The Fallen Diadem
I was impatient, so I was sloppy. Playing mind reader with the fallen sword instructor had led to plenty of confusion and irritation, but the last two weeks working with the creature had done more for my skills than a whole year with Charlie. I was tighter, faster, and far deadlier. I had proved it a half dozen times in front of Claire and fattened my purse with bounty pay thanks to the instructor. I might even be better than Charlie now, I might finally be able to beat him in a match. I just felt like I needed a little bit more; some insight that would make the difference.
It certainly helped my uptake that the style seemed to be similar, possibly even the same. Vichtstein was adjacent to Drusca. If the fallen was imitating their original style, the refugees would have brought it with them to the neighboring country and hundreds of years later, it passed from father to son and into Charlie’s repertoire. Fighting the silent knight in that dark room made everything congeal together in my body and mind, but it was too slow.
The barge had been completed. I had seen the shipwright shove it into the lake and look it over. It had row upon row of hulls strapped cross-wise with boarding to carry the soldiers across to the castle and also endure any draconic attacks. The attack on the castle would begin, and I was going with them, and yet the instructor hadn’t done anything with me beyond the basics. No matter what I did to try and pressure the knight, it only ever responded with basic parries, evasion, and swift ripostes.
They were all things I had seen, that I had done, that I had mastered and was bored with. I needed something more, so I attacked. I pressed the offensive as hard as I could, trying to drive the knight into a corner and force it to do something else. I succeeded.
It caught my overhead chop by grabbing the end of its own weapon with its other hand and holding it like a staff. My longsword clanged against it, stopping so suddenly that my wrists hurt from the recoil. And then it had the control again. I stepped towards me, twisting its weapon and shoving mine away before it slammed me in the chest with the pommel, just an inch from my throat. I coughed up spit, and then its mailed boot slammed into my gut and set me bouncing across the sandy floor.
It had done something new, and it had beaten me mercilessly with it.
“Damn it!” I slammed my fist against the floor. My chest heaved and sweat dripped off my chin. Sand was in my hair and I should have been happy but I wasn’t. Once again it had simply proven how little I knew.
“Mark?” The voice that echoed to me made my blood run cold. “Mark, where are you?” Xon asked, and then the dragonkin stepped around the corner holding a candle. He saw me first, on the ground, and then he saw the fallen. The candle dropped to the sand and he pulled out a club. It was a far cry from his pole-hammer, but after the incident with Amaranth’s tent, Claire had gotten very strict about our weapons. He roared, the draconic scream filling the entire chamber before he charged.
“No! Xon wait!”
In an attempt to protect me from the fallen, he gripped the club with both hands and laid into it. In the first exchanges, I saw the knight try to block and parry like it had stopped me with, then it promptly switched to holding the blade with its offhand just to have the strength to stop the dragonkin’s attack. I saw the weapon flash out, striking whenever Xon slowed to catch his breath. It struck his wrists, his knees, anything exposed. If it had an edge, he would have been crippled. Half the tendons on his body would have been cut in half; but, it was blunt.
Neither were listening to me, and it was going to end badly for Xon. The fallen wasn’t going to let itself get killed while playing fair; it would adapt. It always adapted. Taking my longsword in one hand and the cleaver in my other, I charged both of them. I couldn’t wield either properly, but I still lifted them high overhead, and slammed them down into the melee with a shout. Xon and the instructor both jumped back. I stepped in, swinging one weapon at either of them and forcing them further back. “Stop!” I shouted, trying to keep a point to either of their throats.
The fallen put up a guard, its weapon nearly touching my own.
Xon gaped. “You crazy?”
“It’s not dangerous.” And so I told him my secret. It was an exaggeration to say it wasn’t dangerous, but even he agreed that the pros seemed to outweigh the cons. Had it been anyone else, they would have tied me up and taken me to a priest for an exorcism, but Xon was the one observing the fallen the closest. The whole time we spoke, the fallen stayed put in its corner, empty eyes watching us from within its helm.
“Able and willing to teach sword fighting… unprecedented,” the dragonkin said, and he fished out his journal to document it.
“A lot better than Charlie too. Maybe not as good as his father, but certainly the best available. How could I turn down the chance?”
“Sense of self-preservation. Could have told us… me at least. What if it got bored? Attacked you for real?”
“Run away?” I felt silly just saying it, but Xon didn’t comment on that. He just started sketching an illustration of the fallen’s armor. “I… I felt like if I let the opportunity slip by me, I’d regret it.”
“You could have died,” the dragonkin said.
“I could die joining the attack on the castle tomorrow too. I’m still going to do it. I’ll get paid well, and I might get some answers about this world.”
“About the fallen? This one has answers, hints maybe,” Xon said and gestured at the knight. “Why are they called fallen?”
I blinked and waited, but he didn’t offer an answer. If it wasn’t rhetorical, I tried to guess, “because they’re from the fallen diadem?”
“But what are they? Why does this one imitate a teacher? Why do they leave no body behind when they are killed?”
“I don’t know Xon; but, I might learn in the castle. Maybe they were people once, and the magic or whatever mutated them,” I offered with a shrug. The knight didn’t correct me.
Xon shook his head. “There would be thousands more if so. Shoulder to shoulder with fallen, no room to breathe. Some other rule. I should go too.”
“Go? To the castle?”
“Yes. No time for here,” he said, and gestured towards the hall.
My body reminded me that it was deep in the night, that I was chipping away at my sleep to be there and my conversation with Xon was eating even more of that time. Me and him left the instructor behind after retrieving our candles and walked back towards the camp. Most of my thoughts were on the next day, on how I would need a good pair of gloves if I was to imitate that staff technique the instructor had used. Only when I felt the cool night breeze on my face did I think to ask, “Why were you here anyways? I’ve been hiding this for weeks.”
I saw Xon’s eyes pop open and his mouth hung ajar for a moment. “Research,” he said quickly.
“Secrecy pact?” I asked, holding out my hand.
“Secrecy pact,” he said, shaking on it.
We walked back to the camp in silence after that. The guards let us in without question, just a glance at our faces and our collars, and we shuffled back to the tent afforded us. Charlie was sprawled across the thin blankets we had been given, while Neeka slept sitting. Xon retired for rest, he never struggled to close his eyes, but my mind wasn’t ready. I took my blanket and sat outside the flap of my tent, listening to the wind and waiting for my mind to grow tired.
The moon was close to us that night. It was at an apex of it’s path; each loop like a petal on a flower as it traversed around the dark sun. Sitting high in the sky, even at night it was able to shine down from a backdrop of stars. Not for the first time I found myself wondering if those were the same stars I had grown up with. They felt different, they felt wrong. My instinct was they should have been little pin pricks of light that swam across the abyss, not streaking colors like fish in a pond. There was something wrong about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
It was beautiful though. It was better than the darkness that haunted my dreams. The castle was sure to be dark, a place where the sun could no longer reach and where no living soul but us would light a candle. Somewhere within the stone walls was the mad queen’s gem, the fallen diadem of Vichtstein that could move armies and change the fate of the world.
The only thing between me and it were the dragons basking in the lake who called it home.