Elecia ran down the pitch of the short roof below her, falling to the ground with a roll. She recovered, scrambling to her feet and launching into an all-out run. Two screeches filled the air, and Aldrik focused on maintaining a shield of fire large enough to cover the three of them.
Vhalla did as she was supposed to do. She focused on getting herself through the gate. Everyone had a job, and hers was to follow orders and keep herself alive.
“It’s the Fire Lord!” a woman growled.
These were Tower sorcerers; of course someone would recognize Aldrik’s magic. But when Vhalla cursed, Aldrik laughed.
“If you know who I am, why do you even try to fight?” He opened both arms wide. Two walls of fire ignited the camp, and most of the soldiers who were trying to rain their own magic upon them.
A scream wiped the expression from Aldrik’s face.
Elecia rolled on the ground, tackled by an icicle-wielding Waterrunner.
“Elecia!” Vhalla cried.
“ ‘Cia!” Aldrik used the childhood nickname in anguish.
Elecia threw the man off, pouncing on his chest and slitting his throat viciously. “Go!” she screamed.
Vhalla began to turn Lightning.
“By the Mother, woman, go.”
Vhalla’s heart beat in her throat. She had fallen to the last in their line, and if she didn’t go, Elecia likely wouldn’t make it. Another tongue of flame licked at a sorcerer behind Elecia, the woman running in a desperate attempt to catch up.
She turned forward and braced her heart at the feeling of leaving her friend behind.
They crossed through the doors, barely enough clearance for them to race through single-file. A whole encampment greeted them on the other side. But the crimson, phoenix-bearing pennons that fluttered were a welcome sight.
Western soldiers, likely those who had been sent to help the East, had been roused by the commotion. A line stood across the road, swords at the ready.
“Let us pass!” Aldrik ordered at the top of his lungs. “By the order of your true Emperor, let us pass!” He shot a ball of flame high into the sky for emphasis, and it lit up the ground below like a small sun.
The soldiers parted, and the Emperor’s company continued to race down the East-West way. Fire and ice erupted above them as the Western army joined the fray, fighting off the beasts and pushing through the gates. Vhalla swept her eyes quickly over her group. Aldrik in front, Fritz at her side, Jax pulling up the rear.
Vhalla whirled her horse in place, Lightning whinnying in protest at the sudden demand.
“We must go back.”
Her heart was about to break a rib, her breath frozen in her chest. Vhalla tried to make sense of the commotion at the gate. Western soldiers swarmed the opening. Groundbreakers attempted to raise stones to prevent the gate from closing. Firebearers kept the abominations at bay. They had kicked an ants’ nest, and Vhalla only cared about finding one in the swarm.
She knew Aldrik would tell her to keep going. She knew she had made her choice. She was the one who had agreed to Elecia’s plan, knowing the risks. Now she had to live with the knowledge that she had gotten her friend killed.
“No, no, it’s my fault. I must go back for her.” Vhalla’s voice cracked for the first time in a long time.
“I shouldn’t have left her behind. I was closest.” Vhalla remained focused on the gate, not allowing Aldrik to interrupt her. “She was my friend, she was to be my kin, and I just left her! Why did I let her do it?”
“Because you knew I could.” A female voice stopped her. Vhalla slowly drew her gaze to Jax’s horse. Wrapped tight and pressed to the back of the Western man was a set of emerald eyes Vhalla knew well. She’d been hidden by Jax’s cloak, but now she grinned in all her triumphant glory. “I didn’t know you cared so much. I want to make sure you’re at my real Rite of Sunset when the time comes. I think you’ll bring a tear to every—”
Elecia’s word was reduced to a grunt as Vhalla threw her arms around the other woman. It was awkward from their saddles and Jax seated next to her, but Vhalla didn’t care. She squeezed Elecia tightly, reassuring herself that the woman was alive and well.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Is this whole embracing nonsense going to be common when you become my cousin?” Elecia drawled. “Because it’s really not a thing here in the West.”
“I thought I killed you.” Vhalla smiled at Elecia’s abrasiveness and pulled away some.
“If I got killed, it would’ve been my fault because I wasn’t where I was supposed to be—not because you had given the order for us to move as we did.” The woman’s voice had softened significantly. “It may be hard for you to believe, Vhalla Yarl, but the world isn’t always about you.”
Vhalla laughed in relief. Elecia freed herself from the Easterner’s clutches and dismounted to return to her own mount. The woman gave Vhalla one more small smile, and a nod to Aldrik.
“Let’s keep moving while the beasts are distracted.” Aldrik appraised the gate once more. “We’ll rest at the first noble estate we come to.”
They rode into the dawn. Vhalla watched the sun rise over the dunes, and relief swept through her. They’d made it from the East. There were a million things that remained for her to worry over: her father, Hastan, Victor’s advances, and the creation of abominations. But, for a brief moment, she let herself appreciate the wind in her hair. She relished her friends surrounding her. And she believed that something great awaited them.