The Fallen Diadem
Earth dragons are not particularly fast. On a flat field I could easily outrun one. Downtown Vichtstein was not a flat field, and the dragon did not care in the least about the up and down rubble of buildings. We had to clamber and leap and scramble for every step. With it charging along behind us, we went from roads, to collapsed walls, up to roofs only to leap back onto the cobblestone as we tried to get back to the cliffs surrounding the city.
“Why is it chasing us?” I shouted.
“I think it blames us for waking it up!” Neeka shouted back.
“We didn’t though!” Charlie screamed.
Xon wasn’t able to join in the shouting with us. He was at the back, puffing for breath and barely able to keep up. I would have never said it aloud, but the rest of us were only jogging so he didn’t get left behind. His size did nothing to help him climb back up the pit. He just couldn’t put distance between him and the hungry dragon.
“Come on, we have to get it into the sun!” I shouted from atop an old crenelation. It just barely gave me the lay of the land. Earth dragons were basking animals. Without cool mud or darkness, it would overheat from the exertion, just like Xon was. I still wouldn’t want to approach one, but I had never even heard of an earth dragon making it out of Vichtstein. Beyond the cliffs that ringed the ruins, the sun reigned mercilessly. Running into one on the sunny side of the city, where they rarely showed up, had been the worst luck.
Unfortunately, the only road I could see headed straight towards town. That wasn’t exactly nice of us to do, but we could ask for forgiveness later. Mayor Cassius wouldn’t blame us for trying to get help. At least, I didn’t think he would.
“Wait, the eggs! Don’t forget the eggs!” Charlie shouted as he held down an arm and hauled Xon up a ledge. The heat of the day was setting in, the constant light from the sun baking the city and us in it. I was drenched in sweat and short of breath, so the dragon had to be feeling it as well.
“On it!” Neeka said, and leapt over a wall, vanishing into the city. She could smell fallen before they could get the jump on her, but she still could have shown a bit more hesitation about ditching us.
“Defensive Location Three, let’s go!” Charlie said and turned down a side road. Why he didn’t just call it the old temple was still beyond me. It was a good idea though. The road we were on was like a highway sloping through the city; easy to charge across for us and easier for the dragon. Long ago, the doors had sat securely in the stone portal, now they were barely a hurdle for us to sprint over. The three of us all leapt into the shadows of the temple, tumbling into the darkness.
The dragon put out one last burst of strength. Its reptilian head plunged through the doorway with fangs almost to our backs. When its shoulders hit the wall, the whole temple shook from the impact and knocked us all off our feet and into a heap. I rolled up, pulling my sword free and thrusting it up into the air to face the dragon. The snarling fangs were each the size of daggers, the mouth big enough to swallow me whole, and then it went down. The head collapsed against the cold stone of the temple floor and its fat tongue lolled out, engorged with steaming blood.
Charlie leapt up laughing. “How you like that?” he demanded from a safe distance away, grinning and flipping his middle finger at the monster.
The dragon snorted, blasting him with snot and a fierce gaze that clearly said the dragon wanted him to try his luck.
Xon rolled onto his back and dropped his arms to either side as he heaved in breath. His boots were barely five feet from the dragon’s mouth, but he didn’t have the energy to care. “Stupid light. Stupid dragon. Stupid pit. Too much running!”
I crawled away from the dragon on hands and knees. “Oh man, thank you Mr. Helios,” I said, turning my gaze up to the marble relief above the podium. The artist had turned an enormous slab of marble into a carving of the great divine beast, Helios the Evershining. The collapse of the city had messed up the alignment of the light, skewing it to the side of the artwork, but the burning bird could still be seen. I didn’t think anyone had properly prayed to the guardian beast of Throne from that temple in a few lifetimes, but that wasn’t going to stop me from being grateful. At least to the masons who had built the place so sturdily.
Only then did I realize we weren’t the only ones who had thought the temple was a good place for refuge. Right in front of me was a fallen. The thing leapt to its feet, grabbing up a spear in both hands. The long blade at the end swung down to point right at me, with twice the reach as my sword.
“Uh, Xon? Charlie?” I asked as I felt the blood drain from my face. I held my sword up, but it was nothing more than a bit of defense against the fallen. The thing was nearly as tall as Xon and had the high ground.
“Uh, no good. Xon can’t get up,” our brave leader said as he drew his sword and stepped up next to me. He didn’t lunge at the fallen, didn’t bellow a warcry and charge. This fallen was confident in the way it stood. We outnumbered it, sure, but most of my armor was nothing more than some thin drake hide that wouldn’t do anything to stop a quick jab from that spear. “Spread out, spread out,” he hissed at me, and we both fanned to either side of the podium.
I leapt back when it snapped the point towards me like a viper strike. In the dim light of the temple, the steel caught streaks of sunlight. The poised circling of the tip flashed in the glow.
“Come here!” Charlie shouted, banging his sword on his shield to get its attention. He was successful, and the spear snapped at him next. He barely got his shield in the way, the two bits of metal scraping against each other.
I didn’t know what to do, how to approach it. I couldn’t take my eyes off the smooth, polished tip as it circled through the air between us. I knew I had to look at the fallen, at its chest and feet, but those weren’t what might kill me. My knees went weak and didn’t want to let me move anymore.
“Guys! Another!” Xon shouted, and I heard him struggle to his feet. My attention moved off the spearman for a moment. A second had been near the doorway, and now was dragging a club over towards Xon.
“Mark!” Charlie barked.
I barely flinched in time, thrusting my sword into the way of the stabbing spear. It glanced off my pauldron, barely missing my face. The blow felt like Xon had struck me with a hammer, not a spear. Charlie stepped in, hacking and slashing once he was close to it, but he could only hit the twirling spear haft no matter how hard he tried. The fallen didn’t even have to give ground, it was dominating him.
Something flashed in my vision. An arrow. It ripped right into its chest, forcing out a howl of pain. Charlie and I realized what it was at the same time; Neeka’s arrow. We both shouted and lunged before it could regain itself. Both of our blades hacked down through its body and ripped it apart. The fallen shattered, falling to one knee and collapsing to mist and dust across the temple floor as we stared at our lowered blades, panting.
I heard Xon grunt and turned to see him shove the other fallen back a few feet; directly at the mouth of the dragon. The beast’s maw opened and snapped shut on the creature.
I fell on my butt when I realized we had survived. We had won. “Neeka, what took you so long?” I asked as the cat girl leapt down from the second floor.
She held up the bag of eggs in one hand. “Well someone was a little too thorough protecting these,” she said, fishing one of them out. She smiled and rolled it across the ground to the dragon. To my amazement, I watched the beast grab it with its tongue and devour it.
Charlie’s jaw dropped. “Why did you do that? We could have eaten that!”
“Oh come on, he deserved it for saving Xon,” she said, beaming at the dragon.
I flopped down on the ground with a chuckle as the two of them immediately started fighting again. Things were safe again if they were fighting. Eventually, the four of us had shifted to the far side of the temple, well away from the dragon. Xon had gotten a nasty bruise from the fallen, but he didn’t think anything was broken. He was just dreaming of taking a hot bath in town to soothe his aches.
Before we left though, I picked up the spear the fallen had been using. I had never seen anything like it. The handle was dark and oiled, with far more weight than I had imagined. The steel tip was almost a foot long and razor sharp. I thought about keeping it for myself, but I really hadn’t been the one to kill it. “Neeka, do you know how to use this?”
“Wait wait wait,” Charlie said, holding up his hand and peering at it. “We could sell this.”
She shoved him out of the way. “Heck no I don’t know how to use it, but I can learn. I’m tired of only having this bow and a club!” she said as she took it from me. I smiled at her, glad that she had finally gotten some investment in her gear like the rest of us, but her attention was on the weapon instead of me.
“Alright alright,” Charlie said. He put his hands behind his head and strutted out the backdoor of the temple. “Let’s go get some food. That’s enough adventuring for today.”
Xon stepped up beside me as Neeka followed Charlie. “You did it.”
“Struck when you needed to. Not hopeless.” Xon’s grin made me start walking. I didn’t want him to see my face. “The army will be there,” he added.
I glanced over my shoulder at the resting dragon, and figured that an army was better than running into another of those. At least the army would be humans. “Come on, let’s make sure he stays out of trouble.”
“Now that’s hopeless.”