Read Crystal Crowned [ARC] Online
Authors: Elise Kova
Tags: #Air Awakens, #Elise Kova, #Silver Wing Press, #Fantasy, #Young Adult
“Don’t tell me she’s alive! I watched her die on the Sunlit Stage! I watched him force her to kneel as he let his monsters tear her apart limb from limb.” He was nearly shouting, and Vhalla hoped that Sehra had been correct in there being no crystal magic, and therefore abominations, nearby.
Who had died in the public execution?
“Next.” Daniel laughed again, the blade biting into her throat from his trembling hand. “Next you’ll be telling me that-that the man standing there is . . .”
The words faded into the wind. Aldrik’s eyes were alight with rage, his posture rigid. But his focus had shifted off Vhalla and onto Daniel, presumably meeting his eyes.
“I am the Emperor Solaris,” Aldrik finished, dangerously quiet.
“Supreme King Anzbel, he . . .” More raspy laughing. “Enough, I don’t know who or what you really are, but I am getting that horse and I am going. I don’t care if I have to kill her for it!”
“You would shame Baldair’s memory?” Jax exclaimed. No one moved. “Daniel, he gave you an order. He asked you to protect the woman you are threatening to kill, to protect her until your dying breath.”
“Stop . . .” Daniel whispered.
“No! You swore an oath to the guard. As long as your heart beats, you are to honor it,” Jax pressed. The knife at her throat quivered, and Vhalla ignored the pain. “Brother.” The world turned on Jax’s singular word. “Let her go.”
Suddenly, the knife was gone, and his grip went slack. For all of Jax’s words, he clearly didn’t completely trust his brother-in-arms in his present state; he closed the gap between them, grabbing for Vhalla and spinning her half behind him.
Now freed, she could assess the man everyone else had seen all along. The man she was thankful she hadn’t killed. Daniel was haggard. His armor was crusted with blood, and yellow bandages were wrapped around his forearm where a gauntlet was missing. His hair was slick with sweat and grime. The makings of a proper beard crossed his chin.
None of this scared Vhalla. A body could be washed, injuries tended to. It was Daniel’s eyes that broke something in her. There was something deeply wrong down to his very soul, something that no potion or salve could cure.
“Daniel, it’s me.” She finally lowered her hood, studying his expression for some trace of the man whom she had marched with and learned from.
“I-I cut you,” he stammered.
Vhalla raised a hand to her neck. “So you did. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.”
“I was supposed to protect you.” He swayed. “And then, I watched you die.”
“I’m fine.” Vhalla took a step forward. Jax shot her a warning look, and Vhalla replied with a glare. The Western man didn’t stop her, but he stayed near her shoulder as she crossed the gap to Daniel. The man was like a stylelized painting, from far away he may be passible for a man, but the moment she was up close she could see every frayed brushstroke and wavering line. Vhalla boldly took his hands, and he nearly jumped out of his skin at the touch. “See, I’m fine. You, however, are not. Come inside and sit. Get out of the cold.”
Za volunteered that she and Sehra keep watch, casting a leery eye toward Daniel. Even after the Northerners left, it was cramped with the six of them in the small structure. Daniel was jumpy with the proximity to people, his eyes darting wildly.
“Elecia, will you please look at his wounds?” Vhalla asked.
The Western woman looked to Jax and Aldrik, who both gave nods of silent approval. She radiated uncertainty but did her duty as a cleric. Daniel jerked away violently the second Elecia’s hands landed on his forearm.
“No!” He scrambled away. “Don’t-don’t touch me.”
“Daniel, we can’t heal you if—”
“I killed them!” He lunged forward, grabbing Vhalla’s upper arms to the point of bruising. “Don’t fix me, I’m broken.” Daniel shook her, and Vhalla hissed at the pain it caused in her right shoulder.
“Brother, stop.” Jax intervened. “You’re hurting her again.”
Daniel stared in utter horror, then nearly threw Vhalla aside and scrambled away. She stared, heartbroken, as the man brought his knees to his chest, clutching his head.
“I killed, they died, they died, they died, and I killed them, it was—”
Vhalla wrapped her arms around his rocking shoulders. This time he tensed but didn’t lash out at the touch. “Stop,” she breathed. “Let Elecia check you.”
Daniel whimpered and squirmed, but as long as Vhalla held him to her, he let Elecia perform what ministrations she could. It was awkward having to work around Vhalla’s arms, but Elecia had more tact than to point this out.
When Elecia finished, Vhalla loosened her grip and asked, “Why are you here?”
“I-I ran.” Daniel choked on his words, letting out a pained, strangled noise.
“What happened?” Jax pried.
Daniel held his temples and stared at nothing. He cried, rivulets streaking through the blood and grime on his cheeks.
“Soldier.” Aldrik forcefully stepped into the conversation with a single sharp word. Daniel froze. “This is an order from your Emperor: report.”
Vhalla wanted to scold him for taking such a tone, but Aldrik had seen and heard something she hadn’t. The command snapped something back into place, and Daniel’s breathing slowed, his eyes regaining some sanity.
“It-it was only him. He walked right in, and no one even thought of stopping him until the first group of guards died.” No one needed to ask who “he” was. “It should’ve been easy, there was only one man. But every time one fell, he took their eye and turned it into one of those rocks—those
Vhalla’s mostly empty stomach churned at the memory of the guard who had walked into the village closest to Fritz’s home.
“They rose. They fought for him. They were dead but kept walking until that awful, awful blue-green light faded.” Daniel turned to her, almost pleading. “What could we have done?”
“My father?” Aldrik asked, but by the look on Daniel’s face, Vhalla wished he hadn’t.
“His death was only the beginning.” Daniel turned to Jax. “It’s just us now, brother.”
“What happened to the guard?” A dark severity overcame Jax’s words.
“Raylynn tried to keep Baldair’s body from him. To keep him from disgracing it as he did. You know how those two were. Never anything, always something. She died defending him.” Daniel hiccupped. “The Supreme King shattered both Erion’s legs, stripped, and saddled him, then sent him back to the West. There’s no way he made it in this cold.”
“And Craig?” Jax asked after a long pause.
“Craig and me . . .” He was suddenly talking too fast, the words avalanching out. “Erion told us to bend knee. That we couldn’t help anyone if we died, too. Erion was better suited as a message to the West but—Victor kept us for his monsters.”
“Monsters?” Vhalla whispered.
“Those who displeased him went into the rooms. They were exposed to the taint . . . At first they were fine, but then, their screams, their flesh. It changed,
. By the Mother, their screams—their screams as they ripped open skin to make rooms for talons and wings and horns and scales and—”
He was crying again.
“Enough, that’s enough,” Vhalla tried to soothe.
“Don’t touch me!” The man seemed to be on reset. Alternating between disbelief, violence, and soul crushing sadness. “I killed them. The feedings began. Blood, they need to develop a taste for blood, he said. They need fresh meat, he said.
“Craig and I, it was us. We knew it would be one of us next. Craig told me, he gave me this chance. He offered himself to that monster knowing I would be the one to feed him to it—knowing it would give me the chance to run. He screamed for me as they ate him. He screamed for me as I ran.”
Vhalla sat in numb horror. Struggling to find words in the wake of everything Daniel was pouring forth and splaying at their feet.
“If he finds me, I will be food. Or he will turn me into a monster.” Daniel looked to Jax. “Don’t give me to them. Don’t give me to his revels for his blood guard, drunk on gore and control. Don’t let his court of sorcerers have me.”
“Brother, you’re fine now,” Jax lied.
Nothing about Daniel was fine. Nothing about their situation or the world was fine.
“We will take you home,” Vhalla vowed. “We’re going East now.”
This was her fault. She had helped Victor and unleashed this force. Beyond that, if she had kept Daniel closer and had been a better friend to him, maybe he would have been with them before now. Maybe Jax would have thought to get him before charging into that dark night for the Crystal Caverns. She had made so many mistakes.
How many people she loved would pay for them?
“He’ll slow us down.” Elecia couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself.
“He needs our help.” Even Fritz was surprised at her cold assessment.
“We need our own help.” Elecia firmly gripped her convictions. “He’s going to slow us down; he’s beyond halfway to madness. Not to mention, we endanger him as well, now that he knows we’re alive.”
Vhalla stopped to consider this. It was the reason they had left the Charems. But the Charems were capable of being clever. Daniel was a child lost in the woods.
“This is not up for discussion.” Daniel was their responsibility now, and Vhalla would see him home. Her mind was made up.
“What right do you have?” Elecia snorted.
“My right as your future Empress!” Vhalla shot back so fast the words nearly gave her whiplash.
Everyone held their breath, and Vhalla’s heart slowed.
Their future Empress.
Aldrik didn’t say or do anything to contradict her claim.
“Fine,” Elecia huffed. The woman seemed almost satisfied at Vhalla’s proclamation, despite being on the receiving end of her ire.
“You’re really going to help me?” Daniel looked up at her.
“Why? Thank you. But why?” He shook his head violently. “I am worthless. I can’t—I am pathetic, less than a maggot. I killed my brother and survived off his death. I deserve to be a monster.” Daniel wailed, “Don’t let me become one!”
“Hush, enough,” Vhalla soothed, running her hand through his oily hair. “It’s decided. Now, put some food in you and rest. We’ll move at sunlight.”
Daniel choked down a tiny portion of their rations, the act calming him some. The rest of them used the opportunity to settle down, hoping Daniel would follow their example. He did, curling into a ball near where Vhalla was tucked against Aldrik. Jax positioned himself in the corner between them. The flutter of his eyelashes betrayed him. As long as Daniel was unstable and near her, Jax was going to sleep with one eye open.
Aldrik’s touch, his warmth, his breath, it washed away some of her nerves as Vhalla bundled under his cloak. Her eyes settled on Daniel, and Vhalla instinctually shifted closer to Aldrik, feeling him passing judgment on them both. Daniel had known almost as long as Vhalla and Aldrik had been aware that they were more than prince and subject. But this was the first time he’d truly seen them together.
“You will be Empress?” he whispered.
“She will be,” Aldrik answered this time.
Daniel cackled. “No, no, you won’t be. There is no throne for either of you any longer. Only blood.”
She watched as the shell of her friend, the man who could’ve been her lover, settled back after his decree. Daniel studied them with a wild glint to his eyes. A secret look that spoke of horrors only he knew.
Vhalla’s shoulder was so stiff the next morning that it was practically immobile. She hadn’t thought about how she had slept—pressed against Aldrik, scrunched up all night. She massaged it gingerly.
“What will we do about the horses?” Fritz asked with a glance at Daniel.
“We need to stop somewhere for supplies today,” Vhalla mused aloud. “We’ll see if we can find another.”
“Horses are rare,” Daniel spoke. “With everyone trying to flee the South. It’s why I-I was going to . . .” His eyes looked at the faint red line at her neck, and Daniel swayed, stumbling a half step away. “I’m sorry, Vhalla.”
“It’s fine, Daniel.” She gave him a brave smile and set the example for everyone. A silent reminder that he was part of the group. “We’ll ride to the next village. There’s one near the cut off for the East. We’ll look for supplies and horses there.”
“Until then?” Fritz rephrased his prior question.
“Vhalla and I will share,” Aldrik announced. “We will use Lightning.” He motioned to the horse that Vhalla had been riding, the one she’d ridden on to the end of the continent during the march. “Give Daniel your cloak, Vhalla. You can sit under mine.”
“This, it, it’s too much. I don’t deserve it.” Daniel’s shaking fingers hesitantly accepted the cloak she pressed into his hands. “Thank you. I’m sorry. Thank you.”
“Take the help, brother,” Jax encouraged.
Aldrik swung up into Lightning’s saddle, scooting forward and removing his foot from the stirrup so Vhalla could also mount. She shifted, figuring out how they needed to sit so that they could both fit comfortably.
“Get under my cloak,” Aldrik reminded her.
“But then I can’t see.”
“You are already shivering. And you’re not holding the reins anyway.”
Vhalla gave a silent farewell to her friends and lifted the edge of his cloak to bring it over her head. It completely covered her as she sat flush against him, her arms around his waist. Vhalla rested her cheek flat on his back. He was as warm as ever, her personal pyre, and it was almost comfortable under the heavy fabric. The world vanished into his slow and steady breathing, the sound eroded away her tension in the same fashion as waves on a shore. As Lightning began moving, Vhalla closed her eyes and pretended that they were not on the run, that they were headed off for a grand adventure.
She’d had enough
Vhalla sighed softly. Perhaps they were headed simply to visit her father.
“Will Lightning be all right?” she asked, tilting her head up. The horse wasn’t accustomed to carrying two riders.
“Yes.” Aldrik barely spoke as he lifted his hood. With her ear on his back, Vhalla heard the deep rumble of his voice with perfect clarity. “He’s from the same line as Baston. He’s a strong horse. One generation away from a purebred War Strider.”