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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.10
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.10

           Elise Kova
 

  “What rumors?” she whispered.

  “Aldrik took you as his lover.”

  Vhalla was on her feet, snatching the axe faster than Victor could blink. She meant to only take it so that if she was forced to leave, she would leave with it in her possession. The watch she wore around her neck burned hot on her chest. “Don’t you dare speak about him.”

  “If you cannot take my remark without brandishing a weapon at me, then you shouldn’t go anywhere near the Court.” Victor frowned, leaning back in his chair.

  Vhalla looked at her hand. It clutched the axe in a white-knuckled grip. Muscles taut and ready to swing. Slowly, she eased it back onto the desk, mentally forcing herself to uncurl her fingers from it.

  “What does it feel like for you?” Victor blinked at her a few times and Vhalla could only assume he was observing her with magic sight.

  “I don’t want to talk about the prince and me,” Vhalla mumbled.

  “Not the prince, I meant the axe.” Victor tried to lighten the mood by smiling.

  “Oh,” Vhalla hummed, staring at the weapon. “It feels . . . Good? Powerful. Like I really am as strong as the wind.” Vhalla considered it for the first time. “Is that how all crystals feel?”

  “Yes.” Victor nodded. “They taint sorcerers by trying to widen their Channels unnaturally. For Commons, it takes longer because the crystals actually forge new Channels.”

  Vhalla blinked. “Sorcerers can be made?”

  “Not really.” Victor shook his head. “The Channels they make in Commons seek out the magic in the caverns. Sorcerers’ Channels are widened to allow for it. But our race wasn’t meant for such a power. It taints us. It twists our minds and deforms our bodies as it consumes us. It turns men into disfigured monsters.”

  “Except for Windwalkers.” Victor nodded at her addition. “Then how could anyone but Windwalkers want to use the caverns? It brings taint for everyone else.”

  “It does, if the crystals aren’t managed properly,” Victor elaborated. “Windwalkers can work with the crystals. Hone them, adjust them, alter their magic to fit better within a Sorcerer’s Channels, or to try not to leech onto a Commons and create something that isn’t there.

  “With a Windwalker, and enough training and time, you could outfit an army of Commons with magically empowered weapons,” the minister concluded.

  “And the Emperor wants this.”

  “He needs it if he wants to take the Crescent Continent.” Victor sipped his tea for a long moment. “Our magic on this continent is fractured, diluted. Our sorcerers can only manage the elements. Across the sea, magic is part of the various peoples; it’s of a different and greater nature that defies the laws we know.”

  Victor’s explanation reminded Vhalla vaguely of the magic she’d seen the Northerners use. They had spoken of the south being out of touch with the “old ways”, and the North was closer to the nearest point of the Crescent Continent, if her cartography knowledge wasn’t failing her.

  “Their magic is more like the crystals,” she reasoned.

  “Indeed,” Victor confirmed. “At least, the little we know of it. Our traders are limited in what they are allowed to see. But we have a few reports from sailors.”

  “So, how do we make sure the Emperor doesn’t get what he wants?” Vhalla rounded back to their original topic.

  “You help me close off the caverns.” Victor stood again, returning the Windwalker ledger back to the shelf before hunting for something else. “You have the magic, the skill, the affinity that allows you to touch the crystals. But I—” he placed a worn and unassuming journal between them, “—I have the knowledge required to do it.”

  Vhalla reached out, gauging the minister’s reaction as she gingerly took the black, leather-bound book. Flipping it open, a script that Vhalla was utterly unfamiliar with graffiti-ed the page. Her eyes skimmed the words, and her heart seized.

  “Subject One has been displaying some issues with his Channels and an increase in headaches. An instructor reported a violent outburst. Further exploration is postponed until symptoms subside,” she read aloud.

  “I was Subject One,” Victor interjected.

  Vhalla stared back at the page, her fingers paused at a new paragraph farther down. “Subject Two was Aldrik?”

  Victor affirmed her assumption, and Vhalla’s skin crawled with horror. The Emperor had allowed his son to be turned into a test subject. He’d risked Aldrik’s body and mind for his insatiable thirst for subjugation.

  The minister pulled the book from her limp fingers, closing it. “I know more than nearly anyone about the crystals. I worked with them myself. Let me make some good of this knowledge?”

  Vhalla stared up at the man. She guessed he was only older than Aldrik by four or five years. That means he’d only been a boy as well when Egmun began his nefarious research.

  “Tell me what I must do.” Her words were soft but stronger than steel.

  “For now, go and actually rest. Sleep well, because tomorrow we will begin work.”

  WIND HOWLED, SWEEPING fast up the mountain-side. Vhalla stood on a painfully familiar rooftop, side by side with the crown prince. Aldrik was fixated on something below, muttering to himself over and over.

  “No, no, this is wrong. No!”

  Vhalla took a masochistic look at what commanded his attention with such horror. She knew what she’d find. Her own body bounced off the rooftop, flying into the open air. She watched as the Vhalla that lived in Aldrik’s memory struggled to right herself in the wind. She saw the moment her power began to come to her, as she twisted and turned unnaturally and out of control.

  Aldrik cursed loudly, pulling at his hair and storming down the Tower. Only a guest in his memory, she followed along at his side without trying, watching the prince’s actions play out before her.

  He sprinted as fast as his long legs could carry him, bursting out of a dark hall and into a lavish parlor. Unlatching a window, Aldrik strained his neck out, looking for her. Vhalla wondered if somehow his magic called to hers through their Bond, even then, as her body smashed against the side of the building.

  The prince pointed toward a pennon, burning away the supports in such a way that the pole it was supported by fell in her path. Her body hit it too violently for her to have any hope of catching herself. A futile and unexpectedly ill-thought gesture.

  Another gale swept up the mountain, and Vhalla watched as her body unnaturally—magically—began to slow. The wind kept her from dying in its embrace. Vhalla knew that she would live, but this Aldrik clearly feared otherwise. His heartbeat reverberated in her ears as he was on the run again.

  The prince skidded around a tight corner, pushing open a window and jumping over the sill into the small interior courtyard where she’d landed. Vhalla saw her body, bruised, bloody, broken and unnaturally bent at sickening angles.

  “N-no . . .” Aldrik couldn’t take another step as the sight of her tripped him. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

  Vhalla felt him mustering his strength, retreating emotionally into the sheltered safe-haven of his stony, battlefield shell. Training clicked in. Instinct clicked in. And the horrified, guilt-crippled man became the Fire Lord. Through his memory, Vhalla felt it happen.

  “Breathe, breathe, you frustrating girl,” Aldrik knelt at the side of Vhalla’s body, putting a hand at her neck.

  The noise of relief was almost a whimper, and the prince was on the move again. Vhalla watched as Aldrik scooped her up. She watched as he began running again, blood darkening his fine jacket.

  “I miscalculated,” he admonished himself, cursing. “I miscalculated.”

  This was an Aldrik no one had seen before, Vhalla suspected. How the man acted when no one was around, when he thought himself alone. She bore witness to the words he spoke when he thought no one would ever be there to listen.

  “Hang in there. Let me save something, make it, instead of break it.” His hands tightened around her.

 
; Aldrik burst through a door that clicked locked behind him. Vhalla saw the flame bulbs line the hall, and she knew they were now in the Tower. He ran upward, his long strides carrying them higher.

  He finally stopped at a door with the broken moon engraved onto its surface. Aldrik kicked at the door with his boot.

  “Victor,” he called. “Victor, now!”

  The door opened to a disheveled and confused Minister of Sorcery still wearing his sleeping gown.

  “My prince, do you have any idea—” Victor stopped himself the moment he saw the frantic prince and his burden.

  “She needs help,” Aldrik panted. “Help her. I need you to help her.”

  “Come.” Victor swept past him and began leading him down a familiar path. “Is that Vhalla Yarl? What happened?”

  “Doesn’t matter,” Aldrik attempted.

  Victor stopped short and stared Aldrik down. “You do not knock on my door at ungodly hours of the night with a bloody mess—literally—and tell me this ‘doesn’t matter’. I expect an explanation!”

  Aldrik scowled, and the minister rolled his eyes as they began to nearly run down the hall again. The prince held his tongue until they were in the room Vhalla knew all too well. He gently set her body down onto the bed.

  “She’s a Windwalker,” Aldrik whispered, finally.

  “What?” Victor hissed, turning away from her corpse-like form. “Have you lost your mind?”

  “No,” Aldrik said sharply. She heard the princely inflection slip into his tone. “I have not, she was Awoken tonight.”

  “What in the Mother’s name do you think you’re doing?” Victor stepped closer to Aldrik.

  “You cannot speak to me that way!”

  “Don’t play the prince with me, Aldrik,” Victor snapped. To Vhalla’s surprise, it worked.

  “It was under control.” Aldrik tried to smooth back his now-hopeless hair.

  “This is not ‘under control!’” Victor shouted, pointing at the bed. Vhalla saw she had already bled through the sheets.

  “So help me fix it!” Aldrik’s voice rose as well. The two men stared at each other for a long moment before the prince’s facade crumbled into the panic she’d seen earlier. Betraying the history that Vhalla knew the men had, he sighed heavily. “Victor, I need you—please.”

  “I’ll need help.” The minister began rolling up his sleeves.

  “What do I need to do?” Aldrik pulled off his heavy black coat, revealing a fine black silk shirt underneath, also sticky with blood.

  “I will need someone around the clock. Your hands are fine for right now, I need them now, but I will need someone to stay with her.” Victor stormed into the other room, furiously selecting concoctions.

  “Who do you have in mind?” Aldrik asked.

  “You pick. I know you want to, but do it fast.” Victor went back into the room to begin working on Vhalla’s corpse-like body.

  Vhalla followed Aldrik out as he ran down a few Tower levels, stopping at an equally familiar door. She felt his tension, his hesitancy. The prince knocked. Aldrik waited stiffly as shuffling was heard from within, the door creaked open a sliver.

  “My prince?” Larel yawned.

  Aldrik stepped in and shut the door behind him. “Larel,” he whispered, nearly collapsing against the wall. “I need your help.”

  “Aldrik, what is it?” Just like that, Larel knew it wasn’t the crown prince addressing her, but her friend.

  “I made a mistake,” he breathed heavily.

  “I am always at your disposal, Aldrik. What do you need?” Larel’s caring manner shone through.

  “It’s Vhalla, come.” Aldrik opened Larel’s door, slamming it closed behind them.

  A blistery fall gust rattled Vhalla’s window in the early dawn, calling her from sleep. She blinked away the haze of dreams, Aldrik’s memories lingering as sharply as the morning’s chill. Running a hand through her hair, Vhalla tried to tease away the tangles and find motivation to face the day.

  Like a petulant child, the wind rattled the window again, and Vhalla pulled herself from the bed, unlatching the glass. Fall was heavy upon them, she thought as she observed the trees rustling in the breeze far below her. Vhalla rested her elbows on the iron railing lining the small balcony that turned the large window into a doorway to the outside world. Her eyes scanned the greenery making its annual shift to red.

  Vhalla turned away the second she caught herself searching for a certain garden with a rose-filled greenhouse. She remembered her promise to the prince—that she would tell him of all the memories she witnessed in her sleep. Vhalla debated the scope of the promise as she began dressing. Technically, the memory was one that involved her, one she knew about, and it held no real secrets.

  She ran her fingers over the dark apprentice robes of the Tower.

  When will I see you in black? Aldrik’s words echoed in her mind.

  Vhalla shook her head and shrugged on the robes. The palace was full of too many memories—memories of other lives, of a man who was capable of both hurting and loving her, of a man who had promised his future to her when he asked her to be his bride.

  Determined, Vhalla ignored the Tower kitchens as she strode down the curving, sloping hall. If she was going to drown in memories, then there was somewhere in particular she wanted to do it in. Vhalla knew many of the unlabeled doorways in the Tower were passages into the palace at different levels and places, secret to all non-sorcerers. But Vhalla had never had an opportunity to learn them. She’d only ever come and gone out of one location.

  It took a long time to reach the library, longer than she expected, as Vhalla had become turned around at one point along the way. The main Tower entrance was on a much lower level than the Imperial Library, and winding up toward it from the Tower of Sorcerers was something she’d never done before.

  Vhalla paused at the large doors of the library. Like the soft breathing of a slumbering beast, she felt air pulsing through the crack between them. It was inviting, a heady dose of too-sweet familiarity.

  Her hands shook as she rested them on the wood. She’d been to war. She’d fought off a zealot group known as the Knights of Jadar. She’d stood up to the Emperor countless times. But there was nothing more terrifying than confronting her guilt.

  A rainbow of color splashed across the floor down the middle of the central walkway. It drew Vhalla’s attention, as it always had, the moment she opened the door. It carried her eyes straight to the main desk where two people sat—the two people Vhalla sought.

  Master Mohned, as ancient and sagely as he ever was, could barely be seen over the top of the desk. Next to him were the ringlet curls that Vhalla had admired for years. They were as beautiful as ever, but Vhalla no longer felt the same jealousy toward them. She had seen the world beyond the South in all its shades of beauty and would no longer trade her mess of brown hair. She no longer longed to be anyone more or less than who she was.

  She was over halfway to the desk by the time Roan’s head turned up. Vhalla froze in place, her heartbeat frantic, her breathing stuck. Roan’s expression betrayed nothing.

  The master stood slowly, following Roan’s attention to the dark-clad woman haunting their library.

  Clenching her fists briefly to invite her magic to give her strength, Vhalla closed the remaining distance to the desk. She stood, alternating between looking at the master and at her childhood friend, her mouth trying to form words.

  “Welcome home, Vhalla,” the master spoke up and spared Vhalla the toil of breaking the silence.

  “Thank you, master.” She let the man’s warm nature soothe her nerves.

  Roan still hadn’t said anything.

  “Roan—”

  “Vhalla—”

  They spoke over each other, silencing instantly.

  “Roan, my eyes are bleary already. Why don’t you give me a small rest and stretch your legs,” the master encouraged.

  Roan pursed her lips together briefly, looking between Mohn
ed and Vhalla.

  “I’d like to speak with you.” Vhalla didn’t want to lose the opportunity the master placed before her. “Please?”

  “All right,” Roan sighed. “I’m stiff anyway.”

  The blonde looped around the desk, crossing her arms over her chest. Closer, Vhalla noticed the slightly darkened patches of skin that marred her flesh. Scars. The sight brought the memory of Jax back to her, bleeding on Major Schnurr’s floor. How many more of her friends would have to suffer or die because of her?

  Vhalla turned quickly, starting down one of the rows of books. Roan thankfully followed, and they disappeared into the shelves.

  “How’s the library been?” Vhalla forced.

  “Fine.”

  “Has the master been well?”

  “He’s fine.” Roan clearly had little interest in actually conversing.

  Vhalla stopped, leaning against one of the bookshelves for support. “Roan, I’m sorry.”

  Despite the flush of pain those words spread across Vhalla’s chest, she managed to look the other woman in the eye and say them. Roan squinted marginally. Whatever pain Vhalla felt from guilt or shame could hardly be a fraction of what Roan had experienced.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you what was happening, about my magic.” Vhalla didn’t know where to start. “I was going to tell you, really, but then—”

  “You lied to me.”

  “I didn’t!” Vhalla wished she could catch the hasty defense and swallow it back.

  “You hid the truth, which is basically a lie.” Roan frowned. “You hid it from me, and from Sareem. Unless you told Sareem?”

  Vhalla shook her head, finally breaking eye contact.

  “You hid it from both of us and got him killed.”

  “I never meant for that to happen,” Vhalla pleaded for Roan to understand. “I didn’t know how to tell you both. Sareem was just like everyone else; he hated magic. How could I tell him? And you were so over the sun for him that you were blinded to anything else. I thought that I’d join the Tower, tell you both, and then sort it out.”

 
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