Chapter no 7

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

“I’ve never seen this room before,” Ridoc says five days later, dropping into the seat next to me as the U-shaped amphitheater-style classroom

on the third floor fills for Orientation. We’re grouped in our sections and squads within our wings, putting us in the second row on the right-hand side, staring across the recessed floor at First Wing.

The noise outside is growing to a steady hum as civilians arrive for Conscription Day tomorrow, but it’s still quiet within the walls of the quadrant. We’ve spent this week preparing for the first-years’ arrival, learning our roles at Parapet, and drinking entirely too much at night. It definitely makes walking the hallways in the early morning interesting.

“We’ve never been second-years before,” Rhiannon replies from my other side, her supplies perfectly aligned on her desk.

“Good point.” Ridoc nods.

“Made it!” Nadine slides in next to Ridoc, shoving errant strands of her purple hair out of her face with a braced and wrapped hand. “How have I never been in this room before?”

Rhiannon just shakes her head.

“We’ve never been second-years before,” I tell Nadine.

“Right. Makes sense.” She grabs her things out of her bag, then drops it at her feet. “I guess none of our classes were this far down the hallway last year.”

“What happened to your hand?” Rhiannon asks.

“It’s embarrassing.” She lifts the brace so we can see it. “I slipped and sprained it on the steps last night. Don’t worry, the healers think Nolon might have an opening for me tomorrow before Parapet. He’s been run ragged since War Games.”

“That man needs a break,” Rhiannon says, bobbing her head.

“I wish we had a break like the other quadrants.” Ridoc taps his pen on the desk. “Even five or six days to just get away.”

“I’m still recovering from the last six-day break I had away from here,” I try to joke.

Rhi’s face falls, and the rest of our squad quiets.

Shit. That was not the right thing to say, but I’m exhausted. There’s no point trying to sleep when I can’t quit dreaming about Resson.

“I’m around if you want to talk.” Rhi’s kind smile makes me feel like I’m two inches tall for not letting her in.

Do I want to talk? Absolutely. Am I able to? Not after Aetos made it clear not to share my war stories. He’s already targeting Mira—I’m not putting my best friend in that situation, too. Maybe Xaden is right. If I can’t lie, all my friends would be safer if I kept my distance.

“Good afternoon, second-years,” a tall rider says, his voice booming as he strides to the center of the floor, quieting the room. “I am Captain”—he winces, scratching the trim beard that’s a shade darker than his light golden skin— “Professor Grady. And, as you can tell, I’m new this year and getting used to the whole professor title, as well as being around twenty-one-year-old kids again. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the quadrant.”

He turns toward the end of the classroom—the one section where there are no seats—and crooks his fingers at the heavy wooden desk there. Lesser magic makes it screech across the floor until Professor Grady puts his palm out. Then it stops. He turns toward us and leans back against the edge of the desk. “That’s better. Congratulations on living through your first year.” He turns his head slowly, his gaze raking over each and every one of us. “There are eighty-nine of you in this room. From what the scribes tell me, you are the smallest class to walk this hall since the First Six.”

I glance at the empty rows of seats above First Wing. We knew last year that we had the fewest number of dragons willing to bond, but to see how few of us there really are is…disconcerting.

“Fewer dragons are bonding,” I say toward Tairn, knowing Andarna drifted into the Dreamless Sleep a few days ago. “Is that because the Empyrean knows about the venin?”

“Yes.” I can almost hear the exasperated sigh in Tairn’s voice.

“But we need more riders. Not fewer.” It doesn’t make sense.

“The Empyrean remains divided on whether or not we should get involved,” Tairn grumbles. “Humans aren’t the only ones keeping secrets.”

But Andarna and Tairn have already made their choice—of that, I’m sure.

“…But the second year brings its own challenges,” Professor Grady continues as I focus on class. “Last year, you learned how to ride the dragons who chose you. This year, you’ll learn what to do if you fall off. Welcome to Rider Survival Course, or RSC for short.”

“What the hell is that?” Ridoc mutters.

“I don’t know,” I whisper, writing the letters RSC in the blank book in front of me.

“But you know everything.” His eyes widen. “Clearly not.” Seems to be the theme lately.

“Don’t know what it is?” Professor Grady asks with a grin, staring straight at Ridoc. “Good—our tactics work.” He crosses one boot in front of the other. “RSC is kept classified for a reason, so we get your genuine reactions to the situations at hand.”

“No one wants my genuine reactions,” Ridoc murmurs. I bite back a smile and shake my head.

“RSC will teach you how to survive if you become separated from your dragon behind enemy lines. It’s a staple of your second year, culminating in two full evaluations you must pass in order to continue at Basgiath—one in a few weeks…and the other around mid-year.”

“What the hell do they do with a bonded rider who doesn’t pass?” Rhiannon asks quietly.

Every member of my squad looks at me. “I have no clue.”

Caroline Ashton raises her hand from her seat in First Wing across the room. A chill races down my spine as I remember how close she’d been to Jack Barlowe—the rider who’d been intent on killing me until I killed him instead.

“Yes?” Professor Grady asks.

“What precisely does ‘around mid-year’ mean?” Caroline asks. “Or ‘in a few weeks’?”

“You won’t know the precise date,” he answers, lifting his brows. She huffs, sitting back in her seat.

“And I won’t tell you, no matter how many times you roll your eyes. No professor will because quite simply—we want you surprised. But we do want you to be prepared. In this room, I will instruct you in navigation, survival techniques, and how to withstand interrogation in case of capture.”

My stomach turns over, and my heartbeat goes double-time. Torture. He’s talking about being tortured. And now I carry information worth being tortured over.

“And you’ll face trials on those at any time,” Professor Grady continues, “taken from any place in the quadrant.”

“They’re going to abduct us?” Nadine gasps, fear lacing her tone. “Sounds like it,” Sawyer mutters in response.

“Always something around here,” Ridoc adds.

“The other assessors and I will give you feedback during those trials, so by the time your full evaluations come around, you’ll be able to withstand

—” He cocks his head to the side as if choosing his words carefully. “Well, be able to withstand the hell we’re going to put you through. Take it from someone who has survived it: as long as you don’t break during the interrogation portion, you’ll do just fine.”

Rhiannon puts her hand up, and Professor Grady nods at her. “And if we break?” she asks.

All traces of amusement leave his face. “Don’t.”

With my pulse still racing an hour after Orientation, I head to the one place that used to calm my fraying nerves—the Archives.

As I walk through the doorway, I inhale the scent of parchment, ink, and the unmistakable tang of book-binding glue and let out a long, calming breath. Row upon row of bookshelves span the massive chamber, each taller than Andarna but not quite up to Tairn, filled with countless volumes on history, mathematics, politics—what I’d trusted to be all the knowledge on the Continent. And to think, at one point in my life, I’d thought climbing their ladders would be the scariest thing I’d ever do.

Now, I’m simply existing with the ever-present danger of Vice Commandant Varrish, Aetos’s threat hanging over my head, a secret revolution that could get us all killed at any moment, and now imminent torture from RSC. Kind of miss the ladders.

After five days of watching, Jesinia’s name finally appeared on the scribes’ schedule posted outside this morning, which means it’s time to get started.

Fuck not getting involved. I’m sure as hell not going to sit around and do nothing while my brother and Xaden risk their lives. Not when I’m certain the answer to protecting both Aretia and Poromish civilians is right here at Basgiath. The revolution might not have a scribe in its ranks, but it has me, and if there’s even a shot that we can win this war without the weapons the revolution hasn’t made or found, then I’m taking it. Or at least investigating the possibility.

Only scribes may continue past the long oak table near the doorway, so I stand at its edge and trail my fingers across its familiar grain and scars as I wait. If training to be a scribe taught me anything, it was patience.

Gods, I miss this place. I miss what I thought my life would be. Simple. Quiet. Noble. But I don’t miss the woman I was, the one who didn’t know her strength. The one who believed everything she read with unfailing confidence, as if the simple act of writing something on a blank page made it gospel.

A slight figure wearing a cream tunic, pants, and hood approaches, and for the first time in my life, I’m nervous to see Jesinia.

“Cadet Sorrengail,” she signs, smiling when she reaches me and flipping back her hood. Her hair is longer now, the brown braid nearly reaching her waist.

“Cadet Neilwart,” I sign back, grinning at the sight of my friend. “We must be alone to warrant such an enthusiastic greeting.” Scribes are strongly discouraged from showing emotion. After all, their job isn’t to interpret but to record.

“We are,” she signs, then leans to look past me. “Well, except Nasya.” “He’s sleeping,” I assure her. “What are you up to back there?”

“Fixing a few bindings,” she signs. “Most everyone is off preparing for the new cadets coming tomorrow. Quiet days are my favorite.”

“I remember.” We’d spent nearly every quiet day at this table, preparing for the exam or helping Markham…or my father.

“I heard about…” Her face falls. “I’m sorry. He was always really nice to me.”

“Thank you. I really miss him.” I squeeze my hands into fists and pause, knowing that what I say next will either lead us closer to the truth…or get me killed.

“What is it?” she signs, biting her lip.

She’s first in her year. That means she’s probably trying for the adept path, the hardest of all degrees for scribes, and the one every Curator of the Scribe Quadrant has to have. It means not only does she spend more time with Markham than other scribes, but she’ll almost never leave the Archives.

Nausea grips my stomach at the very real possibility that I can’t trust her. Maybe there are no scribes within the movement for a reason.

“I was wondering if you had any older books about the founding of Basgiath? Maybe something about why they chose this location for the wards?” I sign.

“The wards?” she signs slowly.

“I’m prepping a defense for a debate in history about why Basgiath is here, instead of being built in Calldyr.” And there it is, my first real lie. There’s nothing selectively true in that statement. Nor any way to take it back. For better or worse, I am committed now to my own cause—saving as many people as I can from this war.

“Sure.” She smiles. “Wait here.” “Thank you.”

Ten minutes later, she hands over two tomes written more than a hundred years ago, and I thank her again before leaving. The answer to protecting Aretia is in the Archives. It has to be. I just have to find it before not even the wards can save us.

You'll Also Like