The sound of footsteps were close enough for Armin’s ears to hear them now. They sounded like the rolling of an approaching thunderstorm. Now you’re just being maudlin. They sound like flathing boots. “How many?” he asked, looking at Synit.
Synit’s antenna twitched. “Oh, somewhere between a dozen and ten million.” She saw their disbelieving looks and narrowed her eyes. “If you want an accurate count, I could go out and look. Footsteps all sound the same, even without an echo.”
Armin scowled at the door. They’d spent the time since they’d heard the footsteps moving as much of the larger pieces of treasure in front of the doors as they could. A solid gold throne belonging to some king that had died millennia ago had required all of them to even shift it. It had been a sluggish affair, and if not for Guiart’s knowledge of levers and some wheeled devices they’d found buried in the gold coins, it would have been impossible. Even then, the fact that it was close to the door allowed them to tip it over and block the entranceway. It had fallen with such an accursed clamor, it had cracked the stone with its impact. The throne was now was braced with scepters of a dozen kings and queens and princesses, and further weighed down by crowns and coins.
All in all, Armin estimated at least seven hundred stone was bracing the door right now. More gold than he’d ever imagined seeing gathered together in one place.
It would hold the immense doors for a bit. The Alohym soldiers outside wouldn’t be able to force the doors open quickly.
Maybe they’ll give up and go back. Armin thought, knowing it was a faint hope. The chair had been needed, but the sound had made it clear there was someone inside. “Alright, everyone,” Armin said, turning around to face the group. “Here’s the plan.”
Aldredia had a hungry look in her eyes, a wolf on the prowl. She’d seemed to come alive in battle, and now that she had a new fight to look forward to Armin could see how eager she was to be in the fray. They faced impossible odds, but when was that not true? When were they not fighting against an enemy they had no hope to defeat?
Clarcia didn’t look like she was excited for the battle. Her lips were drawn in a thin line, her forehead furrowed. Her eyes were already glowing from the light she was calling to herself from the Lumwell that had to be directly below them. Armin’s blasphemy could see the way the lines of energy curled out between the stones of the floor to race up to her fingertips.
Synit was as enigmatic as she had been since Armin had arrived here. Her movements were still stiff, and now that Armin had gotten used to reading her eyes, he could see her pain was omnipresent. She’d assured Armin she could fight, that she would fight, but there had been no time to assess her. He had to trust that she knew her own abilities.
Guiart was shaking at the knees, his skin sallow, and he was swallowing more frequently than was required. Of all of them, he seemed to be the most aware of the reality – there was a very good chance they weren’t going to survive what came next. Their strength had always come from being able to hit and run and withdraw. Right now they were trapped, and Guiart knew that.
Ossman’s face was outright grim. Armin wasn’t surprised. They were both remembering a different doorway, at the end of a different hallways. This one had been barred with wardrobes and chairs, not gold and regalia. They hadn’t known that the aggressors back then had been appropriating the name Alohym – they’d still only been referred to by the enigmatic name ‘Those From Above.’
Clarcia had been there too, but she’d been a child. Armin didn’t suppose she remembered that. The good memories seem to have stuck with her – the speech, the victory, the escape. Not this part. Not huddling behind a door stacked with debris. Light and Shadow, what am I saying. We were children. Just older children. Children huddled behind furniture waiting to see if the monsters would break through – or if it would be the men who served them.
Armin felt his face tighten. “Guiart, I want you up on that plinth. Anything that comes through, shoot it with so much arcfire it sees the Light before you send it to the Shadow.”
His knees still knocking, Guiart nodded and began to head towards the space Armin indicated. He might be a coward, but in a way that made him braver than the rest of them – his terror clutched him, shook him, but it never broke him.
“Clarcia, get behind that pile of coins and wait. The moment the first group bursts through, I want a barrier to stop them. They’ll break through, but I want you to force them to come in waves. Let’s break them into manageable chunks.
Clarcia nodded and raised her hands. She held prisms they’d found among the treasure, ones made of diamonds as large as her fists. They would help her focus her power enough to avoid wasting too much light.
“Aldredia, Ossman, flank either side of the door. Once Clarcia drops the barrier in place, drop everyone on our side of it, then get back. They’ll expect the attack for the second wave, but knowing you’re coming won’t prevent you from cutting them down.”
Aldredia ran to her side with that fierce grin still on her face. Ossman walked up and clasped hands with Armin. “Damn me to shadow, I can’t believe I’m listening to you.”
Armin grinned at him. The same words he’d said back behind the other door. There wouldn’t be Duke de’Monchy riding in at the last minute this time. There was no cavalry ready to charge. But it was good to know Ossman thought this time would go as well as the last time they’d done something this stupid.
“Synit, I want you inside that cauldron,” Armin said, pointing to an enormous brass basin. It would come up to Synit’s shoulders, and had tiny holes around the bottom. She’d be able to see out, but you’d have to have your face pressed to the ground to see in. “You know what you can do. If it looks like we’re going to lose but you can turn the tide, join the fight. If it looks like we’re going to win, stay down. The information you could give is too valuable to risk.”
“And you don’t trust me,” Synit said. There was no malice or accusation in her voice.
“And I don’t trust you,” Armin confirmed. He shrugged and gave her a helpless gesture. “This whole thing is still too convenient. But if you’re on our side, it’s also the best way to deploy you.”
Synit seemed to agree with his words. Or she was just not interested in arguing.
Everyone else deployed, Armin took his own position, behind a pillar that was embedded with images of the ancient Alohym. He readied his arcwand.
Now, he thought, safely behind the pillar where no one could see the way his own hands trembled, let’s see how horribly wrong this goes.
The sound of hands banging against the door made it clear he wouldn’t have to wait long.