The death of Rephylon had been a chaotic time. Armin hadn’t even been present in the fight itself – he’d been helping with the evacuation and re-armament of the former prisoners, frantically watching for some sign that Theognis had returned. He’d known Tythel had stood against Rephylon…and had expected that he’d come back to her body.
Afterwards, she’d told them about what had happened. Rephylon’s terrifying speed and strength, Tythel’s realization of how she could channel ghostflame, and the things Rephylon had said to taunt her. One of those had been that the Alohym had been raising humans. “She said that humans are good at imprinting, and they were able to raise humans directly. Her exact words were…” Tythel had trailed off here, scratching at her milky eye. Armin had been pushing her to accept an eye-patch, but she’d been resistant. “It was ‘Your species is unusually fragile in infancy, there was an adjustment period. But I can say we are quite pleased with the results.’
Armin had a terrible feeling that Synit was what Rephylon had meant by an “adjustment period.” The end result of an attempt to fuse the Alohym’s organic suits with human flesh. Now that he was looking at her with less animosity, he could see that every motion Synit made was slow and deliberate, her limbs trembling with pain at every action. “Rephylon raised you?” He asked. It was a stupid question, one she’d already answered, but sometimes a question needed to be asked because the truth was so unbelievable that it bore repeating.
“Yes. Almost as long as I can remember.” There was a melancholy that underlined her every word. It wasn’t completely obscured by the unnatural sounds her throat and mouth made as she spoke, although they did mask it well. “I have the faintest memories of my first mother. A laugh, a song in the dark, and the tears as they ripped me from her arms. I remember that all too well. Rephylon thought I would bond with her in spite of those memories.”
“It appears she was mistaken,” Ossman said. He still had his axe drawn, was still standing protectively in front of Clarcia, but the tension had left his grip. He was no longer a wolf waiting to spring, but a hound trying to decide if it was looking at an intruder or a guest. Ready to bite if needed, but not certain of the need.
“She was.” Synit spat the words.
Armin had bought himself time to think, but it had proved to be of little benefit. He still was adrift at how to respond. “How long have you been free?” he finally managed, uncertain if it was the right question to ask this madwoman.
Synit tapped her mandibles together, an expression Armin couldn’t read. It was even harder than understanding Tythel’s expressions. The princess could speak volumes with a tilt of her head or the blink of an eye, but at least she had the same anatomy as a human. Synit was only partially that, and the alien structures made reading her a challenge Armin didn’t think he’d be overcoming anytime soon. The eyes. Focus on the eyes.
Before he could, or Synit could respond, or one of his companions could chime in with a more sensible question, the slowly expanding ring of light finally reached the walls, dispelling the last of the darkness to slink into the shadows where it lay, coiled like a serpent. The moment it touched the edges of the room, it was reflected back. No darkness impeded its path this time, and in an instant the light’s intensity doubled. The walls were covered in gold and gems, and shone so brightly it gave the room the luster of daylight.
Everyone – even Synit – gaped at the sight. This was not a king’s ransom in gold. This was a kingdom’s ransom. Gold and silver and platinum, studded with gems from across the world.
“Since Rephylon died” Synit said, breaking the silent awe. Armin had to fight back a sudden, irrational surge of resentment. “Her death plunged a great deal into chaos. I came here as quickly as I could. I…hadn’t shone light here yet. Light and Shadow, I had no idea what to expect.”
“We’ll need to come back,” Aldredia said, her voice almost hoarse in its hushed reverence. “We can’t hope to carry enough.”
“Carry enough?” Synit asked. Her mandibles parted, and Armin wondered if that was a frown, or if it was some other expression.
“We came here for this,” Armin said, gesturing towards the treasure that surround them.
Synit’s eyes narrowed. “You came here…to remove treasure from a dragon’s horde?”
“Is that a problem?” Armin asked, tension creeping back into his shoulders.
“Surprising,” Synit responded. “I was under the impression that dragons viewed such things as anathema. Perhaps the scrolls were inaccurate.”
Her eyes were narrowed, and she still radiated tension. Armin took a deep, careful breath to buy himself time to think. Choose your next words carefully, Armin. If you make a misstep here, you could start a fight, and you still don’t know what she can do. “So Rephylon was your mother? I can only imagine how bizarre that was.” Brilliant.
“I do not hear a refutation in that statement,” Synit said. Her antennas started to twitch in…excitement? Anger?
“I don’t know,” Armin admitted. “Only that the princess told us we would find treasure here. And…well, our coffers run near empty. And-”
“Silence!” Synit said, the word coming out as a cold hiss. “Someone has entered the upper chamber.”
“Who?” Ossman asked, tightening his hands around the handle of his axe again.
“My corpses were destroyed somehow,” Synit said, glaring at Clarcia. “I do not have sentries anymore. I have no way to know. But there are many of them.”
“Is there another way out of here?” Armin asked, unslinging his arcwand.
“Not that I’ve discovered in the weeks I’ve been here.”
“We’re trapped?” Guiart asked, his voice high with sudden terror.
Armin felt that same fear racing through his veins.