The entranceway of Grejhak’s lair was littered with the long rotten bones of the dead. They were scattered about with the careless hand of a macabre child’s toys, strewn without any rhyme or reason that Armin could see. He could feel the thrum of necromantic power in the air, like a wire drawn taught and plucked by a foul hand, but none of it seemed to emanate from the bones itself. You’re being absurd, he reminded himself. Without a necromancer present, the bones would remain bones, as inanimate and lifeless as the stones they lay upon.
He still gave them a wide berth and told himself he was doing it to respect the dead. He even almost believed it.
The others were giving the bones the same distant respect that Armin was, as if there was an unspoken agreement that none of them wanted to be the one to disturb whatever horror the bones represented. Claricia’s eyes shone with the light she was holding onto, and she held her hands outstretched, as if ready to unleash a torrent of raw light the moment something even twitched.
Armin approved of that mentality. Guiard and Ossman had their weapons unsheathed, with arclight glowing the blades of both Guiard’s sword and Ossman’s axe. Only Aildreda kept her weapon sheathed, to avoid giving away her position as she scouted ahead. She was a dim shadow at the mouth of the next room and was waving for Armin to come to her position.
“What is it?” Armin asked.
Instead of answering, Aildreda pointed deeper down the tunnel. It took Armin’s eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. There were vague shadows there, slightly deeper spots against the grey stone. Armin looked a question at Aildreda, who nodded. He held up his hand and formed a globe of light around his fingers.
Five dead bodies sat propped up against the end of the hall. These had not laid here for countless millennia like the ones in that grim foyer. For starters, their flesh was still intact, although flies swarmed around and on them in a nauseating cloud. More importantly, they wore the imperimail of the Alohym foot soldiers. These men had worked for their enemy and had been here recently.
Armin’s black and orange eyes, so like an eclipse, met her emerald green gaze. “Have they moved?” he asked, his voice shaking.
Aildreda shook her head. “Can you feel anything?”
Armin focused on the rays of energy that swirled around him. They had the same sickly taint of death that Armin had been feeling since entering the swamp, like the very power of life and warmth had grown ill. This wasn’t the shadow, which was beyond his ability to touch and even if it hadn’t been, was no fell or foul thing, no was this the repelling power of unlight. This was a more natural phenomena, although it was natural in the same way parasitic wasps were natural.
This is what happened to a lumwell if a slaughter occurred within its dominion. It was twisting the land and air, it was what had turned a forest into a decaying swamp, and it was choking the flows of light with the taint of necromancy. Armin could no more distinguish the source than he could find a candle flame at a hundred yards in a sun-scorched desert. “I can’t tell,” Armin said, although he’d learned one thing.
The flow of corrupt light was stronger here than it was in the entranceway. The only way it could be this much stronger only a dozen feet ahead was if they were directly over the lumwell itself.
He glanced back to Ossman, who had almost caught up with them. His hair had never fully grown back from his early exposure to a lumwell. Armin hated seeing his baldness. Ossman claimed he didn’t mind, but…I should have been strong enough to stop it. “Ossman,” Armin said, stepping away from the rest of the group. “I think we need a rearguard. There are Alohym soldiers in the hall – I want an advance warning if they send more.”
Ossman nodded. “Agreed.” Armin was ready to leap for joy. He was certain this was going to be a fight, but Ossman saw the wisdom and- “Send Aildreda. She has the best eyes and can catch up with us quickest.”
Shadow forsake it. “Actually, I was thinking-”
“Guiard. Also a good call. He can use the Skimmer to escape if he can’t get to us at least, let command know what happened.”
Armin pursed his lips. “Ossman, I wasn’t going to send either of them-”
“Well, you certainly weren’t going to send Claricia, because you need her Lumcasting,” Ossman said, talking over Armin without hesitation. “And I know you weren’t going to send yourself, because you’re in command of this operation. And you definitely aren’t sending me, because if you keep treating me like I am a ceramic doll I’m going to break your flathing neck to prove I’m not fragile, so I’m not sure what you had in mind.”
Armin stared at Ossman, shocked into silence by the fury in his voice.
“Stop blaming yourself, Armin,” Ossman said, his voice low and harsh. “You did what you could to protect me. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m fine. I only hear things sometimes, and I know damn well you want to send me away because we’re near a lumwell and you’re afraid. I understand that. I know guilt. But you did your best.”
“It wasn’t good enough,” Armin muttered, unable to meet Ossman’s eyes.
Ossman put a hand on Armin’s shoulder. “I stood by you at the collegium revolt. I stood by you in the resistance. I don’t care if your best is good enough, Armin. I only care that you tried. But if you keep treating me like spun glass, you’ll actually manage to offend me. Let me decide what risks I can take. Trust me as much as I trust you.”
Armin noted mutely and turned back to the group. “Let’s go,” he said, taking a step further into the hallway.
The moment he did, the eyes snapped open on the corpses at the end of the hallway, and the rotting husks began to lurch to a shambling semblance of life.
Armin could only stare at them. He’d been so concerned about Ossman, he’d completely forgotten about the danger waiting for them.
Light help me, I’ve damned us all, he thought, fumbling for his arcwand.