The Fallen Diadem
It wasn’t a dragon. Dragons had ridges and wrinkles and their eyes sat beneath heavy brows. The head of the monster had been sleek and triangular, with yellow orbs the size of my head to see with, at least before the hunter had put one out. It was like a snake and a lion had been mixed together, a chimera. If it hadn’t been holding a corpse, I don’t think I would have been able to stay ahead of it. The few seconds it took to spit out the hunter and assess me were the few seconds that I used to turn and sprint away.
It bounded around the corner behind me, claws scraping through the gravel. Turning its enormous mass was like drifting a car. When its side slammed up against the opposite wall, I could hear the splintering of wood. The noise made people open their windows and I heard shouts of fear.
Running from earth dragons had made me complacent. Those were slow and lumbering. The chimera was anything but. At the risk of missing a breath, I shouted for help, for the guards. A pair of them came jogging over as I burst onto the main street. They each had spears and gambesons. I wasn’t sure if that would be enough for the chimera but it was something. Throwing a hand behind my back to point, I shouted, “Monster! Dragon thing!”
“Where?” one of the guards asked, lowering the tip of his weapon at my approach.
I glanced over my shoulder, to where my shaking finger pointed, and saw nothing. I slowed to a stop. Panting for breath, I tried to let my heart calm and said, “back there. Was chasing me.”
The guards glanced at each other, their brows furrowing. “How big?” I lifted a hand over my head to show its shoulder height and saw them gulp. The guard who had spoken pulled out a whistle and blew it hard. A moment later, a few responses returned from the night and the guards started forward. I think one of them gestured some sort of prayer.
The road I had come from was empty. I could see the marks of where it had dug through the gravel, each step a scattering of dirt and stone. No chimera to be seen. I gulped. “If you follow this road to the second block there, it hit the wall. It has the window open, see? Ask them, they saw it too. And there’s a body down the alley it came from. A man in a black cloak was ripped apart.”
The guards nodded and proceeded down the road, spears to the front. The damaged building was there; the mass of the chimera hadn’t broken a wall but had splintered the support to a second floor balcony. The homeowner had stepped out in a nightgown and holding a candle, his doughy face ashen as he confirmed my story.
There was no monster to be seen though. I stood behind two guards that looked like they could barely break into a run let alone face down a monster. Whatever it was, it seemed smart and had been wary of the light. It preferred shadows, like those between every house and shop around us.
“The body should be that way,” I said, pointing down the path I had taken. The moment their attention was off of me, I took off running again. I abandoned the guards, trusting that the others would arrive in time to help them, and ran back to the Ten Swords Arena. I had to get back to Neeka and Claire. I thought I had been prepared to deal with muggers, but there were things far worse than people stalking Port Pelagus.
The main arena of the Ten Swords Arena occupied an entire city block and was roughly semi-circular, such that those in the stands were in the shade from the sun. Sprouting out from that main building were the lodging and entertainment wings. I had to try and picture it in my head from above to recall which had Brekhart’s room. That was where Neeka had gone and I needed to get her first.
Just a few blocks away, nobody knew there was a monster on the loose. I saw people strolling through the night, and women of low moral character seeking clients, and sleeping beggars, all of which looked at me like I was crazy. That wasn’t good; I was making a scene and getting noticed.
Despite the pounding of my heart and the burning in my lungs, I forced myself to return to a walk. Every noise had me on high alert. Every scrape of gravel and every breath jumped in my mind as the chimera. It made speaking to the doorman almost impossible. I was sweating and red faced, and explaining that I was simply fetching a book for my eccentric employer didn’t get me back inside. So I lied. “Look man I just got jumped by a couple drunks. Please don’t make me go all the way around to the shadowed wing?”
The doorman sighed and nodded, stepping aside to let me in and checking around to see if anyone had noticed him do so. The inside was dark. I could barely see anything by the slim lines of light at each door frame. The hall was laden with curtains and draperies over nothing but wall and the floor had a dirty, threadbare rug. It was a hall explicitly for people who didn’t want to be seen using it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really know where she was, just what clues to follow. She had promised she would be able to find his room my scent if he had been staying in the room for more than a few days, and if he was gone she would pop the lock and leave the door ajar. Thus, I had to find an open door with the light off, all while walking with enough confidence that any other servant or security wouldn’t question why I was there.
I nearly walked past it. I only just noticed the shade of moonlight where I had thought there was a wall. Letting my eyes adjust, I pushed the door open and stepped inside. It was a one bed room with the tiniest writing desk I had ever seen. The window was thin and barred, just enough to let a morning glow enter or, at the moment, moonlight that was reflecting off a steel blade pointed at my throat. I put up my hands. “Nice to see you,” I said as Neeka let out her breath and lowered the dagger.
“What took you so long?” she asked, sheathing the blade and once more hiding it in her dress.
I wasn’t sure how to answer that in a timely manner, so I just said, “the bookstore had some problematic clientele. Did you find anything?”
“The money? No.”
“He probably has that on him, or gave it to someone else. I wasn’t expecting money.”
“Then how are we supposed to prove he lied?”
I shrugged. “Embezzlement is hard. If we can catch him in something else though, we can force it with the duel,” I said as I stepped over to the writing desk. I couldn't read the letters in the dark and I didn’t dare light a candle. Disturbing the pages might alert him to what happened as well.
“There were other people in here,” Neeka said, putting her hands on her hips and facing the hall out.
She rolled her eyes. “Men. Sweaty men at that, but what else is new. Hold on…” she said and walked over to me. She sniffed. “What the heck is that?”
“Other than me?” I asked. She rolled her eyes again. “There’s some kind of monster in the city. It nearly took a bite out of me. Can I help you?”
She had nearly pressed her nose to my shoulder, then circled around me and bent over to my waist to sniff. “I think I’ve smelled this somewhere else,” she mumbled. She rose, and held her chin lightly, staring at a shadow.
I dusted off the tail of my coat and turned to face her. I supposed that had been the part of my outfit closest to the monster, but still. “You think he also got attacked?”
“No,” she said, and stepped over to the writing desk. She lowered her face to it and sniffed a few times. Then she grabbed a scroll. Unfurling it in the moonlight, we saw that it was an annotated map. The geography and cities were crude and inaccurate, but I didn’t know what any of them were anyways. I had never seen a map of the world before, so I couldn’t tell what lines were rivers and what were country borders. All I knew for certain was it was circular and Throne was in the middle.
“What, is this a tactical map or something? For a war?” I proposed.
“I mean, uh… maybe? I think this is a treasure map or something?” she said, turning it this way and that as she tilted her head back and forth in hopes of making sense of it.
A bell rang. From the end of the hall someone shouted “Emergency! Guards have declared a curfew! They’re locking down the city.”
Neeka and I locked eyes. “Monster?” she asked.
“Probably,” I said with a nod and she rolled it back up. “We should get to Claire.”
The hall erupted with people, all holding up candles and half dressed. Most had been sleeping, many clearly hadn’t been. All directed an uproar at the servant who had brought the news. We kept our heads down and flowed into the crowd who suddenly had to try and flee the building while they still could. The crowd welcomed us silently, not even glancing at us twice. Our servant attire was like an invisibility cloak and we had avoided Brekhart’s notice. In and out of his room with, hopefully, the evidence we needed. There was a certain giddiness in my chest, a pep in my step that hadn’t been there while fleeing the chimera.
Then I realized who the servant was. The attendant who had given Clair and us our room stood at the end of the hall and stared straight at me. There was more than enough light that there was no hiding my face from being recognized. “Oh shit.”
“Relax, he doesn’t have our names,” Neeka whispered as we passed by the attendant.
They didn’t say anything, they barely even watched us after seeing us. Their gaze moved across the crowd, systematically noting everyone present and memorizing them. I was sure their boss was very appreciative of learning what information and blackmail he could from such a commotion.
We weren’t stopped, so we returned to our room. Once more I felt the prickle on the back of my neck as though someone were watching me. In such a lively building, it was hard to rule out until we closed the door.
Exhaustion caught up with me as soon as I started taking my coat off. It seemed to get Neeka as well, and we collapsed into the bed after locking the door. It was soft and welcoming, and pulled me straight into sleep.