Earth’s End – 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 worldshattering 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.” Elecia pointedly glared at a corner of the tent, clearly frustrated she’d been outed by Fritz. “How did you know?” Vhalla swallowed her prior frustration. “I wouldn’t have, if I wasn’t healing you both. Most clerics, sorcerer or otherwise, wouldn’t have.” Elecia didn’t miss an opportunity to brag.

“But I noticed that as you improved, he did as well. His magic was also different when I inspected him closely with magic sight. I’d seen it at the Crossroads when I was healing him, but I thought it was the effects of the poison; his strength masked it when he was well. So, I wasn’t sure until Fritz confirmed it for me.” Vhalla glared at Fritz, and the Southern man suddenly became very obsessed with the dirt under his nails. “How did it happen?” Elecia took a deep breath. “I know it wasn’t from the Pass. This is a deeper connection, an older, more stable one.” Vhalla sighed, rubbing her eyes with her palm. She wanted to see Aldrik.

But if that couldn’t happen, Elecia was her best chance at learning the truth about his condition. If finding out that truth meant appeasing the frustrating noble, then Vhalla would do it. “I was the one who formed the Bond . ” The story wasn’t new for Fritz. Vhalla had confided in him and her now-dead friend, Larel, months ago. But there were details she’d never shared with him, and he listened with interest. Elecia regarded Vhalla skeptically, as if only half believing the tale of the library apprentice who created magic Vessels that formed a connection—a Bond—with the crown prince and saved his life in the process. Once she began, Vhalla found she couldn’t stop. The weeks and months poured from her and she told Elecia and Fritz everything. The Bond, the Night of Fire and Wind, how she and Aldrik had widened the Bond with the Joining; how his magic could no longer harm her.

Vhalla bore it all before them. They were secrets she’d held so closely and now would give them all up just to confirm he was alive, just to regain the trust of the one woman who held that information. Elecia raised her thumb to her mouth, biting her nail in thought after Vhalla finished. “Well, that explains a lot,” she mumbled. “Now tell me.” Vhalla repeated gently, “How is Aldrik?” “Not good.” Elecia shook her head. Vhalla noticed the other woman’s tired hunch and braced herself. “He shouldn’t be alive.” Elecia sighed heavily.

“But now I understand why he is. As I said, the Bond you share is a deep connection between you both. I’ve never seen anything like it, though, I’ve not had much experience with Bonds . Either way, I have little doubt that you are keeping him alive.” “What?” Relief gave way to a new fear. “Being the one who created the Bond, your magic is serving as an anchor. I told you, as you improved so did he. As you grew stronger, you had more to give—” “So he’ll be all right?” Vhalla interrupted, too eager to let Elecia finish. “I didn’t say that.” The other woman’s words were a knife to Vhalla’s chest.

“But, I-I’m better,” Vhalla sputtered uselessly. “No, you’re far from it.” Elecia spared no truths. “You’re barely healed, and sustaining him put you out an extra day—at least—compared to what your body truly demanded to mend. One person can’t sustain two: you’re not strong enough.” “He will be fine.” Vhalla wouldn’t believe anything else. “You haven’t seen him!” Elecia spat. “I’m doing all I can, but our supplies are diminishing. He’s weak and fading—at best, I’m maintaining his stasis.

But he doesn’t wake. He lost so much blood and the wound to his head was substantial.” The other woman’s clerical demeanor was beginning to crack under the strain of truth. “I don’t know if when he wakes he will even still be Aldrik.” Silence settled upon the three of them as they all processed Elecia’s words. Vhalla gripped her shirt over her stomach. The world was cruel, too cruel. “No,” Vhalla whispered. She refused to believe the Gods would allow him to live only to have her watch him die or have him return a different man. “What is the next course of action?” It didn’t take a military expert to know that lying prone in the heart of enemy territory was not a good idea.

“I don’t know yet. The Emperor was still discussing it with the majors last I heard. He’s not telling me anything.” There was genuine offense in Elecia’s tone. Vhalla’s mind began to move faster than it had in a long time. She felt as though she was once more processing the depths of knowledge housed by the Imperial Library. Her thoughts whirred, focusing on a single instinct; to save the man she loved. “What do you need to save him?” “More medicine, clean bandages, real nourishment—even if I’m forcing it down his throat—a place for him to rest where we aren’t constantly worrying about being attacked.” Elecia didn’t say anything Vhalla hadn’t already come to assume. “The Northern capital, Soricium.

” Vhalla knew the army had settled in for siege months ago. It was one of the first things the Emperor had announced when he returned to the Imperial Capital, before Vhalla was even known as the Windwalker. Elecia nodded. “But that’s the problem, we can’t move him as he is. He needs to be more stable for that. And when we do move him, we don’t have enough men to fight off attacks as we’ll be moving slowly.” “Then we need to get better medicine here to heal him; medicine and more soldiers, for protection when he’s moved,” Vhalla thought aloud. “What are you thinking?” Fritz finally noticed the expression on Vhalla’s face. “Someone has to go deliver the message.” Vhalla didn’t know why she even bothered saying “someone”.

“How long does he have?” “I don’t know; he should’ve been dead already,” Elecia said grimly. “How long does he have?” Vhalla repeated. “Without medicine, maybe a week?” The words were a death sentence and they all knew it. “And it’s a week’s march to Soricium.” No one corrected Vhalla’s assessment of where they were. She had correctly remembered what the Emperor had said before they started down the Pass. Vhalla balled her hands into fists. “I’ll go.” “What?” Fritz balked. “Vhal, it’s a week through hostile territory to a place you’ve never been!” “No one will ride faster than I.

” Vhalla focused on Elecia as if her whole plan hinged on the woman’s approval. “I can put the wind under the horse. It’s a week for a group of soldiers, some on foot; it will be less than half for me.” “Impossible.” Elecia shook her head. “Your confidence is uplifting,” Vhalla said trenchantly. Elecia appeared startled to hear the tone come from the Eastern woman’s lips. “I will go, and I will send the fastest riders back with medicine, the men you need behind them.” “Why would I condone you going on a suicide mission?” Elecia frowned. “I know you’re the main thing keeping him alive.

” “You said it yourself, I can’t keep him alive.” The truth was a hard potion to swallow. “Our Bond may have kept him from falling into the Father’s realms of the afterlife. But I can’t save him. If I go, maybe I die, maybe he loses that link, and maybe he dies.” The words cut her lips as they passed. “But if I don’t go, he will certainly die.” Elecia hesitated for another long moment. “Assuming I indulge this insanity,” she paused to chew on her thumbnail, a tic the woman had never let Vhalla see before, “there is no way the Emperor is going to let you go. I don’t know what you did to cross him, but he will not let you leave his sight.

” “Then I’ll leave tonight while he sleeps.” “You’re serious?” Vhalla saw a new emotion cross Elecia’s face, one she’d only seen once following the sandstorm: respect. “What will he do? Send riders after me?” Vhalla smiled; madness and desperation were a calming concoction. “What is the fastest horse?” Elecia hardly thought about it before answering, “Baston.” “Baston?” Vhalla didn’t recognize the mount. “Aldrik’s . but the beast won’t let anyone touch him. We couldn’t even lead him. He just walked obediently behind the horse Aldrik was thrown over.” Vhalla pushed the thought of Aldrik—bloody, dying, and unceremoniously thrown over the back of a horse—out of her mind.

It would all be a bad dream by the time he woke. He would be safe, and he would wake. “I will ride Baston then.” “Have you lost your hearing along with your mind?” Elecia rolled her eyes. “Baston won’t—” “He will let me ride him.” There was a calm certainty to Vhalla’s voice that gave Elecia pause. She’d ridden alongside the beast for the length of the continent and part of its master lived in her. “I’ll go after it’s dark. I’ll need some kind of map to find the way.” “Easier still, I’ll get you a compass,” Elecia thought aloud.

“Soricium is due north from here.” “Wait, you’re agreeing with this?” Fritz blinked at Elecia before turning to Vhalla. “No, Vhal, you can’t.” “What?” Vhalla glared at her suddenly traitorous friend. “No, I-I thought I lost you, too . and now you’re okay . you can’t leave . ” Her friend’s voice weakened to a whisper. Vhalla realized that she may have exposed herself as the Windwalker in the Pass and cast off the guise of Serien Leral, but she still needed that other persona’s heart. Vhalla still needed the steel and blood-forged emotional armor that she’d crafted as Serien.

If she couldn’t find that, she wouldn’t be able to leave. “Fritz,” Vhalla whispered, reaching out to him. She pulled Fritz into a tight embrace. Somewhere deep within, Vhalla was holding herself, holding within the girl who was still shivering, shaking, and crying with all her might. “It will be all right. I must do this.” “Why?” Fritz sniffled. “You know why.” Vhalla laughed softly. “I love him.

” “Love has made you stupid,” her friend muttered into her chest. Vhalla met Elecia’s eyes as she answered, “I know.” The half-Western, half-Northern, woman assessed Vhalla levelly, as if passing judgment on what Vhalla was about to say. “But if I’m going to be stupid for anyone, it will be for him. I’ve fallen too far into him to give up now, to let him go.” “You’ve changed, Vhal.” Fritz pulled away, rubbing his eyes. “I know.” Vhalla had no other option but to admit it. She spent the rest of the day with Fritz and left him with the promise that she would be waiting for him in Soricium when he arrived.

They had no option but to put faith in that promise. Fritz seemed calmer—resigned—when Elecia came for Vhalla that night. “Where are we going?” Vhalla whispered to Elecia, noticing the tent they were walking toward. “You think I wouldn’t let you see him before you left?” Elecia glanced at Vhalla from the corners of her eyes, cementing their unorthodox relationship into friendship. “If the Emperor finds out . ” Vhalla glanced over her shoulder, remembering what Elecia had said earlier. “He won’t.” Vhalla saw the source of the other woman’s confidence standing on either side of the tent. The two soldiers were dressed entirely in black plate, identifying them as members of the Black Legion—sorcerers. They were unfamiliar to Vhalla, nameless, but Vhalla tried to remember their faces as they let her pass silently.

These were the faces of good men. A single flame, hovering over a metal disk in the far corner, barely gave enough light to see by. It was so small that the tent had looked completely dark underneath all the camouflaging brush. The atmosphere was oppressive. It stank of blood and body and death. Vhalla fell to her knees at the sight of him, a hand covering her mouth to keep from crying out with joy, with anguish. Aldrik’s eyes were swollen closed with the bruising on his face. Blankets were piled high atop him, but every now and then his body would shudder as if cold. That and the slow rise and fall of his chest were the only signs of life. Every part of him was covered in yellow gauze, stained with puss.

But the most concerning thing of all was the large wound on the side of his head that relentlessly seeped blood. Vhalla reached out and grabbed the prince’s bandaged hand, clinging to it. His right hand, the hand that had written her letters, the hand that had tangled itself into her hair as she slept, the hand that held her face when he kissed her; it was a wonderful hand of endless possibilities that now rested completely limp in her grasp. “How could you do this to me?” Vhalla rasped, trying to keep sobs from escaping her chest and waking the camp. “To show you,” Elecia said solemnly. “To break me.” Vhalla brought her eyes up to Aldrik’s face once more, the sight of it slicing like an invisible sword from her throat down into her stomach. All the strength she had mustered was gone. The resolve had vanished with his nearness. She couldn’t leave his side now.

She couldn’t. “To show you that if you don’t do this, he will die,” Elecia whispered. “Your attempt is foolish and very likely to kill you and him. He would be upset with me for supporting it. But I value his life far more than yours.” Vhalla gave a weak little chuckle. “We have more in common than we previously thought.” She smiled and received a small smile in return. “I will hold up my end of the bargain; I will keep him alive for seven more days, at least. You have my word,” Elecia vowed.

“It won’t be that long.” Vhalla stared at her prince, her chest filling with painful longing. She cupped his cheek gently, but he didn’t stir. “I will be the wind.” “Here.” Elecia held out a few papers. “That’s what I need from the first riders and the main host behind them. Take that to Head Major Jax; no one else.” Vhalla recognized the name of the Head Major of the Black Legion and accepted the parchment along with a compass. “Jax will take care of Aldrik.

I trust him.” Elecia’s confidence made Vhalla take note of this person. Clearly he had passed some tests with this woman, a woman with whom Vhalla was working to build a rapport. The Windwalker turned once more to the comatose prince. She wasn’t going to say that fateful word of farewell. Instead, boldly, Vhalla leaned forward and placed a kiss on his chapped and broken lips. Elecia didn’t move or make comment, her silence speaking volumes of her acceptance of Vhalla’s relationship with the crown prince. Baston was kept on the edge of camp, and Vhalla walked from Aldrik’s tent in dread- filled silence. There was a woman in Vhalla who was self-assured, confident, and capable. It was a woman who would save her prince—again—and conquer the North.

She clashed starkly with the girl who wanted to hide her grief-filled face from the world, to curl under Aldrik’s blankets and leave their fate to the Gods. If they lived or died they would do it at each other’s side.

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