Chapter no 59

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

I can make it on my own,” Andarna argues three hours later as cadets scurry into our hasty and unauthorized formation in the center of the


“It’s an eighteen-hour flight,” I remind her, checking all the joints of her new harness. Thank gods she’s still only half the size of Sgaeyl now, so Tairn can still carry her. “I respect your decision to come, but this is the only way.” She can only fly for an hour or two before her wing muscle completely cramps.

“And you think I should be carried like a juvenile?” She huffs a breath of steam as I walk underneath her and fit my fingers between her scales and the smooth metal that curves under her shoulders.

“I think Tairn is capable of bearing your weight. You can fly until you tire or hold back the riot, but wearing a harness for quick clipping in is the only way I’m letting you come. I’m not risking you getting left behind if you fall out of formation.” I tug at the steel just to be sure it doesn’t give like mine did when we flew back to Basgiath last summer. “I get it. You don’t want to be carried. Sometimes I don’t want to fly in a saddle, but it’s what I need in order to ride. It’s your choice. You can come in the harness, or you can stay behind.”

“Dragons do not answer to humans.” She bristles, straightening her posture.

“No, but they do answer to their elders,” Tairn grunts, his claws flexing in the green grass beside us.

“Only to the eldest of our den,” she counters as I walk out from under her, careful not to step on my flight jacket and pack that I’ve left on the ground. It’s too damn hot up here to be dressed for the reality of December.

“Sure, I’ll just go ask Codagh really quick,” I quip sarcastically, jumping backward when a gryphon barrels by at full speed. They might be slower than dragons in the sky, but they’re frighteningly fast on the ground.

They’re also less than happy about being left behind, according to Maren.

“Try not to get killed before we get there, Vi. I think we might need you,”

Ridoc teases from my left, waiting in front of Aotrom, who snaps at the next gryphon who races by a little too close. I half expect to see feathers fall from between his teeth when he draws back his head.

“Perhaps I will be the eldest of my own den.” Andarna arches her neck, tracking a flock of birds in the sky. I follow her line of sight, then quickly look away when the brightness of the sun stings my eyes, burning into my vision for a second and making her scales look a shiny, sky blue before I blink the spots away.

“I’m still in my middling years,” Tairn grumbles. “You’ll be waiting awhile.”

“Really?” She shimmies the harness into a more comfortable position.

“I figured you were decades into your elder era. You certainly act like it.”

Tairn turns his head slowly, his eyes narrowing on Andarna.

“You don’t act a day over a hundred,” I reassure Tairn, then offer a smile to Maren as she approaches with Cat.

“I hate that we can’t come,” Maren says, swinging her leather rucksack from her shoulders. “We’re supposed to stick together as a squad, right?”

“You wouldn’t be able to wield,” I remind her as she crouches, digging through her pack. “The second you crossed Navarrian wards, you’d be defenseless and targeted by riders and venin alike. That’s not a great combination.”

“And we’d slow you down. We’ve heard it.” Cat folds her arms in front of her chest, surveying the chaos as Feirge lands ahead of us, flaring her wings before touching down near Rhiannon. “Doesn’t mean we don’t feel like shit that you’re all rushing off to battle while we…study.”

“I’m not so sure about the study part, since I think that’s Devera’s Red Clubtail up there,” Ridoc adds, pointing toward the head of the formation.

“Here.” Maren pulls out a small crossbow and leather-capped quiver from her pack, then stands. “Hate to tell you this, but you’re awful with a longbow.”

“Ummm. Thanks?”

“This will give you a secondary weapon if you run out of daggers. Just pull back the string until it catches here, then nock the arrow in the flight groove”—she points to the center of the bow—“and pull the lever with your forefinger.”

It’s compact and won’t take too much strength to operate. The gesture is so kind that a lump grows in my throat. “It’s perfect. Thank you.” I take the weapon from her, but she pulls the quiver just out of reach.

“These are all maorsite arrowheads, imbued and runed to explode on impact.” She lifts her dark brows. “They’re cushioned in the quiver but do. Not. Drop. This.”

“Got it.” I take the quiver from her, then slip them both into my pack.

“The Assembly won’t budge,” Xaden says. He’s dressed in full flight gear, his swords strapped across his back as he walks with my siblings.

“Stubborn assholes.” Mira’s also dressed for flight, her sword sheathed at her side, but Brennan isn’t, and the anger simmering in my brother’s narrowed gaze is aimed straight at me.

“They won’t fight even knowing the hatching grounds are at risk?” Ridoc challenges, heading our way with Sawyer, Imogen, and Quinn.

“They think we’re wrong,” Xaden answers.

They think that rushing into enemy territory with untrained cadets is a mistake,” Brennan snaps. “And I agree. You’re going to get cadets— including yourself—killed.”

“It’s not like we’re taking the first-years,” Rhiannon says, fastening the straps of sheaths around her flight jacket.

“Which is bullshit,” Aaric bites out, Sloane and the other first-years walking up with him, all wearing flight leathers and determination. “We have just as much right to defend the hatching grounds as second- and third-years.” The pleading yet accusatory look he gives me sinks my heart. He has just as much right—maybe more so—to defend Navarre as anyone here.

“None of you are going—” Brennan starts.

“You’d rather stay here, knowing there’s every chance Mom will die?” I step toward my brother, and Mira pivots to my side, facing Brennan.

He flinches, his head drawing back like I hit him. “She had no trouble sending any of the three of us to our deaths.” Brennan’s gaze jumps between Mira and me, looking for understanding that neither of us gives him.

“We don’t have time for this,” Xaden lectures. “If you aren’t coming, Brennan, then that’s on you, but if we don’t leave now, there’s a chance we’ll be too late to defend Basgiath.” He turns, pointing a finger at the first-years. “And absolutely not. Most of you haven’t even manifested a signet, and I’m not serving you up with your dragons as another energy source.”

“I’ve manifested,” Sloane protests, grasping the straps of her rucksack.

“And you’re still a first-year,” Xaden counters. “Matthias, get your squad ready to launch, then find your wingleader for further orders. We’ll need to fly straight through. I’ll take Violet with the—”

“With all due respect”—Rhiannon straightens her posture and stares him down—“unlike War Games, Second Squad, Flame Section, Fourth Wing will remain intact, though you’re welcome to join us.”

Sawyer and Ridoc move to my sides, and I know if I fall back, Quinn and Imogen will be there waiting.

Xaden lifts his scarred brow at me, and instead of contradicting Rhiannon, I glance at my sister. “Same goes for you. You’re welcome to join, but I stay with my squad.”

The wind blows bitterly cold against my face nearly eighteen hours later as we cross into the Morraine province and follow the Iakobos River through the winding mountain range that leads to Basgiath. I’ve never been so thankful that my body heats when I channel. Everyone else in our party

must be frozen to the core.

It’s a testament to General Melgren’s certainty about Samara that we aren’t stopped by any patrols…because there are none. Even the mid-guard posts are devoid of riders as we fly over in a riot of fifty led by Tairn and Sgaeyl.

We may have left the first-years behind, but we also gained some of the active riders who hadn’t been stationed along the cliffside border, like Mira, who’s flying with Teine directly behind me as if she’s scared to let me out of her sight.

“Aimsir is indeed within the Vale. Teine will relay communications for the squad while you locate your mother.” Tairn finishes telling me the plan devised by leadership midflight that will allow us to recon, then adjust to whatever we find waiting for us.

My assigned task is to get through to my mother. No pressure or anything.

“When we reach the upcoming bend in the river, you’ll release your harness from mine,” Tairn tells Andarna. “Fly to the Vale and stay there. An adolescent black dragon will raise human suspicion at Basgiath. Hide among our kind until it’s over.”

“What if you need me? Like last time? I can stay hidden right at your side.”

My heart clenches at the memory of how she’d appeared on the battlefield even after I’d begged her to stay hidden. She’d risked her life to help us and nearly lost it in the process. “Stay with the feathertails—they’ll need all your protection if the wards fall—and report anything the second it feels off.”

If we’re too late, then gods help us all.

At the bend in the river, Andarna detaches and flies alongside us until the beats of her smaller wings can’t keep up, then dives toward the ice-crusted river beneath us.

“The Vale,” I remind her.

“I will be where I am needed,” she counters, banking left, leaving the trail of the river in favor of the snowcapped ridgeline that leads back behind the flight field and up into the Vale.

“That didn’t sound like she intends on listening,” I tell Tairn, watching her until she fades from view.

“I warned you what adolescents are like.” He tucks his wings and dives, leaving my stomach behind as we drop a thousand feet in altitude in a matter of breaths, then levels out once we’re only a hundred feet above the tall oak trees that line the river, approaching Basgiath from the south.

Everything looks as it should in the dying evening light, identical to when we left six weeks ago, simply covered in a fresh coat of snow. I look over my shoulder to see half the riot—First, Second, and Third Wings— break off, heading toward the flight field.

As long as everyone sticks to the plan, the next quarter will land in the courtyard of the quadrant while the rest of us continue onto the main campus.

“Can you sense anything off?” I ask as the walls of the Riders Quadrant come into view. Only half the windows in the dormitory are lit from within. An ache settles in my chest. No matter what cruelty transpired here, there’s an enormous part of me that considers this place home.

It’s where I studied, where I climbed trees with Dain, and where my father taught me the wonder of the Archives. It’s where I fell in love with Xaden and learned just how much had been omitted from those very Archives.

“The wards are still up. We’ve made our presence known to the Empyrean, and I can definitely sense their displeasure, if that’s what you mean.” We cross over the courtyard, and Tail and Claw Sections peel off the formation with Devera in the lead, causing untold damage to the masonry as they land wherever they’ll fit along the walls. “But Greim is in

residence, and she’s reaching out to her mate, who is at Samara to contact Codagh.”

“At what point will you and Sgaeyl be able to cover distances like that?” We pass the parapet in nothing more than a heartbeat, and then Tairn banks left.

“Years. Greim and Maise have been mated for many decades.” He races over the bell tower of the main college of Basgiath, then flares his wings and beats them backward, halting our momentum to the sound of alarmed cries from the watchmen in the four towers, shouting down their warnings.

“There are people down there,” I tell him as he sinks gracefully into the main campus’s courtyard.

“They’ll move.”

Sure enough, people scurry, scattering out of his way as he lands. “Should you change your mind, I’ll simply claw through the roof to reach you.”

I unbuckle quickly, unstrap the bag of daggers I was assigned to carry— each of us has one—and climb out of the saddle. “I’ll be all right,” I promise, working to his shoulder without so much as removing my flight goggles or tightening the straps on my pack. Speed matters, since only one dragon can land here at a time. I’ll be alone until Sgaeyl follows.

My muscles protest the sudden movement after hours of riding, but I make it to his shoulder, then slide down the familiar ridges of his scales until my feet touch ground at Basgiath.

The second I’m clear, slipping the strap of my bag to my shoulder, Tairn launches skyward. He’s strong but also heavy, and his talons barely clear the roofline of the infantry quadrant as he flies off.

Officers stand in stunned silence against the walls, staring at me with blatant shock, and I open the Archives doors just a crack to fill my body with enough energy to wield just in case one of them decides to make a move. Hands up, I scan the threats around me, taking note of the one captain in navy blue reaching for his sword. I retreat toward the wall beside the stairs leading up to the administration building until I feel frozen stone against my back.

Sgaeyl lands an instant later, momentarily obscuring my view of my would-be enemies, and Xaden dismounts, shadows in one hand and a sword in the other as he echoes my previous movements, giving only me his back as he retreats to my side. When Sgaeyl launches from the courtyard, Teine sweeps down, taking her place in perfectly timed coordination.

Movement up the stairs catches my attention, and I pivot, putting myself between Xaden and my mother as she descends with slow, deliberate steps, her hand on the hilt of her sheathed shortsword, Nolon a few steps behind her.

Here we go.

Shadows stream around me, racing across the cobblestones and stopping at the first step just as my mother reaches it. Her sigh is pure annoyance, and twin bruises lie in half circles beneath the eyes she narrows at us.

“Mom.” Power crackles, lifting the loose tendrils of my hair as I glance back at the man who helped hold me prisoner.

“Really, Violet? You couldn’t use the front door?” She glances at Mira, and then her gaze turns upward as Cath descends. Her face falls, but she holds her posture rigid as ever.

“He’s not with us,” Mira says, holding her sword pointed at the captain who’s been working his way out. “In fact, he’s pretty pissed we came.”

Mom’s head tilts slightly in a movement I know means she’s talking to Aimsir. “Seems we’ve been fully invaded.”

“We’re not here to fight you. We’re here to fight for you,” I tell her. “You might not believe me, but your wards are in danger.”

“Our wards are perfectly fine, as I’m sure you can feel.” Mom crosses her arms as Dain joins us. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” She calls across the courtyard,

“Hollyn, open the damned gates before one of these dragons takes off the roof.” She looks pointedly at the shadows blocking her path.

They lift, retreating to the tips of my boots.

“Let the others know the gates are opening,” I tell Tairn.

“I will position myself accordingly.”

A full minute later, the guards throw open the gates, revealing the rest of our squad dismounting.

“Trust me, Mom. The battle you’re expecting isn’t at Samara: it’s here.” I explain my line of thinking in the few minutes it takes for my squadmates to reach us. “Someone is going to take down your wards.”

“Not possible, cadet.” She shakes her head as night descends in true around us. “They’re heavily guarded every moment of every day. The biggest threat to the wards would be you.”

“Let us check,” Xaden says at my back. “You know your daughters would never strip Navarre of its protection.”

“I know exactly who my daughters are. And the answer is no.” Her dismissal is curt. “You’re lucky to be alive crossing enemy airspace. Consider retaining your lives a personal gift.”

“I think not.” Mira’s gaze sweeps the courtyard. “This courtyard should be full at this hour with soldiers returning from mess, and yet I only count five soldiers. One captain and four cadets, and no, I’m not counting the healers in the corner. You’ve sent every available body to Samara, haven’t you?”

The temperature in the courtyard plummets from freezing to nearly unbreathable.

“The guards behind you have signets in mindwork, Mother. In fact, I’d bet money that the most powerful riders on campus are you and…who? Professor Carr?” Mira moves forward fearlessly. “Our forces can render aid or conquer. It’s your choice.”

Mom’s nostrils flare as tense seconds pass.

“If you won’t take them to the wards,” Dain says from somewhere behind me, “I will. My father showed me where they are last year.” Which is precisely why he’s with our squad.

“Who do you want to be? The general who saves Basgiath, or the one who loses it to the very cadets who rejected your lies?” I lift my chin.

“Black really does suit you, Violet.” It might be the nicest thing she’s ever said to me.

“Like Captain Sorrengail said, it’s your choice. We’re wasting time,” I retort. With night fallen, it’s officially solstice.

Mom’s gaze jumps to Mira, then slides back to me. “By all means, let’s inspect the wards.”

My shoulders dip in relief, but I keep my power at the ready as we climb the steps into the administration building, swallowing the knot of apprehension in my throat as we approach Nolon.

“Violet—” he starts.

Just the sound of his voice makes bile rise in my throat.

“Stay the fuck away from Violet, and I’ll consider letting you live, if only to mend riders if there’s a battle coming,” Xaden warns the mender as we pass him near the entryway.

Mage lights glow above our heads as we walk into the familiar halls, a pair of healers scurrying by, coming from the direction of the mess hall where another group of cadets in pale blue peer out of the doorway.

“Chradh is worried,” Tairn remarks, his voice tense.

“What would Garrick’s dragon be worried about?” Xaden asks on the pathway shared by all four of us.

“Runes,” Sgaeyl answers.

That’s right. The Brown Scorpiontail found the lure in Resson because he’s highly sensitive to them. “Basgiath was built on runes,” I remind them.

“This is different. He senses the same energy that he detected in Resson.” Tairn’s tone shifts. “His rider officially has control of the dormitory with Devera.”

Garrick’s in place.

Mom leads us down the hallway and into the northwest turret, then descends the spiral staircase that reminds me so much of its southern counterpart that my breath catches at the scent of earth.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I hear the sound in my mind as clearly as if it were real, as if I were back in that interrogation chamber. Xaden’s hand takes mine, lacing his fingers through my own.

“You all right?” he asks, shadows wrapping around our joined hands, their touch as soft as velvet.

For a second, I debate playing it off, but I was the one who demanded full disclosure, so it only seems fair that I give it. “It smells like the interrogation chamber.”

“We’ll set that room on fire before we leave,” he promises.

At the base of the stairwell is…nothing. Just a circular room paved with the foundation stones.

Mom looks to Dain, and he walks past her, examining the pattern, then pushing on a rectangular stone at his shoulder height. It gives, and stone scrapes stone as a door swings open in the masonry, revealing a mage-lit tunnel so cramped it would give even the bravest person claustrophobia.

“Just like the Archives,” I tell Xaden.

Mom orders her accompanying soldiers to stand guard. In return, Rhiannon orders Sawyer and Imogen to guard them as we walk into the tunnel. Mom goes first.

“What happened to being guarded?” Xaden asks, walking ahead of me. Mira’s at my back.

“The wards are guarded,” she says, turning sideways when the tunnel narrows even farther. “Wouldn’t you find it suspicious if guards were stationed at the bottom of an empty stairwell?” she challenges. “Sometimes the best defense is simple camouflage.”

I walk sideways, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, and try to pretend I’m somewhere—anywhere—else.

We’re going to have fun, you and I. Varrish’s words slide over me, and my heart rate jumps.

Xaden’s shadows expand from our hands to my waist, and the pressure there feels like his arm is around me, making it bearable to get through the passage for the twenty feet it takes to open up wide again. The tunnel runs for what looks like another fifty yards before ending at a glowing blue archway, and the hum of energy from what I assume is the wardstone vibrates my very bones, tenfold the intensity of the one at Aretia.

“See, it’s guar…” Mom’s words die, and we see them the same moment she does.

Two bodies in black uniforms lie on the ground, pools of their blood slowly expanding toward each other. Their eyes are open, but they’re glazed and vacant, freshly dead.

My heart lurches and the shadows fall away with Xaden’s hand as we both reach for weapons.

“Oh, shit,” Ridoc whispers as the others file through the bottleneck behind us, drawing swords, daggers, and battle-axes.

Metal slides against metal as Mom pulls her sword, then breaks into a run, sprinting down the tunnel.

“No chance you’d stay here if I—” Xaden starts.

“None,” I say over my shoulder, already racing after my mother down the long expanse. The vague sound of barked orders echoes off the tunnel walls as Mira catches up quickly, then passes me to run at my mother’s side while Xaden keeps pace with me.

“Do you know where the ward chamber opens to the sky?” I ask Tairn as my boots pound the stone floor of the corridor. It has to, if it’s constructed anything like Aretia.

“According to you, I cannot supply fire to more than one—” He pauses as though taking stock of my situation. “On my way.”

“No!” Mom’s shout sends chills down my spine as she and Mira make it to the chamber ahead of us, both charging left, weapons high.

The rest of us reach the chamber, and before I can assess the situation, Xaden’s shadows jerk me off my feet and into his chest as he spins us backward, pressing my spine against the wall of the archway as the points of an orange’s scorpiontail swing through the very place I’d been standing.

There’s a fucking dragon in there? “Are you…” His eyes fly wide.

“Didn’t get me,” I assure him.

He nods, relief shifting his gaze from worried to alert, and we both turn into the entrance, quickly joined by Ridoc, Rhiannon, and Dain.

My mouth drops, and power charges through my veins, so potent my hands buzz.

The wardstone is twice as large as the one in Aretia, as is the chamber that houses it, but unlike Aretia’s, the rings and runes carved into it are interrupted by a diamond pattern. And unlike our wards in Aretia, this wardstone is on fire, lit on top by black flames that sputter and flare as a dragon emerges from behind the left side of the stone, driving Mom and Mira back toward us.

Not just any dragon. Baide.

“Get out of there!” Tairn orders as Baide lowers her head, and I get a single glimpse of her eyes—opaque instead of golden—before Mom charges toward her nose, lifting her sword to swing.

Baide knocks her aside with a single swipe of her head, and Mom flies into the stone wall of the chamber, cracking her head before falling into a heap.

Xaden throws his hand out, and shadows stream past, grasping both Mira and Mom, pulling them back to us as Baide roars, steam and spit flying from her mouth.

She stalks forward, her talons clicking on the floor as she maneuvers around the stone, revealing Jack Barlowe in his seat on Baide’s back. The smile he gives me twists my stomach. “You’re right on time, Sorrengail.”

“Anytime you want to show up would be very appreciated,” I tell Tairn as Xaden’s shadows release Mira at my side but drag my mother’s unconscious body back through the archway.

I can’t wield in here, not without endangering everyone. Besides, the charge of the stone would draw every strike to it.

“It’s not exactly an easy location to get to,” Tairn growls in reply. “What the hell are you doing, Barlowe?” Dain snaps.

“What I promised,” he answers, glee shining in his eyes.

Xaden sends another stream of shadows, this one shooting toward Barlowe, and Baide drops her jaw, her eerie eyes flashing as fire glows up her throat.

“Xaden!” I yell as Ridoc pushes past me—past all of us—and throws his arms forward, palms out.

“Get down!” Ridoc shouts, and I glimpse a wall of ice rising before us as Xaden pulls me into the shelter of his body and crouches. The chamber glows orange for a heartbeat, then two, as fire rages against the stone walls. Ridoc screams as the blast dies.

The second the fire ceases, we’re on our feet to face Barlowe and Baide, but the dragon has disappeared behind the wardstone again.

“I’ve got him!” Rhiannon rushes forward and hooks her arms under Ridoc’s, then hauls him back from where only a puddle marks where the wall of ice had stood. Nothing prepares me for the sight of Ridoc’s burned hands, blistered and bleeding.

“We’ll take the left,” Xaden says, glancing at me.

“Taking right,” Dain agrees, shooting a look at Mira, who nods.

Xaden and I run to the left, and I flip the dagger in my hand, pinching it by the tip in readiness to throw as we round the corner.

What the fuck?

Baide is up on her back legs, her front claws grasping the top of the flaming wardstone, and Barlowe isn’t in his seat. It takes a precious second we don’t have to spot him holding on to the top of Baide’s neck, clutching one of her horns.

Not even Xaden is fast enough to stop the downward plunge of Jack’s shortsword between the scales alongside Baide’s neck. The dragon’s cry shakes the foundation of the chamber and stops abruptly when Jack pushes the blade all the way through the front of her throat.

Jack’s head swings in our direction, and he wields with an outward-facing palm, throwing a shield that deflects Xaden’s shadows as blood sprays from Baide’s throat onto the wardstone. The black flames extinguish an instant before Baide collapses, her weight pitching forward.

The wardstone tips and Jack fumbles to hold on, giving me the perfect opportunity to flick my wrist and release the dagger.

I hear a satisfying cry as Xaden grabs hold of my waist, throwing up a wall of shadow that blocks out the chamber around us but doesn’t shield us

from the noise of the stone crashing. Cracking.

The humming stops. The wards have fallen.

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