The pathway winded down into the ground for so long, Armin began to wonder if they’d walk all the way till they passed through the outer stone and reach the sea of light that the scholars said infused the center of Aelith. It was an absurd notion, of course – most theorized that the outer stone was several leagues in depth, and that as one drew close to the sea of light the rocks would take on signs of living things from so much raw light infusing them. Even a dragon would not make their bed among stones that moved like living things.
Yet, the deeper they walked, the more the idea stuck into Armin’s head. That they would hit the depths where the stones moved like living things and crushed men, where just from proximity they would begin mutating from the light pouring through their bodies.
The oppressive weight of it all was pressing on his companions as well. Ossman and Aldreida had ceased their conversation ahead, or were now speaking in tones so hushed that Armin couldn’t hear them. Armin didn’t think that was likely though – if they were just being quiet, he would have heard.
It’s not like the two with him were providing much sound to drown Ossman and Aldreida’s voices out.
Clarcia and Guiart had fallen completely silent at his side. Guiart was clenching and unclenching his fists with every step, the soft creak of his leather gloves echoing his footfalls. Clarcia was staring directly ahead, her back so straight Armin was worried she’d strain something from holding herself so tensely.
He wanted to break the silence. A good leader would break the silence. Give an inspirational speech, talk about honor or glory or some such. A decent leader would at least make a joke to break the tension. At least, that’s what Armin was telling himself.
But he found he didn’t have the words, at least not right now. If only Eupheme and Tythel could see you struck silent. They’d wonder what strange creature had replaced me.
He considered calling a stop to the march. There was enough treasure along the walls to fund their resistance for weeks.
It’s not about the flathing treasure, he thought, continuing to walk, continuing his silence. That was a bonus. Honestly, given how weak Tythel’s intelligence about the situation had been, Armin was pleasantly surprised there was actually any treasure to begin with. The writings, that was the real treasure, and so far they’d found nothing of use there. They had to press on.
It was almost a relief when he heard Aldreida’s footsteps approaching at a dead run. Even though she was clearly disturbed, it was a welcome distraction from the immense weight of stone above them. “There’s something ahead,” she said, her breathing heavy.
“What is it?” Armin asked, reaching over his back to unsling his arcwand.
“A chamber with a closed door. Ossman’s guarding it. But someone is moving on the other side. Pacing, muttering to themselves.” She motioned for them to get moving again. “Not sure what he’s saying. It’s not in any language I know.”
“But is the tongue human?” Armin asked, his heart leaping up into his throat and threatening to strangle him. He’d known soldiers of the Alohym were present, but it had never occurred to him until this very moment there might be an actual Alohym here. Waiting for them at the end of this deep delve, the five of them against a monster that had only been slain once in history.
“It was human, but it was speaking the Alohym’s language.” Aldreida watched Armin closely. He’d just started to relax when she said. “Armin. You know what that means, yes?”
He’d been so relieved at the realization it wasn’t one of the Alohym that he’d forgotten to think through the full implications of what she’d said.
The Alohym’s language was nearly impossible for most humans to reproduce. Its high trills, rapid clicks, mandible clacks, and disturbingly wet noises simply were outside the range for teeth and tongue to reproduce. Words like “flath” were born out of human approximations of the sounds but were nowhere near how their actual language sounded.
But there were humans that could replicate the Alohym’s language near perfectly. Humans that could manage the trills and the grotesquely wet sounds, although the mandible sounds were still beyond them. Humans that had been mutated by constant exposure.
Lumcasters, those that channeled the Alohym’s unlight instead of the light of their native world, and those that had done so deeply and powerfully enough to begin mutating.
Theognis, Armin thought with a sudden flash of certainty, remembering that strange shadow bound by unlight that had seeped like smoke from the defeated zombie. The man whose tower they had raided in the desperate bid to free the captured members of the Resistance. The man who had corrupted the Lumwell that lay beneath. No other lumcaster had delved so deeply into unlight as he had. He’d been banished years before the Alohym invasion for dabbling in necromancy and had embraced unlight so firmly upon the Alohym’s arrival.
Or maybe it was just fear that drove Armin to that certainty. Fear and hope. If it was Theognis within, they’d likely die. If they could defeat him somehow…then they’d have a hope of getting the translation completed. If is the most toxic word, Armin thought grimly.
Suddenly, the idea that they were delving close to the light see at the heart of the world seemed less absurd. Theognis had managed to corrupt a lumwell already. What if he was down there, doing the same thing to the source?
It was still ridiculous, but Armin couldn’t shake the thought.
Everyone’s waiting for me, Armin realized with a start. He’d been standing there, gathering his thoughts, ever since Aldreida had spoken. “Theognis, or one of his ilk. It has to be.”
Guiart let out a low moan of fear as Clarcia shook her head. “Armin…if you’re right, I can’t defeat a master Lumcaster. None of us can.”
Aldreida was looking at him with expectant eyes. Ossman was still somewhere further down the tunnel, no doubt listening for some meaning in the chanting. “Clarcia’s right,” Armin said, his forehead creasing in thought. “Back when we raided his tower, when we had a half-dragon and godling, I don’t know if we could have stood against him. We don’t have either of those right now.”
Guiart looked like he wanted to throw up, and Aldreida’s mouth curved downwards in a frown. “I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, but typically before a battle, Duke d’Monchy tells us why we’re going to win, not why we’re certainly doomed.”
Armin motioned for them to follow him. “We’re going to win. We absolutely are.”
“Oh thank Light and Shadow,” Guiart said, his voice shaking so heavily it threatened to crack like a boy’s as he approached manhood. “You have a plan. Of course, you do.”
“No,” Armin said. In spite of himself he found his footsteps lighter, a smile spreading across his lips. “Do you know why Duke d’Monchy recruited me?”
“No?” Aldreida said, her voice turning it into a question.
“I was at the Collegium Rebellion. When many of the old masters broke their vows and turned themselves to the Alohym’s service in exchange for access to unlight. When the last hope of the world was snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane. It was supposed to be humanity’s last stand.” Armin shrugged his shoulders back. A weight he hadn’t been aware he was carrying seemed to slide off his shoulders. “A dozen students and some of the servants had gathered in the Stellari. Clarcia do you remember?”
Clarcia nodded slowly, a smile beginning to form on her lips as well. “How could I forget? That gardener’s son was standing there with a bloody shovel and grabbed you by the lapel and demanded you come up with something.”
“Absolutely.” Armin waved as they rounded the corner. Ossman, that gardener’s son, was standing next to the door, his ear pressed to the door. “There were two dozen Alohym soldiers outside, three real Alohym scuttling around the grounds, and an unknown number of masters now fallen or pledged to those creatures. And I looked him in the eye and said…” Armin trailed off as he made sure he had Ossman’s gaze here in the present as he once had in the past. “Shadow take you, we’re going to win. Just shut up and don’t ask me how.”
It was Ossman’s turn to smile and he stepped back from the door.
“What happened then?” Aldreida asked, her voice sounding more certain although still confused.
Ossman answered for him. “The mad bastard threw open the door and charged at the Alohym soldiers, throwing overcharged arcells at them.” Ossman gave Armin a sideways glance. “We doing that again?”
“Like I said, don’t ask me how. I have no flathing clue.” Stepping forward towards the aged door, hinges so darkened by rust stealth never would have been an option, Armin shoved them with all his might. “Just follow me and I’ll figure it out at the last second.”
To punctuate those boldly stupid words, the door swung open with a dying man’s groan, revealing the darkness where death chanted his otherworldly rituals.