The Fallen Diadem
I dreamt of a sword hanging in the sky above Vichtstein. I felt that it wasn’t my first time dreaming it, that I had seen that dreadful visage time and time again, only for the morning light to rob it from my memories as dew from the grass. The blade was a glimmering reflection of the pallid city with a black handle. If something from the heavens reached down to hold it there, it must have been thinner than a thread. I couldn’t see anything that kept it from falling down and plunging into the earth. It would have killed everyone in town, all of my friends, and me too.
I was shocked awake before the morning light could melt the image from my memory, not from the fear but from being hit in the face. Two soft mounds of something smothered me. My nose was pressed flat and my mind was driven out of dream and into reality. The pressure lifted and for one immaculate moment I could see up Neeka’s skirt. Her tail bristled. The muscles in her legs tensed to lunge.
I must have made a noise; because she realized I was awake. Her head spun, cheeks burning. I yawned as though I had just then awoken, and she darted off. She charged back over at Charlie as I rubbed the dreariness from my eyes.
The world was still dark, lit weakly by the distant moon. Out near the horizon I could see the warm glow of day crawling towards us, but the light had yet to arrive. Soon enough it would, so I made my way to the cookfire.
“Do we have breakfast?” I asked Xon, our crew’s enormous dragonkin.
Xon was as big as the three of us put together. Our cooking set wasn’t designed for him, and he had to huddle around it on crossed legs. When I first met him, the scales and rows of horns across the crown of his head seemed fierce and barbaric. The mismatched armor and enormous weapon he held while looming over me hadn’t helped. The dragonkin was more comfortable with paper in his claws than a weapon though. He shrugged to answer, his broad shoulders rolling. “If porridge counts. Forgiveness Mark. No more eggs.”
“Do we at least have some jerky?” I squatted down next to the fire, holding my knees to my chest and staring at the bland gruel.
“No. Out of money. That’s what they’re fighting about,” Xon said, and pointed the dripping spoon at our compatriots.
Charlie and Neeka were wrestling, rolling over one another in the dirt and grass. It almost looked like they were having fun, till I saw him nearly get her in an arm bar. Neeka, who wasn’t entirely human, had joints like rubber. She squirmed, twisted, and suddenly had her legs wrapped around Charlie’s throat. He said something stupid, and then they were both on their feet, and both had sparring sticks in their hands.
Xon nudged me with a bowl of the foodstuff. “Suggest we supplicate to Mayor Cassius. Work construction or cleaning and fill our stomachs.”
My eyes rolled and so did my head. “He’ll totally chew our ears off again though. Isn’t he still mad at us for killing that hauler-lizard?”
Xon didn’t refute me. We both hung our heads and stuffed spoonfuls of the tasteless gruel into our mouths. I wanted meat. Or eggs. At least some vegetables. Oats every single day was a slow death of my tastebuds. “I miss sugar,” I grumbled, but sugar was even more expensive than meat.
I watched Charlie and Neeka duel it out. Sword fighting, I had learned, hardly ever favored athleticism over experience. It ended when Charlie binded up with her stick, and slammed down past where a crossguard should have been. The wood cracked against her thumb and she jumped into the air shouting. “No fair, no fair no fair!” Neeka landed on the ground, squeezing her swollen digit and on the verge of crying.
“Of course it’s fair!” Charlie declared, hefting his stick up on his shoulder and puffing his chest out. Just as he did so, the sun swept across him and painted him golden with light. He was tall and muscular, and knew how to show it off; he didn’t stand with a slump like I did. He didn’t stand like he wanted to blend in with a crowd. “There are no rules in a fight. The winner is the last one standing!”
Neeka sulked, her fluffy ears drooping as she knelt in front of him. “You can’t just treat a duel like a fight every time,” she grumbled as Charlie strutted over to us.
“What were you fighting over anyways?” I asked.
Charlie answered after getting himself some gruel and sitting down beside me. “We need to make some money. So, today, we’re going into downtown Vichtstein.”
“Why there?” Xon asked, stooping his head closer to Charlie’s. “The fallen will attack.”
“That’s what I said!” Neeka complained, glowering at us but mostly at our food. She took a moment to smooth down her coppery hair and straighten it, but the tussle had put a tangle to it that she would never get out without a bath. Naturally, the bathhouse cost money that we didn’t have, so it was utterly taboo to discuss the state of her hair. The frustration in her evaporated as soon as she had a spoonful of food in her mouth to chew. Just like that, she was grinning and tying her hair up with her ribbon and the fight forgotten.
Charlie took his time chewing his food. After swallowing, he held his spoon up to the sky. “Because we haven’t had any easy pickings. No foreign peddlers, no deserters, no nothing on the highway. Therefore, it’s back to plan A, adventure. If we go down deep enough in the pit, there should be plenty of old timey loot we can pick up and sell.”
Xon’s expression didn’t change. “Downtown is close to the diadem. It’s dangerous! Why don’t we go talk to the mayor for help or something?”
“Hell no!” Charlie shouted. “I’m here to live my own way and not live in the shadow of anyone else. It’s worked out for us so far, hasn’t it? Come on, Mark. You’re with me, aren’t you? You joined on the promise of adventure. If we go to town, Old Man Cassius will have us mucking the latrine! What kind of adventure is that?”
I didn’t answer that it would be one that paid and didn’t risk our hides.
Neeka flatly glared at Charlie. “It’s that kind of attitude that has us stuck on the edge of a pit like Vichtstein. We should go back closer to my hometown. There’s actual forests and animals we could hunt for food.”
“Neeka, your hometown is on the wrong side of a war, if you somehow forgot that,” Charlie said, glaring back at her. “I’m not going anywhere I might get conscripted, thank you very much. You’re just a pawn if you don’t show up with your own knightly gear, and that means making money first and keeping out of their sights.”
Neeka’s ears folded back and her gaze dropped to her lap. The shift struck Charlie like a punch to the gut, but he didn’t know what to say. He was a man of action, and not very good at peace making.
A piece of memory came back to me and I snapped my fingers. I had to choke the gruel down before I could say, “Hey Charlie, before we go to downtown, I wanted to check this old belltower. I think there’s some kind of bird roosting in there. A big fat one that probably laid eggs.” The allure of fresh eggs passed through each of them, and I watched as their stomachs growled and they stared at the almost tasteless gruel Xon had cooked.
Charlie nodded. “Alright sounds good. Mark climbs the bell tower and gets us some eggs. Then we go downtown and make some money!”
“Charlie, how much money do you have?” Xon asked.
“None of your business! I don’t go asking you how much you have saved up!” he shouted.
Neeka laughed, his embarrassment pulling her out of her mood and we all grumbled a little bit, but got ready for the day nonetheless. Self-proclaimed or not, Charlie was our leader and the reason the four of us were still together. Even if the food was bad, we did have food every day, which was more than most war orphans could say.
Rather than fight over the absolute best plan, we got on with things with the best smiles we could manage. By the time day passed over Vichtstein, we all had our gear on. Most of the armor had been stolen off of corpses, and the clothes had been looted from peddlers. We had hammered it to shape and sewn it all to size and made it work. I could still remember staying up late at night with Charlie as he ripped his fingers to shreds with a leather awl to fight the leather coat to Neeka’s size. So what if we would have made a blacksmith wince?
Vichtstein didn’t care. The fallen didn’t care. Vichtstein was a silent pit, a dead city abandoned by the world. It didn’t even have a river through it anymore. A canal diverted the flow away and left the fields dry and dusty. There was a hazy dust cloud on the horizon. I caught sight of it just before we began our descent with our weapons in hand.
The lost city was below the fields, like the buildings were pulling it into the depths of the earth. After the crumbling cliffs, we took secret paths where walls had collapsed just right, or where we had piled up enough rocks or built some ladders. Not just anyone could march into the lost city.
It had been lost to humans for over a hundred years, and almost sunk completely beneath the weight of the diadem. The lost city was our turf, so I guess that made us scavengers that day. The hat we wore changed all the time, and we always found a way to live one more day.
We had to skulk a bit, peering around corners as the light of the sun passed across Vichtstein. Uptown was filled with drakes, some too fat and lazy to bother with us, but some that would flare neck gills and attack. As night changed to day, and the shadows were cut from the darkness, some of the creatures learned that their sleeping spot was no good. Those were the dangerous ones; the ones that didn’t have good dens sheltered from the view of the sun.
We had tried eating drakes, but we all agreed the meat tasted like vinegar and wasn’t worth getting bitten over. It made Xon uncomfortable as well. So we walked with our heads high and chatted all the while, letting all of the drakes know we were coming.
I led the four of us to the belltower I had seen, and as I was the best climber, they sent me up to get the eggs. The building might have once been a temple, but now it stood slanted over and almost collapsed. Taking the high side, I clambered up to the shaded aerie. There was a nest there, but there was also a view over the whole city.
Part of me felt that the sun should have been moving, that it was wrong for it to sit in place. Once day came, what could see the sun was lit and what couldn’t was dark. The bleaching light cut lines across the old stone and plaster, casting the city with two palettes; a pale golden in the sun and a cool beige in the shadows. I could see all the way to the far side of the city where the cliff edge cast permanent shadow. I could look down on the placid lake surrounding the castle. I could even see above the rim to the pale fields that surrounded Vichtstein.
“How are they?” Neeka called. I could see her below me, hands on her hips and staring up. Charlie was nearby, using his knife to scrape off some gold leaf that still glinted on sun-facing window sills.
“Big,” I called back, hefting one of the pink eggs. Each was the size of my fist. The shells were thick and speckled and I could nearly taste the golden jewel inside. My mouth watered as I turned it around in my hands. I certainly didn’t want to meet the mother, but Neeka had her bow and arrow ready for me. I trusted her to fend off any angry bird that came my way. I was sliding them into my bag when I saw a glint of light on the horizon.
Lots of glints.
I stopped and shaded my eyes, peering over at the dark mass milling across the fields. It was kicking up a massive cloud of dirt, almost obscuring them. Then I saw the banners flapping in the dawn wind. I saw hundreds of them. They were marching toward the abandoned city we called home.
“Guys! There’s an army!”