Aldrik led their center. Vhalla was at his right hand, Jax at hers. The teams were smaller now, and there was barely enough room in some hallways to run three side by side, more or less fight.
Running with them were three men and women who she had neither met nor seen before, but she already trusted them implicitly. They had survived this far, and she had to assume it was for a reason.
The hallway they sprinted through opened up into a larger artery of the palace. Several sorcerers were waiting, and magic sparked on instinct. Aldrik and Jax were a well-made pair.
The Emperor stepped first, arcing fire between them and Victor’s supporters. Jax sprinted, full-tilt, into the flames. By the time Aldrik’s magic had vanished, Jax was searing one of the five to the bone. Vhalla was close on his tail but far enough behind to avoid being burned; she was ready the second the flames disappeared, ready to blow the face off one of the men.
“Keep on!” Jax shouted to her and Aldrik. “We’ll handle this rabble.”
They were close now, close to the pinnacle of the world. It was like they were spiraling upward into Victor’s domain. Once beautiful statues had been toppled. Paintings had ink splattered overtop. Banners of Solaris hung in tatters, defiled. Crystals became more plentiful, as though the caverns had moved with Victor and taken root in the palace, determined to spread its taint across the world and to cast its lot in with the most likely man to help it do so.
They had been fighting for hours, days, weeks, months, but suddenly the two of them stood at the end of the hall leading to the Imperial quarters. The once beautiful golden doors hung at odd angles, completely encased in giant spears of crystal. This was where Victor had chosen to make his stand.
They both paused, catching their breath, staring at the magic that was tangible in the air. It was the last barrier between them and their impossible dream. But it was a barrier of a power far beyond explanation and the madman who harnessed it.
“I’m not going to insult you and tell you to turn back,” she said, wishing her voice sounded a little stronger.
“Then I will do the same.” Aldrik turned to her, and she looked at him. It was a sliver of quiet before the storm. “I’m not going to say goodbye.”
“Then I will do the same,” she parroted in turn.
Vhalla turned, and Aldrik caught her arm. He didn’t have the strength he usually commanded when drawing her close, and Vhalla didn’t quite leap toward him as she usually did, but their desperate kiss still held weight. It didn’t feel like her first kiss; it was greater than that, more refined, heavier with all the words they couldn’t say. Her lips tingled for that brief second, and Vhalla wondered if they’d both lied, if that had been goodbye.
The Emperor and Empress started down the hall that spelled certain doom, intent on reclaiming their home.
Vhalla unfurled the taut control she’d held over Victor’s magic inside her. She slowly let it seep unhindered into her one final time. Sparks glittered on her fingers as she cleared a path through the crystal barricade to the central atrium of the Imperial quarters.
Victor sat bare-chested upon a throne of crystal. Stones embedded in his flesh pulsed in time with the crystals around him, their magic radiating outward. Victor had been right all along—the Crystal Caverns did, indeed, have a heart, and instead of killing it with the axe, he had claimed it and traded it for his own.
In a slightly different light, the crown shone weakly on his head. Her magic was dwindling from it slowly—perhaps another explanation for his weakening control over her—and that meant the taint was fighting more forcefully for his body.
They didn’t come armed with anything other than their magic; they held no crystal weapons to aide them, but Vhalla knew this was their best chance to destroy the heart of the Crystal Caverns once and for all—while it was attached to flesh. Victor slowly raised his head from where his chin had fallen onto his chest, flashing a wild smile.
“Look who it is . . .” he rasped, his voice like stones grating together. “The prodigal Emperor and Empress, returning to reclaim their home. You’ve created quite the stir.”
Aldrik was blank, impassive, immune to the taunts. Vhalla tried to follow his example.
“If you want power, come to me,” he cooed. “You’ve had a taste, you little leech. Come to me and have it all.”
Vhalla’s shoulders quivered, and a muffled huffing noise escaped before she could contain it. The next thing she knew she had thrown her head back in laughter. He had no principles or morals; it shouldn’t be surprising that even now the man had no shame.
“Oh, Victor.” Vhalla shook her head. “You underestimate just how much I need you to die!”
The gust of wind was among the strongest she’d ever produced, and Vhalla didn’t even lift a finger to create it—Victor had no time to brace himself. He was slammed back into the crystals behind him, his head snapping against their smooth surface. Vhalla knew better than to think that would be all it took.
Victor leapt up before she had time to summon her magic for a second attack. Aldrik was ready, however, and fire blazed through the air. Vhalla watched as he winced, his fire flashing in color briefly as he drew from the magic of the crystals to level the playing field between him and the other two combatants.
The crystals on Victor’s chest shone, and the fire moved over his skin harmlessly, as though repelled. Vhalla and Aldrik split, dodging in different directions as Victor launched into his first attack. They scrambled to their feet as the room tried to eat them whole. Gurgling and groaning, the walls shuddered to life. Thick layers of crystal rippled and rolled like waves at Victor’s will. Vhalla turned, holding out a hand and deflecting a sharp crystal point with her fingers. But these stones held a deeper connection with the madman than any prior, and she couldn’t control it for long.