The door to the tavern was kicked open. All the majors turned, startled, half reaching for their weapons. Fritz stood in the doorframe, bloody, and holding their miracle.
“Elecia!” By the time Vhalla said the other woman’s name, the healer was already on her feet.
Elecia crossed the room and helped Fritz carry the man he was supporting to the table. Majors moved out of the way, freeing up a space where they could lay down Grahm. Vhalla looked at the Eastern man’s body, Fritz at her side fidgeting.
Her eyes landed on the source of Fritz’s stress. Grahm’s hand was covered in tiny crystals jutting out from blackening skin. His fingers looked like they were in the late stages of frostbite. Spider-webbed veins connected each crystal, pulsing deathly taint between them, working their way up Grahm’s arm.
“What happened?” she asked Fritz.
“We were beginning to establish a wall, a-a perimeter, so we didn’t lose the ground we gained,” Fritz started. “I saw more fighting. I thought it was another guerrilla force, the Wings, you know?” Her friend was clearly struggling to keep himself together. “But there were a lot of them. I went to investigate; I brought help with me because, you never know . . .”
Vhalla slipped her hand into Fritz’s. She held him gently enough that it didn’t distract him from his tale. But her fingers were firm, insistent that he wouldn’t escape her. At any moment, her Southern friend looked like he could fall apart, and Vhalla would be there if he did.
“It was a group of Silver Wings, a large one. Not like the rest of them. They were trying to regroup as well, and Grahm was leading them.”
There was a deep gash in Grahm’s shoulder by his neck. A finger’s width in almost any direction, and it likely would’ve been a fatal wound without a healer. Elecia’s hands smeared with blood as she pressed them into the severed flesh, trying to force it to knit together.
“Elecia, can you fix him?” Fritz whispered.
“I’m trying,” the woman didn’t glance up, not removing her focus from the wound.
They were ignoring the inevitability of the crystals. Vhalla dropped to a knee, looking closely at Grahm’s hand. He groaned softly, awareness returning with Elecia’s ministrations. From her new vantage, Vhalla could see Elecia’s eyes regularly darting to stones as well. The other woman was nervous about magically interacting with someone who was tainted.
“I have an idea.” Vhalla caught Elecia’s gaze. “But I want him to be physically stable before I try it.”
“That sounds foreboding,” Elecia mumbled.
Vhalla couldn’t disagree. “I’m going to take control of the crystals and destroy them, like I do with the monsters and the gates.”
“What will that do to him?” Fritz asked.
“I can’t say for certain.” Vhalla wasn’t going to make it out to be something it wasn’t. It was a last resort that could just as easily kill Grahm as save his life.
“Well, if you’re going to do it, do it now.” Elecia pulled her hands away. “While I have enough strength left in me to try to put him back together when you finish tearing him apart.”
No one expected Elecia’s sarcasm to be literal.
Vhalla raised her hand over Grahm’s, blinking her eyes and shifting into her magic sight. Her magic was thin and struggling. Vhalla briefly wondered what would happen at the moment when she had the same amount of her own magic as she had crystal magic laced with Victor’s. But she didn’t give it thought. Her friend was before her and ailing. It wasn’t the time for doubt.
Just like she did with the monsters, Vhalla connected herself to the crystals and willed their destruction. They exploded angrily off Grahm’s hand. Black shards littered the ground along with chunks of Grahm’s flesh.
All the majors took a step back to avoid being splattered with tainted blood.
The man lying on the bench cried out, roused back to awareness by the pain.
“Hold him down!” Elecia demanded.
Fritz was the first to respond. Sitting, he cupped Grahm’s head in both of his, stroking his cheeks with his thumbs. “Grahm, it’ll be all right.”
Elecia hesitated only for a second before her hand thrust into the tainted flesh that had ripped open with the destruction of the crystals. Skin that was blackened and leathery turned into mush and goo in the instant the crystals had exploded. Elecia pulled her hand away, black flesh clinging to it like coagulated meat fat. She tried again in a different spot, the skin literally sliding over Grahm’s bones.
Grahm twisted his head, trying to shake them off.
“Hold him down!” Elecia insisted, thinking quickly. She turned to the other person in the room she trusted implicitly. “Aldrik, I’m going to need your fire.”
The Emperor gave his affirmation without question.
“Fritz, I need you to freeze him.”
“What?” Fritz didn’t follow.
“I need you to freeze him, slowly, don’t shock him. I need his heart to slow; the less aware he is of what’s happening and the slower his blood flow, the better,” Elecia spoke slowly and clearly.
“He’s another Waterrunner and—”
“And the taint has already passed his elbow. The damn things were like boils, and the infection is flooding the body!”