The Fallen Diadem
Once again, I found myself rowing a boat and charging at a dragon. The sun didn’t shine overhead, it was a distant lamp barely able to give the world a gloom. Our oars chopped through the water as the captain barked orders about pulling and tacking and oars up above rocks. We scraped bottom in our mad charge, putting on more and more speed to catch the dragon before it dove into the abyss.
“Do you smell that boys?” the captain bellowed. The only thing I smelled was salt. “That’s a mountain of gold out there. That’s months of living large and eating fat. We’ll go all the way to Dalvurnia and sleep on feathers.”
The rowing wasn’t so tiresome as it was chaotic. My shoulders burned and my breathing lurched. The faster we went, the more the winds made us chop and slosh in hidden currents. Once, we hit a flow that bucked the nose of the ship deep and then tossed it high. Ice cold water splashed across us as we drew closer to the beast.
The captain wasn’t done. He marched up and down the ship, looking at the men as much as at the rise of dragon we approached. The beast’s only movement had been to lift up its scarred head and turn towards us curiously. “Come on! The first man to skewer the beast gets his brandy tripled. Spears, spears! Get the harpoons ready. You too Mark!”
I blinked, looking up at him as my rowing slowed. Half the oarsmen had jumped up, scrambling over to the barrels and weapons. The pace of the ship was more a drift, riding along the speed we had already built. Those remaining were all the veterans, the ones who could control the chase with hardly any help. The new sailors were the ones to fight the beast. “Yes, Captain.”
He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, it’ll make a man out of you like nothing else. Imagine the story you’ll have to tell to that lass who saw you off,” he said, giving me a shove towards the side. The older men who had signed on were the ones to go to the prow, jeering and licking their lips as they pointed steel towards the dragon.
“Lass? Sammy’s a boy! Are you sure your eyes are good?” I asked, feeling the haft of the harpoon in my hand. The wood was rough; cheaply cut from some miserly tree in the dark and fastened to a bit of pig iron. I wasn’t even sure it could pierce dragon scale and the water drenching it was so cold my hands went clammy at once.
“A boy? Not on my life. I’m old enough to know these kinds of things. Ya can’t let the clothes trick you. My eyes are as keen as ever, else I’d never be able to chart a course through this-” the captain was cut off as the rudder jerked to the side. The ruddermaster in the back roared, and the whole Dontez drifted across the water.
The dragon had shoved off; leaping from a rocky perch and into deeper water. It moved with huge, undulating thrusts of its body that sent chest high wakes through the water. The edge of the ship sliced through them, drenching the men at the front. They reveled in it, leaning half way over the rope railing and slamming their harpoons into the dark waves between the jangling bounce of the lantern.
“Mine! It was me! I got the fi-” the shouting became incoherent when the dragon kicked and slammed the nose of the Dontez and knocked it three feet into the air. The sailor went flying, tumbling off the rope and into the water.
“Overboard, overboard!” the captain screamed, and three ropes flew off to the side. The man popped up like a cork and flailing hands grabbed hold of the sodden hemp. One hand after the next, he hauled himself back to the Dontez, only getting a hand up at the very end as the rest of the crew ran about, stabbing more spears into the scaled hide. Barrels were tossed over, including one fluttering buoy; a flag should it break away from us.
The bleeding beast shifted, sinking beneath us as it tried to shirk away from the jabbing spears. I saw the iridescent glimmer like fish scales shift beneath me, and I stabbed. Shoving the harpoon through the water I lanced it in between the ridged spine. The moment it twitched, the harpoon was ripped from my grasp, snapping against the side of the ship as it darted the other way.
“It’s going under! Grab hold!” the captain shouted, and I saw the dragon’s shoulders crest up from the chop. A dozen weapons stood from its back like bleeding porcupine quills. Then it slammed downward. Its tail slashed out of the water like a bullwhip before snaking down into the abyss. The roped barrels jerked down, vanishing into the water, bobbers yanked towards the depths by an unfathomable catch.
Again, the water slammed into us, and my feet lost out. The sheet of ice water broke my feet from the deck and I tumbled into the oars. The experienced sailors jumped back up, running back to their oars as the captain gave new orders and took over the rudder. The next thing I heard was the captain ordering for the anchor to be thrown. The mass of steel dropped and hit the stone beneath us, and I watched as all the sailors scattered to the edges of the ship and peered over.
I could hear the blood in my ears as everyone waited. “Did you get one in?” the sailor next to me asked, scratching his beard and finding blood. Something had split his chin. “Bet you’ve never seen something like this? Eh?”
“It’s bigger than I thought.” It was about the size of the dragon Amaranth had first killed in Vichtstein.
“Aye, I think we found a bull dragon. They’re a bit more dangerous; harder to predict when they’ll turn around to bite at ya. A momma dragon? She’ll stay under till her lungs are bursting, will dig her claws into the stone and gnaw at the ropes and hope we go away. A bull though? Bulls will come to eat you just because,” the sailor explained as he stared into the murk.
I grabbed another of the harpoons, as flimsy as the last. I couldn’t trust it, not against a dragon. The beast was bleeding, trickling its life into the darkness with every beat of its heart, but it was too large to go down easily. “It’s big, but it’s not like we’re fighting an army.”
The bleeding sailor laughed. “Why do you say that? Do you got an army coming after you? Plenty of us out here have spurned lovers, vendettas, and crimes hanging over our heads, but an army would be something else.”
I had Xon’s notebook wrapped tight in oiled leather and kept within my coat. I could feel the weight of it, the shape of it pressing against me as I waited for the dragon to emerge again. I had to get it to his family. “The wrong guy picked a fight with me and I didn’t back down so now things have really gotten out of hand. Hey Captain!” I shouted as I walked to the middle of the ship. When he looked my way, I asked, “If the first strike was triple brandy rations, what do I get if I’m the one to kill it?”
I watched him consider and how his grin grew. “Tell you what, if you’re the one to kill it, and I mean really kill it, not just bleed it out, then I’ll take you to the finest establishment in all of Dalvurnia, on my coin.”
“It’s comin’ up! Brace yourselves,” one of the men screamed.
The dragon barreled into us, twisting its head out of the way and striking the bottom of the Dontez with its shoulder. We lurched up from the water even higher than when it had submerged. Ropes snapped around me as the masts lurched. Water drained off of its head in falling sheets before it grabbed onto us with its thick claws and shoved down.
It was old and scarred; hide torn from decades in the dark fighting with krakens. Glossy yellow eyes peered at us from beneath enormous brows. Row upon row of dagger like teeth stuck from its gums, bits of fish and rope stuck between them as it looked for a man to eat.
The nearest sailors jabbed in, sticking their harpoons into its claws and jumping back from its head. Blood so thick it looked purple in the lantern gloom squirted across the deck as the beast roared. Half the crew scrambled to tie sails back down, to haul up the anchor, and a dozen other things.
I gripped my harpoon tighter, squeezing my right palm into the haft as I drew out just a trickle of the diadem’s power; enough to turn the iron to mirror-steel; to put a razer’s edge across the barbs. It was the lingering strength I had gained from killing Amaranth, and I prayed that perhaps I wouldn’t have to face him within the diadem if I just eeked out the power carefully enough. I couldn’t be wasteful with it though.
“Get him off the ship! We’re taking on water!” the captain bellowed as another errant shift of the savage brought a gush of water across the deck to seep into the hold. Some men chucked their harpoons, throwing them hard at the dragon’s neck with ropes dragging behind.
It screeched in pain, thrashing its head from side to side, breaking the shafts and leaving the metal stuck inside it to dig and worm and bleed it out. It took wild, drunken snaps at the men closest. Oars and railing crunched between its jaws as the men fled, so it tried to crawl onto the ship even more, making it shake from side to side.
The captain shouted again, and I charged. Directly at its maw I ran, and when its head bit down at one of the sailors, I slammed the harpoon right through the dragon’s eye. The empowered force hammered it, cracking the beast’s skull and smashing it into the deck. I drove it back hard, the whole dragon slumping away as I ripped the harpoon free with a gout of blood. I wondered what it had been like for Amaranth the first time he had picked up Ascalon, when he had grasped the power of an army in his hand and realized he could fight monsters.
It hadn’t kept him from becoming one, and it hadn’t let him see his wish through.
The dragon swung its head up, jaw slack and drooling blood as it appraised me with one last eye. Fear struck through it, and it pulled back more. With one of its claws, it tried to crush me, but I dashed in for its heart. The second blow struck through its chest, breaking ribs and piercing its lungs.
The diadem took its power; I didn’t need to kill people to fight with it. I would be able to defend myself and next time I could protect my friends from the cruelty of others.
Next time it would be different.