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Waters wrath air awakens.., p.9
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       Water's Wrath (Air Awakens Series Book 4), p.9

           Elise Kova
 

  With a deep breath, she opened the door and was hit with an unexpected wave of nostalgia. This had not been her home for long. She’d only slept in the bed for a few nights between her trial and departing for war. But it was her home now. It had been the place she had dreamed of returning to with Larel and Fritz. She’d been the library apprentice everyone expected—and hoped—would die. Now she was the Windwalker, a lady and hero, and this was her home.

  Vhalla ran her fingers reverently over the small table, the bed, and stopped at the wardrobe. Opening the doors, Vhalla stared at the contents for a long moment before promptly closing it. Her clothes were folded and hung on pegs, exactly the same as Larel had left it.

  Closing her eyes, Vhalla pressed her forehead against the shut doors, as if she was locking a specter of the other woman in the wardrobe. As if she could protect herself from it entering her heart once more and consuming her soul. Then again, Larel had given her Serien, and Serien had become part of the woman Vhalla had grown into. She opened the doors again.

  Vhalla knelt and carefully plucked a silver bracelet from atop a stack of carefully organized notes. If she were a Firebearer, she would have burnt them. But Vhalla resigned herself to living a little longer with the notes that Aldrik had exchanged with her a lifetime ago. She ignored any whisper in her heart that her reason for keeping them had little to do with whether or not she could start a fire.

  She decided to proceed directly to Victor’s office. Despite all the grime that coated her, Vhalla didn’t want to wait a moment longer to deliver the axe to the minister. The conversation with Egmun was still fresh, and she had some questions for the current Minister of Sorcery.

  The minister’s quarters were higher than hers, and there was almost nothing close to it, save for one more door that was completely unmarked. If Victor’s office had been farther down the Tower, Vhalla might have missed the heated conversation under the noise of sorcerer apprentices coming and going about their daily duties. But this high up, the halls were empty and silent. Vhalla clenched her fists, heightening her hearing by opening her magic and inviting the air into her.

  “. . . she is too bold, Victor.” The Emperor’s voice.

  Vhalla looked around frantically. Swallowing the knowledge of whose chambers she was about to hide near, she sprinted up to the shallow alcove, pressing herself against the unmarked door at the top of the Tower. It would’ve been too far for anyone else to hear, but the silence and still air allowed her to magically stretch out her hearing, and she heard as clearly as if she was standing with her ear pressed against the door.

  “. . . bother you. She was only saving her skin from Egmun.”

  “Yes, Egmun has given me counsel on what he thinks we should do with her.” Footsteps stilled and Vhalla could only assume the Emperor had been pacing. “You think she can be controlled?”

  “I told you as much when you last returned from the war. Aldrik has command over the girl, you have command over him; she is yours,” Victor said easily, setting Vhalla’s heart to racing.

  “I sought an end to that. He was actually involved with the creature,” the Emperor spat.

  “You knew that was a risk, my lord, given Aldrik’s history with the women he chooses.”

  The axe seemed to pulse with a nervous energy that matched her heartbeat. Vhalla clutched the worn saddlebag tighter.

  “My son does not always make the best choices; he has his mother’s heart. It troubles me deeply, as I shall leave this continent to him so that I may continue my expansion,” the Emperor muttered. “Though, since removing the distraction from his attentions, he has improved significantly, putting our Empire before himself. He may just have hope as a ruler yet.”

  “The Crescent Continent? Such is still your plan?” Victor asked, somewhat cautiously.

  “As long as you are confident we have the girl,” the Emperor retorted.

  What? Vhalla was screaming the word in her mind. She didn’t understand. No, she understood it perfectly. She just didn’t want to.

  “You want me to guarantee her cooperation?” Victor seemed surprised.

  “It hardly matters if it is willingly or not, as long as she plays the role I have scripted for her. It has taken long enough to find a Windwalker, and the axe is the last of the Goddess’s weapons. It must be her, or I cannot turn my campaign across the sea while my army is primed. Without the power in the caverns, we do not stand a chance against their magic.”

  “Did you manage to get the axe?” Victor’s voice held a tension to it that wasn’t there before.

  “Not yet,” the Emperor seethed. “The Northerners think they will be able to keep it from me. But I will have it, even if I have to squeeze its location out of their princess myself.”

  Her nails dug into the saddlebag. Blood, the man wanted blood and more blood. He wanted to feast upon it until he was bloated. Vhalla stared at the flap of the bag. If she killed the Emperor now, she would be put to death. But would it be worth it?

  Vhalla never thought that out of everything the Head of Senate had said to her, that his final question would linger—but now she found herself weighing the life she’d fought so hard for against allowing a murderous madman to travel to new places and bring war in his wake.

  “I see. Well, you must keep me informed as to your successes, my lord,” Victor hummed.

  “I must?” The room seemed to still.

  “A figure of speech,” Victor spoke cautiously. “You know I am nothing but your humble servant. Though I do hope you continue to include me in your plans so that I may advise you to the best of my abilities.”

  “I hope so, Victor.” The Emperor’s voice could turn water to ice. “Because I had one errant Minister of Sorcery, and I do not care what you know or can do, I will not tolerate a second.”

  “You have nothing to fear, my lord.”

  The door swung open, propped by Victor, for the Emperor to stride out from the room. She had thought he would head down the Tower, but she had guessed wrong. As his footsteps neared, her heart raced and Vhalla pressed deeper into the door behind her.

  A cold dread swept over her, and Vhalla held her breath, wishing she could be invisible and thinking of every frantic excuse. The Emperor passed by, so quickly he blurred before her eyes and didn’t even glance in her direction. Vhalla blinked, her fingers nearly trembling with nerves, as the Emperor’s footsteps faded away and disappeared.

  Closing her eyes, she breathed a sigh of relief, only to open them and discover herself face to face with the Minister of Sorcery. Victor stared her down with his cerulean eyes, and Vhalla scowled up at him. How could she have thought he was on her side?

  She pushed herself away from the door, to be caught by icy-cold fingers and wrenched back by force. Vhalla raised a hand, prepared to attack.

  “I think we have much to discuss.” Victor leveled his eyes with hers, stilling her immediate aggression with a look.

  “I have nothing to discuss with you.” Vhalla narrowed her eyes at him.

  “You must let me explain.”

  “I mustn’t do anything you say, traitor!” she seethed. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he was her enemy, too. They all were her enemies. Vhalla clenched the saddlebag tighter.

  “You heard.” Victor looked utterly deflated. He took a deep breath, still holding her in place. “I remember, I remember you don’t do well with force.” The minister slowly relinquished his grip on her. “So let me bargain with you.”

  “What could you possibly want to bargain?” He had nothing he could offer.

  “Here’s my deal.” The minister glanced down the hall nervously. “Give me a chance to explain, to tell you everything I know and show that I am not your enemy. If I succeed, your trust is my prize. Should I fail, then you should go and hide that bag and tell no one what I suspect are its contents. And I promise to never ask on it or tell a soul.”

  “Like I would ever trust you,” she spat, pushing away from the wall and starting down the h
all.

  “Why do you think I used illusion to make you invisible?”

  Vhalla stopped, turning to face him.

  “If I wished you ill, don’t you think I would’ve let the Emperor see you? That alcove isn’t small enough to hide you. I saw your robes from my door; he would’ve seen you without trouble were it not for me.”

  She swallowed, trying to counter the logic. “Fine, you have your deal.”

  Vhalla threw open the door to his office, stomping in without permission. By the time the minister closed it behind him, she’d stormed over to the window, gripping the sill with a hand. He stood silently, letting her work though the words.

  “You had me bring it here for him?”

  “Not for him,” Victor denied.

  “No, I heard you, you—you had me find it so he could turn his bloodlust on a whole new continent? A whole new people?” She whirled in place. “What does he want?”

  Victor shrugged. “What does any man want when they have tasted power? To rule the world.”

  “And he wants me to help him do it,” Vhalla filled in the blank.

  “He does.”

  “He wants me to open the power of the Crystal Caverns. He wants me to use this.” Vhalla held out the bag. “He wants to make monsters and perform feats of magic men should never perform.”

  “He does.” Victor’s cool responses were working her to a fever pitch.

  “And you, you bend to his will. You’re going to hand me over to do it for him. To be his thing, his tool, his wretch of death!” she shrieked.

  Victor crossed the room and placed an arm around her shoulders, leading her to one of the two chairs that sat opposite his desk. His touch cooled some of the heat in her veins, and she sank into one the chair.

  “I wouldn’t.” His palms rested on her shoulders a brief moment before Victor rounded the chair to lean against the desk in front of her, arms folded. “I wouldn’t give you to him.”

  “You’re his loyal servant,” she snapped. “You’re just like him, like all of them, looking for power, looking to use me—”

  “I am not like him!” Victor slammed his open palm on the desk and leaned forward. “I have watched that man use sorcerers as tools. I have seen him degrade our people for the power that flows through them. I have endured him taking my students and teachers to be nothing more than cutthroats! I have watched him take a library girl and turn her into a “wretch of death” for no other reason than it suited him best.”

  For being a Waterrunner, fire was alive in Victor’s usually icy eyes.

  “I have balanced protecting my Tower, my sorcerer kin, against his aims and not lost my head in the process. For if I die, there would be no shield for people like us.” Victor sighed, his shoulders slumping.

  The minister knelt before her and rested a palm on her knee. She stiffened at the contact; it was part fatherly and part not—combined, it felt entirely wrong. “My dear girl, do you really think I’d let him have you again?”

  “So what do you want?” Vhalla asked finally. “What are you risking everything for?”

  “I want to protect people like us.” Victor met her eyes. “I want to fight for a world where sorcerers aren’t feared, but revered by Commons for our powers. Where no one would think to use us. Where a sorcerer would never have to hide.”

  Vhalla searched his face for a trace of insincerity. Finding none, she asked, “What do you want with the axe?”

  “I want to return it to the caverns and see that no one will be able to think of using it again.” Victor’s face was overcome by an intense severity. “Do you trust me on this?”

  She ran her fingers over the saddlebag, searching for the buckle on the front, searching her heart for the answer. Did she trust him? If anything, out of everyone, Victor was the one person who’d only helped her at every turn. He healed her after her fall. He stood up for her in her trial. He trusted her with knowledge of the axe, with the task of bringing it to him safely and keeping it from the Emperor or the Knights of Jadar.

  Vhalla unlatched the saddlebag as her answer. Victor stared intently as Vhalla produced the legendary crystal axe, Achel.

  “ACHEL,” VICTOR BREATHED. “It’s here.”

  Vhalla studied the minister’s face as the soft and unnatural glow of the crystal lit his brow. The man shifted his eyes to catch hers, and Vhalla did nothing to hide her study of his person. Victor’s lips curled into a conspiratorial smile.

  “I want to know about the caverns.” Her research had only yielded splotchy patches of color. She wanted to paint the picture. She wanted to finally see what everyone else had been looking at all along.

  “I bet you do.” Victor peeled himself away from her. He felt twice as tall, suddenly, as he loomed over her. “But first I need to know, what do you want?”

  “What do I want?” she repeated, cautiously.

  “I told you my dream. I told you the world I’m prepared to fight for. What do you want?”

  Rather than speaking the first thing that came into her mind, Vhalla remained silent, introspective. She mulled over the question, letting it settle across her mind and stretch into the cracks where she’d pushed her hopes and dreams into—things that had been too dangerous for her to engage in while she had been property of the Empire.

  “I want . . . I want a future again. I want peace. I want freedom. I want to be free of people trying to use me for my magic.”

  “So we want the same thing.” Victor beamed. “I’m relieved to know we’re aligned in this.”

  “What are we aligned in, exactly?” Vhalla settled back in her chair, watching as Victor rounded his desk to a workbench in the far corner.

  “The world we want to strive for—a world where sorcerers aren’t used as tools, a time and place where we are revered and left to our own, rightful sovereignty.” Victor paused his motions. “Tea?”

  “Sure,” Vhalla agreed cautiously. “How do you think we can get to your future? And what part does the axe play in it?”

  “We will use it to make sure no one will be able to access the Crystal Caverns ever again.” Victor placed a steaming cup of tea on the desk before her.

  “How?” Vhalla took the item in question from the saddlebag, placing it on the desk next to the steaming tea she sipped gingerly.

  “How much do you already know about the Crystal Caverns?” Victor sat.

  “Not nearly enough. The literature is disappointingly sparse.” Vhalla pondered all the books she’d managed to read about the caverns while working at Gianna’s. “I know the Knights of Jadar needed the axe—or, at least, they thought they did—to tap into the power of the caverns. I know they needed the axe even more than a Windwalker . . .” A thought suddenly hit her. “Wait, Victor. Am I truly the first Windwalker?”

  The minister set his own cup of tea down thoughtfully. “The first to be known again. The first to return to the world as far as the general populous is concerned.”

  “But, not the first?”

  Victor shook his head, and Vhalla stared, baffled. She’d been revered, hated, desired, for being the first Windwalker. But there were more? She spoke as if Victor could read her suddenly tumultuous thoughts, “Why me?”

  “Because you were in the right place at the right time.” Victor frowned slightly. “Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it.”

  “The East outlawed all magic following the Burning Times to avoid another genocide. It pushed the Windwalkers into hiding.” Victor stood and ran his fingers along the spines of books lined up on a shelf behind his desk. “You see, there were never that many Windwalkers to begin with, not when compared to the other affinities. That just seems to be nature. But Windwalkers disappearing? That was the greatest act of self-preservation the world has ever known.”

  Victor placed a thin ledger on the desk between them. There were only a few pieces of parchment inside, some names and dates scribbled on a few lines. Victor flipped through them, the dates increasing un
til they stopped at the most recent date—and her name.

  “It’s a record of Windwalkers,” she said softly.

  “An incomplete one, for sure.” He sat down once more.

  “You told me I was the first . . .” Vhalla honestly felt relieved to know she wasn’t. Maybe she could return East and find others like her.

  “Everyone who wasn’t actively hunting Windwalkers would believe such. Aldrik believed it, and I saw no reason to correct him or tell you differently.” Victor pressed his fingertips together thoughtfully. “Whatever happened with you, I felt my actions would continue to protect your kin by not sending the world into another Windwalker-hunt.”

  “He doesn’t know this exists?” Vhalla gaped at the notion of coming across some knowledge the prince didn’t already possess.

  “No, there are only three people who know this exists.” Victor counted on his fingers. “Myself, the Emperor, and Egmun.”

  “Egmun,” she seethed instantly. “Why isn’t he the Minister of Sorcery any longer?”

  “There was an accident.” Victor scowled. “The man was mad, insatiable for knowledge, and lusted for something beyond his reach.”

  “You mean crystals.” It always came back to crystals. It seemed the world’s every orchestration had the same, underlying harmony. Notes that one’s ears had to be trained to pick up, but once one heard them, it was a cacophony of sound that drummed to a singular beat, pulsing the world forward.

  “Yes. The Emperor wanted the power in the Crystal Caverns and set Egmun to free it.”

  Vhalla stilled, a memory flashing across her mind. She spoke without thinking, “You and Aldrik, he worked with you and Aldrik and crystals.”

  The minister’s gaze suddenly went stony and guarded. His hands settled on the desk as he leaned forward slowly. Vhalla wasn’t about to allow herself to be intimidated, but the minister was doing his best to make a case for it.

  “Tell me what you know about that?” Vhalla could hear the whisper of a threat hovering under his words. She didn’t have a good answer, and the minister continued in her silence. “The rumors are true then.”

 
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