“This place reeks,” Ossman grumbled, peering out over the landscape.
Armin clapped him on the back. “It’s a swamp, my friend. I have a feeling it would be a failure and offense to the Light if it smelled like roses and perfume.”
Ossman just grunted in response, although he did give Armin a small smile of thanks. Any bit of levity was needed. The swamp that had once been Dor’nah stretched before them as far as the eye could see, clouds of fog rising sullenly from the foetid water. Armin swatted absently at some stinging insect that took a bite out of his neck. They’d become increasingly prevalent as their little group had approached the swamp.
“I thought the princess said this was a forest,” Clarcia said from Armin’s other side, wrinkling her nose. “A dark and dismal woods or something like that.” The young Lumcaster had pretty much demanded to come, and since the they were possibly dealing with undead monstrosities created by an ancient dragon, Armin certainly wasn’t going to complain about having someone who could do more than use an arcwand.
“It probably was a forest when whatever book she was operating from was written,” Armin said, trying not to sound too defensive. From Clarcia’s grin, he wasn’t doing particularly well. “Landscapes change a lot, especially near a corrupted Lumwell.”
Clarcia grimaced. “You’re sure this is safe to pull from?” she asked, looking up at Armin. “I mean, you nearly died when you pulled from one that was tainted with unlight.”
Ossman grunted in agreement.
“It’s fine,” Armin said. “Necromancy doesn’t involve anything otherworldly like Unlight. You just stick a shadow in a body and bind it in chains of light so it has to animate the corpse. All that near a single lumwell, plus all the death that happened here…well, we’ll want to be careful because it’ll warp our casting, but it won’t harm us.”
Clarcia nodded, though she still looked doubtful. Armin was once again reminded she’d never had the benefit of collegium education. She had to learn pretty much everything through scraps of lore and folktale, and had done damn well with just that. Once you’re properly trained, you’ll be the strongest Lumcaster to walk this era. Armin thought.
Then again, that wasn’t as big an accomplishment as it had once been. Most powerful Lumcasters were long since dead.
“I think we should all just take a moment to thank the Light that we took this Skitter.” Armin fought the urge to sigh. Guiart Botsaris was one of finest Skitter pilots the Resistance had, and having him along to drive their commandeered vehicle was a relief. However, now that he’d said it, if they all didn’t pause to actually thank the LIght he’d be sullen for the rest of the day.
It’s not like he doesn’t have a point, Armin said as he bowed his head, hoping Ossman and Clarcia would do the same. Guiart took a moment to beam at all of them as they did before bowing his head himself. The man was two years Armin’s senior but with his round face and oversized ears looked four years his junior, an appearance not aided by his innocent devotion to the Light that Armin hadn’t even seen from an adult since the Alohym arrived.
But it didn’t hurt to thank the Light, especially since Guiart being with them had been unintentionally fortuitous. The plan had been to take horses the entire way here, but Ossman’s had broken its leg and Clarcia’s had taken sick. Duke d’Monchy had given them Guiart to them in large part, Armin suspected, because even he found the man’s relentless proselytizing tiring.
However, when they were down two horses, having someone who could operate a Skitter had been fortuitous. Now that they were faced with a swamp the Skitter could traverse easily but likely would have sucked horses down to their deaths, it was hard not to see it as a direct divine blessing.
Of course, if we were really blessed, we wouldn’t need to raid the lair of Tythel’s great-great-great however many times flathing great ancestor, the terrible necromantic dragon Grejhak. We wouldn’t need to because I would have figured out that flathing translation by now.
That was the real reason Armin hadn’t fought d’Monchy harder on this expedition. The idea that somehow, Grejhak’s horde had been unmolested for nearly ten thousands years was nearly impossible to countenance. But the idea they might find some of the ancient writings of Dor’nah to aid him in translating Theognis’ cypher…that, at least, Armin could be sure of.
“Enough silence,” said another voice. “We’ve given thanks to the Light, and I’ll thank it again when we’ve started moving.”
Armin smiled in response to this voice. It belonged to Aildreda Kollias, the last member of their little expedition, and Armin was glad to have her here. She was one of the most dangerous human women in the Resistance, a Woodwalker whose grandfather had trained with Lathariel herself, or so they said. Armin couldn’t speak to her grandfather’s skills, but could speak to Aildreda. She could track a mouse after it had been plucked off the ground in a hawk’s talons. Armin had seen her do it.
Oh, granted, the hawk had still been in sight, but she’d sold it well enough too fool him for a full minute, which was every bit as good in Armin’s view.
“Aildreda is right,” Armin said to Guiart. “Let’s get moving again. We’ve got a lot of swamp to cover.”
Guiart pouted – a grown man, pouting! – but he put his hands on the Skitter’s lattice mind and began to walk into the swamp. The long, thin legs that gave the Skitter its name sunk down into the swamp, but the filthy water was shallow enough to allow them to pass. The lattice mind was constantly scanning through the water, looking for solid patches of ground where the narrow legs wouldn’t sink – far better than a horse would have done.
“Alright, everyone,” Armin said as Guiart focused on guiding the lattice mind, “we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, and Tythel’s directions – what little of them there are – were based on this being a forest, not a swamp. We have to assume missing landmarks, at the very least. Aildreda, I want you sitting up front with Guiart. Try and find anything that might have been a path.”
Aildreda nodded and gave Armin a wink before sliding into the seat next to Guiart.
“Clarcia, I want you on the left. Ossman, on the right. If either of you see anything move out there, give it just a few seconds to prove its not hostile, then light it up and burn it to a cinder. We won’t start any forest fires out here, and I don’t want anyone dying because we decided to be nice.”
Claricia followed without delay, but Ossman gave Armin a raised eyebrow. “And what will you be doing, oh fearless leader?”
Armin gave Ossman the most disarming grin he could manage. “I’ll be fulfilling my most vital role. I’ll be sitting in the back, charging our arccells.”
He wished that had sounded less bitter than he felt.