“The crown . . .”
Vhalla gave a solemn nod of affirmation. There was much to think on with this revelation. Victor couldn’t tap into her Channel. Having her magic in the crown didn’t make him a Windwalker. Which meant that perhaps he had a finite amount of magic he was working with and slowly exhausting. The idea upheld their earlier theories of why he built walls with gates rather than building or tearing them down as he needed.
With two hands, she made full contact with the wall. Vhalla closed her eyes, thinking of it as an odd sort of Joining. She only needed to gain control of that underlying current beneath all the nonsense that was structured atop it.
Reaching out to the magic, she tried to welcome it once more into herself. It was just slightly different, the crystal magic and Victor’s pulling it in odd directions. It squirmed and slithered, resistant to accepting her. Resistant to letting her regain control.
Embracing the connection completely, she allowed what she thought was her magical pulse from the caverns to merge with her current magic. It connected with her in one breath—and horror settled in. The magic was not purely hers any longer.
A heartbeat echoed through her ears.
Mentally retreating, Vhalla tried to pull away. She tried to force the unwelcome presence that had piggybacked its way into her through her own sorcery. But it was already pulsing through her, poisoning her. Like spindly vines, it dug into her with deadly thorns. It joined with her essence.
She stumbled backward, a clamor of armor. Vhalla stared at her hands in horror as a maniacal chuckle echoed on the edge of her mind before fading away. She held her head tightly, trying to purge the slimy feeling that coated the underside of her skin.
“What is it? What happened?” Aldrik rushed over.
“Don’t touch me!” She stopped him at arm’s length. Too much had happened in those few seconds, and she needed to come to terms with it all.
“Not now,” she grit out.
His brow furrowed and he frowned in concern. But they were here to do a job, and they both knew it. Aldrik’s expression shifted as he visually invoked his training as both a leader and a lord to the forefront. “Can you open it?”
“I can do one better.” Vhalla pushed herself to her feet, clenching her fists. There was a deep pleasure coursing through her in the realization of new knowledge gained. She just wished she could say for certain it was her own.
“You’re trembling,” he whispered.
“I’ll be fine.” Vhalla hoped saying it would make it true.
The power within her rumbled as Vhalla stared the wall. Vhalla turned and marched back to her steed, mounting Lightning with confidence. She gripped the reins, hatred bubbling deep within her.
“Men and women of the Empire Solaris!” she shouted. The soldiers snapped to attention, near and far, as the wind carried her voice across the field. Aldrik mounted next to her. “Behind this wall is our land. For some of you, it is home. For others, it is the home of your children or your forefathers. The wall is a scar upon our Empire—when I remove it, you will push forward and you will kill every man, woman, and monster who does not mark themselves loyal to the true Emperor of this land!”
With cheers of bloodlust at her back, Vhalla returned her attention to the wall, summoning every ounce of her strength and of the new found understanding she’d gained of the dark Channel that now lived within her. Victor had made this wall. And if he could make it, she could tear it down.
Vhalla raised her hands slowly, shifting her magic. She thought of the crystal forces she had felt, of the madman’s magic lying underneath it. She loathed the moment foreign magic churned within her, responding, bubbling up through her hands. Vhalla grimaced.
Pure energy flew from her fingertips to the center of the gate. It was shapeless and colorless. The only time Vhalla had seen magic of its nature was in the North and in the Crystal Caverns.
Aldrik’s lips parted, and he looked away from the cracking gate. He focused only on her as the earth cried out in a monumental groan. He’d recognized the sorcery. It had been used on him as well. The Emperor shook his head slowly, horror spinning panic within his eyes. He knew, he had to know what now existed within her.
“To kill a monster, you must become one yourself.” It was all she could confess to the man she loved. Deep within her, rage spiraled out of control. Victor knew what she had done and could feel what it meant.
“Vhalla—” Her name on Aldrik’s lips was a pained and strangled whine.
“There’s no time now.” Vhalla turned back to the gate. Cracks raced to be the first to the top. Large stones began to loosen and fall as the magic of the crystals faded and fell dormant. The gate crumbled, and the whole wall began to topple like dominos following. “We have a war to fight.”
“Later.” He grabbed her forearm. Her resolve cracked at the wild concern in his eyes. “This will not just fade away unspoken.”
“Later.” Vhalla tried to coax her voice into being as gentle as possible, which was difficult when a foreign feeling of loathing began to mix with the cries of battle.
Aldrik pulled away, jaw clenched and brow furrowed. He turned sharply toward the startled encampment on the other side of the gate and rained fire down on the enemy. Vhalla’s eyes were alight with the flames as she heard the symphony of dying screams.