At some point, Tythel had fallen asleep leaning against Tellias’ armor. When she woke up, there was no more light coming in from the hole above, and the crackling sound of flames had died down. The only thing she could hear was Tellias gently snoring and a pair of heartbeats. The second heartbeat was in the shadows that were too deep for Tythel’s eyes to pierce. “Eupheme?” she said hopefully.
“Of course,” Eupheme said, stepping forward into the light and rubbing her eyes. She looked exhausted and haggard, and parts of her dark cloak were burned away. “I was hoping one of you would wake up so you could take a turn at keeping watch.”
Tythel gently extracted herself from under Tellias’ arm. He murmured something in his sleep and shifted, but didn’t awaken. “Are you alright?”
Eupheme sighed. “Close enough, I suppose. Uninjured at least. They lost track of me pretty quickly.” She settled herself down on a flat stone, stretching her back. “How’d you know there was a cave down here?”
“I didn’t,” Tythel admitted. “It was the only place I could think of that might be safe from the flames – I was planning to tunnel a bit to keep us out of sight from above. Having to crawl away a bit was…well, the next best thing. I thought you were going to the rendezvous?”
“That’s what you told me to do,” Eupheme said, bringing her hand up to work her neck. “I decided that was a fine thing for you to want, but there was no way I was abandoning you for that long.”
Tythel bit back her initial retort. She was struggling to read Eupheme right now, more than usual. She was tense, that much was clear at least. “Are you-”
Eupheme shook her head before Tythel could even finish the question. “That was different. You made a heat of the moment call, and it wasn’t suicidally stupid. You didn’t deliberately shove me to safety and then poison the air so I could jump back, you just told me to leave – which meant I could ignore you if I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not thrilled with it, but…well, we were well and truly flashed if you hadn’t done that.”
Tythel blinked in sudden relief. “How did you find us?”
Eupheme shrugged slightly. “While you were pretending to be dead, I stuck a sliver of shadow to your foot. It’ll fade with next sunrise, but it seemed prudent.”
Tythel’s eyes crinkled with understanding, followed by a surge of guilt. Something was clearly bothering her friend and Tythel was busy basking in the relief that Eupheme wasn’t angry with her. “What’s wrong? Does it have anything to do with that other Umbrist?”
Eupheme nodded mutely. For a moment, she only stared at the cave floor, so long Tythel was about to break the silence when Eupheme spoke. “I…I saw her in the Inn. I knew she was a Writ Hunter, but I never imagined she…I didn’t expect her to attack you. Shadows damn her for making me…she knows what this means!”
“Making you what?” Tythel asked.
“I am sworn to deal with any threat to you, your highness,” Eupheme said. The anger from her last sentence was starting to fade, replaced with a creeping numbness. “No matter who she is.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tythel said, walking over and putting an arm around Euphemia’s shoulders. She could feel the other woman shaking, and a terrifying realization crept over her. Eupheme was silently crying. Eupheme. It was as if she’d seen an Alohym binding an injured child’s scraped knee while cooing tender words. Alien, unnatural, and deeply disturbing. Tythel thought she was better equipped to see Nicandros return and start crying then she was for Euphemia’s tears.
At least she knew what to do here. She wrapped her arms around Eupheme and pulled her in close, so Eupheme could cry into her shoulder. She waited until Eupheme finally wound down. “Who is she?” Tythel asked gently.
Eupheme shook her head against Tythel’s shoulder. “I know it’s hypocritical, I know I should tell you…but I can’t. Not yet. I can tell you what you need to know about her, but who she is…I’m not ready for that.”
“It’s okay,” Tythel said. “Light and shadow, I’m the last person to judge someone for keeping secrets.”
Eupheme laughed, a desperate, choking sound, and pulled her head away. “I guess I can’t argue that.” She wiped her eyes. “Her name these days is Leora Dimici. She’s an Umbrist. You know that, you figured that part out already. But she’s not like me – she chose to forsake her vows. Said that even if the Royal Family returned, they failed to protect us from the Alohym. They didn’t deserve our protection.”
Eupheme started to fiddle with the hem of her cloak, winding her fingers through the frayed threads. “She started using our gifts for profit. Theft for her own gain, murder for hire, and Writ Hunting for the Alohym. It’s an abomination. We fought about it. She said one day I‘d see the truth. Then she…then she left. I haven’t seen her since then.”
Tythel blinked sadly. “I’m sorry,” she said, knowing how weak the words sounded.
Eupheme seemed to appreciate them. “There’s a reason we have our oaths,” Eupheme said with renewed vigor. “I can go virtually anywhere. No wall can bar my passage; no gate can hold me back. Even without my cloak, the only reason the Alohym cell held me was because shadows had not yet formed. When night had fallen, I would have been free. Any wound that does not kill me will heal in time with no permanent damage. Only death will stop me, and given how close we are to the Shadow, sometimes it declines to claim us when it otherwise would a normal man.
“Maybe you can understand where no one else did. The castles and walls of mankind could no more stop a dragon than it could an Umbrist.” Eupheme gave Tythel a hopeful look.
Tythel didn’t even need to consider. “Absolutely. It was why we withdrew from the world for so long, only emerging to defend humanity.”
“Exactly,” Eupheme said, snapping her fingers in excitement. “So you get it. However, we didn’t want to withdraw from society. We also didn’t want to stop teaching our gifts to those willing and able to learn. So we made the Oath – to serve a power greater than us. Many of us chose the Crown. Some swore to other kingdoms, or to the Church of The Cycle. A few even swore to the Deep Lords of the Underfolk.
“It didn’t matter who we swore to serve, so long as we swore our service. It leashed us, so we went from wolves among the sheep to faithful hounds guarding them. We were still feared, but we were also respected. What my – what Leora is doing – goes against that. It’s abhorrent. In times past, every Umbrist would have taken a Leave to hunt her down and kill her. It had happened a dozen times in our history.”
“I’m surprised I never heard of it,” Tythel admitted. “Every Umbrist…”
“We keep our history secret. Especially those traitors. We had them purged from the annals of history so they would be forgotten for their crimes. Only we know their hidden names. And Leora will be…she has already claimed her title. Leora Dimici. In the Hidden Tongue, it means ‘Thirteenth Forsworn.’ I had thought…” Eupheme took a deep, ragged breath. “I thought that I’d never need to find her. Never need to administer the Shadow’s Embrace to her. But…but now she’s working with the Alohym. The same ones that hunted most of us down.”
Euphemia’s tears started to come again, and Eupheme gave her another fierce hug. She imagined if there was still another dragon, and that dragon was serving the Alohym.
Tythel made a promise to herself, right then. If someone had to slay this Leora, Tythel would take up that burden – if Eupheme would allow it.
For now, she allowed Eupheme to sleep and took watch over her companions.