Chapter no 46

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

“Runes?” Xaden asks a few days later, leaning over my shoulder as I sit at the desk in his room, practicing today’s assignment, a triangular piece of torture that’s supposed to somehow boost hearing. He picks up one of my five discarded attempts, burned into hand-size wooden disks, and I breathe deeply, savoring the scent of soap on his freshly washed


A private bathing chamber is definitely one of the perks of sleeping in his room.

“We’re the trial squad. I meant to tell you last night.” I take the delicate strand of pearlescent power and bend it into the third shape in the pattern Professor Trissa gave us for homework, then let it burn brightly in front of me while I gently reach for another. Now that I know what to look for, I see the flow of power clearly before me, somehow both solid and insubstantial, glowing strands that flex under my touch. Seeing it doesn’t make pulling individual strands any easier, though.

“I meant to tell you a lot last night, too,” he says, setting the disk back down on the desk with the others. “But once I found you in bed, my mouth was otherwise occupied.”

My lips curve at the memory as I form the next triangle, this one smaller, and set it within the larger ones floating in front of me. He’s been gone more than he’s been home, running the weapons from our forge to the front

lines near the Stonewater River and filling Tecarus’s armory. This trip lasted an extra day when he and Garrick found themselves caught in an attack.

“Do you want my help?” he asks, skimming his mouth down the side of my neck.

“That is…” My breath catches when he reaches the collar of my armor. “Not helping.”

“Pity.” He kisses the side of my neck, then stands, leaving me to my homework. Good thing, too, since I have class in a few minutes.

“This is why you left me that book in Navarre, isn’t it?” I take the next strand and form the circle that should stabilize the shapes within and place it around the rune. That should do it.

“I wanted you to have a head start,” he says, picking up Warrick’s journal from where I abandoned it on the desk and thumbing through it.

“Thank you.”

“This is impossible to read,” Xaden mutters, closing the journal and setting it back on the desk before walking to where his uniforms hang next to mine in the large armoire.

I grin at the domesticity of it. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep it just like this between us. “My father taught me.” I shrug, examining my rune for anything I might have missed. “And Dain and I used it as a secret code when we were kids.”

“Never pictured Aetos as the Old Lucerish type,” Xaden notes.

Picking up the wooden disk in my left hand, I gently move the buzzing strands of power, pressing them into the disk. Much better than the last five. “You put runes into my daggers,” I say, turning in the wooden chair.

My lips part and I blatantly ogle Xaden as he pulls his uniform from the armoire, a towel wrapped around his hips. How did I not notice he’d been basically naked behind me this whole time? Such a missed opportunity…

“Keep looking at me like that and you’re not making it to class,” he warns, his eyes darkening as he crosses the floor and tosses his clothing on the bed.

I force myself to turn away. Brennan warned Xaden that the first time I was late for class because of my sleeping arrangements, I’d be back in my

assigned room. “You put an unlocking rune into my dagger, didn’t you?” I ask, sliding all the disks besides the one I just finished into my pack, ignoring Warrick’s journal, which mocks me from the edge of the desk. “That’s how we got out of the interrogation chamber.”

“A variation of it, yes.”

Holding the best rune of my attempts, I lift my pack to my shoulders and slip my arms through the straps as I stand, turning to face him. His torso is still gloriously bare, but unfortunately—or fortunately for my schedule—he has pants on. “Care to elaborate?”

To my consternation, he goes for his socks instead of a shirt.

“You can do the unlocking rune. It’s simple enough.” He shrugs. “I added an element of need into the rune. So, you can’t walk up to any door and open it just because you want to, but if the dagger’s on your body and picks up on the need for a door to unlock, it will. If you’d made it up to the forge at Basgiath, it would have opened to your need.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, he puts on his boots.

“I had the key the entire time?” My eyebrows rise, and if I didn’t already love him, I would have fallen right then.

“You did. Are you feeling adventurous with questions today?” A corner of his mouth quirks.

I grip the disk and sink my teeth into my lower lip. The problem with being happy amidst the utter chaos we’ve caused is that I’m terrified to ask even a single question that might jeopardize it. “What’s the rune on the stone you keep by the bed? That’s what it is, right?”

“Yes, a complicated one at that.” He sits up and reaches for the little gray stone, then offers it to me as he stands. “There’s not a person alive who knows how to replicate this. Colonel Mairi was the last.”

Liam and Sloane’s mom. I take the palm-size stone and study the intricate lines of the rune. “It had to have been giant when she tempered it.” “I assume so. She must have collapsed it to fit when placing them into

the stones.”

“Stones?” I look up at him. “As in more than one?”

“A hundred and seven,” he answers, watching me with expectation.

The marked ones. He wants me to ask.

“What does it do?” I rub my thumb over the blackened design.

Did. It’s a protection rune, but it was only intended to be used once.” He runs his hand through his damp hair and pauses. “As you get better with runes, you can pull elements into them. Things like strands of hair or even other full runes for locating things. Or protecting them. This particular rune was made to protect someone of my father’s bloodline.”

“You.” I look up and hand the stone back. “You’re his only child, right?” Xaden nods. “Each of the children of the officers were given them before our parents left for the Battle of Aretia. We were told to carry them at all times, and we did, even to the execution.” His fingers brush mine as

he takes the stone.

I damn near stop breathing, keeping my eyes on his.

“It was designed to counter the signet of the rider whose dragon would kill them.” He swallows. “But it could only activate when killed by dragonfire.”

“Which is the primary method of execution for traitors,” I whisper.

He nods. “I kept it closed in my fist—we all did—as we stood there, watching our parents put into lines for execution. And the second they were…” His shoulders rise as he takes a deep breath. “…burned, heat raced up my arm. The next time I felt anything like that was after Threshing.”

My eyes widen, and I close my hand over his. “The rebellion relics?” That must be why the swirling marks always start on the marked ones’ arms.

He nods. “Our parents knew they’d die one way or another, and the last thing they did was make sure we were protected. I keep it purely for sentimental reasons.” Leaning toward me, he kisses my forehead, then turns away, putting the stone on his bedside table. “I like it when you ask me questions,” he says, leaning over to grab his uniform shirt. “Anything else you want to know?”

It’s on the tip of my tongue to question why he didn’t tell me about the deal he made with my mother and ask if it influenced his feelings for me. But then he stands, and my gaze catches on those silver scars on his back—

the scars she put there—and I just can’t ask. He told me that he’s loved me since the first time we kissed. That should be enough. I shouldn’t need to know anything more about the deal than what she said to me… Or maybe I don’t want to, not if there’s any chance it could shake our relationship.

“Violence?” He tugs his shirt on and turns. “Nothing else to ask.” I force a smile.

“Everything all right?” Two lines appear between his brows. “Bodhi mentioned that Cat isn’t making it easy on you, and you’ve had a couple of lightning strikes—”

“Bodhi needs to butt out.” There’s no chance I’m letting Xaden worry about me before heading out for multiple days. Rising up on my toes, I kiss him softly. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Disappointment flashes through his eyes right before he cups the back of my neck and slants his mouth over mine for another blissful second, then pulls back. “You’re close, but you need a directional cue for that rune.”

“My rune is great, and I’ll ask for help if I need it.” I kiss him quickly just because I can, then rush out the door so I can make it to class in time. The second I’m in the hallway, I lift the disk to my ear.

Noise rushes in. Bootsteps pounding above me, doors closing ahead of me, people shouting beneath me—there’s too much input to make any sense of it.

“I hate it when he’s right,” I mutter as I skid into class.

Naturally, Cat has tempered her rune perfectly when I get there, which makes me almost want to ask for Xaden’s help, but he’s already gone before I’m done with my classes for the day.

“We’ve given you two weeks to figure out how to integrate peacefully, and you have yet to do so, much to our disappointment,” Devera lectures us the next week from the side of the

center mat, Emetterio and one of the flier professors by her side. The sparring gym is only a fraction of the size of Basgiath’s—fitting nine mats total—and it’s packed with every cadet in Aretia standing shoulder to shoulder.

Including the fliers.

Until now, we’ve only been put together for rune lessons in very small increments and mealtimes, which usually end with at least one thrown punch.

“What the hell do they expect?” Rhiannon folds her arms next to me. “We’ve been killing each other for centuries, and we’re supposed to what… weave flowers into each other’s hair and confess our deepest, darkest secrets all because they gave us a luminary and hiked a cliff?”

“It’s a little tense,” I agree, holding the conduit in my right hand and rolling my aching shoulder, hoping it will forgive me for daring to sleep on it wrong. I have a lesson with Felix in two days, and I’m cramming as much power into the little glass orb as I can.

My power’s been flaring all too frequently, with the fliers hurling insults every chance they get, insinuating that I dropped Luella to her death instead of Visia.

There’s a clear divide in our ranks: a sea of black on my right and a swath of tan on the left, with a wide strip of bare floor between us. More than a dozen cadets wear bruises from the brawl that erupted yesterday in the great hall between Third Wing and two drifts.

“Yesterday’s outburst of violence was absolutely unacceptable,” the fliers’ professor starts, her auburn braid sliding over her shoulder as she turns her head, addressing all cadets, not just the fliers. “Working together is what’s going to make a difference in this war, and it has to start here!” She turns her finger on the rider cadets.

“Good luck with that,” Ridoc says under his breath.

“We’ll be making significant changes,” Devera announces. “You will no longer be separated for classes.”

My stomach pitches, and a mumble of discontent rolls through the gym. “Which means—” Devera raises her voice, quieting our side of the

makeshift formation. “You will respect one another as equals. We may be in Aretia, but as of today, we’ve decided the Dragon Rider’s Codex still applies to every cadet.”

“And as their guests,” the flier professor says, placing a hand on her ample hip, “all fliers will abide by it.” A disgruntled murmur rolls through their half. “Is that clear?”

“Yes, Professor Kiandra,” they respond in unison.

Damn. That’s kind of impressive, even if they do sound like infantry.

“But we acknowledge that we cannot move forward without addressing the hostility among you,” Emetterio says, his gaze shifting between the groups. “At Basgiath, we had a method for addressing grievances between cadets. You may ask for a challenge—a sparring match that ends when one of you is unconscious or taps out.”

“Or dies,” Aaric adds.

The fliers collectively gasp, and the majority of us roll our eyes. They wouldn’t last a day at Basgiath.

“Without killing your opponent,” Emetterio continues, talking directly at Aaric before moving on, “for the next six hours, every request—between cadets of the same year—for challenge will be granted. You will address your grievances once on these mats, and then you will put them behind you.”

“They’re going to let us beat the shit out of them?” Ridoc asks quietly. “I think so,” Sloane whispers in response.

“It’s going to be a phenomenal afternoon.” Imogen grins, cracking her knuckles.

“They’ve been trained to fight venin,” I remind them. “I wouldn’t underestimate them.” When it comes to signets, we can blast them out of the fucking skies, but hand-to-hand? There’s a good chance we’re outmatched.

“You may only challenge one opponent, and each cadet may only be challenged once,” Emetterio says, holding up his forefinger and lifting his thick brows. “So choose carefully, because tomorrow, the rider or flier you hold contempt for may be off-limits.”

Oh shit. My stomach drops. There’s only one reason someone couldn’t call a challenge, but they wouldn’t…would they?

“Challenges between squadmates are forbidden under the Codex,” Devera explains to fliers, then turns to us. “And tomorrow each squad of riders will absorb one drift of fliers.”

Guess they would.

Anger flushes my cheeks, and Rhiannon and I exchange a perturbed glance, which is mirrored by everyone in our squad, especially Visia.

“Note that I said absorb.” Devera stares pointedly at us. “You will not be

teamed up or partnered with. You will fuse, you will meld, you will unify.” This goes against everything we’ve been taught. Squads are sacred.

Squads are family. Squads are born after Parapet and forged through the Gauntlet, Threshing, and War Games. Squads aren’t merged unless they’re dissolved due to deaths—and we’re the Iron Squad.

We do not bend. And we definitely do not blend.

“And if you don’t”—Professor Kiandra’s tone softens as her gaze sweeps over the gym—“we will fail when it’s time for combat. We will die.”

“We’ll take your requests now,” Emetterio says, concluding the lecture portion of today’s festivities.

Lines form for those requesting challenges, and it doesn’t surprise me that most of the queue is wearing brown. They have far more reason to hate us than most of us do to hate them.

“We are the Iron Squad, and we’ll act like it,” Rhiannon orders as the last of the line approaches Emetterio. “We stick together and travel mat to mat with any challenge leveled on us.”

All eleven of us agree.

The first challenges are called, and I’m not surprised when Trager names Rhiannon to come to the mat. No doubt he’s still pissed about the punch she delivered on the flight field.

She wins in less than five minutes, and his lip is bleeding again.

The third-year leader from Cat’s drift, the stocky one with the necklace of scars, Bragen, knocks Quinn unconscious with a punch combination that

leaves my mouth hanging.

Once Imogen is called to the mat by Neve—another third-year in Cat’s drift, with short strawberry-blond hair and deep-set eyes—I sense the pattern.

“This is about me,” I say quietly to Rhiannon when Imogen lands a solid kick to the other girl’s head.

“That makes it about us,” she responds. “Please tell me you’re wrapped and wearing your armor.”

I nod.

Imogen and Neve exchange precise, calculated blows until Devera calls it a draw after they’re both bleeding.

“Catriona Cordella and Violet Sorrengail,” Devera announces. “Disarm and take the mat.”

“Don’t do this.” Maren tries to talk Cat out of it, but there’s nothing but determination in her narrowed gaze.

“Of-fucking-course.” I hand the conduit to Rhiannon.

“Why am I not surprised, Cat?” Imogen glares across the mat before turning toward me.

“It’s fine. Predictable but fine.” One by one, I unsheathe all thirteen of my weapons and hand them to her.

“She’s got at least five inches on you, so watch for her reach,” Rhiannon says quietly.

“From what I remember, she’s quick on the attack and won’t leave you much time to react, so commit to your moves. Don’t hesitate,” Imogen adds.

“All right.” I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, fighting like hell to steady the nerves that have my stomach doing somersaults. If I’d known this was where today was headed, I would have acted earlier, maybe laced her breakfast with the fonilee I saw growing on the ridge just beneath the valley.

“You’ve got this,” Rhiannon says with a nod. “You were trained by the best.”

“Xaden,” I whisper, wishing he was here and not on the border.

“Me.” She nudges me with her elbow and forces a smile.

“Violet?” Sloane moves to Imogen’s side. “Do me a favor and kick her ass.”

My mouth tugs into a real half smile, and I nod at her before stepping onto the mat. Guess nothing unites foes like a common enemy, and for some reason, Cat has decided I’m hers. The mat has the same density as the ones at Basgiath, the same feel under my boots as I walk to the center, where Cat waits with a malevolent smirk.

“Scratch her eyes out,” Andarna suggests. “Really. The eyes are the softest tissue. Just jab your thumbs in there—”

“Andarna! Use some common sense,” Tairn snaps. “The kneecaps are a much easier target.”

“Quiet time, now.” I slam my shields up, muting Tairn and Andarna as much as possible.

“No weapons. No signets,” Devera says. “Match ends when one of you is—”

“Unconscious or taps out,” Cat finishes without taking her eyes off me. “We know.”

“Begin.” Devera steps off the mat, and I block out the noise around me, giving all my focus to Cat as she takes a familiar fighting stance.

I do the same, keeping my body loose and ready for movement. If she’s quick on the attack like Imogen said, then I’ll need to play defense.

“This is for Luella.” She comes at me with a combination of punches that I block with my forearms, shifting my body so the blows glance off without their full impact. It’s…easy, like I know the choreography. Like it’s muscle memory. Her stance adjusts, and I jump back a second before she kicks out. Connecting only with air, her balance falters as I land, and she stumbles sideways.

Holy shit. She fights like Xaden. He trained both of us.

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