Valeria watched the Warriors and their Heart Friends rush through the portal into her throne room and scatter as they searched for danger. Her stomach churned for the seemingly indeterminable wait while they were out of view. Dariad must have sensed her anxiety because he reached out and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. A moment later, Lydia and Bennu reappeared in view of the portal and waved them through.
Passing through a spatial gate was always disorientating. There was a momentÂ of transition when everything went black and seemed to spin violently before the portal spat Valeria out the other side. She staggered and because the floor was a couple of inches below where she expected to find it and would have fallen if Lydia hadn’t caught her. Valeria clung to the girl and gasped to repress her nausea as she waited for the portal sickness to subside and the room to stop spinning.
“Are you okay?” Lydia asked in a low voice. Valeria waited a moment longer while the last of the dizziness faded and then nodded.
“I get portal sick. I should have warned you. That’s why I never use them if I can help it. Right then.” She headed up the steps to her throne and seated herself, relaxing back and reaching for the control. A stab of relief that wasn’t her own shot through her and she blinked in surprise. The defensive weavings on the throne did have an intelligence of sorts, but they didn’t usually express emotions. If the throne was actually relieved at her return then the situation must be bad.
Your brother is a monster, your majesty, the defense system said inside her mind. Valeria felt her mouth drop open – it had never spoken to her beyond formal responses either. Wait until you see the dungeons. Now it sounded grim.
Later, she replied, though she didn’t like the sound of that. I need to deal with the dragons, and with the rebels and their slaves first.
Ah, the dragons have already mostly done the latter for you. Shall I show you?
Yes, please. Valeria opened her eyes and a glowing disc appeared in front of the throne. An image of the courtyard formed in itand circled around, showing Sirin and Maran unconscious not far from one of the escape tunnels and a dozen or so circletedÂ speakers lying where they’d fallen in a battle with the dragons. She swallowed fearfully at the sight but the throne immediately reassured her that there had been no fatalities so far.
Where are the non-circleted ones? she asked.
Out of range. They were fleeing when they moved out of range. There was a pause. Except for this one. An image of Huldre appeared in the disc. There’s something strange about him, your majesty.
Valeria was about to ask it what it meant when Huldre unleashed his successful attack on the dragons.
“What the hell?!” Hers wasn’t the only shocked cry from the room. She took a steadying breath. You’re right. That is strange.
“Damn! He’s heading for the doors. I think he’s sensed us!” Karen said. She readied her axes and took up a guard position between the throne and the doors to the courtyard. Alban ran up on the dais, and turned towards the door with an arrow already aimed at it.
Stop him, Valeria ordered the defenses.
Yes, your majesty. There was a crack and a fork of lightning shot from the carved lintel over the doors and across the courtyard striking Huldre directly in the chest. A strike from the Storm Palace’s defenses had stopped rampaging dragons dead in their tracks before but Huldre merely staggered back a few steps. He shook his head before continuing lumbering towards the doors.
Alban swore violently and for once Valeria was too shocked to chastise him.
What? she began but then pulled herself together. There would be time to worry about that later. Lock the doors. It won’t hold him long, but it will buy us some time. We need to think.
Yes, your majesty. The door began to crackle with bands of lightning. Valeria looked up at the guards Dariad had sent with her. “He’s unusually strong. Hopefully he’ll use some of it up breaking through the doors. The moment he does everyone hit him at once with everything you’ve got.”
“If the defense system couldn’t take him down, I don’t know if we can,” one of the guards muttered. Valeria glared at him, even though she was wondering the same thing. A banging thud against the door made her turn her attention back to the disc.
Huldre was methodically punching at the door with slow, measured blows, even though he knew there were several dragons behind him. He also had to know how many guards were with her. As she watched, the dragon who had grabbed the one which had nearly frenzied reappeared, just as Kyle and Darya reached Huldre.
The Water Warrior began glowing with a fierce blue light which rippled and surged like water as he struck at Huldre with his Urami. Simultaneously, Darya struck at the troll with a massive whip of water drawn from the pools in the courtyard.
Huldre grunted in discomfort and bits of rock fell from his back onto the flagstones. He paused briefly in his punching to swat at Kyle, but the boy ducked. A rock shield formed behind the troll and he went back to pounding away at the door, which was beginning to crack. He hit it one more time and it shattered inwards in an explosion of splinters, forcing the waiting guards to shield themselves as he strode into the throne room and headed for Valeria.
Once they’d recovered, Valeria nodded and they struck at him with everything they had as another bolt of lightning struck him from the throne. This time Huldre was driven to his knees. He started clambering to his feet as Karen leapt on him and struck at him with her axes. He screamed and flung her to one side, sending her head-first towards the wall. There was a blur and Kyle caught her.
“Hello, Karen,” he said as he set her back on her feet. “You’re looking well. I take it this crazy idea was yours?”
Huldre in the mean time had sunk back to his knees. Karen’s axe had bitten deeply into his head and he was bleeding profusely. He glared at Valeria and gave an animal snarl.
“Very well, Valeria. You win, but I’ll make sure you don’t enjoy it.” He lifted his hand and fired a blast of rock shards at her and then vanished.
The throne threw up a shield but the shards ripped through it. Valeria flinched back and closed her eyes, but they never hit. She opened them again to see Darya collapsing to the floor just in front of her.