Chapter no 53

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

Forty minutes later, the four of us are hiking down a steep, snow-covered ridgeline to a cave only accessible by foot in the sector our group has been assigned to, and Lucky Me is in the lead, which leaves Cat at my back.

At least Andarna’s there to protect it should the flier get any stabby ideas about how to get me out of Xaden’s bed.

“This is not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to fly with you.” Andarna huffs at the powdery snow, scattering a portion in a shimmering cloud of frozen misery.

“This is what the mission called for, and you need your strength to fly back,” I tell her, trudging forward through the knee-high layer of fresh hell and hoping I don’t fall through into any older strata.

The only one who isn’t struggling is Kiralair, Cat’s silver-winged gryphon, who walks at Andarna’s side. Only those two are light enough not to cause an avalanche on the nonexistent path.

“Anything?” Tairn asks as he flies to the next peak, his voice tense.

“We haven’t even made it to the cave you selected,” I respond, spotting the mouth of the cave about twenty yards ahead only because Tairn pointed it out under the camouflage of the snowy outcropping above. The riot left us at the only fully stable section of terrain, an outcropping of rock left bare by the vicious wind.

“I still find this plan lacking,” he lectures. “Leaving you on one peak to explore another for a possible energy signature leaves you in unacceptable danger.”

“From whom?” I tug my fur-lined hood closer to ward off the wind when it shifts, stinging the tips of my exposed ears. “Do you really think any wyvern could—”

“I’m coming back.”

“It’s entirely too easy to rile you.” I laugh, and the sound echoes off the snow-covered bowl, making us all take pause.

“For fuck’s sake, Sorrengail,” Cat hisses once it’s clear the snow around us is staying put. “Are you trying to get us buried in an avalanche?”

“Sorry,” I whisper over my shoulder.

Her eyes widen. “Did you just apologize to me?”

“I can admit when I’m wrong.” I shrug and continue forward.

“I’m fully present and capable of protecting her,” Andarna snipes at Tairn.

“You do not yet breathe fire.”

“Fire would only serve to melt the mountain,” she reminds him, and I glance back to see her carefully picking her path, her scales reflecting the snow in an almost silvery sheen in places. “I still wield teeth and claw should the aristocrat bare her vitriol.”

“Are you insinuating that I don’t?” Cat asks.

“Do you even think you’re wrong? Ever?” I ask, pushing forward. “I honestly think you might be worse than a dragon when it comes to confidence.”

“Arrogance,” Andarna corrects me. “The flier doesn’t have the skills to back up a word like ‘confidence.’”

I snort, but bite back the laugh before it can endanger us. Ten more feet and we’ll be at the cave. If Tairn locates a second while we’re retrieving the first, we’ll be ahead of Claw Section, who has already found three to our section’s two, according to Tairn.

Dragons are nothing if not competitive. “What?” Cat asks.

“Andarna thinks you’re arrogant, not confident,” I tell her. “She is,” Sloane agrees.

“Just because your brother didn’t like me doesn’t mean you know me,” Cat whispers at Sloane.

“No.” I turn to face Cat, making her pause in the footsteps I’ve carved in the ridgeline. “You want to pick a fight? You come at me.”

Cat cocks her head to the side and studies me. “Because you feel guilty for her brother’s death.” It’s not an accusation or even a dig. Just the truth.

“Because I promised him I’d take care of her. So, you can aim all that hatred right here.” I tap my gloved hand to my chest.

“He was wrong to ask that of you.” Sloane catches up, Visia close behind.

“Because Imogen would have been a more capable protector?” I ask, only able to hold her too familiar blue gaze for a heartbeat before looking away.

“No. Because you already carry the weight of protecting Xaden’s life. It was unfair of him to burden you with mine, too.” She huffs a breath into her cupped, gloved hands to warm them.

I blink as my eyes sting from something other than the wind, then turn to continue trudging through the snow toward the cave, whose entrance is nothing but a narrow, icy ledge. “It looks bigger than we thought from the air.” But still not wide enough for any dragon bigger than Andarna to squeeze into.

“There was a time my kind dwelled in every mountain of this range,” Tairn tells me. “That cave is undoubtedly part of the network of chambers that runs throughout this range for a wintering den. This entrance would have been inhospitable to any approach but direct flight—to protect the young…and the adolescent.”

“I heard that,” Andarna quips.

“Kiralair says our squad has another box in hand,” Cat tells us as I finally reach the cave’s entrance, stepping out of the wind.

“We’re so winning that pass.” Visia grins, and Cat walks out of the snow and onto the rocky floor of the cave.

“Does every gryphon have lair in their name?” I ask Cat, hoping the subject change might change the aim of her sharp tongue from Sloane.

“Of course not. Is every rider named Sorrengail?” She folds her arms and bounces back on her heels like she’s trying to stay warm.

“That right there is why I don’t like you.” Sloane crosses into the cave. “You’re—”

Visia slips and I lunge forward, catching her hand and tugging her into the cave as snow crumbles where she’d just been standing.

“You all right?” I ask, pulling her farther into the cave and scanning her startled face.

“Of course she is. You never seem to have a problem saving her,” Cat mutters.

“I’m fine.” Visia nods, dropping her hood and revealing the dragonfire burn scar down her hairline. “That’s going to make it hard to leave.”

I shoot Cat a withering look, but she’s too busy watching her gryphon, Kira, stretch across the hole in the path, then safely squirm her way in to notice.

“Reason number two.” Sloane holds up two fingers and walks past Cat into the dark cave. “Needless to say, there are no mage lights in here.”

And I’ve never been that good at producing them. Anything I wield with lesser magic is going to be swallowed up in this darkness. I rest my hand over my stomach as if that will help the instant rise of nausea from the smell of earth around us. At least it’s missing that damp scent from the interrogation chamber, but it’s close enough to make me pause.

“You ended the one who kept you prisoner,” Andarna reminds me, following Kira in, tucking her wings tight to fit through the opening.

“Fear isn’t always logical.” I glance at the other riders. “Any chance either of you is a fire wielder? Because I don’t think you want me wielding in here.” Keeping the energy strung between my hand and the conduit for fifteen feet puts me into a sweat every time, and I can only keep it going for a few seconds.,

“No signet yet,” Visia responds.

“Me, either,” Sloane answers, peering into the darkness.

“You brought a dragon.” Cat gestures wide, motioning toward Andarna. “She can’t breathe fire yet.” I offer Andarna a smile. “But she will.” “Remind her that I can sever her head with one bite,” Andarna growls,

the sound higher than Tairn’s menacing rumble.

“I will not. What does Tairn tell us?”

“We don’t eat our allies,” she mumbles, but there’s a distinct tap of her talons against the rock floor.

“Great. Why they stuck me with you three, I’ll never know. You’d think one of us would have a good mage light down.” Cat removes her bow, then swings her pack from her back and rummages past the full quiver to pull out a small, unlit torch.

“Are you kidding me?” I gawk as she brings a piece of wood no larger than my palm from the bag, shakes her head, and reaches for another. “You carry one of those around with you?”

“Obviously.” Cat digs into her bag again. “The fact that you don’t says that you haven’t been appropriately scared of the dark yet. Shit, I can’t find the fire rune Maren made.”

“You all trade runes?” Visia stares in open shock.

“And you call yourselves a family. Of course we share. Whoever can make it, does. Then we all trade so everyone is equally equipped.” Cat shakes her head and stands, muttering a curse. “I can’t find it.”

“That’s…brilliant,” I admit. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“You’re used to hoarding power,” she says with a dismissive shrug. “Not sharing it. Now, unless someone has an idea for fire—”

“Got it.” I yank off my gloves, then stuff them into one pocket and pull my conduit from the other, beckoning a trickle of my power to rise. It tingles, then burns as it flows down my hand, through my fingers, and into the conduit. The tendrils of energy light our immediate surroundings.

“That’s so awesome.” Visia smiles. “Can all of you do that?”

“No. It just hums for most of us. Glad to see you’ll have all the light you

need.” Sarcasm drips from Cat’s voice. “Take it,” I order Sloane.

“I’d rather live.” She puts her hands up.

“If I thought it was going to kill you, I’d hand it to Cat.” I hold the conduit out to her.

Cat snorts, but I think there was a note of laughter there.

“Good point.” Sloane takes the conduit, and I concentrate on keeping the energy connected.

“Back up three steps. Good, another two,” I tell her, and my fingers tremble as she does, stretching my signet.

“Wow,” Visia whispers.

“Stick the torch into the energy, Cat.” “You think that’s safe?” she asks.

“I have no clue, but I’m game to try if you are.” I keep focused on the conduit, on the flow of energy, on the heat I keep checked by controlling the door to Tairn’s power.

Kira clicks her tongue in a series of sounds I’ve become accustomed to but have no hope of ever understanding.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” Cat mutters, then lowers the torch until it catches fire.

I immediately drop my hand, cutting off the power, and I send a prayer of thanks to Dunne that it worked. Felix is probably going to have my head on a pike tomorrow at lessons. “I’ll take it. Thanks, Sloane.”

Sloane hands the conduit back like it might explode.

“Damn,” Cat says, glancing from the torch, to the conduit, to me. “I hate that you’re so…”

“Badass?” Sloane suggests, smiling in a way that reminds me of her brother.

“Powerful,” Cat admits, looking away before slipping her pack back on, changing hands with the torch instead of passing it off.

“It’s not the power making that possible,” I tell her, channeling into the conduit so it lights up again and marching into the darkness. “It’s the control.”

“Yeah, well, I kind of loathe that, too,” she mutters, catching up to walk at my side.

“A rare moment of honesty. I’ll take it.” We move into the cave, which seems to widen with every step we take. “They paired us because I’m

supposedly the most powerful rider in the squad,” I tell her, ignoring her muttered response. “But you’re better at runes. We might not compliment each other, but we complement each other.” I smile despite the darkness we’re walking into. “Get it? With an E instead of the I.”

Cat looks at me like I’ve just grown a third arm, and the torch starts to flicker.

There’s a breeze.

“Are you telling scribe jokes?” Sloane asks, a couple of steps behind us, Visia at her side.

“Jesinia would think it’s funny,” Visia offers like she’s trying to save me. “Jesinia is a scribe,” Sloane notes.

The cave opens up about twenty feet in, a vast tunnel forking to the left. “Apparently there’s a much easier way to get into this cave,” Cat


“It’s part of a network that runs through this range,” I explain. “Should we split up?” Visia asks.

“No!” All three of us respond at the same time.

“Which way do we go?” Sloane voices the question we’re all wondering.

No one answers.

“Any help?” I ask Tairn, feeling our bond stretch. He’s not far but definitely not close, either.

“There’s an energy signature in that cave. That’s all I can tell.”

“I vote right. If it doesn’t work, we’ll come back and go left.” I look to the others.

Cat nods, and we head farther in.

“So do you think you’ll get a second signet?” Visia asks, breaking the silence. “Two dragons, two signets, right?”

“I don’t know,” I answer, glancing back at Andarna. I actually figured because she bonded me so young and lost the ability to stop time, the signet of lightning wielding was all that I would be blessed with. But now I wonder… “Will I?”

“Why are you asking me? Signets manifest according to the person wielding.” Her eyes blink gold, her black scales blending in with the darkness.

“Second signets only happen when a dragon bonds a rider in the direct familial line as its previous,” Sloane says, misunderstanding Visia’s question. “But there’s an equal chance of it causing madness. From what Thoirt told me, that’s why Cruth wasn’t punished for bonding Quinn. She’s only the great-niece of her previous rider. Her signet’s more powerful but not entirely different.”

“Thoirt shouldn’t be telling you matters resolved within the Empyrean,” Visia lectures, then does a double take when she glances my way.

Gravity shiftsThat can’t be right. That would mean— “Violet, are you okay?” Visia asks.

I shake my head but say, “Yes.” How do you explain your heart is sinking past the rock floor of the cave? I take a deep breath, flex and unflex my hand as I grip the brightly glowing conduit. Andarna growls to my right, and I quickly assure her, “I’m fine.” But we both know I’m anything but fine—I’m also equally certain now isn’t the time to let my mind wander down that path.

“Holy shit, there it is,” Sloane says, forcing me to pay attention as she walks past us to pick up the plain metal chest that’s locked into an open position by the rune on the front.

“It’s…plain,” Visia notes.

“Are you going to counter the summoning rune?” I ask Cat. When she raises one brow, I add, “You’re better at runes, remember?”

“I am.” She nods, a genuine smile curving her mouth for the first time since I met her. “I just wanted to see if you’d say it again.”

Kiralair’s wing brushes my shoulder as she walks past us into the darkness, as if Cat needs to be guarded from the unseen.

Cat glances between the three of us with an uncertain—and unhappy— tense set to her mouth, then hands the torch to Visia in what looks like a painful sacrifice.

No, not a sacrifice: a gesture of trust.

She weaves the unlocking rune with a speed I envy, her hands moving quickly, confidently, as Andarna shifts her weight behind me.

“What’s wrong?”

“The scent of others grows stronger.”

“Wyvern?” Every muscle in my body clenches.

“No. They smell of stolen magic when you get close enough.” She lifts her head, taking up three-quarters of the tunnel. “This smells of…dragons.” “Got it!” Cat says, and I turn at the sound of metal clicking shut. The

chest is closed and latched.

“We’d better hurry,” I tell them. “Andarna smells other dragons, which means the other sections might be closing in on us.”

“I’m not losing this pass.” Visia trades Cat, taking the chest and returning the torch. “It will give me time to fly home and convince my cousins to leave the border if my aunt and uncle won’t.”

“You’re going to fly into Navarre?” Sloane damn near shouts.

“It’s right on the border. They won’t even know.” Visia adjusts her grip on the chest and hurries past Andarna. “So let’s get out of here.”

“Bold choice to go back to Navarre.” Cat jogs to catch up to Visia, lighting the way. “I respect it.”

The effort, the consideration for Visia, thaws a small chunk of my heart toward Cat. Maybe she’s not horrible to everyone…just me.

“It’s the only thing to do,” Visia starts as we approach the fork in the tunnel.

A low growl vibrates the very ground beneath our feet, making all four of us halt, and the hair rises on the back of my neck.

“What the—” Cat starts.

Another growl makes the pebbles around my feet bounce, and a full-grown orange dragon comes around the corner, its back scraping the top of the cave as it snaps its head our direction, glaring at us through its only remaining eye.

Oh. Fuck. Visia shrieks.

“Tairn!” I mentally scream, forcing my body past the shock, the fear, the nauseating hopelessness of our situation. The orb falls from my hand, shattering on the ground at the same moment I reach for the women in front of me, but my hand only grasps the leather of Cat’s pack.

I yank her backward with all my strength just as Visia is swatted out of the way by a sharp, jagged claw. Cat’s body collides with mine, knocking us both to the ground, and the torch falls from her hand as Visia hits the side of the cave with a cracking sound that sickens my stomach.

The angle, the impact…gods…she’s…she’s dead.

“Silver One?” Tairn’s voice roars in my head as the dragon blocking our way out focuses his narrowed eye on me and opens his jaw wide.

Fetid breath fills the air a second before he curls his tongue, and his throat glows orange with rising fire.

“Solas found us!”

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