Chapter 39:

36 - Determined Hunter

The Fallen Diadem

Someone akin to a notary visited me the next morning as I recuperated in bed. I had spun a lie that the Everhunting had healed my leg as a thanks for interrupting the attack on him; a small miracle. I had never imagined that a duel to the death would require so much paperwork after the fact. Brekhart had died, and the Baron was quickly collecting testaments that it had been his own demand and everything had been agreed to. The purpose of the witnesses was now apparent, and I learned that the equivalent of an investigation was to gather reports from everyone involved privately and cross reference them. The fact that it would allow a sufficiently powerful and sufficiently angry nobleman to challenge any conclusion couldn’t be avoided.Bookmark here

Claire had to be kept out of the room for the questioning, and when the door finally opened, I saw her pacing back and forth and chewing her thumbnail. “Well? Is there a problem?” she demanded of the notary. She marched up to the older woman, penning her against the wall.Bookmark here

“Everything is fine, everything is fine. The boy’s story matches perfectly with Virgil’s and I have testimony that at no time did they meet to conspire in such a way,” she said, holding up her wrinkly fingers and trying to calm Claire like she was working with a defensive hound.Bookmark here

“And mine, surely,” she said, planting a hand to her chest.Bookmark here

The notary sighed. “Yes, it also aligns with your account of things. I suspect you’ll get a visit from the Hunters soon however. It was the two of you who met their god. Good luck with that.” The woman twisted, shooting out from Claire’s side as the knight captain covered her face with her hand and groaned.Bookmark here

“Mark, do you have any idea what kind of mess this is?” she asked as her frustration centered onto me.Bookmark here

I slipped off the edge of the bed and got to my feet. If there was no other benefit to the duel, there was at least the purse that Sammy had delivered to me to reflect the amount of money the arena had made off my victory. One thousand silver coins glittered back at me. They had Brekhart’s blood on them. His blood was still on my hands. I could still feel the surprising warmth of it, nearly burning my skin as I gripped my dagger.Bookmark here

“Mark, are you listening to me?” Claire asked, grabbing me by the shoulder.Bookmark here

“Big mess, yeah. There’s some mage robbing gods. Hopefully he thinks I’m dead. Neither of us can fight him, we need Amaranth,” I mumbled, cinching the purse back up. I needed a new sword. The Shadow King, for lack of a better name for him, had ruined my longsword. Maybe a blacksmith could straighten it back out, but it would be useless to me in a fight.Bookmark here

“And who do you think will have to explain this to Amaranth? Neeka is scouring Brekhart’s room for further evidence right now, but we basically only have circumstantial evidence right now.”Bookmark here

I hung the fat purse at my hips and shook my head. “Does it matter? He died in a duel, not because of his connections. I challenged him over the theft, he accepted, he made it to the death, and he died.”Bookmark here

Her arms wrapped around me and pulled me into her, She squeezed my head against her chest and ran a hand through my hair. “Are you doing alright?” she asked, her voice soft like a pillow.Bookmark here

“Yeah.”Bookmark here

“That was the first real person you’ve killed, right?” she asked, her voice almost a whisper in my ear as the two of us stood in the room.Bookmark here

“Yeah.”Bookmark here

“It’s alright. Nobody finds it easy. Everyone deals with it a bit differently. What’s important is you didn’t do anything wrong. He’s the one who set the stakes. He’s the one who nearly got you and your friends killed just so he could steal a little bit of money. The world is better off without him. Not many people can say that about their first kill. For most people it happens on the battlefield, in a froth of blood and carnage. They might not even see the other person’s face. Archers rain indiscriminate death upon the enemy, never truly knowing whether their arrow hit dirt or throat,” she said as her hand brushed through my hair.Bookmark here

“I just wanted to surrender…” I knew that if Brekhart admitted he had stolen the money, Amaranth would have him executed. The Knight Commander was merciless like that. The blood would have been on his hands though. Only the truth on mine.Bookmark here

“Look, it’s okay. There’s a reason that armies have festivals for the men; feasts and drinking in safe places where they can carouse and lick their wounds. We’re gunna get you back to your friends in Vichtstein and let you rest properly. Okay? There’s no rush if you need your time.”Bookmark here

The two of us were still standing together when Neeka opened the door and found us. Her gasp tore us apart, but something about my eyes made her hold her tongue. Perhaps the dust in the room was triggering allergies. She cleared her throat. “They say the supply caravan will be ready to depart in a few hours. We should get some food before then.”Bookmark here

“Then I should have time to do a bit of shopping. I can show the two of you my favorite chocolate place,” Claire said as I rubbed at my eyes.Bookmark here

Neeka nodded. “As for the uh, incriminating evidence, I can’t actually tell the difference between private army information he should have, and suspicious stuff… so… well,” she said, and reached to the side of the door. She dragged a bulging bag into sight, stuffed to the brim with everything that had been in Brekhart’s room.Bookmark here

Claire wilted at the sight of it, and eventually declared that she would deal with it on the ride back to Vichtstein. Neeka helped me gather our things up and walk them down to the stables where our carriage was preparing. There was no point returning to the room just to get Claire, so the two of us waited among the pens and horses. When the stableboy stepped outside, she glanced over at me. After sizing me up, she hugged me. It felt like she re-dislocated a few of my ribs, and I grunted in pain, so she broke free and held me at arm’s length. “Thank you.”Bookmark here

“For?” I asked, tenderly touching my side and feeling the bone wiggle. I couldn’t tell if it was the normal amount of wiggle. Bookmark here

“Killing the man who put collars around our throats, that’s what. Now come on, we gotta get back to Charlie and Xon, get him his father’s sword back, and all of us run away. Okay? It’ll be with our head held high instead of tails between her legs, but we’re getting away from this war, right?” she asked, and I could feel a tremble in her grasp where she held onto my shoulders. It was a familiar tremble.Bookmark here

I put my hand onto hers and squeezed it. “You got it.”Bookmark here

Claire joined us eventually, and we walked down the main street towards the harbor. After she pulled us into a chocolate shop and loaded a box full of the treats. I tried to find a blacksmith worth buying from, but learned that everyone worthwhile was on exclusive contract for the Arena. I got waved away from everything larger than a kitchen knife.Bookmark here

It seemed like there should have been something different about the town, something to mark what had happened the night before; but, at most there was some gossip. For almost the entire city, nothing at all had transpired in the night and the chimera, which still hadn’t been caught, was likely just a rumor. Bookmark here

While Neeka and I stood outside a popina, waiting for the chef to finish prepping our sandwich wraps, I heard my name get called out. I turned to see Sammy break into a sprint as he came charging towards me. I could see the fear in his eyes. There was a man following him; I guessed they had been walking together until they spotted me. My mouth went dry when I saw his black cloak.Bookmark here

“Well then, if it isn’t Mark the duelist,” the Hunter said, approaching me from the middle of the street. Sammy grabbed hold of my coat from behind, hiding behind me.Bookmark here

My heart raced. All I had to defend myself was my dagger. At first I didn’t see a weapon on him, just that he had a bag slung over his shoulder. Then I saw a chain looped at his waist; some kind of whip I figured. “What business is it of yours?” I asked, glancing over at Neeka. Her ears shot backwards as she snarled at the man.Bookmark here

“What? I can’t seek out the man who so kindly taught my junior how to fight?” he asked. He grinned, and I saw how a scar cut across his lips, making them tug wrong. “Nor the man blessed by my own god?”Bookmark here

I slid my hand behind my back, within my coat where I kept my rudis. Bookmark here

The movement made the Hunter chuckle. “Even in the sorry state you’re in, you’d still go for the steel? Did winning that duel rob you of your brain?”Bookmark here

“You can’t expect your enemies to politely let you heal, now can you?”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry. I don’t have the time to play with you. I have to deliver this to the baron for my pay before the Everhunting departs for Throne,” the Hunter said as he dropped the bag to the cobblestone. There was a wet thump like he had dropped meat on the floor. Throwing open the top for a moment, he let us peer inside at the enormous serpent head of the chimera.Bookmark here

Neeka recoiled, covering her nose as the scent of blood drifted over to us. “You? By yourself?”Bookmark here

“Someone had to avenge Brother John,” he answered.Bookmark here

“I spent almost all night trying to find that thing! How did you find it?” Neeka asked, not taking her eyes off the Hunter.Bookmark here

He shrugged. “I did spend all night looking for it. I caught it right at dawn. I heard it was mostly reptilian, so I figured it would be restless at twilight and guess what? I was right. As you can see, I’m quite exhausted from it, so I’ll have to politely request your company another time, Mark, to repay you for everything,” he said, his cold, sunken eyes fixing on me. Bookmark here

I put on a grin. “Don’t regret it if you take too long. And next time, don’t use someone else to find me.”Bookmark here

The Hunter laughed as I felt Sammy’s tremble calm. “The name’s Hammalcar. I look forward to seeing you again,” he said as he picked up the bag with the chimera’s head in it. He walked past us, and just as he got close, he quietly added, “Perhaps by then I’ll be a regicide and the two of us can have a fair fight.”Bookmark here

My blood ran cold as he turned his back to me and continued up the road.Bookmark here

Neeka looked to me. “Did he say…?”Bookmark here

I gulped and nodded. Bookmark here

“Thank you so much and I’m sorry!” Sammy blurted out, dropping to his knees as tears welled up in his eyes. “I didn’t know what he would do to me if I didn’t help him find you. I’m sorry you almost got in a fight because of me.”Bookmark here

I had no choice but to let out my breath and ease my face so I could console him. “It’s alright. He would have found me one way or another anyways. Sounds like he’s leaving the city too, so you won’t have to worry about him when I’m gone,” I said, patting him on the head in hopes the crying would be prevented.Bookmark here

Claire stepped out of the popina holding our food and tilted her head at the scene. “Did I miss something?”Bookmark here

“Hammalcar of the Hunters of Hellsing came by to say hello,” I answered.Bookmark here

She flinched back. “Mark, are you cursed or something? Is this what happens whenever you’re around other people or something? You’re like a catastrophe magnet!”Bookmark here

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