“Most.” Fritz nodded.
“Thank the Mother,” Grahm’s eyes pressed closed. “They’ll know the paths, once you get in. There’s another hundred or more, if they . . . fighting in the palace. They will help you. Victor’s retreated - up. They’ll help you get there . . . He’s . . . There’re more monsters. He’s not done . . .”
“We understand. We do. Now rest.” Fritz smoothed away hair from the man’s forehead.
“Fritz . . .” Grahm stared up at his man, who was doing a better job of holding Graham than holding his own emotions together. “I’m glad I could see you again.”
“I love you,” Grahm whispered.
“And I love you.” Tears fell from Fritz’s eyes. “Now, don’t die.”
Elecia returned, crossing over to Grahm with intent, ending the conversation. She poured three vials down his throat that she swore would have nearly the same effect as Deep Sleep and helped Fritz carry Grahm up to the second floor of the tavern to be kept safe and hidden during the remainder of the battles.
Vhalla let out a heavy sigh. Aldrik’s arms wrapped around her; she accepted his comfort and strength, stealing a moment alone with her husband. The room was quiet; even the night outside was still.
“What are we fighting for?” Vhalla closed her eyes for a moment, but all she saw was blood. Blood of her allies. Blood of her enemies. Enough blood to drown in ten times over. “What will be left when the wars are done?”
“That’s what we’re fighting for.” He squeezed her gently. “Whatever, whomever, is left.”
“Even if that’s not us.” Vhalla stepped away, not giving into the alluring comfort of retreat that his presence offered. There was still a war to win.
Victor had little concern for the unspoken etiquette of war. Just as Grahm and his soldiers had forewarned, the false king had been preparing another wave of monsters and abominations. The lull was only long enough for him to plan that next attack.
They had barely enough time to brace themselves. But they did have some time, which was entirely thanks to Grahm and the Silver Wings.
The rush of battle seemed duller the second time around, and Vhalla struggled to move her feet with the same speed as she had before. Majors ran screaming into the early morning light, organizing what was left of the troops.
Vhalla followed, leading what was now her command. The defensive wall they’d built out of ice and earth had been destroyed. Vhalla sprinted in a direction opposite Aldrik, but Jax remained glued to her side. Jax was foolishly determined to live up to his prior oaths of dying for her life, if need be. Vhalla was equally determined to make sure it didn’t come to pass. They weren’t nearly as synced as she and Aldrik were, but it was better than any other soldier, and they were both fast learners.
Fritz remained behind with Grahm, a new reason to hold the line. Elecia’s clerical opinion was uncertain; she couldn’t be sure that he’d pull through, if the taint was even gone. The notion was one Vhalla refused to entertain.
Victor was terribly clever. His initial wave of soldiers carried crystals. Every one soldier that moved upon the Imperial army created two or three more enemy soldiers as they shoved small crystals into the corpses scattered throughout the battlefield. The crystals flared, and Vhalla could feel Victor’s will summoning them back to a twisted form of life.
His magic twisted within her. She grabbed hold of the wriggling mass under her skin, pouring it into her hands. It resisted her some now, her exhausted state prevented her from being able to easily funnel it to her will. But the sorcery eventually sprung from her hands and rendered useless half of the crystal-reanimated soldiers.
Vhalla gripped her knees, winded a moment.
You wretched creature! Victor’s voice raged faintly in the back of her mind.
“This works both ways,” she panted. “If you’re going to insist on invading my mind, then I’m going to use that against you.”
The magic was a brutal and uncomfortable feeling. Each time she used it, it was harder than the last. It was like wrapping a noose around her own neck and tightening it one pull at a time. But this would be their final push; the castle gates were in sight, and Vhalla would give it all she had. And if that meant working herself to death, then she would die and hope to take Victor with her.
She moved through the field, willing her magic alongside his. They’d almost reached the castle when Victor finally gathered the strength to stop her, making her feel the same sharp feeling inside as that night in the tent.
“Jax!” she cried. He was at her side in an instant. “I need-need—” She inhaled sharply, the freezing pain blurring her vision. “Sehra.”
The Westerner looked conflicted, assessing the field quickly. Deciding it was too unsafe to leave her where she was, he picked her up in his arms and bolted in the direction of the other half of the army. Vhalla watched Aldrik until he disappeared from her field of vision. The Emperor pushed on toward his palace.
“Princess Sehra!” Jax called. “Sehra!”
Vhalla began to shudder, and Jax’s grip tightened on her. They had to move faster, but she was in too much pain, and her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering long enough for her to tell him so. She closed her eyes, focusing on fighting the magic, on doing whatever she could. Vhalla felt the world slipping away as she began falling into the dark void known as death.