Earth's End (Air Awakens, #3)

Earth's End (Air Awakens, #3)

Elise Kova



VHALLA WAS FALLING.

The wind roared past her ears as she dove headfirst into the greatest ravine in the world. Her magic sparked and sputtered as she tried to push herself closer to the man tumbling through the air below.

She extended her arm to the point of pain and her eyes met his. She would make it. She would reach him—she had to. Her dark-haired prince stared up at her in world-shattering panic, uttering her name like a prayer on the wind.

When Vhalla’s blood-coated fingers grabbed the open air, barely missing his, she screamed in anguish, trying to extend her arm for one more futile attempt at catching him—as his body violently met the rocks below.

Vhalla lunged forward, throwing off the covers piled on top of her. Her hand stretched out before her, empty. A cold sweat rolled down her brow, and her head reeled with dizziness. Two hands clasped her palm, and Vhalla followed the Southern pale skin up to a pair of cerulean eyes.

“Fritz?” Vhalla breathed in confusion.

“Vhal, thank the Mother!” Fritz released her hand to throw his arms around her shoulders.

Vhalla tried to clear her hazy mind and force it to work once more. She was in a field tent, light filtering through layers of branches and moss piled atop the canvas. Vhalla rubbed her head, feeling bandages wrapped tightly around it.

Bandages ... Blood ... A broken man in black armor in a pool of his own blood.

“Aldrik?” She turned to Fritz with purpose.

The Southerner jumped at her sudden intensity. “Vhal ... You ... Elecia will need to check you now that you’re up.” Fritz would not meet her eyes.

“Aldrik?” Vhalla repeated, her voice shrill.

“I can go get her. You’ve been asleep almost two days now and—”

Vhalla lunged for her blubbering friend, grabbing his shirt just above his chainmail. She wrenched him forward with it, twisting her fingers in the fabric. Fritz had a mix of sorrow and fear she’d never seen on his face before. Vhalla’s heart couldn’t decide between hurtful beats or stopping completely.

“Where is Aldrik?” Her hands shook with the force of holding the Southern man—shook with terror.

“Vhal, the prince, the fall, he ...” Fritz’s eyes told her everything.

“No ...” Vhalla hung her head as shock set in. She hadn’t been fast enough. She hadn’t been fast enough, and now Aldrik was—

“He’s alive.” Fritz placed his palms on her arms gently, and Vhalla was grateful because she needed the support.

Her trembling fingers ran over Fritz’s cheeks as though to erase the truth his lips had just imparted. Vhalla’s joy was stinted by the worry that clouded her friend’s eyes. “What?” she croaked. “What is it?”

“He’s not good.” Fritz shook his head slowly.

“Where is he?” Vhalla demanded.

“Vhal, you can’t.” Fritz gripped her shoulders tighter.

“Where is he?” She couldn’t breathe. There was suddenly no air, and she was going to suffocate if she didn’t find her way to his side. “I must see him.”

“You can’t—”

Vhalla wouldn’t hear another refusal. She was on her feet and out of the tent before Fritz could finish. Her whole body ached, and the quick movements made her head spin all over again. Cool realization numbed the pain as Vhalla took in the camp. They were entrenched. Camouflage was piled upon tents, archers were roosted in the trees, and a clear perimeter was established—the soldiers settled in to stay for some time.

“Vhalla, please, you need to lie back down,” Fritz pleaded. “Which one is he in?” Vhalla tugged her arm from Fritz’s grasp, trying to determine which tent would most likely hold the crown prince. Her eyes fell on one with two soldiers on either side, and Vhalla ran.

The soldiers moved too slowly, and Vhalla almost made it into the tent.

Almost.

She slammed into the body of one soldiers as he put himself between her and the entrance. Vhalla blinked up in shock. “Let me pass,” she demanded dangerously.

“We are under orders that no one other than the Emperor, his family, clerics, and advisors are to enter.” The soldier clearly didn’t enjoy giving her this news. The ghost of sympathy drifted through each word.

“Let me pass.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t. We’re under orders.”

Vhalla knew he was pleading with her to understand. She understood perfectly. She understood that they were keeping her from Aldrik for no good reason. She had to see her prince; he wasn’t really alive until she saw him.

Vhalla planted her feet in the ground, balling her hands into fists. Her magic had yet to replenish from the fight she’d engaged in prior to the fall. Coupled with her body still being on the mend, Vhalla felt weak, but she wasn’t about to let anyone else see that. “Let me pass or I’ll—”

“Or you will what?”

Vhalla’s blood froze in her veins. She turned slowly to face the most powerful man in the world, the Emperor Solaris. Aldrik’s father regarded her with thinly veiled contempt. He blamed her for the state of his son. Well, they finally had something they could agree upon.

“You are to return to your tent, Yarl,” he commanded.

Vhalla took a few deep breaths. She was still the property of the crown. This man owned Vhalla until she gave him his victory in the North. And, if the ultimatum he gave her a few days earlier still stood, her freedom also hinged on ending all affiliation with his son—an affiliation that had begun nearly a year ago, an affiliation that had turned her into the secret lover of Crown Prince Aldrik.

“Was I unclear?” The broad-shouldered Southern ruler took another step closer.

Tension was heavy in the air, and the soldiers behind her held their breaths.

“Vhalla, good—you’re awake.” Vhalla turned to see Aldrik’s tent flap closing behind Elecia. “I need to check your condition.” The woman passed between the soldiers, linking her arm with Vhalla’s. It was the most contact the dark-skinned woman had ever initiated. “Come.”

It was the order in Elecia’s voice that Vhalla finally heeded. She let the other woman lead her back toward the tent she’d just left. But her eyes remained locked with the Emperor’s in defiance. He could not keep Aldrik from her, not so long as she drew breath.

“Get in there,” Elecia muttered, practically throwing Vhalla into her tent and on top of Fritz in the process.

“What’s wrong with you?” Vhalla blinked up at the glaring woman, who looked nothing like the concerned cleric who had just escorted Vhalla across camp.

“What’s wrong with you?” Elecia hissed, dropping to her knees across from Vhalla. “Did you lose what little intelligence you had in that fall? Now is not the time to be testing the Emperor.”

“I don’t give a damn about the—” Fritz’s palm clasped forcefully over Vhalla’s mouth, stopping her treasonous words. “Can we all take a breath, please?” Fritz held out his free hand toward Elecia.

Vhalla glared at the curly-haired woman. Friend or foe, she still didn’t know where Aldrik’s cousin stood. The pain and anger glittering in Elecia’s emerald eyes revealed to Vhalla that the other woman shared the same difficulties figuring out their relationship.

“How is Aldrik?” Vhalla asked the one thing they could easily discuss.

“No.” Elecia shook her head. “I will ask the questions.” “Excuse me?”

The other woman had succeeded in catching Vhalla mentally off-balance and seized the moment. “How did you and my cousin become Bound?”

Out of all the questions Vhalla would have guessed Elecia would ask, that one she wasn’t expecting. Vhalla choked on her words, blindsided. “H-how?”

“I would have expected you not to tell me,” Elecia sneered. “But him?” The woman tugged on her dark corkscrew curls, overcome by doubt. She recovered quickly, turning the emotion into rage. “What did you do to him? What did you threaten him with to make him keep silent?”

“How dare you!” Vhalla wanted to claw the other woman’s accusatory eyes out. She wanted to tear her limb from limb. “If you think I would ever do anything to hurt him ...” She could barely form a sentence she was so angry.

“Both of you, stop.” Fritz had never sounded so commanding, and both women startled at the sudden interjection. “You’re not each other’s enemy, you fight the same fight.”

Vhalla scowled at Elecia, and the other woman mirrored the expression.

“Elecia, you know Vhal wouldn’t do anything to harm Aldrik.” Fritz turned to Vhalla. “And Vhal, you must know how worried Elecia has been, for the prince and for you.”

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