Clarcia’s corpse shuffled to the side, and Armin looked up. He’d settled into the corner, his head down on his hands, giving him sight of Clarcia’s feet but sparing him the terrible view of her lifeless face. However, she was moving now, and he had to see.
Ancient hinges creaked and the door ground open.
Theognis stood there. He was exactly as Armin remembered, tall and imposing. His face was crisscrossed with scars, the remnants of old battle. He wore purple robe with golden thread, giving him the appearance of nobility. Theognis gave Armin a mocking grin. “Master Armin. How do you find the accommodations, hmm?”
Armin didn’t answer with words. Instead, bared his teeth and lunged for the elderly Lumcaster, snarling animalistically. The wait had turned grief and despair into a dull rage and seeing Theognis had stoked that flame until it burst.
The chain stopped Armin’s attack, snapping around his ankle and sending him crashing to the floor. Theognis hadn’t moved during the entire lunge. When Armin looked up, he was inspecting the underside of his fingernails for dirt. “Well, that was certainly….pointless,” Theognis said, not even bothering to look at Armin. “A failed Lumcaster, barely able to manifest light. What did you think to do? Did you intend to engage me in fisticuffs, like some street brawler?” Theognis laughed, and the sound was made more grating by how obviously fake it was. He gestured towards Clarcia. “This hunk of meat would have torn your limbs from your body and beaten you bloody with them before you’d even managed to touch me, even if it hadn’t been for the chain. A pointless waste of effort. But then again, that phrase perfectly encapsulates you, doesn’t it, Armin?”
“You bastard,” Armin growled, forcing himself to his feet. “Light forsake you and shadow damn you, Theognis. Why?” the last word lost some of its anger, coming out as more of a plea.
“Ahh. Why. Such an irritating question. You were always full of them. ‘Why can we draw from Lumwells where others can’t?’ ‘Why don’t we try to find a way to limit the mutations?’ ‘Why do we serve the Alohym?’ I should have slit your throat back then…but my masters insisted that I keep up appearances. They wanted to prevent the very rebellion you lead. I warned them…Oh, I warned them. They did not like that I was correct.”
Theognis’ hands went up to his face, brushing against the scars. “They made me keep these for failing to suppress your rebellion, Armin. Did you know that? Of course, you didn’t. You, Armin, have only ever cared about what you want. What’s best for you.”
Armin clenched his hands into fists so tight he thought they might draw blood. “You dare call me selfish? You?” Armin took a step forward, the chain rattling, a reminder he couldn’t wring his old teacher’s neck. “You sold us out to the Alohym! You betrayed the entire Collegium, you and your lackeys. And for what? For power?”
Theognis chuckled and snapped his fingers. Clarcia’s corpse got down on her hands and knees, and Theognis sat on her back like she was a stool. “That was why you were always a terrible student, Armin. You could never see the bigger picture. No, dolt, I do not serve the Alohym out of a desire for power.”
“Then I ask you again – why?”
Theognis tapped his chin. “Ah, so that is what you meant by why. I thought it might be something more pertinent, such as – why am I still alive? Why did I come here? Why did you spare Ossman and that swordswoman? Maybe even why did I kill the sniper? But no, you are focused on the past, as you always were.”
Armin tried to keep his face blank. Relief that Ossman and Aldredia were still alive warred with grief for Guiart, but both of those were overshadowed by a ray of hope. He doesn’t know about Synit. That meant there was still someone out there. Someone who could help them. “I limited my question to one I thought you might actually answer. But no, shame drives you to speak in circles.”
“I feel no shame, Armin. Nor do I fear telling you. I serve the Alohym because I care about mankind. I did it for Alith.”
Armin rocked back on his feet. “You…you honestly believe that?”
Theognis nodded. “Oh yes. That is what you could not understand, Armin. The Alohym came to us with wonders we had never seen before. Hardened pills that would erase any disease, without the need for Light. Ships that could transport goods across vast distances. Boxes that would prevent food from spoiling, ensuring no one ever starved again. Do you know that one in four children died in their first year of life before their arrival? Do you know that of those, nearly half were in childbirth, and many of them took their mothers with them? Now only one in twenty perish in their first year. Deaths during birth are minimal now.
“You and your rebellion are spitting on the beings who give us gifts, Armin. They give us wonders that would have taken us centuries to achieve on our own. They do this, and all they ask in return is that we pretend they are gods and worship them. Is that so high a price to pay?”
Armin found himself backing away from Theognis. “You – what about the dozens they kill every day? What about those they force into their service? For the Light’s sake, what about what they do to the Lumwells?”
Theognis held up his hand, three fingers outstretched. He ticked one down with each point. “The dozens they kill are traitors who claim oppression in the face of wonder. The ones forced into their service are needed for the greater good. And what of the Lumwells? Their Light is as valid as ours.”
“They exterminated the dragons. They wiped out an entire species because they were afraid.”
“And?” Theognis asked, raising an eyebrow. “Our ancestors were no better. Or do you truly believe the Underfolk prefer to live in caves beneath the Earth? I can see from your face you did. No, our ancestors forced them into those depths. They were able to adapt – bats are such remarkable animals – but we do not have the right to claim superiority.”
“That doesn’t justify the Alohym!” Armin shouted.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is immaterial, really.” Theognis waved his hand dismissively. “As…entertaining as it has been to catch up with you, Armin, I didn’t keep you alive to educate you. You already proved yourself to be unteachable, regardless. Now.” Theognis leaned forward and rested his head on his knees. “Tell me where you hid the Daughter of Repylon, or I’ll have my men slice strips of flesh off Ossman and sew the swordswoman’s face shut with them.”