Armin reeled back from the threat. “I…I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he said, and hoped Theognis would take his widening eyes for fear, not shock.
“Please,” Theognis said. Just that. Please. It was an archly dismissive word, one that said everything it needed to say about Theognis’ thoughts on Armin’s protest. He gave Armin a level stare before continuing. “We tracked her here. I would love to know how you found her first – and believe me, I fully intend on torturing the information out of you later – but for now, I simply require you to tell me where she is.”
Armin felt his skin go clammy. This couldn’t get any worse. Not only was Theognis asking for something that Armin didn’t want to tell him, he couldn’t tell him. Synit could be anywhere by now. Think, Armin. Think. “We didn’t find her!” Armin protested, deciding that letting the fear show was the best tactic right now. The fact that he couldn’t have held it back even if he wanted to was immaterial. Torture me, you bastard. Rip me apart to prove to yourself that I don’t know. Leave them alone. “I don’t even know who you’re talking about!”
“Then why were you here, hmm?” Theognis tapped his fingers on his chin.
Armin hesitated. There wasn’t any harm in telling him, was there? Not about the Vacuity Engine, of course. If they survived this, it’d be best if the Alohym didn’t know they were looking for it. “Gold,” he said.
“Gold?” Theognis asked, cocking his head to the side. “You came all this way for lucre? You’ve never been the material kind, Armin.”
And then Armin clamped his mouth shut. Let him think he has to push you. Let him drag it out of you. Give him a lie to disprove, so he’ll accept it as truth. “I know we can’t win,” Armin said, looking down. “But I’ll be damned if I join you all. I was going to take the gold and set up a life somewhere, far away from here.”
Theognis laughed. “So, you brought Ossman? Ossman. You expect me to believe that he was going to abandon your resistance?”
“None of them were,” Armin said, the lies rolling off his tongue more easily now. “But I’d hoped to convince them. Tempt them with the appeal of a better life, one that doesn’t involve…all of this.”
Theognis shook his head. “Armin. You disappoint me, boy. That upstart half-wyrm ‘princess’ of yours killed Rephylon. You claim that after you got your first ever taste of victory is when you betrayed your cause?”
“It wasn’t a victory,” Armin said. His voice was miserable, and at least he didn’t have to feign that. He had plenty to be miserable about, although the death of Rephylon wasn’t one of them. “Everyone was acting like it was, but…it was one Alohym, and it nearly killed her in the process. I think I’d…had it in my head we’d win once we managed to kill one. That it was the big stepping stone, and once we crossed it, victory would be assured. Then you all broke us at Hallith. You had that…”
Armin’s eyes narrowed as he made a connection he’d missed before. “That was that thing in the air! The flying Alohym. That was Rephylon’s daughter!”
Theognis gave him a long, careful look, before chuckling. “You’ve gotten better, Armin. Not quite as dense as you used to be. You’re not quite right, however. Synit was…an early attempt at fusion. The one you saw was much better integrated.” Theognis paused and then shook his head. “Of course, you already knew that, didn’t you? You figured out they were kith and kin long ago. That’s how you tracked her here.”
“I had no idea,” Armin swore, and it was nice to tell the truth here.
Theognis absentmindedly swatted at a fly that was buzzing around his head. It dodged his blow and flew back to the door. “No, you didn’t, did you?” Theognis said, more to himself than to Armin. Armin started to relax, but Theognis wasn’t done. “You didn’t know they were one in the same. I can hardly blame you for that – wretched creature is so badly twisted she doesn’t look a thing like her brother. But if you think for a second that I believe that you came here to fill your own pockets…” Theognis shrugged and stood, finally getting off Clarcia’s back. “I think we’ll start with the eyes. Send her to you, blind, Ossman’s flesh welded over her vision. That will be-”
Armin broke into a cold sweat. The earlier threat hadn’t been an exaggeration – Theognis truly meant to do it. “Wait!”
Theognis paused. “Oh? Decided to tell the truth finally?”
“We’re broke,” Armin said. The words came out in a babbled rush, and not just because he wanted to convince Theognis he was terrified. He was, of course, but he needed Theognis to believe it. So much for your vaunted moral high ground, you monster. “Not us, the resistance. We’re running on coppers and prayers. We came here to plunder the horde to fund our operations.”
“Another stupid lie,” Theognis sighed.
Now Armin’s heart started to pound in earnest. “I’m telling you the truth! We didn’t know anything about…about anyone. We needed the funds!”
“You have access to the horde of Karjon the Magnificent. The last of the dragons. The largest horde on all of Alith. And you claim you’ve already exhausted it?”
Armin gaped at Theognis, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.
Theognis chuckled. “You do, don’t you? Your vaunted ‘princess’ came to you with piles upon piles of gold, didn’t she? I figured that was why you chose her for the lie, because she’d bought her way into it.”
“What?” Armin asked, his voice high. Theognis had gone from being terrifying to insane.
“Oh yes, we know all about your little ruse.” Theognis sat back down on Clarcia, and the fury helped Armin cut through the confusion. “The Alohym have remarkable devices. One of them is…well, in their tongue it is a throk’lahypth. We haven’t been able to come up with a good Cardomethi translation for it, because we don’t have the words for the concepts it refers to. The best term would be a “hereditary detector,” I suppose. It analyzes little fragments of information we all carry in our blood. Some was taken from the ‘princess’ while she was our captive, and then analyzed against the same information in the bones of the royal family.” Theognis leaned forward. “They didn’t match. Your ‘princess’ is a lie, and we know it.”
“You’re lying,” Armin said, swallowing on a suddenly dry throat.
“Why would I bother lying?” Theognis spread his arms wide. “You’re going to die, Armin. You won’t spread anything I tell you to your peers. I gain nothing by telling you this. I, honestly, thought you were high enough in their ranks to know about the ruse.”
Armin’s mind worked furiously. Her transformation. She’s turning into a dragon. Maybe that fools their machines. She wouldn’t lie to us…except she had, hadn’t she? She’d been in the conversation where they’d discussed resources, and she’d offered this place up for treasure. Hidden in the swamps of Dor’nah, fraught with peril. She’d never even mentioned her father’s hoard. It hadn’t even occurred to Armin.
After all, why would she lie?
“And now I see you know nothing.” Theognis looked almost…disappointed. “You don’t know the ‘princess’ is a lie. You don’t know you were sent here for Synit. You don’t know anything that could be of use to me. And because of that…” Theognis stood up. “I’m still going to drag what information you have out of you. Slowly and painfully. Who knows? You might know more than you realize. At the very least-”
“Sir!” Someone was pounding on the door. “Sir, we need you. Immediately!”
Theognis frowned and threw open the door. “What is it?” he said with a scowl.
The man outside was dressed in the garb of an Alohym trooper, his eyes hidden behind the green visor they used to see in darkness. “One of the portal stones, sir!” The man’s voice was high with panic. “It was in the hoard. It’s activated! Something…something came through!”
“Impossible!” Theognis shouted, sweeping from the room. It seemed he didn’t believe his own word. “Stay here with this one. I’ll have your corpse slaving in the sewers if he escapes.”
The guard blanched and nodded, turning to face Armin and closing the door behind Theognis.
“Can we get a bit of light, Lumcaster?” the guard asked.
Armin sighed and created a sphere, his mind too occupied with bitter thoughts to care.
Not that stopped him from screaming when the guard’s features melted in the face of the light. “Quiet!” the guard snapped. “This is a rescue mission, Armin.” His features had resolved into Lorathor’s grinning face. “Now, let’s get you out of those chains.”
Armin couldn’t speak from the shock. Relief, confusion, and joy washed over him.
Right up until he saw Clarcia stand up, her dead eyes glowing with unnatural malice.