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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.6
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.6

           Elise Kova
 

  Locked firmly around her wrists was a familiar pair of shackles. Shimmering unnaturally around their circumference were crystals. They pulsed with magic-blocking power. She remembered them being snapped over her wrists by Schnurr.

  “For our safety.” The man tapped on her shackles. “We can’t have—”

  Vhalla shrieked in anger and swung her whole body. She brought the irons—hard—into the side of the man’s face. The ropes binding her bit into her skin and drew blood at the motion, but Vhalla ignored it. Raw instinct took over, and she swung again with murderous intent before the man could completely recover—his nose shattered.

  “Get it under control!” a voice demanded.

  Another horse rode up beside her. Vhalla snarled like an animal, barring her teeth dangerously, ready to fight for her life. This man, well-armored and clearly well-trained, didn’t hesitate to go right for his sword.

  “I’ve seen you fight.” She stilled as he held his sword at her throat. “You may be made of wind, but steel will cut you.”

  Vhalla panted, straining against the ropes. She clenched and unclenched her fists over and over, trying to summon magic that wouldn’t come. The shackles seemed to glow brighter, fighting against her magical struggle.

  “We won’t kill you, yet, but we can make you hurt a lot more than you currently do.” He waited until she eased away, panting in the saddle. “Good girl.”

  “Where are we headed?” she demanded.

  The man glanced forward, and Vhalla followed his stare. At the head of the small caravan was a bushy-mustached man. Major Schnurr.

  “You may tell her,” Schnurr called. “It will change little now.”

  “We are going to use you as the tool you were born to be.”

  Vhalla attempted a bold laugh to sell her lie. She’d known what they sought for weeks, more or less. “You all are larger fools than I thought. I can’t manage crystals any better than any other sorcerer.”

  The Knight actually seemed doubtful for a moment.

  “Don’t listen to her.” The man immediately in front of her shook his head. “All Windwalkers are the same; not one was ever found who couldn’t manage the crystals.”

  “I can’t,” Vhalla insisted. “I can’t, and you are all going to face Imperial judgment for this as I am a Lady of the Court. High crimes for no returns!”

  The two men exchanged a look.

  “Ignore the Wind Demon’s lies,” Major Schnurr scolded. “She’d say anything to save her skin, and the Empire hunts her presently for justice, not us. We’d be heroes for turning her in.”

  “But, sir—”

  “If she can’t manage crystals, her skin would’ve already begun to turn to leather and her eyes red with taint from carrying the axe as long as she has.” The major patted his saddlebag and returned his attention forward, talking with another man. There were six Knights in all. Two in the front, the two talking to Vhalla, and two behind, one of whom was nursing his wounded face.

  “Are you mad?” she screamed. The desert was vast and empty. She saw nothing but sand for miles. She didn’t even know how they were making headway. Roads were nowhere to be seen. But if someone was close by, she’d cry loud enough that they would certainly hear. “The Crystal Caverns have only ever spelled disaster!”

  “Our forefathers were close to unlocking their secrets,” the man beside her proclaimed arrogantly.

  “They would have unleashed a new reign with the Sword of Jadar, were it not for the Ci’Dan bitch,” the other snarled.

  Ci’Dan bitch?

  “This is insanity. What do you hope to accomplish?” Vhalla cried to the major. “The last time people went to the caverns they unleashed the taint that started a war!”

  “Do not lump us in with Southern fools.” Major Schnurr had finally decided she was worth his attention. “We have centuries of studying your kind.” He chuckled. “A war is just what we want to start, and the Emperor was so ready to be rid of you he delivered you right into our hands.”

  The ropes dug into Vhalla’s shoulders as she strained against them.

  “Solaris is getting old, losing his edge. Who would have thought he would get so worked up over the son of the Ci’Dan whore finally finding something to squeeze beneath the sheets,” one of the men near her sneered.

  “The time to strike is near,” another Knight agreed.

  Vhalla stared at nothing, trying to process an escape, a solution, something. She’d tried to stop the Knights and only gave them what they wanted. She’d led Jax to his death in the process. The horse swayed and it caused the ropes to dig further into her slumped shoulders. They rode the entire day and into the first part of the night before stopping. Vhalla spent it in silence, keeping company with the shade of her friend.

  As the other men dismounted, Vhalla was left strapped in place. They sparked a campfire—at least one of them was a Firebearer—and broke out rations, laughing and joking as though she wasn’t there, as though they weren’t on a fool’s mission.

  Eventually, Major Schnurr stood and strolled over to her. He wet a cloth and held it up for her to suck upon. Vhalla scowled at the demeaning suggestion.

  “It’s this or we tie you down and pour water over your mouth and nose until you have no choice but to drink.” His tone implied he didn’t much care either way.

  She scowled. “That sounds like a waste out here in the desert.”

  “We’ll reach the Southern forest by tomorrow night, the day after, maybe. We have supplies and Waterrunners.” The major shrugged. “We can’t have you dying on us.”

  Vhalla stared at the dirty cloth another moment. Her throat practically screamed for the moisture that darkened it. But the last thing she wanted to do was give the Knights the satisfaction of lowering her further. The major waited just long enough, as if he could sense her breaking point nearing. Vhalla took the cloth from him, awkwardly with her shackles, and tried not to seem desperate as she sucked the sour liquid from it.

  “You have been a hard one to catch, surprisingly so for a once-library girl.” The major placed his hands on his hips as though appraising a prize buck that he had shot down. “Our comrades in the Senate tried to snag you right off, but the Emperor was too fascinated by your power.”

  Vhalla hadn’t even known who the Knights of Jadar were at the time. It had gone overlooked for months. But she suddenly remembered the senator who had demanded she be given to the Knights because they would “know what to do with her” on the day of her trial.

  “Then we thought the march would be the moment for us to ensnare you; after all, you came right through the Crossroads. We worked carefully with the North after the Night of Fire and Wind to hide our movements. It was easier to let them create chaos, to let them capture you and throw Solaris and Ci’Dan off our trail. But they didn’t seem to quite grasp the idea of needing you alive.” Vhalla shifted the rag in her mouth, letting Schnurr ramble on his self-serving tale. “The two at the Crossroads quite missed the mark.”

  Vhalla stilled. It was the second time the major had mentioned the Northerners who had attacked her the last time she was at the Crossroads. The night Larel Neiress had died was burned upon Vhalla’s heart.

  “We couldn’t make a move ourselves, not then. The Knights haven’t survived centuries by being reckless. But the Crossroads served us well enough when it became clear that we needed to remove the son of the Ci’Dan slut to get to you.” He sighed dramatically. “And the North couldn’t do that right either, even when we fed misinformation to lead the army right into their attack at the Pass.”

  Larel, then Aldrik in the Pass.

  “We were at a loss when you arrived in the North. I never even contemplated the Emperor would be the one to push you away after he had you in his hands. Then again, I’ve never seen the whore’s son so taken with anyone. Power, or the loss of it, makes men quite illogical.”

  “You’re one to talk.” Vhalla spit out the rag, letting it fall to the sand below the mount. “You
were going to kill me for power, for the Emperor’s favor.”

  “I would’ve made quite the show of seeming to do so.” The major stroked his mustache with a wicked smile. “It’s a special skill to carve a human carefully enough that nothing vital is damaged beyond repair while still having them appear to be quite deceased. It would’ve been my honor to see your corpse carried away only to have my men put you back together.”

  “You’re disgusting,” Vhalla muttered caustically.

  “You don’t get to say that.” The man’s eyes gleamed with dark pride. “You’re less than human. You’re nothing more than a tool. And it’s been a frustrating century and a half trying to hunt you down in the East.”

  “Hunt me down?”

  “The East has become quite good at hiding creatures like you; they don’t even speak of magic any longer. It’s been nearly twenty-six years since we got our hands on the last one. But we won’t mess up this time.” The major ran his hand up her thigh. “Not with you.”

  Vhalla shivered as he left her, despite the residual heat of the desert still hanging in the air. She’d been hunting for connections, to see the bigger picture between seemingly unrelated events. But was she ready to see what was bubbling to the forefront of her mind as truth?

  Why was everyone so ready to believe that no Windwalkers were being born when it made so much more sense that the East had simply perfected the art of hiding them? The laws following the Burning Times, the outlawing of all magic, the urge to forget, it was all to hide people like her.

  She stilled, and the pain of her bindings was ignored for the briefest of moments. Vhalla suddenly had a thousand questions she wanted to ask her own father. How determined he was to go fight in the War of the Crystal Caverns, how outspoken he had been about sorcerers tampering with the crystals.

  Vhalla remembered her mother instilling a fear of magic in Vhalla from a young age. A distaste for it that ran so deep Vhalla had never questioned or thought twice about it. She remembered the first time she’d fallen off the roof after climbing up fearlessly, unharmed. The argument of her parents she had overheard. She had never thought of it before, it seemed so normal. Her parents had been afraid for her wellbeing. They believed in fearing magic like the rest of the East; they’d never think their daughter was a sorcerer.

  The shackles around her wrists suddenly felt heavy, and Vhalla blinked at them bleary eyed. What if it hadn’t been as normal as she thought? What if she had been hidden?

  The thought echoed in her mind through the long ride the next day, sobering her to a withdrawn silence. The Knights made jokes about clipping the Windwalkers wings and how easy she’d been to break. Schnurr made it a ritual to impart knowledge of the twisted practices of the Knights of Jadar. He told her of the experiments conducted on Windwalkers with such detail that it soured her stomach and stilled its growling.

  They never untied her from the saddle, never removed her cuffs. Someone could cut off her feet and Vhalla doubted she’d be able to tell. Her lower body had gone numb from the ropes long ago.

  The Knights had the arrogance to think they were breaking her, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Every waking hour, she plotted. She wiggled, tugged, and worked at her ropes. She watched as Schnurr checked his saddlebag every morning and night, leaving Vhalla no need to guess where the axe and key to her shackles were hidden. If she could remove her shackles, she would have her wind and her Bond with Aldrik—she could make them suffer.

  But how to get the key?

  Vhalla settled on biding her time. The only plan she could think of was trying to launch an attack during one of his brags—if she could get her ropes loose enough. But she suspected he kept the key in the same saddlebag as the axe, and he never let it go far from his side.

  The smell of the Southern forest nearly overwhelmed her with nostalgia when they’d crossed into it from the Western Waste. They made headway into the mountains without roads and pushed onward and upward until dusk began to settle. The nights were already cooling, and it made a stark contrast with the heat of the desert.

  A year had passed, Vhalla realized with the changing seasons, since she had met Aldrik and everything began. A year that felt like a lifetime.

  “We’ll stay there tonight.” Major Schnurr pointed to a windmill fashioned of stone and wood.

  It sat high on the edge of a small town. She suspected the cluster of homes to be the town of Mosant or one of its outskirts. If Vhalla and her captors had progressed as the crow flew from the Crossroads straight for the Crystal Caverns, it would put them right in Mosant’s path.

  A generally noteworthy town, Vhalla stared at the houses down the mountainside from the windmill as they made their way toward it. If she screamed, would her voice carry far enough? Could she slip away in the night? Even if she could slip away, it didn’t solve the issue of the cuffs. Vhalla had a suspicion that a blacksmith couldn’t just break off magically enhanced shackles. If she drew attention to herself, the Knights would certainly overwhelm any villagers who came looking, forcing them to flee before more could follow.

  That much was proven true as they arrived at the windmill. A tired-looking village woman came out to greet them, and Schnurr wasted no time putting his sword through her eye. Vhalla stared at the gaping hole the blade left behind in the woman’s face as the Knights untied their prisoner. War had taken its toll, and she was beginning to struggle to feel anything toward the death of innocents.

  The windmill had one entrance up a short flight of stairs, a place horses couldn’t go. Schnurr decreed that she was too valuable to leave outside, so Vhalla was finally untied and carried inside. She tried to find her legs, to stand on her own, but after nearly a week of being stuck in a saddle, they were useless from stiffness and sores.

  They threw her unceremoniously atop bags of grain. The dust sent her dry throat into a coughing fit. But when she could breathe again, Vhalla took solace in the smell of the wheat. It reminded her of home in the fall, when the barn was full; it gave her some measure of comfort in spite of her newly conflicting feelings about her upbringing.

  She waited in silence as the men settled. They relaxed, talking and laughing. Schnurr had forbidden a fire given the dry contents of the windmill, and Vhalla knew that meant they would not stay up late and instead tuck underneath blankets to fight off the mountain chill.

  Vhalla lay unmoving as the last of them began to settle. She counted to a thousand and listened for any indication that any were still awake before sliding off her sacks of grain. Vhalla kept her wrists close so that the shackles wouldn’t clank together.

  She crept through the dim moonlight, holding her breath. She’d get one chance. Schnurr had made it quite clear that while he wouldn’t kill her, he could do a laundry list of other horrible things that would make her wish she was dead. If this attempt failed, Vhalla had no doubt he would be starting at the top of that list.

  Vhalla stood over the sleeping man, debating if she should try for the saddlebag he clutched in his sleep—for the key she knew would be in there alongside the axe, or if she should take his sword and slit his throat first. Vhalla glanced at his weapon. Drawing it was likely to make enough sound that someone would wake. She crouched down and reached out slowly.

  The man shifted and Vhalla stiffened, but he didn’t waken. Her fingers wormed their way through the flap of the saddlebag, feeling within. The crystals on the shackles almost burned her skin as her fingers brushed against the axe, and Vhalla winced. It was as if they waged a magical war with each other and her flesh was caught in-between.

  Reaching forward, Vhalla continued her slow rummage. She was about to give up when she touched something iron and distinctly key-like. Her breath wavered with the rush of anticipation of removing the cuffs. Like a viper, fingers closed suddenly around her elbow, tight enough to pop bones, and Vhalla met Schnurr’s wide eyes.

  “You are a bold little cur,” he growled.

  Vhalla gripped the key and tugged herself free. S
chnurr was moving as well, and Vhalla fumbled with her hoped-for salvation, but she couldn’t quite get the right angle of the key and lock while shackled. He lunged for her—sending the saddlebag sliding across the room—and their tumbling woke the other Knights.

  Schnurr grabbed for his sword and Vhalla tried to wrestle it from his hands. She leaned forward, biting one of his wrists hard enough that blood exploded into her mouth. Cursing, Schnurr instinctively pulled away, and Vhalla won the weapon.

  Still sheathed, she drew it back and twisted her body—just as Daniel had once shown her—to put all her momentum in the thrust. The tip of the scabbard sunk into Schnurr’s neck and Vhalla watched his eyes bulge as he gasped for air. It was blunted, but the force crushed his windpipe.

  The other Knights were nearly upon her. Vhalla looked around desperately, trying to reason if it made more sense to try to fight them off or spend the seconds she had left trying to get the shackles unlocked. She dropped the sword and scrambled for the key.

  “Wind scum!” one of the Knights shouted as he kicked her, the heel of his boot digging into her shoulder.

  Vhalla was sent rolling, but she clutched the key so tightly her nails left bloody arcs in her hand. She was back to trying to unlock the shackles. Her magic would mean her freedom, her longevity. The axe was already in the hand of one of her assailants.

  “We should just kill you,” one snarled as he looked at the corpse of the bushy-mustached major.

  “Kill her! Take the axe,” another said, brandishing the weapon. “We can find another Windwalker in time. We have the axe and that is more important.”

  Vhalla watched the man as he spoke, twisting her hands against the cuffs.

  “We stick to the plan and head to the caverns.”

  “Why?” Mutiny rumbled between the now leaderless Knights. “I say we kill her.”

  A Knight grabbed for her and Vhalla plunged her heel into his groin. The man instantly let go, a string of foul language spilling from his lips. She spun face-to-face with the man wielding the axe.

 
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