Armin awoke to sunlight streaming through the hole to the outside world. He could get a good view of the bottom of the canyon now, better than it ever had been from atop the plateau. It was more beautiful than he’d realized. The grass was green, unspoiled by hands of any of the sentient races of Alith, and the river was so clear that he could see the bottom of the riverbed where it wasn’t obscured by rapids. The trees that dotted the bottom had adapted to the limited light with multicolored leaves.
Even more beautiful than that was the lack of an army Armin had been sure would be awaiting them. It seems the Alohym had assumed they were all dead – or didn’t have troops in the region they could mobilize in time. The latter is more likely, Armin thought as he got up, stretching the kinks out of his back. Rocks made for poor sleeping, and many of their supplies were still up top on the plateau. Including bedrolls.
Can’t risk going back up there, he thought, cracking his neck and sighing in relief. He set off down the tunnel to give Duke Grephen d’Monchy the all clear.
He didn’t have to go far. The Duke was awake, and heading Armin’s way. “Lumcaster,” the duke said by way of greeting.
Armin bowed his head. “Duke d’Monchy. I’m happy to report daylight has revealed no lurking monsters or hidden armies that I can see.”
Grephen nodded and motioned for Armin to follow him back towards the entrance. “The princess and the others were carried several leagues by the Skimmers, I’m given to understand?”
Armin nodded. “Before Tellias’ armor ran out of light, it reported he had travelled over thirty leagues. Without power, it’ll take them considerably longer for them to return. Carrying the armor shouldn’t slow them down – between splitting the weight and Tythel’s strength, I mean.”
The Duke stared out over the valley, his lips moving quietly in thought. Armin didn’t need to try and read lips to follow the calculations. A league was about as far as a person could walk in an hour. They were looking at, best case scenario, three days for them to be able to reach the plateau – and that was assuming they were all uninjured and able to endure three consecutive days of walking. “We’ll need to have them meet us at the rendezvous,” the Duke said regretfully
Armin’s lips thinned, but he nodded in agreement. A small part of Armin still held enough wonder to be amazing that a Duke was discussing matters of strategy with him. “I’ll take Ossman and a small group of Abyssals to meet her, to make sure we don’t leave her or the Baron unguarded.”
“What about Eupheme?” the Duke asked, raising an eyebrow at Armin.
Armin snorted. “What about Eupheme?” he repeated. “Begging your pardon, but if she heard me suggesting she needed a bodyguard, she’d probably stab me in the face until I admitted she didn’t need a guardian. Then she’d remind me her job was to guard the princess. Then she’d stab me in the face again.”
The Duke gave Armin a small smile. “Why the last stab?”
“Because she’d want to make sure I got the point.” Armin returned the smile, although it faded quickly. “I’m worried about her as well, your Grace. She’s no more immortal than any of the rest of us. If they head towards us, we can catch them in a day and a half, two at most.”
“That would be the case…but you’re not going to meet them.”
Armin stiffened. “Begging your pardon, your Grace?”
“Master Armin, we lost many in the attack yesterday. We’re not quite as bad as we were before Rephylon’s defeat, but we’re stretched thin. To make matters worse, most of these men are injured – and all of them are demoralized. We’re going to lose even more to desertion as we travel, I’m sure of it.”
“I understand that, my lord, but I don’t understand…”
Armin found himself cut off. “On top of that, our funds are nearly depleted. I, Tellias, Lady Von Bagget, Lord Devos, the others…we’ve emptied our coffers to support the resistance. There’s little left. The treasures we were able to plunder from Hallith will help some, but after those are depleted we will have to resort to selling weapons – which we cannot afford. I need you to take a small group and secure additional funding.”
“The lair of the dragon Tythel spoke of. Grejhak, the Necromancer Drake.”
Duke d’Monchy nodded. “It’s a risk we have to take.”
“I won’t argue that,” Armin said. “But wouldn’t it make more sense to take the princess with us? Our chances of success when dealing with a dragon’s lair go up dramatically having a dragon with us.”
“It would make more sense, if she was still here. However, time is running short. We cannot wait for their return. If there’s any treasure to be had there, it will serve us well – but if it takes too long to arrive, we’ll come back to a starving army.” the Duke’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Or maybe we won’t. Starving armies rarely stay together under the best of times, and these are hardly good times. More likely the army we have will vanish, and we’ll be left with a few die-hards that cling to the resistance because their personal grudges with the Alohym outweigh their common sense.
Armin winced. He suspected that last line was a barb directed at Tythel. He didn’t bother trying to respond to that. Tythel had done little to pretend the Resistance as a whole was anything other a means to a end for her. Armin thought that Eupheme, Ossman, and himself meant more than that to her at this point, but that was unlikely to be what Duke d’Monchy was concerned about. “And if there’s no hoard to be found?” Armin asked.
The Duke sighed, and for a moment, there in the sunlight, Armin could see every line in the man’s face. He’d been a noble under Tythel’s grandparents. He’d served the Kingdom for more than twice as long as Armin had been alive. It was easy to forget how old he was. “Then gather what riches you can plunder, and what writing you need to decode those notes. The Vacuity Engine still remains our best hope for victory.”
“It’s a flimsy hope, my lord,” Armin said carefully. As tired as d’Monchy looked right then, Armin still felt the need to point out that they didn’t know what the Vacuity Engine even did. It could be a dead end.
The Duke laughed hollowly. “This entire resistance is built upon flimsy hopes secured to beams of impossible dreams with desperation and anger serving as brick and mortar, Master Armin. We should hardly start discrediting it now.”
Armin wanted to argue with that. He wanted to go and find Tythel and Eupheme. Tellias too, I suppose. But the Duke was right. Priorities had to be focused on the good of the Resistance as a whole.
Armin just wished he didn’t hate it so much.