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I found the crown during one of my spelunking raids under the city. Here, everything is built on ruins. The basements lead to the metro, and if you take the right tunnel, go through the right door, you’ll find yourself a thousand years in the past, among ancient ruins and medieval catacombs.
The government is quite serious about protecting the sites. There are all sorts of rules about who can go in, and when, and what they can carry in. You absolutely can’t take anything out. But they can’t police all the tunnels, and the black market is always hungry for artifacts.
The crown was without a doubt the most well preserved piece I’d ever seen. It looked ancient, all black iron points and long chains that ended in ornately carved weights. There wasn’t a spot of rust anywhere on it. I found it wrapped in layer after layer of rotting shroud, on top of a skeleton in a side tunnel I don’t think had seen any visitors in half a millennium. Even the chains were intact, coiled underneath the crown as I lifted it away from the corpse. There was some resistance, as they caught on the wrappings, but one good tug and they came loose. The skeleton was less hardy than the artifact, and it crumbled under my touch. As I stowed the piece, I reminded myself to be more careful. Any damage would make the sale price plummet.
An hour later, I was back in my apartment, carefully scrubbing away the grime of centuries. The crown was gorgeous. Polished, it seemed even more well-preserved. It felt remarkably solid. It would take some time to find a buyer for it, but I was sure that I could sell it for a good price. I was no archeologist, but I guessed it was at least from the thirteenth century. But I’d never seen something that old so well preserved in the field before.s
I locked the crown in my hidden safe, carefully tucking the weighted chains underneath it. I double-checked the lock and replaced the trapdoor and rug. ‘Safe as houses,’ I thought, and went to clean myself up after a night in the underground.
I really was beautiful, I thought while shampooing the gunk out of my hair. I’d have to do a lot of legwork on this one, but it would be worth it. Most of the stuff I recovered had some material value: Gold, silver, semi-precious stones, that sort of thing. I always tried the antiquities markets first, but if I had to dump it for materials, I could. The black iron crown was different. It was a real artifact, still intact, with all its chains and moldings unblemished by rust. There was somebody in my little black book that would kill for a piece like that. I might even need to have an auction for it.
On the other hand, I could always keep the crown for myself. It was a brilliant show piece. A little bit of a resume, if you will. With something like this, I could break into contract work. I’d have to sell it a bit, do some research, come up with a better story than tripping over it while exploring, but it would be worth it. Being on a payroll meant having someone to bail me out, or bribe the cops to look the other way.
I’d definitely keep it, I thought. I went back to the safe and pulled it out again. It was surprisingly heavy, especially with all the little weights and chains. I wondered who wore it. Not a king, obviously. It didn’t have the right sort of ornamentation about it. And not a bishop. It lacked a certain holiness. A warlord, I thought. Or a duke. I could picture him riding into battle, armored, with the crown atop his head. The chains must’ve hooked into armor, or a helmet, maybe. It was the crown of a leader, a strong man. A man like me.
I almost looked around sheepishly before I tried it on. But I still tried it on.
***
I blink. and take a breath, and for a moment, I’m disoriented. I remembered fire, and a crowd… I blink again, and look down at my hands. They’re larger than I recall, and hairy on the backs. They’re a man’s, not mine. I stifle a shriek, and the muffled squeak I do make is lower than I expect. I shake my head, and I feel the see the chains rattle around me, feel the familiar pendulum weights shifting at their ends. The Ebon Crown. Someone put it on. The spell worked!
I’ve cheated them all! Death, Plague, and most especially that sanctimonious prig of an Inquisitor. The body isn’t really mine, but I wear it like a gown. I ride it like a horse, and with both legs, not some feminine sidesaddle foolishness. I feel the rumbling horror and complaints of the original occupant. I ignore him, let him fade to the edges this mind like the sound of the sea.
I stride to a mirror, my gait unsteady. It’s huge, and takes up most of one wall.It isn’t silvered, but something else, something clear and bright. His features are nothing remarkable. The little room, though. Such a room! In one corner stands something like a garderobe, but with flowing water, and a roman bath in the other. And lamps! Lamps hang in the ceiling. Their light is so steady and bright that they hurt my eyes to look upon. The man who has placed me on his head must likewise be some sort of sorcerer, I think, although none of his magic is known to me.
I explore his strange chambers, and in one room, I find a parchment. I can barely read it, but It gives the date as A.D. 2018. It has been over eight hundred years. I take some time to consider the gulf of time.
The rooms are filled with books, with light, with strange devices whose functions I slowly wrest from the scruffy little smuggler whose body I now wear. I spend days watching, reading, listening and learning. This world, this clockwork future, is beautiful and strange, but not so different as my own time. There are no witches here. The Inquisitors, having hunted us all, turned their eyes to merely the stranger, the outsider, the heretic. They burned themselves out in foolish hate. And now, they no longer believe in magic. The world thinks we never were, I am the last witch, and there is no one to protect them from me.
Oh, what delights I shall find here.

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