He looked every inch a king upon the throne, save for the stones marring his skin. The crystals were embedded into his flesh, jutting from his body, growing from his bones. His veins pulsated black around them, the taint struggling to take hold. On occasion he’d shift his attention from the scene before him to one of the stones. It’d flash faintly, as if whispering to him, communicating with some distant point.
She wanted to feel hatred at the sight of him, she wanted to be ready to launch herself—even in a dream state—into an attack. But all Vhalla felt was empty. He didn’t look like a man any longer, he looked like a God. A God who had worn her down past the point of exhaustion.
However, following his line of sight, the object that he looked at with such malicious delight, brought feeling back to her—and the feeling was horror. It compelled her to movement. She held out a translucent hand, as though she was more than just a spectator in the nightmarish memory to which she bore witness.
Laughter rang out from all sides of the hall. Men and women swathed in black robes sat on one side of long tables, feasting and enjoying in the night’s revelries. In the center of the room were ten people, naked with sacks tied over their heads. They were of varying ages, from varying backgrounds, but the one commonality they shared was trembling fear.
“Who would like to go first?” Victor called from behind her.
“I found and put to death four Commons for besmirching your name!” a black robed man cried as he stood.
“I orchestrated the Eastern advance!” another shouted.
A third stood. “Two of the fare are women I supplied—Easterners!”
“To the man who is our benefactor goes the honor of the first spoils.” Victor’s voice grated through the cavernous space like rocks scratching over glass.
Stop, Vhalla pleaded futilely with the memory. She knew the time she was witnessing had long passed, but the fragile sanity she’d managed to scrape back together was threatening to break if she was forced to endure another moment of what was coming.
The man stood, walking around the table with a small applause from his peers. Arms folded over his chest, he strolled down the line of shivering people. Each one flinched as his boots clicked past them. Victor shifted in his seat, grabbing both arms of the throne in anticipation.
“They are Commons.” The man walked back to one of the dinner tables, grabbing a long meat knife from a plate. “They are not worth our magic, not even to die.”
With a swift kick to the shoulder, the Common man on the end of the line was sent onto his back. Arms and feet bound, he could do little more than whimper on the floor. Kneeling beside his victim, the hooded soldier gripped his blade firmly.
Placing the silver flat against the man’s flesh at the elbow, he slowly worked the blade under the skin. With careful precision, he picked at the skin, pulling up a tiny flap. He pinched the stretching flesh, proceeding to flay the man’s arm.
Vhalla wanted to scream. She wanted to shout. She wanted to be free of this nightmare. But she couldn’t be. No matter how hard she struggled, she couldn’t escape. So she gave in. She gave the people the only honor she could give them. She bore witness to the horrors Victor’s men reaped upon the Commons. She saw with her own eyes the horrors that could thrive in men’s hearts when their victims begged for freedom, mercy, and the end.
It was during their fifth torture when an arm shook her, freeing her and jolting Vhalla awake. Vhalla promptly retched, barely missing the edge of their sleeping mat.
Aldrik placed his hands on her shoulders, and she flinched. The memories seared behind her eyelids. Covering her mouth, Vhalla struggled to regain control of her body. Her head hurt, her eyes only saw the nightmares, and her shoulders wouldn’t stop trembling.
That entire day, Vhalla felt that same horrible emptiness she’d endured in the dream. A feeling of hopelessness before the horrors. She didn’t know anymore which feelings were her feelings and which feelings Victor was projecting into her. She was untouchable to her friends; no matter how much they yearned to help, it was useless. She had to endure the nightmares, the shakes, the horrors, his voice, one hour after the next.
Egmun had been right, Vhalla mused one night. He had warned them that this would happen if she lived. He had tried to kill her from the onset. He couldn’t say why; his own history was a secret. But he had known. It was just another piece in a puzzle that came together too late. What if they had all actually worked together from the start rather than casting doubt upon each other?
Vhalla looked up at the sky tiredly, too exhausted to straighten her back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept. Her eyes drifted over to Aldrik; dark circles surrounded his eyes, his cheeks looked hollow, and his skin was translucent. Her condition was beginning to have a very real effect on their Emperor, the only one who could band the empire together and lead the army as they had.
If I die, you die. Vhalla hadn’t believed Victor’s words then. But if they were true, it could present an unexpected solution to their problem. Her mind circled around the notion for the rest of the day’s ride.
That night, Aldrik presented her the last thing she’d expected.
“I thought we wanted to use this connection for me to find out information, to find something useful.” She stared at the vial of Deep Sleep.
“You’re not sleeping. You won’t get to him at all if you keep this up.”