Chapter 20:

18 - Unnoticed Theft

The Fallen Diadem

I awoke in the infirmary. Whether that experience had been real or a dream wasn’t quite clear, but I had my wits about me. The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was, not overall but compared to the fighting. I could hear people groaning and whimpering, others snored. Lifting my head off the bundled cloak they had given me for a pillow, I could see row upon row of injured soldiers. Each had bloody bandages. Some were missing limbs and many weren’t moving. Bookmark here

The air stank of chlorine like an oversaturated pool. Laying on the ground in a ruined castle in Vichtstein, I could remember that glimpse of my old school life. I wasn’t from this world; I had been brought here. Had I died? Was I in the afterlife?Bookmark here

“Who said you could move?” Sister Evey’s sharp voice made me jerk my hands away from my face. The priestess marched over to me, still holding a bone saw dripping with marrow in one hand. When she put her hands on her hips and glared down at me, I scrambled away. “Relax. I’m not taking your arm off unless infection sets in.”Bookmark here

“What happened?”Bookmark here

Her head tilted to the side and I could see the white of her eye all around. “What happened? You passed out from blood loss in the middle of a fight and-”Bookmark here

“Did we win? Did Amaranth kill the king?” I asked quickly.Bookmark here

She sighed and shook her head. “Yes, Lord Amaranth slew the king and broke the spell that was bringing the fallen to Vichtstein. The fighting is over, kid. For someone who passed out, you sure have a lot of energy. You know that? I guess funneling food down your throat did the trick. You should thank the cat girl when you see her.”Bookmark here

I paused and felt around inside my mouth with my tongue. There were bits and pieces of something stuck behind my molars. After a bit of work, I tasted the watered down gruel they had fed me. That Neeka had fed me apparently. “Where are we?” There were lanterns and candles set up, illuminating the stone walls.Bookmark here

“The castle. We captured it. Welcome to the conquering infirmary. Now let me see your arm,” Sister Evey said as she knelt down beside me. She set the bonesaw aside, and held out her hands for me to put my arm forward. “Well it moves. Muscles seem to still be attached. The stitches haven’t fallen out but there’s some inflammation around the punctures. Skin has fused with a bit of scabbing and somehow you can move it without pain.”Bookmark here

I looked up from her hands, how her thumbs were kneading my tender flesh. I could wiggle my fingers and hadn’t even thought twice about handing her my arm. It didn’t hurt at all. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”Bookmark here

“Salves don’t usually work this well, so thank the gods why don’t you. Now, if only you had waited till now to do something stupid like try to help a Holy Lance in a fight and your friends wouldn’t be here with you,” she said as she checked my pulse.Bookmark here

Xon and Charlie were worse off than me. Neither of them were awake. I found them side by side, stripped to their pants and covered in bandages. At first I didn’t see what was wrong with the dragonkin, then I saw the wound in his back. The damage was covered by wadded and bloodied cloths, but I could see the scales around it; blackened and peeling off. He must have been stabbed by the javelin the undead king had created. Charlie’s wound was across his shoulder, striking down across his clavicle. He was sweating profusely, writhing in spasms. Bookmark here

“Lord Amaranth’s strike caught him up in the collateral,” Neeka said from behind me. Her eyes were bloodshot and with heavy bags. She wasn’t in her armor anymore, just her clothes and they were spotted with dirt and blood. “Good to see you’re up Mark.”Bookmark here

“Thanks for feeding me…”Bookmark here

She smiled a bit. “You were the easy one. Charlie was in so much pain they had to put him out.”Bookmark here

“Must have been the electricity, like he got struck by lightning. His nerves are going to be fried for a while,” I said, squatting down beside him. He had charged out to save me, and now I was the one who felt fine. I didn’t even know why I felt fine. I felt better than fine even, like every ache and pain I had been ignoring had been washed clean. A bit of bedrest and some drugs wouldn’t do that.Bookmark here

“Why did you go out there, Mark? Why didn’t you stay with us? One moment, we were all barricading the door, the next, you were collapsed out in the middle of everything,” she asked, squatting down on Charlie’s other side.Bookmark here

I licked my lips and didn’t look up at her. “I don’t know. I was delirious from the bloodloss I think. The chaos got to my head. Did Amaranth recover the diadem?”Bookmark here

She shook her head. “When he killed the king, the crown broke, so that wasn’t the real diadem. They’re still looking for it. This whole thing may have been for nothing,” Neeka explained as she scratched a circle through the dirt with her finger, looping it again and again.Bookmark here

“Sister Evey said the fallen were defeated, so at least Vichtstein is safe now, right?”Bookmark here

“Sort of.”Bookmark here

“Well, that’s something. And we’re sure to pay off our debts, right? It’s not like we came here to get the diadem. We came for the money. We can finally get these things off our throats,” I said, tugging on the collar.Bookmark here

“Their treatment is going to cost money too, Mark. You think they’re going to keep giving treatment out of the goodness of their hearts?”Bookmark here

Money. It always came back to money, and all because of Brekhart. A liar, a swindler, and a sham of a knight. The fact that he had embezzled a thousand silver and pinned it on us burned inside me. I could see his smirk, the way it twisted his oiled moustache. “I’ll do something about that. I’ll take care of it, Neeka. They got hurt saving me. I’ll be sure to make it up to them. Alright?”Bookmark here

She looked up at me as I rose to my feet. “Aren’t you on death’s door yourself?”Bookmark here

Death didn’t have a door, just a throne. I could still feel the hard, chitinous leg I had grabbed hold of in that abyss. It felt like the first day I had taken hold of a sword. “I’ll be fine. I’m not going to do anything hard. I need to go speak to Claire though. I want to get my pay and get this thing off my neck as soon as possible.”Bookmark here

“She’s asleep. She was part of the team that rebuilt the barge into a bridge. People have been coming and going from the castle ever since the king was defeated. You’d probably have to go all the way back to camp.”Bookmark here

“How kind of her to stay by our sides when we’re injured,” I said, but didn’t get the laugh out of Neeka that I was hoping for. “Are you going to stay here with them?”Bookmark here

She nodded. “They’re a bit understaffed on the nursing front. Sister Evey showed me how to change their bandages so I’ll be the one taking care of them. I don’t want to fight anyways.”Bookmark here

“I’ll be back soon, okay?”Bookmark here

She nodded and I moved to walk away, but Xon’s hand grabbed hold of my ankle. I felt his scaled grip and nearly fell over when he stopped me. The dragonkin had barely moved. Most of the muscles in his back must have been either locked up or injured. His eyes were sharp and alight with thought, each iris like one of the lanterns in teh room. When he spoke, his words were slow and lacked the rumble his voice always had. They were barely more than a gasp that he had to carefully shape into words. “You learned something.”Bookmark here

I knelt down and dropped my voice to a whisper. I had to lick my lips and swallow a nerovus knot in my throat, but I said, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be resting, man?”Bookmark here

“Dragonkin heal fast. Only a scar soon. What did you learn?” Bookmark here

He had risked his life to save me, and had seen through me. Telling him I had merely collapsed from bloodloss wouldn't work, certainly not when he could feel the warmth and vitality in my body. “The fallen are made by the diadem. They’re recreations of the dead. I don’t know if they’re memories or souls, but they were all people once… from when the queen was alive,” I whispered.Bookmark here

“If made by the diadem, how could they use the diadem?”Bookmark here

“I think it’s alive, the same way Ascalon is alive.”Bookmark here

“Do you know where it is?”Bookmark here

“No, but it’s somewhere here.”Bookmark here

“Don’t let Amaranth get it. He nearly killed Charlie. He didn’t care. He can’t be trusted.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “You three are the only ones I trust. Thank you for saving me,” I said, clasping my hands around his, and I saw him relax back into his rest.Bookmark here

The dragonkin nodded and closed his eyes. After one deep exhale, it seemed like he fell back asleep. Perhaps he simply wanted to think within his own mind, but there was no strength holding me back anymore. Bookmark here

Sister Evey harassed me when I tried to leave, but she had too many other patients to bother with me. She called me a hard headed idiot with a penchant for inviting death, but words were the only thing she flung at me. I strapped all my gear back on, and marched out of the infirmary on my own two feet. Bookmark here

The moon shone overhead, nearly hanging over Vichtstein directly. It cast the city in two sets of shadows; the true darkness and the areas the moon could reach but the sun could not. The stone was speckled like static, a noise of color with the glow of Amaranth’s camp before me. Bookmark here

I had to cross a chain of pontoons to get back to the mainland. They had split the deck and stretched one hull after another all the way from shore to shore to form a bridge barely two shoulder widths wide. Every step made it slant and slosh beneath me, like the wood itself wanted to dump me into the water. The path was tenuous and treacherous, but there was only one way to go and I didn’t let fear stop me.Bookmark here

I marched back to camp with my head high, and headed for Amaranth’s tent. He had failed to get the diadem, and gotten dozens of soldiers killed in the process. Now, he had no choice but to scour the castle for it and hope to find it, but he never would. I already had.Bookmark here

For once, I held the cards.Bookmark here

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