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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.27
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.27

           Elise Kova
 

  “No!” Aldrik barked. “If they catch up to you and me, what do you think will happen?”

  “I don’t—”

  “Think!” He waited for her to fill in the blank.

  “Your father?”

  “Who else?” Aldrik frowned and looked forward, pushing his heels into the horse.

  “What will he do?” Vhalla wondered if she would ever be able to return to the palace.

  “I don’t know, Vhalla.” Aldrik’s voice was high and tense.

  “He said nothing?” she asked, baffled the prince could go back into the company of his father and not know. The Emperor always seemed to be proud of his proclamations when it came to pulling them apart or conceiving some ill-designed fate for her. She had fully expected him to torment Aldrik with the knowledge.

  “I don’t know, and I don’t want to speak on it!” He glared at her. “We have other things to worry about.”

  “What’s wrong with you, Aldrik?” she exclaimed as they dashed through the night. “What did I do to make you lash out at me so?”

  Aldrik stared at her, his mouth parted slightly. He closed it, and a gentle expression overtook his brow, even if his eyes still seemed guarded and distant. She relaxed some just seeing it, feeling a twinge of guilt at being so aggressive toward him in the wake of his grief.

  “I’m sorry, Vhalla,” he sighed. “Too much has gone on, and I need to do this. I need to focus right now.”

  Vhalla understood what this could be, what it likely meant for him. This was his chance to redeem himself. To protect the world from an evil that he had once aided in setting free. They were grieving, tired, and now hunted. Nothing made sense in the world anymore.

  “I’m sorry for snapping.”

  “I need your trust.” He caught her eyes. “Please, tonight, just trust me.”

  “Always,” she replied easily.

  “More than anyone?” Aldrik asked.

  “More than anyone.” She forced a smile on her mouth in a hope to encourage him.

  Aldrik nodded, and they rode on through the soundless wood.

  Eventually, the trees grew thinner as they began to ascend out of the valley. It was a slow slope upward, and Vhalla hardly noticed they were heading up a mountain until it was already upon them. They had ridden hard through the night; the horses were beginning to struggle with the pace.

  Aldrik had not said a word for hours. He hardly even looked at her. There was no sign of pursuers, and yet they rode as if a pack of wolves were on their tail. No one had known where they were going, and the heavily falling snow was slowly covering their tracks. Even if the Emperor had caught wind of his only remaining son running off with the Windwalker, he wouldn’t assume that they’d head for the Crystal Caverns.

  Her horse lost its footing for a moment as its hoof slipped on some ice. Vhalla couldn’t stop a call of surprise, and she tugged hard on the reins to right the steed. The mountain path was thin with a sheer edge on one side. Vhalla looked down and realized they had already ascended quite far.

  “Are you all right?” Worry marred Aldrik’s brow.

  “I am.” Her racing heart indicated differently.

  “Let’s take it a little slower. This path is not well maintained, and it can be a little treacherous in good conditions.” He pulled back on his mount’s reins. “We’re close now; it’s not much farther.”

  The sun began to rise. The concealing snow clouds finally began to lighten and fade into gray patches across the blood-red sky. Vhalla took a deep breath.

  “There!” He pointed up ahead. “There’s his horse.”

  The path curved around the mountain and eventually reached a small cliff area. Set into the mountain face was a large, pointed archway, carved directly into the stone. It was a gaping hole that was taller than thirty men on each other’s shoulders. Vhalla squinted and made out a horse standing before it in the hazy dawn.

  “We have to hurry!” she called back.

  “Carefully!” Aldrik replied, and they increased their pace as much as possible, inching around the mountain wall.

  The massive entrance to the Crystal Caverns made Vhalla feel even smaller as she pulled her steed to a stop before it. It felt like the gaping maw of a dragon that was ready to swallow her whole. The stone sculptures of wyrms and gods that guarded around the archway had to have been ancient, and yet they looked as though they had been polished to perfection that morning. Vhalla dismounted in awe.

  Aldrik grabbed a pack from his saddlebag after dismounting, slinging it over his shoulder. “We need to go. We’re close now.”

  “Right . . .” Vhalla was frozen in place. There was an epic and wild power and it sizzled against her magic. A primordial essence hung heavy in the air and warned her about crossing the threshold between her world and the Gods’.

  Aldrik paused, something out of the corner of his eye catching his interest. He dashed over to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Raising a hand, he shielded his eyes from the rising sun, squinting at the horizon. Vhalla followed his stare. Six riders were barely visible at the edge of the valley.

  “We need to go!” He turned and started running for the entrance.

  Vhalla dashed after him, plunging herself into the Crystal Caverns. The darkness was dizzying after they entered. The advent of the sunrise could not penetrate the heavy atmosphere that now shrouded her.

  Aldrik was one step ahead of the darkness and produced a crystal. Vhalla lost the opportunity to ask how or why he carried such a thing as it flashed a brilliant turquoise. He placed it carefully in the center of the pathway where they had been walking. Like water, magic rippled outward from the small stone and into the floor they stood on. Its glimmering pulse stretched forward, branching out at points and creeping up the walls like magical vines.

  The caverns had to rival the palace in size. A pathway had been cut into the center that led forward through another smaller gateway. Giant towering crystal columns lit up the space. The roof glowed the same pale greenish-blue.

  Vhalla was reminded of the ruins from which she had pilfered Achel. It was a cosmos of magic, sparkling infinitely before her. The shining colors bled from one crystal to the next in magical conversation. Vhalla could see dark pockmarks from where men had tried to claim powers from the cavern.

  “There’s no time.” Aldrik strode forward, and she fell into place behind him.

  Vhalla clenched her fists, opening her Channel. The crystals surrounding her compounded her magic, making it greater than she had ever felt. She tried to brace herself for any surprise that could lurk around any corner, and she prayed she would be ready.

  VHALLA SHIVERED. IN the dim light, the puffs of air marking her breaths almost looked magical as they dissipated through her cracked lips. It was a long night after long days, but she felt awake and alert.

  “Are you all right?” Vhalla asked. “Are the crystals affecting you?”

  “They are, but I will be fine. We won’t need much time.” His voice was low and garbled, the light shifted strangely over his shoulders.

  They crossed through a small archway into a different antechamber. The glowing light followed their movement, and the crystals responded to her footsteps in silent welcome. Vhalla searched for the place where Victor may be hiding, but she couldn’t find anything. It seemed a straight shot, almost like how a temple would lead to the Mother’s pyre.

  Vhalla stretched out her magical hearing, but she couldn’t even hear breathing.

  Aldrik stopped before a massive door. It radiated a similar power to what Vhalla had felt in the North, though deeper and stronger. Crystals had grown overtop it, resisting the glow that had been following Vhalla and Aldrik in shining protest.

  “I need you to open those,” Aldrik ordered.

  “Why?”

  “Do you want me to risk touching crystals further?” he snapped.

  “Oh . . . of course,” Vhalla mumbled. She started for the doors, her feet heavier with every step. Vhalla paused, her ha
nd a breath from the crystal.

  “What are you waiting for?” Aldrik growled. “Open it.”

  “This-this is the barrier, isn’t it?” She turned and took a long, hard look at the man who had taken her to the threshold of fate.

  He froze.

  “Victor couldn’t have gone farther than here. He hasn’t . . .” Now that she was here, the idea that Victor could open the barrier because he was a Waterrunner like Egmun seemed asinine. This was a greater magic. “Let’s go back the way we came.” Vhalla tried to sound casual. “Maybe we missed Victor along the way. We can wait outside.”

  She took a step, which he met with force and speed. His hand closed around her bare wrist, painfully tight. An agonizing feeling sunk through her suddenly shaking bones as her stomach plummeted from her body.

  “Aldrik, your hands are cold,” she whispered in horror. She had relished in the hot lightning of his touch too many times to be mistaken when the fire was suddenly absent. She had learned to love her prince for all he was, for how the fire in his veins gave light to his passions and an inferno to his anger. Nothing about him was ever cold. “Let me go.”

  He began to laugh slowly. The unfamiliar icy fingers bit deep into her flesh. The noise echoed disjointedly from his body, not belonging to the lips they emerged from.

  Vhalla tugged hard against his grip. “Let me go!” She withdrew a hand, frozen in horror as Aldrik’s face rippled, dissipating like steam.

  “No, I don’t think so, my little Windwalker.” Victor’s voice, cool and calculating, it echoed through her worst nightmares come to life. “Do you know how long I have bided my time? Waiting, waiting! Everything has been going according to plan, and you will not take this from me now.”

  Victor shed the last of his meticulously crafted illusion like a snake shedding its skin. The man grinned triumphantly, revealing a malicious glee.

  Vhalla screamed and raised her hand. Victor produced a crystal from his pocket, slamming it into the base of her neck, setting her to sputtering. Ice crackled around it, making a collar around her throat, alight with Channel-blocking crystal magic.

  She coughed at the shock of the cold. Her magic may be gone, but her fight wasn’t. Vhalla raked her nails across his cheek. Victor took the hit, laughing gleefully. “Is that any way to treat your mentor?”

  “You are not my mentor!” she screamed through the ice biting her neck.

  “Petulant bitch,” he hummed gleefully and shoved her against the crystal barrier blocking the door.

  Light exploded behind her eyes as the crystals forcefully extracted power from her. Victor’s magic assaulted her Channels, and Vhalla felt like nothing more than a funnel for his will. His abilities as a Waterrunner shone through, and he pushed the magic out of her, into the crystal barrier at her back, beseeching it to open for his dark desires.

  The world shattered, and Vhalla collapsed limply, her skin awash in the magic of crystals. Victor braced her as he watched the doors swing open before them.

  “You dumb child,” he hummed, throwing her numb body over his shoulder. It felt as if part of her had been ripped out, and all that remained was frayed seams. “Did you really believe he, of all people, would bring you here?”

  The world buzzed, and Vhalla’s eyes lost their focus.

  “Only his magic would lower the barrier. Magic that Egmun had to use to restore the barrier because of his lovely, late mother.” Victor threw her onto the ground. Vhalla’s head cracked against the stone, and she groaned, attempting to roll onto her knees. “Oh, don’t even try it.”

  Ice coated her hands and feet, holding her in place.

  “You see, I had no idea how I was going to get him here given his disposition toward the place. But I had you, at least, and from the moment I knew what you were, I made sure the Emperor would only really trust me with your care. That meant promising him whatever he wanted to hear, but if you tell the man the sun shines from his ass, he will love you.” Victor dropped the pack and began rummaging through it.

  “But then, while I waited and tried to sort out Aldrik, you gave me the greatest gift at all.” Victor laughed wildly. “A Bond! A Bond with the crown prince! You had his magic in you all along, it was right there, ripe for the taking.”

  “You-you lied to me . . .” she wheezed weakly, struggling to regain her awareness.

  “You love the prince of lies and yet are surprised by them?” Victor roared with amusement. He produced more crystals, laying them carefully around her prone form.

  “What you are doing will fail; it always fails.”

  “Don’t lump me in with the incompetent fools who are so hungry for power that they are blinded by it. I am of a far greater stock. Egmun thought he could take this power, but he didn’t have you.” Victor caressed her cheek.

  Vhalla spit at him. “I will kill you,” she swore through chattering teeth.

  “Will you?” Victor grinned. “I will certainly love to see that.”

  “I will.” Vhalla’s lips were beginning to turn blue and tremble. “I promise.”

  “That would be impressive, as this place will soon become your tomb.”

  Vhalla looked around, her eyes finally focused enough to take in the space. She recognized the floor instantly. Spiraling out from her body were markings, and embedded into the stone was what she once thought were shards of glass when she had witnessed them in Aldrik’s memory, but now knew to be crystals. She was in the same spot Aldrik had made his first kill.

  Her fingers and toes screamed in pain from the ice surrounding them. She knew the next step would be numbness, and then they would turn black and dead. Vhalla fought against the crystal around her throat, now burning her magic.

  “You should be pleased.” Victor produced the axe from his bag, the axe she had cleaned for him so that no other magic would interfere with his diabolical plan. “You’re going to help bring in a new world order. Didn’t we say we believed the same things? Didn’t you say you wanted peace? To not be hunted.”

  “You can’t buy peace with war,” she screamed.

  “Kill everyone who opposes you; what other peace is there?” Victor set down the axe by her and returned to the bag.

  Vhalla struggled futilely to break the ice around her hands. If she could just get the axe. She stilled as she saw Victor produce a shining crown made of pure crystal. The last tool he had brought with him.

  “What is that?”

  “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Victor held it up in appreciation. “The crown of the first king of this continent. It’s traded hands quite a few times and was the hardest thing for me to track down. Honestly, harder than finding a Windwalker. King Jadar had it for a while, and the Knights are good at making crystal artifacts fall off the face of the earth. But, eventually, it returned South thanks to one of the old Southern Kings. No one thought to look in the most obvious place for it! A few dozen records back and I only had a few treasure halls to sift through.”

  “You’re mad.”

  “Oh, Vhalla.” He returned to her side. “The line between genius and madness is so very thin. Really, it all exists in the same grey area.” Victor boldly placed the crown upon his head. “I fear, my dear, that you must die without ever seeing my new world order. But know that your death will build a society that favors sorcerers for eons to come.”

  Vhalla heard the echoes of stones bouncing down the mountainside. A horse’s whinny echoed through the caverns. Victor stilled, looking through the doors she had opened and down the long stretch of crystals to the main entrance.

  “I think we will have an audience for my ascension.” Victor smiled, turning.

  A tall shadow stood in the entryway, the sunlight burning at his back. Vhalla struggled to lift her head, squinting to prove without a doubt what the frantic beats of her heart already knew.

  “Aldrik!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. Her high-pitched, desperate call carried across the walls and out to her prince.

  “Vhalla!” he roared in tor
tured and broken agony. His voice was as deep and dark as midnight, and Vhalla wondered how she could have mistaken anything else for it.

  “It seems you shall be the first Solaris to die by my hand!” Victor beamed and turned to face the inferno that roared toward them.

  The caverns were quickly illuminated with the burning rage of the crown prince.

  STEAM FILLED THE caverns as Aldrik’s flames met an ice barrier and vaporized it. He threw out an arm, sending another blaze in quick succession. Victor blocked it with a surge of magic, the crystals in the crown on his head flashing brightly to amplify his powers.

  “Are you not happy to see me?” Victor japed.

  “Let her go!” Aldrik skidded to a stop, bracing himself, and Vhalla pressed her eyes closed for the next wave of heat. The fire was so great that it sent explosive shockwaves through the caverns.

  “You always were the wild one! Running in head first, not thinking, letting your emotions and that unstoppable rage of yours get the better of you,” Victor bated.

  Aldrik reacted quickly to the ice that formed beneath his feet. A spiral of flame swirled about him, blocking any further attempts to freeze him in place.

  “Aldrik!” Vhalla cried, hoping he would hear her over the din of the flames. “Free me!” She struggled against the ice that held her. If she could get free she could get the axe and remove the crystal blocking her sorcery. Victor was strong and bloated on magic-altering crystals, but Vhalla doubted he would be able to handle them both at once.

  The prince’s fire vanished at her words, and Aldrik looked, really looked, for the first time past Victor. Vhalla witnessed his rage deepen upon seeing her entrapped. He threw out a hand.

  At first, his fire was a welcome warmth. Like the familiar caress of an old lover or well-known friend. It weakened the ice and melted it around her. Victor wasn’t the only one who was trained to leverage the crystals, and Aldrik’s magic could stand toe-to-toe with the minister’s.

  But warmth quickly turned to heat and then to agony as Vhalla was burned for the first time by Aldrik’s flames.

 
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