Chapter 19:

17 - Undeath and the Unreal

The Fallen Diadem

“Mark!”Bookmark here

I hurt. I was light headed. I could barely breathe. I was coldBookmark here

“Mark what are you doing?”Bookmark here

Someone was speaking to me, they were calling out to me. I sat on the ground trembling. Bookmark here

It was blood loss, it had to be blood loss. The stitches in my arm must have broke and I was bleeding through the bandage. I couldn’t reach it because the shield was in the way. I had to get pressure on it before I passed out. I could hear people screaming and shouting; the clash of fighting around me.Bookmark here

“Get out of the way!”Bookmark here

The king. I was still near the king. I was right next to Amaranth’s fight, surrounded by the fires and yet I couldn’t feel them anymore. When I turned my head, the fallen king locked eyes with me. It stopped looking at Amaranth so it could scream at me. Rage burned in the empty sockets it had for eyes, and I understood. Bookmark here

The fallen weren’t monsters; they were people. Or at least, they had been. When the queen died, the diadem had destroyed Vichtstein and like contamination seeping out of the darkness, it had brought out echoes of the dead. The king of the fallen had been the king of Vichtstein, and I had just destroyed his wife’s crown. I had soiled it and her memory with my bloody, grasping hand. The roar didn’t need words; all it contained was hatred.Bookmark here

The undead king charged at me, icy saber lofting high. I grunted, trying to flee but only slumping onto the ground as my legs betrayed me.Bookmark here

There was another scream. I thought perhaps it was Amaranth; the shining knight seizing the opportunity. It wasn’t. It was Charlie. He sprinted in with his shoulder into his shield to throw himself between me and it.Bookmark here

The fallen cleaved his sword down on him, and the shield wasn’t enough. The metal rim split. The wood planks splintered. The saber struck through to Charlie’s shoulder so hard his scream was ripped from his lips. He was slammed face first into the ground and trampled upon, barely even delaying the king as it ripped his sword free of Charlie’s bloody pauldron. Bookmark here

Neeka screamed, I could hear her over the din of violence, over my own heartbeat in my ears. She didn’t charge in though, she didn’t throw herself at the king to save Charlie. Nobody did. Nobody could face something so inhumanly strong. I saw it open up its palm and close, grasping a shard of ice from the air that glowed and grew into a javelin.Bookmark here

Something wrapped around me. My vision went black and I felt arms grab hold of me. I was pressed into someone’s chest and pulled back. The two of us didn’t go far, it was the most they could do to make one diving leap away from the king. We hit the ground hard, a crunch of iron and leather as we skidded over the crumbling masonry. It was Xon, that was all I could see before light blinded me. I got one eye searing glimpse of Amaranth Arnstein attacking with the full power of Ascalon. It was like a dragon made of lightning swallowed the fallen whole.Bookmark here

It screamed and I could smell burning flesh. Rivets erupted. The robe combusted. The fallen died.Bookmark here

Then I blacked out.Bookmark here

I awoke in a cold pool. It was halfway up my body, and I could feel silt muck beneath me. It clung to my body as I sat up, the mud pouring from my skin as I tried to see in the darkness. I was alone, and I could hear nothing save my own breath. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that there was light. There were stars; the multi-colored swimming motes of light that speckled the sky and yet they surrounded me. Their glow bounced off rippling water as far as I could see in every direction of the dark world.Bookmark here

I pinched myself and felt the pain, because I realized this was the world I dreamt of. The pain was real, the world was real. If it had been a dream, it would have at least explained why I was naked in the mud. Instead, I had to stand up with one hand protecting my dignity and look about the abyss. “Hello?” I asked, but not even my own echo returned. The world devoured my words and gave nothing back.Bookmark here

My pain was gone. The stitches in my arm were gone without even a lingering itch of healing. My thoughts were clear and I felt like I had just woken from a full night’s rest. The water about my feet was cold, but the air was warm and stagnant. The longer I waited, the more my senses adapted. My ears adapted to the darkness and I realized the buzzing in my ears was insects. An endless mass of furtive bugs that skipped from puddle to pool and circled around me.Bookmark here

“Is anyone there?” I called out. No matter which way I turned, everything looked the same and I couldn’t even take a step. The mud built up around my feet and held me down.Bookmark here

“You aren’t from here,” someone said behind me.Bookmark here

I spun, and saw a swath of the glowing creatures, not stars but some kind of living thing, swirl down and illuminate a figure. I couldn’t call the thing human. It sat on a throne which looked like mud had been piled up and compacted into a stalagmite. Its skin looked more like the chitin of an insect, withered and wasted from time. It made its four arms seem almost demonic. It had no lips, merely exposed fangs that didn’t move when it spoke, “how did you get here?”Bookmark here

“Where is this?”Bookmark here

“A place that is not your home. Your soul is not of this world. You have no right to sit upon the throne. How did you get here?”Bookmark here

My mouth went dry, and I took a step closer. The water sloshed around my legs. Beyond the glittering reflection was nothing but inky darkness like the mist left behind by the fallen. I couldn’t see the bottom of the gulf between me and it. “How should I know? I just woke up here. I didn’t ask to come here.”Bookmark here

“And yet you have laid hands upon the diadem, you have taken it into your vacuous body and soiled it. You are now part of the cycle.”Bookmark here

I gritted my teeth as it spoke, and my words burst from my mouth. “Look, I don’t know where the hell this is or what cycle you’re talking about. You, whatever you are, you abducted me! I don’t know where the hell this is and you obviously don’t want me here, so send me back!” I demanded, taking another step into the water. I plunged down almost to my waist. My legs were gripped by the icy chill.Bookmark here

“I will do no such thing. You have no right to my power. You will die in pain and helplessness. You will be a sacrifice for the throne so that another may sit upon it.”Bookmark here

“I don’t want to sit on any throne! I just want to live my life. Who would want to rule over a hell like this anyways? You sit alone in the dark. You rule alone but you rule over nothing but mud.”Bookmark here

“Alone?”Bookmark here

The way its intonation made it sound like a question put a chill through my back worse than the water I had trudged into. I was nearly swimming. My feet found nothing but mud at the bottom, and yet the throne was still out of my reach.Bookmark here

“I am not alone in this place. This is the realm of the dead, Mark Brutei,” the thing said, and something brushed against my leg. It was cold and firm, and I felt it wrap around my calf. “I do not know who brought you to this world or why, but it shall be your grave nonetheless.”Bookmark here

It was a hand. A hand had grabbed me from below the water. I shouted and thrashed backwards. My foot slipped free of the boney grasp; but I tumbled back into the water. Dozens more hands grabbed hold of me, their fingers slipping over my flesh one by one. I kicked and shoved, clawing against the mud and pulled myself free of the surface once more. Warm air pumped into my lungs as I tried to pull myself free. The hands had come from the water, and rather than skeletal bones I saw the black fingers of fallen holding onto me.Bookmark here

“Get off!” I screamed, slashing my hand through the animate mud and breaking free. I rolled and shoved, getting back to my feet before they could grab me again. My heart hammered in my chest as I kicked free of the muck and found the shallows once more. Bookmark here

I ran. With nothing but the light of the star creatures to see by, I ran from the ever growing mass of fallen behind me. My feet pounded through the water till the chill made them numb and until my lungs ached. With no landmark to see and no direction to go, I charged blindly away from the throne.Bookmark here

And then it was there in front of me again. My flight had brought me back to it, and yet I could look back and see the ripple of water in my wake. The world wasn’t real; it couldn’t be real. It was circular and closed like a ring of darkness.Bookmark here

“You’re the diadem,” I said, backpedalling from the raising arms of the fallen. “This place, this darkness. It isn’t real!”Bookmark here

“I told you already, Mark, this is the realm of the dead. Doesn’t that tell you that you are dead already?” the diadem creature asked.Bookmark here

I was in a world with nothing but myself and that throne. The throne was the only real thing in the whole abyss. Running away from it would just bring me back to it. I had to do something, something before I was too tired and cold to act.Bookmark here

I ran at the throne and before the water grew too deep, I leapt. I planted my foot square on the face of a fallen and shoved off the lumbering mass of mud. I tumbled forward, rolling and smashing atop the mass of bodies. I thrashed and pushed, struggling to pull free of them and stay atop and then I dove once more. With arm outstretched, I tried to grab hold of the throne.Bookmark here

Instead I grabbed the foot of the creature and the fallen piled atop me, driving me into the water and pulling me into the true abyss. I clung to its leg even as I felt the bones of the fallen tear at my flesh and spill my blood into the water. I sank through the muck till I was hanging by that unyielding grasp and then I had to breathe. My lungs gave out, my chest gasped and let in water. My life bubbled out from my lips and into the darkness. I hacked and coughed, feeling my chest burn and bleed from within. Bookmark here

The mud of the fallen filled my mouth with the bitter taste of death.Bookmark here

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