Chapter 25:

22 - Vichtstein's Gold

The Fallen Diadem

I heard the crack of wood on wood, the panting of breath, and the clatter of something dropped. Charlie fell to his knees. He gave out a tight, heavy burst of rage as his arms trembled. He couldn’t hold his sword.Bookmark here

I didn’t even need Sister Evey’s directions to find him. She had told him to get bedrest and hydration, but she had too many patients to bother with one mule-headed kid. Bookmark here

“He’s pushing himself really hard, isn’t he?” I whispered. Neeka and I lurked from the shadows, from one cool slice of darkness in the old city. We were around the corner from the old temple to Helios, barely off the main street. If Vichtstein had still been a living city, there would have been dozens, hundreds of people still passing through the alley to get to taverns or homes before night passed over. Instead, it was just the three of us and a lazy drake that watched Charlie’s practice without flinching. Sage and solemn, the lizard had no advice for the lightning-crippled son of a blade master.Bookmark here

“He’s going to hurt himself more,” she said, squatting down and hugging her knees to her chest. She didn’t even glance at me, her gaze was locked on Charlie’s back, slick and shining with sweat around his bandages.Bookmark here

“I’m amazed he can move at all. Didn’t half his shoulder get cut?”Bookmark here

“He’s not left handed,” she said. He wouldn’t be using a shield any time soon, but his sword hand should still be good. I could imagine the tension through his body though, the tender scar tissue that tugged with every step and movement. The whole body was linked; that was one of the first lessons he had given me. Of course, that had been about footwork and hip strength, but it all had to pass through the chest to get to the sword.Bookmark here

Unaware of our spying, Charlie got back up. He lifted his training sword and steadied it before himself. It was nearly the same guard the fallen instructor had used, just adapted for a smaller sword. I saw him tuck his injured arm against his body, bracing it before he started the first movement. Bookmark here

There was a tremor through his blade. Two weeks ago I would have never noticed it, but I instantly saw the weakness in his body when he stepped forward to slash. The wooden blade clacked off the sign post turned dummy, bouncing erratically and forcing him to compensate on the follow up attack. Bookmark here

The blade dropped out of his hand on the second strike, spinning across the ground.Bookmark here

“You two can come out. It’s not like I’m hiding,” he said as he sat down on a shaded rock.Bookmark here

Neeka jumped to her feet and brought him a waterskin to drink from. I was slower to emerge. This wasn’t how I had wanted to surpass him with the blade. I hadn’t even thought about surpassing him; just catching up and being of use. “Looks like you’re getting better,” I said.Bookmark here

Charlie drank first, and wiped his sweaty hair out of his face. “Not by much. I’m not even good to carry things anymore. I drop them. I’m useless until further notice.”Bookmark here

“You’re injured. No one is expecting you to work,” I said as I walked over to him.Bookmark here

“That doesn’t make my debt go away.”Bookmark here

Neeka sighed and sat down next to him. She stared up at the sky and said, “Too bad you don’t have one of the Holy Lances. I saw Amaranth get his arm broken, you know? When he got thrown out of the castle and into the barge? His arm broke there and now he’s fine. It’s gotta be from the spear. Some kind of healing magic.”Bookmark here

Charlie turned his head up to the sky as well. “A magic spell would be nice, but that kind of stuff is only in kid’s stories.”Bookmark here

My elbow itched, right where the axe wound had been. I had gotten the free pass instead of Charlie. What had I done to deserve it? I didn’t even have the diadem to give to him. “It was basically just getting struck by lightning right? It’s only been a few days. It might take a month or two, but the nerve damage will heal.”Bookmark here

“Nerve damage?” Charlie asked, his eyebrows pulling together as he looked at me. “My soul is damaged. I might never recover. I’d have to get lucky and get graced by one of the gods maybe.”Bookmark here

My lips pressed flat. I was pretty sure it was just nerve damage and not supernatural. I didn’t really know a thing about recovering from lightning strikes though and was pretty sure he was just lucky he didn’t have a heart attack and die on the spot. I knew I didn’t know enough to explain it though. Someone had tried to teach me once, and all I really recalled was that I didn’t pay attention in that class.Bookmark here

I cleared my throat. “Well, if you’re on leave from digging holes for Claire, then I say we should put your charm and good looks back to work. I’m going to go get more of the wine from that cellar. I’ll borrow a cart to get it all. You’re better at grifting than I am…”Bookmark here

He sighed and sank his chin into his hand. “That con only works if you don’t have many of them. If people figure out you’ve got a whole cart load of the stuff, you’ll be lucky to get two silver a piece.”Bookmark here

“Even if they’re only two silver a piece, a cartload of them is still plenty. We could probably clear your debt.”Bookmark here

“I still owe fifty silver, even after the hazard pay, and I’m racking up more debt by the day for these bandages and treatment. That would be twenty-five bottles alone. Splitting the profits four ways means we’d have to get and sell a hundred bottles. I already asked Neeka about this, there’s only about thirty more bottles down there and she swiped the fanciest of them.”Bookmark here

“Looks like your brain is still doing fine. I thought they had you on liquor to help with the pain.”Bookmark here

He sighed and seemed to be in communion with the lizard across from him. “Not enough. I was drunk when I started and sweated it all out. Now I’m sober, my shoulder hurts, and my head hurts.”Bookmark here

Neeka put her hand on his shoulder. “We don’t need to split it four ways. This is special circumstances.”Bookmark here

We kind of did need to split it four ways. She was still in debt to Amaranth, Xon to Claire, and I needed travelling expenses. What we needed was the money Brekhart had stolen, but we needed money so I could go do that, so that was no good. “Do we have any other ideas? Ideas that would get everyone in the clear?”Bookmark here

“Nothing legal gets you money quick except gambling and you’d have to be an idiot to gamble your way out of debt,” Charlie answered.Bookmark here

I crossed my arms and sat down. “It’d be nice if we could hunt a dragon like Amaranth.”Bookmark here

Neeka sighed. “Or if we could just find lost money. Too bad the fallen aren’t magpies. It’s not like they collect the stuff for us.”Bookmark here

My frown vanished. I looked up at her. I hadn’t told her everything about the fallen instructor, just that Xon and I had gotten a bit of a winfall and I would have proper armor to present myself with when I challenged Brekhart. I hadn’t told her that I could understand the fallen speech now. To me, who had touched the diadem, their babble was as clear as english and if they were the previous residents of the city…Bookmark here

I jumped to my feet. “Charlie, can I borrow your armor? I know it won’t fit great, but mines with Gerald getting fitted.”Bookmark here

He arched an eyebrow at me. “You’ll be missing a pauldron, but uh, sure?”Bookmark here

“Neeka, you don’t mind doing some night work, do you? I could use your nose. Xon’s too injured for this plan.”Bookmark here

She jumped to her feet too. The spark of inspiration must have been obvious on my face. “You got it!”Bookmark here

A few hours later, the two of us were walking through the dark side of Vichtstein, the half that sat in the shadows of the sunward cliffs. I had Charlie’s armor on and she had her spear and bow. Both of us had borrowed lanterns from the army camp, courtesy of Claire, and she was staring at me like I had gone insane.Bookmark here

“You want to find the fallen? With just the two of us?”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said, and licked my lips. “Yeah, I can communicate with them. Working theory is I touched the diadem and this is a side effect.”Bookmark here

She grabbed me by the collar, her face getting within an inch of mine. “If you had the diadem, why didn’t you give it to Amaranth? We’d be free! We’d be rich even! We could put all of this behind us and escape!”Bookmark here

Putting up my hands, I said, “I blacked out after touching it. It’s not like I have it now and if it was still there, Amaranth would have found it after nearly murdering Charlie. And keep your voice down. I don’t want to get arrested again because of a rumor. Let’s just try and find a cooperative fallen. It’s not like the dead have a use for money, right?”Bookmark here

She sighed, her ears wilting down and the fight melting from her. It made me realize just how long it had been since I had seen her smile. “Alright come on, I’ll let you know when I smell one.”Bookmark here

The plan worked like a charm. We found one fallen all by itself, and it recognized I was special. It had an annoying habit of calling me a kid, but it too seemed to be seeking its own death. It was willing to cut a deal though and said it would show us the way to some hidden gold. Buried and forgotten by the fall of Vichtstein, it had sat in the darkness, known only to the fallen.Bookmark here

The building it took us to looked like it had once been some kind of warehouse. Neeka tugged on my arm as we stepped inside behind our guide. “I don’t like this Mark. I smell more fallen.”Bookmark here

“Of course you smell more, we’ve walked like four blocks. We’re just in a different area.”Bookmark here

The inside was wide and open, with open rafters spanning between pillars for support. The whole structure had slanted about ten degrees. All the barrels and crates had tumbled over to the bottom corner, and I had to pry the half-rotten pile apart to get into it. First there was what had once been rice, long since pilfered by animals, then I found the chest the fallen had spoken of. It was hidden beneath a canvas bag inside a crate and heavy. I could barely drag it out to see the lock.Bookmark here

“There you have it, kid,” the fallen said as I tried to jiggle the hunk of rusted iron that kept the small chest shut. “All the spoils of the Tellymi Brothers, before we got our heads lopped off by the Queen. Not so untouchable after all, were we?” the fallen said as three others approached from the darkness.Bookmark here

Neeka hissed, crouching down with her spear pointed at them. “I knew we shouldn’t have trusted the fallen!”Bookmark here

I jumped up, drawing my sword as the four fallen, the Tellymi brothers, surrounded us. “So much for seeking death then?”Bookmark here

The fallen laughed and the lantern light caught their demonic grins. “We’re seeking death alright. The death of the queen; your death! She killed us. Of course we want revenge on the bitch!” the fallen shouted, sticking his middle finger at me.Bookmark here

They each had short swords with wide blades like machetes; less reach than my sword and much less than Neeka’s spear. None of them had body armor on, their dark bodies were practically nude.Bookmark here

I wasn’t afraid. “You should have just attacked instead of making a show.”Bookmark here

“It’s in our nature, kid. You’ll have to complain in the next life,” the fallen said as they began to close in around us.Bookmark here

“Stay behind me Neeka. Take any opening you get.”Bookmark here

“To run?”Bookmark here

“No, to kill them,” I said as I stepped forward.Bookmark here

“They outnumber us two to one!”Bookmark here

“Then it is a fair fight.” I had always wanted to say that.Bookmark here

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