Chapter no 33

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Shadows blanket the ceiling, blocking any mage lights that could flicker on at our presence, so I put my free hand on the wall as we descend the

stairs slowly. Every step is a gamble in the darkness, but miraculously, no one stumbles.

Pale blue light blooms at the bottom of the staircase.

“A mage light?”

“There are two guards at the end of this hallway,” Xaden answers, slipping his hand from mine. “Wait here while I solve that problem.”

I put my hand up to signal the others to stop when we reach the final step. The space opens into what looks to be a hallway, but Xaden doesn’t question which direction to take. He moves quickly to the right, lifting both hands. A crumpling sound follows.

“Now,” he says aloud.

The hallway is maybe thirty feet long and little more than a glorified tunnel supported by carved pillars over a stone floor. It smells like earth and metal and feels dank with humidity. At one end, light shines through an open archway. Glancing over my shoulder, I see that only darkness consumes the other possible path.

“There isn’t even a door?” Imogen asks as we hurry down the hall. “No need with wards that strong,” Xaden comments.

“I can feel them.” The thrum of sharp, intense power grows stronger the closer we get. The hair on the back of my neck rises, and my own power surges in answer to what feels like a hell of a threat.

“We have a few minutes before these two will wake up. I didn’t hit them that hard,” Xaden says as he and Imogen drag the infantry guards to the side, clearing the path.

“Those wards are some uncomfortable shit.” Imogen rolls her shoulders. “There’s a hum, but it’s not that bad,” Aaric replies as we stare through the warded archway with its intricately carved stonework to the shelves of

the small, circular library that lies beyond it.

“That bodes well for getting past,” Imogen remarks. “And you’d better hurry.”

“You’re looking for two journals,” I nervously remind him, even though we’ve gone over this three times.

“There have to be at least five hundred tomes in there.” Aaric’s gaze skims the shelves, and he sighs.

“You’ll have to search—”

“Violet!” Xaden shouts as Aaric grips my hand and strides forward through the archway, yanking me along.

Powerful magic ripples over me as I stumble through, pricking every inch of my skin and twisting my stomach with the feel of a hundred-foot freefall as he pulls me into the library.

He releases my hand and I hit my knees, falling forward and catching myself on my hands. Nausea overwhelms every other sense. My mouth waters and my head hangs as I fight back the urge to vomit.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” Xaden snaps from the other side of the wards. “Tell me you’re unharmed.”

“Queasy, but I’ll live.”

Aaric ignores Xaden, dropping to a crouch in front of me. “Are you all right, Violet?”

I force air in through my nose and out through my mouth. “Tell me you knew it would let me through,” I bite out as the worst of the illness passes. “Because it sure as hell didn’t want to.”

“My father doesn’t have anything warded that isn’t worth showing off,” he explains, holding out his hand. “So, I took a chance that you wouldn’t smack into the wards like a wall. And I can’t get through these books in the next forty minutes alone. You’re the one who knows what to look for.”

I ignore his hand and push to my feet despite the smarting pain in my knees from the impact. I turn in a circle, taking the library space in. There are six heavy bookshelves with glass doors lining the circular walls, and a pedestal of cabinetry in the middle decorated with a velvet tablecloth embroidered with the king’s signet. Above us, mage lights emit a soft glow, the illumination catching on the curves and knot-like lines carved into the decorative ceiling about five feet above Aaric’s head.

The scent of damp earth is gone, and it’s considerably cooler in this room than the tunnel beyond the archway. I scour above me, but there are no windows for ventilation or any visible modifications I can see. It’s not just the wards. There’s magic in this room.

“Pull me in. Now,” Xaden demands.

“No,” Aaric replies without so much as glancing in his direction. “The only perk I’m getting out of this whole expedition is knowing how much it must pain you to realize you can’t get to her.”

“Stop antagonizing him and get to work, Aaric. You start to the left and ignore anything that’s not handwritten.” I peek through the archway to see Xaden in full fuck-you mode.

His hands are loose, and shadows rise around him, forming blades as sharp as the one he carries. But it’s the cool, calculating wrath in his eyes that makes me worry for Aaric’s health—which is why I don’t insist he pull Xaden in. “I’m fine,” I promise him.

“I’m going to fucking kill him.”

“Then you’d be responsible for the deaths of two princes.”

“Warrick and Lyra, right?” Aaric questions, already pulling tomes from the shelves.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Alic deserved it. He was a bully and forfeited his life by coming after Garrick during Threshing. Though I wonder who it was that told Aaric,

since if his father knew I highly doubt I’d still be in possession of my head.” “Well, Aaric doesn’t deserve it.” I skip the right side of the shelves in favor of the cabinetry. If I had a six-hundred-year-old book that was worth our entire kingdom, I’d store it where it was least exposed to the elements. I pull open the first drawer, which stores two books—The Study of Winged Creatures, which looks to be at least half a century old, and A History of the

Island Wars, which appears even older.

“These are all journals,” Aaric says. “Looks like every commanding general of the armies since the Unification.”

“Keep going.” I check the next drawer, then the next, and so on, until I’ve opened three-quarters of the storage. It’s an exercise in self-control not to open every book and devour its contents. There are tomes here on the early wars, the history of the individual provinces, mythology of the gods, and even what looks to be the earliest tome I’ve ever seen on mining practices. My fingers itch to turn the pages, but I know better than to damage the parchment.

“This shelf is all journals of the commanding generals of the riders?” Aaric lowers his hood and glances over his shoulder at me.

“They used to be separate positions.” I move to the last section of the center pedestal. “Healers, infantry, or even scribes could be the General of the Armies until about two hundred years ago with the second Krovlan uprising. After that, the commander of the riders commanded all Navarre’s forces.”

“You know that no rider has ever been named king, right?” Imogen asks through the archway.

“That’s not entirely true—” I start, opening the top drawer.

“If you’re asking if I give a shit about being second in line, then the answer is no,” Aaric says over his shoulder at Imogen. “It’s Halden’s destiny to be king. Not mine.”

“Does Halden know?” I ask, reading over the titles in the top drawer. “About what’s happening out there?”

“Yes,” Aaric says quietly. “And?” I look over at him.

Our eyes lock for a heartbeat before he replaces a tome and moves to the next. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Understood. Halden isn’t going to help. “Guess we have that in common.”

“I still can’t believe you kept his secret all these months,” Imogen says. “I kept yours, too,” I remind her, opening the next drawer. This entire

section seems dedicated to historical records.

“I’ve known Violet longer, which is why I’m not surprised she kept yours.” He looks my way and moves to the next set of shelves. “The rift between you and Aetos was what caught me off guard. You two were inseparable when we were kids.”

“Yeah, well, kids grow up.” I bark out the words, shutting the drawer with a little more force than necessary. “You can’t trust him, you know.”

“Figured that out by that little exchange that went down between the two of you on the mat.” He pulls out another tome. “These are the generals of the healers.”

“Useful but not what we need.” I crouch to open the last drawer. “Fuck.

More records.”

“We’re down to twenty minutes, and we need ten of those to get back to the door,” Imogen warns, her tone tight with urgency.

The collar of my armor tightens a little more, and I tug it away from my throat.

“These are the scribes,” Aaric says at the fourth case.

“As carefully as you can, glance through the earliest ones. Try to only touch the edges of the pages.” I close the bottom drawer and stand. There are two more cases to search. “Look for anything that mentions wards or wardstones.”

He nods and pulls the first one down.

My attention shifts to the sixth bookcase. “Half of these look like Tyrrish history,” I tell Xaden.

“Fascinating. We’ll come back and study up after we win this war,” he replies. A guard rustles and we all pivot, but Xaden has him knocked out

again before he so much as opens his eyes. “Hurry, before I do permanent brain damage over here.”

“This is dated six AU,” Aaric says, shutting the journal. “The wards were well in place by then.”

“Shit.” Frustration expands the knot in my throat. “Start the next one.” I pull a promising, cracked-spined tome, but it’s a fucking weather almanac.

“Arts and crafts?” Aaric shows me the painted cover of one.

“Violet,” Imogen warns. “That giant-ass door is going to seal us in here in fifteen minutes!”

This is not how this was supposed to go, but isn’t that the story of my life these last couple of months? The propaganda should have opened the eyes of other cadets. Mira should have believed me. Andarna should be awake.

“Take a breath,” Xaden orders. “You look like you’re about to pass out, and I can’t catch you.”

“What if this is all for nothing?” I concentrate on lowering my heart rate, on keeping the panic from consuming me, then tilt my head to the side and read the spines of the collection in front of me that pertains to the isle kingdoms.

“Then we’ll know to look elsewhere. The only way to fail this mission is to be caught. You still have five minutes. Use them.”

“Astronomy,” Aaric says, dropping down to read the bottom row of titles.

I close my eyes, draw a deep breath, and find my center. Then I open them and step back from the shelves. “‘In the storage of ancient documents,’” I recite from the Scribe Manual, “‘it is not only temperature and touch that must be monitored—’”

“Glad to see you haven’t changed that much.” Aaric’s mouth curves into the first smile I’ve seen from him in years.

“‘—but light.’” I glance up. “‘Light will steal ink’s pigment and crack the leather of spine and cover.’”

“One time, I heard her recite the entire unification agreement while climbing the battlements in Calldyr,” Aaric notes, moving to the top of the

next bookcase.

Light. They’d have to be hidden from light. I start searching for track marks in the floor that might signal another hidden door, or cubby, or something.

“Thought we weren’t talking,” Xaden drawls. “Wasn’t talking to you.” He glances at Imogen.

“So, it’s not all marked ones you hate,” she replies, folding her arms across her chest.

“Why would I hate you?” Aaric puts the tome back. “Your parents led a righteous rebellion, and from what I can tell, you’re just trying to do the same. I hate him for killing my brother.”

“Fair enough.” Imogen starts to tap her foot.

“Where would your father keep his most precious possession?” I ask Aaric. “He’d want to show it off, right?”

“He’d keep it within easy reach,” Aaric agrees. “And are you going to tell me what it is you guys are trying to ward? It’s a rebel outpost, isn’t it?”

Xaden’s eyes meet mine as I prod the wood pieces between the drawers on the center piece, looking for a pop-out compartment.

King Tauri would keep the journals within reach.

“It’s the only logical thing to do,” Aaric says, dropping to the floor and looking under the center pedestal. “To establish your own wards that aren’t dependent on Basgiath’s because you know you’ll be waging war on two fronts. There’s nothing under here.” He stands. “Where is it? Draithus? That’s the most logical choice. Close to both the Navarrian border and the sea.”

“Violet, we have to go,” Imogen warns, walking toward the guards and rolling up the sleeves of her cream robes.

King Tauri would want to show them off.

I reach for the velvet tablecloth and pull it off.

“There!” I point to the circle of glass set in the top of the pedestal. “Aaric! Beneath the glass!” Two leather tomes, barely larger than my hand. Perfect for keeping in a rucksack…while riding the first dragons.

“Not glass. Another set of wards.” He leans over the cabinet and reaches in, then lets out a sharp hiss, his face contorting in pain as he pulls out both books. “Fuck!” He sets them on the edge of the cabinet, then holds his hands up.

I watch in horror as blisters the size of my thumb swell over every inch of skin that passed through the wards.

“I think those wards know I wasn’t him.” He grimaces. “Let’s go!”

I unbelt my robes and reveal the two cream satchels Jesinia gave me for this exact reason, then carefully put one tome in each.

“Two minutes!” Imogen shouts from where she’s kneeled next to the guards, her hands on the larger one’s head.

Xaden drops two wineskins into their laps, and I snatch the tablecloth from the floor, then throw it over the case.

“Zihnal may love you, but let’s not test him,” Aaric grits through his teeth, holding out a blistered hand.

“It’s going to hurt—” I protest, tying my belt tight.

“And I’m not leaving you in here.” He grabs hold of my hand and grunts in pain as he pulls us through the wards and into the hallway.

My hand is sticky when he lets go.

“We have to run.” Xaden gestures down the hallway, and I do exactly that. Run.

When the robe gets in the way, I gather the fabric in my hands and sprint, following Xaden as he races up the stairs.

“Bet you’re glad we’ve been running every morning!” Imogen calls from behind me as we turn and turn and turn, the staircase dizzying me by the time we emerge into the classroom.

Xaden reaches for the lever Jesinia used, and as soon as Imogen and Aaric are clear, he pushes. We wait only long enough to see that the entrance begins closing before taking off again.

My chest heaves as we run down the hallways, Xaden taking every turn Jesinia did, never once questioning himself. Either he’s really certain of the path or he knows we can’t afford the time to even debate.

We reach the main library and the bells ring out, signaling an hour has passed. “Faster!” Xaden demands.

They peal once.

There is no faster, but I don’t have enough breath to snap back at him.

Our boots pound against the marble as we race between the tables.


“Run!” Sawyer shouts from the entrance. Oh gods the door.

Three times.

It’s closing on its own, and the locking mechanism won’t allow it to open until a full twelve hours passes. The muscles in my thighs burn in protest.

I skid as we turn at the last of the tables, sliding into the end of the bookshelf and hitting my shoulder hard enough to wince.

A fourth.

Xaden falls back to run at my side, but he’s the faster of us.

“Take the books!” I shout between gasping breaths. “You can make it!” A fifth.

“You stay, I stay!” He lifts a hand, sprinting with it outstretched, and shadows fly from the walls to push against the closing door as we pass the study table.

Sawyer clears the narrow path that remains between the thick steel of the door and its casing.

The bells ring out a sixth time.

Xaden pushes me through the doorway first, and once I’m in, I look back, my breaths ragged and my heart pounding so hard I can feel it in my head.

Imogen races by, and Xaden reaches into the doorway as the seventh bell peals.

Oh gods, he’s going to lose an arm, and Aaric—

They’re not going to make it.

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