Chapter no 9

Iron Flame (The Empyrean Book 2)

The next morning, I wake in a cold sweat, the sky pale with early light through my east-facing window, my body flooded with adrenaline from

the nightmare. Like every morning since Xaden left, I wrap my knees tight and dress quickly, pulling the flexible summer uniform meant for sparring over my armor and plaiting my hair in a single, loose braid as I head out of my room.

My heart still pounds as I jog down the spiral steps, my brain unable to shake the nightmares that come so vividly while I sleep. When I sleep.

I swallow back the bile rising in my throat. One of the venin got away in Resson, red veins spidering away from his malevolent eyes. Who knows how many more there are, making their way toward our border while we rest.

On the ground floor, first-years scurry to their newly assigned chore duties, but the courtyard is blissfully empty, the air thick with humidity yet mercifully cooler than yesterday thanks to the storm rolling in.

I hold the heel of my boot to the back of my thigh, stretching the muscle. Despite copious amounts of Winifred’s ointment, the skin of my back is still tender from yesterday’s burn, but it’s a hundred times better than it was last night.

“Hasn’t anyone told you that a perk of being a second-year is the extra hour of sleep you get to have without chores?” Imogen asks as she

approaches, her footsteps light on the gravel.

“Yeah, which I’m sure is great for people who can sleep.” I stretch the other leg. “What are you doing?”

“Going with you.” She stretches, too, rolling her neck at the same time. “But what I can’t figure out is why the hell you’ve been running every morning.”

My stomach hollows. “How would you know that I’ve been running every morning? If Xaden thinks I need someone watching out for me this year…” I shake my head, unable to finish that sentence. He was supposed to visit yesterday but never showed, much to Tairn’s aggravation…and my worry.

“Relax. Xaden doesn’t know. My room is right above yours, and let’s just say I’m not sleeping very well, either.” Her gaze darts toward the rotunda as a group of cadets walks out.

Dain. Sawyer. Rhiannon. Bodhi. I recognize most as Fourth Wing leadership.

Rhi and Sawyer spot us immediately and head our way.

“So, why are we running, Sorrengail?” Imogen asks, finishing her stretches.

“Because I generally suck at it,” I answer. “I’m good in short bursts, but anything longer than that—and I won’t make it.” Not to mention it’s hell on my joints.

Imogen’s gaze snaps to mine, her eyes widening.

Bodhi’s farther back and starts our way. His walk is so similar to Xaden’s stride that I almost do a double take.

“What are you doing up?” Rhiannon asks, tucking a notebook under her arm as she and Sawyer reach us.

“I could ask you the same.” I force a smile. “But I’m guessing it’s a leadership meeting.”

“Yes.” Concern creases her brow as she studies my face. “Are you all right?”

“Absolutely. Good meeting?” It’s a pathetic attempt at normal conversation, given the scenes from Resson still replaying through my head

from my nightmare.

“It was fine,” Sawyer answers. “They moved Bodhi Durran from Tail Section to Flame.”

“We had to do some restructuring, seeing as most of Third Squad was torched yesterday,” Rhiannon adds.

“Right. That makes sense.” I glance over her shoulder and gauge I have about five seconds before Bodhi reaches us. If he knows I’m struggling, there’s no doubt he’ll tell Xaden, and I really don’t need that conversation right now. “Listen, I have to get going.”

“Going where?” Rhiannon asks. “Running,” I answer truthfully.

She draws her head back, her brow furrowing deeper. “You never run.” “Then it’s a good time to start,” I try to joke.

She glances between Imogen and me. “With Imogen?”

“Yep,” Imogen replies. “Apparently we’re runners now.” Bodhi arrives in time to hear that, his eyebrows rising.

“Together?” Rhiannon’s gaze keeps bouncing—to Imogen, me, and back again. “I don’t understand.”

If you can’t lie, you keep your distance.

“Nothing to understand. We’re just running.” My smile is so tight I think my entire face might fracture with the effort it takes to keep it there.

Bodhi’s gaze narrows.

“But what if you don’t make it in time for breakfast?”

“We will,” Imogen promises. “If we leave right now.” She glances at Bodhi. “I’ve got this.”

“Let them go,” Bodhi says.

“But—” Rhiannon starts, her gaze searching mine as if she can see right through me. Imogen’s been training me since last year, but Rhi knows we aren’t exactly friends.

“Let them go,” he repeats, and this time it’s not a suggestion but an order from her section leader.

“I’ll see you later?” Rhi asks.

“Later,” I agree, unsure I mean it as I turn without another word and jog across the courtyard toward the tunnel. The gravel is shit for traction, making it harder, but that’s fine. I need harder.

Imogen catches me within a few strides. “What do you mean you won’t make it?”

“What?” We pause at the doors.

“You said you won’t make it.” Imogen gets to the handle before I do and holds the door shut. “When I asked you why you’re running. What did you mean?”

For a second, I debate not telling her, but she was there, too. She’s not sleeping, either.

“Soleil didn’t.” My gaze locks with hers, but her expression doesn’t change. Swear to the gods, nothing fazes her. I envy that. “She was on the ground when she killed her. The way she channeled…it drained everything from the land. Everything touching the land. Including Soleil and Fuil. I watched it happen. I watch it happen every night when I close my eyes. It spread so quickly, and I know…I can’t outrun it. Not if I’m too far from Tairn. I’m not fast enough for any considerable distance.” I try to swallow the tightness in my throat, but the knot seems to live there lately.

“Yet,” Imogen says, yanking the door to the tunnel open. “We’re not fast enough yet. But we will be. Let’s go.”


“It’s weird as hell to be all the way up here,” Ridoc says from my left as we sit in the first Battle Brief of the academic year later that day, looking down at where the first-years take up more than a third of the room. It’s standing-room only in the giant, tiered classroom for the third-years behind us. This is the only place in the quadrant besides the gathering hall designed to hold all the rider cadets, but it will take a few weeks of death

rolls before we can all sit in front of the stories-tall map of the Continent.

It reminds me of the one in Brennan’s briefing room in Aretia. He thinks we only have six months until venin challenge the wards, and yet there’s

not a single indication on this map.

“View is a little better,” Nadine remarks from his other side.

“Definitely easier to see the higher portions of the map,” Rhiannon agrees at my right, taking out her supplies and setting them on the desktop before her. “Did you have a good run this morning?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it good, but it was effective.” I put my notebook and pen on the table, wincing at the pain shooting up my shins, and reinforce my shields. Keeping them up at all times is harder than I thought, and Tairn loves to remind me when they slip.

“Look at all those first-years with their quills and ink,” Ridoc remarks, leaning forward to look down at the underclassmen.

“There once was a time we didn’t have lesser magic to power ink pens,” Nadine retorts. “Stop acting superior.”

“We are superior.” He grins.

Nadine rolls her eyes, and I can’t fight my smile.

Professor Devera walks down the narrow set of stone steps on our left that follows the tiers of seats, her favorite longsword strapped to her back. Her black hair is a little shorter since I saw her last, and there’s a fresh, jagged wound along the rich mahogany skin of her biceps.

“I heard she spent last week with the Southern Wing,” Rhiannon says quietly.

My stomach tenses and I wonder what, if anything, she saw.

“Welcome to your first Battle Brief,” Professor Devera announces. I tune out as she gives the same speech as last year and warns the first-years not to be surprised if the third-years are called into service early to man the mid-guard posts or shadow the forward wings. Her gaze rakes over them before she raises her attention to the seconds, her eyes crinkling for a heartbeat as she flashes a proud smile at me before continuing upward as she explains how necessary it is for us to understand the current affairs of our borders.

“This is also the only class where you will not only answer to a rider as your professor, but a scribe, as well,” she finishes, lifting her hand toward the stairs.

Colonel Markham lifts the corner of his cream-colored robes as he descends, heading for the recessed floor of the lecture hall.

My muscles lock, and I fight the urge to flick one of my daggers into his traitorous back. He knows everything. He has to. He wrote the fucking textbook on Navarrian history that all riders are taught from. And until last year, I was his star pupil, the one he’d handpicked to succeed in the Scribe Quadrant.

“You’ll respect Colonel Markham as you would any other professor,” Professor Devera says. “He is the foremost authority at Basgiath when it comes to all matters not only of our history but current events as well. Some of you may not know this, but information from the front is actually received at Basgiath before it’s sent to the king in Calldyr, so you’ll be hearing it first here.”

I glance down the tiers to where Aaric sits beside Sloane in the row with our squad’s first-years, and to his credit, he doesn’t flinch or even fidget in his seat. One good look, and Markham will know who he is, but with that haircut, if he keeps his head down, he’s got a shot at blending in.

At least until his father sounds the alarm that he’s missing from his gold-plated bed in Calldyr.

“First discussion point,” Markham says when he reaches the floor of the hall, his silver eyebrows knitting. “There were not one but two attacks on our border by drifts of gryphons in the past week.”

A murmur goes through the hall.

“The first,” Professor Devera says as she lifts her hand and uses lesser magic to move one of the flag markers from the side of the map to the border we share with the Braevick province of Poromiel, “was near the village of Sipene, high in the Esben Mountains.”

An hour’s flight from Montserrat.

The only sound is pen and quill against parchment as we take notes.

“Here’s what we can tell you,” Markham says, folding his hands behind his back. “The drift attacked two hours past midnight, when all but a few villagers were asleep. It was unprovoked, and because Sipene is one of the

villages that lies beyond the wards, the violence went undetected by the Eastern Wing for some matter of hours.”

My shoulders dip, but I keep writing, pausing only to look up at the map. That village is at eight-thousand feet, an altitude unpleasant for gryphons. What were they looking for? Maybe I should have spent last night reading about what’s in those mountains instead of six-hundred-year-old political ramifications of establishing our war college here and not in Calldyr to the west.

“The drift was routed by three dragons on patrol from the local outpost, but by the time they arrived, most of the damage had been done. Supplies were stolen, homes were burned. The last gryphon flier was found in some of the local caves above the village, though neither he nor his gryphon could tell us the motivation for attack, as they were both burned on sight.”

Hard for prisoners to talk about the venin they’ve been fighting if they’re dead.

“That’s what they get,” Ridoc mutters, shaking his head. “Going after civilians.”

But were they? Markham didn’t mention civilian casualties, only destruction.

I look up over my shoulder at where Imogen stands with Bodhi and Quinn, her arms folded over her chest. She glances down at me, her mouth tightening before she gives her attention back to Markham.

Shit. I want to be standing up there with them, asking what they really think, or even with Eya, who’s with her third-year squad up in the corner. We might not be close, but at least she knows the truth. More than anything, I want to talk to Xaden. I want answers he’s not willing to give me.

“As for the second,” Professor Devera continues, moving another flag, this one to the south. My breakfast churns in my stomach when she puts the flag in place. “The outpost of Athebyne was attacked three days ago.”

I gasp and the pen falls from my hand, hitting the desk loudly in the quiet room.

“Are you all right?” Rhiannon whispers.

“Something you have to say, Cadet Sorrengail?” Markham asks, cocking his head and looking at me in that characteristically unreadable expression he’s so fond of. But the challenge I’ve often seen when he used to try and dig a correct answer out of me is there in the simple lift of his brow.

I know he’s well aware of what is happening beyond our borders, but did Colonel Aetos tell him that know, too?

“No, sir,” I answer, grabbing my pen before it can roll off my desk. “I was startled, that’s all. As far as I know from what you taught me in preparation for the Scribe Quadrant, outposts are rarely ever attacked directly.”

“And?” He leans back against the desk in the center of the floor, tapping a finger along the side of his bulbous nose.

“And Montserrat was also directly attacked in the last year, so I can’t help but wonder if this tactic is becoming more commonly used by our enemy?”

“Interesting thought. It’s something we’re considering among scribes.” The smile on his face is anything but friendly as he pushes off the desk, clasping his hands behind his robes as he nods at me.

“We usually start with first-years,” Professor Devera says, cutting a look at Colonel Markham. “Finishing the details we can give you about the Athebyne attack, it occurred a little before midnight, while nine of the twelve dragons stationed there were still out on their patrols. The enemy totals were around two dozen from what we can tell, and they were defeated by the three present dragons, with help from the infantry. Two gryphon riders made it into the lower level of the outpost before being caught and killed.”

“Shields,” Tairn growls, and I build them back up.

“I didn’t even notice they’d slipped.”

“They should be like clothes at this point,” he lectures, snapping a little more than usual.

“I’m sorry?”

“Surely you’d feel a breeze were you to forget putting them on.”

Point made.

“Isn’t that where you guys were sent?” Rhiannon asks. “Athebyne?”

I nod, hoping none of those fliers were the ones who fought with us at Resson.

The first-years start when it’s time for questions.

What was the gryphon’s chosen formation for the attack on Athebyne? A typical V.

Are the two attacks connected? We have no reason to believe so.

The questions go on and on, and none of them are getting to the heart of the matter, which makes me look at the cadets below us with a healthy dose of skepticism that they aren’t the critical thinkers they need to be. Then again, maybe the other years felt that way about us last year.

Finally, Devera opens the floor to the other years.

Rhiannon’s hand shoots up, and Devera calls on her.

“Do you think it’s possible that the enemy knew the outpost had been emptied for War Games and was trying to take advantage of the situation?” she asks.


Professors Devera and Markham share a look. “We do,” Professor Devera finally answers.

“But the delay would show a lag in the timing of their information, correct?” Rhiannon continues. “The outpost was only empty for what? A few days?”

“Five days, to be precise,” Markham answers. “And this attack occurred eight days after it was reoccupied.” His gaze skates over mine, then lifts to the rows above. “The Poromiel trading post nearby, Resson, was leveled by Poromish unrest a couple of weeks ago, and we think that may be helping disrupt their communication lines about our outpost.”

Poromish unrest?

Power rises within me so quickly that my skin heats.

Devera glances sideways at Markham. “We also don’t usually give you the answers.”

Markham chuckles and dips his head. “My apologies, Professor Devera.

I must not be at my best today. Too little sleep in the last few days.” “Happens to the best of us.”

I raise my hand, and Devera calls on me. “Where in the outpost were the gryphon riders found?”

“Near the armory.”

Shit. I nod. They were raiding the outpost for weapons. Our wards might not reach that far, but I’d bet my life a cache of daggers was moved there if leadership knew venin were in the vicinity. Brennan can’t supply even a fraction of the drifts. Of course they’re going to fight to steal weaponry. We need to smuggle more out.

“What would you do were you in command of the riot at the Athebyne outpost?” she asks the room, then calls on Caroline Ashton when she raises her hand.

“I’d double the patrol for the next few weeks in a show of force, and maybe consider razing a few Poromish border villages,” she suggests.

Rhiannon scoffs quietly.

“Remind me to never get on her bad side,” Ridoc mutters.

“In retaliation?” Dain interrupts. “That’s not our way. Read the Codex about the rules of engagement, Ashton.”

Says the man who sent me to my death.

“He’s right,” Devera agrees. “We defend our borders with lethal force, but we don’t take war to civilians.” We just don’t bother saving them, either. But does she know that? Shit, can I trust anyone around here?

But…maybe the whole report is wrong. Maybe it was wyvern and venin attacking, not gryphons. Maybe this entire presentation is a well-crafted lie. “How many riders were wounded in the Athebyne attack, given that one

was killed?” I ask.

“Four of us,” Devera answers, pointing at her arm. “Including me. This is courtesy of a rider with an excellent aim of her bow.”

So much for the not-gryphon idea.

We’re excused after another half hour of current events, and I ditch my squad in the crowd, searching out Bodhi.

He’s nearly to the steps of the briefing room before I catch up to him.

“Sorrengail?” he asks after we make it through the bottleneck of the doors.

“I want to help,” I whisper. Maybe I can do more than just read.

“For fuck’s sake.” He takes my elbow and pulls me into an alcove, towering over me with a look of exasperation. “I have direct instructions to keep you as far away from helping as possible.”

“He’s not even here, and he’s still giving you orders?” I adjust the strap of my bag on my shoulder as most of the quadrant funnels past.

“That tactic isn’t going to work on me, because yes.” He shrugs and scratches a pen into the cast on his arm.

“And I thought you were the most reasonable of the group.” I sigh. “Look, if I can help, then maybe we can prevent what I’m assuming are… supply runs.” Talking in code is ridiculous, but anyone could be listening. “Give me a job.”

“Oh, I am the most reasonable in the group.” He flashes a grin, leaning back on his heels. “I also don’t have a death wish. Survive second year and strengthen your shields, Sorrengail. That’s your job.”

“She trying to talk you into letting her join the shenanigans?” Imogen asks, stopping alongside us.

“‘Trying’ is the precise word,” Bodhi says. “Only trying.” He walks off into the crowd.

“How are we expected to go back to class like nothing happened?” I ask Imogen as we walk out into the flow of cadets headed for the main staircase of the academic wing.

“You’re supposed to act like nothing happened,” Imogen says quietly, waving at Quinn, who’s waiting ahead with Rhiannon. “That’s the deal we all made when we came here.” She moves her bag, twisting her wrist so her rebellion relic is front and center between us. “And like it or not, you’re one of us now. Well, as close as you can get without one of these.”

I shift my heavy pack on my shoulder and nod, realizing I know too little to actually help the marked ones and too much to speak frankly to my friends.

“Hey,” Imogen says to Quinn. “Lunch?” “Absolutely,” Quinn answers.

The two walk ahead while Rhiannon falls back to keep pace with me. “Doesn’t Quinn usually eat lunch with her girlfriend?” Rhi asks.

“Yes, but she graduated.”

“Right.” She sighs and lowers her voice. “I wanted to talk to you before breakfast but didn’t get a chance. I think the school is hiding something from us.”

I nearly trip over my own boots but catch my balance before I can make a fool out of myself. “I’m sorry?”

She can’t know. She just can’t. I barely survived losing Liam… I can’t fathom anything happening to her.

“I think there’s something going on in the Healer Quadrant,” she says, lowering her voice. “I tried to take a first-year to see Nolon yesterday after formation turned into a firepit, and he looks like absolute shit. I mean, the man could barely stand. And when I went to ask him if he was all right, the new vice commandant said he had more important things to do than talk to cadets and basically escorted him to that little door in the back of the infirmary, which is now guarded. I think they’re hiding something back there.”

I open and shut my mouth a couple of times, torn between confusion and relief. “Maybe they brought some of the injured riders from one of the outposts for mending,” I offer. The backlog would explain why Bodhi is still in a cast.

She shakes her head. “Since when do a few broken bones wreck a mender?”

“Maybe they brought in a prisoner from Poromiel.” Ridoc forces his way in between us. “And Nolon keeps healing them as Varrish breaks them. I heard one of the third-years say that’s what Varrish is known for— torture.”

“And you’re known for eavesdropping.” Rhi shakes her head.

Instead of eating lunch with my friends, I make a quick excuse and take my tray to the little library alcove in commons to finish reading United

Navarre, a Study in Survival.

Sadly, after an hour hunched over the tome, I realize I already know most of the facts it regurgitates about the triumph of unification and the sacrifices made by both humans and dragons to establish peace. Disappointment stings like a paper cut. Naturally the secrets of ward-building weren’t going to be in the first book I researched, but it would have been a pleasant surprise for something to be easy.

I contemplate asking Jesinia for a volume more focused on the First Six riders as I change for assessment back in my room, then head to the gym and meet my squad on the edge of the mat.

“I hate assessment day,” I mutter, taking the spot between Rhi and Nadine.

“Can’t blame you after the way yours went last year,” Ridoc teases as he steps up next to Sawyer.

The first match begins between two of our first-years, and I can’t help but notice Rhi glancing my way every few minutes. By the end, Visia—the repeat— has trampled the brutish girl with shocking red curls who’d thrown up on Aaric yesterday, and Rhi’s all but frowning at me.

And she’s not the only one. Sloane is staring like she might actually be capable of glaring me to death as she shifts her weight continuously on the left side of the mat.

“Baylor Norris and Mischa Levin!” Professor Emetterio, our squad’s combat teacher, shouts at the first-years beside Sloane, then tilts his shaved head down at the clipboard in his beefy hands.

Shit. I really didn’t want to know their names. The stocky guy with nervous eyes faces off against the brunette who couldn’t stop biting her nails yesterday.

“You all right?” I ask Rhi as the brunette somehow flips the muscly one onto his back. Impressive.

“Should I be asking you that?” Rhi responds, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Are you mad at me?”

“What?” I rip my attention from the way the girl is handing that guy his ass to look at her. “Why would I be mad at you?”

“Between the running and not eating lunch with us, it kind of feels like you’re avoiding me. And it’s ridiculous, but all I can think is that maybe you’re pissed that I chose Sawyer as executive officer yesterday instead of you, and if that’s the case, then let’s talk about it—”

“Wait. What? No.” I shake my head, my hand holding my stomach. “Not at all. I am the worst possible choice for executive officer, considering I have to fly off to Samara every two weeks so Tairn can see Sgaeyl.”

“Right?” She nods, relief softening her brown eyes. “That was exactly my thought.”

“Sawyer is a great choice, and I have zero aspirations to leadership.” I’m only trying to get by unnoticed over here. “Not mad in the least.”

“So you’re not avoiding me?” Rhi asks.

“I would have made a kick-ass executive officer,” Nadine interrupts, saving me from having to answer. “But at least you didn’t choose Ridoc. He would have seen the whole thing as a platform to crack more jokes.”

Guess we’re not being as quiet as we think we are.

Mischa firmly trounces Baylor, and Emetterio calls the next pair to the mat. “Sloane Mairi and…” he reads from his roll. “Aaric Graycastle.”

“I want her instead,” Sloane says, pointing a dagger at me.

She has to be kidding. But she’s not. Sighing, I cross my arms and shake my head at Liam’s little sister.

“Gods, Sloane.” Imogen snorts, laughing off to the right, where she watches with Quinn. “You really feel like dying on your first day?”

“Did she compliment you?” Rhiannon whispers. “Oddly enough, I think so.”

“I can take her,” Sloane fires back, white-knuckling her knife. “From what your letter said last year, her joints pop right out. How hard can it be?”

“Seriously?” I shoot a reproachful look at Imogen.

“I can explain.” Imogen puts her hand over her heart. “You see, I didn’t like you last year, remember? You’re kind of an acquired taste.”

“Great. I appreciate that,” I quip back sarcastically.

“I couldn’t care less about whatever grudge you think you hold against Sorrengail, Mairi.” Emetterio sighs like this year has already exhausted

him. “I know who trained her, and I’m not unleashing her on a first-year.” He lifts a dark brow at Imogen. “I, too, made an error last year.” He turns back to Sloane, the corners of his mouth slashing down. “Now disarm and take your place against Graycastle.”

Sloane hands off her weapons and faces Aaric, who easily has about five inches and years of private combat tutoring on her. But she’s Liam’s sister, so there’s a chance she’ll be able to hold her own.

“Did someone say Sorrengail?” a deep voice asks from behind us.

Our line of second-years all glance over shoulders at the bullish first-year who threw the scrawny one off the parapet. There’s a Second Wing patch on his shoulder as he lumbers forward, his hands at his sides.

“Popular today, aren’t you?” Nadine whispers with a smile, pivoting playfully toward the first-year. “Hi. I’m Violet Sorrengail.” She points to her purple hair. “See? Like my hair. Do you have a message for—”

He grabs hold of her head and twists, snapping her neck.

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