Aiden sat in his chair as the woman beside him confessed to patricide. She glanced up at him to gauge his reaction. His eyes weren’t on her though, they drifted around the room looking at everything but her. The man in gray had a calm look on his face and Lady Edevane assumed it was from the soothing chemicals she had given to him through her Fate.
More often than not her position required her to use her abilities to cause discomfort. It had taken years of practice and a dedicated mind to learn how to wield them correctly. There were thousands of venoms, toxins, hormones, secretions, and other biological weapons at her disposal.
Learning how to control how much of each substance she administered into her target was the most challenging portion of her training. She had to take into account the height, age, and body weight of her subjects which was a hard thing to estimate under stressful conditions. But the best results required the right measurements and failing to meet the Academy’s standards meant death.
Fear as it would happen was the greatest motivator that Lady Edevane had ever experienced. Her youth was crafted around that emotion and she was taught to wield it like a weapon against others. It didn’t take long for her to rise to the status of Martinet and it took far less time for word of her Fate to spread. When you can kill someone simply by shaking their hand, you tend to stick out like a sore thumb.
"Why did you kill them?" the Corpse Hunter asked.
There was no malice or judgment in his voice. It was as if he asked her something far more trivial, like her favorite color. But he hadn't asked her that, he had asked why she murdered her parents when she was just a child.
"They were…violent people," the Martinet replied after a long pause. "When my mother was upset, she would beat me. When my father was upset, he would beat us both."
The Corpse Hunter nodded as she spoke, letting her know that he was listening even though he wasn't looking at her. When he didn't have anything to say she continued.
"Do you know why newly born Manticore are more dangerous than fully grown ones?"
"No," Aiden said. Either she wanted to know if he was listening or the question was a lead up to something she was having a hard time explaining without a parable. He pondered which was more likely while she collected her words.
"Newly born Manticore can't control how much venom they inject into their attackers. They give them everything they have."
She looked down at her hands and expected to see them trembling but they were steady.
"So did I."
It was not a shocking revelation to be heard by the Corpse Hunter. Every Fate Holder received their abilities at the age of ten. For many it took a decade of training and concerted effort to get a decent grip on their abilities. But some Fates were just too dangerous to be left in the hands of a child.
"The Ascension Academy came for me," Lady Edevane said, finishing the painful memory she had opened up in her heart and mind. "They said I could join them, serve in their ranks. Or I could follow in my parent's wake."
"I remember," said the Corpse Hunter.
"What?" Her eyes had drifted away from him but now the emerald colored irises stared at him.
"I'm a few years older than you are. I tended to your parents' bodies after what happened to them and I was on hand while they decided if your body would need tending as well."
"If you knew what happened…then why did you ask?"
"I've always wanted to hear your side of it."
Aiden pulled free from her grasp and the mood stabilizing chemicals she'd been providing him came to an end. His body sagged like the weight of a mountain had been placed upon his shoulders. After a moment he corrected his posture and straightened his back.
"I'm going out for a drink Ruth."
As he closed the door behind him Lady Edevane tried to remember when she had told him her first name. No one called her by it and very few even knew what it was. As she thought about it a decades old memory of a scared little redheaded girl sitting in a hallway came back to her.
When it was discovered that her parents were dead the Ascension Academy was the first to arrive. Lady Edevane, along with the body of her mother and father were taken back to the Academy. She had been instructed to wait in a hallway while the Academy’s acting Martinet’s decided what should be done with the fledgling Organic Alchemist.
Letting a child who could strike down even the strongest Fate Holder with a single finger was an exceptionally powerful threat to the city. However, if she were to cooperate she could become a powerful instrument under their guidance. Her status alone would improve their standing and authority in Plinth.
"What's your name?" a boy about a head taller than herself had asked while she was waiting.
"Ruth Edevane, why?" she replied.
"It's easier to ask when you're still alive," was the boy's answer.
"How old are you?"
The boy wrote down her answers in a small notebook that had a drawing of a black feathered bird on the cover.
“So, why’d you do it?” he asked.
Before she could respond she was pulled into a nearby room.
Lady Edevane leaned back into her bed. The Corpse Hunter had waited twenty three years to hear the answer to that question. She let out a long deep breath uncertain if she should admire his persistence or chastise him for bringing it back up after so much time had passed.
When Aiden sat down at the bar the man behind the counter placed a bottle of liquor in front of him. Even without his trademark gray overcoat and Tricorn hat the Corpse Hunter spent enough time in this bar to be considered a regular. That was part of the reason he came here, finding new bars often meant convincing the owner that he wasn’t there because another patron had died.
He paid for the bottle then downed half of it in a single go before setting it back down on the counter. Aiden couldn't deny the effectiveness of Lady Edevane's pain management system. Though he still preferred his own method of self medication.
When the first bottle was finished a second was brought out much to the desire of the man in gray. As the Corpse Hunter was enjoying his much needed onset of intoxication he heard a familiar noise. It was the sound of an overweight executioner coughing white trying to light his own pipe.
Glancing over Aiden saw the pot bellied Nullifier, the one in service to the Ascension Academy. Another round of coughing made the man in gray wonder if his coworker was about to keel over and die. Not with his luck, that man would probably outlive them all.
Activating his Tether Sight, the Corpse Hunter checked the thread above the man's head. It was solid white, no signs of any impending death or danger. Just like it had been that morning in the execution chamber.
The glass in Aiden's hand shattered as he clenched it between his fingers. When the Nullifier looked up from his pipe he saw the Corpse Hunter looming over his table. He noticed a small vial in the tall man's right hand, it was nearly empty save for a trace amount of red and green liquid.
"Something wrong?" asked the Nullifier. "I already apologized to that guard for letting the spirit out. Not like it was really my fault though. It's not my job to deal with undead things, I'm only qualified to deal with the living."
His voice sounded like a rock being dragged across cobblestone and each word grated against the Corpse Hunter’s ears.
"You knew," Aiden said as his rage began to grow.
Rather than repeating himself Aiden smashed the glass bottle over the other man's bald head. With the aid of the Rage Potion flowing through the Corpse Hunter's blow knocked the Nullifier out of his chair. Streaks of blood dripped down the man’s face from a dozen shallow cuts across his scalp.
Out of habit Nullifier concentrated on his attacker, nullifying his Fate abilities. He should have tried to run instead. The Corpse Hunter pounced on the fallen man like a beast, roaring as he slammed his fist into his opponent's face. His abilities weren’t combat oriented and their absence would have no sway over this fight.
The potion in his veins couldn’t be nullified and Aiden had already assumed that much. He wasn’t sure if there were other heretics laying in wait nearby so when he decided to confront the executioner he did so with a modicum of preparation. Too much time had been wasted in bed and he’d be damned if she spent another day with a Flesh Mender this week.
"Your friends blew me up, they set me on fire, they destroyed my coat, they destroyed my hat, they destroyed my VULTURE!"
With every word spoken aloud Aiden's anger rose along with his desire for blood. Being betrayed by a friend was to be expected, that's why Aiden didn't have any. But being betrayed by a coworker, now that was just unprofessional.
The one sided onslaught came to an end when the Nullifier clubbed the Corpse Hunter with the leg of his broken chair. It wasn't enough to end a fight though so he made a run for the back door. Aiden grabbed an empty beer glass from a nearby table and hurled it at the Nullifier.
The glass caught him in the back of the leg causing him to stumble and fall to one knee. When the Corpse Hunter got close the heavy set man threw an elbow into Aiden’s stomach. Without the Rage Potion that strike would’ve likely knocked the air out of his lungs. The executioner wasn’t built for sprinting but he could throw some solid hits as shown by the uppercut that followed the elbow.
Tilting his head back caused the punch to glance off the Corpse Hunter’s chin but the impact still staggered him enough to give the Nullifier another chance to run. Aiden stumbled back into a nearby support beam and shook his head from side to side. If he had his adventuring gear with him this fight would’ve been over before it started.
Then again he hadn’t been trying to kill the executioner. Aiden had questions that he wanted answers to and he wanted to look the man in the eye when he got them. But he’d rather question the Nullifier’s corpse than let him get away.
Pulling his silver dagger from its sheath Aiden gave chase. They ran through the alleyway behind the bar dodging debris and trash. Well the Corpse Hunter dodged it, the Nullifier simply plowed through everything. Eventually the executioner's lungs gave out, victimized by years of heavy tobacco use.
When the Nullifier stopped to turn and face his pursuer, Aiden slammed into with all the force of his own body. The pot bellied man was sprawled out on the ground looking at the broken knife in the Corpse Hunter's right hand. He could feel the shattered blade somewhere between his lungs and heart.
"You knew just where to stand to stay out of harm's way," Aiden said. His amber eyes burned with anger.
As the Nullifier tried to close his eyes the Corpse Hunter shook him.
"It wasn't personal," the man said.
"You almost buried me today, it was very personal. Why are the heretics killing Ascenders? Why are the Martinets being targeted?"
The Nullifier shook his head. "I don't know."
"Don't waste my time with lies. I can pull the truth from your corpse if you won't offer it up freely."
"All they told me was not to Nullify the prisoner's Fate and where to stand. I don't know anything else, swear on my soul."
The look of desperation in the man's eyes was enough to convince Aiden. But it didn't soothe the anger that raged within him.
"Did you know the blast was likely to kill me along with the Martinet?"
The executioner looked away.
"Why?" Aiden asked, gripping the man's collar tightly in both hands. "We've worked together for years. You were one of the only people in this godforsaken Column that I almost liked. So I ask again, why?"
He didn't loosen his grip, not even when the man started crying.
"I just couldn't do it anymore.”
“Keep killing folks."
"It's your job, isn't it?"
"Not by any choice of mine. I wanted to be a hero, to Ascend the Dungeon's floors and be the first to the top. I wanted to fight monsters, not become one. When the heretics came to me they offered me a way out.
Told me they could smuggle me out of Plinth to a safe haven out in the Blackened Wilds. A place where I wouldn't have to kill anymore children whose only crime was being born with the wrong Fate."
"There are no safe havens in the Blackened Wilds," said the Corpse Hunter.
"Maybe not," the Nullifier said sullenly.
A coughing fit seized him and it took a few minutes before he could speak again. "Am I dying?"
Aiden looked up at the man's tether. It was light red at the moment though it was slowly growing redder.
"Yes, but there's time to get you to a healer. If you tell me who contacted you."
"I don't know his name and he wore a mask but I could sense his Fate. I'll tell you, for a favor."
"Fine," Aiden said. "Tell me the Fate first."
"It was an Apparate Blade," the executioner said before coughing up a handful of blood.
"Son of a bitch," Aiden said, thinking back to a smooth talking man he'd met recently. "I can't believe I fell for that bullshit about stocks and markets.”
“Now the favor.”
“Fine. Let’s get you a Flesh Mender."
The Corpse Hunter released his grip on the man and proceeded to stand up.
"No," the Nullifier said, holding onto Aiden’s wrists. "That's not the favor I want."
"What? If the Ascension Academy can put an end to the heresy they might let you live."
"Live?" the Nullifier said incredulously. "I haven't lived since I was a boy. My humanity left me the day the Academy forced me to join them. Do you know what that's like? To have everyone in the city despise you? To be treated like a monster? To have them fear you like you’re going to take their children from them in their sleep?"
"Yes," the Corpse Hunter said softly.
The executioner’s face softened.
"Aye, you would know, wouldn’t you? Then you understand why I can't do it anymore. If I can't live outside the Column then I refuse to remain trapped within it. I would rather die here in this alley than string up another man, woman, or child from my gallows."
There was a pause as Aiden listened to the man's pleas.
"What's the favor?" he asked, not wanting to drag out the conversation.
"Let me die and tend to my corpse. Don't let me turn into another monster, you hear me?"
Aiden sat down beside the executioner and waited with him in silence. When the Nullifier's ragged breathing finally came to an end he leaned over the man. With both hands on the corpse Aiden channeled his Fate and focused inward. A flash of green light filled the alleyway as the body jolted up before falling back down. Aiden walked out into a side street as he wiped the blood from his nose.