With just the one weapon and a leather jerkin, she struck a course northward. Given all the reports she’d been receiving, it seemed like the most logical location for her Emperor. A red sunrise streaked across the sky, mirroring the crimson land before her.
The casualties had been heavy, heavier than she expected given the number of soldiers who had been in the Western force surrounding the city. But the hulking corpses of giant winged beasts offered a chilling explanation. Teeth longer than her body jutted out from their massive jowls. They had almost canine-like heads but with thick leathery skin pulled taut against oddly shaped muscles. Some had two arms, some had four, one even had six. They had the wings of a wyvern and scorpion-like tails. It was a creature that the Gods had never intended to exist, and the now-dormant crystals embedded in their bodies glinted like dull obsidian in the sunlight, slowly cracking into dust.
A handful of men and women were surrounded, forced to their knees. Soldiers waited around them, sorcerers and Commons alike, ready to execute the traitors who had ridden in to kill them all on the backs of monsters. The lean figure of a man was mounted before the lot—an Emperor casting judgment on those who fought against his throne.
“. . . forsake the false king.” Vhalla could hear Aldrik’s words as she approached. “Those who give information will be rewarded with their lives.”
No one spoke.
“You protect a coward,” Vhalla called out, announcing her presence. Aldrik turned in surprise as she rode up next to him. “You stand with a man whose power comes not through his own merit—as he would have you believe—but through theft.”
“What would you know?” one of the kneeling sorcerers demanded, curiosity drawing the words from him.
“I know all too well,” Vhalla replied quietly, “because I was the one whose powers he stole.”
Now she had their attention.
“Victor could not open the caverns on his own; he wasn’t strong enough to manage the crystals. I know because he needed me to help him do it. When he had what he wanted, he stole my magic to make him immune from the taint.”
“Lies!” one sneered. “The taint only affects those of weak will, Commons, and lesser sorcerers.”
Desperation carved the way for stupidity in the hearts of men.
“You can’t possibly believe that. Is that what Victor has told you? That you are the strong ones and immune?” She shook her head with a bitter sorrowful laugh. “He has written you off as expendable with his lies.”
“Are you really the Windwalker?” a timid voice asked from among them.
“I was.” Vhalla spoke only to the man who had asked. “I was the Windwalker until he stole my powers. Now I am a Commons. It was my magic that unleashed this monster upon the world—”
“Vhalla . . .” Aldrik had a cautionary note.
“—but because of that, no one will fight harder than me to do what is necessary to right that wrong.” The words hurt. They hurt like the wind still hurt on her cheeks, plain and un-magical. But it was finally the right kind of hurt. The hurt of a confession that needed to be said. “This is but a night. The sun will rise again, and I stand with the dawn.”
She looked to the Emperor. His eyes were a chameleon over the past few weeks, constantly changing to match the woman she was becoming.
“Who will stand with the sun?” He tore his eyes away from her to make his final demand.
The man who had asked his timid question stood slowly. “A false king sits on a false throne.”
“You disgrace sorcerers,” another loyalist spat. “You’ll follow a liar and a Commons.”
“Strength channels its own magic,” the man said in reply, looking directly at Vhalla.
“Who else will stand with us?” Vhalla demanded.
Two more stood.
“Why take pity on them?” a Western soldier finally spoke. “They fight against your Empire. Put them to death.”
“Because a wise woman taught me that no soul is beyond saving,” Aldrik replied easily.
Vhalla’s chest tightened, instantly thinking of Larel.
“Those who stand with us, live; those who do not, die. Make your choice. Dawn comes and it will wait for no man.” Aldrik turned back to Victor’s sorcerers.
Two more stood, five in total. That was all who were spared. Vhalla bore a silent witness to the other sorcerers who died for Victor’s ideal. Men and women who had become so tainted with his lies that they valued his dogma more than their lives.
Vhalla counted every man and woman put to death. Twenty-three in total. She shifted in her saddle and felt the sword pulling heavy on her shoulder. The next time she saw Victor she would stab him herself, Vhalla resolved, twenty-three times.
Vhalla rode back to the government building in silence. She visually checked Aldrik over several times. He had countless bruises and a gash by his shoulder, and she was prepared to scold him for not seeking treatment sooner, but he was okay, overall. A sickly feeling had bubbled in her stomach, but it was quelled at the sight.
How many more times would she have to watch the people she loved ride off to war?
She stayed a quiet shadow at Aldrik’s side until a cleric demanded his attention, and then she slipped away. Vhalla drifted through the halls, suddenly exhausted. She’d put everything she could think to the test, to be the Empress the people needed, and she wasn’t sure if she had even come close.