The Fallen Diadem
The ground thumped as Amaranth jumped. The dirt of the camp had long since been packed firm by the passing of feet, but even still the tents all wobbled and shook. Anchoring lines snapped free and men scrambled to protect their food from the dust cloud. The streak of light arced out to the rim of Vichtstein like a rainbow. It lacked color though. It was nothing but electric discharge hanging in the dust as Amaranth went to attack my friend.
“Mark, where are you going? Are you going after him?” Virgil demanded the moment I took a step to chase after him. He snagged me by the arm and tugged me back.
It gave me just enough time to realize I couldn’t go empty handed. I grabbed my sword. “He’s going to think Xon stole the diadem!”
“Well, did he?” Claire demanded, looking between the merchant and I.
I ripped my arm free. “Ascalon already knows. I have to do something.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Calm down, Mark. You have more time than you think,” Virgil said as he tried to chase after me to the gate of the camp. “The lances, they go dormant when their powers are used. The spirit won’t be able to tell him anything for hours.”
“Good, then maybe I can catch up with him first,” I said, and charged out of the camp. The guards were there to keep people out, not people in, so they didn’t even say anything as I ran past.
Amaranth hadn’t gone to the town, he had angled off to the side, where his army’s camp had sat in the field. I couldn’t take the main road, but that would have only been a problem for visitors to Vichtstein. I still knew all the paths through, all the ladders and hidden slopes. I delved straight through the ruins and charged past confused drakes.
It still wasn’t easy, especially at a full run rather than a leisurely hike. The armor was light, but it trapped my own heat inside like an oven. The linen padding soaked up my sweat and hung around me like restraints. It made me sympathetic for the dragon that had chased us. It made my sympathetic for Xon who had always tried to keep up with us while we had little more than clothes on.
When I finally pulled myself up the old rope ladder over the cliffs, I had to tear my helm off and feel the cold wind for a moment. My heart pounded and my hair was in my eyes. The breastplate felt more like a corset as I tried to suck air. The exhaustion was bad. I still had barely recovered from the blood loss and I already felt faint in the head. I hadn’t eaten enough. I hadn’t slept enough. I hadn’t done anything right but there was no going back to fix it.
I could see the army, like a black fungus on the land streaked with red. The tents were all packed down and the animals laden with their supplies. The journey sunwise had been halted just before they could start and now the soldiers milled about in loose formation as they awaited the word of their commander.
The way over took me past our old hideout, and I detoured to the well. I hauled a bucket up as quick as I could and lifted it to my lips. I drank until I sputtered, and poured the rest over my head to cool off. It brought clarity back to my thoughts, and I took one mournful look at the building that had been our home.
The firepit was old, untouched for weeks. It didn’t even look like another passerby had used our shelter. It looked just like we had left it, save for one spot of bare dirt. An animal must have bedded down when it realized we weren’t occupying it anymore. None of this would have happened had we simply stayed there, if we hadn’t gotten involved with Amaranth’s army. That too, I couldn’t change.
Amaranth was on the edge of the army. I was lucky. Had he been in the center, I would never have reached him. I could see he was standing in front of Xon. The dragonkin had his head bowed and soldiers had their blades drawn around him. “This is it?”
I had slowed to a walk the moment I saw him standing still. I fitted my helm back on and approached with as much confidence as I could muster. Some of the soldiers took notice, but they didn’t break rank.
“Yes, Sir,” one of them said. He stood beside Amaranth, holding out a piece of dirty cloth between his hands. I saw a glint of steel in it. It was a ring. A loop of old iron sized for a crown. It was the physical diadem that had broken in my grasp the day of the raid.
“Impossible,” Amaranth said, picking up one of the pieces. He twisted it in his hand. “The diadems can’t break. They’re part of the throne. They’re the foundation of the world.”
“Aye, that’s what we thought to m’lord. But look. It fits into a crown, doesn’t it? The dragonkin must have stolen it on the first day of the raid,” the soldier said.
“You mean while he was bleeding from a spear wound to the back?” Amaranth asked.
The soldier seemed cowed back by that. “Well, perhaps not on the first day, but I know he recovered quick enough and while he was working for Lady West, no one gave him much of a second thought. He was a slave afterall. And, and look here; on the inside. It says ‘For my beloved Theopine’. That’s the name of the mad queen, wasn’t it? Theopine Sinclaire? That would make this the queen’s crown, which would be the diadem, no?”
Amaranth didn’t respond to that. He set the piece of metal back down and turned his attention to Xon. “Speak; why did you take this from the castle? For a ruin with gold spilling out of every corner, why take a broken piece of iron?”
Of course, he had taken it to hide the fact that I had found it during the fight; to keep suspicion off of me. He didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything and only stared back at the knight commander.
“The diadem isn’t a physical thing,” I said, and Amaranth spun to face me. He noticed the sword too. “The other one, the chimera creator, he didn’t wear a crown when I saw him. And yet he used the diadem’s power.”
“I’ve seen the diadems before. I’ve seen the ones held by the senate. They are crowns. Each a bit different than the next and yes, I suppose they are rather mundane things. One was set into another crown, the ring sized down for a child’s head long ago, but the diadem itself was a braid of copper with no beginning and no end. It was unassuming at best. I think I do believe this was the diadem, but it is no longer.”
“Mark,” Xon said, setting his gaze on me. “My father’s name is Drago Xon Yaraslaf, Firekeeper at the base of the Everburning. If you get the chance, please bring my word back to him.” He spoke slowly and calmly. I wasn’t sure I had ever heard him handle the common tongue so well. He must have been formulating it the whole time, waiting for me to arrive.
I swallowed. “Amaranth, let him go. He doesn’t have the diadem. That’s nothing more than broken metal now.”
Amaranth started to pace. There was no glow to Ascalon, no sign of life at all. “But you see Mark, that doesn’t change the fact that he stole it, now does it? Attempted theft is punished the same as theft.”
“Amaranth! I don’t know how a single man here follows you when you behave like a tyrant. You may have delivered these men from destitution, but what have you given them? Hungry bellies and not knowing who their friends and enemies are. Not knowing which war they are about to fight and what they will gain from it. All they see is your power because you wield it like a cudgel.”
He turned on me. “Mark, why did you step out into my fight with the fallen king?”
“Let Xon go,” I demanded.
“What did you see that would make an injured child risk getting in the middle of a fight like that?”
“That! I saw that diadem. Is that what you wanted to hear?” I asked, lifting up my sword to point it at him.
Amaranth sneered at me. “Well that certainly explains a few things,” he said, and gestured to his men. They swept out and surrounded the two of us, facing a wall of shields at me. They made an arena for the two of us; one far more lethal than when I had faced off against Brekhart. The walls weren’t indifferent stone, they were shields and spears that would slam my back if I was driven too close.
I wasn’t sure if I could trust my sword. It was unwieldy and unfit for my fighting style. I could barely put both hands on the handle and I didn’t trust it to even touch Ascalon without breaking. With the lightning that could burst from the blade, touching my sword was all he would need to electrocute me through the flimsy leather grip. “Let Xon go. Your business is with me.”
“My business is with both of you thieves.”
“Mark,” the dragonkin said, putting on a smile. “Xon’s just a nickname. My birth name is Nikita Xon Yaraslef.”
Amaranth spun Ascalon in his hand. He flourished it through the air while staring at me, and swung it behind his back.
“No!” I roared, sprinting at him. I charged straight at him with my sword, clearing the distance in the time it took for Xon’s head to fall from his shoulders and hit the ground.
Anger boiled in my stomach like tar. It roiled in my chest as tears spilled from my eyes. I wanted to choke on my hatred. I wanted to spew it out into the world.
I wanted to kill Amaranth.
I had done it once before. I could cross the hurdle again. It wouldn’t stop my blade.
It was the reaction Amaranth wanted out of me, and he casually brought Ascalon around, grasping it in both hands defensively as he waited for my attack. So I cleaved down on him, not with the over-weighted cleaver of a sword Charlie and Xon had gotten for me so long ago, but with an enormous blade with mirror for a surface. Longer even than my broken blade, and yet lighter than my rudis, it struck the shaft of Ascalon like a meteor. The ground beneath us broke, cratering around us as I drew out the power of the diadem.
The blade that hung over Vichtstein, the looming destruction of my dreams, was in my hands, and it hadn’t been enough to break Amaranth’s guard.
There was a tremble between us, my sword trying to push past Ascalon and yet he could resist it. He could even smirk at me. "Heh, not bad, kid."