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

           Elise Kova
 

  The idea turned itself over in Vhalla’s head, settling like wet cement curing into a firm foundation. Show them, she thought, show them what they are missing. The watch felt hot against her chest, and the axe on her thigh seemed to thrum with power.

  Vhalla opened her mouth to speak, but words failed her.

  Her eyes drifted over to the entry. A man with a bushy mustache stood in the doorframe. The notable facial feature sat atop a triumphant sneer.

  Vhalla glanced around frantically. She had been found and there was only one exit. Schnurr may not attack with all the witnesses currently enjoying their dinners. But all he had to do was wait, wait for his prey to finally leave and follow her like a hunter on a blood trail.

  “Gianna,” Vhalla whispered, thinking frantically. “Listen to me.”

  “Wha—”

  “Don’t turn around,” Vhalla hissed, trying to keep her voice level. “You’re going to get up, and you’re going to go and not look back. You’re going to pretend like this was a casual meeting, we happened upon each other—you don’t really know me or who I am.

  “Go back to your shop and burn everything of mine. But, most importantly, find my black ledger and destroy it, burn it, make it so that no one can ever read its words.” Her heart was racing. “By the Mother, do not read its contents, do not put those words anywhere inside your head.”

  “Tokshi, you’re not making any sense.” Vhalla’s sudden intensity and fear wavered Gianna’s usually strong voice.

  “Go now. Go now and pretend you never knew me,” Vhalla pleaded. Gianna’s kindness would not be rewarded with the same ill fate that befell those foolish enough to befriend the Windwalker. “This was all a dream. If anyone asks, deny it all.”

  Gianna opened her mouth to protest once more.

  “Gianna, now,” Vhalla snapped.

  The woman did as she was ordered. Vhalla could commend her for only looking slightly rattled as she stood and strolled out the door past Major Schnurr. The major gave Gianna a long stare before turning his attention back to Vhalla.

  Vhalla stood, slowly raising her hood. She made for the door, looking past Major Schnurr the entire time. The man half-stepped in her way, forcing Vhalla to pause. From the corner of her eye she saw a group of men standing from a table, presumably men Schnurr had been coming to meet.

  “You know what happens now, don’t you?” he purred.

  “You and your friends eat a nice meal and pretend you never saw me. You want bellies to fill again tomorrow?” Vhalla threatened.

  The major laughed ominously as Vhalla strolled into the night. She didn’t know where to go. She breathed a sigh of relief when she didn’t see Gianna anywhere. If the Knights were going to pursue the other woman, it seemed they’d missed their chance. Vhalla hoped that Gianna would heed her warning and do her best to forget the time she’d spent with the Windwalker—for they had just come to an abrupt end.

  The Knights were already at Vhalla’s back. Men who wanted to take and use her for a madman’s dream. Men to whom she needed to send a clear message, a message that they could not force her into a corner.

  Vhalla started forward and intentionally walked down the first mostly-empty alley she found. The crowded street was slowly reduced to questionable curiosity shops, gambling parlors, and sellers of flesh. Clenching her fists, she listened carefully to the four sets of footsteps behind her as they treaded lightly over the packed earth. They didn’t make any motion toward her, however. Too many eyes were still on them and the alley was too narrow for movement.

  A dilapidated square was straight ahead of her. The narrow passage between buildings would open up into enough room to move—to fight. Vhalla fingered the weapon on her thigh, popping open fasteners.

  She had a choice to make. Did she fight them with the axe or rely solely on her magic? If she brought out the axe, they would know it was real. It would be a waving banner that at least one crystal weapon still existed. She should be able to take them on with her magic alone.

  But she’d never used the weapon before. It was a strong temptation just to see why so many people had spilled so much blood and furthered so much hatred for it. Vhalla surveyed the area as she crossed into the small junction of alleyways. There were no onlookers as far as she could tell—so the only ones who would know about the axe would be the Knights. Assuming any made it out alive.

  “I’ll give you one chance.” She shifted her feet, pulling at the ties on her cloak. “Leave and live. Stay and die. Tell this to your comrades, and we will each go on to see all the dawns of our natural lives.”

  The men looked at each other and laughed in amusement. “You think that will work, Windwalker?”

  “I don’t want to fight you.” It was the first lie she’d told in weeks.

  “Then make this even easier for us—submit willingly,” Schnurr demanded. “You were destined to help us return to greatness.”

  “Help?” she scoffed.

  “Yes, with you we will finally gain access to the caverns.”

  “Never.” Vhalla tensed and her fingers curled around the hilt of the axe.

  The first of the men moved, sending out a tongue of flame. Vhalla was already two steps ahead. Her feet walked on air, and she moved like an otherworldly entity, flowing from one attack into the next.

  The wind pulled the unlaced cloak from her shoulders. Vhalla spun, bringing the axe hard into the man’s face. He didn’t have a chance. The blade cut clean through the man’s skull, as if understanding and multiplying Vhalla’s murderous intent. It offered nearly no resistance, and Vhalla blinked as the man crumpled with only half a head attached to his neck.

  “The axe.” Major Schnurr instantly recognized the faintly glowing blade that Vhalla wielded. Where any sane person would look on in horror, the major looked as though he had just been handed the greatest gift of his life.

  Something quietly snapped in her at the sight. The thin dam she’d built to hold back her utter loathing for the Knights vanished, and Vhalla thought nothing of thrusting out her hand to grab the nearest man’s mouth. Power roared and howled from within her, the wind screaming to be unleashed. It poured forth in a tempest that was so violent it both startled and scared her.

  The Knight’s face exploded under her palm.

  With cry of rage, the third Knight was upon her. Vhalla ducked, narrowly dodging his blade. It sliced down along her arm; blood sprang forth, setting a faint beat to echo in her ears. It had been weeks since Vhalla had heard Aldrik’s heartbeat reverberating through their Bond. It was a surge of magic and of overwhelming strength—Vhalla did nothing to hinder it.

  The third Knight crumpled like a paper doll, cleaved nearly in half from shoulder to chest by the axe. Vhalla barely had more than a second to relish in the strength flowing through her veins. Adjusting her grip on the axe, she prepared herself for the satisfaction of skinning off Schnurr’s face with it—only to find him gone.

  The mad beat in her ears faded into confusion. The coward had run. She stared in shock, paling to horror, as Vhalla realized the depth of her error.

  The major had seen the axe and fled with the knowledge.

  A Knight now knew that the axe was real and that she possessed it. She had to find the major and kill him before he could tell anyone. Vhalla quickly sheathed the axe, fumbling with the latches as cries began to rise from the street.

  Her mind whirred as Vhalla tried to think of Schnurr’s next action. Schnurr wanted her for the Knights; they needed her alive, and subduing her would require more than a small group. Vhalla looked on at the corpses oozing crimson onto the dirt.

  He’d need a mob.

  Vhalla snatched up her cloak and donned it frantically as she ran. Men and women stumbled from the parlors, blinking in confusion. Her hands were slick with blood, her heart thrumming frantically. If she could find the major, she could stop him before he acted. Before he had time to spin the situation to serve him best.

  Vhalla emerged into a dense crowd that
was circled around the man she sought. “Down that alley, there!” he shouted while pointing.

  Vhalla pressed herself against a wall, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. “The Windwalker—the Empire’s monster—has returned to wage war upon the West!”

  The crowd hummed in confusion.

  “Look down there and find your brethren lying in pools of their own blood. Faces ripped open as only she can do.”

  Vhalla stared at her feet, realizing blood splotched the bottom of her cloak. She couldn’t kill Major Schnurr here and now—it’d confirm everything he was saying, and the longer she lingered, the more likely it was for someone to notice the panting and battle-stained woman. Vhalla began to move, heading down along the outside of the crowd.

  “It’s true!” a new voice cried. “Th-there’s three! They’re dead!”

  More whispers, more nervous glances.

  “Go, find her! Give her to the Knights. We’re the only ones who have ever been able to tame her kind. Clearly Solaris cannot be trusted!”

  Vhalla slipped into a narrow space between two buildings, climbing over crates and working her way away from the crowd being whipped into a frenzy. What was she going to do now? Her fingers ran up and down the leather sheath of the axe, as if it held the answers she sought. As if it could solve all her problems by cutting, cutting, and cutting everyone who opposed her . . .

  So engulfed in her thoughts, she missed hearing the footsteps growing behind her. Two arms suddenly snatched her and a palm clamped over Vhalla’s mouth. Magic was swift under her fingers until a familiar male voice hastily spoke.

  “Finally found you.”

  VHALLA TWISTED ON her toes, pulling herself from the man’s grasp. Her heart raced. She didn’t know if it would’ve been worse to have a Knight of Jadar or the man she faced. If he was a Knight, she could’ve at least killed him and been off again.

  Her eyes absorbed the tall shape, the Western olive skin, and the long dark hair that was pulled back into a bun.

  “Jax.”

  “You never disappoint, do you?” The man gave her a wild grin and a shake of his head. “The Windwalker disappears for weeks, and when she shows up, it’s to murder Western lords. Didn’t you see enough blood at the warfront?”

  Vhalla scowled murderously. How dare he? “What do you want?”

  “You don’t seem happy to see me.” The man cocked his head to the side. “Here I thought we were friends.”

  “What do you want?” she repeated, her hand twitching for the axe. He’d better not make her repeat it again. He was her friend, but her patience ran thinner with every beat of her heart.

  “To help you.” Jax folded his arms over his chest.

  She laughed and turned. “I don’t have time for you. Go back to the guard.”

  “Where are you going?” Jax fell into step behind her.

  “Away.” Vhalla’s eyes darted over her shoulder. No one was following them, but she could see frantically running silhouettes of men and women on the street.

  “Did you kill those men?” Jax’s tone turned serious.

  “I said I don’t have time for you.”

  To his credit, he moved fast enough to catch her off guard. Jax’s palm gripped her shoulder, turning them both, forcing her against the wall. Her back hit hard and Vhalla glared, prepared to give him a string of insults. As was the man’s nature, he stilled her with a look that whispered of something deeply troubling.

  “Did you kill them?”

  “I did.” There was no remorse and no hesitation.

  Jax cursed under his breath. “All right, come. Baldair or Aldrik will fix this.”

  Vhalla twisted her arm out of his grasp the moment he reached for it. They locked in a staring contest that Vhalla broke with the first word. “I’m not going back to them.”

  “Vhalla—”

  “No. I’m not running to the princes at every turn. If I did, the Knights will never see me as someone they need to fear.”

  “If you run, then those same princes will be forced to brand you a murderer.” Jax leaned against the wall with a sigh. He seemed more exasperated than horrified by her insistence.

  “It’s not the first time I’ve fought for my innocence,” Vhalla retorted smartly.

  “You will be hunted.”

  “I already am.”

  “They will condemn you. If you do this, you may never be able to return to the life you had.”

  Vhalla’s shoulders shook, and she freed haunted laughter into the air. “Return to the life I had? That option left me long ago.” Her hand rested on the axe holster once more. “If I want a future, I’m going to have to cut it from the hands of fate myself.”

  Jax stilled, assessing her. Vhalla took a step backward, giving him a half-mad smile of her own. The man was indeed kind, in his own way. But she was too old to have people mothering her.

  “If you insist.” He adjusted his bun and straightened away from the wall. “Then I’m coming with you.”

  “What?” That was the last thing she expected to hear. “No, I need to do this alone—”

  “Save me the speech.” Jax rolled his eyes. “Guards have already been called, and they’re going to be scouting the city. You have blood on your hands—literally—and I’m going to venture a good guess that you have nowhere to go. The Knights will move fast. You need a Westerner to help you navigate these alleyways.”

  Vhalla knew what he was offering was more than help escaping through the narrow passages between buildings. He was offering her his knowledge of Western culture. His insights into the seedy shadows, which she could lurk within and be lost. His wisdom was gained from years of time spent around princes—and the very same lords Vhalla was determined to slay.

  “You will become my accomplice,” she pointed out.

  Jax grinned madly. “They can only strip me of my nobility once—for murdering a lord.”

  Vhalla blinked, blindsided.

  “You didn’t know?” Jax chuckled darkly. “I suppose you wouldn’t; you never drank much with Western majors, never heard the fantastical stories of the golden prince’s Black Dog. You didn’t think you were the only monster on an Imperial leash, did you?”

  Vhalla stared, frozen. She’d known it in the warfront—she’d realized they were both tied to the crown, but she’d had no idea why. Her innocence had led her to being turned into the weapon she was now, which ultimately led to the surrender of her freedom. But for Jax, his crimes were of a different sort, the sort that had put a noose around his neck where Baldair, or the Emperor himself, held the other end. He hadn’t managed to free himself in however long his service had been for.

  “Murder?” she asked.

  “Don’t ask questions if you aren’t prepared for the answers,” Jax advised ominously. “For now, come this way, my little monster.”

  Jax set off deeper into the narrow back-alleys of the Crossroads, and Vhalla followed on blind faith. She tried to process what Jax had told her and everything she’d seen. Certainly, the Western majors hadn’t been fond of him. He’d insulted the West’s noble traditions from the minute she’d met him. But he was friends with Elecia, the granddaughter of the Lord of the West. He was close with Aldrik, and the way he interacted with Baldair in no way resembled slave and master.

  As they passed through an intersection, Vhalla heard guards running through a nearby street.

  “Stay alert for the Windwalker. If the Windwalker is found, bring her to the royal hotel!”

  “You’re sure about this?” Jax paused to ask again.

  Vhalla only nodded. She wasn’t going back to the Emperor and letting him chain her, chains that he would vow to exchange for her freedom if she gave him another part of her soul. She would confront her crimes and the royal family with her innocence apparent, when none would question her—whenever that ended up being.

  The buildings became danker, darker, more flimsily built and even more poorly maintained. Most everyone on the street wore large cowls
that hid their faces so no one would witness their presence in this questionable area of town. Jax stopped and knocked three times on a small door, waited ten breaths, and then knocked again. The door slid open, and a man with beady eyes and a scruffy chin blinked up at them.

  “We want to stay.” Jax knelt down.

  “What will you trade me?” the man asked.

  Jax unclipped the golden bracer he wore over his shirt, a symbol of his membership in the Golden Guard. Beady eyes lit up, and the little man was over-eager for the token. Jax pulled it away as the man reached for it.

  “You found this.” Jax spoke low and slow, flames glittering around his fingers. “If anyone asks, you don’t know where it came from. Understand?”

  Beady eyes nodded furiously.

  “We want two weeks.”

  “Fine, fine. Give it here.” The small man snatched it from Jax’s fingers and crawled out of the door.

  Jax motioned and Vhalla hunched down to pass through the tiny portal, dropping onto a step, and then onto the packed-earth floor of a truly disgusting room. The small window looked more like a sewage chute that had been used by the people who lived along the streets above. The sleeping palette in the corner smelled of mold and damp. A small fire burned in the opposite corner near some hard tack and salted meat, which she wasn’t sure was good enough for the rats she suspected also shared the space at night.

  “What is this place?” Vhalla was breathing through her mouth, trying to get used to the stench.

  “It’s a hiding hole.” Jax pulled off his cape, dropping it by the door. “They’re used for more colorful dealings here in the Crossroads. Prostitution, gambling, human trafficking.”

  Vhalla’s stomach churned as she stared at the stains on the bed.

  “But no one will think to look for you in the underbelly of the Crossroads. It’s generally something only Westerners know of, and you have to then be aware of what to look for to find one.”

 
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