Chapter no 32

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Xaden stares down at me that Saturday, his eyes boring a hole through my soul, and a muscle in his jaw ticks once. Twice.

At least there aren’t any shadows creeping out from under my bed, so he can’t be that angry, right?

“Say something.” I hold his gaze and shift my weight when the edge of my desk digs into the backs of my thighs.

His shoulders rise with a deep breath. At least one of us is getting enough oxygen. My chest feels like it’s about to squeeze my lungs right out of it.

“Rhiannon saved my life. If she hadn’t retrieved that dagger before Varrish took your jacket, I wouldn’t be sitting here.” It comes out like the plea it is. “They had to know eventually. She saw the dagger. She knew something was up.”

Those beautiful eyes close, and I swear I can feel him counting to ten. Fine, maybe twenty.

“Say something. Please,” I whisper.

“I’m choosing my words carefully,” he replies, then takes another measured breath.

“I appreciate that.” I open my mouth to make another excuse, but there really is none to give, so I sit and listen to the clock tick and rain pelt the window while he composes his thoughts.

“Who exactly knows?” he finally asks, slowly opening his eyes. “Rhiannon, Sawyer, Ridoc, and Quinn.”

“Quinn, too?” His eyes flare.

I hold up a finger. “That was all Imogen.”

“For fuck’s sake.” He drags a hand down his face.

“They don’t know everything.” He lifts his scarred brow, looking anything but reassured.

“They don’t know about Aretia or Brennan or the luminary issue.” I cock my head to the side. “Which really isn’t an issue if I can get a week away from this place to fly to Cordyn. It’s what? A two-day flight?” The city on the southern coast of the Krovlan province can’t be too far.

“Stop.” He leans in, bringing his face right up to mine, bracketing my hips on the desktop with his hands. “Do not go there with me. Not right now. This asinine idea of breaking into the Archives tonight is more than enough for me to sweat about without worrying you’re going to fly off and get yourself captured and killed in enemy territory.”

“It’s not an idea—it’s a plan.” I cup his cheeks. “And it doesn’t feel like you’re sweating to me.”

A sound like a growl works up his throat as he pushes away, retreating a step. “You have no idea what I’m thinking.”

“You’re right. I don’t. So tell me.” I grip the edge of the desk and wait to see if he’ll shut me out as usual.

He runs his thumb beneath the bottom lip I haven’t had the chance to kiss and glances toward the books piled on my shelves. “I appreciate you waiting for me to do this, but there are holes in your plan.”

“What holes?”

“You haven’t secured the agreement of the key participant, for starters

—” He lifts a finger.

“That’s because—”

“No, no, it’s my turn to talk right now. You asked what I was thinking, right?” He gives me the wingleader look—the shrewd, calculated one that used to scare the shit out of me—and I snap my mouth shut. He lifts a second finger. “Jesinia won’t be the only scribe there, which means there’s a

high probability of being caught.” A third finger joins the other two. “Not only do the books have to be stolen, they have to be returned before anyone notices. Or were you planning on staying overnight to read?”

“I wasn’t borrowing tomorrow’s trouble on that one,” I admit.

“And you really think we can get in and out in under an hour? Because the alternative leaves us dead.”

“We don’t have much of a choice if we want those journals.”

He sighs deeply, then closes the distance between us and takes my chin between his thumb and forefinger to gently tilt my face toward his. “How certain are you that the answers to the wardstone are in those books?”

“We’ve read through half the classified tomes on ward-weaving and repair in the last month, and whatever we haven’t, Jesinia has. They only cover weaving into existing wards or repairing them. Those journals are our best shot at learning how the First Six built the first wards. Our only shot.”

“You know they’ll kill us if we’re caught, right?”

Us. I slide my hands up his chest. “We’re dead anyway if we don’t get Aretia’s wards up. We have months if Brennan’s right, and he usually is. The truth is coming out. It’s just a matter of time.”

His attention drops to my mouth, and my pulse leaps. “If you’re certain this is the only way, then I’m in. There’s no chance I’m letting you do this on your own.”

My smile is instantaneous. “You’re not going to argue? Or tell me there’s another way?”

“Me? Argue with you about books?” He shakes his head, sliding his hand to my cheek. “I only pick fights I can win.” He lowers his mouth inch by slow inch, then stops a breath away. “It’s your turn to talk now.”

He hovers right there and waits, our mouths so close it would only take a whisper of movement to connect us. All it takes is his nearness, his touch, and my blood simmers. Anticipation flushes my skin, and he strokes his thumb along my heated cheek but doesn’t take what I so desperately want him to.

My breath catches at the realization that he’s giving me the choice not just to kiss him, but to call our night in Samara an exception.

But it wasn’t.

Leaning up, I brush my lips across his, then kiss him gently as if it’s the first time. This isn’t heat and passion, though I know it will be in a matter of heartbeats. This is something else entirely. Something that scares the shit out of me, and yet I can’t bring myself to pull away, even in the name of self-preservation.

I’m choosing him, choosing us. There will be no calling this a lapse in judgment, or the result of too much adrenaline, or even lust.

I love him. No matter what he’s done or why he did it, I still love him, and I know he cares about me.

Maybe it isn’t love.

Maybe after all he’s been through, he isn’t capable of that emotion. But I mean something to him.

He kisses me long and slow, like we have all the time we want, like there’s nothing more important in this world than the slide of his tongue against mine, the drag of his teeth across my lower lip.

It’s a bone-melting, intense assault on every one of my senses, and by the time he lifts his head, we’re both breathing harder.

“We have to stop, or we’re not leaving this room tonight.” He drags the backs of his fingers down my cheek and steps back when I force myself to nod in agreement.

I shake my head to clear it, and he moves toward the door. Where the hell is he going?

“I didn’t ask him to help us yet for a reason.”

“Yeah. I gathered that.” Xaden pauses, gripping the door handle, and looks over his shoulder at me. “I’m with you. I’ll do this. But you have to know the consequences if he says no.”

My stomach pitches. Telling him will expose us… “He won’t.” I’m sure of it.

Xaden dips his chin once, then yanks open the door.

Ridoc and Sawyer stagger forward, then slam into the wards and fall to the hallway floor.

My hand flies to my face as I smother a laugh.

“It’s soundproof when the door is closed, assholes,” Xaden growls. “And what the fuck is he already doing here?”

He doesn’t know why he’s here,” Bodhi is saying. “I just ordered him out of flight lessons.”

I hop off the desk and hurry to the door as Ridoc and Sawyer pick themselves up and split, revealing Bodhi, Rhiannon, Imogen, and Quinn across the hall.

Aaric stands between them all, leaning against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. “Figured you’d come for me sooner or later,” he says, his eyes narrowing on Xaden, shining with nothing short of malice.

The energy between these two is anything but good, which I should have expected. Xaden’s father started a war that Aaric’s father ended.

One by one, I pull them through the wards into my room, including Aaric, who hovers just inside the doorway, but I leave the door open in case anyone needs a quick exit. I turn to Aaric. “We need your help. And you can say no and walk away right now, but if I explain why we need you and you say no…” I drag in a shaky breath, reluctant to say what needs to be said.

“If we tell you why and you decline, you won’t be walking away,” Xaden finishes when I can’t.

“You think I’m going to lift a finger for you?” Aaric reaches for his sword hilt.

“Whoa, whoa!” Bodhi grabs for his sword, angling to step between them. “Everyone calm down.”

“You know what’s happening out there, and you came here for a reason, right?” I say to Aaric, putting myself in front of Xaden. “Help us do something about it.”

“You have no idea what he did to Alic!” he seethes.

“Your brother was a craven, murderous prick.” Xaden hooks his fingers into my waistband and tugs me backward, setting me slightly behind him before he shoves Aaric through the wards and into the hallway. “And I’m not sorry I killed him.”

Oh shit. I did not see that coming.

Three hours later, we’ve gone over the plan until we know not only our parts but everyone else’s, too. Bodhi’s had to step in between Aaric and

Xaden twice, but we’re finally on our way to the Archives. Turns out the key to securing Aaric’s participation was noting that he’d be stealing from his father. An hour from now, we’ll either have retrieved the journals or we’ll be dead. The Archives aren’t kind to visitors after the vault-like door closes.

“You sure about this?” I ask Aaric quietly as we walk down the tunnel from the infirmary in pairs, eight of us covered in scribe robes embroidered with second-year golden rectangles. This entire plan hinges on him.

“Absolutely. The only person I hate more than Xaden Riorson is my father. Just keep your boyfriend the fuck away from me.” He stares straight ahead.

“He’ll keep his distance,” I promise, glancing over my shoulder, past the others at where Xaden follows close behind, the only one who refused to wear a disguise. Then again, if I was a shadow wielder I’m not sure I’d walk around in anything but black, either.

“I’ll be wherever you are,” Xaden counters as the bells ring out six times, signaling the hour. “Remember, the goal is secrecy, not showing off. This isn’t the Squad Battle,” he says, his tone low.

We pass the stairwell on the right that leads up to the rest of campus and down to the brig, then round the last corner. The Archives door comes into view, and lucky for us, Nasya is exactly where I expect him to be: asleep at his post.

Bodhi moves quickly with Ridoc, slipping behind Nasya and hiding behind the door to keep watch.

First obstacle complete.

Jesinia surprises me, meeting us at the door. “No,” she signs, appraising our group, the lines of her mouth tense. “Only four of you. Any more, and it’ll be too suspicious.” Her gaze sweeps over Xaden. “Especially you.”

Fuck. Everyone here was chosen for not only their loyalty but their signets.

“No one will see me,” Xaden assures, keeping his voice low as he signs simultaneously. “Aaric. Violet. Imogen.”

Jesinia’s gaze catches on Aaric, and I see the moment she realizes who he is. The blood drains from her face, and she jerks her attention to me.

“Is he that obvious?” I sign as the others start to argue quietly.

“Only if you’re looking for it,” she replies. “They have the same eyes.” “The wonder of heredity,” Aaric signs.

“I can retrieve.” Rhiannon whispers her argument at Xaden.

“And I can wipe short-term memory if we’re seen,” Imogen replies. “Classified signet, remember? Your power is impressive, Matthias, but I’m the last line of defense around here.” She moves to Nasya, putting her hands lightly on his head. “Just in case.”

“We’ll stay close.” Quinn steps away from the group and motions at Sawyer and Rhiannon to follow. “Just in case you need us.”

Rhiannon looks between Xaden and me, clearly torn. “If something goes wrong—”

“Then you’ll go back to your rooms and act like it didn’t.” I hold her gaze so she knows I’m serious. “No matter what. Stick to the plan.”

Her shoulders drop and she nods, shooting me one last look of frustration before joining the others behind the massive door.

“Walk softly,” Jesinia reminds us, and my heart pounds as we file into the Archives. “We have to be quick. The Archives close in exactly an hour, and if we’re in here when that door seals shut…”

I swallow the nausea that’s threatening. “I know. We’ll die.” The Archives are warded with the ultimate pest protection.

“Just show us the way. We’ll do the rest,” Xaden says. He disappears the moment we cross the threshold, sticking to the shadows along the dimly lit walls. I can just see the vague outline of his shape if I look closely, but it’s almost shocking how well he blends into the darkness.

Or maybe it’s that the rest of the space is so bright, mage lights illuminating the rows and rows of bookshelves and empty study tables that

stretch to the back of the cavernous dome. Empty is good—and expected for a Saturday night—but there’s no telling who might be within the stacks or in the workrooms deeper within the Archives.

I force myself past the pinch of hesitation when I walk by the oak study table, following Jesinia. The marble under my boots is familiar and yet completely foreign. As many years as I’ve spent here, this is the farthest I’ve ever walked into the Archives.

Aaric glances down each row as we pass, but I don’t take my eyes off Jesinia, forcing my mannerisms, my posture, my pace to mirror hers. The quiet I usually find such peace in is unnerving under these circumstances.

Gods, so much can go wrong. What little dinner I ate threatens to reappear.

The three of us follow Jesinia as she turns left and cuts through the second-to-last row of tables, guiding us in the direction of the workrooms. The scent of bonding glue grows stronger, and my heart stutters at the sight of a scribe headed our way, coming from the same hallway we’re headed for.

The single golden rectangle on his shoulder marks him as a first-year, and though the Scribe Quadrant educates twice as many cadets as the Riders Quadrant, it’s still small enough that he should recognize us if we were what we’re pretending to be.

“Cadet Neilwart?” he signs while speaking, glancing at us in confusion. I lower my head and see Aaric doing the same, shielding our features as much as possible.

“Cadet Samuelson,” Jesinia answers, turning slightly so I can see her hands.

Fuck, we’re going to be caught before we even get near the wards.

“I’ve got this.” Xaden’s voice soothes the sharpest of the anxiety but not all of it.

But he’s here. He’s exactly why we waited for this particular night. Shadows creep from beneath the tables, racing for Samuelson’s feet, and

Aaric tenses beside me.

“I thought only you and Cadet Nasya were on duty tonight?” Samuelson asks.

“And yet you’re here,” she replies.

Tendrils of black rise up behind the first-year. “Wait.” The last thing we need is a dead scribe cadet. “This is me being patient,” Xaden answers.

“I forgot my binding assignment in Culley’s room.” Samuelson glances meaningfully at the cream satchel strapped over his shoulder.

“Forgetfulness doesn’t become a scribe,” Jesinia signs, and my eyebrows rise as I fight back a smile. “If you don’t mind, first-year, we second-years have things to accomplish. Not everyone requires weekends off to study.”

The first-year flushes in obvious embarrassment, then steps aside into the aisle.

Shadows fall back into place, and we walk forward as a group.

“I thought he might kill him,” Aaric whispers once we’re out of the first-year’s range of hearing.

“Wouldn’t have surprised me,” Imogen replies. “Might have been more efficient.”

We both whip our heads around to see her shrug.

Jesinia leads us out of the main library and down a well-lit hallway lined with windows and with a few classrooms on each side. The deeper we travel into the Archives, the tighter my collar feels.

Xaden catches up to us in a few strides, walking calmly beside me.

“Someone is going to notice all that black,” I lecture quietly as Jesinia turns to the right. This place is a fucking maze, and it all looks exactly the same.

“There’s no one here.” Xaden’s hands are loose at his sides, and he’s exchanged the swords he prefers at his back in favor of a short one, which tells me he’s prepared for close-quarters fighting. “At least not in this section.”

“Your shadows tell you that?” Aaric quips.

“I thought we agreed not to speak,” Xaden retorts.

Jesinia opens the third door on the left, and we follow her into what looks to be a classroom. No wonder the hallway is lined with windows; in here, it’s dark. Two of the walls are made of stone, and the back one is lined with books. The rest of the space is sparse, filled with rows of long trestle tables and benches that face a lone desk at the front of the room.

“Everything from here is only what I’ve been told,” she signs, worry pursing her lips. “I’ve never been farther. If I’m wrong about any of this—”

“We can handle ourselves,” I promise.

She nods, then walks to the far corner of the room, toward the long bookcase.

“Imogen,” Xaden orders, nodding toward the door.

She takes a lookout position, retrieving a knife from under her robes as Jesinia reaches for the back of the bookcase, moving several tomes out of the way before locating a lever.

She pulls down on the metal piece, and the corner of the room separates from the other stones. It rotates a quarter-turn with surprising near silence, revealing the opening to a steep spiral staircase.

Looking closely, I can see the faint lines of the metal track it spins on.

“Amazing,” I whisper. How many of these little hidden wonders exist around here? “What?” I hiss at Xaden when I catch him looking at me.

“I feel like I’m looking at what could have been.”

“And?” The secret entrance clicks into place, halting its rotation.

“You look better in black,” Xaden whispers, his lips brushing the shell of my ear and eliciting a shiver of awareness despite our current situation.

“This is as far as I can take you,” Jesinia signs. “If I’m gone much longer, someone may notice. According to the others, the normal Archives wards end here, so if you can’t get back in time, you’re safer down there overnight.”

“Thank you,” I reply. “I’ll be in contact as soon as we can return them.” “Good luck.” She offers us an encouraging smile, then leaves the four of

us to it.

Xaden leans into the stairwell. “Watch your step,” he tells us. “There’s a little light coming from the bottom, but we’ll need to keep the rest from

turning on.”

“We’re down to forty-five minutes,” Imogen says. Any longer and we’re either stuck and court-martialed…or dead.

No pressure.

“Then we’d better move quickly,” Xaden replies, lacing his fingers with mine before starting down the steps.

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