Elecia slowly blended in with the earth as she inched forward; eventually she became completely invisible in the darkness. Fritz squinted, watching a distant point, where they assumed Elecia would be. As he focused, a fog began to rise from the fields. Fritz slowly lifted an open palm and the clouds intensified.
“Won’t they realize it’s magical?” Vhalla breathed, not wanting to risk breaking her friend’s concentration.
“If they look carefully, they can.” Aldrik gripped his reins. “We’ll have to hope they don’t have a reason to look carefully.”
The gate was growing hazy. The torchlight of the encampment surrounding it faded to floating orbs in the mist.
“We should move.” Some mental timer of Fritz’s had clicked into its next cycle.
Slowly, they inched their horses through the fog-filled expanse. For the time being, they remained on the fields, the soft earth masking the horses’ hooves. Vhalla struggled to remain as still and taut as possible so her saddle didn’t rattle and ruin everything.
Crossing half the distance, they stopped again. Sweat rolled off Fritz’s brow. His hand was balled into a white-knuckled fist and the world held its breath between each of his soft pants.
Suddenly he sprang to life. Fritz drew his hand fast across his body, as though he was throwing something off into the distance. Upon the road, hazy figures appeared. Up close, they looked like nothing more than dense fog, but from the gate they would certainly be seen as riders.
“Emperor,” Fritz spoke between gasping breaths. He was using an unfathomable amount of magic. Vhalla wondered how long he could hold such a complex illusion for. “Throw flame from there to the gate, on my mark.”
Aldrik followed Fritz’s nonverbal gestures and gave a sharp nod. There was a whole shift in the Emperor’s form. Vhalla watched him transition from the man she adored into the Fire Lord the world feared.
Without further warning, Fritz cast his arm forward, nearly falling out of his saddle in the process. He grunted at the unseen magical exertion. The shadows began their phantom attack.
Aldrik flicked his wrist, sending a tongue of flame from the illusion soldiers to the camp. It was more effective than expected as one of their non-crystal shelters burst into flame. Cries and shouts filled the night air, followed by a screech that rattled the heavens. One of the beasts had left its perch in response. Large, leathery wings flapped, and the gleam of talons was barely visible through the haze.
“Come on,” Fritz pleaded.
“Come out and play,” taunted Jax with a bloodthirsty gleam in his eyes.
The beast swooped down off its perch, gunning for the illusions. Fritz swept his palms to the side and the fog riders dodged effortlessly. He pushed the magical burden to the right side of the camp and a good many of Victor’s loyalists poured out.
The beast cried, ascending once more to circle the sky. Vhalla wondered if it had somehow seen what was happening. Or if Victor had seen what was happening through his magical connection with the crystals. Its screeches could be a language in their own right, and it was trying to convey to the soldiers below the truth. If it was, she hoped no one could understand it.
Aldrik snapped his reins without word, trusting the three of them to follow his lead. They charged together, a second blurred streak through the fog. Fritz struggled to remain upright in his saddle, but he hung on.
The distorted and formless blur of Victor’s camp gained shape. Things had been set up to stay. Buildings were erected rather than tents, and latrines had been dug. Vhalla scowled at the crystal jutting up from the earth. Such a thing should’ve never existed.
The moment their horses crossed over onto the pristine stone of the East-West Way the soldiers who had remained in the encampment were alerted to their presence. Shouts rose only to be echoed by those who had chased the shadow riders. Vhalla’s head whipped back to Fritz. The Southerner was blinking, bleary eyed, his body halfway limp. The thinning of the fog wasn’t just her imagination.
Her heart raced. It pounded in her ears louder than Lightning’s hooves, and, for a brief moment, it gave her the illusion of the Bond. Vhalla gained strength from the beautiful lie.
The other beast launched off the gate, and fire arced through the sky. Aldrik and Jax moved in unison, creating a protective canopy of flame above them, thwarting the monster’s attack and setting buildings to flame at the same time.
With a flash of light, the gates sprang to life. Vhalla let out a holler of laughter in relief. There was no sign of Elecia, but if the woman had made it this far, she’d see it through the rest of the way. The massive doors sighed as they pushed against the ground, easing open.
A burst of desert air hit Vhalla’s cheeks, and she’d never felt anything sweeter. It was as though, despite everything, the wind still reached out to her. That it knew her Channel still lived deep within her, seeking it out. It called, promising that her future was there in its dusty breeze.
“Single file!” Aldrik bellowed. The heavy doors were moving slower than a glacier.
“Close the gate!” a man shouted from a high crystal ledge.
“Not on your life!” Elecia proclaimed, triumphantly. A dagger protruded from the man’s eye, and the Western woman threw the corpse aside, adjusting her bandana proudly.
“If you have time to pose, you have time to get down here!” Jax called up to her, throwing out another arc of fire.