on the mat. “But I still don’t trust him.”

“Me, either.” The professors all seem to love him now, too.

The next week, Andarna is still sleeping, and Sawyer stumbles onto a three-hundred-year-old passage that confirms more than one wardstone was created.

On Saturday, not only is Xaden on duty in the ops room, but Mira is on patrol for the majority of my visit, and the weekend after, our squad is dropped into the Parchille Forest amid the changing leaves without supplies and told to walk our way out.

Message received. Tairn and Sgaeyl won’t be denied, but Xaden and I only get to see each other when we play by the rules—Varrish has determined that we’ve broken too many.

The next weekend, I have to choose between my squad receiving a zero if I don’t participate in a cat-and-mouse evasion operation against Third Wing in the Shedrick Woods and flying to Samara for Xaden.

It’s the very scenario Mira predicted last year when she learned I’d bonded Tairn—being forced to choose between my education, my squad, and Xaden and Sgaeyl. Tairn makes the choice before I can bludgeon myself about it.

We stay, but he’s fucking miserable the next day when Threshing comes, and I can’t blame him. I might not have a mating bond, but I’d chew my own arm off if it meant I had five minutes to talk to Xaden. Nothing I need to tell him can be written in a letter.

“You look more nervous than you did when it was our Threshing,” Rhiannon says, coming to stand next to where my squadmates have claimed a spot on the hillside across from where the Fourth Wing first-years wait with their newly bonded dragons.

“I haven’t seen Sloane yet, and I need to leave to take over the watch soon.” I sway back and forth nervously, like a mother with a colicky

newborn. I’ll find time to get to temple if you could just be with her, I promise Dunne, the goddess of war.

“She’ll make it.” The tension in Imogen’s folded arms tells me she’s not feeling quite as certain as she proclaims. In addition to the extra reps during our nightly workouts, she’s been more than a little short with me since I had to tell her that I spilled our secret, which then pressured her to tell Quinn, too.

Quinn took it a lot like Rhiannon, with grace and a sense of resolve.

Xaden’s going to lose his shit when I tell him, but I’ll deal with that when he gets here on Saturday. If they actually let us see each other.

“All of Flame Section is looking strong. Bodhi should be proud,” Quinn says with a hopeful smile.

“Visia bonded a Brown Daggertail,” Rhi says, nodding across the field to where the first-year stands in front of her dragon. “Avalynn, Lynx, and Baylor all made it, too. But I don’t see Aaric or Mischa.” She glances at me. “She’s the one who’s always biting her nails.”

“Oh. Right.” Guilt clogs my throat, and I swallow, but there’s no clearing it. While I’ve avoided getting to know anything about the first-years, Rhi hasn’t had that luxury.

Wingbeats fill the air again, and we all look to the right as a Blue Clubtail approaches with sapphire-hued scales that contrast the changing colors of the sunset sky, and he is beautiful.

“We’ve always been the better-looking species,” Tairn chimes in.

“Andarna?” I ask him every single day, and today, twice.

“She still sleeps.”

“That can’t be natural.” I shift my weight on the hillside.

“It’s…longer than expected.”

“So you keep saying. You have the Empyrean gathered.” I change the subject and glance back over my shoulder at the dragon-covered mountain, spotting Tairn high on the ridgeline above, just a little lower than the dragons I assume are their elders. “Plan on discussing anything tonight?” Without the cooperation of the Empyrean, we’re stuck.

“If we were, I couldn’t tell you.”

“Figured,” I say with a sigh, watching the blue land in the field directly in front of the dais where leadership, including my mother, watch.

“I’ll be damned,” Rhiannon mutters as Aaric dismounts from the Blue Clubtail like he’s been doing it for years, with an ease that reminds me of Xaden and Liam. I smile as he keeps his head down while recording his dragon’s name and makes it back without my mother recognizing him.

“There.” Rhiannon points toward the end of the field.

A midsize red the shade of a strawberry flies in, whipping her daggertail behind her when she lands in the middle of the field.

“A Red Daggertail,” I whisper, relief flooding my veins as Sloane clumsily dismounts, clutching her shoulder. “Just like her brother.”

Sloane hugs Visia tight, and I smile. I’m glad she has friends, that their year has the chance to become just as tight as ours.

“It’s hard not to loathe her for hating you.” Rhiannon sighs. “But I’m glad she survived.”

“I don’t need her to like me.” I shrug. “I just need her to live.”

“Squad Leader Matthias?” A rider from Third Wing wearing a black sash with a gray messenger insignia approaches.

“Here.” Rhi beckons him forward, then takes the folded parchment from his hand. “Thank you.” He leaves, and she breaks the wax seal to open the missive. Her gaze darts to mine, and she lowers her voice as Ridoc leans in. “Jesinia requests we meet her by the Archives door in fifteen minutes. She has a tome we’ve requested.” She reads our code phrase slowly, excitement growing in her eyes.

I inhale sharply, and my heart jumps as I grin. “She’s found the vault,” I whisper. “But I have the next watch, and Threshing is almost over. You have squad leader duties.”

“I’ll take your watch,” Ridoc offers quietly.

“And give Varrish a reason for me not to see Xaden this weekend? No way.”

I shake my head.

“Then I’ll meet Jesinia.” He reaches for the missive, and Rhi hands it over. “Sawyer can cover us here.”

We all agree, and Ridoc and I head toward the quadrant, keeping clear of the newly bonded dragons’ flight path.

“Which tower are we keeping watch on?” he asks as we enter the courtyard. “Dormitory?”

“Academic.” I point up to the turret where the never-ending fire blazes. “Ah. The burn pit. It’s going to be a busy night up there once the ceremony ends.” He nudges my shoulder. “I’ll come up right after I meet with her. And then I vote we join the Threshing celebration after your watch.” His head tilts. “Or at least I’ll be celebrating. Unfortunately, I think you limit yourself to celebrating with Riorson, now.”

“Go find out if all our problems are answered.” I laugh, and we part ways when I push open the doors to the academic wing. It’s eerily quiet in the building as I climb the wide spiral stairs up to the top floor. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been alone in the academic building in all my years here. Someone is always around. My heart rate increases with every flight of stairs, but I’m nowhere near as winded as I was when I made this journey for Aurelie last year.

I open the door onto the flat-topped turret and am immediately enveloped in heat from the flames rising from the iron barrel in the center.

“Violet?” Eya smiles and hops off the edge of the thick stone wall on the other side of the barrel. “I didn’t realize you were relieving me.”

“I didn’t realize you had watch before me. How have you been?” I make my way around the barrel and try not to think of how many of the cadets will have their things offered to Malek in the next day.

“Good—” Her eyes blow wide as she glances past me—and I turn, immediately drawing a dagger from my thigh and moving to her side.

Four grown soldiers in infantry blue rush out of the doorway, each brandishing a shortsword as they face us. My stomach drops to the bottom floor and crashes. They definitely don’t look lost.

“Infantry is not allowed in the Riders Quadrant!” Eya snaps, flipping her hatchet over her wrist and gripping the handle.

“We’re here with express permission,” the one on the right snarls.

“And paid well for the specific message we’re to deliver.” That ominous line comes from the tallest one on the left as they spread out on the far side of the barrel, splitting in the center to come at us from both sides.

Four assassins and two of us. They have the exit, and we’re pinned between the fire, the wall, and four stories of nothing. Not good. And they know it, especially by the slow smile the one closer to the center gives, the firelight reflecting off his blade as he raises it.

Fuck them. I did not survive the entirety of last year, or these last few months, to die on top of the academic wing.

“Kill them all,” Tairn orders. “Go left,” Eya mutters.

I nod and unsheathe another dagger. “Let me guess.” They take slow, coordinated steps toward us, and Eya and I pivot so we stand back-to-back. “Secrets die with the people who keep them?”

The one on the left blinks in surprise.

“It’s not as original as you’d think.” In rapid-fire, I flick two daggers at him, catching him in the throat and heart. Eya shouts behind me, charging at the two on her side as my first attacker falls like a damned tree, crashing into stone and driving my daggers deeper.

Blades clash behind me, and I lose sight of my remaining attacker in the high flames as I grab two more daggers. Shit, shit, shit. Where is—

Fire blasts toward my face and I dive to the left, narrowly missing the barrel that skids across the cobblestone floor and slams into the wall with a thud loud enough to wake the dead. My shoulder takes the brunt of the impact when I fall, and I grimace as I force myself onto my knees, ignoring the wide, unseeing eyes of the soldier I’ve already killed.

“I’m coming!” Tairn shouts.

Eya screams, and I make the mistake of looking back over my shoulder as one of the soldiers wrenches his sword from the middle of her chest.

Blood. There’s so much blood. It slides over her leathers as she clutches her ribs, and I watch in horror as she falls to her knees.

“Eya!” I shout, stumbling to my feet, but I can’t get to her with the barrel blazing between us. Pinching the edges of my daggers, I lunge

forward, then hurl both at the assassin she hasn’t slain, catching him in the chest.

I have two more out when I spin to face the only one left, but there’s no time to throw them. He’s used Eya’s death to close the distance. I gasp as he grabs ahold of my waist, locking down with a grip I can’t dislodge as he marches three quick steps to the edge of the tower.

No! I slice at his arms, but he holds fast despite the wounds. I kick hard in his stomach, and he sputters, and with the next kick, he releases me. My momentum sends me flying backward, and my daggers scrape both sides of the turret’s crenellations as I skid toward the edge, my feet kicking under me and finding nothing but air.

Fast. It’s happening too fast to do anything but react.

Instinct takes over and my hands splay wide against the sides of the crenellations, releasing the daggers. Clawing for purchase, I sail backward, my skin grating against the rock to slow me down as I do, and the tips of my boots hit the edge of the turret…then slip right off.

But the impact is enough to change the angle of my fall, and stone rushes up at my face for no longer than a heartbeat before my stomach collides with the edge of the turret, stealing what breath I have on impact.

My weight drags me the rest of the way backward, and I dig in with my fingernails and hold as my lower half kicks against the crevices in the stonework beneath me, looking for a foothold.

This can’t be happening, but it is.

“It’s nothing personal,” the soldier says, crawling forward onto the three-foot-deep wall.

I gasp for breath and cough at the first full inhale. There has to be a foothold below. There just does. This isn’t how I die.

My feet search and I can feel the ridges, but there’s nothing substantial enough to support my weight.

“It’s just money,” he whispers from his knees and reaches for my hands. Oh gods, he’s going to—

“No!” Power floods my veins, but there’s nothing to do with a strike this close.

“Just money,” he repeats, lifting my hands from the stone. Xaden. Sgaeyl. Tairn. This will kill us all.

The soldier lets go.

I scream, the sound so shrill it tears my throat, and I slide, scraping my forearms raw as gravity drags me down, the top of the turret fading from view, but my fingers grab hold of the tiny lip at the edge…and cling.

My heart lurches into my throat as my feet scramble. No foothold.

Barely any handhold, and my shoulders start to wail as I dangle.

“Just let go,” the soldier urges, crawling forward again. “It will be over before you—” His eyes bulge and he gurgles, grabbing for his throat and the dagger whose tip protrudes a few inches below his chin.

Someone has shoved their knife in through his spine.

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