The Fallen Diadem
Miss Katherine taught me things I never wanted to know. I would have been happier not knowing about The Ballad of Death and Love, and how it was a beautiful tragedy of a forbidden love between a princess and the witch who saved her from her evil uncle’s coup de tat. I certainly did not need the maid’s speculation on the witch’s werewolf form and whether it would allow her and the princess to have a child. Despite this, the maid did not stop speaking as she dragged me to her friend’s bookstore, with a grip on my shoulder like the jaws of a pitbull.
I couldn’t make a fuss, not when my presence with Miss Katherine was giving Neeka time to scope out Brekhart’s quarters and establish a plan of action for us. If I suddenly said no I didn’t need to retrieve the book my lady requested, I didn’t know what she would do. And then once I was in the bookshop, a quaint little death trap of looming towers of books, I was face to face with the owner as well. The two of them kept me in check like a pincer maneuver, surrounded by more tomes of anti-knowledge than I thought possible in this world. A giant to my back, an older and bespectacled catgirl in front of me who sized me up like a mouse.
“No, no he’s not quite like Princess Charlotte’s brother, is he?” the bookseller said.
“Oh heavens no, not how I imagined the prince. Maybe in the spinoff after the timeskip. I always preferred the early volumes when the prince was still in his tweens anyways,” Miss Katherine said.
“Can I… do you have the book or not?” I asked.
“Of course I have volume three! Who do you take me for?” the woman responded, adjusting her glasses and crossing her arms.
I didn’t know how to remind her that I had no idea who she was, what shop I was in, and further that I never wanted to return. “So can I buy it and be on my way?”
“Sure sure, but first! You must answer these questions three! Who do you work for? Is she single? And does she prefer black hair or brunette?” the bookseller asked as she leaned across her counter and grinned at me.
I wanted to ask her why she was even awake, or even how she was awake without a pot of coffee on hand. “Lady West. I believe so. I think she prefers blondes actually,” I said, painfully aware of my own hair being dark brown. I was pretty sure she was into guys, despite her taste in literature.
The bookseller sighed, her grin vanishing. “It’s always blondes. That’s just not fair. Dyeing your hair blonde looks so fake and ugly!” she complained, picking up a lock of her black hair and glaring at it.
I cleared my throat. “Well she quite enjoyed reading the other one while on the carriage over and she would like another for the return trip to Vichtstein.” That got both of their attentions.
“Oh, you’re with those people,” she said. As if it had been a magic word of passing, I found myself with book in hand, purse empty, and the door shut behind me. It happened so fast I almost forgot to be thankful. Then I was alone in a side street of a city I had never been in, dressed like I had money and strapped with a sword too big for an alley fight.
“Wait, this is bad, isn’t it? What the hell did that bastard do to get such a reaction from everyone?”
Port Pelagus wasn’t exactly a city that never slept. A quick glance through the streets showed just how little was illuminated beyond the reaches of the Ten Swords Arena. There was a main strip down to the harbor, and darkness everywhere else. I figured I should have felt more tired, but recent events had a way of keeping me up at night.
It was lucky I wasn’t tired, or I might not have noticed I was being followed. There was a prickle of hair along my neck, a tension in my gut. I could hear the blood in my ears like static in the night. Each step made gravel crunch under my foot, and yet I couldn’t hear footsteps behind me. I only realized what was wrong when I realized I couldn’t hear anything at all behind me.
I spun. Blackness. The walls, the sky, the ground, it was all covered in blackness even deeper than the mist of a dead fallen. My hand went to my sword as I saw the edge of it creep closer to me, and then a slice of red parted open in it and an enormous eye appeared looking at me. More followed, sprouting up and shifting through the field of darkness until they aligned into seven sets of eyes.
I didn’t see anything I could cut; nothing that could be stabbed. The thing I looked at wasn’t corporeal, it was more like a mere presence of will, and its attention was on me. I was still in the shadows of the side street. I couldn’t even see the moon from where I was, the wane glow barely touched the plaster walls. I knew I was only a block or so from the arena, from armed guards. I didn’t know if I could run there that fast and even then, what would guards do? Their spears weren’t magical.
I needed Amaranth’s help.
“Nostalgic,” the thing said, and I saw the pools of blackness contract together. A mass grew in the center that collected the eyes and assimilated them. As it rose, a head and shoulders took shape, and the darkness began to glow and smolder from within. It was like looking at a blast furnace through tinted glass.
Maybe I could stab that, but I still didn’t think it was a good idea. “You can speak? Are you some kind of fallen?”
The head tilted to the side. “Ignorant. Just a child? Doesn’t matter. You’re not important.”
I licked my lips and realized I was gripping the handle of my blade. I had widened my stance and didn’t know if it was to step forward and attack, or to bolt backward. The only thing I was growing certain of was that while the black thing’s form wasn’t human, it also wasn’t that of the diadem creature. It was something else. “What are you?”
“I am the Everhunting. Seems the cycle has come again. The Sacrifice of Diadems is nigh.” The voice was rough, but had a calm certainty to it. It sounded like a man who lived off whiskey and cigarettes and avoided sleep, but by choice rather than fearing the embrace of dreams. “Do not be wasteful, child.”
“Don’t call me a child.”
“You don’t look to me as though you’ve come of age. Who pronounced you a man?” the Everhunting responded.
I gritted my teeth, but couldn’t answer him. “Why did you come to me?”
Something in the glow changed. I could tell it was smirking. “I told you. A nostalgic scent. Tell me; you don’t look like a man with a wish. To crave for the Throne requires pain. Something must have ripped part of your soul out and left nothing in return, so you will seek to fill it with a mountain of corpses atop which you might reach the heavens. But you are young. Do you even have a wish?”
“A wish? I’m just here to clear my name. All our names, and our honor… small as that is for us I guess,” I said, my conviction turning to a mumble at the end.
“Doesn’t sound like something a diadem is needed for. Have the laws of man fallen so low?” the Everhunting responded.
“Who said I needed the diadem? This sword is all I need. I’m here to duel not to change the world.”
The Everhunting straightened up and looked down at me. At full height, it was nearly nine feet tall. The crown of its head, which looked like flickering fire, almost reached over the roofs. “Best do it quickly. I doubt conviction such as yours will survive long. The war will devour you. Will this duel fill the hole in your heart?”
“I don’t know, is it going to give me back my memories?”
That gave it pause. “An unusual issue. Maybe there is more to you than I assumed. Hear me, boy, I am Hellsing, the Everhunting. My purpose is to hunt and to slaughter the creatures of the night, the abominations brought forth by the diadems that feast on suffering and death. The fallen are one example, but there are far worse. I hunt the hunters, and it is within my rights to hunt you as well. I will say again; do not be wasteful with the power you found. It is not your own. You borrow it from the dead. If you survive, perhaps we will meet again. If you have been cruel to the world, I will judge you on that day.”
Just like that, the fiery form melted back into the shadows. It spread across the ground and the walls and flowed away from me into the night. I gasped, sucking in fresh breath as soon as the nighttime glow returned. I clutched my chest, feeling the burn. I stumbled backwards, and turned to ran.
My face hit the leather vest of a man standing at the end of the road. I jumped back, but the cloaked figure didn’t seem perturbed, he just glared down at me and asked, “was there something here? A darkness blacker than night?”
I gulped, recognizing the dark cloak as one of the hunters. “Yeah, how did you know? It sort of lurked behind me then left that way,” I said, pointing back down the road, lying instantly.
The man grinned. “Feel honored boy, you met a god. It might have even saved your life. The great Hellsing rarely comes into a city and never without good reason.”
I stepped aside as the man fiddled with a small lantern, working the wick back out and coaxing it ablaze so he could jog down the street after the Everhunting. The fact that such a creature was a god didn’t want to sink into my mind. It was inhuman certainly, and powerful; it didn’t bend the knee to physics. I certainly hadn’t felt love or magnamity from it though. It had come to sate its own curiosity; that I had touched the diadem.
Worse, one of Brekhart’s illicit friends had just met me face to face and would remember me.
I was about to run back to the Ten Swords Arena when I realized I had dropped the book. Against every instinct in my body, I went back down the road to where I had met the Everhunting. It had slipped from my grasp when I grabbed my sword and still sat atop the gravel where I had been.
Then I heard the man scream. His lantern flew through the air and crashed against a wall some feet in front of me. The beam of light bounced and rolled, jutting towards the sky rather than the alley it came from. I could barely pick out his form from the darkness, because it was bent sideways and dangling in the air. A thing had him in its mouth and I saw him stab again and again with a dagger. It clashed against scales like steel as I heard him gasping in pain. Then the tip caught the silver glimmer of an eye and plunged deep.
The thing howled and shook, rolling from snout to the tip of its tail with enough force to shake the ground. I heard the man’s bones snap as he was wrung like a rag in its fanged maw. It opened its mouth and snapped shut again, piercing his gasping lungs and killing him. Then it took one step closer to the light. In the reflected glow of the lantern, I caught one glimpse of the serpentine head and I ran.