Wincing, Vhalla drew herself to her feet as the monster banked high through the clouds. Sorcerers around her sent tongues of fire and spears of ice, but the magic failed to penetrate its leathery skin.
“Stay your magic!” Vhalla ordered. The soldiers faithfully turned their attention elsewhere. “Jax, guard me!”
Vhalla didn’t even check to ensure he was. She trusted her guard and friend to be where she needed him. There was no room for fear or doubt in this battle. Her friends would do what they needed to do to survive, just as she would. The worry was etched in her heart, the closest to prayer she could afford.
She invited Victor’s magic within her, and she felt it build. If he could make crystal monsters, she could destroy them. Vhalla unleashed his magic with a cry, and the monster exploded with a burst of light, shards of blackened crystal falling to earth like dark starlight.
She gasped for air, slumping. An arm was across her chest—strong, holding her up, supporting her. The magic had taken more out of her, using it more quickly than the last time. The army rushed around her, the battle raging on. A shield of fire sprung up, blocking an attack on the prone Empress.
“Thanks, Jax,” she panted.
“Not quite.” Vhalla looked up. She hadn’t been expecting Aldrik there. His armor was scorched, scuffed, and bloody. “Are you all right?”
“I will be.” She put on a brave front—there wasn’t another choice.
Aldrik’s arm lingered for one more brief moment. It couldn’t have been more than a second, but it felt like an eternity. He spoke silent volumes. His heart sung to hers, and Vhalla’s replied in kind. She knew he was there; they fought as one. No matter what happened, they stood here together.
Stable on her feet, Vhalla turned back, reentering the fray.
Victor had clearly prepared his soldiers for this attack. While the road they walked on was mostly un-trapped—Vhalla suspected Fritz, Elecia, and Sehra weren’t having nearly as easy of a time—there was more than one large-scale assault from the false king.
Attack after attack, they pushed on. Vhalla had waved on more men and women from back lines to front than she could count. She was sending them to their deaths. They knew it, as they sprinted over the corpses of their comrades, but they pushed forward anyway. The whole army persisted with one goal in exact precision—get to Victor, kill Victor.
Victor’s men were clever. Every crystal soldier could count for two of the Empire’s army, taking advantage of magic and terrain. They jumped in and out of buildings. Stalled with walls of ice and fire. Groundbreakers ran from alleyways, slicing throats and continuing on without engaging, swords ringing clumsily against their hardened flesh.
Another monster soared overhead, so Vhalla repeated the process from earlier. She focused all her magic to strike the beast down from where it flew. As the crystal beast’s corpse fell harmlessly to the ground, so did she.
Aldrik hoisted her up with both arms, wrapping her arm around his shoulders and carried her.
“Aldrik, we must—”
“You cannot stay on the front line.” He pushed backward.
Vhalla hated the taste of retreat. “But you can.”
“Jax!” she called. Vhalla had no idea where the Westerner was, but he couldn’t be far. Her assumption proved correct as she retreated into the center of the host. “Jax, I’m turning useless. But Aldrik isn’t.”
“I’ll look after you.” He knew what she was asking before she voiced her request.
They held up the rear guard as the fighting pushed into the night. When the moon was a third through the sky, Victor’s men seemed to stop coming. Vhalla had destroyed one more crystal beast, but it took nearly everything she had to do so.
It was a stalemate, frustratingly quiet for both sides. The Imperial army held their line, Aldrik mindful not to give up their advance. Victor stopped sending men and monsters—or had no more to send.
Crystals littered the streets like dark shards of glass. Vhalla watched how they pulsed softly in the moonlight. Everyone had told her she could use crystal magic without it tainting her. Maybe that much was true. But it felt like it was tearing her apart every time she summoned it. Such unassuming stones, already fading and turning to dust, held so much weight.
“How do you feel?” Jax asked quietly, sitting her down. They’d found a tavern, long abandoned, to regroup with the majors.
“How do I look?”
“Like death warmed up.”
“Then assume how I feel to be ten times worse.” Vhalla pressed her eyes closed, holding her head. Victor had been quiet; perhaps he was as exhausted as she.
Their table of majors was thinner than it had been the night before, reflective of this day’s death toll. Aldrik had ordered them all sit rather than stand.
He looked just as dead on his feet as she felt. Someone had struck his cheek, and a small chunk was missing from his ear, which indicated a sword had swung way too close to his face for her liking. But, otherwise, their Emperor was mostly in one piece. Vhalla breathed an internal sigh of relief, focusing on the plans before her.
Strokes of the pen on parchment began to carve out the remnants of their army. Compared to the host that had started at the city’s entrance, only a small number—maybe a couple hundred—remained. They would need a miracle, and another hundred or two soldiers to stand a chance.