The Fallen Diadem
“Don’t do it,” Virgil said, as though that would stop me. I shoved past the guard and ran forward.
“Get a doctor! Charlie, pressure on the wound,” I barked out. The clearing wasn’t too large and in just a moment I was at his side. I put a hand on his back and realized he was sobbing.
It was clear most of the soldiers were utterly confused as to who I was. Some stood up and considered following the order, but it took Amaranth shouting to do anything. “What? Are you just going to let him bleed to death? Not much of a lesson if he’s dead now is it?”
I didn’t have time to get angry with him. I wanted to get angry with him, but I forced myself to stay numb. Blood was seeping out between his fingers and he hadn’t even reacted to my presence. “Come on, come on I’m ruining your shirt, get over it,” I said, taking my rudis dagger to the linen he wore. I sliced and tore strips off of it. The first ones I wadded up and forced into his hand and shoved back onto the wound. “Come on Charlie, you need to squeeze it.”
“I fucked up, Mark,” he said, feebly pushing down on the wound, his head hanging down against his chest.
“Yeah, you did. You went into a fight drunk,” I said, shredding off his sleeve to make a long bandage.
“It was for the pain. I wouldn’t have been able to move otherwise. I shouldn’t have made it a spectacle. I should have asked Claire for help. I shoulda… shoulda done a lot different,” he said as I wrapped the strip of cloth around the wad of bloody rags and cinched it as tight as I could. I didn’t know if there was such a thing as too tight, but I knew I had to stop the bleeding so we could get him to Sister Evey.
“Can you make a fist?” I asked, sheathing my dagger.
“No,” he answered, staring at his fingertips. The muscles in his arm were all in the wrong places. Everything about the look of it made my stomach crawl up my throat the moment I began to slow down.
“Come on, come on get to your feet. You need to go to the temple,” I said, trying to pull him back up to his feet.
“Mark the duelist. You’re not thinking of leaving, are you?” Amaranth demanded as I stood up with Charlie.
“He might bleed out!”
“Let the distraction go. Your business here is with me. If you take one step further away, I will cut you down,” the knight commander of the army ordered, stuffing the end of Charlie’s sword into the dirt and resting his hands on the pommel.
Charlie shoved me away and shuffled towards the gate. My anger boiled over. “Is that how a Holy Lance should behave? Nearly cutting off his arm because he annoyed you?” I squeezed my hand into a fist, wishing I had a sword.
“Quite the demonstration you made,” Virgil said as he walked over. He meanedered with his steps, using his cane to carry him closer as he surveyed the soldiers. “What’s the saying? The floggings will continue until morale improves?”
Amaranth sneered at him. “What do you want, merchant?”
“I’m here to know what it is you want with my employee. He has proven himself to be worth every copper and I yet it seems like you’re in a habit of maiming people who annoy you,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. The gesture seemed nonchalant, but he restrained me from stepping forward.
My head snapped away from Amaranth when I heard Neeka’s cries at the gate. She must have found Charlie. I had to trust that they would take care of him. They had finally caught up and would have to be responsible for getting him to the temple.
His tent flap blew open and a flash of light made me avert my eyes for a moment. He snatched Ascalon out of the air and twirled it around, the weapon glowing like a torch in the night. He inhaled his chest completely and let it out, only then did the glow lessen. Whether he had summoned the weapon or it had gone to him, I could only guess. My money was on the latter. “Get in the tent. I will hear your account of what led to the death of one of my captains,” Amaranth ordered, and ripped Charlie’s sword out of the ground to take with him.
I grabbed my old sword, the whole thing trembling in my grasp. “You should be thanking me, instead you did that!”
Virgil pulled me close to whisper into my ear. “Was your friend telling the truth? Is he the son of Sir Pepin? Amaranth isn’t from Drusca, he doesn’t have the same culture. You must attack him correctly.”
“I could stab him in the face,” I suggested under my breath.
“With words,” he said, and followed Amaranth into the tent.
Against my instincts, I ended up unarmed and standing inside Amaranth’s tent. Charlie had walked off with the scabbard and I had no choice but to leave the sword outside, while Amaranth had both Ascalon and Charlie's blade. “Speak,” he commanded, not even glancing at Claire who was still in his tent, lips pressed tight.
“About what? That Brekhart was stealing your money to fund your enemies?”
“What proof do you have?” he asked.
Glancing at his table, I saw the stolen map was already out on the table, along with several other letters Claire had selected during the journey that might be related. “The duel that lead to his death-”
“You killing him,” Amaranth interjected.
“Yes, that duel,” I said through clenched teeth. “Was to clear up the issue of him framing my friends and I. He’s the one who demanded it be to the death. He just happened to lose. Whereupon, his conspirator launched a terror attack on the Ten Swords Arena. I gave chase-”
“After you had been stabbed in the leg.”
“I didn’t say I chased well.
Virgil held up a hand. “As I’m sure you’re aware, Lord Amaranth, Sir Brekhart was found of a thrusting blade. Very slender. Like a needle, it can slip in and pierce your lungs to kill you. It doesn’t do terribly much if it only hits fat and a bit of muscle. Just a bit of blood loss. I manage many of the fighters in the arena. It happens all the time. We actually prefer fighters that use broad-headed axes for this reason, despite our namesake.”
Amaranth waved him off, and I said, “Beneath the arena was a man able to use magic, like the fallen king you slew, and used it to combine animals into monsters. The god Hellsing was there, and he stole part of the god’s power before escaping. Not that I would know, but it seems like someone else has a diadem.”
“What did he look like?”
I blinked. “A bit taller than me, long hair. I think he was blond, but it was hard to tell in the light. Looked like he was wearing a gambeson, but it might have been jack-plate. I didn’t exactly get close. There really wasn’t anything distinguishing about him except the sword he had. It was wider than the span of my hand and looked like a mirror on the flat of it. Single-edged too. I would have said it was ornamental, since it had useless spikes on the back, but well, one swing of it nearly killed me.”
Amaranth stared up at the canvas roof as I spoke. When I finished, he grabbed a quill, a blank sheet of paper, and quickly sketched something out. What he held up was a crude rendition of the blade. “Did it look like this?”
“Yes. Is that sword special or something?”
“If he had this sword, then he has a diadem. That would explain the magic tricks too,” he said, and rose. He turned and put both hands on his table. Then he roared out a curse and threw all the papers onto the ground. “Someone in the senate is coming after me. This is it. This is war. They’re starting a civil war and they have one of the diadems to a rogue instead of to me.”
Claire finally spoke up. “My Lord, who in the senate would give a weapon like a diadem to a mass killer?”
“I don’t know,” he said, staring at the nicked up wood like it was an augury of the future. “The inner council perhaps? Has one of the other Holy Lances turned against me?”
Just when I thought the conversation would end, that we would be sent away, I started to think how to raise the demand again for Charlie’s sword. Then Ascalon glowed. Amaranth sighed and picked it up. After a moment, he held the butt of the shaft out to me and said, “Hold it, she wants to speak to you.”
Claire bolted closer. “Him? Why not me? I was there too!”
“You didn’t see my enemy,” he answered, and nearly shoved the spear into my chest.
I took hold of the spear and from the moment I touched it, I felt like I had stepped into the light. Ascalon appeared before me, her blonde hair billowing around her like she was suspended in water. “You’ve changed,” she said flatly, crossing her arms.
“Well I did kill someone,” I mumbled.
“No, not like that. There’s something else about you. I swear it’s like putting that slave collar on you was a restraint on your energy and now you’re bubbling up and about to explode. Are you a late bloomer or something?” she demanded.
I blinked. “What? Excuse me? Hold on, is that anything to say when your wielder is a psychopath?”
Despite being a personification of a spear, she blushed and took a step back. “Hey, there are only so many people capable of using my full power, okay? And he’s under tons of stress and if he does anything wrong he’s gunna get killed. Don’t you worry about him, he’s my problem. Now you tell me honestly, what are you withholding from Arnie?”
I shook my head. “He’s not going to find the diadem in the castle. Tell him to take his army and get out of here, let me and my friends go and wash our hands of this. And return Charlie’s sword.”
She didn’t seem satisfied with that, but all she did was frown and glare at me. Then she held out her hand to shake on it and I reached out with my own hand. Something happened when we shook though. Her expression changed. Her eyes went wide. Her mouth dropped.
I had shook hands with my right hand and I wasn’t in my armor. Unlike the abyss of the diadem, I had linens on to match Ascalon’s dress, but there was nothing to cover my right hand. The mark was pressed directly into her palm. I jumped back, ripping my hand from her grasp and stumbled out of the illusion and back to the tent. All eyes were on me, having leapt back from the spear, until a guard opened the tent flap.
“What is it?” Amaranth demanded.
“M’lord, I think we’ve found it. That dragonkin slave made off with it, but we’ve got him now!” the guard announced, beaming with joy.