The Fallen Diadem
The next day, under supervision of a half dozen soldiers, we finished excavating the tunnel entrance and they stormed in ahead of us. Apparently they were happy to use us as forced labor, but they didn’t think of us as disposable. Charlie quipped that they just didn’t want to abandon their investment. Either way, we sat in the sun for an hour, listening to the echoes of battle, until they came back out and ordered us to start filling bags.
The inside wasn’t actually a tunnel, it was an underground complex. The first area had what looked like beds but the straw bedding had all turned to dirt. There were wooden chests at the foot of each, and I thought we would be carrying those out, but they led us deeper through the building.
It was dark and we had to see by candles, so I didn’t even recognize the sticks and balls as what they were at first. Row upon row of rusted swords, helms, and breastplates sat within the darkness waiting for a war that never came. The building’s purpose congealed in my mind; we had found a barracks or a mercenary guild or something.
A canvas bag was shoved against my chest. “Carry it all back to the quartermaster.” At first I thought they were going to use the equipment; but it was far too rusted for that. The first sword I tried to pick up snapped at the hilt with a shower of flakes. All it would be good for would be melting it back down and forging something new.
I found Charlie staring at one particular blade forlornly, his bag half full at his feet and his hands unmoving. “Still thinking about your sword?” I asked.
“It was my fathers, before he died. Of course I’m thinking about how to get it back,” he said. After a glance in Neeka’s direction, he added, “But, in the meantime I have to have something to protect myself with.”
We had gotten our first pay. Compared to our debt, it wasn’t much, but it was still a few silver in my pocket. Aside from the day we had robbed Brekhart, it was the most money I’d ever held. He had gotten just as much, not including the wink Claire had given me, and I knew he could buy a sword if he wanted to. I was pretty sure they’d sell one to a slave too; mine hadn’t been confiscated or anything.
I ended up walking back to the main camp with Neeka. The silence was unbearable. Everything I tried to say only got one word answers out of her.
“Got any plans for your money?”
“Are you liking the spear we found? It worked great against that fallen.”
“I’m glad that Claire is at least really nice. A bit strict at times but that’s what a real leader should be like.”
“Yeah-I-noticed-you-and-Charlie-oogling-her.” Which, while a complete sentence, was pronounced like it was one word.
Eventually, I gave up on conversation. I wanted to know more about her, about the life she led before she joined up with Charlie and Xon. I didn’t know anything about her, or about Britalia where she came from, or what her history with the army was. Maybe if I had followed after her that night and spoken to her, this wouldn’t have happened, but the past was passed and we could only live with the consequences of our choices. If she wanted to open up, she would have by now and I had to let her be silent if she chose to.
When we dropped off the bags of material, the quartermaster grumbled something about not enough fuel to melt it down. The camp smith grumbled something about Amaranth’s induction furnace being scary. No one was actually talking to me, they just wanted a body to bounce their words off and hear themselves. At least Neeka was able to score herself a skewer of grilled fish from the young chef.
I knew we wouldn’t be let off the porting duty just because the sun went down, so we trekked back to the excavation site. The soldiers were distracted with Claire, exploring the collapsed rooms and discussing where to dig next. They still wanted some secret tunnel beneath the lake, like it would just open up from the walls if we looked hard enough.
For my part, I was just happy they had killed all the fallen within the place. It meant that after seeing Charlie and Xon still packing their first bags and about to head out, I could safely slip off. I’d be lying if I said it was out of a sense of adventure, or that I was secreting off supplies for an escape attempt. If I had stumbled upon a tool able to cut our collars, maybe I would have been; but, I just wanted somewhere private to relieve myself.
The junk room looked like it had once been some kind of office, but I couldn’t read any of the letters and the desk was crushed beneath some rubble. I had made a mental note to check for gold or medals or something in the drawers when I tried to find the back corner to unlace my trousers in.
There wasn’t one. Behind the main collapse there was a hall, hidden just out of sight from the doorway. With my tiny candle, I stuck my head inside. Beyond the damage, the walls were almost pristine with solid masonry holding everything up. I still hadn’t actually found a corner I could face, but curiosity was getting to me, so I walked into the next room.
It was open and devoid of any furniture. The ground had a layer of sand all across it, and something reflected my light back at me from the far corner. Gilded steel. If the office had been some kind of commander’s office, I must have been in their private armory because I was looking at the fanciest suit of armor I had ever laid eyes on, aside from maybe Amaranth Arnstein’s.
“Jackpot,” I whispered, trying to think of just how much it would be worth to sell. It wasn’t rust like everything else, I could still see the gold enamel accenting it.
I got too close to it. It moved.
It wasn’t a suit of armor. It was an armored fallen, and one with an enormous sword too. The thing looked like a club of steel and yet held it before itself with one hand and faced me.
I leapt back and drew my own sword. The candle tumbled to the ground, rolling over in the sand and barely illuminating the two of us. I had to get help, but it was too close. I could shout, but no one would be able to follow the echo. No one even knew this room existed.
And on top of that, if the soldiers came in, I wouldn’t get any of the pay.
I attacked it. I chopped my sword at it as hard as I could. The fallen just interposed its own weapon and met my edge, deflecting me to the side with ease.
I recovered, something I had done hundreds of times with Charlie, though the sand made it more taxing. I swung again, aiming for the waist line where its belt was. The fallen’s weapon swished through the air and made a wall between me and it, stopping me cold.
It was better than me, a lot better, but that didn’t mean I would lose. What I lacked in technique, I tried to make up for in ferocity. Holding my sword in both hands, I laid into it. I tried every attack angle, I tried follow up chains, I tried feints and thrusts, and I even tried to attack his weapon and his wrist to get rid of that undefeatable defense. Nothing worked. I never even touched it.
With a shout of rage and frustration, I slammed my sword at it, locking up with the fallen’s weapon, and reached out to grab hold of it. If I couldn’t win a sword fight, I’d try a brawl.
Something hard pushed into my stomach. The impact lifted me off my feet and my brain didn’t even catch up with things until I was flat on my back gasping. It had punched me.
There, laying on the floor beneath it, I finally started to realize how hopeless the fight was. I wasn’t talented like Charlie was, I wasn’t strong like Xon, and I wasn’t half as fast as Neeka. I was just a kid in a fight with a monster.
A monster that was waiting for me to get back to my feet.
It stood there in that opening pose with its dull blade held in front of itself and waited for me. It didn’t say anything, it didn’t even sway on its feet as I pushed myself back up. Hesitantly, I lifted my sword up just like it did. Then it attacked.
It stepped forward and made a direct chop flat across the plane of my vision. Just like Charlie had taught me, I shifted my blade and put it between me and the attack. The fallen’s weapon slammed into me hard. It had so much force that my sword was nearly blown out of the way and it smacked into my shoulder; barely deflected. It felt like Xon had taken the swing at me.
But, there was no follow up. The fallen returned to the initial posture and waited for me to get feeling back in my shoulder muscles. It wasn’t trying to kill me. I wasn’t sure its weapon could kill me at all; there was no edge to it and it seemed far heavier than any useful weapon, yet it was using it. Something was very, very wrong with the fight.
Sweat was pouring down my neck and my feet hurt. Just a few exchanges in the sand, trying to push off and keep my strength, had my legs exhausted. It was nothing at all like fighting on stone, but it hadn’t hurt to get knocked down on it.
I should have turned and ran as soon as I realized it wasn’t trying to kill me. Over the last few months we had encountered plenty of fallen that weren’t interested in a fight. If they had something expensive looking, sometimes we’d fight anyways but usually we just ran away, which is what I should have done. I had an entire army that would come to deal with something as dangerous as this fallen.
Instead, I squared up with it again. Again, it made the exact same horizontal swing at me. This time I corrected my stance and braced myself. The fallen’s weapon hammered into me, but it didn’t reach my shoulder. I had blocked it correctly, and instead of attacking me again, the fallen retracted its weapon and took the stance again.
I was standing across from the fighting instructor.