Chapter 9:

8 - Newfound Darkness

The Fallen Diadem

My back hurt and we weren’t getting hazard pay. We weren’t even fighting the fallen, we were digging rocks out of a hole with a paper thin tarp to give us shade. My fingernails were on the edge of bleeding and the lake was starting to sound real good to jump into just to ice my aching muscles. The worst part was the collar around my throat. The more I sweated the more it chaffed.Bookmark here

“I can’t! I can’t do this!” Neeka shouted. She was standing in front of the rubble pile, her whole body trembling. When she ran back out, Charlie sighed and followed after her. Bookmark here

That left Xon and me to finish the day’s work for all four of us. Five, if our slave driver could be counted. Claire was useless, and about as traumatized about the situation as Neeka was. She had spent almost the entire day squatted down, hugging her knees, and poking the embers of our cook fire. She had a different excuse every time. First she was on lookout. Then she was waiting for word from camp. After that she was on cooking duty for the five of us. Usually she just didn’t answer and I was pretty sure she was going to chew her own thumbnail off.Bookmark here

“What are we even doing here?”Bookmark here

Xon grunted as he leveraged up an old beam of wood, taking the weight off the crumbled masonry below. “The knight thinks there were sewers. Underground tunnels.”Bookmark here

“I know that, but come on if there were underground tunnels after this kind of damage, wouldn’t they all be flooded just like the lake? How could they miraculously be water tight after all this time?” I was shoveling dirt and gravel out with both hands as I spoke, and after three days of the backbreaking labor I was ready to get ambushed by the fallen.Bookmark here

“Hope we get lucky,” was all Xon could grunt out as he started to tremble beneath the weight. When I saw that, I scurried off and let him lower it back down. The moment he got out from under the beam it snapped and caused a small collapse of even more rubble.Bookmark here

I dropped onto my back and stared up at the sky. We had found a staircase down within the rubble but had only gotten the first two steps cleared. Not even one step per day.Bookmark here

“Hey, hey, Mark,” Claire said, her voice gentle as the breeze. She had walked over to us and was standing atop a ledge, bent over and smiling as she brushed some hair back. “Isn’t this enough? Haven’t you worked hard enough?”Bookmark here

I pushed myself up on my elbows but didn’t know how to answer.Bookmark here

“Why don’t you just tell me what you did with the other thousand silver?” she asked, clasping her hands together sweetly. “If you gave it to someone else, we can just arrest them and get the money back and then we’re done with this and I can get back to my life!”Bookmark here

My head thumped against the dirt. “I told you the first day. We didn’t steal the other half. Do you really think we’d be lying about that? If we wanted to work like dogs, we would at least do it in town where we can have a bath once in a while!”Bookmark here

Claire sighed, her cute act deflating just as quickly. She sat down on the edge, hanging her legs off the side and propped her cheek up as she stared across downtown Vichtstein. “I wonder if I should just request a transfer to the logging group?” she mumbled to herself, and I could see the appeal of having real shade.Bookmark here

Xon gave a roar. It was a rumbling and building burst of rage; the kind only a dragonkin could make. Then he kicked the exposed beam as hard as he could. His frustration bore fruit. The beam shifted the rocks, breaking even more free except this time the rocks fell inward rather than at our feet. A gasp of cold, stale are escaped from the hole. There was darkness beyond. “Hole! Path!” He fell to his knees and started digging, throwing bricks to either side as he widened the path. “Fallen!”Bookmark here

Say what I might about her behavior while we were working, Claire was a knight of Throne first and foremost. She was on the ground in front of me, sword drawn, before I even got to my feet. “Mark, Xon, arm up now!” she shouted.Bookmark here

I could hear them, the fallen; but, it was wrong. I didn’t hear awkward footsteps, I heard scraping claws. I didn’t hear babbling speech, I heard growling. The thing that burst from the hole wasn’t the typical, human-like fallen of Vichtstein. It looked like a wolf. Bookmark here

Claire’s sword plunged forward as the creature tried to squirm and claw its way free of the pit. The steel pierced straight through its throat and into its chest. She barely had enough time to flick her weapon free before the fallen had broken apart; only to be replaced by three more bursting out.Bookmark here

“Mark!” Xon’s voice made me spin around. He lobbed my sword at me and I caught the scabbard.Bookmark here

“Cut them off!” Claire ordered, falling back from the entrance as they tried to surround her. Each of the creatures hunkered down, snarling and snapping. They jumped from side to side, eyes locked on her sword.Bookmark here

I tossed my scabbard aside and ran up between her and the nearby wall. Sunken as the area was, we were essentially in a basement with the tunnel opposite from our slope out. I had never fought an animal before. It was smaller than me and I was sure if it caught hold of me with those fangs it wouldn’t let go. When I took a hack at it, the fallen wolf dodged back with ease. It was faster than me, but it was scared of my sword. It kept snarling but never committing. Bookmark here

My hands trembled and my legs felt like jelly. I was so tired from excavating that I could barely think about fighting. I had to though. It would eat me alive, and if I backed off, Claire and Xon would be outnumbered. I had to at least keep it occupied while they finished off theirs. Or so I thought.Bookmark here

“Get it away!” Xon screamed as he turned tail and fled. The enormous dragonkin bolted from the hound, taking the slope on all fours as the fallen creature clamped onto his ankle. It locked teeth with the leather boot, and he had to kick it free. The fallen slid back into the pit with us and he fled with his pole-hammer. Bookmark here

“Are you serious?” Claire shouted, realizing she was suddenly outnumbered. The one Xon had kicked off got back to its feet, shook itself off, and turned its gaze on her. That didn’t mean her first opponent had forgotten about her either. Both fallen attacked.Bookmark here

I had to do something. I was moving before the thoughts had even congealed in my mind. My sword cleaved down through the air as the fallen wolf lunged for Claire and I hacked into the middle of its back. It hit the ground hard, and I hacked again, breaking its neck. I realized I was screaming only when it finally disintegrated to mist.Bookmark here

Claire had let the other one bite her arm, digging fangs against her steel as the hind legs scratched at her midsection. Then she ran it through with her sword and destroyed it.Bookmark here

That left one. I spun to find it, falling on my ass when I assumed it had to be right atop me. We were alone in the pit.Bookmark here

“It got out,” Claire said, scanning her eyes across the area. “Come on, that was good work but we have to go get that thing.” She was like another person as she danced up the rocky slope. She leapt from foothold to foothold as easily as if she were on a paved road.Bookmark here

That left me behind and alone, my heart throbbing in my chest. I only stared at my hands for a moment before I swallowed and got back to my feet. I followed after her because I knew Charlie had never gotten his sword back. He had no way to defend himself but a stout club that had once been the leg of a chair. That wouldn’t help him much.Bookmark here

Of course, he was Charlie, and he hadn’t let that get in his way. I easily followed the noise of him goading the creature and insulting it. Like he was tempting fate, he was the one out in the open bellowing at it with nothing but a stick. Bookmark here

Claire beat me there, skidding to a stop across the gravel and forcing the wolf back into a corner. She must have instantly took in the situation at a glance, because she was perfectly spaced to force the wolf back towards Neeka. Before I could do anything to help, she jumped down from a balcony and plunged her spear through the fallen. The canine body slammed into the ground and I heard bones crack before it disintegrated to mist.Bookmark here

Charlie and I both let out our breath and sagged. Claire just nodded and sheathed her sword. “Good work. I guess you all weren’t lying when you said you knew how to fight. Mark, you could use a bit more practice and experience, but thank you for the help,” she said as she turned to face me. Bookmark here

My cheeks started to burn up so I hung my head and looked away. “Thank you. Uhm, hey where’s Xon? Did anyone see where he ran to?”Bookmark here

“Xon ran?” Charlie asked.Bookmark here

“Xon’s afraid of dogs?” Neeka asked.Bookmark here

“I am not!” he bellowed. The four of us found him huddled in the shadows of a second story building, clutching his weapon in front of him like a holy ward. The truth of the matter was utterly plain to be seen. I hadn’t even known he was capable of tucking his tail.Bookmark here

Claire sighed. “Great, and here I thought he was the dependable one. I guess I’ll be relying on you, Mark.” For some reason she gave me a wink as she walked out of the building. Bookmark here

It made my jaw drop, and the exchange hadn’t been missed by Charlie. His scowling face intruded on my vision and he looked between me and her a few times. “What’s up with that? Huh? You getting cozy with the slave driver behind my back or something?”Bookmark here

If I had known what was up with that, I probably still wouldn’t have told him. Besides, we had hazard pay to get and a tunnel to explore. She probably just wanted me to work extra hard for her so she could get back to her regular duties sooner. That had to be all it was. I wasn’t so stupid as to think it was anything more.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.