Chapter no 52

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Rhiannon slides a mug of warm apple cider across her sister’s dining room table the next day, then takes the empty seat between Ridoc and Sloane. The house has the same scent as most of the barracks in Riorson House—newly cut wood and a faint hint of stain. The carpenters have been

working around the clock to turn out serviceable furniture.

I refuse to believe that it could all go up in flames if those dark wielders decide to test their wyvern at altitude. Four hours. That’s all it would take for them to reach us from Draithus.

“Thanks.” I take the mug and lift it to my face, breathing in the comforting scent before drinking. Looking over my mug, into the connected living room of the townhouse, I smile at the sight of Sawyer sitting with Jesinia on a blanket near the fire, an intense look of concentration on his face as he signs—

Shit, he might have just told her that he thinks her turtle is blue, but I’m not getting in the middle of that.

It’s the second time this week Raegan has opened her home to our squad at Rhi’s request, and the first time Jesinia’s joined us. I have to give it to Rhi—her idea was genius. Getting our entire squad—eighteen of us— together outside the academic setting of Riorson House hasn’t solved the tension between riders and fliers, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Even Cat, who’s sitting as far away from me as possible in the corner of the living room, isn’t sneering as she and Neve talk to Quinn. She still hates being in Second Squad, but at least she’s civil about it to everyone but me.

We’ve fallen into a routine over the last couple of weeks of November— now the first of December—adjusting our formation to include the fliers, attending classes together within our years, and even making it through our first sparring session where no one spilled blood yesterday. Rhiannon laid down the law last week, and now we run together every morning and sit together at Battle Brief and meals. She even assigned us study partners hoping that proximity might lead to mutual understanding or at least tolerance. Thank gods Maren is my study partner, but I still feel shitty that Rhi took on Cat to spare me.

“Any chance you speak Old Lucerish?” I ask Aaric at the end of the table. His tutoring would only be second to mine, considering Markham was my mentor. I’d feel better if someone else quadruple-checked the translation, someone other than rule-following Dain, but I’m pretty sure we have it. Otherwise, why would we be here?

“Absolutely not.” He shakes his head and focuses on his new ink pen, his forehead lined with concentration. All of our first-years are channeling, and though they have yet to manifest a signet, they have a bet going about who will be able to master the lesser magic needed to work the writing implement first. Pretty sure Kai—the lone first-year flier without Luella—is going to beat them all.

He’s currently on the couch between a couple of first-years, his spiky black hair bobbing, a dimple forming in his bronze cheek as he laughs at whatever story Bragen—the driftleader and our new XO—is currently telling. Other than Maren, Bragen is the easiest of the fliers to get along with. He also spends a lot of time shooting longing looks Cat’s way.

“Why would Aaric speak Old Lucerish?” Visia asks from the opposite end of the table, looking up from her physics homework. “Aren’t you from Calldyr?”

My face freezes. Fuck, I need to be more careful.

“Yep.” Aaric looks up at me, his features a perfect, polished mask. “You have me confused with Lynx. He’s from Luceras.”

“Right. Of course.” I nod, thankful for his quick cover.

“At some point, you’re going to have to actually get to know the first-years. They’re people now,” Ridoc teases, his smile tight. He agrees with us about what we’re about to do, but he’s understandably worried about the fliers’ reactions.

“Can’t blame her,” Imogen says, carrying a mug out of the kitchen with Maren following close behind. “We’ve added six first-years and six fliers to the squad in the last six weeks.”

“We’ve been in the squad since July,” Visia argues.

“You didn’t count before Threshing.” Imogen shrugs, glancing across the room. “Guess I’ll go save Quinn from Cat.”

“No blood on my sister’s floor.” Rhiannon shoots her a look that says she means it.

“Yes, Mother.” Imogen mock salutes with her empty hand and then heads toward Quinn.

Maren takes the seat next to me, and Rhiannon lifts her brows at me in subtle question.

My throat tightens. Here we go. This is the whole reason we planned tonight’s get-together, so why am I suddenly anxious?

Because I haven’t discussed my decision with Xaden, not that he’s been around more than one day a week since he and Brennan decided to reorganize how the combat squads operate.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Andarna says.

“The honorable thing,” Tairn chimes in.

“Do it,” I say to Rhiannon, gripping my mug with both hands.

“Listen up!” Rhi calls out as she stands, quieting the house, her gaze touching on every cadet. “For riders, squads are more than a unit. We’re family. In order to survive, we have to trust each other on the battlefield… and off it. And we’re trusting you to do with this information what you will.” She looks to me.

What we’re about to do is borderline treason, but I can’t imagine doing this any other way.

I take a steadying breath. “I’ve been translating Warrick’s journal—one of the First Six, who built Basgiath’s wards,” I clarify just in case they’re not familiar with our history. “In the hopes that we can get the wards up in Aretia before the approaching wyvern decide we’re the next target… And I think I know how to do it. But that’s why we wanted to talk to you, because it will mean you fliers wouldn’t be able to wield.”

The fliers stare, stunned. Even Cat’s eyes flare wide with what almost looks like fear.

“We know two other Poromish towns have fallen in the last two weeks, leaving Draithus vulnerable, and the Assembly wants the wards up and functional now,” Rhiannon continues. “Which we think you deserve to know.”

“Know what?” Cat stands, her chair screeching against the hardwood floor. “That you’re about to kill our ability to channel? Our gryphons are still struggling to adjust to altitude, and now you’re going to make us powerless?”

“Protective wards were our goal long before you came here.” Imogen pushes off the wall and casually sets her hand on her hip, near her favorite dagger, angling her body toward Cat, and Quinn sidesteps to flank the angry flier.

“But we’re here now,” Cat retorts. “If my uncle had known you would tie a hand behind our back, he never would have made that deal!”

“Control yourself, Cat.” Bragen keeps his tone level, but his brown eyes are sharp as he stands, putting his left arm out to block Cat from advancing on us. “How long until they’re up?” he asks me.

“As soon as I tell the Assembly what I’ve found.” As of this morning, the stone has a distinct hum, a vibration in that chamber that reminds me of the way Xaden described the armory at Samara, housing the alloy-hilted daggers.

“And when are you doing that?” Cat snaps.

“If you weren’t here, it would be done already,” I retort in the same tone she’s giving. No doubt the majority of the Assembly will condemn me as a traitor for this, and maybe they’ll be right. “But you are here. You do matter.”

Maren shifts in her seat beside me, and though I refuse to slip my hand toward my daggers, Ridoc doesn’t hesitate, folding his arms to give him quick access to the sheath along his shoulder.

“And how long are you giving us?” Bragen asks me, tilting his chin and exposing the vertical silver scars down his neck that disappear into his collar.

Every gaze shifts in my direction.

“I won’t lie to Xaden. The moment he’s home, I’ll have to tell him,” I admit. Multiple curses ripple through the fliers. “But I’ll also tell him that I think we should hold off as long as possible to give you a chance to decide if you still want to stay, knowing you won’t be able to channel.”

“And you honestly think he’ll listen to you.” Cat’s hands curl at her sides.

“The good, the bad, the unforgivable.” That’s what he said to me when he put my safety above the best interest of the movement. And he may want the wards up because I’m here and he isn’t, but he also has a province to think of.

“No.” I shake my head slowly. “I think he’ll act in the best interest of Tyrrendor”—I leave myself out of the equation—“and want them up as soon as possible, but I can still try.”

“We’re no good to our people if we can’t channel,” Maren says, looking past Aaric to the window and drumming her fingers on the table.

“Yeah, well you’re no good to them if you’re dead, either,” Imogen counters, keeping an eye on Cat. “And by not raising those wards right now, we’re exposing all of Aretia—the riots, the drifts—hell, all of Tyrrendor beyond Navarre’s wards to danger that’s no longer necessary. So you’d better decide if you’re willing to stay, knowing that it can happen at any moment, or if you’re better off taking shelter in Cordyn, where you’ll have power and dark wielders.”

I don’t envy them the choice, but at least we gave it to them.

“And if you stay, we won’t leave you powerless.” I reach under the table and retrieve my pack, then set the black leather bag on the table and unbutton the top. “Turns out alloy isn’t the only thing we can imbue.” I take out the six conduits Felix gave me yesterday after I trusted him with the truth, each containing an arrowhead like the ones I’ve been imbuing for weeks.

“What’s in that?” Bragen asks, two lines etched between his brows.

“The kind of ore we don’t use to make the alloy. It’s not quite as rare as Talladium but it’s about ten times as explosive. Trust me, I’ve seen this stuff blow sky-high raw, let alone imbued.” I glance at Sloane, who slowly smiles before she responds.


I’m suspended again over that sunburned field, the death wave a heartbeat from overtaking me once the Sage releases me from his hold, and he will.

He does it every time.

I recognize the scenario for what it is now—a recurring nightmare—and yet I’m still held powerless, still too slow to reach Tairn, still can’t force my consciousness to snap me awake.

“I grow weary of this. Now wield,” the Sage whispers, his robes purple tonight. “Rip free. Show me the power you used to slay our forces above the trading post. Prove me right that you are a weapon worth watching, worth retrieving.” His hand hovers over mine but doesn’t touch me. “The one who watched thinks you’ll never yield, that we should kill you before you grow into your full abilities.”

My stomach turns, my mouth watering with nausea as the bony hand drifts upward, pausing at my neck.

“Usually, jealousy sways the tongue of young wielders.” He drags a single, long fingernail down my throat, exposing an expanse of tan arm

under his robes, and I twitch, fear accelerating my heartbeat.

I force my mouth to open, but no sound comes out. Touching me is new.

Touching me is terrifying.

“The rest turn for the power,” he whispers, coming so close I can smell a hint of something sweet on his breath. “But you will turn for something much more dangerous, much more volatile.” He wraps his hand around my throat loosely.

I manage to shake my head in denial.

“You will.” His dark, eyelash-less eyes narrow, and the jagged fingernails slice into my skin with an all-too-real bite of pain. “You’ll tear down the wards yourself when the time comes.”

The temperature plummets, and my next exhale is visible in the frozen air. I blink and snow covers the ground. The only warmth is a quickly cooling trickle along my neck.

“And you won’t do it for something as trite as power or as easily satiable as greed,” he promises in a whisper, “but for the most illogical of mortal emotions— love. Or you’ll die.” He shrugs. “You both will.”

He flicks his wrist, and a bone-jarring crack tears me from my sleep.

I jolt upright in bed, reaching for my throat and gulping lungful after lungful of air, but there’s no cut, no ache, and when I turn the mage light on with lesser magic and a twist of my hand, I see there’s no blood, either.

“Of course there isn’t,” I whisper aloud, the raw sound cutting through the silence of my bedroom as the first hints of sunlight lighten the sky to purple beyond my window. “It’s just a fucking nightmare.”

There’s nothing that can touch me here, Xaden asleep beside me.

“Stop talking to yourself,” Tairn grumbles, as though I’ve woken him.

“It makes us both seem unstable.” “Do you see my dreams?”

“I have better things to do than monitor the machinations of your subconscious mind. If a dream bothers you, then leave it. Stop allowing yourself to be tortured like a hatchling and wake yourself like an adult.” He cuts off conversation before I can tell him that human dreams don’t always

work like that, and the bond dims, a sign that he’s already gone back to sleep.

So I lie back down, curling my body around Xaden’s, and his arm wraps around my back and pulls me closer like it’s a reflex, like this is the way we’ll sleep for the next fifty years. I settle in against his warmth and lay my head on his chest, above the most comforting rhythm in the world besides Tairn’s and Andarna’s wingbeats—Xaden’s heart.

Six days later, there are six new names on the death roll. The December snow makes flying absolutely miserable outside the valley, and at

Basgiath, the dragons would simply refuse to train due to discomfort— theirs, of course, not ours—but we can’t afford not to fly at every available opportunity, so here we are in the flight field, waiting for orders, facing off against Claw and Tail Sections for the squad exercises Devera and Trissa have organized.

“You’d think we were in the Barrens, it’s so fucking hot in this valley,” Ridoc mutters, unbuttoning his flight jacket to my right. “And it’s only eleven.”

A bead of sweat races from the hairline at the nape of my neck to the collar of my flight jacket, so it’s not like I can disagree with him. Winter flight leathers aren’t exactly meant for the Vale…or the valley.

“It won’t be the second we’re in the air.” Sawyer’s eyes briefly narrow, staring ahead of us, where Rhiannon, Bragen, and the other squad leaders meet with Devera and Trissa.

“You all right?” I ask quietly, so the first-years ahead of us can’t hear.

“It’s for the good of the squad, right?” Sawyer forces a tight, closed-lipped smile. “If they can stay and tolerate knowing we might strip their powers away at any second, I can deal with losing my position as executive officer.”

“I want to go with you,” Andarna says for the tenth time in the last fifteen minutes, and I look over my shoulder to see her flexing her claws beside Tairn, her talons digging into the earth. Her black scales shine with a green hue this morning, reflecting the grass around her. Maybe it’s the result of lingering gold, and breathing fire will steal the last of the shimmer. “I have no clue how far they’ll want us to fly.” I keep my voice as gentle

as possible.

“Longer than you’re capable of, Little One,” Tairn adds.

“I made it an hour yesterday,” Andarna argues, because that is what she does now. Tairn could tell her the grass is green, and she’d eviscerate yet another sheep on it just to change the color.

I lift my brows at Tairn, who simply huffs—whatever the hell that means.

“Trouble in double dragon land?” Ridoc asks, and Cat glances my way from his other side, Maren following suit now that we stand in rows of four.

“She wants to fly with us,” I answer.

“I am flying with you,” she insists, digging more than just her physical claws in. “And this matter isn’t up for debate amongst your human friends. Dragons do not consult humans.”

“I’m starting to wish I’d protested your right of benefaction when you asked the Empyrean to bond,” Tairn grumbles.

“Good thing you’re not the head of my den, then, isn’t it?” “Codagh should have known better—” he starts.

“What are the other adolescents doing today?” I interrupt, hoping to distract her. The last thing I want to do is climb to any altitude she can’t handle and have her wing fail. Gods, the consequences of such a mistake would be incomprehensible.

“The other adolescents are not bonded and do not understand me.”

I swear I can feel Tairn roll his eyes.

“You’d rather risk all the work you’ve done with your wing to play war than actually…” Shit, what do adolescent dragons do all day, anyway? “Play?”

“I would rather test my wing on a training mission, yes.”

Rhiannon and Bragen head back our way, locked in discussion, both gesturing with their hands in motions that look like maneuvers. There’s a sheen of excitement in Rhiannon’s quick smile, and I find myself mirroring it. “She looks happy.”

“Maybe they’re finally going to let us fly farther than a half hour…you know, without making us hike up the Cliffs of Dralor after,” Ridoc remarks. “Gods, I miss flying.”

“That would be nice,” Sawyer agrees, shooting me a teasing smirk. “Not all of us get to take a pleasure flight to Cordyn, you know.”

“Hey, that joy ride got us a luminary.” I glance meaningfully at the sheath at his side, which holds an alloy-hilted dagger. One for one. That was the deal Brennan struck with the Assembly when it came to supplying the drifts, and we’ve finally made enough to equip every rider in Aretia with multiple daggers.

“Listen up, Second Squad,” Rhiannon says, looking over our group. “Our mission is simple. You know the summoning runes Trissa has been working on with us?” Even the first-years nod. They might not be able to weave runes, but at least they know what they are, which means they’re a step ahead of where we were last year. “There are thirty of them hidden within twenty miles along the western range. This isn’t just a test for us, but for our dragons to sense them.”

“Can you—”

Tairn growls in response. Point made.

“Winner gets a weekend pass. No training. No homework. No limits.” She glances at Bragen, whose lips twitch into a smile.

“We’ve been given permission to fly wherever we want. If your gryphon feels comfortable flying the cliff wall, that means you can go anywhere.” He looks at Cat. “Even Cordyn, though you’d only have a few hours there before you’d have to start the flight back. If you win, of course.”

“Oh, we’re winning,” Maren says, shoulder-bumping Cat the same way Rhiannon does me.

“Good. You want that pass? We’ll need to find and close more of those runed boxes than they do.” She nods back toward Claw and Tail Sections.

“They return,” Tairn says as wingbeats fill the sky.

I look up, a slow smile spreading at the sight of Sgaeyl soaring overhead with Chradh and eight other dragons, but I only recognize the three bonded to Heaton, Emery, and Cianna. Xaden’s home…with a full riot of ten.

“I’m guessing you got your way with the new structure?” I ask Xaden as they land behind our line of gryphons and dragons.

Tairn breaks away as if we aren’t about to be sent on a training mission. “Bragen and I will divide you up into groups of four according to your

abilities,” Rhiannon continues.

“In a way,” Xaden answers, executing a perfect dismount and walking toward us. My pulse leaps and the worry that seems to live in my chest lifts a fraction when I don’t see any new injuries or blood.

“Sorrengail, you paying attention?” Rhi calls me out.

My head swivels back to the front of formation, where she’s arching an eyebrow at me.

“Teams of four. Split by ability,” I repeat with a nod, then give her a blatantly beseeching look that absolutely abuses her status as my best friend.

“We’ll have an hour once we launch,” Bragen says.

Go, Rhi mouths once the squad’s attention is on him.

I smile in thanks, then step out of formation and walk past Andarna and Feirge, over the trampled grass, straight to Xaden. The scruff on his jaw is thick with days of growth, and there are circles under his eyes as he reaches forward, surprising me by tugging me against his chest in front of all of Fourth Wing.

The cold beard tickles as he buries his icy face in my neck and breathes deeply. “I’ve missed you.”

“Same.” I wind my arms around his torso, sliding my hands in the space between the swords he wears crossed at his back and his flight jacket, then hold tight to help warm him. “I need to talk to you.”

“Bad news?” He pulls back and searches my eyes.

“No. Just news that’s best shared when there’s time to discuss.”

His brow knits.

“Good to see you, Vi,” Garrick says as he walks by, tapping me on the shoulder. “You definitely need to make him tell you about the venin he took down just outside Draithus.”

“You what?” My stomach pitches sideways.

“Thanks for that, asshole.” Xaden glares at Garrick.

“Just doing my part to help your communication skills thrive in a stable relationship.” Garrick turns and walks backward, lifting his hands in a shrug.

“Like you have any room to talk about stable relationships,” Imogen counters from behind him, the squad formation obviously having broken to ready for the mission.

“I’m going to skip the obvious pun to be made about plenty of mares in my stable.” He flashes a grin, then turns and heads toward the path at the end of the valley. “Seeing as I’m no longer a cadet but a mature, responsible officer.”

She scoffs as he walks by. “We need to go, Sorrengail.”

“You took down a venin?” I pivot, keeping my attention on Xaden. “Outside Draithus?” It’s the last Poromish stronghold before the Cliffs of Dralor.

“You have lengthy news to discuss?” he replies, lifting his brows.

“Are you all right?” I slide my hands to his face, scanning him like that tiny bit of exposed skin will tell me if the other ninety-five percent is unharmed. Being able to raise the wards won’t mean anything if he isn’t safe—at least it won’t mean anything to me.

“News?” His eyes narrow. “Violet!” Rhiannon calls.

“I have to fly out.” I drop my hands reluctantly, and he catches one in his as I retreat a step. “We’ll talk when I get back.”

“Tell me now.”

“The wingleader voice doesn’t work on me.” I squeeze his hand and let


His eyes flare. “You figured out how to raise the wards.”

I blink, then scowl. “I hate it when you do that. Is my face really that easy to read?”

“To me? Yes.” He looks toward the rocky path that leads down to Riorson House. “We should go now. How long will it take to raise them?”

“No.” I shake my head and turn toward my squad, seeing Sloane, Visia, and Cat clearly waiting for me. Guess I don’t need to ask where I’ve been assigned. “We’ll talk about it later. Discussion paused.”

“At least tell me what was missed the first time.” Xaden quickly catches up to me.

“Dragons.” I pat Andarna’s foreleg as we approach the trio of waiting cadets. “‘The six most powerful’ refers to dragons, not riders.”

“In that case, I can have them up before you get back.” “No, you can’t.” I shoot him a glare.

“Are you two fighting silently?” Cat asks, glancing between Xaden and me, her perfectly arched brows rising slowly.

“They do that,” Sloane informs her.

Xaden ignores them both completely, keeping his gaze locked onto mine as we reach them. “And just why can’t I?”

I lean up and brush my lips over his cool cheek. “Because you’ll need Tairn. Now go warm up. I have a mission to fly.” Without another word to him, I turn to my squadmates. “Let’s go.”

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