Chapter 27:

24 - Remembering Death

The Fallen Diadem

My dreams had been getting more vivid, more clear. The morning before I set out to get Brekhart, I dreamt of the sword again, that enormous blade that hung over Vichtstein. The city was dark and filled with a tumult of light and noise, like a festival or a war carried on beneath the weapon. I still couldn’t see what held it in the sky, but I wasn’t alone anymore.Bookmark here

The diadem creature, or another of its ilk, watched me with a skin-less smile. “You’re doing better than we ever hoped,” it said. It clasped both sets of hands together in front of it. “Unremarkable in the world you were plucked from, but here, so much more. We have great expectations for you. I hope for your sake you don’t fail. Quite the fate awaits those of the diadem who fail.”Bookmark here

I knew it was a dream, but it was nearly as real as the abyss of the fallen. Rather than the rapid flow of sensation that most dreams were, I had my thoughts about me. “Who are you? Is this a threat?” I demanded, gesturing at the weapon in the dark sky. Bookmark here

“A threat? How could it be? We aren’t the one holding the blade,” the creature said.Bookmark here

There was something in my hand. Some enormous weight that made my arm ache even before I looked down at it. The sword was in my hand.Bookmark here

I jerked awake. Sweat coated my body, making my shirt cling to my chest. I couldn’t slow my breath and I realized my right hand had clenched down. There was an ache through my arm. All the muscles had cramped till they felt like the tendons would snap. I had to grit my teeth and massage the knots out so I could pry my fingers open. I wished I could say it was just from training too much, but I could remember the dream. Bookmark here

Xon stirred on the bed next to me but didn’t rise. We had spoiled ourselves with the money the day before, buying our way into the bath house and getting an actual bed to sleep on. It was little more than a bucket of straw covered by a few blankets that we had to share, but it sure beat sleeping on the ground.Bookmark here

The change to my dreams had to be an effect of coming in contact with the diadem. I didn’t know what to do about it though, so I simply started my day early. Gerald the blacksmith still wouldn’t be done with the modifications to my armor, certainly not with the amount of emergency repair orders the army was giving him. They were working him to the bone and he didn’t have time to spend all the silver they were dumping into his hands.Bookmark here

There was something else on today’s agenda, and it required me to be in the nice, new clothes. With some help from Claire, I had gotten the fundamental outfit from one of the peddlers, then gotten it tailored to fit properly. I looked like a mercantile heir, or some noble kid. Buttons were everywhere and the collars and cuffs all had to be folded into shape. The fabric was thick though; it didn’t feel like I was one rough move from ripping a hole in it. After a year of travelling with Charlie and the others, I had forgotten how nice a good pair of undergarments and pants could be, so even if I looked silly, it was still worthwhile. Bookmark here

“How long?” Xon asked with a yawn that exposed every one of his teeth.Bookmark here

“Knowing Neeka, she’s probably already there waiting. Knowing Amaranth, there’s probably going to be an extra wait,” I answered.Bookmark here

Xon got dressed in his armor, feeling that it was more appropriate for him, and the two of us began the walk down to the center of Vichtstein just as day passed over the city. We passed the temple and we poked our heads into the infirmary. Charlie’s bed was empty, and we didn’t find him in his practice spot either, so we assumed Neeka had already dragged him down to the camp.Bookmark here

There were fewer soldiers posted along the road now that the castle had been captured. Plenty were on duty searching the ruins, but there just weren’t enough fallen to warrant the security. It almost felt like before the Order of the Broken Concordant had shown up. We would have to leave soon though, for either Dalvurnia or the Britalia woods, or something else that might come up. Thankfully, I didn’t think I would be sentimental about the collapsed city.Bookmark here

“So you did show up,” Claire said as we passed by the camp guards. They wanted to stop us, but she waved the men off to let us enter. She was in her armor, and had a calm expression right until she stepped up beside me. Then she grinned. “So tell me Mark, just what did you do without me huh? You borrow the catgirl for one night and you both come back loaded? Did you find buried treasure or something?”Bookmark here

“Something like that. We went to the dark side of the city. Aren’t you happy? All your charges have graduated from bondage,” I said as the three of us walked to the center of the camp.Bookmark here

“Will have, yeah, by the end of today and then I’m back to where I should be! So are you going to join the Order afterwards? You finally look like a knight rather than some street urchin getting pulled along in the wake of the army,” she asked as we caught sight of Neeka and Charlie standing side by side in the middle of the camp.Bookmark here

“I told you, didn’t I? I gotta take care of business first,” I said.Bookmark here

“You know Mark, with proper experience, you could go from simply good with a sword to an expert. You’ve got a lot of talent and you’ll never hone it just fighting the fallen. I’d be sure to support you on a track to become a blade master,” she said. Her attitude had changed slightly after I beat her in that duel.Bookmark here

Xon cleared his throat. “Amaranth is here,” he said, gesturing at the commander’s tent. Bookmark here

The commander of the army marched out, Ascalon in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. The assistant that helped the ceremony had to scurry over and grab him before he walked straight past the two of them. “Restitutions have been paid?” he asked as he looked the two of them over.Bookmark here

“Yes, m’Lord,” the assistant said, handing Amaranth two purses.Bookmark here

“Get the iron,” he said, and I watched he used Ascalon to cut their collars off. He said something about officiating their release, terminating their punishment, and so on. It sounded like he was reading a script off one of the pages in his hands. He ended the ceremony, if it could really be called that, by adding, “If either of you wish to join the search teams for the diadem of your own free will, you will be offered the same pay.”Bookmark here

I glanced at Claire. He hadn’t offered them positions in the army. I wasn’t aware an army could be so picky in who fights for it, but something like that was possibly handled by recruiters instead of the commander himself. Bookmark here

“Lady West,” Amaranth added, waving us over. Claire nearly ran forward. I hadn’t known her last name was West. “It seems that all four of your charges are no longer charges,” he said as rudiariuses were prepared out of their collars.Bookmark here

“Yes, Sir. I am ready to return to normal duty,” Claire said, snapping to a salute.Bookmark here

I saw Amaranth look the four of us over and thought I saw him smirk. “Yes, and that will be arranged shortly. But, since you’re free. I in fact have another task suited for your talents. Sir Brekhart has been on liaison to Port Pelagus for some weeks now, dealing with supply acquisition. He needs to be recalled now that we can expect to leave Vichtstein within the fortnight. Get with the quartermaster and get what supplies you need. Head out tonight if you can.”Bookmark here

Claire hesitated, at a loss for words. The look on her face was like she had just been assigned to dig a fresh latrine. “Understood, Sir,” she said, and glanced at the assistant. There was some interplay of communication, as I was sure she would need some official document to recall Brekhart and that she would want to do so as quickly as possible.Bookmark here

Amaranth’s tired smirk held my interest. For a moment, I thought his gaze was on me, watching what I would do. He had just changed my plans. Not ruined them necessarily, but forcibly changed them and I would have to adapt. I would have to go with Claire. He was trying to force me to join his army.Bookmark here

Then he turned and was gone. Neeka and Charlie walked over to us, each clutching their daggers. I noticed that Amaranth hadn’t bothered to get them nice ones; almost nobody had watched that ceremony and he hadn’t made a spectacle of it. For them, it would just be proof they were free and who had freed them.Bookmark here

Xon clasped a thick hand around my shoulder after Claire left. “Come on. Let’s go feast to thank Mark.”Bookmark here

Neeka nodded vigorously, and Charlie assented as well. I licked my lips and nodded. After a moment, I smiled and went along with them. Brekhart could wait a day, long enough for us to enjoy our return to freedom. “You know, on the way down, I think I could smell Theo stewing some shepherd’s pie. If we hurry, it’ll be fresh when we get there,” I said and fell in with the three of them, marching back to town with the army behind us.Bookmark here

“Did you hurt yourself?” Neeka asked, peering around me to look at my hand.Bookmark here

“Ah, it’s nothing. Just was training too much,” I said, turning up my palm to show her where my nails had dug into my skin. Then I looked at it myself. We had just passed out of the camp, so it was just the four of us, but what marred my hand wasn’t callouses or cuts. There was a black line like a tattoo right across it. The mark was where I had been holding the sword in the dream. It was where I had picked up the diadem.Bookmark here

I closed my hand around it, snapping my fingers shut. “Well that’s new.” Neeka looked up into my eyes quietly, and I glanced at Xon and Charlie; neither had noticed. Bookmark here

“Does that have something to do with your newfound linguistics?” she asked, keeping her voice low and arching an eyebrow.Bookmark here

“I don’t know, but I think I want to get away from this city. I think all of my good luck is starting to run out,” I said, the image of the sword plunging into the earth once again in my mind.Bookmark here

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