Armin nudged the edge of the portal stone with the tip of his boot. He jerked his foot back like the touch had carried an electric shock. Nothing happened. He’d seen portal stones before, going back to his days at the academy. Conventional wisdom held that they’d marked ancient religious sites, where the precursors of the Umbrists would attempt to commune with the Shadow, or perhaps they were a pre-Cardomethi’s civilization attempt to achieve the impossible and create new lumwells. No one had been certain, but there were enough stranger, superstitious rumors about them that even with his education, Armin held the stones in wary reverence. “You’re certain this thing is safe?” he asked.
Haradeth gave him a wry grin and placed another chest on the flat stone. It wasn’t full of gold – it would have been impossible for even the godling to lift that much – but instead the bottom was lined with golden coins and then filled above that with gems, art, lighter metals, and other valuable artifacts. As much as they could carry. That one chest enough probably held enough to sustain the Resistance for a month. It was being placed alongside twelve others like it. This would be the third such load they’d sent through the portal. “You’re afraid of Sylvani magic, lumcaster? I figured your sort would be more comfortable with it.”
Armin grunted and turned away from the stone, reaching down to grab another handful of gems in the chest in front of him. “I lost two people getting in here. I don’t want to lose anyone else getting out.”
There was silence for a moment as Haradeth shifted the chest backwards to make sure it was fully on the platform. One of the chests had been half off the stone, and it had been cleaved neadly in two when they’d activated it. There was still half an empty chest laying next as proof for how dangerous it could be. “Bix says they are,” Haradeth said.
Armin looked around. “And you trust her?” he asked. The little automaton had gone through the portal with Synit and the first wave of chests, saying something about smoothing it over with “That stupid entertainment system we decided was a god when I was obviously the better choice.” Armin hadn’t understood half of what she said, but he’d understood enough to know that it had to do with the Sylvani’s internal politics. “She’s…not exactly stable. And don’t flathing mock me for finding her frightening. I saw the way you looked at her.”
Haradeth laughed, although it wasn’t directed at Armin. “Light and Shadow, of course I won’t mock you for seeing the threat she poses. I’d call you a fool if you didn’t think she was a threat.” Haradeth grunted as he picked up another chest that was half hanging over the side, placing it on top of a crate they’d found. “But I do trust her. Bix is unstable, strange, has an…abnormal morality, and absolutely will stab you because she finds it amusing…”
“Oh, well, you’re certaintly convincing me of how trustworthy she is now,” Armin muttered.
Haradeth smiled and kept talking as if Armin hadn’t interrupted him, “but she likes us, as far as I can tell. Or at least doesn’t actually wish us harm. And she wants to fight the Alohym. Probably because she finds them more fun to cut into than we are, but that still makes her trustworthy.”
“I think you were in the Sylvani land too long,” Armin said after staring at Haradeth for a moment. “You’ve clearly gone insane. ‘We’d be less fun to stab’ is not a good basis for trust. You do still realize that, right?”
“It’s not for a human, or a sylvani, or…anything made of flesh, really. But you’ll understand once you get to know her. She’s not a threat. She’s just strange and unusual.”
“In my experience, strange and usual is the definition of threatening. Or at least untrustworthy.” Armin said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Haradeth grimaced. “You’re not talking about the Alohym, are you?”
“No, I’m not talking about the flathing Alohym.” Armin threw the next load of treasure into the chest with more force than was strictly necessary. “She lied to us, Haradeth. She lied about being the princess. She hid her father’s hoard. We came here to get funds for the resistance and Clarcia and Guiart are dead because of it.”
“We dont know that she lied,” Haradeth said. “She might have been lied to about who she was. The Alohym might have taken Karjon’s hoard after his death. It’s a bit too quick to jump to conclusions.”
Armin slammed the lid of the chest shut. “I can’t believe you are speaking in her defense, Haradeth. I thought you trusted her as far as I could throw her.”
Haradeth walked over to take the chest from Armin, but rested his hand on Armin’s shoulder first. “I don’t trust her motivations,” Haradeth said. “She wants to use our Resistance as an outlet for her grief, and weaponize us against our foes. But that doesn’t mean I think she’s a liar, or that she’d do things to deliberately put people in danger with no reason. Least of all you and Ossman.”
“So, you’re going to speak up for her?”
“I don’t like seeing someone mistrusted for the wrong reasons,” Haradeth said with a shrug. “And I don’t believe she was lying about her heritage. Especially since her lying means we’re trusting the Alohym over her.”
Armin wiped at his eyes. They were itching for some strange reason that absolutely had nothing to do with feelings of betrayal or anger. “And the hoard?”
Haradeth sighed and picked up the chest. “Did you love your mother?” Haradeth asked.
Armin blinked at the change of topic. “Of course,” he said.
“And do you know the tale of Queen Olanni?”
“Every child does,” Armin said. “Queen Olanni, the High Queen of the Necropolis, who steals bad children from their beds and feeds them to zombies. Especially bad children who don’t finish their food, according to my mother.”
Haradeth laughed. “Exactly. So imagine Queen Olanni was real. Imagine, then, to defeat the Alohym the Resistance had to defile a grave. It could be Olanni’s, or it could be your mother’s. Both could be guarded by the Alohym. Which do you choose?”
Armin shook his head. “I see what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with the analogy. I never would have dreamed of suggesting we create dragonscale armor from Karjon’s hide, even though it’s nigh-impervious when properly infused with light. That would be far too much. But his hoard? His things? Who cares about things more than lives? Tythel does, apparently. And that…that’s unacceptable.” Armin held up a hand to forestall Haradeth’s objection. “I’ll hear her out. I know Theognis just told me those things to try to turn me against her. But damn me to darkest Shadow if I’m going to accept a weak excuse. I want to know why Guiart and Clarcia had to die, Haradeth.”
Haradeth didn’t try to defend Tythel further, just shook his head and sighed. “I think that’s the last of the chests,” he said as he settled it in place. “If we want more, we’ll need to get them from the Sylvani.”
Armin nodded. “I’ll wait here for Ossman and Aldreda. They’re the last two. You go through.” Lorathor had gone with the second wave of treasure. “I’ve seen you work the stone enough to know how to do it.”
“You were nervous about it a second ago, and now you want to operate it?” Haradeth asked with a furrowed brow.
“The Sylvani know you. The sooner they see you, the better they’ll feel – and the better I’ll feel taking my people through. Go ahead. I’ll be fine.”
Haradeth shrugged and stepped onto the portal stone. He spoke the command word, there was a flash of light, and he and the treasure were gone.
Armin breathed a sigh of relief, then checked to make sure Ossman and Aldreda weren’t coming yet. He’d set them to the task of gathering up texts and tomes he’d need to decode Theognis’ codex fully, although he already knew more than he expected. It had been a pretense to distract them. Same as sending Haradeth through the portal first.
He checked the sack he’d hidden inside a gilded chair. He was now glad he’d kept this secret from Haradeth. The godling couldn’t be trusted not to tell anyone about them. It’s not the same as what Tythel did, Armin thought. No one’s in danger.
But Tythel had been lying to them. Maybe from the beginning. And she’d been desperate to recover a single one of these. Armin couldn’t help but be suspicious as to why. Why did she want to recover the one she’d lost so badly? Was it just symbolic? Or did it have a purpose? For all Armin knew, that single one could be used to destroy the Resistance from within – or a weapon that could destroy the Alohym once and for all?
No, until he knew if he could trust her, it was far safer to keep the cache of dragon eggs safely hidden. With the portal stone working, he could return here whenever he needed. He just needed to move them away from the other treasure so no one would accidentally find them.
Not until he was ready.