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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.5
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.5

           Elise Kova
 

  “Are you worried about the man selling your cuff?” There weren’t many in the world like it. Whatever merchant he sold it to would certainly realize who it belonged to.

  “I’m planning on it. The buyer will take it to Baldair, likely gleeful to win a favor, maybe even one which shows the Fallen Lord has returned to his old ways of noble killing.” Jax reached his hands up, letting down his bun. “But then, Baldair will know I’m with you. That’s the only real explanation. He’ll know I’m keeping you safe.”

  “Keeping me safe?” Vhalla asked.

  “Baldair gave the guard an order before we left Soricium. That we were to be the ones to find you, and when we did, we were to protect you at all costs. I found you by luck, but that’s why I was looking.”

  Vhalla sunk onto the bed, too tired and confused to care about the dank smell that assaulted her nose. “Why?”

  “Because he said he considers you his sister.”

  Her hand shot up to her necklace, clutching the watch tightly. What did that mean?

  “Craig went South, Erion went to Norin, Raylynn stayed with Baldair, and Daniel went East, to try to find you.”

  “How is Daniel?” she asked softly.

  “Oh, Baldair put quite the fire under him.” Jax chuckled, sitting next to her, his back against the wall. “He felt nothing but guilt for being the last person you spoke to and for letting you go. He agreed with the prince that by not insisting he accompany you for your protection that he let down his honor as a man and a noble.”

  Vhalla rolled her eyes. Jax laughed, which she gave him a look for.

  “You aren’t the type of woman who wants that man’s man nonsense.” Jax reached out and took her hand, almost contrary to his statement. But the touch was purely chaste as he began to inspect the superficial cut on her arm. “And even if you did, you already know what you want, don’t you?”

  “What I want . . .” Vhalla whispered. She shook the thoughts of Aldrik from her head, her hand falling onto the axe sheathe. Jax’s eyes followed the motion, considering it for a long moment, but said nothing as Vhalla continued. “I want to make the Knights pay. I want to know what they have and make sure they know a new Burning Times will not begin with me.”

  “Very well. How do we do that?”

  They launched into brainstorming a plan, which continued on and off over the next few days.

  Jax confirmed that the princes were going to be involved in a formal gathering for the Lords and Ladies of the Western Court.

  Vhalla remembered what Lord Ophain said and immediately began thinking. “All the lords and ladies will be there, right?”

  “They should be.” Jax nodded. “They wouldn’t miss a chance to lie through powdered lips.”

  Vhalla snorted. “I think we should hit then.”

  “But who?”

  “Major Schnurr,” Vhalla replied without hesitation. She didn’t know if he was the highest mastermind, but he had created enough problems and given enough orders that Vhalla was forced to assume he was at least someone important.

  “Major Schnurr then,” Jax affirmed, a little too eager. “He lives on the far southern end of town.”

  Waiting stretched the next two days into eternity. In their limited conversations, Jax never asked about the leather holster always buttoned and strapped tight against her leg. Vhalla thought about telling him, but she didn’t want to make her friend any more nervous and lose his help. She was, however, careful not to touch or interact with him on a physical level more than necessary. Vhalla remembered Jax cautioning Aldrik once about touching her when she was under the influence of crystals. Her friend didn’t seem to mind the lack of contact.

  On the night of the event, the whole Crossroads glittered gleefully. Men and women paraded around in their best clothes, admiring and hoping to be admired. Though only the nobles were invited to the Imperial party at the royal hotel, it seemed everyone wanted to be involved in the revelries. From what Vhalla knew of the Crossroads, within an hour it would be nothing but drinking and dancing.

  An alcoholic haze suited her goals for the evening. She wanted people to have blurred senses and relaxed postures. Vhalla had dirtied her cloak to the point that the blood was no longer recognizable and the stench it held from that dirtying process prompted people to turn up their noses and walk away as quickly as possible. No one wanted to pay attention to her or her companion.

  “You smell like shit,” Jax mumbled.

  “I worked with what I had. And it’s working well.”

  “Yeah, you’re the Crossroads’ last candidate for a Lady of the Court right now,” Jax teased.

  Vhalla looked around nervously, but no one seemed to register his comment.

  They walked against the flow of people, as most were heading to the center of the Crossroads. Vhalla and Jax continued down the southern road to a large estate. Giant walls framed it in, a single iron portcullis its only entry. They made two laps before stopping on a side street.

  “Well, it appears no one is home,” Jax mused into the quiet. “Isn’t it nice he sent out his servants as well?”

  “He doesn’t seem like the nice sort . . .” Vhalla stared at the wall that was nearly twice her height. Was it too quiet? “We need to get over this.”

  Jax pressed his fingers against the tightly fitted stones. “Difficult to climb.”

  “You’re taller than me.” She turned and braced her back against the wall. Vhalla laced her fingers, ready for his heel. “I’ll help you up first.”

  “But then what’ll you do?”

  “Just trust me on this.” She needed his trust, because she wasn’t quite sure if she trusted herself.

  Jax put his foot in her hands. After a moment or two, they managed to lift him high enough that he could grip the top of the wall, pulling himself up the rest of the way. Stretched flat, he put his hand down to her.

  Vhalla clenched her fists. She may be able to jump to his hand, but what was the point of training for weeks with Gianna’s ladder if she didn’t try something a bit different? She was a Windwalker, after all.

  She raised a foot and felt the pocket of air appear underneath it, resisting her, holding her in place. She raised another foot to meet a higher pocket of air. Her toes wiggled as she stepped upward, uncertain atop the shifting currents. It was a trick to trust her magic over her instinct.

  In short order, Vhalla sat on the top of the wall next to Jax.

  “Why didn’t you do that for me?” he finally managed through surprise.

  “It’s hard for me to do to my own body. I wouldn’t trust myself with getting it quite right for someone else,” Vhalla explained. What if she used too much air and sent him flying backwards, head first into a wall? She could instinctually self-correct for herself, but not for another person.

  Jax accepted the information with a nod. Vhalla was relieved he didn’t press too much. She didn’t have all the answers; she was still making up her magic as she went. And they needed to be moving.

  They descended into a quiet corner of a rock garden that spiraled around the entire home. Vhalla blinked her eyes, activating her magical sight. She stretched her hearing along the wind.

  “There’s no one here,” she announced after a quick survey.

  Jax relaxed a bit. “Good, we should have time then.”

  They let themselves into the main building of the estate, the door now partly burnt from Jax’s gentle coaxing. Vhalla turned right for a study. She grabbed a canvas bag from a desk, dumping the writing supplies contained within and began to rummage through the books. Unsurprisingly, there was ample material on the Knights of Jadar; Vhalla intended to steal such books and learn everything she could before turning them in to Lord Ophain.

  When full, Vhalla began to wander into other rooms. Luxurious parlors were adorned with Western crimson and an emblazoned phoenix holding a sword. Vhalla grimaced at the sight.

  “Jax, was the man you killed a Knight of Jadar?” she asked as they headed upstairs.


  “No, just a famous lord . . . and a couple innocents,” he replied as though they were just talking about the weather. If one rehearsed talking about the weather.

  “Would I know of him?”

  “Do you want the answer to that?” Jax gave her a broad and toothy grin.

  Vhalla paused a moment and shook her head. “Not now.” It shouldn’t make her uncomfortable to think of Jax as a murderer. Those who survived the War in the North were all murderers and madmen. But it was a side of him she wasn’t sure if she wanted to see just yet. There was something different about this, but she had yet to put her finger on what it was.

  On the third floor was the room Vhalla had really sought all along: a trophy room. Her hand lingered on the hilt of the axe, as if the crystals could call out to one another. She walked through the shelves, running her fingers along glass boxes and placards.

  “I found it,” Vhalla breathed in despair. She’d wanted Lord Ophain to be right. She’d wanted her expedition into the heart of the Knights of Jadar to prove that the sword was safely hidden in the obscurity of time.

  “Found what?” Jax walked over, reading what was inscribed upon a plate affixed to the empty armor stand. “The Sword of Jadar.” He lurched away as though he’d been hit. “The Sword of Jadar? That’s what this is about? Vhalla, it’s a legend.”

  “It’s clearly not. And someone has it,” Vhalla insisted. “We need to find out who.”

  Jax gave her a skeptical look and opened his mouth to speak.

  The sound of the portcullis grinding open had them both sprinting to a window. Jax and Vhalla both spouted profanities. Major Schnurr and four Knights had returned far too early.

  “I’m sure they just forgot something,” Jax mumbled hopefully.

  Vhalla’s eyes went wide as she remembered the canvas bag she’d emptied and used to rummage through the study to the left in the entry. Perhaps the Knights would overlook the singed mark on the door and slightly melted metal in the darkness, but they wouldn’t be able to ignore signs of Vhalla raiding the bookshelves. “The books, downstairs.” She moved to go get them, but Jax pushed her back.

  “You stay. Hide. I’ll sort it so they don’t notice.”

  “But—”

  “Stay!” Jax scowled at her and sprinted down the stairs. Vhalla looked around the room for places to hide. Her fingers caressed the leather buckles on the axe. One by one, they came undone. Why did she have the axe if she wasn’t going to use it? Why carry it if she wasn’t going to carve the Knights into little nubs, useless for anything? Her fingertip touched the crystal and pure power shot up her arm.

  She heard steps coming up the stairs and turned, expecting to see Jax.

  Schnurr led two other men into the trophy room. The two men firmly held Jax’s arms. Their fingers pulsed purple and blue across Jax’s skin. His tongue had been turned into ice, spilling out of his open mouth. Her friend shivered and shook, every now and then a spark of fire would lick away at the ice forming around his hands and arms. It seemed all he could do was keep his blood from freezing.

  “Let him go,” Vhalla ordered quietly.

  “You’re not in a position to make demands.” Major Schnurr ran his hands along the trophy tables. “What did you come here looking for, Vhalla Yarl?”

  “Your knowledge and your life.” She fearlessly threw her threat at his feet.

  Major Schnurr didn’t even trip. “Did you want—this?” He dropped on the table the book he’d been holding. It was one Vhalla had decided would be useful when rummaging through his study. Schnurr deftly opened it to a page.

  Vhalla read the old Western tongue with ease. “The Sword of Jadar.” She raised her attention to the major. “Do you have it?”

  “The weapon was stolen from us and destroyed.” Major Schnurr snapped the book closed.

  “When?” Vhalla asked, not believing him for a moment.

  “About ten years ago,” the major replied. “Solaris’s minister began tampering with powers that he had no idea how to tame. Though I’m surprised your dear crown prince didn’t tell you of it,” Major Schnurr sneered.

  She faked anger at Schnurr’s verbal jab, but was really focused on Jax. How were they going to get out of here alive? Vhalla’s hand dropped to the last of the fasteners on her thigh.

  “I wonder if you’ll figure out—I don’t need the sword.” Vhalla drew the axe, and the whole room stopped in breathless wonder and horror. She saw the look on Jax’s face; it was pure fear and loathing. The Knights wore expressions of ominous glee.

  “You will let us go.” Vhalla held out the axe toward the major.

  “Vhalla, you are poor with your numbers.” The man chuckled. “You forgot our two Northern friends who escaped the Night of Fire and Wind. The same two that we decided to help smuggle West in order to try to bring you to us later.”

  Her arm trembled. The Knights were behind the Northerners who’d killed Larel at the Crossroads?

  “And you’ve forgotten again, or didn’t really look, I came with four men.”

  She turned to the Knights holding Jax. Jax’s eyes looked down the stairs.

  “There is no way out of this, Vhalla Yarl.” Major Schnurr took a bold step forward. “If you attack me, he dies. If you think you can save him by attacking the two holding him first, he dies from the archer and Waterrunner at the foot of the stairs.”

  The major rounded on her. Vhalla tried to put together an alternative solution. A different approach than what she was handed.

  “Or you kill us all, and accept his blood on your hands.”

  She stared at the axe. Kill them all. She could save Jax. She would kill them all. Vhalla looked up at her friend. She’d be gambling with his life, and the odds weren’t on her side.

  “Or—give yourself to us and save your palms from being washed in more blood. Let your friend live.”

  Vhalla looked down at the axe. It seemed to shine brighter, as if it knew it could soon gorge itself on life. Vhalla wanted to give in, to satiate its need—her need—its need.

  Then her eyes found Major Schnurr, in all his joyous triumph. If she gambled with Jax’s life, win or lose, she’d be no better than the men she loathed. She’d be trading in whatever scraps of humanity she still clung to.

  Jax scowled at her and shook his head, making muffled protest noises.

  With a soft sigh she closed her Channel and dropped the axe. Live or die, she’d do it with some shred of principles.

  Major Schnurr slammed his shoulder into her back, knocking her forward. Vhalla caught the table to try to right herself, and he quickly grabbed her wrists. Vhalla felt the sickening, unnatural cool of shackles, and she was forced to watch as they were clamped once more on her. The shackles buzzed quietly, the crystals activating, blocking her Channel and even the faintest possibility of a magical resistance. Of course they still had crystal cuffs in their trophy room.

  Fire rode on a scream up Jax’s throat, hissing through the ice. Vhalla couldn’t stop herself from trying to reach him, but Major Schnurr kicked her down, placing his boot atop her temple and causing her to see stars.

  “He’s a liability and a smear on Western nobility,” Major Schnurr mused. “Kill him.”

  “You said you’d let him live!” Vhalla cried. But her words were lost as a Knight buried an ice dagger to the hilt between Jax’s ribs. The Westerner wheezed and coughed up blood as he slumped.

  “You think . . . that’ll stop me?” Jax laughed and lunged, his side already soaked to his waist with blood.

  “Jax, stop!” Vhalla screamed. She didn’t want this. She didn’t want to watch another one of her friends die.

  A second ice dagger pierced his back. Jax was thrown to the floor and didn’t get up. He wheezed and stared at her with dulling eyes.

  “You said you’d let him live!” she raged at Schnurr. “You said you’d let him go!”

  “No, I said I’d let him live, never that I’d let him go. And I never said how long I’d let
him live, either.” The major laughed. “Leave him. We have the Windwalker and the last crystal weapon. We set out for the caverns tonight.”

  Vhalla struggled and fought; she bit and scratched and kicked. She was helpless without her magic, the Bond, and the axe. But she still struggled against her fate. Finally frustrated, the pommel of a Knight’s sword met the side of her head, and Vhalla went limp between the men holding her.

  She’d tried to stop the Knights, but she’d failed. She’d tried to save Jax, but he’d died. She’d tried to make a deal with devils, but she’d forgot that devils lie.

  VHALLA OPENED HER eyes and heaved up the sparse contents of her stomach.

  The light speared searing, blinding pain into her brain, which sent her body into rebellion. The second time she heaved was the moment she tried to move. Now, sitting in her own sick, Vhalla struggled to blink away the blazing sun. Blood coated the side of her face. Her whole body felt like it’d been carved from lead. Her mind struggled to churn, but it only made the ripples of nausea turn into waves.

  “She’s awake,” a man called.

  Vhalla stopped moving to spare her energy, convincing her eyes to focus. She was rewarded with marginal success as a hazy blob transformed into a Western man. The swaying of the animal she’d been tied to, however, reduced him once more to a sickening blur.

  Her throat was dry. Her lips were cracked. Her wrists were heavy. She felt ropes around her waist and shoulders, tying her upright to a saddle. Vhalla tried to flex her fingers, the sunburn agonizing. Easterners had a tendency to tan before burning, so if she was reddened, she must’ve been exposed to the harsh Western sun for some time.

  A horse rode up beside her, and Vhalla felt tugs on the ropes that bound her. She struggled to piece together what was happening, her circumstances coming back in a hazy blur. Another Western man came into focus beside her as panic slowly bubbled up within her.

  He noticed her attention and patted her head. “Good morning, oh great lady.”

  Vhalla went to swat away his hand only to find her wrists tethered together. She looked down and felt sick all over again. But it wasn’t the same nausea as before. It was a cold and crawling dread that felt like glass against her bones, which made her skin prickle and her shoulders quake.

 
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