The Fallen Diadem
The diadem blade was amazing.
Every flick of the mirror-steel was a hammer blow. When Ascalon snapped at me, I only had to brush against it and the spear would be knocked away. I could still remember the fight against the fallen in the temple of Helios. The fear and helplessness that being had evoked in me as it drove me back. That fallen had stood like a giant before me, immune to my attacks and unafraid of me.
Amaranth had stepped into that hole of awe the moment I saw him. His visage had dug into my psyche and pried that wound of fear open and stepped into it. Everything he did had been beyond me. It had been larger, more powerful, more unbelievable. He had stepped out of a minstrel’s fable and into reality. He had made me think he was better than he was.
The more I traded blows with him, the more our weapons clashed in parries, deflections, and feints, the more my mind corrected that image. The cold analysis of combat broke down the illusions. He wasn’t tall; he was average height and stood upon riding heels in his armor to fit a stirrup. He wasn’t large; his armor had ornamentation to broaden his shoulders. He wasn’t smart; he was consumed by the creations of his own fear. The only thing that made him stand apart was he wielded Ascalon, a weapon beyond human power.
I could match Ascalon’s power now. I had a weapon of my own. I didn’t have to be cowed by his cruel decisiveness.
“Is this all you’re capable of?” Amaranth asked, using the flared edge of Ascalon to bind my blade. He shoved it aside, planting his feet in the jagged craters I had left in my wake.
I gritted my teeth, working through the movement in my head as fast as I could, and then twisted my grip. I spun the blade around and came down on him. Again, he binded with my blade and drove it into the dirt between us.
“Who taught you to fight? This is pathetic. Half the duelists in Throne could best you,” Amarant asked, driving hard against my weapon as I tried to free it.
He was trying to make me angry. I couldn’t imagine why he was still trying to. I was seething over Xon’s… Nikita’s death. “Brekhart’s corpse would say otherwise.” The ring around us had grown larger the more our fight destroyed the ground. Men had filed in around us with swords, spears, and axes drawn. They were all pointed at me with remarkable discipline. One swing of the diadem blade could kill any of them.
I jumped back for distance, pulling my sword free of the bind. I shouldn’t have done that.
Amaranth lunged forward. Off balance and on my backfoot, I twisted away from the blow. Still it caught my side and ripped through the steel. I could feel the shredding tear of linen beneath. I hadn’t twisted for no reason though.
My foot swung up and slammed into Amaranth’s side with a clash of steel.
He didn’t even budge. For a moment, he was dumbfounded. “Is this a joke to you?” With his feet firm on the ground, he squarely slammed his mailed fist into my other side, bowling me over.
I flipped onto my back as he stepped in. As the tip of Ascalon drove down at me, I half-sworded the diadem blade. The tip of the spear dug six inches into dirt beside my head, only just glancing off my sword. Using Charlie’s favorite riposte, I wrenched my sword around like a machete to cleave into Amaranth’s chest.
The Holy Lance flinched, first thinking to shove his armored hand in the way. That would have worked for a regular sword. He made the decision to jump back too late and I struck him in the chest like a cannonball. He landed and coughed, spitting into his helm as I got back to my feet. The blow had left a dent in his armor the size of my fest, contorting the breastplate.
“Well then, I guess I’ll have to use half of my full power,” Amaranth said, announcing it to the army as much as to me. The shield wall trembled. Weapons dipped. The men backtracked, scattering away from us as he brandished Ascalon through the air and electricity sparked from both ends.
Had he not been using Ascalon’s power? Had that entire fight been against nothing but the man in front of me?
I quickly looked down at my sword, at the grip specifically. I didn’t know if it was insulated. I needed it to be insulated but I didn’t know if it was.
Amaranth lunged forward, his feet shattering the earth. The gap between us vanished and the tip of the spear slipped straight past my guard. It ripped through the crest of my breastplate and across, puncturing my left arm. Half the muscles in my body convulsed as my nerves burned from the shock of lightning as much as from the ripping steel. I couldn’t even scream. My diaphragm wasn’t working.
I wasn’t dead though, not while the diadem could heal me.
With one shaking hand, I cleaved the blade down on him with all the grace of a novice.
He jerked Ascalon back, interposing the shaft and absorbing the blow. My left hang dropped limp, but the pain faded as I struggled with him. With my heart starting to pump cold fear through my arteries, I realized I needed an actual strategy. I had gotten into a fight with him blindly, and was losing.
The only thing I could think of was to bluff. I had healed myself twice before, I was sure I could do it again, but he didn’t know that. So I fought one handed, fending off his strikes and backpedalling through the battlefield. I was getting exhausted, my feet less nimble, my thighs more numb. The same was not true of him.
Reinforced by Ascalon’s power, he kept moving quicker and quicker. There was something different about his explosive movements however. He would have ripped me apart like a threadbare pincushion if he had the same nimbleness as before.
When he paused, chest heaving for breath just like mine and waiting for his soldiers to back off, I realized what it was. His hands had stopped moving along the length of the spear. There were no sliding thrusts, no re-grabs or twirls. He had them firmly clamped in place. Either it was a requisite for using Ascalon’s power, or his hands were going numb from the strikes.
It felt like my arm had been stitched back together, but it made me feel drained. The power of the diadem was waning, like it was tied directly to my anger. I should have realized when the strike to Amaranth’s chest had only left a dent and hadn’t broken him outright. Was that dent impinging his chest maybe? I tried to imagine if it would be constricting his breathing.
Amaranth took the opportunity; darting in the space between my beleaguered thoughts. My eyes registered where Ascalon was going, but my body didn’t react. I couldn’t pull my leg back before it plunged through the plating on my thigh. The muscles snapped. Pain exploded as my strength snapped apart.
It was too late for a plan. Too late to come up with a strategy, to think my way through the problem. I toppled forward and grabbed hold of his armor with my restored arm. I felt him try to jerk away, but he couldn’t break my grasp. The two of us went down to the bloody dirt as I tried to hack at his side with the diadem blade. It bit the dirt.
His back hand broke free of Ascalon and and slammed into my helmet.
I tried to return the favor, smashing his helm in with the pommel of my weapon.
Our legs tangled as he forced a roll. Ascalon ended up loose between us, sending shocks through my body every time I moved.
A vice-like grip found my wrist and wrenched it backwards. Further and further it went till it felt like my wrist would snap if I didn’t let go. I cried out, involuntarily dropping my sword and feeling the power vanish.
That wasn’t my only weapon though. Brekhart had made the same mistake. I was half dazed from the tumble, feeling my bloody and broken body slam against the ground, but I reached for my rudis anyways. I went for the dagger that had taken Brekhart’s life.
It wasn’t there. My hand found nothing but an empty scabbard behind my back.
Amaranth mounted me, legs to either side and one hand pinning my chest to the ground. “Not as good at this as the cat, are you?” he hissed.
He was right; Neeka would have dismantled him on the ground. Half the joints on his body would have been hanging loose. I had never practiced with Neeka though. I had always been drawn to the sword.
I found my rudis. It hadn’t fallen out across the ground in the grapple. It was in Amaranth’s hand. He lifted it up and slammed it through the wound in my armor, ripping it back into my left arm. I screamed as he twisted it against my bone. “Now then, you little thief. Burned out of all your power yet?” he asked as blood squirted out from my arm and splattered his chest.
I writhed, grabbing at his wrist. He obliged, ripping the steel free to let the blood flow freely. My vision narrowed as the blood loss set in again. I didn’t even have the strength to lift my head off the ground anymore. I collapsed, twitching with pain and defeated as I tried to muster the power to close the wounds in my body.
“Relinquish the diadem,” he ordered. “I won’t have you die on me. That would siphon the diadem’s power off to the throne, and that would be just no good. A big waste of everyone’s time and energy,” he said, pointing the tip of my own dagger at my throat.
“You can. As long as you’re alive, you can relinquish it. Did you think I would let my entire army search for it if I wasn’t able to take it from the finder? As long as you want to, you can. Relinquish it.”
“You killed my friend!”
“Yeah, and I maimed your other friend, didn’t I? I guess I could go finish the job. I can’t kill you, but they’re fair game. How about the cat too? I can have her brought here right in front of you and do all sorts of things until you feel like cooperating,” he said with a grin. “You know, there’s a bit of a historical way of dealing with the catfolk. My father taught it to me when I was a child. The zealots of the past figured it out, how to deal with the abominations as they called them. As long as you cauterize it right away, you can hack off their tail and slice off their ears to make them human again. She’ll never be able to walk right again, won’t have the balance, but who cares about something trivial like that?”
One of the soldiers stepped forward. He had better armor than most; another of the captains of the Order. “Should I go fetch her m’lord? I can send my squad to the infirmary and round her up.”
“Don’t you dare,” I said, forcing myself to stay conscious. I stared up at Amaranth, feeling that boiling hate grow again.
He sneered back. “Then relinquish the diadem. Force it out of your body.”
I needed more power. The diadem was of death. It was fueled by death and empowered me with death. My problem was I had picked a fight after only killing one person. That wasn’t enough to defeat Amaranth.
But, I was surrounded by people, by people that deserved death. People complicit in Amaranth’s evil. They were criminals and slaves who had earned their freedom by killing and now they were helping Amaranth butcher my friends.
My gaze turned from Amaranth to the captain who had stepped forward.