Light spilled sullenly into the room that had once housed the hoard of the dread necromantic dragon. The power within was so great, it slowed the spread of radiance to a crawl, as if the light itself was molasses spilling across the floor. Yet where it touched, it found more surfaces to amplify its glow. Piles of golden and silver coins from empires that had died generations before Armin’s great grandsires’ own great grandsires had been birthed were strewn across the floor. The long-dead kings and queens and emperors and princesses emblazoned on the metal stared mutely at the sudden intrusion of light, and at the edges where radiance flickered against darkness, Armin could almost imagine those rulers of dust trying to blink to clear their eyes of the luminosity.
The chanting continued unfalteringly in those inky depths, the speaker unfazed by the intrusion into his work. For a moment Armin dared hope that somehow he hadn’t heard their entrance, but the voice began to move closer to where they were, a gentle jingle of coins heralding each step. Armin raised his arcwand as his companions similarly readied their weapons, Aldredia moving with greater haste than the sluggish light and vanishing into the darkness.
A shape moved in the shadows at the edge of the expanding ring of light, and Armin set his sights on it. The chanting was rising from that throat, from the speaker here, and Armin pulled the trigger in the hopes of ending it before it could complete whatever it’s dread purpose was.
The arclight beam streamed from his weapon with the unerring accuracy he’d become known for, yet it was swallowed by the darkness before it could hit its mark. The chanting voice hit a final word and then stopped. Armin knew that word, Loruyah. In the tongue of the Alohym, it meant “halt,” and an unlight lumcaster that wove it into their ritual could resume it at a later point without their magic disrupted. Another advantage they have over us, Armin thought with a scowl.
“Don’t fire again,” said the voice. Now that it was speaking a language Armin knew, he could hear how twisted with unlight mutations it was. Familiar words turned alien on those lips, with letters clicking as if forced through mandibles. “We should speak, before you decide if you will slay me or not.”
Armin’s mind was made up, but he still hesitated. Now that they weren’t speaking the Alohym’s language, he could tell it was not Theognis. That man’s voice had not been so far gone as this, and Unlight mutations were like those of the Light in one regard – they warped a man slowly over time. If he had been wrong about that, he might be wrong about other things. “Then step forward and speak, and we will decide.”
The shadow moved, an arm extending to point into the darkness. Armin could see its outline and his stomach lurched as he realized it was bifurcated like the Alohym’s, split at the elbow. Even though just an outline, he could tell the two hands at the end were those of a human. “Call your skulker back from the shadows, and I will. They do not hide you from me.”
“Come, Aldredia,” Armin said, and the silent swordswoman appeared a moment later. Armin gave her a faint nod and half grin, hoping she would take it to mean he had a plan. He didn’t, but right now their lives might hinge on that belief. If nothing else, this talk would buy him time to figure out what his desperate gambit would be. “I’ve done as you bid. Now show yourself.”
The figure stepped into the light, and Guiart retched beside Armin at the sight. Armin could scarce blame him for the reaction. This figure was undeniably that of a human – it stood on two legs covered with pale flesh, it had eyes that were gold and twinkled in the light, and its hair was long and thickly braided. Yet it was also undeniably something else. The face was rent in twain, a mouth that opened both on the horizontal and the vertical. Its arms were both split in the unnatural way of the Alohym, and beneath the silk tunic it wore, Armin could tell its abdomen pinched so inhumanly tight there was no room for the entrails that humans relied upon for life. Of its sex, the inhuman form gave no sign – too far into the alien to even be considered androgynous.
“What are you?” Armin asked, unable to keep the horror from his voice.
“A failure,” the figure said in that voice that cracked like breaking flesh. “You may call me Synit. That is what the told me my first mother named me. My second mother gave me a new name, but I rejected it as she rejected her daughter.”
“Synit,” Armin said. It was a name common to the empire of Xhaod – or at least it had been before the Alohym had annihilated that empire with every other human kingdom. “What…happened to you?”
“That is a fairer question, and one with a more interesting answer. Yet one that seems to be lacking in manners. Courtesy would dictate some pleasantries before such things questions are answered. Such as your names.”
“Courtesy?” Ossman said, bristling. Armin could almost hear his tendons as they closed around the grip of his axe. “You set the undead to guard your path. They nearly slew us, and you dare speak of courtesy?”
Synit sighed, a rasping sound that ground against his ears like a whetstone. Her form – at least, Armin thought that was the correct way to refer to her, given her talk about being a daughter – was monstrous, but Armin focused on her eyes. They were human, and there he would have a hope of reading her true intention. Just like Tythel, Armin thought. Although the princess was far less inhuman than this creature, the eyes would give answer to her true intention. “I did not set them upon you. Had I known adversaries of the Alohym followed me, I would have instructed them more carefully.”
Armin couldn’t stop the hoarse laugh that escaped his lips. “You would have us believe that you are a foe to the Alohym? You are half one of them to look upon, and you set yourself against them?”
“There are those who are humans in truth who make common cause with them,” Synit said. She reached up to tuck her hair behind the twin antenna that sprouted from her head in place of ears. “Is it so hard to believe that it could go both ways?”
“Yes,” Armin spat. “As hard to believe we just happened upon you in the depths of a dragon’s lair.”
“I’ve been waiting,” Synit answered. “I was certain someone would come here. There are only two dragon lairs left unspoiled, and only a fool would dare approach Karjon’s lair. The Alohym will have it guarded heavily, awaiting the dragon princesses return to her father’s grave. It made sense that she one send someone here. Dragons are as much creatures of instinct as they are of reason.”
“Pretend for a moment I believe you,” Armin said. He wasn’t certain how much or little faith he might have in the words that were spilling from between those twisted mandibles, but he could see no lie in Synit’s eyes. What he saw there was hatred, a hatred that flared every time she spoke the word ‘Alohym.’ While that boded well, what did not was the clear madness of her plan. Armin and the others had only come here out of desperation for gold and translation for Theognis’ notes, not as part of some plan to recover a draconic horde for Tythel. How long would she have waited? Armin wondered. How long chanting in the darkness, hoping that Tythel would send someone here? Armin wanted to ask her what she was doing here in this tomb but feared provoking a fight too soon. Synit was not operating on logic Armin could follow, and he had to tread carefully. “Why were you waiting?”
“Because I wished to make a gift for this dragon princess. She righted a great wrong, and although she did not do it for me, I still owe her a debt. One that I had hoped to repay.”
“What debt is that?” Ossman asked, his voice still thick with loathing.
“She slew my second mother, and in doing so freed me. I wish to repay her for that death. If naught else, I wish to thank her.”
A quiet dread began to creep up Armin’s spine. “And who was that second mother?”
“You knew her,” Synit said, affixing her eyes on Armin’s. Here was that hatred again, a well so deep that Armin could see himself drowning in it. “She was known by a different name, but human tongues can’t form the word properly, so she took on a new name, one stolen from your gods of Light.”
“Name her,” Armin said. The point of his arcwand began to tremble with shock before she even spoke the words and confirmed his deepest fears.
“You knew her as Rephylon,” Synit said.