The Fallen Diadem
I was exhausted when my sword finally drove through the last of the fallen. The tip drove through its chest and through to the wooden pillar I had pushed him up against. The reverberating thunk as it bit into the support nearly robbed me of the strength to stand.
As soon as the black mist spilled across the ground, I dropped to my knees and ripped my helmet off to gasp for air. I felt as worn out as Charlie had been, but bruises covered me from head to toe. The armor I had borrowed had worked, I hadn’t been cut anywhere, but the metal had so many dents in it I could barely move. I didn’t even want to think about explaining to Charlie just what I had done to his armor.
“Fair fight, fair fight, what the hell was I thinking?” I grumbled as I stood back up. I pulled a hand out of my gauntlet and stuffed a finger into my mouth. I felt around, checking my teeth and trying to find the cut where I was bleeding. I found it. I couldn’t do anything about it.
One of the fallen had caught me in the jaw with a punch. I hadn’t thought to pay attention to it after cutting its swordhand off, and I’d be tasting blood for days to remind me not to do that again. If Neeka hadn’t saved me, I might have died from that kind of mistake.
She was exhausted too, flat on her back against the cold dirt and panting. She hadn’t been particularly lethal with the spear, but that was because none of the fallen would engage with her. She had occupied them though, and that had been enough.
We had to get back to town before we got in another fight like that. We were too tired to be nimble.
“Come on, let’s see what's inside,” I said, stumbling over to the chest, the bait that had brought us to their trap. I couldn’t bear the thought that it might have been for nothing.
The lock on the chest was rusted shut. The wood wasn’t half rotten and broke beneath my boot. I heard the crunch of coins beneath. “Get the light, get the light,” I said.
Neeka flopped over onto her belly then sprang up with one of our lanterns. Light glittered back at us as we dug the splinters of wood out of the way to get at the prize beneath. Metal; coins; money. All the treasure the Tellymi brothers had stolen and the Vichtstein guards hadn’t found.
Copper. It was a giant pile of copper coins.
I wilted. It was almost for nothing. I could have made more money working for Amaranth for the day. Instead I was up in the middle of the night nearly getting killed just for a pile of coppers.
Neeka’s hand shot forward like a spear strike and she grabbed a coin. It was silver.
For a moment, we both marvelled at it, then we dug our hands into the pile of coins and dug. The chest wasn’t huge, about half as wide as my shoulders. When I dug my fingers into the pile, I easily hit the bottom, but what I overturned shone. Silver coins were at the bottom, and so were gold coins.
Charlie would have been able to count it all up in his head just by looking at it. All I could tell was that it was enough. It would pay off everyone’s debt.
“Mark! We did it!” Neeka shouted.
Next thing I knew, she threw herself at me, her arms wrapping around me. Metal and leather clashed between us as she pulled me into an embrace and knocked me to the floor. Then I felt her lips on mine. They were soft and pressed hard. Her nose rubbed against my cheek as I felt her fingers glide through my sweaty hair. Our lips parted and I forgot the blood in my mouth. Somehow, the taste of sweat was a lot better.
I wanted to stab myself. That was the only noise my body could muster after such a shock. I had Neeka laying atop me right after we survived a life and death battle. We were alone too!
“You taste like blood!” she cried out, pushing off my chest and spitting to the side. She stuck her tongue out and wiped it off on her arm.
I stammered out an apology, but the fact that any blood was getting to that wound surprised me. With how I could feel her legs atop me, all my blood was going somewhere else. My heart kept hammering in my chest and driving it there.
“Ah, but who cares. We’re gunna be free! We can get these collars off tomorrow and leave Vichtstein for good,” she said with a huge grin. She playfully beat my chest with a fist and sat upright on me. “I can take you all to Britalia, or maybe we go all the way to Dragonbreak to get Xon back home. We can take you home too… I mean, if you remember where your home is anyways. Heck, maybe we can take you to one of the gods and ask them to help with your memory. We’ve got money and we’ll be free. Heck, you and Charlie almost look like real knights too.”
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to just walk home. It wasn’t just that I didn’t remember Something had brought me here in the dark. The diadem was my only clue on that front. “Well, first, I’m going to get some justice. And then I’d be happy to go wherever. Vichtstein isn’t my home.”
Neeka nodded and crossed her arms. “Good, good!” Then she got an ounce of self-awareness and jumped to her feet. Her cheeks were the same color as her hair. “Ah, that was just excitement. It’s normal for friends in my hometown. I know you humans are different but for us catfolk that’s just friendly intimacy like a hug! I got carried away and forgot that you humans are a bunch of prudes so don’t think too much about that alright?”
And just like that, her words skewered me better than the blades of the fallen. “Right, just friendly. Humans usually do that on the cheek is all. You’ll confuse a guy if you keep doing that to him,” I mumbled as I sat up. I couldn’t help but sigh and wait for my body to give up the hopes. It had just been a cultural thing. Of course it had; I knew she was interested in Charlie and not me. “Neeka, do you actually have a home to go back to? I thought that army from Piedtri destroyed it?”
It was her turn to sigh. “Mark, you really know how to kill a mood, unintentional or not. You’re never going to get anywhere with Claire like that.”
“Who said I was trying to get somewhere with her?”
“Please, she’s stringing you along like a puppy on a leash whenever she feels like it. It’s totally transparent to people on the outside and you’ve fallen for it completely. Getting away from her will be good for you,” she said as she pulled out one of the old grain sacks and shook all the dirt and dust from it.
“That’s not- she does not!”
Neeka didn’t even respond to that, she just stared back at me until I hung my head and started scooping coins into the sack. The chest was completely busted, so that was no way to bring home our spoils.
“I don’t know if my home is there anymore,” she said as we walked back towards the glow of town. “I don’t think I even have any family left there. Slavers tend to break up families as fast as they can, scatter them all over the kingdom. It makes revolts harder. It stops people from trusting each other too much. It’s an industry and people are a resource.”
“Couldn’t we go looking for them and buy them or something?”
“We could, but would you be able to stare at a slave, with money in your hand, and say you won’t help them because you don’t know them?”
The question made me slow my pace, made it harder to put one foot after another. The night was dark; the moon closer to the other side of the world than us and the stars distant. PLenty of people in town had seen us with collars on our necks. Everyone else found it easy to look away and ignore it. At least Amaranth paid well and wasn’t abusive. “Probably not.”
“Unless you’re going to declare war on the whole kingdom, there’s no hope of that. We don’t have the strength to change the world. We’re not like Amaranth. We’re just two people, barely older than kids. If I get back to my home and there’s nothing there, or they’ve cut the forest down for a plantation or something, I’ll just move on.”
“I think I might kill them,” I said. “Slavery as punishment for a crime is one thing. It’s at least justified by the person’s actions. But they waged a war to enslave people; they did it for money and power. That’s pretty evil. The world would be better off without them.”
“What are you going to do, steal the diadem? Gunna claim the throne for yourself and make that wish?”
“You don’t need a wish for that. A wish is to do something impossible, like make a moon that floats in the air. If the goal is to get rid of slavery, all you need is an army.”
She laughed. “Well to get an army, you may as well need a wish. You’re not a very inspiring leader you know. What was that one-liner you had? Then it is a fair fight?” she asked, dropping her voice an octave to imitate me.
It was my turn to blush. “Hey, you never know! Maybe I could be the strong silent type of leader.”
We both started laughing. It was the kind of unrestrained mirth we hadn’t had for weeks. She had to wipe a tear from her eye. “I’m really glad the four of us have stuck together.”
“Actually,” I said, “I need your help dealing with Brekhart. I don’t think I can handle it on my own and I want to wrap it up before Charlie is recovered enough to go shout at Amaranth. He’s going to go get his father’s sword back, and I want our names cleared; the accusation expunged not just in the past.”
I saw her frown. “What was this then? Just a test run to see how compatible our fighting is?”
“Sorta. I think we might need to do some snooping and thieving to figure out what he did with the stolen silver. The half he stole that is.”
“We’ll be screwed if we get arrested again.”
“Well then, we’ll have to make sure that doesn’t happen. Besides, the back-up plan is to challenge him to a duel. I think I can win that. I’m not afraid of him anyways. We’ve got at least a week to prepare, if Charlie’s recovery is anything to guess at.”
I saw her ears flatten back and she stared at the ground. There was a droop to her tail that hadn’t been there earlier. “You think he will? Recover?”
“Of course I do. He’s Charles the Great, isn’t he? Our fearless leader. He charged straight at the king of Vichtstein to save me! He’s got more guts than the rest of us combined. A bit of shock won’t keep him down,” I said, forcing myself to smile.
“Then yeah, we better be ready for him to take the challenge to Amaranth,” she said.
“Sure. I’m in.”