Chapter 36:

33 - Yellow Sand, Red Steel (v2)

The Fallen Diadem

I sat alone, just beyond the light from the gladiatorial gate. The merchant lord of Port Pelagus had not given me any armor, only the promise that Brekhart too would be unarmored. Of course, that meant the advantage would be his. He wanted to kill me while I just wanted to make him surrender. As the circumstances had been his choice, they surely favored his fighting style, not mine.Bookmark here

An announcer stood in the sand of the arena, bedecked in motley green. He faced the main stands, the swath of shadowed crowds, and bellowed out what was to occur. A prelude to the anticipated battle of the evening, not a harlequin reenactment nor a pack of ravenous drakes; those had been postponed. It would be a one on one duel.Bookmark here

The crowd groaned. A duel hardly sated their thirst when they had come to see champions, not one lowly nobleman. For his part, the announcer tried to liven it up, to speak of Brekhart’s credentials. On the expectation I would lose, he barely even noted who I was. Claire’s name never came up, and the reason for the duel was kept at mere theft to be settled by combat.Bookmark here

I wished Charlie was with me. He could have talked me through this. I was sure he would have stared Brekhart down and made a strategy. He could have given me a pep talk and a slap on the shoulder. But Charlie was back at Vichtstein, using brandy to dull the pain.Bookmark here

Xon could have soothed my mind and nudged me forward with some praise of confidence. He was better than me at recalling my own successes, examples of how I had outperformed myself while glossing over my failures. But Xon wasn’t with me either.Bookmark here

Even Neeka could have done something to take the edge off the fear, but she was facing down something even scarier. She had the support of the guards, but nonetheless, she was trying to find a chimera larger than a horse, and was more likely than not to encounter a god along the way. Bookmark here

“I should have listened to them. I should have left,” I said, planting the tip of my scabbard in the sand and leaning my head on the handle. In my head, I thought backwards through all the decisions I had made, and how they had kept drawing me deeper into this mire. The mud in the diadem couldn’t even compare to the mess I had marched into.Bookmark here

Tugging off my glove, I looked at the mark across my hand. I had removed my coat, as it restricted my movement too much, but the rest of the servant attire had remained. Now I looked at the strange brand the diadem had given me. The collar Amaranth had put around my throat had been a sure sign of enslavement, but that could be removed. The black line across my palm made me feel like cattle, to a shepherd I didn’t know. The throne I supposed.Bookmark here

“You’re a weapon aren’t you? So why are you trying to get me killed instead of my enemies?” I asked, as though the diadem creature would just respond.Bookmark here

It had been clear that it wanted me dead though. It hated me for being foreign to its world. No telepathic response came, no sympathetic surge of power. As though healing my wounds once was already more than it had wanted to do. Bookmark here

I should have asked Amaranth how he used the power of Ascalon. From what fighting I had seen, he didn’t need to call out command words or make hand gestures or anything else. It was as though it simply reacted to his will and made his thoughts manifest. “You could have at least come with an instruction manual,” I grumbled, closing my hand to a fist as though that might make a video game pop-up menu appear. No such luck.Bookmark here

I was just beginning to experiment with the idea that perhaps it had healed me because my mind could picture being healthy, when the gate opened up. Chains from the other side of the wall swept the door open while keeping the opposing door shut tight. I had nowhere else to go but forwards. The sand crunched beneath my feet, radiating heat up at me as I approached where the announcer was. Had we been wild animals, I was sure he would have been scurrying out one of the doors by now, but he just wryly sized me up.Bookmark here

“Was it over a girl or something?” he asked, the words like gravel from years of shouting.Bookmark here

I tugged my glove back on as I watched Brekhart march over to me. “I wish. That would at least be a good reason.”Bookmark here

The announcer glanced over at my opponent and shook his head. “I’d say surrender when you get the chance, but he’s here to kill you. Good luck kid. If it’s any consolation, Virgil’ll make a killing on your victory, given the odds they’ve got going,” he said, and clapped me on the shoulder before backing off.Bookmark here

I scanned the crowd after he left, trying to see if Claire had joined the viewing box. There were a couple people beside Virgil, but I couldn’t recognize them. The shadows were too strong, and more often than not they had wine goblets to their lips. Everyone was looking down on me except the people who’s help I wanted. I was left in the pit with my opponent.Bookmark here

Brekhart didn’t have armor, true to the agreement, but instead he had a wool cloak bunched up in his offhand. He didn’t say anything as he approached, just spat on the ground and drew his sword. I watched him stretch out like a star before squatting down. He looked like a crab, but with a blade instead of pincers. Bookmark here

With no armor and no shield, I grasped my sword before me as I had practiced, the tip slanted forward nearly to my eye level. There wouldn’t be any starting bell, no pistol shot to begin, it merely came down to us once we had both taken our stances. I didn’t rush, I stared over at Brekhart and watched him. He crept. There was a bounce in his step that seemed like he thought the duel was a joke. The way he shuffled closer was not.Bookmark here

I tried to figure out if I had a weight advantage on him, a speed advantage. I was younger than him, I hadn’t spent years on the march drinking. Bookmark here

My musings were interrupted when I realized the tip of his blade was darting closer. The steel lash shot towards my wrist. It just brushed my glove when I pulled back, jumping back and twisting my guard. He had cut the cloth.Bookmark here

The crowd didn’t even shout. The lunge had been over and done in a breath with no blood drawn. Those around us saw it for what it was, a probe. He smirked. The tip of his blade began to circle with the twitching of his wrist, darting this way and that.Bookmark here

I was tempted to lower my own blade and attempt a bind, but that would be playing into his strength. Mine was the size of my blade, the control I had for using both hands. I attacked, a quick slash down at his face. When his blade circled and pushed me aside, I didn’t redouble or fight it. I backed off before he could riposte. With space between us again, I was certain; he couldn’t actually parry me.Bookmark here

He seemed to realize it too. The nervous weight of disadvantage weighed on him as the crowd soared to their feet. They jeered and goaded till his blade shot forward like spear attacks. The tip went for my heart, my lungs, my armpit, my groin and my thigh. He worked his way through each of my vital spots, probing for a mistake. All I could do was jump back and swing my sword to and fro. I batted it away, forcing him to feint and shift, never able to catch more than my clothes. I knew perfectly well that every thrust brought me to the brink of death.Bookmark here

When sand erupted from his backfoot, the arena betraying him for the force of his step, his attack faltered and I seized the opportunity. With nicks of blood streaming into my sweat, I waylayed the nobleman. The edge of my sword hammered into his upturned basket-guard with enough force to buckle his form. The stadium erupted in a thirst for blood, exalting in my attack. He had me blocked, twisted and parried, for only an instant. I snapped the tip of my blade back, sparks flying between our swords as thrust past his defense. My tip bit in hard, digging through cloth and seeking his chest.Bookmark here

I missed. All I had caught was the layers of wrapped cloak around his other arm. The heavy fabric sucked in the steel, gripping it like a vice as he rotated his arm. Fear leapt up in my throat as I tried to pull the weapon back and failed. There was a single moment where he lifted up his arm and the dangling end of his black cloth flourished before me. The onlookers sucked in breath. Then something bit me in the leg.Bookmark here

The muscle pinched and spasmed before pain exploded through my nerves. I screamed, losing my grip on my sword. Brekhart had put the tip of his blade through my thigh, lifting his hand up over his own head to stab down and do so. He drove hard, cutting through muscle and nerve, tearing through to the artery.Bookmark here

My back knee hit the sand. The baited breath erupted in cheers and groans of gamblers. My fingers slipped off the grip of my longsword; it was useless anyways. The meaning of the name, Raven Strike, crystalized in my head, snapping into focus as I looked up at his sneering face. The cloak was like a black wing, able to defend against attacks, while the lancing blade picked the enemy apart and killed them.Bookmark here

Well, it worked well until his sword was stuck inside me anyways. He couldn’t pull his sword free of me any more than I could pull my sword from his cloak. I wasn’t out of options though.Bookmark here

The tip of my rudis sprang upwards. The movement made blood spray from my leg, but the whole thing was one convulsion of muscle anyways; I didn’t let it stop me. Up through the seam of his pants, I plunged it into his soft flesh. Brekhart jerked and steaming hot blood spilled across my hand like I had punctured a wineskin.Bookmark here

The arena hushed. “Honorless… mud rat…” he grunted, barely able to speak through the pain as he ripped his sword free.Bookmark here

I screamed as he broke something in my thigh. Toppling over, I hit the sand beneath him. No coup de grace came. When the two of us separated, and the onlookers could see what had happened, they screeched. Brekhart staggered and stumbled on his feet as his pants turned red. I saw his face go ashen and he collapsed to his knees. Both hands went between his legs to hold in the hernia I had given him. “I-I need a doctor,” he mumbled.Bookmark here

I rolled onto my back, grabbing at my torn thigh with both hands. I could feel blood squirting out between my fingers with every beat of my heart. “Doctor’s not gunna help you, thieving fucker. Go cry to… other… diadem.” My words failed me as I ripped my belt off from around my waist and tried to cinch it around my thigh. There was so much blood I couldn’t even hold the buckle.Bookmark here

Brekhart stared at me. “You… how did you know that? It was you… wasn’t it? The one the chimera smelled. You have it don’t you?”Bookmark here

Both of us were bleeding out. The duel was over. I could hear gates being opened and men running over. My vision had grown to a pin prick as I tried to pull the belt tight. Brekhart slumped over, hitting the ground with his face. Then I felt something. Not a surge of power, but a coldness that had hands. The clawing grip of the fallen. The abyss wrapped around me. It enveloped me and dragged me back into the embrace of the diadem creature’s domain.Bookmark here

“What a waste of a contender you are. Can’t even survive a duel without help.”Bookmark here

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