But a scream was the only sound to escape as a stabbing pain knocked the wind from her chest.
“Vhalla!” Aldrik’s voice was raised, frantic.
Vhalla, another voice seared at the edge of her consciousness. It sounded like a dagger being drawn across glass.
She gasped for air, a violent shudder coursing through her. It was as though someone had removed her lungs and replaced them with ice.
“Vhalla, what’s wrong? What is it?” Aldrik was hopelessly frantic.
Don’t say his name, Victor’s voice purred. Do it and you’ll only make this worse.
“Aldrik!” Vhalla choked out defiantly. “He-he—”
She couldn’t utter another word. All the air was gone. Vhalla balled in on herself, trying to become so small the world would forget she existed. The agony was as great as some of the worst pains that had been inflicted upon her in the past two years.
“Major Jax!” Aldrik shouted.
Movement barely registered in her blurring vision. Her breath was quick and shallow, and she fought for every gasp. The firelight was reduced to glowing orbs in her quickly tunneling vision. More shouting, arguing, running footsteps, it was all happening to someone else very far away.
How badly does it hurt? Victor raked against her mind.
She couldn’t even choke out a response.
All because you said his name. I did warn you. Do you know what this is, Vhalla? Do you know what’s happening to you?
She was dying.
“Vhal, Vhalla!” a different voice cried for her.
Her eyes fluttered closed.
There is no pain here.
No pain, she agreed weakly. Darkness welcomed her.
If he truly loved you, he would take you away. But do you see what he does to you?
Victor smashed his way into her consciousness with the grace of a sledgehammer. He was pilfering from her awareness, encroaching upon all that she was. His essence was like a snare, the more she fought it, the tighter it wound.
“Vhalla! Don’t - - - - -ave to fig- -t!” The voices were fading; she was reaching the bottom of that abyss she was sinking into.
The truth is, Victor continued. It was as though he stood right next to her. He loves his crown, his Empire, his legacy. He fights for his own glory, just like his father.
Why do you still fight me, wretch? Do you not think the late Solaris started with pure intentions? You knew the man he was. Aldrik will be the same; he’s tasting war, and he will hunger it forever. The sensation of Victor pressed upon her, and Vhalla struggled to maintain her sense of self. But what’s Vhalla’s role in his world? Why doesn’t she fight for the winning side? Fight with me . . . What’ll be your destiny?
To kill you. Vhalla fought for—and meant—each of those words. He was like ice, invading her, freezing her in a prison of her mind where there was only him.
You know you can’t. Look at you now, prone before my might. Your tenacity to resist is charming, but I am much stronger than you give me credit for. It will only result in the deaths of those you—
Vhalla didn’t know if hers or Victor’s scream was louder. A blinding white light penetrated through the darkness. It immolated the shade of Victor that had been moving into her mind. It scorched her and exposed her like a babe raw to the world.
She opened her eyes weakly, not expecting the face that stared back at her. Princess Sehra dominated Vhalla’s field of vision. Her hands slowly pulled away from Vhalla’s temples before she sagged into Za’s waiting arms.
“Vhalla, my Vhalla,” Aldrik coaxed from her side.
She shuddered violently, but squeezed his hand as tight as she could.
“She’s too cold.” Elecia pulled her hand away from Vhalla’s face. “We must warm her up.”
“What’s happening?” Fritz asked the question on everyone’s mind.
“He’s using the crystals to entwine his magic with hers,” Sehra answered, instantly gaining the floor. “I wondered, when she lowered the gate, but I did not expect this . . .”
“Y-you saved me.” Vhalla couldn’t believe it.
“I did,” the princess didn’t mince words. “But he will be back. He’s stinging, but that was not a fatal blow.”
“Thank you,” Vhalla whispered.
Sehra regarded her for a long moment before giving a small nod.
“What did you do?” There was genuine gratitude in Aldrik’s voice.
“I used the power of Yargen to put a stop to the crystals,” Sehra spoke as though the fact should’ve been obvious.
“What is the power of Yargen?” Jax asked the question Vhalla had been meaning to.
Sehra and Za shared a look. After a quiet exchange in the Northern tongue, Sehra spoke again, although the rest of the room was keenly aware that they would be hearing an edited version.
“That which you call the Mother has a name, Yargen. She cultivated the earth and gave those tools to the initial peoples of this land.”
Vhalla had heard this story before, she realized. Victor had mentioned it.
“One tool was an axe, Achel, capable of splitting the earth and creating life. It was given to the first Child of Yargen, and the place they did so was Soricium. When their job was done, they committed Achel to rest. I am a descendent of the first child, and Yargen has chosen me to hold her magic.” Sehra went from addressing the group, to only addressing Jax. “So the magic of Yargen is her strength, the force of life and light and order.”