Aldrik’s flames burned hotter and hotter. Vhalla willed her magic into him. She willed the crystal’s magic. She willed fate and love and everything that she held dear in the world into her Emperor’s fire. It burned from Victor’s nose, licked from his ears, boiled his eyes in their sockets before bursting through his skin with flames as brilliant as the crystal’s magic.
She felt the moment it was over. Vhalla wheezed, struggling for air.
Victor’s body went limp, pinned against the wall by Aldrik’s hand. Aldrik slowly released, letting the charred remnants fall to the floor. When he turned, he looked at her with eyes brimming with tears, with fear.
It wasn’t Victor’s death that hit her, it was the fracturing of the crystal magic. All the crystals in the room darkened and splintered. Like a rug pulled out from underneath her, Vhalla felt her magical essence struggling to find something to grab to now that Victor’s magic and the crystals were gone. Her body was the splintering fractures across their surfaces.
Vhalla gasped into the air, focusing on breathing, focusing on seeing the dawn she had fought so hard for.
Her body was wracked with shudders and shakes. Vhalla clenched her teeth together out of fear that a violent convulsion would result in her accidently biting off her tongue. She rolled onto her side, trying to find her feet, trying to stand.
Whatever the nature of the Bond between her and the—now dead—Victor, there was more to it than she gave credit for. Moonlight streamed through the glass above her, shining through the refractions of dying crystals. Perhaps that was it, more than the Bond. Perhaps it was that she too had come to share in the heart of the crystals, and, as they died, she would, too. Or perhaps it was just the gaping wound in her stomach.
“Vhalla, Vhalla,” he repeated her name, over and over again, as though all other words had vanished from his lexicon. Aldrik’s arms enveloped her, hoisting her up, holding her to him.
“I’m sorry, Al-Al—”
“Hang on,” a soft whine of agony weakened his words. “This isn’t the end.”
Vhalla reached up a hand and clutched the bloody and soot-covered plate that kept his chest from her. She lamented the metal’s existence. She would give anything to rest her head one more time on him and hear his heartbeat and breaths. Her fingers clawed at the armor, as though she could scrape away the barrier.
“I had to.” She finally found a grip on his armor and her mental capacity. “Please, don’t resent me, my love, I had to.”
“I know, I know.” Aldrik was sprinting down the hall. The sounds of glass shattering filled her ears. “We must get you to Elecia.”
She sighed softly with a shake of her head. A cool numbness was tickling the edges of her fingers. It was lulling her into a gentle stasis. “I’m sorry that you will endure this—”
“I am enduring nothing!” he shouted, less at her than the world. Aldrik swallowed hard, and Vhalla watched the lump in his throat bob like the invisible knot he was trying to dislodge. “Don’t you dare leave me, Vhalla Yarl Solaris. Not now.”
Her eyes fluttered closed. Vhalla Yarl Solaris, she thought to herself. That was her name. So much had happened, but Vi was wrong. Vhalla hadn’t traded her fate. This was simply another turn of the vortex. The first Empress Solaris had died a fate connected to the Crystal Caverns; the second would do the same.
Aldrik sprinted downward. The crystals no longer responded to their presence. They stayed dull and darkened as the two Imperials sprinted through the palace. Aldrik’s fingers dug welts into her flesh.
His efforts were beautiful. He was beautiful. Even wounded, a chunk of his ear missing, that bump in his nose that had been set wrong—he was stunning to her. A shudder almost cast her from his arms, forcing the Emperor to slow.
“Hush,” he commanded tensely. “Don’t talk, please, not one word. Save your strength.”
He was on the move again, propelling them forward. His eyes remained glued to a distant horizon. Hope flickered through them, an ever elusive beacon in their world. Her vision blurred, and Vhalla finally began to panic.
She didn’t want to lose him. Her magic was there, barely felt. But everything was disjointed. Nothing connected, forcing her into a limbo between life and death. Vhalla’s eyes fluttered closed. Victor had taken everything from her. He could not win the world, so he would settle for taking her part of it in death.
“Vhalla, open your eyes.” Aldrik intentionally jostled her in his arms. Her head lolled against his shoulder. “Open your eyes, damn it!”
She obliged, a small sliver of light returning to her. She tried to think of how much ground he could’ve covered with her, where they would be going. His chest heaved in contrast to the small swells of hers.
Imperial soldiers were ahead, a whole patrol of them. Aldrik’s feet quickened with the dangerous fuel that Vhalla knew to be hope. Her chest ached, and not just because of the beginning stages of cardiac failure.
“Where is Elecia?” Aldrik barked, his voice thick and hoarse.
“M-my lord?” The soldier was aghast at the visage of their Emperor carrying their dying Empress.
“Lady Elecia Ci’Dan! Where did she set up her triage?” Aldrik’s grip tightened even further.