The Fallen Diadem
In the end, all four of us were on the volunteer list for the raid. When Charlie heard Xon was going, he was going. When Neeka realized that she was going to be the only one left doing manual labor for coppers, she was going. When all four of us were on the boat, Claire had to join.
“There’s no way we’re actually going to fight. You know that, right?,” Charlie said as me and him were seated at an oar. The barge was like a fat millipede, built with enough redundancy to still get us back even after a dragon attack. I was closer to the railing, Charlie had shoved me over so he could take the harder spot. I didn’t complain, but I wanted to complain about the amount of standing around going on.
They had woken us up before day reached the city and half the camp was arming up for the raid. They didn’t even bother to cook food first, they just ate bread and jerky while standing in line for their captains. Everyone else seemed to understand that if their job wasn’t marching, it was standing in line, waiting for someone else to finish marching into position. Even Amaranth stood waiting, but he was at the prow of the ship in full armor and holding Ascalon to his side, quite literally the tip of the spear.
“Xon, why aren’t you in position?” Claire asked, and I saw he and Neeka were still lingering on the shore, one step from the barge.
The dragonkin puffed up his chest and left it out, then stepped on and took the oar behind us. Neeka did not.
I nudged Charlie. “She does know how to swim, right?”
“Why would she know how to swim?”
“Wait, do you not?”
“I didn’t grow up on a lake and my father was in the army not the navy. Why would I know how to swim?”
“You’re doing this despite not being able to swim back on your own?” I asked, and I suddenly understood why he had actually taken the harder position on the oar. Eventually however, Claire cajoled the felinid into boarding the barge, and I got to watch her cling to Xon like some kind of flotation device. Squadron after squadron filed onto the barge after the oars were filled, and they stood rank and file behind Amaranth.
There was a drummer behind the knight, turned about and facing us. After a signal from Amaranth, he started thumping a rhythm to synchronize all of us, and he bellowed out, “oars in!” The planks of wood slipped into the water’s surface, all canted forward. “Row!” The barge lurched forward as mooring lines were tossed off. The entire thing shook as the soldiers braced themselves and widened their stances. I saw them grab hold of each other as stealthily as they could, but then we were on the water.
The shore drifted away from us and we entered the open lake. I stole a glance over the side. The water was clear, and I could see ancient buildings covered in muck like a stone reef. There were fish too, huge bottom feeders and agile insect eaters. No river flowed into the city, it had been diverted ages ago, so I had to wonder how the lake’s ecosystem survived.
“They’ve noticed us!” Amaranth shouted. He had turned only halfway around to shout to the men. “I’ll be going ahead. I’m going to need you all to catch up, alright?”
“Yes, Commander, Sir!” the troops shouted back, and they saluted in unison.
I tried to peer ahead, over the oars and to the castle. I saw at least two dragons looking back at us. They had lifted their heads out of the water and water still poured out of their mouths like they were using their teeth as sieves. They were huge, almost as big as the one Amaranth had slain, and they both laid where the castle’s courtyard should have been. “You think we have enough people?” I asked.
The man in front of me laughed and glanced over his shoulder at me. “For the lizards? Kid, we aren’t here to fight those. M’lord doesn’t need help with those,” he said, and I looked back at Amaranth.
He had couched his spear like a lance and taken a wide stance. Ascalon started to glow. After a subtle shift back, a slight coiling of his muscles, he lunged forward. The entire barge rocked and oars clattered against each other. Neeka shouted, grabbing Xon again. The wood he had been standing on splintered and men had to duck their heads as shrapnel rained down across them. Amaranth was gone, replaced by nothing more than a streak of light.
My mouth gaped open.
The light led forward, arcing over the surface of the lake as the water roiled beneath in its wake. The impact came all the way at the castle, where Amaranth landed spear-first in the side of the dragon. The entire beast flew backwards, rolling sideways as it scraped through the mud. Like a bolt of lightning, Amaranth had cleared the entire distance and killed one of the dragons.
The light we had seen that first day had been him, it had been Amaranth flying down to the center of Vichtstein by himself. It was unbelievable that so much power could be contained inside of a weapon.
Charlie groaned. At first I thought it was from the exertion of fighting the water, but he was grinding his teeth. “Why does a slaver like him gotta be so cool? This isn’t fair!” he complained, jerking hard on the oar.
“I guess it just makes sense that someone trying to change the world actually has the power to back it up.”
“If he’s got a weapon like that, what does he need the diadem for?” Charlie demanded. He didn’t know, he hadn’t stuck around for the explanation.
“Who would want a slaver to rule the world? Don’t tell me you two forgot that. Because I haven’t,” Neeka said, ducking under Xon’s oar to crawl closer to us. Being reminded of it made me feel the collar around my neck again, the scrape of hard leather. Amaranth didn’t even care about it.
Something bumped the bottom of the barge.
The roaring dragons thrashed and rolled, snapping and swatting at the spear knight as he fought. Even from the distance, I could see the rivers of blood spewing out of the dragons. Every swing of Ascalon carved through their scales anew. It cut through everything.
But both dragons were still there, still fighting him on the steps of the castle, and something had rocked the boat. Again, a shock went through the structure and we started listing to one side like an anchor had been thrown down. “Row! Row!” the drummer shouted, and the captains took up the mantra as the barge began to twist on the water. Our side wasn’t pulling their weight, no matter how much we started to row.
My shoulders ached and it felt like my callouses from sword fighting would all be ripped clean by the oar. Trying to keep fresh air in my chest dulled my thoughts till I only focused on the beat of the drum. Until Neeka screamed, “They’re in the water!”
Hundreds of fallen had risen up from the dark depths. With gnarled, bony hands, they grabbed onto the hulls and climbed. Their bodies dragged against the flowing water, dragging us to one side. Men behind me screamed and I saw axes flashing in both directions. The fallen hacked their way up, cutting the oarsmen down. They were coordinated, and far more than I had ever seen at once, and they were attacking us.
“Mark!” Neeka screamed.
I barely threw myself back as the tip of her spear past me. It plunged into the throat of a fallen that had grabbed hold of my oar. It had been heartbeats away from stabbing me with a dagger before Neeka’s spear ripped through it.
Claire strode in between me and Xon, sword and shield drawn. When the next fallen grabbed hold of the railing, her steel slashed off its hand. “Row!” she ordered, standing strong despite the tumult rocking the barge. “If we don’t get off the lake, we’ll all die, so row!”
Our course corrected as I tried to plow the water with Charlie. The fallen grabbed hold of the other side. Their bodies were like pulling through kelp but it was at least even; we could steer the barge towards the castle. Behind me, the clash of steel grew louder. I heard bodies fly overboard and the clatter of steel on wood. Captains were barking orders, trying to make formations out of chaos. Only one thing stayed constant; the beat of the drum.
We rowed. I tried to not look into the water, to not watch as Claire stabbed and shoved and destroyed the attacking fallen. I didn’t want to look because there was no end of them. No matter how many were destroyed, there was always another climbing up over the corpse even before it distingrated like ink in the water.
The castle grew closer, that was all that mattered; that and the rhythm of the drum. The faster we rowed, the less they could climb on. Oars smashed into heads of the fallen, edges snapped their grasping arms; but the oarsmen fought to keep pushing through.
Something pushed my arm. It jerked my elbow away and tore my hand from the oar. It felt hot and numb at the same time. The thin edge of an axe had plunged into my arm, biting down to the bone.
I fell to the deck screaming when it ripped free. I clutched it, feeling the blood gush between my fingers. Claire cleaved the fallen’s head off and shouted, “Neeka, take care of him!” as she stood above me.
Gritting my teeth I forced my fingers to move, wiggling one after another before I tried moving my shoulder and elbow. Everything moved, everything was still connected. It hurt so much I couldn’t even process the melee anymore. “Where the hell is shock when you need it?” I asked as Neeka dropped to her knees and grabbed my arms.
She looked at it for one moment, then clamped her lips around it. For the briefest instant, her lips were on me, were kissing me. Then her tongue scraped against the wound like sand.
I howled in pain, trying to shove her off. “What are you doing? I need stitches not a kiss!”
She twisted against my grip, snarling and almost biting my finger off. “Getting the rust out you idiot! You want lockjaw or something?” She spat the mouthful of blood and lake muck out of her mouth and attacked the wound again, using her tongue like a bit of steel wool.
When the edge of the barge slammed hard against something stone, the two of us tumbled into a heap beneath the legs of the soldiers. Xon grabbed us in either hand and hauled us back up as men started running forward. We had reached the castle, we had slammed the barge into the mud and buried it there. Fallen still crawled up the back, but a reargaurd of infantry kept them at bay.
Like a crying baby, I got tossed onto the ground next to a dead dragon and beside a blushing Neeka. Claire stepped over, brushing wet hair out of her face as she looked down at me. Then she cupped a hand around her mouth and shouted. “Medic! We need a priestess!”