The hulking gorilla charged after the boy and girl unleashing a mighty roar as it did so. Without a word they immediately turned and ran into the jungle, hoping to elude the mighty beast that sought to be their end. Their surroundings became like an obstacle course as they scrambled over fallen trees, dove between branches, and evaded tripping on the many vines around them.
They did everything they could to stay as far ahead of the monster as possible. Even with one arm rendered useless the ape was still able to keep pace with the young Ascenders as it ran, jumped, and climbed its way through the green maze of trees and brush.
On the back of the beast the Corpse Hunter hung on as best as he could. The Speed Potion was still active but it did little to help him cling to the blades he used as handholds that were stabbed into the monster’s flesh. Every time the ape turned sharply or leapt into the air before landing hard on the ground it nearly threw off the man in gray. Not that the beast was trying to dislodge him, it had already forgotten its original target and was solely focused on the children.
As the Entangler and Shining Star continued their desperate attempts at staying out of the gorilla’s clutches the sounds of rushing water began to fill the air. Soon the jungle ended and a massive raging river appeared. After their recent misfortune on the oceanic floor of the previous Dungeon neither of the teens wanted anything to do with the raging river. They turned sharply and began running parallel to the rapids as fast as they could.
With its good arm the gorilla swung around the trunk of a tree to match the teen’s movement, nearly throwing the Corpse Hunter into the river itself. He managed to barely hang onto his shortsword as the dagger tore free from the beast’s back. Leaving the sword in place the man pulled the silver knife from his belt and used the two small blades to climb his way up the monster. Now on the gorilla’s shoulders he could finally see the boy and girl once more. He could also see the cliff that they were all running towards as the massive river turned into a massive waterfall.
“Fuck,” the man in gray said as he tried to think quickly. He sheathed his silver knife but kept his grip on the steel dagger. “Shining Star! Get ready to blind the monster!”
“When!?” she called out over her shoulder before glancing back towards the cliff that was getting uncomfortably close.
“Not yet, not yet, not yet, now!” he called out before closing his eyes.
Turning to face the creature the girl unleashed a mighty flash of light but the beast turned its head to look at the man shouting near its ear and avoided her Fate’s ability. With its remaining good hand it grabbed the Corpse Hunter, tearing the man from its back and throwing him into the river. When the creature looked back in her direction the girl unleashed another volley of blinding light, this time hitting her target right in the face. The toll of using her primary ability so many times in such a short span of time was too much for her young body though, and she passed out right in the creature’s path. Refusing to lose what remained of his family, the boy held his sister in his arms as the gorilla slammed into them blindly, sending all three toppling over the edge of the waterfall.
When the Corpse Hunter was thrown into the river he slammed his back onto a boulder just beneath the water’s surface. Not only was this unpleasant for his already sore back but the impact knocked the air out of his lungs. As luck would have it he still clutched both knives in his hands and the last vestiges of the Speed Potion remained within him. He rapidly clawed at the riverbank, digging into dirt and roots until his blades found purchase. After quickly pulling himself above the waterline and filling his lungs with air he pulled his soaking wet body out of the rapids.
At the top of the waterfall he found himself alone, except for his vulture who had been following the chase from the air. Vagrant squawked from the branch of a nearby tree as the man in grey held out an arm for the bird to perch upon. The vulture obliged him, landing on the sleeve of the man’s overcoat before climbing to its usual spot on his shoulder.
“Just you and me again,” Aiden said somewhat solemnly to the bird as the teens were nowhere to be found.
He could feel the potion slowly wearing off and in a few moments he would be rendered immobile, that was the price of the Speed Potion. Before that could happen he glanced over the edge to see how far the children had fallen before dying. He wanted to know how much work it would be to recover their bodies. To his surprise he saw two unconscious but still breathing teenagers suspended from a series of tree roots about fifteen feet below the edge of the cliff.
While the girl had used the last remnants of her Shining Star Fate to blind the monster and send it over the edge, her brother had used his final reserves to wrap them both up with his Entangler Fate as they fell. Aiden let out a small whistle of surprise at what the two had accomplished. It was one thing to defeat a boss on such a high level at their age, it was even more commendable to do so and live to tell the tale.
The Corpse Hunter grabbed onto the roots and pulled the teens up and over the ledge to safety before he placed them in the shade of a large tree. He then sat down beside them as the potion wore off and his muscles tensed up. Things hadn’t gone as he planned but they had managed to come out on top regardless.
As he waited for the paralysis from the after effects of his potion to wear off Aiden admired the waterfall. A beautiful view was often his reward for surviving in the Dungeon.
Vagrant on the other hand found the scenery boring so he hopped off his paralyzed owner’s shoulder and wandered into the brush not far from where the gorilla had toppled over the cliff. Moments later the bird waddled back, dragging something with its beak. The vulture pulled the object in front of the Corpse Hunter for him to inspect.
“What…you got there…buddy?” the man in gray asked through labored breaths.
The vulture nudged the lid open with his beak, revealing a chest full of silver coins. This was another reward of surviving in the Dungeon, random loot. Aiden closed his eyes and let out a deep breath, what a day it had been.
When the teens finally woke up they found themselves laying in bed in an unfamiliar room with brick red walls. Their heads pounded and while they were too young to have ever experienced a hangover they imagined this was what it felt like. Soul Fatigue, some folks called it, happened when you overused your Fate abilities and put too much strain on your body. In most cases that meant passing out though powerful Fate Holders could push themselves beyond that threshold at the risk of dying on the spot under the additional strain.
Neither of the young Ascenders recognized their surroundings and they both moved to look out the window that stood between their beds. Glancing outside they saw the familiar cityscape of Plinth with the large stairwell looming in the distance. The same stairwell they had ascended with their father that morning.
Well they assumed it had been that morning but were uncertain of how much time had passed since they last saw the Corpse Hunter. Actually, where was the Corpse Hunter, and for that matter where were they?
Both of the siblings looked about the room that was lined with bunk beds and little else. On the far end of the room was a staircase, wooden of course, unlike the well carved marble steps that had started their most recent adventure. They cautiously approached the stairs and looked down them. Relief replaced their initial concern when they saw the two men on the lower floor wore the standard chainmail armor of the City Guards.
“Oh you’re awake,” the older Guard said when he noticed the teens peeking down at him from the stairs.
“Um, where are we?” the girl asked.
“My name is Captain Landon and you’re currently in Guard Station Seven,” the man replied. “The Corpse Hunter brought you in about an hour ago, said he found you unconscious in the Dungeons near the body of your late father. You have my condolences in that regard. He also said I should remind you that you can speak with the Council of Plinth to help with the funeral arrangements.”
“What?” the boy asked as he and his sister walked down the stairs. “That’s not what happened.”
“No?” the Guard asked. “Well that’s the story he gave me.”
“Why did he take us here?” the girl asked curiously.
“The Corpse Hunter thought there might be a good chance you’d get robbed before you woke up if he took you to an Infirmary or left you in the streets. Considering what was in your possession I’d say he made the right choice.”
“Father’s spears,” the teens said in unison. In their exhausted states they had completely forgotten about them.
Captain Landon pulled a pair of short masterclass spears out from behind his desk and set them on top. Without hesitating the teens both grabbed one of the spears and held it tightly in their hands. Their father might be gone but so long as they carried on his memory he would live forever. They both gave their thanks to the Guard and turned to walk out the front door.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Landon asked.
The teens turned back curiously and watched as the City Guard set a large chest on the table. When he opened the wooden chest to show that it was filled top to bottom with silver coins, the siblings' jaws nearly hit the floor. With a smile he motioned them back over to the desk.
“As I said, the Corpse Hunter made the right choice bringing you and your treasure here rather than leaving you someplace where it could’ve been snatched away while you rested. If you’d like an escort to help you take this home safely the City Guard would be happy to help.”
“That would be lovely,” the girl said after she and her brother paused long enough to appreciate their newfound wealth.
On his way home The Corpse Hunter stopped by a shop to grab some mead. He paid for it with a pocketful of silver, which he thought was more than fairly earned. Of course he wasn’t going to leave an entire chest full of coins to a pair of orphans without setting a little aside for himself. Actually he didn’t know if the twins were orphans, they might still have a mother.
He wasn’t sure and once he dropped them off at the Guard Station he stopped caring altogether. They were fighters and they had each other long with a small fortune to their name. They had everything they needed to survive for now and not everyone could boast such a claim.
With a few bottles of mead clinking together in the back of his cart Aiden made his way back to his shack in the city’s graveyard. He had a cartful of bodies to deal with and intended to get them squared away as quickly as possible so he could drink responsibly. Which for him meant getting shitfaced in a greenhouse alone with a Vulture, as any responsible drinker would if given the chance.
When the cart was parked in the garage he began to work on the veteran Ascender first, placing the corpse onto the large table in the middle of the room. While he didn’t know the man’s name or his children’s names it didn’t matter. They knew their father was dead and would go to the council to collect his remains.
So the man in gray didn’t need to bother the fallen adventurer with small talk. Instead he used his Last Words ability to answer a question he was still curious about. He placed his hand on the body’s chest causing the dead Ascender’s lungs to fill with air as he chest swelled.
“You’re a seasoned Dungeon delver, you’ve probably made it into the low fifties at least. How did someone like you die on floor twenty five?”
The dead man replied in a ghastly whisper, “I was training my children in the art of becoming Ascenders. When the sea creature appeared I was worried it might pull one of them beneath the waves. I leapt from the boat to slay it in its own waters before it reached us. I killed the beast but felt a sharp pain in the back of my head and lost all feeling in my body. That is all I remember.”
“Sounds like you succumbed to Soul Fatigue, a shame. Your children survived though, take comfort in that”, Aiden said.
The partial spirit that remained in the dead man’s body was disconnected from the one that had passed into the afterlife. Anything that Aiden said to the corpse wouldn’t be passed onto the man’s spirit. Even so he still felt compelled to tell the deceased father that his kin had survived and his legacy would very likely carry on for many years to come.
It was sad to see such an accomplished Ascender with so much life left in him perish from something as simple as Soul Fatigue. But the will of the soul answered to none and even the greatest among them could only go so far beyond their own limitations before falling.
When the man in gray had satisfied his own curiosities and gotten the answers he needed for his reports he asked the dead veteran for all of his own insights and knowledge on how to navigate the Dungeon. This was how the Corpse Hunter had accumulated such a wealth of information over the decades. He pulled a large book from a nearby shelf and began to jot down the tips and tricks that were given to him by the dead man.
After the man in gray had gained as much wisdom as the corpse had to offer he closed the large leatherbound book and placed it back on a nearby bookshelf. Dozens of books lined the shelves, filled with the life stories of hundreds of the greatest Ascenders born to the city of Plinth. Ascenders who had perished and were tended personally by the man who recorded their tales. Aiden took a moment to retrieve the bottle from his cart and pour himself a glass before continuing.
He had just lived in the mind of a great man, one who was far more deserving of a longer life than himself. But that was an uncomfortable truth that the Corpse Hunter had learned at a young age. Death didn’t care what you deserved, it only cared when your time was up.