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August 16, 2018

32. Diadem

William parted leaves and moved branches aside. Visibility from within the thick flora was minimal despite the natural beauty and crisp air. His exploration partner Roger moved slower and kept notes of new species and mysterious nature. They were descending into the dark heart of the jungle for a well-paid, though enigmatic task to bring back the crown. Nearly a century prior to the expedition a mythical crown of ingenious construction was stolen by a simple people group here in this forsaken forest. It was fable and heresay how the crown landed in the hands of the indigenous folk. Were they in Europe or were Europeans here in the land of the Dust People.
In their slow lumber through branch and bough, Roger snagged a brush lined with thorns. His skin tore and a petite thread of blood made itself known in the sting of sweat and heat. He paid no heed to the minor cut and only took note of the brush species.
“Carry on, Roger, no time for minor injuries!” William pressed ahead, uncaring.
The men stopped and hydrated themselves with a shared canteen of lukewarm water. Neither knew the nearest source of cool, fresh water but they had enough water for the time. Roger noticed: ahead, just above the canopy and trees was smoke. They must be nearing the Dust People. The men exchanged a nod and moved again.
As if miraculously, within several paces the men broke the threshold of a low-built village. Waiting for them was a sentry of countless men, barely clad and wielding intimidating spears. Their presence was equal to a brick wall. A few men stepped out of rank and let a woman from behind come in front and in between them and the pale white newcomers.
“We have what you’ve come for,” she broke the scene with power and authority. A young boy ran up to her side with a strange bit of rock or mud in the shape of a thin wheel.
“Is that—is that the crown?” Roger whispered to William without acknowledging the woman’s statement.
William’s reply answered Roger and addressed the woman, “May I see this crown? I would like to inspect it is the same as the one we seek.” His voice was not entirely without hesitation. The woman nodded and the boy now walked slowly to the two men. William waited for the boy to offer before extending his grasp and took the thing.
Under his breath the boy whispered, “It is cursed.” He quickly ran back to the woman’s side. Only Roger and William heard the hushed warning.
The crown was caked in mud. A headpiece of sundried filth, straw, and grayed ash. William consulted Roger quickly and the two decided to thank the tribe and leave without confrontation or episode. And with a generous gift of gold and diplomatic words of farewell the men cut short their odd exchange and turned back into the woods to escape these Dust People and their simple lives.
Roger now held the disgusting coronet. He was the intelligence in regards to details of this trip. William led by virtue and generality. Roger rolled the thing over his hands and ash and filth spread between his fingers and onto his shirt. He began to pick away at the grime and reveal the crown’s truth beneath.
“Is that what we came for? Is that the real crown?” William asked irritated and confused.
“I believe so. I am trying to clean it enough to understand how it became so unclean and what exactly lies under this mud. It seems intentional—like it was molded around the crown purposefully.” Finally the crown was cleared enough to see: indeed it was the fabled and invaluable crown they sought. Roger continued, “Did you hear the boy, his warning, saying this was cursed?”
“Only simple Dust People say nonsense like that,” said William. “There is no such thing as curses or witchcraft or magic like the children’s stories tell.” With that he grabbed the crown from Roger and put it on his head. It fit perfectly and cinched over his skull. It shocked and startled William, running tingles down his spine. His stride stopped abruptly and he looked up, into the tree tops. The gleam of the sun spilled across his vision and over his eyes and saturated everything into whiteness. New sights came into his mind of buildings he once knew completely destroyed, of a playground now tangled with iron and metal, of homes razed and smoldering, of planes littering the sky and dropping bombs of despair and corruption over all the peace and memory of the civilized world, visions of leaders mudering and assinating only to be killed and usurped by more evil. Sweat stung William’s eyes as he realized he could not look away from the terror.
Roger thought himself helpless to whatever affected William but he could only think to wrench the crown off William’s head. Whatever held him bound to the visions released him without the crown.
“What is wrong with you? Did you see something? You screamed and wailed until the crown came off!” Roger tried sympathy through his confusion. “Are you okay?”
William could only stare blankly, still looking up in the trees, “We are closer to death now than we have ever been.” Moments passed. Roger did not want to break the silence. William continued, “Let’s keep moving. And leave the crown.”