Chapter 23:

20 - Necessary Robbing

The Fallen Diadem

“So you have the diadem?” Bookmark here

“I think I am the diadem. It’s… hard to explain.”Bookmark here

Xon and I sat in the excavated mercenary hall, using the old commander’s study by the light of a candle. He still couldn’t walk easily, but he was on his own feet after just a few days like he had said. Thanks to a loan from Claire, his collar had been unceremoniously removed. Had he not paid it off, he wouldn’t have been able to leave the camp to meet me.Bookmark here

“This is a problem. Soldiers will anger. Nothing in castle,” the dragonkin said, scratching his chin.Bookmark here

“Ascalon made direct contact with me and didn’t realize. I don’t think they’ll figure it out. Circumstantial evidence maybe? It’s not like it does anything for me. I just sort of feel healthier? Less run down, better fed, that kind of feeling.”Bookmark here

“More vitality,” Xon said. “Odd though. Myth says they are weapons. Very powerful. Part of the throne.”Bookmark here

“Well, when I passed out, I met the thing inside the diadem and it said it wouldn’t give me any power, so I think I’m screwed on that front,”Bookmark here

“Good. Stay hidden. Amaranth would kill you for it,” Xon said.Bookmark here

“I would get rid of it if I could, but first I’ve gotta do something. It healed me. The cut to my arm? It’s completely gone. Just a little scar. I’m going to chase down Brekhart and make him pay.”Bookmark here

Xon crossed his arms and closed his eyes. The two of us sat in silence until he thought it over. “Charlie would want to join. Charlie too injured. Someone needs stay with him.”Bookmark here

The cut to Charlie’s chest wasn’t too bad. It hadn’t caught any major artery and he would eventually heal up. The lightning blast was the real problem. His arms trembled and ached permanently. Sister Evey couldn’t even do anything for him but offer brandy. It helped him rest, but there was no way for him to live drunk. Bookmark here

“I think it has to be you Xon. Neeka is more help in a search even if you weren’t limping. I’ll just have to get her debt paid off as well.”Bookmark here

“Agreed. But how?”Bookmark here

I hooked a thumb at the half-buried passage to the sword instructor. “If that fallen is still kicking, we gotta eliminate him and sell what we can. If that’s not enough, we go back to the wine cellar with a cart.”Bookmark here

Xon nodded and picked up the shortbow. He hadn’t understood when I had first told him to, but hadn’t refused either. The dragonkin was too injured to wield his pole-hammer, but the shortbow was another matter. While Neeka sometimes struggled with the draw poundage, it was trivial for Xon.Bookmark here

I tucked my looted helmet back on, completing my jumbled ensemble of armor, and drew my sword. The instructor stood waiting, his feet in the same place as we had left him almost a week prior. I considered what that meant about the drop off in the castle, how the fallen had been so easily purged; must have been bad estimation of numbers.Bookmark here

“You don’t think this one’s hiding magic like the king was, do you?” I asked, checking the tightness of the buckler strapped to my arm. The shield weighed my arm down a bit, but it was reassuring to have between me and it.Bookmark here

“Doubtful. Magic is rare,” Xon responded, knocking an arrow as I approached the fallen.Bookmark here

It spoke. “The king has been slain then?”Bookmark here

I nearly jumped out of my skin. “What the hell? You can talk?”Bookmark here

“You understood that?” Xon asked.Bookmark here

“Of course I can speak. The question was always if you could hear, novice,” the instructor responded. Rather than the jumble of noises the other fallen made, his speech was clear, sharp, and to the point. If I hadn’t known what was beneath the armor, I would have thought it was a human.Bookmark here

“Must be the diadem,” I said, adjusting my grip on my sword.Bookmark here

“Naturally. You’re as recognizable to me as my own mother. And that means that the time of despair is over. Come, have at me, prove your worth,” the instructor commanded. It marched forward, twirling its blade in a brandish before setting into a guard.Bookmark here

“Wait, if you can speak then we don’t have to fight! It means you’re not a monster!”Bookmark here

“The dead seek death, boy. Would you deny a man water in the desert? Come! Show me your worth or I shall cut you down. Do not make me ashamed of my final student,” the instructor said.Bookmark here

I swallowed. “It’s going to force the fight,” I said, and approached with a matching guard.Bookmark here

“Can you get answers? Or do I attack?”Bookmark here

I didn’t have time to answer Xon’s question, I barely had time to interpose my blade. Me and the instructor began the dance of steel, each of us keeping our distance and making clean, probing strikes. For a moment it felt like it was taking me through a practice routine again, but the instructor kept accelerating. One by one, it began mixing in all the basic cuts, and then feints and thrusts. Bookmark here

It was slow. Slower than me at least.Bookmark here

Every few moves, I managed to knock its blade away and return the blow, smashing my edge into the instructor’s armor. I never cut through the steel, but I managed to force it back. Xon loosed an arrow into it each time, the steel tips hitting hard and denting the steel. The moment it tried half-swording to stave me off, I made distance and let Xon pelt it with arrows. The first one ripped through the segmentation on the arm, piercing into the fallen’s flesh.Bookmark here

“Why are you fighting me if what you want is death?” I demanded, parrying its blows wide, forcing it to move its injured arm.Bookmark here

The instructor didn’t answer, it just continued the attack. Its footwork became quick and jumpy, almost disconnected from the movement of its body. Suddenly, I lost the ability to see when it would move. The flashing and striking of its sword became erratic, powerful and threatening. As if its arm hadn’t been injured at all, it began pushing me back. My own defenses became reflexive, instinctual, and predictable as I was pushed around the room with ease.Bookmark here

One strike landed across my buckler, twisting it back around my arm with a bone-jarring force. The wood snapped, half of it breaking away beneath the steel.Bookmark here

Fear rose up in my mind, the same chilled obsession of mind that had gripped me atop the barge. The numbing realization that I was facing my own death came back and weighed on my arms. It constricted my chest till I wasn’t even breathing as I fended off the sword instructor. It was like my vision was throbbing and narrowing in on the fallen with every step I took back.Bookmark here

I tripped. I don’t know what my foot hit, a rock or a lantern perhaps, but I fell on my ass beneath the fallen and saw it heft its blade overhead. I threw my own sword up, grabbing it with both hands and thrust my steel out before it cleaved my head in half. The impact shocked through my arms and into the ground. It felt like I couldn’t breathe.Bookmark here

Then I saw it twist the sword around, aiming the tip down to my throat.Bookmark here

Xon put an arrow in its back before it could. The fallen staggered, giving me a shred of an opportunity.Bookmark here

I swept my legs, kicking into its own as the instructor wavered. It toppled to the ground beside me. The immediate fear vanished, wiped out by a rush of instinct.Bookmark here

I rose up, gripping my blade in both hands by the edge, and hammered the crossguard down atop the fallen like a mace. My weapon crunched against steel, finding only his arms and denting the metal. Bookmark here

For a moment, the two of us were trapped pushing against one another. Xon couldn’t loose another arrow, but I knew the fallen had to be bleeding out, if the creature had such vitality to it anyways. I had never been so close to the instructor as I was then, and only then did I get so much as a glimpse within the eyeslits of its helm. The fallen all had sunken pits for eyes, but this one seemed to have wrinkles in the mud-like flesh. Bookmark here

It seemed weary.Bookmark here

Maybe it was just an effect from the diadem.Bookmark here

I drove my rudis dagger up through the armpit mail. The dagger was nothing more than a simple dagger, but it was enough to break the steel weave and puncture the fallen’s essence. I felt the crack of its inner structure, and the way the strength vanished from its body. Black mist oozed out from within the armor and it clattered to pieces beneath me.Bookmark here

“Nice work,” Xon said.Bookmark here

I was panting like a dog, kneeling over the corpse of the fallen. Bookmark here

The armor had stayed behind, had been untouched by the dying essence. A full suit of steel plate armor with belts and weapons to boot. It was damaged, but nothing that couldn’t be repaired. It had to be worth more than their remaining debt.Bookmark here

“Shit, what was that footwork though?” I asked, falling back and propping myself up as I finally felt the sweat on my face. My body shook, almost rattling my armor as the tension eased.Bookmark here

“No idea,” the dragonkin said.Bookmark here

“Think I could have learned that if I had kept practicing?”Bookmark here

“Perhaps. Much time. Much practice. Not an option,” Xon said with a shake of his head. He limped over to me and squatted down, lifting up some of the armor and turning it over. My harrying blows had chipped some of the enamel, but barely even scratched the material within. We were lucky the bow had been so effective. “Might have been a blade master.”Bookmark here

“Like Charlie’s father? Does that mean I’m a blade master now?”Bookmark here

Xon shook his head. “Fighters are stronger nowadays. Sir Pepin was very strong. Didn’t need help,” he said, lifting the bow slightly. Bookmark here

I licked my lips and stood up. “You knew Charlie’s dad?”Bookmark here

“Briefly.”Bookmark here

“Well, let’s do what we can to get Charlie that sword back, yeah?” I said, and the two of us set about bundling the armor and weapons into a few bags we could carry back to town. The army’s quartermaster might have given us a better deal, but we would have had to explain how we got it so soon after freeing ourselves. We took the long way to see Gerald, because we knew him and he would keep his mouth shut for us.Bookmark here

It felt like ages since I had left the pit of Vichtstein, since I had been surrounded by the fields of grass that stretched on beneath the sun. Most of the Order of the Broken Concordant still camped outside the pit, and squads were always deployed to range and patrol. They moved on foot, or on horseback, protecting carriages pulled by reptilian hauler-beasts. Amaranth had an entire army waiting for him to claim the diadem and to march upon his enemies.Bookmark here

But I kept wondering what I would have been able to learn if I wasn’t pressed for time. If I didn’t need to challenge Brekhart before Amaranth gave up on the castle, I could have learned the secrets of the blade master of Vichtstein. Instead I had robbed his grave. It had been necessary.Bookmark here

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