Anger and sadness raged within the Corpse Hunter like two serpents fighting the same prey. He was not accustomed to being manipulated and he did not savor its aftertaste. Even the death of the man that had betrayed him did little to improve his mood.
So Aiden decided to vent the remainder of his frustration at the orchestrator of his betrayal. Assaulting a crime boss in their home was like provoking a dragon in their own lair. It would be wise to plan ahead and take careful steps to ensure one's own survival.
He was thankful when the Rage Potion had worn off. The Corpse Hunter had almost made it to the elevator that led to the underground reservoir when his artificial rage ended. He’d wanted to kick in the Copper Prince's door by himself and storm his wooden throne.
Cooler heads prevailed though and he walked back to the cemetery instead. Once he was inside his home Aiden went to the den. Then he knelt down on the carpet and began the process of summoning his familiar. A few moments later the room was filled with the screeches of a somewhat annoyed vulture.
"Welcome back," Aiden said as he gave the bird a pat on the head.
Vagrant squawked at him.
"You're right, I am getting sloppy. Though I don't think my age has anything to do with it."
With his avian ally back on the Material Plane the Corpse Hunter focused on his next task. He donned the same leather armor that he wore when he went Corpse Hunting on the floors above the city. Despite what he was actually preparing to do right now it didn't feel much different when Aiden thought about it. He would still be hunting corpses, he just had to kill them first.
Aiden opened a small closet and pulled out a gray overcoat. Like his previous coat this one had protective wards sewn into it. It was nearly identical in appearance to his original and the only real difference was the name inside the collar.
"Reginald," read the tag.
That was the man whose legacy Aiden had inherited, though he could barely remember the old Corpse Hunter. When they first met Aiden had been a young boy. When he returned home from playing with the other neighborhood kids he expected to find his parents waiting for him. Instead he found a tall man dressed in gray standing on his porch.
Aiden put the overcoat on and exhaled slowly. Now wasn't the time to get distracted by the past, there was far too much to do here in the present. He pulled out another Tricorn hat that looked well worn around the sweatband. Reginald's name was still visible though Aiden tried not to look at it as he put it on.
As he looked at himself in a nearby mirror Vagrant squawked.
"I can't say I remember much of what he looked like," Aiden replied. "But if you think I look like the old Corpse Hunter I'll have to take your word for it."
The man in gray put on his sword belt and let the weapon hang from his left hip. He left the short bow behind and grabbed a small buckler shield instead. From what he remembered of the Copper Prince's home the bow wouldn't do him any favors inside.
There wasn't a guarantee that he would have time to use the majority of the things he kept in his backpack. Even so Aiden felt naked without the comfort of having multiple options. Redundancy and versatility were two his two favorite words afterall. In the end he chose to leave the bulky bag behind and line his pockets with some of the most useful potions and trinkets.
It was tempting to leave his corpse tending materials behind to carry along a few extra weapons. Aiden shook the greedy thoughts from his mind. When he was finished there would be bodies in need of tending and he doubted he could purge them all with his Fate alone.
Feeling as ready as he'd ever be, the Corpse Hunter stepped out of his shack. He didn't head straight for the elevator though. There was one last chore that he needed to get out of the way.
“Corpse Hunter,” said the middle aged woman in a brown leather apron. “How may I be of service to someone of your…notoriety?”
Her tone was cordial but it failed to mask the concern in her voice. Aiden held in a sigh when he saw the woman glance about the empty blacksmith shop just to be sure there wasn’t a dead body somewhere that she hadn’t noticed. Of course that wasn’t why he was here but it was the most common assumption when he showed up unannounced. Not that it was common or practical for him to announce where he was going to be ahead of time.
“I need a replacement blade,” the man in gray said.
He pulled out the remains of a shattered knife and handed it to the woman.
“Oh, well that I can help with,” she replied as her body relaxed a bit.
The Corpse Hunter looked at Vagrant who gave a small nod as if to say that they were both thinking the same thing. Aiden was personally trying to stop a murderer and yet people still treated him as though he were the one making the corpses rather than just tending to them. There was a point in time where he thought he might get used to his status as a pariah but that day had yet to arrive.
“Was this silver tipped or solid silver,” asked the Blacksmith before interrupting herself. “Oh never mind, I can see it was solid silver.”
“I don’t need it repaired, I just need it replaced.”
“Certainly, silver weapons are often a more economical alternative to magical ones.”
She reached beneath the counter she was standing at and pulled out a polished silver knife. Aiden could see his face in the flat side of the blade and gave a nod to the woman.
“Solid silver and sharp as a razor. That will be fifty gold pieces,” she said as the man in gray reached for his coin purse.
“Must have been one hell of a beast you tangled with to snap the blade clean off like that.”
“He was a coworker,” the Corpse Hunter said before placing the money on the counter.
The woman’s mouth hung open as he placed the newly purchased weapon in the sheath tucked inside his belt. Without another word the Corpse Hunter turned and headed for the door. Sure Aiden could have explained that the coworker in question was working with the heretics or that his actions had nearly killed him, but what was the point?
People saw monsters in the form of broken men and women and the only one who understood that more than the Corpse Hunter was dead by his own hands. Well, there was another person who understood but she was…different. Aiden didn’t really care to think about how much he might have in common with a Martinet of the Ascension Academy.
Once outside he started heading towards the elevator that would take him down into the reservoir. Three blocks later the man in gray heard a familiar voice.
“A bit early in the week for Corpse Hunting isn’t it?”
Aiden turned around to see Landon and a younger guard whose name he’d never bothered to learn. “I’m not heading into the Dungeon today.”
“Well you’re dressed for the occasion,” the Guard Captain said, pointing towards Aiden’s weaponry and armor. “Not often you bear the burden of your kit without cause.”
“There is plenty of work to be done here in Plinth,” the Corpse Hunter replied.
“Would you care to elaborate on that?”
“No I would not, nor am I obligated to.”
“Cut the shit Aiden, you’re up to something and we both know it.” Landon put one hand on his hip and leaned his spear across his right shoulder.
“I’m just doing my job tending to corpses,” the man in gray said, putting his hands on his sword belt.
“Are those corpses already dead or are you going to speed things along?”
“Does it matter?”
“Are you seriously asking me if vigilante justice is an acceptable course of action for you to be taking right now? Can’t you at least pretend to have the smallest bit of respect for me after what I’ve done for you all these years? I have pulled you out of every gutter in District Seven with my own hands.”
“Regardless of the accuracy of your last statement I don’t have the time or energy to bicker with you, Landon. I have corpses to hunt.”
“So be it, but the City Guard are going to give you an escort.”
“You can’t be serious,” the Corpse Hunter groaned.
“Oh but I am,” Landon said reassuringly. “Word has gotten out that the Ascension Academy is tracking down a serial killer that’s hunting Fate Holders. Not more than an hour ago the body of one of their Nullifiers was found stabbed to death in an alleyway behind a bar. No doubt you knew about that already though.”
“Bad news has a way of finding me first.”
“That’s the most honest thing you’ve said to me today. So, shall we tend to those corpses before they start turning into zombies or whatever it is they do when you’re slacking off.”
Aiden slowly reached his left coat pocket and gripped a round metallic sphere. Seeing what he was doing, Vagrant screeched loudly from his shoulder. Aiden released the sphere and pulled his hand back out with an annoyed look upon his face.
“Fine, the more the merrier!” he shouted, throwing his hands up in the air in a gesture of defeat.
The vulture gave him a swift peck on the head as Aiden walked towards the elevator.
“It was the nonlethal one,” Aiden said, pointing to the bird as if he had been accused of something dastardly.
“What was that?” Landon asked from behind the Corpse Hunter.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” the man in gray called back over his shoulder.
Though he would never admit it, part of him was relieved to have the company. After the executioner’s betrayal Aiden wouldn’t be putting any trust in those around him in the foreseeable future. But having someone else on his side meant that the Copper Prince’s minions would have a harder time overpowering him through sheer numbers. At the very least they’d be divided up into thirds now and the Corpse Hunter felt like those odds were well within his favor.
Teamwork wasn’t relevant for any of Aiden’s abilities so he’d never put much stock in it over the years. Why should he, it wasn’t like he was a Protectorate like Landon or the other guard that tagged along with him. Their Fates grew in strength when working closely with another but there was only one Corpse Hunter in the entire Column.
Naturally Corpse Hunting was solitary work, it always had been and it always would be. Aiden worked alone, Reginald had worked alone, and whoever had the misfortune of being around before both of them had worked alone too. Of course Aiden wasn’t truly alone, he still had Vagrant to keep him company. As far as he was concerned that vulture was the only friend a Corpse Hunter needed. It wasn’t as if Vagrant was going to scheme behind Aiden’s back.
When they reached the elevator the two guards gave the Corpse a surprised look. “You act like you’ve never been in the basement before,” he said.
“We haven’t, it's outside our District,” Landon said with a shrug, speaking on behalf of both of them.
“Then you should know that things are…different down there. Up here folks might actually give a damn about what the City Guard stands for, or what it’s supposed to stand for, but where we’re headed they couldn’t care less.”
“I’ve handled my fair share of tough situations, besides one Protectorate is as sturdy as a tree. With the two of us we’ll be as immovable as a forest.”
“The folks we’re going up against have a Pain Bearer on their side,” Aiden said.
Landon immediately turned to his subordinate. “Go to the nearest Guard Station and tell them to bring half a dozen of their best men and women back here.”
“Yes sir,” the young Guard said before running off.
“That was a mistake,” the Corpse Hunter said with a heavy sigh.
“You were going to try and fight a Pain Bearer by yourself and you have the audacity to talk to me about making mistakes?” Landon said incredulously.
“The Copper Prince is a well connected man. Word will get back to him that you’re mobilizing the City Guard and he’ll run off into the shadows like a rat.”
“It's not like there’s an infinite number of places to hide in the Column, even if he flees we can track him down.”
“Be that as it may, but we don’t have an infinite amount of time to go looking for rats.”
The entire city’s supply of Dragon’s Blood was sitting in the hands of a crime lord. Aiden didn’t want to imagine how many hundreds of pounds that might be. Or how much concentrated poison could be crafted with that much material to work with. One way or the other a lot of people were going to die before this problem was taken care of.
“We have to move now,” the Corpse Hunter said.
“If we wait, we’ll have eight guards on our side, myself included. Even a Pain Bearer can’t bear that much pain.”
“Numbers aren’t going to mean a thing if the man we’re after gets away. He tried to kill Lady Edevane twice and if he gets a third chance he may very well succeed.”
“The Martinet?” Landon asked. From the look on the Guard’s face it was clear that the Academy had withheld that information from the Council. “You’re sure of this?”
“I was there for the second assassination attempt.” Aiden pulled off his hat to showcase the singed hair that he hadn’t bothered to trim. “I’m going into the reservoir now, you can come with or you can stay up here and twiddle your thumbs. Wouldn’t bother me either way.”
Rather than wait for a response the Corpse Hunter activated the elevator and slowly began to descend into the level below. When the Guard’s image passed out of view he cracked his knuckles.
“I guess it’s just you and me, as always,” Aiden said to the bird on his shoulder.
Landon slammed into the ground beside the Corpse Hunter and slowly rose to his feet. “You will always be the biggest pain in my ass but you’re a damned fool if you think I’m going to let you run off alone into the jaws of death.”