“I think my vision is starting to clear,” Ossman said, breaking the long silence that had been weighing on Armin.
“Oh, thank the Light.” Armin rose and stretched, cracking his neck with the gesture. He’d spent the entire night craning his head back and forth, trying to watch both the path deeper into the lair and the entrance at the same time. Every sound, every brush of cloth from his companions had sent his heart leaping into his throat. He had been expecting that, at any instant, more undead horrors would come climbing out of the tomb, or an entire Alohym army would show up behind them.
Ossman was experimentally waving his hand in front of his face, blinking. “Yeah,” he said, his voice betraying finally how worried he had been. “I have movement.”
“Told you it would be fine,” Claricia said primly, wiping the tears that were forming at the edge of her eyes. “I knew exactly what I was doing the entire time.”
Aildreda laughed softly, blinking as well. “Of course. That’s why you were having nightmares the entire time you slept.”
“I was not,” Claricia said, her voice going up half an octave with the objection. “I was just uncomfortable.”
“Do you usually say ‘no, please, I’m so sorry,’ when uncomfortable?” Ossman said, standing up and stretching his back.
“Hey, everyone, let’s focus on the fact that you all can see again,” Armin said as Claricia turned a deep shade of red. He studied her face carefully. Claricia was rattled from almost having blinded the entire group, but how scared was she? A little bit of fear would do her good, make her more cautious in the future. A lot of fear could cause her to freeze up when they needed her most.
She looked more embarrassed than anything else, and Armin decided to take that as a good sign. A bit of shame would be healthy for her. Shadow forsake me, we could all use a bit of humbling now and then.
“I’m fine with that,” Guiart said. “Armin, you are a beautiful sight.”
“Oh, he absolutely is,” Aildreda said, shooting an impish grin in Armin’s direction. “Hair a mess, bags under his eyes, gaunt – I’ve never seen a corpse looking so alive.”
Armin sighed and shook his head to clear his thoughts. It was brushing away cobwebs that had accumulated over the centuries on untouched books in a foreign language – sticky, messy, and not even remotely clarifying. “Some of us had to keep watch while you all slept.”
“Sounds like it’s our turn to return the favor,” Ossman said. Although he still had on a joking tone, he was studying Armin with the same intensity Armin had previously used on Claricia. Maybe it’s just because his vision isn’t fully clear, Armin thought. “You look like you’re halfway in the Shadow, my friend.”
Maybe not. “I’m fine. We’ve spent enough time on rest. If we get into another fight, I’ll just cower behind your axe and hope everyone leaves me alone.”
“See that you do,” Ossman said, gesturing with the weapon in question. “I’m surprised it’s clearing up so quickly.”
“It makes sense,” Claricia said softly, although she glanced at Armin for confirmation. He nodded for her to go ahead, thinking he knew where she was going with this. Everyone shifted to look at her. “The Light isn’t an inherently destructive force. It’s a creative one. It can be focused for destruction, but…I wasn’t trying that. The casting I was using was just to obliterate the bound Shadows inside the corpses. It was as bad as staring into the sun, but the raw power was also healing at the same time. Our eyes were…overwhelmed. They just kind of turned off, like an arcglobe, to protect themselves. It just took a while for them to realize it was safe to ‘see’ again.”
“Most of us,” Aildreda said, giving Armin a sideways glance. “Why weren’t you blinded?”
Because I’m tainted. Because I absorbed power directly from a Sun Stone, which isn’t a true source of Light. It had been eating at Armin the entire time he’d been resting. Sun Stones fell from the sky. They were not creations of Lumwells, they were not bound to any earthly light. They were of the void between worlds.
The same void that had spawned the Alohym.
“Let’s not pick at the horse’s teeth?” Armin prompted, shaking his head. “What matters is that I could see well enough to get you all to safety, and now you all can see well enough that we can get moving again.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Guiart said softly. Armin didn’t think he intended for anyone else to hear him speak, but his voice carried more than Guiart seemed to realize. “I’m looking forward to another surge of corpses.”
The elation that had come from being able to see again began to fade from all their faces. “I don’t think we need to worry about that,” Ossman said, scratching his chin. “Think about it. Those corpses were Alohym soldiers. They were fresh. Anything that had been here longer would have rotted away long ago.”
“There could be more Alohym soldiers that were turned into corpses,” Aildreda said, although she looked more thoughtful than concerned.
“I don’t think so,” Armin said, picking up Ossman’s thread. “If there were, why wouldn’t they all be near the entrance? If the Alohym had brought an entire army with them, where are the Skitters near the entrance? I think they came and left. Or it was only a small group – easy enough to hide a Skitter.”
Everyone, even Guiart, looked relieved at the words. Or at least, less dour than they had a moment ago. With their spirits somewhat buoyed, they began gathering their belongings and resumed the trek into the lair. Ossman and Aildreda scouted ahead, weapons raised, with the other three bringing up the rear.
It appeared the corpses had been set as guard atop some winding path that spiraled downwards into the depths of the swamp. Armin gaped openly at the immense scale of the structure – it was wide enough for twenty men to walk down abreast, high enough where if all five of them had stood on each other’s shoulders, they could have perhaps touched the ceiling.
Of course it’s immense – it’s sized for a dragon Armin thought. Was this like the place where Tythel had grown up? Sized for beings on a scale so much larger than anything humans could hope to achieve?
Armin had been young when the Alohym had arrived. He’d never seen a dragon. He’d heard they were large, but he’d always thought they were on a scale with the beasts he’d seen in menageries. Things like the great leathery elephants, or the clipped-winged aeromanes. These ruins were far too large for something of that size. This seemed more appropriate for one of the Alohym’s smaller vessels.
“You ever see a dragon?” Armin said quietly to Guiart.
Guiart nodded. “Once. When I was a boy, before the Alohym came.” He shivered, although Armin didn’t get the impression of fear off the man, for a welcome change of pace. “It was flying overhead. Just got a glimpse.”
“Was it…this big?” Armin asked, gesturing towards the immense cavern around them.
Guiart chuckled. “Not quit, lad. Big. But I think…well, if you were a dragon, would you want to have to walk in and out of your lair, or would you glide?”
Armin nodded, chewing his lip. When he imagined that these caverns were sized to allow for a dragon’s unfurled wings, it painted a very different picture about their size. Still immense, still far larger than the elephants he’d seen in his youth, but not the gargantuan creatures he’d imagined. “I wish I could have seen one,” he said.
Guiart nodded somberly. “Aye. They were magnificent. Terrifying, to be sure, but…wasn’t anything quite like them.” Guiart grinned ruefully. “Perhaps we’ll find the bones of the old one in here? Might give us a sense of how big he truly was.”
“I hope not,” Claricia said. It caught Armin off guard – she’d been so silent at his side; he’d nearly forgotten she was there.
“Why not?” Guiart asked, frowning. “You don’t want to see the bones of some old dead dragon?”
Claricia shook her head mournfully. “Not here. I don’t think I could hope to pull up enough Light to put that back down if it started moving around.”
Guiart’s eyes widened and he sputtered. Apparently, the possibility that the necromancy that had animated the corpses before might stretch that deep hadn’t occurred to him before.
Armin wished Claricia had kept that fear to herself. Given how the fight with the undead humans had gone before, Armin was certain he knew exactly how a fight against a necromantic dragon would end up for them.
At that point, the best they could hope for was painless.