Chapter no 39

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

So. Much. Blood. “Get to the great hall and tell Ridoc Gamlyn that I need ice now!” I shout at a guard as we pass through the foyer.

“I’m fine!” Brennan manages to say around the handkerchief stanching the river of blood trying to pour down his face. He tests the cartilage and cringes. “Damn it, Mira, I think you broke it!”

“I heard a distinct crunch.” I glare at my sister over my shoulder as we walk into the office where we have history class. It’s set up for cadets, with a dozen chairs surrounding a hastily constructed table.

“You deserve it,” Mira calls out, shaking off the guard who reaches for her. “Don’t fucking touch me.”

“Leave my sister alone,” Brennan orders, sitting back against the edge of the table. “It’s a family matter.”

“Family? Family doesn’t let each other think they’re dead for six years.” Mira leans against the wall to my right, putting me square between them. “The only family in this room is Violet and me.”

“Mira—” I start.

“Lieutenant Colonel?” Ulices interrupts, pushing through the guards, and this time his eye isn’t narrowed on me.

“Lieutenant Colonel?” Mira’s gaze swings from Ulices to Brennan, and she folds her arms across her chest. “At least playing dead for six years earns you rank.”

Brennan shoots her a look before turning toward Ulices. “I’m fine.

Everyone can relax. I’ve had worse injuries sparring.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time I broke his nose.” Mira offers a saccharine-sweet smile to Ulices, whose eye narrows on my sister.

A guard squeezes past Ulices, handing me a piece of cloth wrapped around a thick icicle, and I’ve never loved Ridoc’s signet more. “Thank you,” I tell him. “And tell the same to Ridoc, please.”

“Deploy every rider currently not scheduled to scout the Tyrrish outposts as quietly as possible,” Brennan orders Ulices. “We need to know if other riders are deserting, or if they’re surging here in preparation to strike.”

“With all the extra riders we have,” Ulices mutters.

“Switch.” I issue an order of my own to Brennan, holding out the ice.

“What about the new riot?” Ulices asks. “Same procedure as the cadets’ arrival?”

“Riorson vouches for them, according to Marbh, but make sure the dragons do as well. Get them up to the valley.” Brennan nods, and blood trickles off his chin.


“Switch,” I say again, waving the ice so he sees it. Ulices glances at Mira. “You’re sure—”

“I can handle my own sister,” Brennan assures him.

“Don’t be so sure about that,” Mira counters, arching an eyebrow as Ulices departs, leaving the doorway empty but guarded outside.

“I can’t believe you hit me,” Brennan mutters. “Do you know how hard it is to mend myself? You? No problem. Doing it for myself? A giant pain in the ass.”

“Oh, do cry for me, big brother.” Mira scrunches her face as she mocks him. “You know, the way we cried for you.”

And suddenly, I feel ten again, the smallest personality in a room of giants.

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.” Brennan jabs his finger in Mira’s direction and flinches. “Shit, I’m going to have to set the cartilage.”

“Understand? Understand that you let us burn your things?”

“I’ve already had this fight with him,” I assure her.

“Let us watch our mother become a shadow of herself?” she continues over me. “Let us watch our father’s heart give out because your death broke him?” Mira pushes off the wall, and I hold up my hand, palm outward, like I have even a prayer of stopping her if she decides to hit him again.

“Maybe I didn’t go quite that far.” Not that she isn’t speaking the truth, but damn, that’s harsh.

“Our father would understand what I’ve been doing.” Brennan’s voice turns nasal as he moves the blood dam.

“Would you please switch cloths?” I ask, water dripping from my fist to the stone floor.

“And as for our mother.” Brennan stands. “I hope my death haunts her every damned day. She was so willing to sacrifice my life for a lie.”

“That’s not fair!” Mira snaps. “I may not agree with what she did, but I understand how she thought it was best to keep us safe.”

Us safe?” Brennan’s eyes narrow. “You weren’t killed!”

They’re screaming at each other like I’m not even here. Yep, definitely morphed back into the little silent sister.

“Neither were you!” she yells. “You hid up here like a coward instead of coming home when we needed you!” She gestures at me. “You chose complete strangers over your sisters!”

“I chose the good of the Continent!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake! Stop it!” I shout, silencing them both. “Mira, he was a brand-new lieutenant, and what’s done is done.” Pivoting toward Brennan, I shove the ice into his hand. “Brennan, put the fucking ice on your face before you stain the floors, you stubborn ass!”

Brennan slowly lifts the ice to his nose, looking at me like he’s never seen me before.

“And to think, I used to wish I had siblings,” Xaden says from the doorway, leaned against the doorframe casually, like he’s been watching us for a hot minute.

All the fight within me transforms to pure relief, and I walk straight to him, careful not to slip on the blood Brennan has left splattered all over the

place. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Xaden replies, wrapping his arm around my waist and tugging me against him.

My pulse skips like a rock thrown across a glassy pond as I soak in every detail of him. No new cuts or bruises on his face, but who knows what’s under his riding leathers. “You’re all right?”

“I am now.” His voice softens to that tone he only ever uses with me, weakening my knees as he lowers his mouth to mine, giving me all the time in the world to protest.

I don’t.

He kisses me slowly, gently, and I lean up on my toes to get closer, cupping his stubbled cheeks between my palms.

This right here makes everything worth it. The world could disintegrate around us and I’m not sure I’d notice—or care—as long as I have him in my arms.

“Seriously?” Brennan remarks. “Right in front of me?”

“Oh, this is tame for them,” Mira replies. “Wait until they decide to basically climb each other in a public place. You can’t burn that shit out of your head, trust me.”

I smile into Xaden’s kiss, and he deepens the pressure but keeps his tongue firmly behind his teeth—much to my chagrin. He pulls back reluctantly, but there’s more than enough promise in his eyes to make my blood heat.

“So what are the Sorrengail siblings going to do now that you’re all reunited?” Xaden asks, lifting his head to look at my family.

“We’re going to beat the shit out of our brother,” Mira answers with a smile.

“Survive,” Brennan chimes in.

I let my hands fall from Xaden’s face, then glance at my brother and sister.

Everything I really, truly love—everyone I can’t live without—is here, and for the first time in my life, I can protect them. “I need the blood of the six most powerful riders.”

Brennan’s brows fly upward, and Mira’s nose wrinkles like she’s just swallowed sour milk.

“Ever? Or living now?” Xaden asks without batting an eye. “Why?” Brennan asks, water dripping from his fist.

“In residence, I think,” I reply to Xaden, then turn to face my siblings and take a steadying breath. “I know how to raise the wards.”

Nine of us—the Assembly, Bodhi, and myself—walk out the back door of Riorson House five hours later and start up a path cut into the

ridgeline above, climbing the trail in pairs.

“You’re certain about this?” Ulices asks my brother as they walk in front of Xaden and me.

“My sister’s certain, and that’s good enough for me,” Brennan replies.

“Yes, by all means, let’s waste our time catering to the whims of a cadet,” Suri calls up from where she walks with Kylynn.

“A cadet who can raise the wards,” Xaden counters. No pressure.

Shivering, I shove my hands into the pockets of my flight jacket to ward off the chill as the sun sets behind the mountain. Finally, the trail levels out and we approach a set of somber guards who step aside so we can pass, following the gravel path that leads into the mountainside, becoming a man-made canyon open to the sky above.

Mage lights flicker on as we pass through the chasm, and my stomach flutters with nervous energy. No, that’s apprehension. Nope… nervous energy. Whatever it is, I’m glad I skipped dinner.

“We should be using this time to discuss the negotiations with Tecarus, since we’re all here.” Ulices looks pointedly at my brother.

“Missive arrived today. He wants us to come to his aid when called,” Brennan says. “The seaside drifts are to be armed first, and he says he’ll let us bring the luminary back to Aretia—”

“He won’t,” Xaden interrupts.

“—if he can see Vi wield,” Brennan finishes.

“Looks like we need to seek another luminary, because he’ll meet Malek before Violet,” Xaden says in that calm, icy tone he uses when his mind’s made up. “Unless you’re eager to never see your sister again. He’ll keep her as a weapon. You and I both know it.”

“I can talk him out of any thoughts that direction.” Brennan’s jaw ticks. “If there was another luminary, don’t you think we’d be negotiating for

that one?” Kylynn retorts.

“Then offer him a full armory, because Violet isn’t up for negotiation.” Xaden looks back and levels a glare at her.

“I don’t mind going.” Our shoulders brush as the path narrows and the walls of the canyon rise even higher around us. “You need it.”

“I mind it. The answer is no. There is always another way.”

It’s a good thing we’re about to have wards, then. It doesn’t solve our issue with protecting Poromiel, not until we can build extensions like Navarre, but at least everyone here will be safe.

About twenty feet in, the canyon opens into a circular chamber that could easily fit all ten of our dragons, and my eyes are immediately drawn upward, to where a series of runes lead to the sky. “How have I never seen this while flying overhead?”

“Very old, very complicated masking runes.”

The riders in front of us part, and the wardstone comes into view. My lips part, because… wow.

The shimmering black pillar rises to over twice the height of Xaden and would take all nine of us holding our arms outstretched to surround it. Etched in the very center, at least six feet across, is a series of circles, each fitting within the next and boasting a rune carved in along its path. It’s almost the same pattern as on the pages of Warrick’s journal.

I move toward it, soaking in every detail. “Is it onyx?” I ask Xaden. It’s massive. Too heavy for even a dragon to carry. They had to have carved it in this very chamber.

“We can’t say for certain, but my father thought it was polished iron,” he answers.

Iron rain. My heart jolts. This is really it. We’re about to have wards.

“Let’s get this done.” Ulices’s voice booms through the chamber, echoing off the high stone walls.

“And what are we doing, exactly, to raise the wards?” Bodhi asks, taking my other side as everyone forms a half circle around the stone.

“One second.” I pull Warrick’s journal from the protective leather pouch inside my flight jacket and flip to the translated parchment I left at the passage before glancing up at the stone to compare the drawings. The symbol Warrick drew isn’t identical, but it has the runes in the same positions, so that’s a good sign. “Here we go. ‘And we gathered the six most powerful riders in residence,’” I read from the parchment, “‘and the blood of the six and the one combined and set the stone ablaze in an iron rain.’” I glance around the line. “Six”—I point to the stone—“and the one.”

“You want us to bleed on the wardstone?” Felix asks, his silver brows rising.

“I’m just telling you how Warrick and the First Six did it.” I hold the journal up. “Unless there’s someone here more capable of translating Old Lucerish?”

No one speaks.

“Right.” I dip my chin and study the rest of the translation.

“By our best calculations,” Brennan says, rubbing his hands together to keep warm, “the six most powerful riders currently in Aretia are Xaden, Felix, Suri, Bodhi, Violet, and me.”

“Looks like there’s something to be said for family lines,” Suri notes. “According to Warrick, the First Six bled their life—” I start.

Every head swivels my direction.

“I don’t think it means to death,” I quickly clarify. “Clearly the six lived on after they constructed Basgiath’s wards.” There’s a definite sigh of relief around me. “With any luck, it’ll be a quick cut across the palm, place our hands on the wardstone, and we should have wards.”

“In an iron rain,” Bodhi says slowly.

Suri draws a knife from her side. “Let’s get this done.”

The six of us move to the wardstone, and I tuck the journal into my flight jacket.

“Anywhere?” Bodhi asks, lowering his own knife to just above his palm. “The journal didn’t specify.” Brennan draws his dagger over his palm,

then presses his hand to the wardstone, and we all follow.

Hope swells in my chest, rising with my pulse, and I hiss through my teeth at the bite of pain as I slice. Blood wells, and I push my cut palm against the stone in line with the others. It’s colder than I expect, warmth quickly leaching from my hand as blood drips down the shimmering black surface.

The stone feels frozen. Lifeless. But not for long.

I glance down the line to be sure everyone has their palms flat against the stone and see six narrow streams of blood snaking their way down the iron.

“Is it working?” Bodhi asks, bleeding a couple of feet away. My mouth opens, but I quickly shut it.

No one answers.

Come on, I beg the stone, like I can will the damn thing to life.

There’s no hum, no sense of power—nothing but cold, black stone. It’s nothing like the awareness that comes from being close to the wards at the outposts or even holding the alloy-hilted dagger in my hand.

There’s… nothing.

My stomach falls first, then my heart, and finally my shoulders as my head droops.

“I’m done.” Suri pulls her hand off the stone. “The rest of you can sit here and bleed all night, but this clearly isn’t working.”

No, no, no.

Felix, Brennan, and Bodhi drop their hands.

Failure clogs my throat, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. I did everything right. I researched, and read, and stole a primary source. I translated and double-checked. This is supposed to be the solution. It’s

everything I’ve been working on for months, the key to keeping everyone safe.

Did we bleed the wrong six riders? Is there an element of magic I missed? Something more to the blood? What did I miss?

“Violence,” Xaden says quietly.

Slowly, I turn my head to look up at him, expecting disappointment or censure but finding none in his eyes. But there’s no pity, either.

“I failed,” I whisper, my hand falling away.

He watches me for a heartbeat, then two before dropping his own. “You’ll try again.”

It isn’t an order, though, just a fact.

“Violet, I can—” Brennan starts, reaching for my hand.

I shake my head, then stare down at the blood welling in the cup of my palm.

If he mends a cut this fresh, I doubt it will leave a scar. I won’t even have that to show for the last three months.

The sound of tearing fills the space, and Xaden tightly wraps a cut piece of his uniform around my palm to stanch the bleeding. “Thank you.”

“You’ll try again,” he repeats, wrapping another strip of fabric around his own hand.

I nod, and he turns to talk to Kylynn, keeping his voice low.

“Now can we please discuss how we plan to actually acquire that luminary?” Suri’s tone rises with annoyance.

I stare up at the blood-marked stone, searching for answers it won’t give me.

“It’s a lost magic,” Bodhi says softly, appearing at my side. He rubs his thumb over his newly mended, scarless palm. “Maybe there’s a reason this stone never worked. It might be broken.”

I nod again, incapable of speech. Bodhi. Xaden. Mira. Rhi. Brennan. Ridoc. Sawyer. Imogen… The list of people I’ve failed goes on and on. We’re only here because I made my friends steal the journal in the first place, and then… nothing? Anger sparks in my chest, and power rushes in, heating my skin.

I don’t fail. I’ve never failed anything in my life. Well, that first RSC land navigation, but that doesn’t count. That was everyone. This is me.

“Offer the viscount twice the number of weapons he asked for,” Ulices says, his voice fading with his footsteps.

“I’ll send a missive tomorrow,” Brennan promises as the others walk out of the chamber.

We have no wards. No weapons. Almost no experienced riders. All because I acted recklessly.

Power builds, vibrating my fingertips.

Felix moves to my side, his somber gaze studying me before he holds out his hand.

I blink, glancing at his palm, then up to his face. “Your hand.” He lifts his brow.

I hold my uninjured one out, and instead of touching me, he tilts his head and watches the slight trembling of my fingers.

“I suppose we’d better start tomorrow.” He sighs. “Skip the run. We’ll be training your signet.” His bootsteps echo in the chamber, and I turn, watching him walk out, my gaze catching on the tight lines of Xaden’s mouth as Kylynn lectures him with quiet words, the mage lights reflecting on the steel of her battle-ax strapped to her back.

Xaden was right. War requires weapons.

“Take me to Tecarus,” I demand.

His gaze flies to mine and his jaw flexes. “I would rather die.” “We all will if you don’t.”

“Not going to happen. Subject closed.” He folds his arms across his chest and goes back to his discussion with Kylynn.

Fuck this.

I walk straight past him, taking the path out of the chamber. There’s no way I’m going to leave my friends defenseless when I’m the reason they got dragged into this.

“Violet!” Brennan shouts, running to catch up with me. “Go away,” I snap at my brother.

“With that look on your face? I don’t think so.”

“What look?” I shoot a glare in his direction, even though I know this isn’t his fault.

“The same one you had at eight years old, when you stared Mom down over a plate of squash for twelve straight hours.”

“I’m sorry?” Rocks crunch underfoot as we make our way down the path to Riorson House.

“Twelve. Hours.” He nods. “Dad said to let you go to bed, that you weren’t going to eat them, and Mom said you weren’t going to sleep until you did.”

“What’s your point?”

“When I got up the next morning, Mom and Dad were both asleep at the table, and you were snacking on bread and cheese. I know that face, Violet. When you dig in about something, you’re more tenacious than all of us put together, so no, I won’t be going away.”

“Fine.” I shrug. “You can be the tagalong sibling for once.” Within minutes, we’re in through the guarded back door of Riorson House, walking through the network of hallways to the main corridor. “Tairn.”

“Oh, this should be fun,” Andarna answers. I feel Tairn’s sigh long before I hear it.

“You know it’s the only way.” Another turn later, we walk into the overwhelming noise of the great hall. Long trestle tables line the space, and my gaze skips over each one, bypassing the one where my squad sits and locking onto the table of new riders who arrived today.

“I will consider it,” Tairn begrudgingly agrees.

“Thank you.” I move through the sea of black with Brennan on my heels, locking eyes with Mira as I approach where she sits at the end of her table with her friends.

“Violet?” Her gaze narrows on my bandaged hand before she sets her pewter mug down.

“I need your help.”

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