Aiden tore off his burning coat and threw it to the ground. The protective wards sewn into the cloth sizzled and burned away into purple smoke. Two back to back explosions had pushed them well past their breaking point. It was a fair trade off though as the man in gray would have died twice over without the overcoat’s protective elements.
Honestly the Corpse Hunter was amazed they had held up as long as they did. When he turned his attention to his Tricorn he found that the hat, as well as his hair, were on fire. He tossed the headpiece and swatted his head until the heat and flames had been stamped out.
After his own dilemma was resolved he looked over to Lady Edevane. The stone wall she had slammed into was cracked and indented from the sheer force of her impact. Aiden knelt beside her cradling her head.
The back of the Martinet's skull was warm and slick. Blood nearly the same color as the woman's hair coated Aiden's gloves. He hadn't noticed she was bleeding until he felt it. Of course she was bleeding, the Barrier Potion he'd thrown at her feet was a single use item.
Her barrier had been consumed by the fireball which would've turned her into a charred corpse without it. So when the force of the fireball threw her into a warded stone wall there was nothing to cushion her body.
Aiden wasn't a Flesh Mender but he didn't need to be one to know that the Martinet's skull was fractured. She would likely be unconscious for days if not weeks assuming she lived that long. Even the strongest of Fate Holders had their limits. That knowledge made it all the more shocking when her eyes rolled open and she started to talk.
"What…the fuck…was that?"
"How are you conscious right now?" Aiden asked, responding to her question with his own.
Slowly Lady Edevane sat upright and leaned against the wall.
"I'm an Organic Alchemist, remember? When you started acting weird I began filling my own body with some helpful hormones and antitoxins just in case. Right now I have enough adrenaline in my body to wake an elephant from a coma."
"You're an assassin's worst nightmare," the Corpse Hunter said with very little sarcasm.
The red haired woman smiled.
"This may be the concussion speaking but you have a palatable personality when you feel like showing it off."
The Corpse Hunter allowed himself a smile. It wasn't often he got compliments, excluding crime bosses and people looking to avoid his anger.
"Hey, something's happening," came the deep smoker's voice of the Nullifier.
Both Aiden and Lady Edevane turned to see the pot bellied executioner pointing towards the gallows. It looked like a bomb filled with red paint had detonated where the corpse had once hung. Blood was splattered on the nearby walls, and chunks of meat and bone hung from where they'd landed.
Fortunately for the Executioner he'd been standing on the opposite side of a support beam that held up the gallows. For that reason alone he'd managed to avoid the debris from the fireball as well as the corpse. Aiden couldn't help but wish that life would throw him a bit of luck like that now and again.
Following the executioner's gaze led to a blue orb the size of an orange. It hovered over a large clump of eviscerated organs and flesh. Aiden let out a sigh as he recognized what was happening immediately.
"What is it?" Lady Edevane asked. Her tone sounded more curious than concerned.
"It's a human soul," the Corpse Hunter said casually. "Or at least what remains of one when you die and your body is destroyed."
"Is it dangerous?"
"When they first form they're usually harmless. If they linger around long enough to turn orange, that's when they start looking for a new body to call their own. If they start turning red it means they're on the verge of becoming a ghost or a specter or something else along those lines."
"How long do they take to turn orange?" Lady Edevane asked.
"Usually it takes a fair bit of time. Days normally, though it's possible for that to happen in hours. Very rarely will it happen within minutes of the soul leaving the body," the Corpse Hunter said.
All three individuals in the room watched as the round glowing sphere turned from light blue to orange in the blink of an eye. Aiden wished he knew more about the old gods so he could curse them out individually by name. Instead he cursed their pantheon as a whole while pulling a silver dagger from its sheath.
"Stay calm and whatever you do don't…"
Before Aiden could finish speaking the Nullifier sprinted for the door. The glowing spirit followed after him, leaving a trail of incandescent light behind it. The bulky man tore open the door and ran into the adjoining hallway. The Spirit, Aiden and Lady Edevane chased after him.
"I didn't sign up for this!" shouted the executioner as he pounded on the blue metallic door that led out of the underground floor.
When the guards on the other side of the doorway opened the hatch the husky man barreled past them, coughing like his lungs were on fire. Before they had time to register what was happening an orange glowing sphere flew through the doorway. Aiden watched through the gap in the door as the spirit passed into the chest of one of fallen guards.
As the fallen guard began convulsing the others back away. Their gaze was split between the man who rolled around on the floor violently and the Martinet. Lady Edevane turned to the Corpse Hunter but he was already taking control of the situation.
"The heretic's soul is fighting against the soul of this man for ownership of his body," he announced.
"How do we help him?" one of the older guards asked.
"Hold him down so I can purge the spirit," Aiden ordered.
Four of the closest guards each grabbed a limb and pinned the flailing man to the ground. Their comrade in arms continued to struggle but the freshly formed spirit couldn't overpower them as a group.
"Now what?" asked the same guard as before.
The Corpse Hunter placed both hands on the guard's chest. His palms began to glow green and the spirit within could feel his presence. It could feel him trying to force it out of its new body.
He had no right to stop it. This was the spirit's second chance at life. An opportunity to start over, to begin life anew. This man that smelled of burnt hair would not stand in its way.
Focusing all of its strength into its right arm the spirit freed the limb from the other guard's grasp. Then it pulled a dagger from the man's belt and buried the blade into Aiden's chest. A grin formed across the face of the convulsing guard as the Corpse Hunter coughed blood into its face.
Falling back against the wall, Aiden dropped his silver dagger and clutched the one in his chest. First his overcoat was ruined and now he was going to need a new undercoat too. This was turning into a terrible week for the man who wanted nothing more than a stiff drink and a quiet greenhouse.
As his eyes began to shut a sudden surge of adrenaline roused the Corpse Hunter. He opened his eyes to see Lady Edevan grabbing him by the ear
"No sleeping on the job," she said with a smile that almost hid the concern in her eyes.
"I'm a bit out of shape for work," the Corpse Hunter said, coughing up more blood. "If I purge that man now, the next Corpse Hunter will be purging me."
"There must be something else we can do."
Aiden was surprised by the compassion in her voice. He always thought the Ascension Academy treated it's members like a disposable resource. Throwing them at the Dungeon above hoping to reach the top of the Column by climbing over the corpses of those beneath them.
In Lady Edevane's face he saw true sincerity, not the thin veneer of someone pretending to care about a subordinate. It surprised him, though he almost resented this new revelation. He had grown accustomed to looking down upon the Academy.
"Pain," Aiden said.
"The adrenaline should already be kicking in soon," the Martinet reassured him.
"Not me, the spirit. Pain can purge them. Lots and lots of pain."
"You should have said that sooner," the red haired woman said.. "I'm very good at inflicting pain."
She reached her hand down into the possessed guard's boot until her fingers met flesh. The guard's body went as rigid as a statue as every muscle, tendon, and nerve coursed with debilitating agony. His eyes rolled into the back of his head as his tongue hung limp out of his mouth.
The Martinet hoped that the guard wasn’t conscious to feel the mind shattering number of afflictions she was injecting into his body. Moments later an orange sphere rose from the guard's body before disintegrating in a burst of colorful light. With a reassuring smile the Organic Alchemist turned back to Aiden.
"Corpse Hunting isn't as hard as you make it out to be," Lady Edevane said.
"You're almost good enough to be my assistant. What did you pump into his body?" Aiden asked with a morbid curiosity.
"Better if I don't tell you," she said.
They both let out an exhausted sigh as she collapsed onto him. Blood trickled out of the wound on the back of Lady Edevane's skull. A Fate Holder with her level of experience would’ve known that would happen if she exerted herself in her current condition. And yet she hadn’t hesitated to save the life of one of her people.
When Lady Edevane awoke she found herself laying in bed in a small warm lit room. Sleeping in a chair beside her was the Corpse Hunter. Looking about the white walled room the Martinet realized she was in the healing ward that was located on the fifth floor of the Ascension Academy.
“I’m surprised they let you up here,” she said, stirring the man from his nap.
“I’ve come to learn that people are more sympathetic to your requests when you take a dagger to the heart trying to save one of their own,” Aiden said as he stretched.
Lady Edevane had a hard time believing that the Corpse Hunter had won anyone over through sympathy alone.
“Also I pointed out that you could die in your sleep and it was best to have me at your bedside to tend to your corpse if that were to happen. The guards that witnessed the possession were all quite inclined to agree,” Aiden added.
That was far more believable, the Academy would be on high alert now. Not only were the heretics growing bolder in their attacks but they were getting closer to accomplishing their goals. There had been two failed assassination attempts against herself thus far but both had come uncomfortably close to succeeding.
“You saved my life today,” Lady Edevane said.
“The Academy’s Flesh Menders saved you,” the Corpse Hunter corrected. “Same as they saved me.” He rubbed his chest where the dagger had stabbed him. If this was how things were going to be all the time he’d have to start wearing his armor outside the Dungeon as well as in it.
“I meant the barrier you threw in front of me. I would have died if you hadn’t acted when you did.”
“Well apparently you saved me two days prior so I guess that makes us even.”
“You saw it coming didn’t you?”
“My death,” Lady Edevane clarified.
“Yes,” Aiden said.
“Everyone has a thread that tethers their soul to their body. Your tether informed me that your soul would soon be departing from your body unless something changed the course of events laid out before us.”
She reached out for his hand and to the Martinet’s surprise the Corpse Hunter accepted it. Without his overcoat she could see bare skin between his gloves and the sleeve of his undercoat. Lady Edevane pressed a finger against Aiden’s wrist and a cocktail of mood enhancing hormones flooded his body.
For the first time in almost three decades Aiden was completely relaxed. His muscles eased up, his face looked calm, and his eyes no longer seemed fixated on the only way out of the room he was currently in. For Lady Edevane it was like watching a caged animal being released from its shackles.
When it looked like he might pass out from sensory overload the Organic Alchemist withdrew her hand. Slowly the euphoria dissipated and the Corpse Hunter’s face hardened. For three minutes the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders and he had felt human again.
“What was that?”
“Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and a few other things. It’s what I use to get through a rough day. Today has been about as rough on you as it was on me.”
“You were thrown into a wall with so much force it shattered the stone along with your skull,” Aiden said.
“You were stabbed in the heart by the ghost of a dead heretic,” Lady Edevane retorted.
“I’ve had worse,” he replied, looking down at the floor.
“So have I,” she said, tilting her head down as well.
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t be wasting your energy on good feelings. Focus on healing.”
“It’s fine. At any given time I have half a dozen chemicals running through my own system. I can handle using my Fate to that degree in my sleep.”
“Why?” Aiden asked.
“The same reason you spend all your money on liquor and mead,” Lady Edevane replied earnestly.
Being in a constant state of intoxication was the only thing keeping the Corpse Hunter from being buried beneath the burden of his Fate. If he were forced to do his job without the aid of alcohol he would’ve let the Dungeon kill him decades ago. Life was just too painful to bear without something to help dull his senses. Only now did he understand that the same was true for the Martinet.
Alone in this room together, he could feel her silent sadness, her unspoken pain. An awkward hush filled the room as they sat there quietly. When the tension grew too much for the man in gray he pulled the glove off his right hand and reluctantly held it out towards the red haired woman.
“You asked me not so long ago if the rumors about myself were true.” Lady Edevane gripped his hand in her own as she spoke. “The answer is yes. I killed both of my parents the day I inherited my Fate.”