Sorry for the delay with this! Double update time! Read this part then click over to get part 160 right away. Patreons, part 160 and 161 are up over there. Thank you for the patience!
Armin kept the arcwand trained on Theognis as the Lumcaster clenched his fist. Tendrils of unlight were stretching across the wound. “Don’t move or the next bolt goes through your skull,” Armin said, spitting the words.
Theognis looked up at him, and although his face was twisted into a mask of pure hatred, he didn’t budge from where he was. Every line of his body was tight with tension, and the dark web didn’t stop its progress, but he didn’t move.
“Good. Glad we have an understanding.”
Haradeth was looking at him in disbelief. Synit’s mandibles were hanging open. Even the strange automaton had ceased her attempts to break free of the unlight cage to peer at him with narrowed lenses that Armin assumed must be her eyes, or at least function as them. He couldn’t see Ossman and Aldredia and Lorathor, but he could imagine they were giving him similar expressions. A single question hung over the room, one that no one was saying aloud. “How did you do that?”
Armin really hoped no one would ask it, because the truth was, he had absolutely no idea.
He played back the last few in his head, trying to figure out what had happened.
Lorathor didn’t need keys to the other cells. Now that he was more open about how far his shapeshifting prowess could be pushed, it was easy to watch him shove his fingers into the keyholes and let them run like wax before the door unlocked.
“I should go first,” Armin said quietly as the first door clicked open. “Ossman knows you, but Aldredia might respond poorly to an unknown person coming in.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Lorathor said, his voice thick with sarcasm, and he pulled the door open, stepping back to remain hidden behind the wood.
Aldredia screamed and lunged from the room, her fists raised. They hadn’t chained her to a wall. Armin leapt back, holding up his hands. “It’s me! It’s me!”
“Armin?” Aldredia asked, coming to a halt. “How’d you get out?”
“My friend behind the door. We have to move. We need to get Ossman free.”
“Just Ossman?” Aldredia’s eyes narrowed. “What about Guiart? And Clarcia.” Armin tried to find the words, but they were thick on his tongue. He settled for just shaking his head. Aldredia’s face collapsed inwards, like she’d been punched in the gut. “I see. You’re sure?”
“I saw Clarcia’s body,” Armin said. Lorathor stepped out from behind the door and moved to the next cell. He knew the urgency of the situation but let them have their moment in silence.
“Where?” Aldredia asked.
“I’ll…I’ll explain later.” Armin said. Aldredia gave him a sharp look, one that softened when she met his eyes. The horror he felt must have shown through, and Armin tried to suppress it. Don’t burden her with it. Not right now. After we’re done.
Assuming he didn’t get anyone else killed.
Ossman and Lorathor were having a quiet conversation. Armin didn’t hear any rattling chains. It appeared Theognis had spared the only cell with a chain for Armin. Of course he did, Armin thought bitterly. He was probably going to kill them if he ever opened their cells again.
“Any idea where our weapons are?” Aldredia asked.
Armin shook his head. “I’m an absolute failure, it seems. Maybe Lorathor-”
What he had been about to say was cut off. Aldredia stepped forward and raised her hand. For a moment Armin thought she was going to slap him. For an instant, it looked like she thought the same thing. Then she took another step forward and grabbed him by the shoulder. “You develop the ability to see the future when your eyes went weird?” she asked.
Armin blinked at the question and shook his head.
“Then you can’t blame yourself for not predicting the unpredictable. No one I’ve served under would have seen that coming.”
“Thank you,” Armin said. Ossman and Lorathor exited the other cell. Armin met Ossman’s eyes, and saw they glistened in the faint light provided by arcglobes. Lorathor must have given him the details. Everyone keeps telling you it’s not your fault. If you freeze right now, though…that would be your fault. “Alright. Lorathor, do you know where our weapons are?”
“I saw a few thrown in an unlocked cell on my way in. If they’re not yours, they’re still weapons.”
“Good enough. Let’s move. We’ve got a Lumcaster to send straight to the Shadow.”
They were their weapons; a stroke of luck Armin hadn’t expected to get. Re-armed, they followed Lorathor down the hallway towards where Theognis waited.
As they ran, Armin opened his eyes.
It was wrong. He knew that. Mortals were not meant to see the flow of Light. Such things were forbidden, in the same sense that attempting to fly by flapping your arms or breathing underwater or swimming through the ground were forbidden – no actual law was needed to forbid them, because natural laws made them impossible. It was blasphemous, something that perhaps the little gods could do, but not a mortal. Yet Armin could now, and he certainly was not a god. He knew he should keep this power locked away and never utilize it.
Yet if he had kept his eyes open, he might have seen the unnatural strands of unlight that signaled Theognis’s presence. He might have known sooner that they were coming.
That was the failure. That was what he could have done differently. He could have watched with his new sight, and if he had, Clarcia and Guiart might still be alive.
Never again would he shut himself off from their flow, and if he was damned to the darkest parts of the Shadow for his blasphemy, he’d accept that torment as a price for saving even a single life.
So, when they’d rounded the bend and seen Theognis closing in on Synit, unlight prisons trapping Bix and Haradeth, Armin had known what to expect. Theognis’s hands were wrapped in a cocoon of unlight, strands of it so densely packed the man’s hands were merely an outline. It was invisible to the naked eye, a pre-cast weaving that would activate if it was triggered. It was how he was absorbing the unlight, and any true light that was sent his way would be twisted into unlight before it reached his barrier and only strengthen it.
Even knowing it wouldn’t work, Armin had pulled the trigger. Pure instinct had driven the reaction. He had to do something, anything. And then he’d felt something. A sensation not unlight the buildup of light when he was charging an arcell, but somehow different. He’d pushed out with that sensation, and Theognis’s barrier had flickered out of existence.
It had lasted only a moment. It had given Armin’s blast all the time it needed. But now Theognis was protected again, and Armin had no idea how to replicate the feat.
He doesn’t know that. Light and Shadow, don’t let him figure it out. “Bring down the unlight cages, Theognis. Now.”
“I have to move if that’s what you want,” Theognis said, growling through the pain. The hole in his hand was now full of unlight.
“I know that’s a lie. You don’t need to use your hand to undo your own lumcasting.”
Theognis gave him a thin smile. “So, you did pay attention sometimes. I’ll admit to being surprised. Yet unlight is different.”
“You’re lying,” Armin said, pushing his finger against the trigger.
Theognis shrugged slightly. “You don’t know. You never studied it, Armin. Unlight requires the motion to undo, as it does to put in place.”
That was a mistake. It gave Theognis a chance to think. “Hmmm…a question, before you kill me?”
“I don’t care-” Armin started to say, but Theognis wasn’t interested in his opinion on the matter.
“If you believe they work the same, then you would believe killing me would end the traps. Yet you chose not to. And now I’m forced to wonder…why?”
Armin pulled the trigger. Theognis’s hand intercepted the blast, and Armin didn’t feel that pressure this time. The arclight was corrupted into unlight and merged with the barrier. Theognis smiled cruelly.
Screaming in desperation, Armin started to fire again.
In this moment, he was certain this would be the last act of his life.