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Armin awoke in darkness. He thrust his hands forwards into the shadow, groping blindly for anything he could find. For a moment all he felt were the aches of his own muscles, protesting the movement. I’m dead. This isn’t shadow, it’s the Shadow, and I’ll be judged for my failures here. His failures like Clarcia. In the darkness, he could see the way her head had jerked back, that terrible wound in the center of her forehead, the Light going out of her eyes to be followed by the light of life. She’d be here. Had the others survived? Had they-
His fingers brushed stone, and Armin realized he still lived. Relief and despair washed over him in equal measure. Relief because if he was alive, the others might still live as well. It wasn’t too late for him to do something for them.
Despair because it would do Clarcia no good. She would not magically resurrect because Armin had survived. And that was a burden he would have to carry.
Something made a scraping sound in the darkness. Armin shivered. There was something wrong about that sound.
Mindful of the sound, Armin took a hesitant step, keeping his fingers pressed against the stone to guide himself. When the ground did not give way beneath his feet, he took another step. This one was accompanied by the metallic slither of chains being dragged along the ground, echoing in the empty cell.
Not dead. Captured. Armin took another step, keeping his hand on the wall. He walked until the chain had reached its limit – only a few steps, and not enough to reach the opposite wall.
If the others are alive, they aren’t in here. Or if they were, they were still unconscious. Either way, he had to take stock of what he had to work with. If they were alive, he had to do something for them. Ossman, Aldredia, Guiart, even Synit – whom he’d only known for hours – flashed in front of his vision. What if they weren’t? What if he’d gotten them all killed?
He tried to grapple with that idea. His oldest friend, two brave soldiers of the resistance, and a woman who might have held the key to defeating the Alohym, all dead along with Clarcia because of his failure. Something scraped again. It sounded like wood on wood, but somehow different. It was happening outside the edge of his reach. Probably something on the other side of whatever door is on this room. That thought comforted Armin, and with the relief, tears began to well in his eyes. For once, Armin was glad for the darkness. He didn’t need to stop his exploration of his cell to clear his vision. He could weep while he explored.
Three steps later he was on his knees, his head in his hands.
It’s your fault. He should have…should have…
Armin couldn’t figure out where his failure was. If he’d left behind guards, they would have died first. If he’d waited to go in, they would have been between Theognis and the entrance and been cut down when they left. He couldn’t have arrived earlier, no matter how hard he’d pushed – maybe an hour or two. If they hadn’t rested after the battle with the undead, they would have collapsed halfway down the immensely long path that lead to the abandoned lair.
It only made the tears come harder. Duke de’Monchy would have known what to do. Somehow, he would have figured it out.
You’re a failure.
Armin couldn’t argue with the treacherous little voice. It felt so right.
The scraping sound brought him to his senses. Though he was a failure, there was no reason to compound that with inaction. He forced himself to stand and resume walking, arms outstretched, as he traced the length of the chain and reached the opposite wall. Well done, Armin, he thought bitterly, you’ve made it across a room. If there was anything in here he could use, it wasn’t on the walls. As long as he was blind, he couldn’t do anything.
Taking a deep breath, Armin reached out for the Lumwell nearby.
Its power flared within him, and even with his weak lumcasting, he could create a globe of light. It burst to life in the palm of his hand.
The room was stone and worn by the ages. Some back room the dragon had once used for storage, perhaps. The chain was held in place by an iron loop embedded in the wall, which suggested this room might have stored something other than treasure. He tugged at it, but it remained securely in place. Of course.
He turned to find the entrance. It was a wooden door, out of reach of the chain, and blocked by a small figure. His heart caught in his throat. He knew that outfit, he knew that hair. “Clarcia?” he said, choking out the word as excitement made his throat tight. It’s not possible. I saw her die! It must have been better than I feared.
Clarcia didn’t respond. Her head was pressed against the wood of the door, and she had curled her fingers. As Armin watched, she raised her fingers to the door and dragged them down against the wood. The wood scraped under her grip.
“C…clarcia?” he said again, the momentary relief at seeing her alive replaced with dread. Inch by inch she dragged her fingers across the wood of the door, and Armin could see that she’d managed to dig furrows in the thick wood.
Her hand fell to her side. Armin stared at it. Something about her hand looked wrong. The tips were too white.
“Clarcia!” He shouted, his voice breaking from panic.
Clarcia turned to face him with agonizing slowness. Her jaw hung loosely, as though she didn’t have the strength to close it anymore. Her eyes were milky-white and unfocused. Worst of all, in the center of her forehead, was a perfectly round hole where an unlight beam had bored through and destroyed her brain.
Armin started to scream as Clarcia stood there, staring at him. He didn’t know if he would stop. He didn’t know if he would ever stop.
His voice gave out before he did. He slumped to the floor, now weeping openly. He wanted to put out the light globe he’d created, but the idea of being in the darkness with her standing there, staring at him, kept him from giving in to that temptation. His shoulders shook.
The entire time, Clarcia’s corpse stood there, watching him with a blank expression.
Armin understood now.
He was a prisoner, and Clarcia was his guard.