The Fallen Diadem
I was being haunted by a dream. At first I thought it was just a blur of nightmare, but each night the details grew more distinct. I was somewhere dark, a place of twisted stone and luminescent glows. I couldn’t move. I was bound tight in the dream and being carried through the darkness. Hands were on me, gripping my arms and legs and hoisting me through the caverns. The dream always ended before I reached wherever the beings were taking me.
It stuck with me in the back of my mind throughout the day, even while I was fighting the fallen. After so long with the instructure, and the new sword, I was confident in a fight. They were clumsy and slow, they lacked technique, and were full of openings. The sword was fantastic. I had more reach than most fallen, it could slash or stab with ease, and after I got used to the weight, it was more nimble than my old sword.
“You’ve gotten better, Mark,” Claire said. She had been watching me from a balcony overhead, enjoying the shade while I fought in the pit beneath. I wasn’t alone, Neeka was perched behind me with her hunting bow and keeping, but her eyes were on me. “I don’t think I’ve mentioned, but that’s a nice sword you got there. Did you find it in the excavation or something?”
I stood up from the remains of the fallen I had just killed. There was nothing special about it; it hadn’t even been armored and fought with a club so there wasn’t even anything worth looting. “Not exactly,” I said and glanced around. The pit had once been a public latrine, but worse than having collapsed on itself, trees had grown out of the piping. It theoretically connected to the sewer system, but digging through the sewage-turned-soil would take forever. Still, it had a habit of attracting fallen like they were imitating the original denizens.
“So how’d you get it?” she was smiling, resting her arms on the railing and staring at me.
“I used my pay to buy it. It’s a lot better than this other one,” I said, sheathing my longsword and putting a hand on my old weapon. I still carried it with me, just in case.
A little breeze made her hair shift and she had to brush it back again. There was just something elegant about the maneuver when she did it. Not at all like Neeka trying to tame her hair just to tie it back. “You have a debt to pay off, you know. You weren’t thinking of just staying as a slave, were you?”
She was angry with me. I hung my head. “No, ma’am.”
“Good answer. Charlie knows how to act, you know. He’s putting every cent he makes into his own freedom so that all of us can be done with this just one day sooner. But, from the looks of it, you’re wasting everything you make.”
“Not everything, I just needed to get a proper weapon to defend myself.”
“So you’re going to use tomorrow’s pay for your debt, right?”
“Good answer. Just like Charlie. You know, I’d love to be able to properly reward you for your hard work, but I can’t while you still have that collar on.”
My head snapped upright and I knew my cheeks were flushing red but I faced her anyways. “Ah well, you know, since I’ve gotten better at fighting, it means I can make more from hazard pay, right? I’m making more than even you were hoping for, right?”
She thought on that, and stood up to stretch. The way she did it arched her back such that even with her breastplate and mail on I could see all the curves of her body. “I suppose that’s true. You are trying very hard for me… I’ll ask how our group can be reassigned, okay? Why don’t you go get the other boys. Night is almost here, it’s time for dinner,” she said with a smile and a wave as she left.
“Right, I’ll go get them right now!” I called out, but I had no idea if she heard me.
Neeka was staring at me, her lips curled back like I had fallen headfirst into the latrine I had just cleared out. “You go do that, puppy,” she said, and jumped off her perch to walk back to camp on her own.
“Puppy?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. I slapped myself in the forehead when I remembered I hadn’t asked her about Ascalon. Everything else had been on my mind. With a sigh, I decided to just bring it up next time I saw her. Charlie and Xon had volunteered to do more clean up in the excavated barracks. I wasn’t surprised by Xon’s choice to work in the shade but I didn’t know why Charlie had forgone the extra pay to do menial labor. “Guys, it’s almost night time,” I called out as I stepped into the buried structure. When I didn’t see them, my first fear was that someone else had found the sword instructor.
I went running deeper in, finding half a dozen candles scattered around and wasting their wicks, but the commander’s room was dark. The kitchen was not. We had dug out the tunnel leading there the day before, and I found the two of them huddled behind what we had assumed was the main prep table. “What are you two doing?”
Both of them bolted upright. “Nothing! Working!” Charlie exclaimed.
I stared back at him as he tried to peer over my shoulder to see if anyone else was there. I folded my arms. “What did you find?”
He and Xon exchanged a calculated glance and motioned for me to come over. They had a collection of old paintings spread on the floor between them, the oil paint applied to ceramic sheets and protected from the years by careful wrappings that Charlie and Xon had religiously opened and set aside. “Woah,” I said, squatting down between them and ducking out of sight so I could appreciate the art.
All three of us had grins on our faces as we stared down at image after image of scantily, or not at all, clad women. It was a masterful collection and wonderfully illustrated. Just looking at the curated selection made me feel a kinship with the man who so long ago had collected them. Perhaps it was the artist himself, his legacy stowed away in darkness until it fell into our hands. “Check this one out, it’s the first Nattier of the tome, the one who froze the two armies,” Charlie said as he nudged over a painting of a very amply blessed woman in the widest brimmed hat I had ever seen. Her face was almost hidden, save for a hint of her licking her lips.
“There’s even one of Tia the First Claw!” Xon said, holding in his hands what I assumed was a female dragonkin. From the amount he was grinning, it must have been a very attractive picture to him, but I didn’t understand it. The curves were all in the wrong spots and there was a huge focus on the length and curve of her tail.
Charlie slapped a hand on Xon’s shoulder. “You’ve been like a hermit in the desert and finally found water,” he said, and the big guy almost started to cry. I supposed I hadn’t actually seen any female dragonkin in Vichtstein.
For my part, my eyes came to rest upon a slim blonde, with hair nearly down to her belly. She clung to a spear like she was dancing on it. I knew that subconsciously, it had to just be my brain latching onto it because of everything that had happened to me lately, but it did sort of look like Ascalon. “This is a gold mine,” I said, and both of my friends nodded. “No, like actually. We could sell these for a fortune.”
Both of them recoiled from me like I was a snake. Charlie said, “Have you gone insane Mark? You would look at a blessing like this and the only thing you see is money? And think Mark, think! I’m the one saying that. You can’t think of this as money in your pocket, but an investment in your future happiness.”
“Oh come on, what are you going to do with them? Hide them? They’re made of ceramic. They’ll break from a slight jostle. We’re not free men if you forgot,” I said, and Xon clutched the image of Tia to his chest, hugging it close.
Charlie closed his eyes and rubbed his chin. “Alright, we’ll have to make an escape. If two of us make a distraction, the third can slip off unnoticed and get back to the hideout. There, they bury the goods beneath the firepit. We can’t have them now, but in the future, when we walk free beneath the sun once more, we will be like kings.”
Xon nodded along, I just felt my jaw hang open. “Are you serious? You play by the rules about getting imprisoned and worked to the bone, but the moment you find these, you’re rebellious again?”
I looked back down at the collection. I supposed I could understand. I picked up the one of the blonde again, feeling the weight of it in my hands. Then a hand reached down over my head and pulled it from my grasp.
Claire was directly behind me, holding the painting up and frowning at it. Panic erupted out of all three of our throats. I jumped to my feet, trying to explain to her while Charlie and Xon scooped up the others and tried to wrap them back up. She didn’t care what I had to say, she just stared down at us and said, “So this is why the guards said you two didn’t leave the excavation once today. I didn’t even get to go back to camp before I found that out. I should be out of my armor and enjoying a warm meal right now, but instead I have to deal with this filth?”
“It’s not filth, it’s art!” Charlie declared, trying to use his body to hide Xon’s work.
“Oh? Even that one?” she asked, pointing to a painting I hadn’t even seen. It was a cat girl with the same coppery red hair and fluffy tail that Neeka had; but, this one was a bit more mature and I could never imagine Neeka smiling over her shoulder like that. “What would your friend have to say about you oogling that one?”
Charlie broke instantly, bowing down before her. “Please don’t tell her.”
Claire started tapping her foot, and I got on my knees as well. “Well then, for wasting this entire day on something so disgusting,” she said, tucking the blonde piece under her arm. “You’re going to have to make it up tomorrow, and the next day. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” we all said, though Xon hesitated more than us.
“Then bring this all back to my tent. I heard your escape plans too you know. I’m confiscating them all and will make a decision about it later. Understood?” And just like that, she crushed all of our hopes. She watched without speaking as we packed them all into a bag. It was the heaviest bag we had ever carried back to camp.
I wasn’t going to just let it end like that though. While they were still wrapping them up, I nodded at Xon and walked over to Claire. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you a question,” I said, and waited for her to acknowledge me. All I got was her gaze, so I swallowed and continued, “Could you tell me what Ascalon actually is? And what it means that I’ve been acknowledged by it?”
“Been acknowledged by her. Ascalon is a woman. This woman actually,” Claire said, holding up the painting she had nabbed from my hands. “Lady Amaranth earned the title of a Holy Lance without Ascalon, and her soul now resides inside the weapon. The Queen of Regicide is akin to our spiritual leader in the Order of the Broken Concordant, and she’s good at judging first impressions. For my own part, I thought you were better than a petty thief when I first met you Mark. You disappointed me. You probably disappointed her as well. You can ask Lord Arnstein about it when you buy your freedom. Now come on, I need to think up what punishments will be in store for you three tomorrow.”
She turned on her heels and marched out, the three of us following behind. I did, however, get the nod from Xon. The distraction had been enough. The painting of Tia was hidden.