Chapter 37:

34 - Order of Power

The Fallen Diadem

I fell through the mud, flailing up on the other side within the abyss, as though the sand of the arena had been the surface of the ocean. Again, pain and weakness vanished even before I tasted the filth of the air within the diadem. The muck streamed off my body as I spun about. The spirit lights were close but bleary. I rubbed the filth from my eyes and looked again; the mud throne was there and so was the diadem creature. Bookmark here

It was missing the foot I had grabbed.Bookmark here

“A pitiful fight.”Bookmark here

The voice made me spin around, finding another figure in the darkness. An older man of a height with me, arms crossed over his breastplate. At least he had clothing on. “So I’m back in here then? Who are you?”Bookmark here

The man scoffed and frowned. Maybe in his younger years it would have been a more impressive action, before his moustache was little more than grey whiskers. “You should try to remember the names of those you kill in the future. Not that I ever gave you my name. Sir Peter Robbes, of the Lion Hand Style.”Bookmark here

“The instructor,” I said, pointing a finger at him. I turned halfway away from him, using my profile to preserve dignity.Bookmark here

“I was the master of that martial arts school, much more than an instructor; but, yes I was your instructor. I see you put my armor to wonderful use.”Bookmark here

I hung my head. “Things haven’t gone to plan. I guess I’m not very good at this kind of thing. Are all the fallen in this world then?”Bookmark here

“That would be a question for him. Not very talkative though. I saw you killed the Tellymi brothers though. They might be somewhere in this mess, or perhaps they’ve been broken down for power. Magic isn’t free afterall,” Sir Robbes said, gesturing with his chin at the diadem creature. The demonic being didn’t respond, there was only the hint of breathing to show that it was aware of us.Bookmark here

I licked my lips. I had forgotten what I had crawled out of a moment ago, and had to spit the detritus from my mouth. “So you wanted this? You fought me to the death so you could be trapped in here?”Bookmark here

Sir Robbes nodded. “It’s peaceful. Wouldn’t call it pleasant; that’s for sure. Could use some trees and some grass, or at least somewhere to sit. I don’t know how you’d go about killing a chair for me; but, it would be appreciated if you could. I spent over two hundred years alone in the darkness of Vichtstein. This is far preferable, and the void ultimately awaits me. I have one measly lifespan to wait and then I am relieved of the living.”Bookmark here

“Mine?” I asked, and he nodded.Bookmark here

“Your duel was awful. He had a quicker blade than I have ever seen, true, but at the end of the day all he did was poke at you. Like a big needle. Needles are for seamstresses and surgeons, not warriors. If you had the strength, you should have smashed through his hand guard. Either broken the metal entirely, or simply bludgeoned it from his hands. He can’t stab you without bringing his hand close.”Bookmark here

I swallowed. “You watch what happens to me?”Bookmark here

He nodded. “A general idea of what you experience, yes. To be honest, it is much like a dream that I have only now awoken from. I presume it is from your presence in the realm.”Bookmark here

“And getting here requires me bleeding out and dying?” I asked, turning my attention to the diadem creature.Bookmark here

“You’re not dead, your soul is just a bit detached from your senses. Meditation would let you enter as well. The queen used to fly into such fits of anger if one of the servants recklessly opened the door on her. She needed dark and quiet and time and then she said it was like a waking dream. Woe unto anyone who would disturb her,” Sir Robbes said.Bookmark here

“A lovely woman, and quite good at games,” the diadem creature remarked, looking at the knight. “This world was more pleasant with her in it.”Bookmark here

The knight huffed. “Glad to know somebody benefitted from those mass executions. It certainly wasn’t the people of Vichtstein she terrorized.”Bookmark here

“War terrorizes all,” the diadem creature said.Bookmark here

Sir Robbes snorted and turned up a hand to the entity, moving his attention back to me. “Did you learn how to fight against that pathetic style? I expect that the next time you see it, you’ll crush them without mercy.”Bookmark here

“What next time? I just died, didn't I? I got a get out jail free card when I first picked up the diadem but he was pretty clear; he ain’t giving me any powers,” I said, throwing my hand at the diadem creature.Bookmark here

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mark. The diadem is a weapon. Do you ask a sword’s permission to swing it?” Sir Robbes asked. The moment I opened my mouth to answer, he barked out, “No! You grasp it in your hand and you cleave it through your enemies. You are the fighter, it is the tool. All of this around you is the dregs of power. It’s flour on the floor of a bakery. Not pretty but can make a loaf of bread nonetheless.”Bookmark here

“Yeah that’d be real helpful if it had come with an instruction manual. I didn’t do anything when I got the diadem, I just suffered the consequences,” I said, squatting down and staring at my muddled reflection.Bookmark here

“That’s not true,” Sir Robbes said. “You may not have had any style or finesse to it, but even a child swinging a sword they’ve only just grasped is still fighting with it, still using it. I’m telling you to grasp the power and use it before you do actually die and lose a duel of honor right after you finish my instruction.”Bookmark here

I turned to face the diadem creature. It stared back without moving, that gulf of water still between us in the darkness. I tried to recall what I had done, what it was that had destroyed the thing’s leg. Then I touched my hand to the water. I pressed it down into the mud until I felt the stone of the world beneath my palm. I had drowned in it while grasping onto the entity. I had also come to the world by passing through the water, therefore…Bookmark here

“You’ve taken hold of the diadem Mark. You’ve picked up the sword and will carry it until your death. Either you sit on the throne or you die so another can. There is no inbetween. I would suggest you think carefully about what you will do until then,” Sir Robbes said.Bookmark here

I could feel the slope of stone beneath me, the way it dropped away to nothing but water. I inched closer and felt the drop off. My fingers slipped through the mud till they touched nothing at all. Then like bait in the water, something surged upwards. I caught sight of the man’s face for just a moment. Angry, wild-eyed and scarred. I saw his hand too; grasping a shattered femur like a dagger as he lunged for my throat. Bookmark here

It was the Tellymi brother I had slain, the one who had led us to his treasure to kill us. My hand hit his face as I dove into the water, pushing him deeper down. Once the water surrounded me, once the light of the spirits could no longer reach me, I felt the body of the Tellymi brother break and melt, bursting into mist like any other fallen, and it filled the water around me.Bookmark here

My eyes awoke in the stadium. It was roaring. People were still hustling over from the gates to inspect us. Both Brekhart and I had gone down nearly at the same time. No victor could be declared. I could taste sand, and my right leg throbbed, but from the tourniquet not from the wound. Twisting on the ground, I grabbed at the pierced flesh and felt only blood; no tear. I still felt like I had just run a marathon and had leeches devour me, but I wasn’t bleeding out.Bookmark here

When I shoved myself upright, half the stadium threw up their hands and cheered; the ones who had bet on me. I could see Virgil standing at the edge of his viewing box. Beside him stood Claire, one hand to her mouth. Bookmark here

“You… how?” Brekhart asked, half his face buried in the sand. He was barely breathing, barely able to stop the bleeding.Bookmark here

“Should have asked for first blood. Now get what you deserve,” I spat back at him. “You think your master is going to come and save you or something?”Bookmark here

The medics arrived then, grabbing both of us to examine our wounds. The moment I felt a tug on my trousers, I shoved the man off, and forced myself to my feet. I made a show of balancing on the good foot, not using the bloody one at all, and lifted up my sword. The medic shook his head and moved to help bandage Brekhart and force medicine in through his lips. They were calling for a stretcher when I pointed my sword at the nobleman’s throat.Bookmark here

A hush fell over the stadium. I could have slit his throat and put him out of his misery. All he could do was scowl and glare. I didn’t. I sunk my sword into the sand till it hit the wood floor beneath. Bookmark here

“The King of Shadows will have your head,” Brekhart whispered.Bookmark here

“He can try,” I said, showing him the mark across my palm. I saw the recognition in his face, and with it went his fight to live. One of the medics shook his head and rolled Brekhart on his back to give his heart a punch. The bandages bloodied more, but the noble thief did not rise.Bookmark here

I didn’t get to enjoy the glory of winning my first duel. The sand behind me was blown up into the air as the floor gate burst open. Like a battering ram had slammed it up, the panel flew back on its hinges so something could emerge. It was on four legs but with two heads, each the size of my chest and slavering with blind hunger. Three tails swung back and forth behind it as it began to sniff and snarl, dancing from side to side as the sunlight blinded the enormous creature.Bookmark here

Night passed overhead as I stared in shock, and with the new darkness, I was face to face with a ravenous monster. Someone cried out, “it’s the chimera!”Bookmark here

Port Pelagus had two monsters in it that night. Maybe more.Bookmark here

I staggered back, barely able to lift my sword up. One of the heads locked sight on me, and I heard it huff and puff through its nose, sucking in my scent and keening to it. Virgil shouted for the guards. The medics tried to lift Brekhart up, but at the howl of the beast, they left him in the sand and fled for their own lives. The fact it could smell me out as a diadem holder was obvious. Bookmark here

Something blue flashed down from the viewing box; over the railing and down the emptying stands until it bounced over the retaining wall. Steel arced through the air as the two-headed thing tried to react. With one mind on me, and the other started, it couldn’t so much as lumber away before the sword bit through its flank. The chimera howled, spinning away from me. Before it could reorient, the sword hacked the other way and cut through the upraised paw. A padded claw hit the sand as the chimera hissed and retreated.Bookmark here

On the ground beside it was Claire, bloody sword upraised, eyes locked on the monster.Bookmark here

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