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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.12
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.12

           Elise Kova
 

  “Both of you, live long and wonderful lives. I know I will be looking at you from the far realms of the dead. My life was better because you were in it. I know, no matter how horrible the act could be that brought my death, I will die happy, for I lived with my friends.” Larel’s final goodbye echoed through the room.

  Fritz grabbed the sides of the pedestal for support. Vhalla swayed slightly, trying to stop her head from reeling. Neither said anything.

  “Damn it, Larel.” Fritz’s voice was at the verge of tears. “Why, why didn’t—why couldn’t you . . . I don’t want a goodbye.”

  “Fritz,” Vhalla said softly, seeing through the words that the pain put in his mouth.

  “I miss her,” he whispered.

  “I do, too.” Vhalla stared at the bracelet. “But she’s still here, right?”

  “Yeah,” Fritz pulled himself together. “She’d be the type to haunt us ‘til the end of our days if we didn’t keep her in our hearts.”

  Vhalla smiled hopelessly at her friend and wiggled around the pedestal to the back of the room. She pulled her friend to her, taking a deep breath. “Fritz, thank you for being such a good friend to me.” Vhalla hid her face where his neck met his shoulder.

  Fritz mimicked the gesture. “You don’t have to thank me for that.”

  “I do.” Vhalla pressed her eyes closed and held him tighter. “The next time I wander away from the world, I want my friend with me. If you’ll come.”

  He laughed weakly. “You know I will.”

  They stood together in a few long moments of silence. Eventually, Fritz pulled away and turned to the bracelet. Vhalla nodded in unspoken agreement, and they listened to their friend’s last words again, and then for a third time, arms wrapped around each other to remind themselves of what they still had before them in spite of all their loss.

  Fritz’s eyes were red when they finally emerged. Vhalla rubbed hers but had managed to keep things together. They had both been to war, but Fritz had somehow emerged with his heart intact. Vhalla was almost jealous that he could still cry as easily as he did.

  Grahm warmed her heart and brought a tired smile to her lips as he hugged Fritz tightly without word. Vhalla watched the two men holding each other and wondered if they had any idea how they looked locked in an embrace.

  “I think I’m going to go to my room for a little,” Fritz announced finally. Watching him pry himself away from Grahm’s embrace was almost painful for Vhalla. She wanted to scream at them to hold each other for a little longer, until it finally clicked for them. “Just sit for a bit.”

  “Do you want me to come?” Vhalla asked.

  Fritz shook his head. “No, I think I’ll be alone for a bit.”

  “All right.” Vhalla gave him a friendly squeeze, and the once-again mourning man departed down the hall.

  Grahm followed Vhalla up to her room. Vhalla shot him a curious glance, and he motioned for her to proceed. Clearly the man had something on his mind, and Vhalla didn’t feel like filling the silence for small-talk’s sake.

  The man followed her into the room without a word, softly clicking shut the door.

  “Grahm?” Vhalla inquired as to his uncharacteristic melancholy.

  The man took a deep breath, his eyes searching. “I want to help him. How can I help him?”

  Vhalla shook her head. These two were hopeless. It wasn’t her place, but it didn’t seem like they’d get anywhere without a little nudge.

  “You should go to him, be with him, hold him.”

  “But he said he wanted to be alone . . .” Grahm floundered.

  “And you think he really meant that?” Vhalla crossed her arms over her chest with a tired grin.

  “So, why didn’t you go with him?”

  “Because maybe he was sincere.” She shook her head with a small laugh. “Or maybe I can see that I’m not the one he wants right now.” The man actually blushed, and Vhalla wasted no time driving the point home. “He cares for you. You make him happy. You must see that.”

  “I . . . have.”

  “So what are you afraid of?” Vhalla touched her watch thoughtfully. “It’s worth it, the chance is worth it. Love is always worth taking the challenge.”

  The words were real before Vhalla even realized it. She didn’t regret her time with Aldrik. Her heart began to race, and she struggled to stay in the moment with Grahm. Vhalla’s own affections were a known mess that continued to fall into hopelessness; she’d have ample time later to confront it. For now, she’d focus on her friends.

  “Love is far better to know, even if it slips from your grasp or doesn’t bear fruit like you’d hoped. People who say they regret love, true love, are just bitter liars.”

  Grahm looked at her for a long moment. Vhalla gave him an encouraging nod.

  In that moment, she felt like she had lived a thousand lifetimes and loved a hundred times. She realized her own advice was true, and something about it made her yearn with sweet longing. In that moment, she wanted to see her prince more than anyone else in the world.

  Grahm excused himself, and Vhalla watched him walk down the Tower. She wondered if he would head to Fritz’s room. Vhalla walked on air, following Grahm down the slope of the Tower, a couple paces behind. The second she saw the man pause at Fritz’s door, she turned and started back upward before her friend answered and she could be spotted.

  Knowing Fritz was cared for, Vhalla walked past her room, continuing on. Silence settled into the Tower, and the doors became sparse. Vhalla caressed Larel’s bracelet, thinking of her friend’s words, of how Larel would advise Vhalla’s tumultuous soul.

  Vhalla bypassed the minister’s office, going to an unadorned door that bore a black lock when others in the Tower were silver. She pressed both her palms to the door, leaning forward and pressing her ear against the wood. Vhalla stretched her hearing, listening for any signs of life in the room.

  Silence.

  Vhalla pushed away with a small sigh. It was better if she didn’t meet the prince again, privately. It was better if she stopped thinking about the man with whom she had been briefly—secretly—engaged to. It would all be better if the watch at her neck would stop giving off phantom heat at the mere thought of the man she loved.

  Vhalla knocked on the minister’s door. Fritz may need time, but there was work to be done, and she couldn’t waste hours mourning a woman who had long been lost. Vhalla had done her mourning and made it a part of her. She’d carry it with her forever.

  “Ah, Vhalla.” Victor smiled at the sight of her, holding open the door.

  “Is now all right?”

  “Certainly, come in.” He clicked the door closed behind her, heading back to his low table before a window. “Tea?”

  “Why not?” She assumed the previous day’s chair, already settling into what felt like a routine.

  “It’s a little different,” Victor proceeded with small talk. “I bought some lemongrass today in the market.”

  “I like lemons.”

  “Do you?” Victor passed her a steaming mug. “That’s good to know.”

  Vhalla indulged in the steaming cup for a moment, deciding it was time to get to business. “Where do you hide the axe?”

  She watched as Victor opened a secret panel in one of his cabinets, pulling out a locked box that the axe was hidden within. “No one else knows of that hiding spot.”

  “Well, now someone else knows,” Vhalla remarked smartly, earning herself a chuckle. “Victor, the crystal weapons, each nation had one, didn’t they?”

  “So the stories and evidence indicates,” Victor affirmed with a nod.

  “Shaldan had Achel.” Vhalla motioned to the axe. “Mhashan had the Sword of Jadar. And Cyven had a scythe.”

  “How did you come across that information?” He sounded impressed.

  “I went to the library this morning,” Vhalla explained. “I was reading some old Eastern books in the archives and noticed every story held mention of a scythe of great power. N
ow that I know about the weapons, I didn’t think it could be chance.”

  “It’s not.” The minister preempted her next question. “Though if it still exists, it’s not been mentioned in hundreds of years.”

  “Did Lyndum have a weapon?”

  “Lyndum was rumored to not have a weapon, but a crown.” Victor pressed his fingertips together in thought.

  “A crown?” It made no sense.

  “In some lore, the weapons were wielded by the Goddess herself as she forged and cultivated the earth and life. The crown was the symbol of her dominance over all things.” The minister paused to sip his tea, collecting his thoughts. “But if it’s true, the crown has been lost to time as well.”

  “What about the sword? The Knights of Jadar said it was stolen by a Minister of Sorcery.”

  “Egmun got his hands on it,” Victor affirmed, confirming her worst fears.

  “He took it to the caves,” she continued. Something began to creep on the edge of her memory. Something about this story was familiar, despite having never heard it before.

  “He did.” Victor watched her carefully.

  “And then he . . .” Vhalla placed a palm on her forehead. A sword. A crystal sword. The axe glowed faintly before her, as though the whole universe was contained within it and all she had to do was discover its secrets.

  “He tried to unlock the caverns. But he miscalculated, and the fool started the War of the Crystal Caverns,” Victor finished bitterly.

  The knowledge was distracting enough that Vhalla ignored the feeling that it wasn’t what she had been about to put together.

  “How is he the Head of Senate if he caused the war?” Vhalla frowned. It sounded like he should’ve been long dead.

  “Because Egmun craved knowledge in all its forms; he collected it, hoarded it. And some of that knowledge was inevitably the sort that other people didn’t want to be made public.” Victor sighed and stood. “His foolishness cost him his magic. But it did yield information that we will be able to use.”

  “How?”

  “Egmun needed the sword because he needed it to access the heart of the caverns. The crystals have a single heart from which their power stems.” Victor was back to rummaging. “Every other crystal’s power comes from being spawned by this center, like tiny looking glasses into the caverns themselves. Hence the channels they build in search of that magic, which taint sorcerers and commons alike.”

  Vhalla was reminded of the Northern ruins where she’d procured the axe. The moment she freed the weapon from amid the crystals, the others had darkened into dormancy and fractured. “The crystal weapons are like smaller hearts, aren’t they?”

  Victor turned and gave her an approving look. He rested a box with Western writing on its lock on the desk between them. “Exactly so. Because of that, they are the only thing that can access the true power of the caverns—which is one reason why they’ve been so sought after. But I also theorize that they would be the only thing that can destroy that power as well.”

  “An axe that is legendary for cutting anything, even a soul.” Vhalla stared at Achel.

  “Perhaps, the soul of the caverns, if you will.” Victor sat, opening the box of crystals he’d used on her after her fall. “You’ll need to cleanse it, sharpen it.” He motioned to the axe. “Look at it with magic sight.”

  Vhalla obliged. The axe was a tangled mess. Dark colors overlay lighter ones, a swirling mass of lingering traces of magic.

  “Those are remnants, like a vessel; the axe has been dirtied with the leftovers of things it’s been used for.”

  “Like magic blood,” Vhalla reasoned.

  “That’s certainly a way to think of it,” the minister agreed. “We will have one chance at this, Vhalla, and I want to set us up for success by removing all the possible variables that could get in our way. I want no magic reacting in ways we don’t expect.”

  The minister spent the rest of the afternoon going back and forth with Vhalla on the properties of vessels and how they were created. He educated her on how a Waterrunner could draw out the magic from a person by tapping into their Channels.

  The theory was the same for what they were seeking to accomplish, but the execution was completely different. Victor tried to help as best he could, though there were some things that were left to trial and error. Vhalla ran her fingers through the magic that hovered around the axe, imagining them to be threads fluttering on the wind.

  With this imagery, she pushed them upward, focusing on one at a time. It was wind without wind, a level of magic that she had never tried to tap into before, and it was utterly exhausting. Once she had a thread free, the minister provided her a crystal to store it within. That was much easier than the brow-dampening process of untangling the magic from the axe.

  She managed three threads before she felt utterly spent. Vhalla blinked away her magic sight and collapsed back into the chair. Victor wordlessly began to clear his desk of the tools they’d been using all day.

  “You did well,” he encouraged.

  “I will be an old maid by the time it’s cleansed,” Vhalla lamented.

  “Your second was faster than your first, and your third faster than your second.” Victor smiled, rounding his desk. “Think of it as learning magic all over again.”

  “I just finished learning magic the first time.” She stood, stretching.

  “Then the process is fresh in your mind.” Victor chuckled. “Thank you, Vhalla,” he said sincerely. “You’re going to be the catalyst for a new age.”

  “One step at a time.” She shrugged. As all she sought was lasting freedom and peace, Vhalla kept her eye on the prize.

  “We should work again tomorrow, if you feel up to it.” The minister started for the door.

  “I have a feeling this is how I am going to spend my days,” she murmured.

  “It is. I want to move quickly, but not so quickly that you burn out . . . so rest in the morning. I don’t want you pushing yourself on trivial things; this will be taxing enough for you. When we are not working, focus on giving your magic ample time to recover.”

  “I’ll be certain to take it easy,” she agreed lightly.

  The minister paused, unappreciative of her tone. “I am quite serious. We are working with advanced magic unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”

  Vhalla held her tongue about the magic she had seen in the North.

  “Don’t fret.” She shrugged off the minister’s worry as fatherly concern. “I’ll keep up my strength.”

  “I trust your judgment,” Victor said finally, shrugging off the disapproving glint to his eyes. “Though, I request that you tell no one of what we are doing.”

  “By the Mother, no,” Vhalla laughed. “I’m not stupid.”

  “No,” the minister smiled, “you’re not.”

  When Vhalla finally returned to her room, the window was dark and the moon was already cresting the horizon. Utterly exhausted, she wasted no time bathing. The baths were mostly empty due to the unconventional hour, and Vhalla greedily soaked in the warmth of the water.

  By the time she crawled into bed, she expected to fall asleep instantly, but her mind lingered in wakefulness. There was a smell on her pillow, on her blankets, so faint that Vhalla was certain she was imagining it. Real or not, it brought back memories of the last nights she’d spent in the bed, with Larel soothing her nightmares away.

  Vhalla passed the watch around her neck from hand to hand. She’d returned home, she was surrounded by almost everyone she’d ever known, but she still felt very, very alone.

  TWO DAYS LATER, Vhalla escaped the Tower with determination—she could only spend so many hours with Fritz and Grahm making eyes at each other and saying nothing about it. There was somewhere else that she knew she had to venture. And, while she’d find friends there, it would also force her to confront the truth she’d been harboring since the West.

  Swords rang out above shouting and laughter. The palace training grounds were full
of veterans from the Northern war, and with them came a whole host of new recruits for the palace guard. It seemed Tim had been at it again, spreading stories about her, as most of the guard had a wing painted on their breastplates. It didn’t take long for Vhalla to be noticed by some of the men and women, and she was greeted like an old friend.

  It was the reception she would’ve wanted from the librarians and would’ve never expected to find among swords, bows, and drills. But the encouragement was welcome. Plus, once she was spotted, it made fleeing in absolute terror much more difficult.

  Her eyes scanned the dusty training field. Archers sent arrows toward targets, and men assaulted wooden dummies with what would be lethal slashes. Vhalla found Daniel among the latter. Breaking the news about Jax to one of the guard would mean breaking the news to them all.

  “If you want to say hello, I think he’d appreciate it,” the voice nearly startled her out of her skin.

  “Erion,” she breathed the second she met the Western eyes. “Erion!”

  Vhalla threw her arms around the man’s shoulders. They’d never been exceptionally close, but the Golden Guard felt like family. The feeling must have been mutual as his arms wrapped around her waist for a brief squeeze.

  “You are all sorts of trouble, aren’t you?” Erion pulled away quickly, his Western nature getting the better of him. “It’s no wonder Jax likes you.”

  Vhalla swallowed hard. “Erion . . . Jax is . . .” Vhalla gripped her fingers, emotions running high. “He was trying to protect me.”

  “Oh, he told us.”

  “What?”

  “When he got back to the palace a few days ago, not long before Daniel, he told us all about how you got him stabbed,” Erion laughed.

  Vhalla didn’t share the same emotion. “He’s here?” she asked, deadpan.

  “Yeah, right over there.” Erion pointed to a group practicing grappling.

  Vhalla stormed across the training grounds like a little vortex, her hands balled into fists as she stomped toward the tall figure of a Western man.

 
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