The skin of Victor’s face changed from flesh-colored to a sickening grey, to a deep crimson. Hot spots speckled her face as his blood dotted her skin from every vicious bludgeon. She heaped her pain, her frustration, upon her target. And, just as she was to cross the threshold into what would be his death, her hands stopped again.
And Vhalla let out a raw scream of anguish. “Kill him, Aldrik!”
Aldrik didn’t move. He hesitated, and she wanted to loathe him for that.
“I can’t.” Vhalla glared down at Victor. The man was somehow laughing through his chipped teeth and mangled torso. “I can’t, so you have to do it!”
“If I die, she dies.” Victor threw the verbal gauntlet.
“No more talking!” Vhalla shoved half the dagger, blunted side, down the man’s throat.
“Is it true?” Aldrik demanded, the last of his hopeful ignorance cracking. Looking at the pain painted in blood on her face should’ve been evidence enough.
“He’s the false king, you can’t trust anything he says.” Her voice broke from frustration and exhaustion. She wanted it ended. Victor was determined. Aldrik was hesitating. And she couldn’t do it.
“If I kill him, will you die?” Aldrik rephrased the question.
“He must die!”
“Will you die, Vhalla?” Aldrik raised his voice to compete with hers.
“Will. You. Die?” He’d crossed over to where she was still kneeling on Victor’s chest.
Vhalla stared up at him, unmoving. She didn’t blink; she didn’t even breathe. There wasn’t anything to say, and, in her speechlessness, he saw the truth.
“No,” Aldrik breathed, shaking his head. “No, Vhalla.” He looked back down to Victor. “We will chain him in Windwalker’s chains. He’ll keep the crown so he can live out the remainder of his miserable life. We can move him West, or into the darkest dungeons here. We can find a cell where he’ll never see the light of day again.”
Vhalla drew herself to her feet as he rambled. She unstrapped her plate, there was only one option left now.
“You didn’t believe it,” Vhalla reminded him. She didn’t want Aldrik to force her hand in this way. “When we were Bonded, you didn’t believe that if one of us died, both of us would.”
“But there isn’t enough research to say one way or the other.”
“Exactly. So we never let it get in our way before.” She remembered the sandstorm. Was she able to run head-first into certain danger because she’d believed she’d be magically stopped if it was going to kill him? Or because she never believed in mutual death? “It’s time to conduct some research.”
Aldrik opened his mouth to speak, but Victor had had enough time to recover, and he sent a wave of magic at both of them. Vhalla and Aldrik tumbled in different directions. The points of the crystals were far more agonizing with only her chainmail.
The Emperor engaged the false king. But Vhalla had a different battle to fight, one with herself. She pulled the fine chain Aldrik had made for her over her head, casting it aside. The clang of it falling to the floor distracted both men and neither seemed to be able to conceive what she was doing.
One more spear of crystal. Not a sword, not a dagger, just something with a wicked point. Aldrik’s eyes widened in horror. Victor snarled with the same realization.
Vhalla’s breath quickened. Did she have the strength to do this? Was she brave enough to really put an entire Empire before herself? It was time to find out.
They both moved, trying to stop her for different reasons. Vhalla clutched the crystal, white knuckled, and drove it through her abdomen. She grit her teeth, pain instant and agonizing.
“You bitch!” Victor roared.
“If you kill him, Aldrik, maybe I will die,” she panted. “Maybe I won’t. And you can help. But if you do not kill him, I will kill myself to try to take him with me, and you have no more Bonds to bring me back.”
A surge of magic hit Vhalla square in the chest. She flew backwards, the bloodied crystal falling from her fingers. Her unprotected back was torn open by the stones. Vhalla wheezed with laughter, letting herself be reduced to a puddle of blood.
“The Bond says I can’t kill you, Victor, but apparently it says nothing about letting myself die!” Vhalla laughed grimly. Unlike when Victor had been freezing her to death, Vhalla’s senses felt heightened. Blood flowed freely from the gaping hole in her abdomen, coating her fingers that instinctually pressed against it. But she saw Victor clearly. She saw her husband. She would witness the end.
“I will encase you in crystal, you impossible cur, and you shall be mine forever!” Victor let out an animalistic sound of anguish, what was left of his face twisting into rage. He raised a hand and crystals encroached upon her. Vhalla struggled to keep them at bay, her magic finally faltering.
An explosion of fire distracted Victor from trapping Vhalla in place. She dismissed the remaining crystals with small explosions of black glass, which shredded her skin in the process. Vhalla saw Aldrik engaging Victor with all the fight he had left in him. Victor was pinned against the wall, Aldrik’s hand clasped over his mouth.
“You do not speak that way to your Empress,” Aldrik growled.
Fire licked around Aldrik’s palm, and he unleashed his magical wrath upon the man who had killed his family and stolen his throne. What crystals remained on Victor’s body began to shine, but his magic was weak and fading, just as Vhalla’s was. She put her last remaining strength into rendering his magic useless, into exploding every crystal that marred his body.