Chapter 5:

5 - Reverence

The Fallen Diadem

All in all, about forty people took up the offer to go down into Vichtstein. It was sort of like a fire brigade showing up to help, but with more grinning and joking. There was money to be made and a feast to be had, rather than someone’s home burning down. Charlie, Xon, and I lingered near the back of the crowd, following them down the main road. Under normal circumstances, it would be asking to get into a fight with the fallen to take the main road, but the army had sent in a few dozen soldiers to escort everyone down, and we weren't the only ones with weapons of our own.Bookmark here

I kept glancing up to the rim around Vichtstein. Our hideout, a glorified campsite with a few walls still standing, could just barely be seen from where we were and yet I couldn’t see the dot of color that would be Neeka’s hair.Bookmark here

“I guess it wasn’t the one that chased us,” Charlie said, jerking his chin towards the temple. I could see fresh claw marks through the dirt and some broken plaster, but certainly no dragon corpse.Bookmark here

“How far down do you think it is?” Xon asked.Bookmark here

“Must be in downtown. Hey, what do you think are the chances that it was that explosion we heard?” I asked, trying to see over heads ahead of us. There were too many twists and turns from the collapse to see our destination. The city planners had tried to make it straight as an arrow with the direction of the sun, but as the city settled into the pit, the road had broken and twisted, slanting one way or another. The sinks and chasms were striped with shadows and bridged over with wood and rubble. We went so far into the pit that it levelled off, and I was worrying that night would pass over us before we got out.Bookmark here

Then I saw the corpse. It was the largest dragon I had ever seen; the chest alone was the size of most houses in town. The coloration had three shades; mud brown where it wallowed in the lake, a stripe of verdant green, and then bleached beige across its back where the sun had warmed the aged creature.Bookmark here

“The king of the lake has been slain,” one of the townsfolk said as he gawked at it. I couldn’t believe it either. Not that I thought it deserved a title like king in a city filled with fallen, but that a human had killed a creature with hide that must have been at least a foot thick. I had seen dragons half that size get stabbed by spears and not even flinch. Arrows could barely break the scales. The so-called king was beached on its side, drooling blood out of a mouth with broken teeth. The death blow had been head on, right through the top of the rib cage and into its lungs.Bookmark here

I had to see the man brave enough to face a charging dragon head on, and strong enough to leave a crater where its throat was supposed to be.Bookmark here

“Porters, get in a line sunwise here. Butchers, anti-sunwise,” Claire shouted, directing the two groups to the left and right respectively. Bookmark here

Charlie and I went straight for the easy job, but Xon got in line with the butchers. “What are you doing? You serious?” I asked.Bookmark here

The dragonkin shrugged. “I can’t make as many trips as you two. This will make me more.”Bookmark here

Charlie and I stared at each other. He was the one to ask the question. “You don’t have some kind of issue with uh, butchering a dragon?”Bookmark here

Xon didn’t realize what he meant by the question for a moment, but when he did his scaley brow arched up. “I’d have more of an issue dissecting a human than an overgrown lizard.”Bookmark here

We both coughed and acted like we hadn’t asked the question. The soldiers took a moment to organize us, which really was time for the butchers to start carving hide off. Charlie and I were going to be in desperate need of a bath afterwards; because when the time came they just had us start picking up chucks of the fatty skin. The side scales had uses as leather and would be loaded into carts, but strips from the limbs had no delicacy. They dropped the bloody cubes into our arms and told us to head back to get our pay.Bookmark here

The first trip wasn’t too bad. The second was exhausting. The entire return trip we could hear soldiers getting in random fights with the fallen, steel clanging against steel in the darkness. It made me wonder whether one more silver mark was really worth it, but Xon was still down at the lake working, so we had to at least meet up with him again.Bookmark here

Without saying as much, Charlie was on the same page as me. We dragged our feet so much going back down that night had begun passing over Vichtstein. The swelling darkness always reminded me of a cloud passing over the sun and hiding it, but you could still see the sun through a cloud. Night moved like a tide, a sweeping wall of darkness that surged out from beneath the sun to the furthest reaches of the world. The sun went out and they had only started to expose the bones of the King of the Lake.Bookmark here

We could see Xon helping with the butchering. It looked more like an excavation as he tried to pry a rib bone up with his back so that others could hack at the connective tissue. Blood drenched him from head to toe and I knew his mind was dreaming of the bathhouse, or perhaps of just diving into the still lake itself. Amazingly, no one had punctured the creature’s stomach or intestines; the offal had been dragged well away from the site of the battle, but I still couldn’t imagine the creature’s insides smelled good. I hoped they would be done soon. I certainly didn’t have it in me to make another trip back to town even for a silver coin. There was a better idea though. Charlie vanished from my side, grinning and trying to ingratiate himself with the team loading carts to get some pay on the side for the far easier job.Bookmark here

Torches and lanterns came to life, dotting the clearing before the lake with a warm glow as the cool breeze of night began to pour into Vichtstein. There were so many that it barely even felt like a city lost to humanity. That was when I saw the one who had slain the dragon. Amaranth Arnstein, leader of the army, stood at the edge of the water, wearing full plate armor that glowed with reflections of his men’s torches. The weapon resting against his shoulder seemed like it couldn’t have been from this world. It was immaculate with inlaid gold and, if I watched carefully and squinted my eyes just right, I thought I could see a glow within it pulsing and flickering.Bookmark here

He was alone, facing the castle keep that protruded from the lake like an island; but I thought I could hear him speaking. Suddenly, he turned to face me. I had approached him, like a moth cleaving to a flame in the night. He was the kind of man people would tell stories about. He would leave his name in history.Bookmark here

“What do you want?”Bookmark here

It took me a moment to realize he was speaking to me. A quick glance showed that noone else was close. I could see some soldiers watching me from their posts, but none felt the need to interpose on Amaranth’s behalf. “Me? I just… I wanted to see the dragon slayer is all. Sorry if that's rude.”Bookmark here

He stared back at me, eyes hidden by the faceless mask of metal he wore. I could have sworn the spear flickered some more. Then he lifted the mask up and I saw his face. He was young. He couldn’t possibly be thirty. The stubble on his chin was as patchy as my own. “You look like you’ve had a hard go of it. Dragon blood aside,” he said, looking me up and down.Bookmark here

I couldn’t believe I had approached a hero like Amaranth while not only unbathed, but freshly splattered with the grisly ichor of his own kill. “I’ve been getting by.”Bookmark here

“Nothing wrong with standing on your own two feet. What’s your name?”Bookmark here

“Mark.”Bookmark here

“Mark what?”Bookmark here

I shrugged weakly. “I don’t remember my last name.” I couldn’t recall my parents either, nor my hometown. No one ever asked about that though. Maybe there was something about it in my expression?Bookmark here

I thought I saw a hint of a smile on Amaranth’s face. “So you had one? Most people don’t. And yet here you are, having a go of it with what, a couple other kids your age? Looks to me like you’re having a proper adventure. Ever thought about enlisting? I can only imagine what you’ve been through thanks to one army or another, but the Order of the Broken Concordant is different. If you complete a campaign under me, you’ll earn your status as a patrician of Throne.”Bookmark here

I glanced around, desperate that Charlie would come and save me. He hadn’t even noticed where I was. Charlie was too busy making friends and throwing his arms around people’s shoulders. I could only look back at the knight who hadn’t wavered at all. “I wouldn’t know what to do with that.”Bookmark here

Amaranth frowned. “With what? Your franchise? Well taxes for starters… I suppose you are a bit young for that. See the world perhaps? Plenty of men join for that. You’re not planning to grow old in a dump like this, are you? You already have your eyes set on a girl, perhaps?”Bookmark here

My mind went to Neeka. I didn’t really think of her that way. We were friends. She came to my thoughts because she wasn’t with us. She hated this army for some reason. “You wouldn’t want me. I’m no good in a fight. I’m just some kid too curious for his own good.”Bookmark here

Amaranth looked around, then hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “What? About this?” he asked, and I nodded. “The lost city of Vichtstein’s treasure? The last queen’s crown? The Diadem of Shadows?” he asked, letting his face break into a smile. “Me too. I’m just a kid too curious for his own good. I’m here to chase a fairy tale, and well, I guess I have enough status that nobody can tell me not too. I might find nothing at all. The rumors might be nothing but lies; but, maybe I’ll get something that can change the world.”Bookmark here

I looked at his spear, the one that had slain the dragon. It had to be magical. “Can’t you already?” That time I was sure it was reacting.Bookmark here

“Violence isn’t enough,” Amaranth said, crossing his steel clad arms. For a man barely taller than me, I couldn’t believe how large he was. There was something in his gaze, like he saw more when he looked across the world. He had ambition, with the confidence and the power to attain it. “Perhaps you’ll understand someday. If you want to enlist, feel free to speak to any of my captains. I need to go find an engineer. We’re going to be here a while. We'll have to build ships if we’re going to raid that castle.”Bookmark here

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