The first imperiplate soldier burst through the door in a shower of splinters. Tythel let loose a burst of dragonflame the instant the barrier dropped, catching the soldier straight in the chest. Reflexes drove the man to raise his hands, but her flames did nothing except heating his armor.
“Tythel! The heat!” Eupheme shouted. The air in this room was rapidly reaching oven temperatures, and Tythel dropped the flames. The soldier would be protected from the extreme heat. Her friends would not.
The imperiplate soldier charged her, and Tythel barely got her shield up in time to meet his gauntleted fist. She swung awkwardly with the hammer, and dealt the soldier a glancing blow. The burst of energy that was released on impact sent him staggering to the side.
“Armin!” Tythel shouted.
“Almost there!” he responded.
The other two imperiplate soldiers were in the room now. Haradeth and Lorathor faced off against one, Ossman and Eupheme against the other. Their arcwands couldn’t penetrate the thick armor the soldiers wore. Their blades were almost useless.
It was a fight they couldn’t win.
Tythel brought her hammer down on the soldier in front of her as he started to regain his footing. He caught the blow on his arms, and the impact sent out a shockwave that rattled the devices and cracked the floor beneath his feet.
That’s it, Tythel realized with a sudden surge of hope. She brought the hammer down again, the same motion she’d used when beating on the top of the walker at the city gates. Each time the soldier blocked the blow, but Tythel didn’t give him time to recover. Hammer fell over and over.
Armin shouted something. Tythel could hear the words but they were lost in the sudden chaos as her last hammer blow landed. “Jump!” she shouted over Armin.
The imperiplate was too strong for Tythel to crack. Tythel’s hammer was too relentless for him to escape. Something had to give.
The floor, even being enhanced by a centuring of bathing in Light, ended up being the thing that couldn’t withstand the assault. It gave out under the soldier and set off a domino effect. The floor they all stood on collapsed in a ring around where the soldier had punched through, sending all of them tumbling to the room below them in a shower of stone and equipment and flesh.
There were sickening crunches from the floor beneath them as the soldiers that had been waiting there were crushed by falling debris. Tythel felt her hammer slip from her fingers as she jumped. The jump didn’t save her or the others from the impact, or from some of the outermost equipment caving in and bashing them, but unlike the imperiplate soldiers they weren’t half buried in the rubble. Tythel’s warning had come in time. The imperiplate was heavy – the soldiers wearing it had been drug down with the rocks, and were struggling against the equipment.
She heard the stones beneath them groan from the weight. It’s holding. Thank the Light, it’s hold-
Something caught the corner of her eye. Her hammer, carelessly dropped while still active, hit the ground and let out another one of its bursts of force.
The impact drove the hammer back up into the air, and the floor beneath them buckled. Tythel dove for the hammer, catching it before it hit again and sent them all tumbling. Hastily, she slipped her wrist through the thong on the end to prevent it from falling free if it collapsed again.
One of the imperiplate soldiers shifted, and the floor beneath them began to crack again. “Stop!” Tythel hissed at him, and for a wonder he did. Beneath them, Tythel could hear the rest of the tower being evacuated. “If you move we all die.”
The imperiplate soldier she had been battering, whose arm armor was twisted and cracked glanced around. “No,” he said after a moment. “I think we’ll survive. You, however, won’t.”
He raised his fist and slammed it into the floor.
It all happened in an instant. Tythel couldn’t follow what was going on. She could only lunge to the side and grab Armin before the collapse began. She made it to one of the walls and sunk her talons into the stone, Armin clutched to her chest.
She couldn’t hear the others over the sound of the floors beneath them collapsing. Someone was screaming, and Tythel realized it was her.
By some miracle or trick of the light, the tower around them did not collapse. Instead, the crashing continued for what felt like an eternity, each subsequent floor giving way to the weight of the floors above it until it became an ongoing cascade of collapsing masonry, changing from a series of distinct crashes to a single, ongoing roar.
Then, the chamber was flooded with light.
Tythel clamped her mouth shut as the sound stopped and dared a look down. There hadn’t been a complete collapse. At each floor, Tythel could see bits of stone and stairs sticking to the side of the walls. Shapes clung to those outcroppings, and Tythel could only hope some of them were the others. It was hard to make out, however, because they were silhouetted by the light coming from the lumwell far beneath them. Tythel had never seen one before, and it entranced her. She’d assumed lumwells would just be golden, but it wasn’t. It looked like a pool of gold swirled with other colors, red and blue and green and purple. A veritable rainbow spiraling out from the center on a sea of light.
And running counter clockwise to the beauty of the light was a second pattern, discordant splinters of unlight that cut through the beautiful pattern.
“If we fall,” Tythel asked Armin shakily, “would we die?”
“That’s an interesting question,” Armin answered. “Not in the traditional sense, no. We’d be turned into luminescent beings and dragged into a higher plane of existence from which no man has ever returned. Which, I suppose, would look a lot like death to the outside observer, but we wouldn’t join the Shadow. At least, that’s what scholars theorize. Any living thing that falls into a lumwell explodes into a shower of light. Which, really, isn’t all that different from dying.”
“You ramble when your scared,” Tythel muttered.
“Well, right now you’re holding me one handed over a lumwell, I think I have a right to be scared.
Tythel’s eyes were adjusting to the sudden brightness. Lorathor was clinging to the wall like she was, holding Haradeth by the back of his shirt. Several floors beneath them had soldiers desperately holding on to various outcroppings. As Tythel watched, one of those soldier’s fingers slipped. He fell, screaming, into the lumwell.
Armin had undersold what happened. The man didn’t explode. He more…dissolved, skin flying away into the light until all that was left was a rapidly disintegrating skeleton that vanished beneath the glow. As he was dissolved, the unlight splinters grew stronger.
“Oh,” Tythel said. She wanted to say more, but couldn’t find the words.
One of the clinging figures pulled themselves up onto a lone stair that was still attached to its mooring. Although Tythel couldn’t see clearly from here, the outline of Eupheme’s cloak was unmistakable. Which left only…
Ossman had managed to get an arm through a window before falling too far. It was twisted at an unnatural angle, but he was holding on for now. As Tythel watched, the arm began to untwist. “This much concentrated light is healing him,” Armin explained, following her gaze. “It’ll heal all of us. Of course, if we wait here too much longer it’ll keep healing past that. We’ll start developing tumors, new bones, third eyes in uncomfortable places-”
Tythel hissed, “Armin, stop,”
“Okay.” Armin closed his mouth, but couldn’t help adding one more thing, “that’s why no one uses the light to heal. I wouldn’t have even risked it on you if the device wasn’t designed to filter unlight. It heals your mind as it does with your body. If you don’t die, you end up going insane, becoming a terrible mutant – and that happens far more often than people actually getting healed. I don’t know what the addition of unlight will do, but-”
“Armin!” Tythel growled.
“Right, right, shutting up.” Armin clacked his teeth shut, but then started talking again. “Thank you,” he said.
“For changing your mind. I know we’re fighting something horrible, Tythel, and we’re going to have to do horrible things. But sending out a wave of arcfodder to die before our soldiers was wrong. It’s an Alohym strategy. If we’re no better than they are, we’re just going to replace one kind of monster with another. I think I would have forgiven you in time, but…I don’t know how.”
Tythel turned to face him and made herself smile. “I’m naming you my first royal advisor,” she said. “You’re now Minister of ‘Reminding Tythel to Not Become Terrible.’”
Armin let out a strangled laugh. “I don’t think I’ll serve very long.”
Below them, another scream as a soldier fell into the light below. Tythel looked back to the others.
Haradeth’s shirt was starting to fray. Ossman’s arm was healing, but as it twisted back to its correct location, it was forcing his grip to slip.
Tythel took a deep breath. “No, Armin. I don’t know how, but your position will be a long and prosperous one. We’re going to get out this. I swear it.”
It was an easy promise to make. After all, if she was wrong, no one would be able to call her on it.