She spent days sleeping against Aldrik’s back; as a result, she was the most well-rested of the group. Which made taking watches so everyone else could sleep the most logical task. They hadn’t encountered another shelter and were forced to spend more cold nights on the ground.
Not long into travelling together, Daniel began thrashing violently in his sleep. Arms and legs were thrown everywhere as he whimpered and cried to himself. She was reminded of her days following the Night of Fire and Wind and, instead of waking the man abruptly, she settled herself at his side.
Daniel threw a right hook that she narrowly dodged as her palm flattened against his sweat dotted brow. His eyes gained clarity as he realized who she was. Vhalla said nothing, making a soft shh’ing sound and beseeching him with her eyes to go back to sleep. His lower lip quivered, and he stared at her fearfully as she tenderly stroked away the sweat slicked hair from his forehead.
She didn’t lie to him. She didn’t tell him it would all be all right. She simply sat in solidarity, understanding his pain.
The next morning, he had a rough edge. Throughout the day, Vhalla made every effort to remind him of who he was, who she was, where he was going, that he escaped Victor’s clutches. It helped, for a bit, until the whole process repeated itself. Yet, despite all this, Vhalla hadn’t really understood the depth of Daniel’s terror until one late afternoon, a few hours into her watch.
That afternoon, a flash of light in the distance caught her eye. Vhalla stopped as she squinted across the bright snow toward the Great Imperial Way. Raising a hand to shade her eyes, three figures slowly came into focus. Two guards and a beast that crawled on all fours between them. The monster was worse than anything she had ever dreamed, could ever imagine.
A long black tongue lolled from its gaping jowls. Teeth too large to fit in its mouth jutted out at odd angles, razor sharp; inky black saliva oozed between them and dripped onto the road. Talons scraped through the snow, whispering on the stones of the road underneath.
She stood, transfixed with horror, before spinning into motion.
“Fritz,” she breathed, shaking her friend’s shoulder.
Vhalla clamped a hand over his groan. She raised her other finger to her lips, whispering hastily behind it, “We need an illusion.”
As she pulled her hand away, Vhalla pointed to the patrolling horrors. Fritz stared with disbelieving horror.
“Fritz, now!” she hissed
“Right.” He crouched down, waving his hands through the air. Vhalla saw the tell-tale shimmer of magic, like heat off stones on a summer’s day, between them and the road.
She woke Aldrik next. “Patrol.”
His dark eyes were immediately alert and awake. They darted to Fritz, who remained transfixed on his illusion.
They slowly woke the rest of the group. Sehra scowled the second her eyes opened, though Vhalla knew from the way her gaze instantly scanned the horizon, that her expression wasn’t because she’d been woken prematurely. Her focus settled on the horror, and she took a sharp intake of air through her nose.
“Sehra,” Za hissed. The archer unslung her bow from across her chest, pulling an arrow from the quiver at the small of her back.
“Hold,” Vhalla beseeched. Za scowled at the order. “Illusion.”
They both looked to Fritz before exchanging another glance. Sehra gave a small nod.
Vhalla turned back to the road. The crystal monsters were almost directly across from the group and showed no indication they had any idea of the travelers bedding themselves into the snow a good stone’s throw away. Everyone seemed to hold their breath.
Then Daniel woke.
Vhalla didn’t know if he woke on his own or if he sensed the tension in the air. Or if Jax had chosen to wake him in case they needed to run. Whatever the case, the result was the same.
The moment Daniel’s eyes caught sight of the patrol he began to shake violently. Vhalla tried to move in the same instant as Jax. She was farther away, he was slower.
A cry of sheer terror rose from Daniel’s throat. Jax’s hand clamped over his mouth so hard he pushed the other man down into the snow. It was cut short, but it seemed to echo through the still forest into eternity.
The beast’s pointed ears perked up, turning in their direction. Daniel remained thrashing on the ground, Jax trying to get him under control. They rolled in the snow.
“They’ve come for me!” Daniel wailed in horror, which made it true.
The beast and walking horrors began running toward the sound. Fritz looked back, panicked.
“Fritz, camouflage Aldrik as anyone else. Aldrik, Jax, Elecia, handle the soldiers. Za, Sehra, the beast. I’ll handle Daniel,” Vhalla ordered in quick succession, praying that the crunching snow under the fast approaching enemy hid her use of names. She didn’t know what connection they had with Victor, but she remembered how the reanimated solider had demanded people to kneel so Victor could see their loyalty.
Jax rolled off Daniel, and Vhalla jumped onto the panicked man. She wrestled with the flailing Easterner and focused on keeping him in one spot while the rest of the group set into motion.
Ice crackled as Fritz abandoned his illusion. Wickedly sharp spears blocked the creatures’ way, stalling them a moment. Za notched an arrow while Sehra raised a hand as Vhalla had seen her do in the Crystal Caverns. A flash of light and the arrow flew like a sunbeam, straight and true at the beast. It struck between the eyes, and the creature dropped dead.