When the Corpse Hunter could no longer see the young Ascender he turned and headed back towards the graveyard. Along the way he stopped by a small general store. He walked over a shelf lined with alcohol. Then he grabbed a bottle, placed a gold coin on the counter, and left.
One of the few perks of his Fate was the ability to avoid small talk. Neither he nor the storekeeper had initiated a conversation so there hadn't been one.
When the Corpse Hunter reached the cemetery he unlocked the gate, being sure to relock it behind himself after passing through. Then he went straight to the greenhouse beside his home and sat down in the chair in the corner.
"Fuck this world," Aiden said as he leaned back in his seat before taking a swig from the bottle.
Vagrant, who had still sat upon his shoulder, squawked in agreement.
Together they spent the remainder of the day drinking. Aiden passed out before the illusionary sun set and the equally unreal stars could come out. He wasn't in the mood for colorful lies, not tonight.
Only when the light of a new day filtered in through the windows of the greenhouse did the man in gray stir. He pulled a dry food ration from the backpack he'd set by the side of the chair. There was a mixture of bread, dried fish, and smoked meat in the meal but it all tasted flavorless to him.
Today was the day the Column decided if an eleven year old girl lived or died. A girl that Aiden had spent two days training to the best of his ability. It was hard to enjoy smoked sausage and dried sun fish with something like that weighing down upon him.
Looking down at the open bag the Corpse Hunter saw the Hands of the Hill Giant. Those rusty gauntlets saved him and Maria on more than one occasion and in the end the only reason he still had them was because she'd risked her life to get them back. If the Academy and Council had seen that or any of the other things she'd done they'd have to approve of her assessment.
Aiden grabbed the bag and went back into the shack as the vulture waddled along behind him. Even though Ethereal spirits didn't need food or water they could still get a hangover. So it wasn't surprising that the bird wasn't in the mood to fly.
Once inside the house the Corpse Hunter went to his library he replaced the books he'd borrowed. Things hadn't gone as expected so the books hadn't been as helpful as he'd hope. Not much a journal written about Minotaur mazes could help with when you didn't run into any mazes or Minotaurs.
With the books back in place he went to the den. There he opened the secret armory and put the gauntlets back where they belonged. He kept Kinsley's Lantern in the bag to get it appraised by Damian Husk the enchanter.
If the relic had any other special properties Damian would be the one to find them. Aiden also took the time to refill his bag with potions that he kept stored in the den. His reserve of consumables was now almost entirely depleted.
With a sigh the Corpse Hunter pulled his hand cart around to the front of the house and began loading up the plethora of monster parts he had stored in the basement. Replacing potions had always been easier than replacing monster parts so he didn't like to draw from them if he didn't have to.
But he was broke and needed to ensure he had a ready supply of adventuring gear. You never knew when a dozen or more Ascenders would all decide to get themselves killed in the same day. That wasn't often but when it happened it meant multiple trips back into the Dungeon which could exhaust the Corpse Hunter's supplies.
Despite the variety of claws, horns, scales, and other body parts none of what Aiden had on hand was on Damian's list. If they had he wouldn't have needed to go hunting in the Dungeon. And he never would've met Maria.
That thought crossed his mind as he loaded the last of the materials into his wagon. He hoped that chance encounter had made a difference. But he'd already done all he could and letting his mind linger on it wouldn't change anything.
Aiden pulled the loaded cart out of the graveyard and towards the market district. Damian didn't need any of the stuff in the back of the wagon but there were other shops that might buy them if he didn't.
Edgar of Edgar's Enhancements might be worth checking out along with his on again off again on again business partner whose name Aiden had already forgotten. It was generally easier to remember people that kicked his ass considering how rarely that happened.
When Aiden reached the center of town he noticed a small crowd walking down the main street. People talked in groups of twos and threes as they merged with the growing cluster of Column Dwellers. The hairs on the back of the Corpse Hunter's neck stood up as he quickly followed after the crowd.
Before long he found where his fellow citizens were headed. A dozen City Guards were lined up on either side of the large green door that led out of the Column. What looked like a young child was standing in between the guards.
Aiden approached just as a man in Ascension Academy robes was finishing his speech. "...so, in the interest of protecting the people of Plinth both the Academy and Council have unanimously ruled to exhile this Fate Holder."
Maria stood quietly as the robed man gestured broadly towards her. She clutched onto Lightbane, the magical spear that she and the Corpse Hunter found at the end of the gold quest. Atop her head was the tricorn hat she looted from the undead pirate captain that had
The adult sized hat made the girl look so much smaller than she already was. A child surrounded by adults that looked down upon her like she was some sort of monster. The Corpse Hunter knew the feeling and seeing it happening now to Maria made his blood boil.
"Bullshit!" he shouted.
The man who had been speaking stopped as he and everyone else in the crowd turned to look at the man in gray.
"You don't give a fuck about the people in this city," Aiden said when the man locked eyes with him.
"My duty as a Martinet is to…" the man started to say before he was cut off.
"To send children into the Dungeon to die?" said the Corpse Hunter. "Or were you going to say to exile and hang them when they're too strong for you to control? That's all you or any of the other Martinets have ever done for this city."
A woman near the edge of the crowd stepped forward. She too was wearing the robes of a Martinet.
"We do not take joy in carrying out our duties," the woman said firmly. "Do you think I wanted to cast my own child into the Blackened Wilds?"
Aiden glared at the woman. "If you gave a single fuck about your daughter you would've been up in the Dungeon helping her train like I was. Two days I spent with that girl in the floors above this city and that is more than any of you has ever done for her. "
"A Martinet cannot spend all their time on a single…"
"Shut you're godsdamn mouth," Aiden replied. "Or I swear to the old gods I will kill you myself and let your spirit tear this city apart."
The woman and several people nearest her all took a step back.
Elder Councilman Donovan stepped forward from the crowd. "Corpse Hunter, there is no need for this outburst. The decision has already been made. The Rift Caller is too dangerous to be allowed to remain in the city."
"My name is Aiden," the man in gray said through gritted teeth. Twenty seven years I have protected this ungrateful Column from ghosts, spectres, banshees, hollowmen and far worse. Twenty seven years and not a godsdamn person in this crowd knows my fucking name."
"We cannot reverse the decision…" Donovan said after an awkward pause.
"You can but you won't because you're a coward just like everyone else in the shithole of a city. How the hell are any of you going to save the world when you can't even save your own children?"
Aiden turned to Maria's mother. "Your daughter is twice the woman you could ever hope to be. You never deserved her and she sure as hell never deserved you."
Then he grabbed his cart and pulled it towards the gate. "Get in," he said to the Rift Caller.
She quietly climbed into the back of the wagon. As she did so the guards around them lowered their spears.
"I am leaving this city. Move or be moved," the Corpse Hunter said as he drew an orange potion from his pocket.
Landon walked over from behind the row of guards and stood before the man in gray. He wore his shiny new rank that he'd been given thanks largely to Aiden's efforts against the Copper Prince.
"Out of all the people in this Column, I always hated you the least," Aiden said. "But don't think I won't kill you if you try to stop me Landon."
"I just wanted to say goodbye," Landon said, holding his hand out.
The Corpse Hunter lowered the potion and shook the guard's hand.
"I agree with everything you said, but you were wrong about one thing."
"I know your name, Aiden. And while I won't miss cleaning your vomit off my boots, this place won't be the same without you. Good luck."
"Thanks. Tell the next Corpse Hunter I'm sorry. They don't deserve this anymore than I did. Also let Lady Edevane know she needs to take a look at a vial of black liquid in my garage. Tell her I found it in the Copper Prince's corpse and it's her problem now."
"I will," Landon said before turning to the other guards. "Let them pass."
The guards raised their spears and Aiden pulled the cart forward. Slowly the green door opened revealing a small airlock and a second green door. Once the Corpse Hunter passed through the first door it closed behind him.
Moments later the second door opened. Beyond it was pure unadulterated darkness that washed over them like an impenetrable fog. Aiden pulled the magical lantern from his bag and lit it. The darkness pulled back about sixty feet in front of him like a hand recoiling from a hot stove.
He handed the lantern to the girl in the back of the cart before beginning to pull the wagon forward.
"Where do we go now?" Maria asked.
"I don't know," Aiden said. "But we'll figure it out together.