No matter how far she ran or how many people she met, an invisible hand pulled Vhalla back to the crown prince of the Solaris Empire. She couldn’t escape him. Even when she slumbered while half a continent away, her mind joined with his. Mixing, mingling, torturing her with the worst and most beautiful pain she’d ever known. It wasn’t the first time she’d dreamt of him since the war in Shaldan ended, but in all the previous memories she’d witnessed, he’d been a boy or young man. Now she invaded the memory of an adult prince, a prince she knew well enough that her fingers could point to every scar that marred his alabaster flesh under the tight buttons of his military regalia. In this dream, Aldrik’s clothing had been washed as best as could be expected on a warfront. But his shoulders sagged as though he could no longer fill out the mantle of his station. Eyes that usually shone like onyx, illuminated by an undying inner flame, had dulled to coal and sat in dark, sunken wells. His raven hair was disheveled, falling limply around his face; it was in need of brushing. Dark stubble shadowed his chin and cheeks, accentuating an eternal scowl. He looked every one of his twenty-five years, plus twenty-five more. In stark contrast, the golden prince stood next to his elder brother. Baldair glanced often at his sibling from the corners of his eyes, a large palm resting on the hilt of the broadsword strapped to his hip. His face rotated between genuine sympathy and the very real concern that he may have to subdue the fearsome sorcerer known as the Fire Lord— again.
They waited before a giant fortress. Tall trees peeked over the perfect, magically created walls. It housed the Head Clan of a nation once called Shaldan, now reduced to the Solaris Empire’s “North”. Shaldan’s capital, Soricium, was mostly leveled, save for the stronghold before her. Vhalla knew its walls and passages well. She’d been an executioner in this fortress. She’d helped deliver the final death blow to this former nation. A large stone drawbridge groaned to life and lowered slowly, revealing four sorcerers —Groundbreakers—on either side. Behind them stood another group of three people surrounded by even more warriors. They all had tanned skin and curled hair, features of the North.
A proud and beautiful people Vhalla had been forced to help bring to their knees. The Head Chieftain was tall and lean, and two women flanked her. One was an archer known as Za, a warrior who’d tried to kill Vhalla. The other was a young girl, pretty with soft curves already budding on her hips and bosom. She’d be a fine woman when she grew into the promises her body was beginning to make. The Emperor Solaris strode forward, meeting the Head Clan at the end of the drawbridge. He engaged in a brief exchange with the Chieftain, but Vhalla couldn’t hear the words. The man whose memory she occupied let them become muffled, as though he was submerged underneath a great lake. Aldrik stood as rigid as a sword. He narrowed his eyes at the silken-clad girl standing at the Chieftain’s right.
The child who was to be his future wife. Vhalla awoke in a cold sweat. The dreams were never easy, and shrugging him out of her mind afterward continued to be a challenge. She panted softly and listened. The air was still and silent, telling her that she hadn’t cried out in her sleep or thrashed violently enough to shake her small cot; she hadn’t disturbed the woman whose home she occupied. Her fingers ghosted over the chain she wore about her neck, resting on a small watch. The sun and wing engraved on the watch’s front embedded itself into Vhalla’s clutched palm. It ticked away the early morning, the light changing the colors of the curtain over the glass-less window that dominated her bedside wall. It had been nearly two months since she had last seen the prince of her dreams, the man who had promised his future to her with the token she clung to. But no amount of time or distance could dull the Bond that they shared.
It was a magical connection that only a once-in-a-lifetime magical event could form, and it was enough to make Vhalla want to scream in frustration at the oppressive silence that dared to surround her body when her mind and heart were full of his emotions. It meant that, until the end of her days, she could be haunted by his visage, his memories, his dreams. No matter how far she ran, her phantom would be there. Knowing she wouldn’t sleep again, Vhalla dressed. A loose linen split-skirt was held in place by a belt around the waist. Overtop, she buttoned a long jacket made of the same breathable fabric. Her last adornment was a wide scarf looped around her head and neck. Everything she’d ever read about Western fashions held true. Keeping the sun off bare skin was the most sensible way to survive the oppressive summer heat, and the fabric readily breathed in the constant winds. Cutting her hair again would also keep her cooler and would trim away the last of the faded dye that lingered around her frayed ends.
But Vhalla was intent on growing it long once more and had yet to allow someone to take sheers to it. In the corner of her tiny room, Vhalla pulled open a trapdoor. She put her feet to the rungs of a narrow ladder before taking a breath. Clenching her fists, Vhalla opened her magic Channel. Gripping the opening, she slowly pulled her feet from the rungs so she was only hanging by her hands. And then let go. Rather than falling quickly, Vhalla eased down like a feather. Her hands hovered, ready to catch herself should the descent go awry, but that precaution proved unnecessary. Today was slower than yesterday, three times slower than a week ago. Her magic was becoming stronger—or Vhalla was better at managing it.
Keeping the same pockets of air around her feet like boots made of wind, she padded across the small living space, not allowing any footfalls. She relaxed her magic when she had descended most of the way down a side stairway into the dim bookshop below. Vhalla ran her fingers along the spines in the narrow bookshelf walkways. Some of the books were tall, some short, some old, and some new, but every book carried its own story, and she’d already devoured most of what the small shop had to impart. Throwing back the shutters allowed the dim morning’s light to filter into the narrow space. After her first two weeks in the shop, her duties had become engrained. Now at nearly six weeks, she went about the shop-keeping with little thought. First came pushing back the shutters, then wedging the door open so the store didn’t become an oven. The wind wasn’t optional to surviving the day. But it carried in sand that settled on the books, horrifying Vhalla, and she set to dusting first thing every morning.
Her hands rested on one of the manuscripts on the end of the tallest shelf in the back corner, and her dust rag was quickly forgotten. Sliding it out, she ran her fingertips over the embossed cover, Kishn’si Coth. It was written entirely in the old language of Mhashan, and Vhalla had overlooked it for weeks as a result. It wasn’t until she’d devoured most of the books in Southern Common that she turned to language study, which finally allowed her to translate the title of this particular work. “That one again?” a portly woman asked with a yawn, standing in the stairway. Vhalla nearly jumped off her stool. Gianna wasn’t a Windwalker, but she knew her home and shop well enough not to make a sound coming down the stairs. “I think I can almost read it.” Vhalla tried to shrug nonchalantly, slipping it back into its place on the bookshelf. “Yae, tokshi,” the woman chuckled.
Vhalla wasn’t about to take “not yet” as an answer. “Vah da.” Her careful pronunciation put a wide smile on the woman’s features. “What is your obsession with The Knights’ Code? I can’t even pay someone to take it off my hands.” “Curiosity.” It was the truth, in part. A small part. She’d come west, to the Crossroads, to escape everything—to go to a place where she could be no one and nothing. But when she came across mention of the Knights of Jadar in a manuscript on Western history, she’d set out to devour as much information about the group as possible. Vhalla had only known the broad facts about them before, that they were a mysterious and unquestioned force founded by King Jadar in old Mhashan during the genocide of Windwalkers—the Burning Times—with the purpose of executing the king’s will.
She hadn’t given the Knights much thought before the war against Shaldan, when she’d learned the Western zealots had been working with the Northerners against the Empire. Thanks to her reading, she was finally filling in more of the blanks, which was yielding some answers about why the group seemed to be bent on hunting her down. “Breakfast?” the woman asked. “Not hungry,” Vhalla replied, true to form. After the first week together, Gianna had given up trying to make her eat. Vhalla never felt hungry first thing in the morning. There was too much to think about, too many things to get started for the day. Vhalla already held a wet quill when Gianna left the room. With diligent accuracy, the sorcerer recounted the dream she’d had the night prior. Perhaps with too much accuracy, Vhalla furiously scratched out the portion of writing about Aldrik’s hair, the gauntness of his face, and pallor of his skin.
The prince was a memory. Her hand clasped the watch. He was a remnant of another period of her life, and she had to learn to leave him there. Though, such a thing seemed more impossible by the day. With a shake of her head, Vhalla dislodged the memories, returning to her work. The days in the bookshop had done more than remind her how much she loved the smell of parchment or the feeling of bound leather. They had given her time. Time begot thought. And thinking for herself was something she hadn’t had time for in far too long. It was after her first dream that she started her journal, the record of her dreams of Aldrik.
Originally, it had been out of a sense of obligation because she had promised to tell him when she dreamt of him. With time, she began writing all the dreams she’d ever had of him and expanded from there. She filled pages upon pages that culminated to the sum record of the memories he told her, the ones she’d witnessed when she slept, and the total of her knowledge on the history of the Empire. With it all, she began to notice connections. Her gray quill circled new words as she flipped through the pages, marred passages with arrows and circles and lines and more notes. Vhalla was connecting dots that she wasn’t sure she hadn’t invented. But a picture was taking shape, too easily to be chance. Prince Aldrik Ci’Dan Solaris—born to Fiera Ci’Dan and the Emperor Tiberus Solaris, a prince of two worlds, the man known as the Fire Lord to his enemies and an aloof, offputting royal to his allies—had much to hide. Vhalla knew he’d tried to kill himself before he became a man. She knew he’d killed for the first time when he was fourteen—he’d told her that much.
She knew the man she hated most in the world—the Head of Senate, Egmun—had been behind the first blood on the prince’s hands. Her quill rested on a date. Standing, Vhalla walked over to the small section where they kept books on history. It was mostly Western, but there was a single general story she’d been relying on. Back at the desk, Vhalla flipped open the book and thumbed through the pages. The War of the Crystal Caverns, her fingers paused by the year the war started. Three-hundred thirty-seven. It was significant. It couldn’t possibly be chance. Aldrik’s hate for crystals, for Egmun, the guilt he shouldered .
But, how? “Excuse me?” a patron called, drawing Vhalla’s attention back to her duties. Her days progressed much the same, split between bookkeeping, research, and language study with Gianna at night. Two more weeks slipped through her fingers before Vhalla finally cracked the spine of The Knights’ Code, and even then it was rough reading. “Tokshi.” Gianna rested her hands on the desk. Vhalla straightened to attention. Her back hurt from being hunched over and her fingers ached from the furious notes she was taking. “Dinner is ready. Close up shop.” Gianna’s tone was enough to indicate that there was more to say without her needing to hover as Vhalla pulled the shutters.
“Why do you read so furiously?” “I like reading.” Vhalla smiled. It wasn’t entirely a lie. “You do,” Gianna agreed. “But you do not like this book.” She tapped The Knights’ Code and put it back on its shelf. Vhalla glared at the tome, as though the bound parchment had somehow betrayed her and told Gianna of Vhalla’s real intent in reading it. “Why do you read something you don’t enjoy? Why this?” “Do you know about the Knights of Jadar?” Vhalla asked. Gianna visibly tensed. “Why would you ask that?” The woman’s eyes darted to the open door, and Vhalla eased it closed, granting her host the illusion of privacy.
“I want to know.” “That is not something you, of all people, want to look for.” Gianna knew who Vhalla was. Vhalla had never lied to the kind woman who was putting her up, and she’d told the broad strokes of her own history over the countless dinners they’d shared together. Perhaps because Gianna knew exactly who Vhalla was, the woman respected the Windwalker’s privacy and wish to remain anonymous, preferring the Western term for student—tokshi—over Vhalla’s actual name. “Why?” Vhalla knew why, but she wanted to hear Gianna’s reasons. Gianna sighed. “Tell me.” “Dinner is ready.” The shop owner turned, starting for the stairs.
“Come and eat. The wind will carry you away if you don’t put food in your stomach once in a while.” Vhalla obliged mutely. She allowed the silence to stew after they both had settled at the table and started into the rice hash Gianna had made. “I will tell you one story,” Gianna said finally. “And then you must put that book aside.” “I can’t promise you that.” “Try?” “It depends on what the story is.” Vhalla played a game of mock carcivi with her hash. “You are something else.
” The woman chuckled and shook her head. “You could just lie to appease me.” “I’ve had enough lies for a lifetime.” Vhalla’s eyes drifted upward. Gianna paused, searching Vhalla’s face. She took a deep breath before beginning. “The Knights of Jadar have been around for over one-hundred and fifty years, and they weren’t always the hushed organization they are now, zealots clinging to the old ways. The stories tell of a different time. A time not so long ago, when they would ride in the streets and women would reach for them, men would cry their names.” Vhalla leaned forward in her chair.
The way Gianna told her story had a certain reverence, a nostalgia for something that Vhalla had no real connection with. Gianna couldn’t have been more than a young child at the start of the war in the West and the fall of the knights. “They were the best of the best. They protected the weak and fought for Mhashan, defending our way of life. To be counted among their ranks was the highest honor.” Vhalla bit her tongue on the fact that the Knights had put countless Windwalkers to death long before, during the Burning Times, at the will of the king who had founded them. “But when the last King of Mhashan was slain, when the Ci’Dan family bent knee before the Emperor, and when Princess Fiera married into his family . The Knights were spurned. They tried to raise a rebellion. The princess and Lord Ophain did their best to discourage such, but they were fighting a losing battle.
” “Why?” Vhalla’s food was forgotten. “The Knights claimed to have the Sword of Jadar.” Vhalla shook her head, indicating she didn’t know what the woman was speaking of. “King Jadar was a great Firebearer, but only passed his magic to one of his sons.” “Magic isn’t in the blood; it can’t be passed on.” A fact Vhalla knew all too well from being born from two Commons. “No . ” Gianna agreed half-heartedly. “That’s true, but . There’s something special about the magic that lives in families.
Certainly, sorcerers are born to Commons, but there’s usually magic somewhere in the family tree. It’s not impossible, but it is less common to find it without. “Either way, King Jadar was said to have crafted a sword that harnessed his power and gave it to one of his sons. That son became the leader of the Knights of Jadar, and as long as he wielded the sword he was rumored to be undefeatable.” “So what happened to the sword?” Vhalla asked. “Who knows?” Gianna shrugged. “I doubt it was even real to begin with. King Jadar is quite the legend in his own right.” Vhalla pursed her lips, a physical reminder to keep silent. Gianna was as proud as most Westerners she’d ever met.
While she was fairly forward-thinking, enough so to not harbor any hate toward Vhalla as a Windwalker, Vhalla didn’t want to push the woman’s kindness by speaking ill of the infamous Western king. “What happened to the Knight’s rebellion?” Vhalla asked. “I assume they tired of it.” Gianna clearly had not given it much thought. “After the death of our princess, no one in the West thought much about anything for a while.” Gianna didn’t speak of the Knights again after that, and Vhalla didn’t ask. She did, however, return the next morning to The Knights’ Code, scouring for any mention of a sword, of the will of Jadar, anything. Two days of tedious translations yielded nothing other than rankling her fraying nerves. “Gianna,” Vhalla called and stood. The woman appeared from upstairs.
“We’re running low on ink. I’m going to buy more.” “I’ll give you coin.” “No need.” Vhalla shook her head, grabbing her bag off a peg from behind the desk. “You could at least let me pay you.” Gianna placed her hands on her hips. “You’ve worked for weeks.” “I have gold.” Vhalla patted her bag.
“And I used all the ink for personal reasons.” “Can’t argue with either,” Gianna said lightly. Vhalla slipped out of the store and onto the dusty street, adjusting her hood to hide her Eastern brown hair. It was average by many Eastern standards, but practically golden compared to the black hair of Westerners. The Crossroads held all peoples, sizes, and shapes. But the past few times Vhalla had been to the market she was beginning to notice more soldiers returning home from the warfront, and the last thing she wanted to be was recognized. Sidestepping around carts and tiptoeing over bile from the prior night’s revelries, Vhalla made her way to the main markets. Pennons fluttered overhead, and Vhalla made it a point to ignore them. For every two of the West, there was one of the Empire. And for every two of the Empire, there was one black pennon bearing a silver wing—a silver wing that matched the one on the watch around her neck, a silver wing that had somehow become synonymous with the Windwalker.
Stories travelled as fast as the wind, and Vhalla had listened in on conversation after conversation about the Windwalker. A woman given shape on the Night of Fire and Wind, partly her own air, partly flames of the crown prince. A woman who brought Shaldan to its knees and made fire rain from the sky during the North’s last stand. It was fascinating to Vhalla. She had learned long ago that rumors and reputation could be crafted as easily as armor. But underneath it all, she was still very mortal. A mortal who bled if she was cut too deep, a mortal afflicted with life’s great curse: death. “Are you closing shop?” Vhalla arrived at her preferred sundries store, only to find the owner locking the door. “For the day.” The man nodded, recognizing one of his common patrons.
“May I get ink?” “I’m afraid it’s already late—” “Two silver for it,” Vhalla interjected. The man’s keys paused in the lock before turning the opposite direction. “Be quick about it.” That wasn’t hard. Vhalla knew exactly where his writing supplies were stored and raided them liberally. Within a minute, her bag was two ink blocks heavier and two silver coins lighter. “Why are you closing so early?” Vhalla hovered, curiosity getting the better of her. “You haven’t heard?” Vhalla shook her head no. “Lord Ci’Dan is coming ahead of the Imperial army. He’ll be holding audiences open to the public.
” The man started toward the center of the Crossroads, and Vhalla fell into step alongside him. He eyed her up and down, taking an extra step ahead. “But nobles will be given priority, then land owners, then merchants, then Westerners . ” The man accounted for her brown eyes. “I doubt there will be time for others.” Vhalla’s lips twitched with the makings of a smirk. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t cut your place or try to go against convention.” She walked with the merchant. Soon, they walked alongside half the Crossroads as the masses poured into the sunlight at the center of the world. Vhalla adjusted her scarf once more and found a perch atop one of the pedestals bearing a lamppost.
She waited with the rest of the crowd, and then watched as a group of nobles trotted in to all the cries and the pomp and circumstance the Crossroads could muster. Atop the largest War-strider was a man with short-cut black hair, graying at the ears, and a closely cropped beard along his chin. He was an older image of a royal she knew well; the family resemblance between him and Aldrik was uncanny. Vhalla gripped the lamppost tighter, the only one not screaming the Ci’Dan name. Aldrik had told her to seek out his uncle if he died in the North because he trusted the man to see to her well-being. Aldrik had told her she would be safer with his uncle than anyone else because Lord Ophain knew the movements of the Knights of Jadar. Her chest ached at the memory, but Vhalla ignored the pain. She needed to know if it was true. She needed answers.