The Pulver Chronicles – 2. A Holiday In Cambodia


Jackson got on his feet while the lieutenant went on to check on the rest of the zombies to make sure they were permanently dead. The young soldier’s legs wobbled a bit under him as he stood. Lawrence, he suddenly remembered. He searched for his bunkmate and comrade-at-arms, and found him behind a pile of lumber. Jackson gagged and let out a strangled scream when he saw him. This time, he couldn’t keep from vomiting.

“Jesus Christ,” he said weakly.

“Yes,” the lieutenant said. “Better not look at it too closely.”

The young man wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then took a deep breath. As he made a conscious effort to look away from his fallen comrade’s body, he noticed something on it; a cut, right across the forehead, that went down the bridge of his scaly nose. It looked nothing like the rest of his wounds -it was much more precise, for one. The corner of Jackson’s mouth dropped.

“Did you…” he started saying to the lieutenant. His voice croaked. He cleared his throat, then tried again. “Did you do this?”

The lieutenant looked at the cut he was pointing at, his icy blue eyes barely blinking.

“Yes, I did,” he said, his voice perfectly neutral.

“You killed him?” Jackson said with a slight stutter.

“Finished him off, more like,” the lieutenant said.

He cleaned out his ax and attached it to his belt. It didn’t look like the sort of axes the US army used; it looked like a more ancient, maybe foreign, model. It had clearly seen a lot of service, and the head seemed like it had been replaced. As he adjusted the weight on his belt, the lieutenant noticed Jackson staring at him; the young soldier realized he must have looked at him a certain way, because he said:

“He was badly wounded. Even if hadn’t turned into one of those, he would have bled out. It was mercy, trust me.”

Jackson sighed. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Is this the first time you see a dead body?”

Jackson slowly nodded. Kneeling down, he grabbed Lawrence’s tags, as well as his gold-colored Zippo lighter. He expected the lieutenant to give some kind of comforting words, or share some advice. Instead, the lieutenant grabbed his assault rifle and removed the safety, then walked out of the room.

“Let’s go,” he said.

A bit surprised, Jackson grabbed his own rifle and followed him; before he left the room, he dropped his backpack in a corner and made a mental note to come back for it. The lieutenant walked in a straight line towards the stairs, unflinching, shooting occasional glances around him.

“Where’s the rest of your unit, lieutenant?” he said.

“Dead or missing,” the lieutenant said. “Same for yours, I’m guessing.”

“I… Yeah, I’m afraid so. Look, there was someone in your unit… His name was David Schultz. Do you know what happened to him?”

“We separated when we arrived at the lake.”

“You separated? Why?”

The lieutenant climbed up the stairs without answering. Taken aback, Jackson went after him. As they reached the last stairs, the lieutenant said:

“We’re getting close.”

“Close to what?”

“To our target.”

Irritated by the officer’s laconism, Jackson barked:

“What target? Don’t tell me you’re still on with the mission!”

“New mission, new target. There is a man in this castle. We must find him and deal with him.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

They arrived at the last landing and into a long corridor. The ceiling of the top floor was noticeably higher than on the other floors, and formed an arch. Instead of the tomb-like silence in the rest of the building, Jackson could now hearken a few sounds. Some clinking and clanking, whooshing noises, and faint voices. It all seemed to come from a door located on the other side of the corridor. The lieutenant shouldered his rifle and slowly paced towards the door, the upper part of his face wrinkled with intense focus.

“Hey!” Jackson said, lowering his voice. “Talk to me. What man are you talking about? And why do we have to deal with him?”

“Just follow your orders, soldier,” the lieutenant retorted, with a slight inflection on the rank.

“Fuck no! Either you start answering, or you’re doing this alone.”

Facing the superior officer’s glare, Jackson added: “What are you gonna do? Court-martial me?”

The lieutenant grinded his teeth, then let out an explosive sigh. “Fine. Back there in the forest, my unit came upon a group of those things.”

“Zombies?”

“No, unicorns. Of course, zombies,” he said, clearly running out of patience. “They attacked us. We tried to defend our position, but they outnumbered us maybe twelve to one. I ordered the others to retreat. As we did, I spotted a man among the zombies. As in, a living person. He looked Human from what I could see. Surprisingly, the zombies didn’t attack him, even though they attacked pretty much everyone on sight. In fact, it looked like that man was commanding them.”

“Commanding them?” Jackson said. “How so?”

“He pointed at my people, and his frenzied pets attacked. When I tried to lure them into a disadvantageous position, he made a gesture, and they would come back to him. At one point, I had a clear shot of him, but one of his zombies took the bullet.

“As we got to the lake, I spotted the castle, and did some recon. I noticed some zombies coming in and out of it.”

“Wait, how did they pass the gate? Don’t tell me they know how to open doors.”

“No,” the lieutenant said. “The man opened it for them.” His voice became deeper as he added: “Remotely. Without even touching it.”

“What are you saying?”

The lieutenant shot Jackson a look that he took to mean: “you know exactly what I’m saying.”. Jackson balked, his mind suddenly reeling. What was the lieutenant implying? That this man he talked about had mind powers or something? In different circumstances, Jackson would have been excited at that mere possibility. But, at the moment, he was focused on other priorities.

“Wha… But…” he said. “Okay, but what about the rest of the unit? Why did you separate?”

“When we made it to the lake’s shore, the “rest of the unit” was just me and Schultz. I told him to stay put while I did my recon of the castle. When I came back, he was gone.”

It felt like a stone had dropped in Jackson’s stomach.

“Gone… Gone how?” he asked, his tone rising in anxiety. “Was he attacked?”

“Didn’t look like he was.” The lieutenant shook his head. “Anyway, I came back here to find that man.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Jackson said. “I want revenge too. If what you say is true, then that guy killed Lawrence, and the sergeant, and… and maybe the rest of the unit.”

He had almost said David’s name, but couldn’t.

“This isn’t about revenge,” the lieutenant said.

“No?”

“Soldiers die on assignment. It happens; that’s the job. I’m doing this out of necessity.”

“Necessity?” Jackson said, blinking his eyes dumbfoundedly.

“Whatever mess we’re in right now, I intend to survive it. And my odds of survival will increase considerably when that man is dealt with.”

Jackson blinked again, astonished at the officer’s apparent disregard for his fellow soldiers’ lives, talking about their deaths as if they were just numbers on a report. He never much liked superior officers, feeling that most if not all of them considered privates to be little more than underlings at whom they could flex their power however much they wanted. But this lieutenant just seemed… cold. The word “sociopath” came through Jackson’s brain, although he wasn’t completely sure of its definition.

No… On second thought, it wasn’t coldness or lack of caring, not really. The lieutenant looked more detached. Numb. Jaded, even. Jackson thought then: how many times has he been through this kind of shit?

While Jackson was pondering on this, the lieutenant had reached the door at the end of the corridor, and backed up against the wall beside it. He gave Jackson an upper nod, silently asking him if he was ready. Jackson gave a downward nod in response. The lieutenant reached for the handle. The door was unlocked. He slowly pushed it open.

The room it led to was circular in shape, with a domed ceiling. Jackson mentally compared it to the inside of an igloo. It was illuminated in its center by what Jackson initially thought was a bonfire. As he looked closer, however, he clearly saw that the flames floated two or three feet above the ground. Furthermore, he couldn’t see anything being burnt: no logs, no paper, no coal… Jackson’s jaw dropped. There was no doubt in his mind anymore: this was bona fide magic.

A man was standing near the fire, his long shadow dancing on the wall as the flames crackled. He stood at about five feet seven, wore a brown cape and a dark hood, and his face -the only part of his body that was visible- was almost as pale as snow. In his gloved hands, he was holding a thick book, from which he was reading out loud. As he did, Jackson thought he saw something shine on his chest, beneath his clothing, like the sun behind the clouds.

Placed against the wall were three cages, big enough to contain a person -which one of them did. Jackson peered at it; through the rusted bars, he recognized Robert Wallace. He was kneeling on the floor of his cell, his combat fatigues in tatters. The look on his face was completely blank, as if he had been drugged. Spread around the room were more zombies, standing perfectly still, turned towards the man who was without a doubt their master.

Jackson watched in stunned silence as the hooded man finished his reading. As he pronounced the last word, the flames started changing. They looked like a kaleidoscope for a moment, but almost immediately turned back to their normal color. The man affected a look of surprise. He muttered something as he peered at his book again. Then, with a groan of frustration, he pushed one of his hands in his cloak, and pulled out a small knife with a curved tip. Jackson’s blood turned into ice as he saw the hooded man walk towards Robert.

The cell’s door opened on its own, and the mage grabbed the soldier by the collar then dragged him out. Jackson barreled into the room, screaming:

“Hey, let him go!”

He heard the lieutenant mutter a curse. The young man kept his gaze fixated on the hooded man and pointed his rifle towards him. Startled, the man had almost dropped his knife on the floor. He turned to look at the two intruders. Jackson noticed he had a very short nose; it looked like it had been cut or damaged in some way.

“More of you!” the man muttered, his voice creaking like the hinges of a rusted door. He moved his knife towards Robert.

“I said: let him go!” Jackson said, aiming for the man’s head.

It happened within seconds. Undeterred by Jackson’s threat, the man pushed his knife’s blade against Robert’s throat, slashing it open just as the young soldier pressed the trigger. The bullet rippled through the air, faster than sound, straight towards the hooded man’s head… and was stopped a couple feet away from its target!

Jackson swore in stupefaction. The bullet dropped to the ground, broken in several pieces. The mage looked relieved, as if he hadn’t been certain that whatever he had done would work. He let go of Robert’s collar, who fell on the floor, a pool of his blood forming under him.

“It seems even your otherworldly weapons are no match for my power,” he said. He had a strange accent. Jackson could not place it; it sounded a bit like what he imagined rural folks would speak in England.

He dropped his book and held out his hand towards Robert. A dark thread, looking like a vein, came out of the fallen soldier’s nostril, rising up like a snake. Another similar thread came out of his other nostril, then two more from his ears and one from his mouth. They contorted in the air, forming a coil around the mage’s forearm. Jackson looked at them with a mixture of amazement and contempt. While he had no idea what exactly he was seeing, his guts were telling him it was something deeply sinister.

Jackson’s instincts kicked in, and he jumped to his right. A fraction of a second later, the threads dashed like an animal leaping, missing Jackson by a few inches and shattering a few stones in the wall behind him. He retaliated by opening fire again, but the bullets were broken mid-air once more. Cursing under his breath, he shot a look at the lieutenant, hoping he would have a plan. The lieutenant signed for him to circle around the mage.

The young soldier did so, the lieutenant providing cover fire to distract their enemy. The zombies, who so far had stood completely still, regained their mobility and moved to attack. Fortunately, they did not enjoy the same protection as their master, and the two soldiers managed to eliminate a few of them while dodging the mage’s attacks. The latter pulled more of the strange threads from Robert’s body; as he did, the corpse started to decay at an accelerated rate.

One of the threads striked so fast Jackson couldn’t dodge it entirely. It hit his helmet and broke clean through, grazing his head. He felt blood dripping on his forehead. He fired back immediately, more to divert the mage’s attention than to do any damage. It worked: the man kept his eyes focused on the young soldier, while the lieutenant quickly moved behind him, dispatching the last standing zombie as he did. Sustaining his gaze, Jackson noticed that the mage’s expression was slowly changing. His frowning was becoming more pronounced, his teeth clenched, and his jaw tensed. Jackson intuited that maintaining his forcefield -or whatever it was- was draining his stamina. He decided to test that theory by firing ten more shots at him. All missed their targets, but as they did, the mage visibly flinched. His fingers started trembling, and his knees seemed to buck under his weight.

The lieutenant noticed that too. He pulled out his ax and ran to the mage. He striked quickly, embedding his weapon deep in the space between the neck and the right shoulder. The mage screamed, more in surprise than anything else. The lieutenant moved to strike again, but the mage quickly stepped out of reach. By the way his right arm swayed at his side, it seemed like he could barely move it; yet, he didn’t seem to be in much pain. Another effect of his magic, perhaps.

“Back away!” he screamed.

He made a swift horizontal move with his left hand, and the lieutenant was suddenly launched against the wall behind him, as if an invisible giant hand had grabbed and thrown him. This is some Star Wars kind of shit, Jackson thought. The lieutenant stood up again, stumbling, a big hematoma appearing on the side of his face. The mage uttered a few syllables, then the lieutenant made a choked noise and put his hands on his throat. Black tendrils started coming out of his mouth, his nostrils, his ears, and his eyes.

“Your soul will feed the Metatron!” the mage said.

“Oh, hell no!” Jackson said as he hurtled to him.

Adrenaline kicked in in Jackson’s mind, and time slew down, as if he was watching a movie frame by frame. The young soldier jumped, shoulder first, and hit the mage hard. Both fell down on the floor, the mage’s back cushioning Jackson’s fall. Jackson looked up to the lieutenant, hoping he hadn’t been too late. The officer had dropped to its knees. The black tendrils coming out of him had grown and now looked like some sort of unnatural, dark rope, connecting his orifices to the flame.

Jackson reported his attention to the mage, who struggled to get out from under him. The man in the cowl parried his left hook, but didn’t react in time to block his right.

“Stop whatever you’re doing to him!” Jackson said, pointing at the lieutenant, who was now quivering like he was having a fit.

“Too late!” the mage said. “His fate is sealed. His soul-”

The young man’s first connected with his teeth, drawing blood from his gums and lips, and punctuating his sentence early. Jackson saw the mage’s dagger on the ground near him; he grabbed it and pressed it against its owner’s throat.

“Killing me will not undo the spell,” the mage said, trying to sound calm despite the trembling in his voice. “Nothing will.”

Jackson was about to strike him again, but as he raised his free hand, he once again saw something shine on the mage’s chest. With a quick but slightly clumsy dash of the dagger, he opened the mage’s tunic, revealing a medallion. Jackson had never seen a piece of jewelry like this one. It was a silver disc, about five inches in diameter, on which strange writings had been carved in a circle. At its center was some kind of stone, which Jackson initially thought to be an emerald. At second glance, however, it looked more like a crystal, in which something moved, as if a green flame had been encased inside. A flame… Jackson looked at the fire at the center of the room.

“You wanna bet?” he said as he cut the medallion’s loop with the dagger.

“No!” the mage said, and this time he couldn’t hide the fear in his voice.

The young soldier jumped on his feet, clutching the medallion. He had no idea what he was doing, but given how the mage had reacted, it was obvious this object was somehow important to him. The floating fire seemed to react as well. Its flames changed color, becoming iridescent. Its shape fluctuated also, as if it was blown by a nonexistent wind.

“Give this back!” the mage said.

Jackson’s intuition told him to do something very different. He looked around for a way to destroy the medallion. Before he could find anything, some of his blood dripped from his forehead onto it. The medallion then started feeling very warm against his palm. All of a sudden, the black tendrils that had connected the lieutenant and the flame reappeared, spat out by the flame, and rammed into Jackson’s chest. For a moment, Jackson stopped breathing, his lungs paralyzed by some invisible force. The mage let out a shriek of surprise and panic, which was deafened by a terrible sound coming from the medallion. It was loud and horribly shrill, like a concerto of men grinding their teeth on metal plates. Fortunately for Jackson’s ears, it only lasted a couple of seconds. Then, Jackson felt the medallion crumble into small pieces in his hand.

“You bastard!” the man in the cowl screamed out as he threw himself at Jackson. “What have you done?”

The two fell to the ground once more. Jackson’s head hit the pavement hard enough to make him see stars. His vision blurred; his grip on the dagger loosened, and the blade dropped with a metallic clatter. The mage wrapped his hands around his throat and started squeezing. Jackson reflectively grabbed his enemy’s face, trying to hurt him in any way he could: forking his eyes, twisting his nose, pulling his hair. Unfortunately, the fatigue had come back with a vengeance. Combined with the hits on his head, Jackson just couldn’t summon enough strength to free himself from the man’s clutches. The adrenaline coursing through every vein in his body was pretty much the only thing keeping him conscious.

His attention was caught by the flame once again. At first, he thought the knocks on his skull had given him visions, but as he looked again, there was no mistake: it had grown larger. In fact, it was twice the size it had a few seconds ago. And it kept growing, and growing…

“Control that thing!” Jackson croaked despite the collar of fingers squeezing the air out of him.

“I needed the medallion’s power to do that,” the mage said with a menacing snarl. “Without it, I’ll have to make do with the next best thing.”

He raised one of his hands above Jackson’s head and started muttering the strange words again. A wave of terror washed through Jackson’s body. There was no doubt in his mind that the mage was going to do to him the same thing he had done to the lieutenant. He tried to punch him out, but his fist didn’t have enough power as it connected with the mage’s jaw. His other hand patted the ground in a frenzy, trying to pick up the dagger.

It found it -painfully-, as it landed on its blade. Jackson wrapped his fingers around it, ignoring the pain and the warm liquid that began to drip along his palm, then yelled as he hit as hard as he still could with the weapon’s point. He didn’t aim his attack, but he felt it had thankfully landed on a soft part of the mage’s face. A very soft part.

Jackson blinked a couple of times. As his vision came back, he saw the mage’s face. He looked utterly stunned, his jaw slacked and his eyebrows arched. The dagger’s handle was poking out of one of his orbits, the blade having entered halfway through. A gurgling noise came out of his open mouth and his lips quivered. A darkened blood cascaded from the wound, covering his cheek and dripping down his neck.

As he gawked in horror at this morbid spectacle, Jackson thought he heard a voice sounding like the lieutenant’s in his head. Mercy, it seemed to say. His hand started moving, as if by its own volition, and, seizing the dagger by its pommel, began pushing it deeper. The mage stiffened, his remaining eye staring unblinkingly at Jackson. The light in said eye started dimming, going out shortly before the last inch of the blade entered his skull.

Jackson shuddered. The mage dropped to his side, his expression of stupefaction forever frozen on his face. The young soldier scrambled to get on his feet, twisting his ankle as he did. The flame had kept growing, and now filled just about a fourth of the room. What was more worrying, it looked more and more unstable by the second. Small bursts of fire spouted out of it, as if the whole thing was a pressure cooker about to breach the safety level.

Get out of here, the voice spoke again. Deciding this was very good advice, Jackson only took the time to grab the lieutenant and hoist him over his shoulders before he rushed to the door.

Jackson had no idea how, in his state, he managed to run down the stairs without falling or passing out. He tottered and staggered more than a drunkard on a Saturday night, but by some miracle managed to reach the ground floor before his legs gave up on him. He fell on his knees and elbows. Each of his breaths felt like a knife inside his throat. His joints hurt like there was sand in them. His head pounded so badly he felt the urge to vomit. Above him, he heard a loud detonation which shook the entire castle. Dust dropped from the ceiling, followed by a couple of stones.

“Can’t stop here. The whole thing’s going to collapse.”

This time, Jackson was sure of it: this was the lieutenant’s voice. He was still alive! This realization gave him a second breath, which proved just enough to lead him through the castle’s gate. A chaos of sounds erupted behind him as he passed the bailey, but he didn’t even have the energy to glance above his shoulder. His eyelids felt heavier than the lieutenant on his back. Eventually, he stopped struggling to keep them open. Something felt cold and wet against the side of his face… Then, suddenly, all of the pain was gone from his body. All was quiet and numb. So comfortably numb…

The sun was warm and shiny. Jackson was so sweaty he kept his arms close to his sides to hide his pit stains. He didn’t want Clara to see that. He crossed the grass field between their houses, and there she was, her smile brighter than the sunlight as it reflected in her sunglasses. She looked more beautiful than usual in her denim pants, and her yellow T-shirt that contrasted neatly with her dark skin; as often, she smelled of lavender. Her black, frizzy hair moved with the wind like a bush. Jackson’s heart started beating faster the closer he got to her.

“Jack!” she said. “You need to get out.”

“I know your father doesn’t want me around,” he said. “But I need to tell you something.”

“Is it about the dirt?”

“Huh?” Jackson said. He then noticed he had dirt on his face. Weird. It was wet and cold, too. He tried to brush it off, but his hand wouldn’t move. Wait, that wasn’t important.

“No, no. Clara, I like you. Will you go out with me?”

Clara laughed. It didn’t sound like she was mocking him, more like she thought Jackson was making a joke.

“But Jack, I can’t go out with you. You need to get out!”

“What do you mean? Why do I need to get out?” Jackson said.

“You do!” she insisted. “You need to, you have to. Out of your mind, out of this world!”

She laughed again.

“But I don’t… Clara, please, just one date.”

Schlack! Jackson blinked in surprise. Clara had just slapped her; she was surprisingly strong despite her petite body. Why did she do that, though? She didn’t look mad. She didn’t look happy, either. And… wait… actually, she didn’t look like Clara at all. It was David he had been talking to this whole time. He was wearing the same clothes. Easy mistake. 

“Dave?” Jackson said.

Schlack! He got slapped again.

“Gotta go, Jack,” David said.

“I can’t! You’re here. You’re somewhere! I’m not leaving you behind.”

“No, you have to go. But that’s okay. I knew it would end like this. Get up. You’ve always been a wanderer. Can’t change that. When you’re not on the move, you’re on the run. Can’t change that. Get up! You stop somewhere, you try something new, then you move on to the next thing. Can’t change that.”

“Dave, that’s not-”

Schlack!

“Come on, get up!”

Why did David’s voice sound so deep? And since when did he have a goatee? He never liked facial hair; he could never pull it off, he said. Also, he never had that look in his eyes. Jackson couldn’t describe it. It was intense, somber, like something inside him had died.

“Now is not the time for your beauty sleep, princess. You need to get up and get out of here.”

David changed. He became taller, his face sharper, and his hair longer. The decor changed as well. Jackson’s surroundings became a bit darker, especially the greenery. Even the sun changed, like it grew colder somehow. Then, Jackson gradually understood that he was lying down on the ground. The pain came back, bit by bit. First the head, then the elbows and the arms, finally the knees and the calves.

Jackson groaned as he opened his eyes again. The lieutenant was looking down at him. In the background, Jackson could see the forest’s canopy. By the color of the sky, he noticed that the sun had begun to rise.

“Finally,” the lieutenant said. “You need to get moving.”

“Wh-what happened? What’s going on?”

“You lost consciousness. I hear people coming.”

“People?” Jackson said as he sat up. “Who?”

“Don’t know, but they’re not from our unit. Come on, we have to go.”

The young soldier groaned again as he rubbed his temple. The bleeding on his head had stopped, but the migraine was apparently here to stay. Earlier, Jackson could swear something was ricocheting inside his skull, but now it was like his head was a pressure cooker without a safety valve. He stood up, a bit too fast, and noticed a moment too late that the ground he had been lying on was sloped. Jackson fell once again, and got a mouthful of wet dirt, with a side of grass.

“Ah, goddamnit!”

“Be quiet,” the lieutenant said.

Lending an ear, Jackson could hear the sounds of dead leaves being stepped on, the brushing of bushes, the cracking of branches. They came from different directions, spread out all over the forest, encircling Jackson and the lieutenant. Soon, they started hearing voices, calling out to each other.

“Too late,” the lieutenant said.

“I’m ready,” Jackson said as he checked his rifle.

“Put that away, you idiot,” the other said curtly. “And hide it. There could be dozens of them. Or hundreds. The last thing we’ll want is to engage them.”

Jackson frowned at the name-calling, but obediently put the safety back on his weapon, and dropped it in a nearby bush. He then took out his Beretta M9 and tried to put it away in his backpack, only to remember he had taken it off. Jackson looked back at where he thought the castle was, but only saw more trees. There was no going back to get it, it seemed. After some thinking, he opted to hide his gun in the back of his pants, and pulled his fatigues over it. As to the lieutenant, he seemed to have lost his weapons during the ride.

“So what do we do?” Jackson said.

“We wait, and we see.”

“What if they’re with that mage guy?”

“We’ll have to hope they’re not.”

That answer did not satisfy Jackson, but he simply crossed his arms and sighed. After a moment, he saw a face through the trees. It was a male figure, half obscured by some sort of light brown leather cowl. The man saw him too, and called out to the others. Soon, one, then two, then four, then ten people came out and approached Jackson and the lieutenant.

A strange feeling got a hold of Jackson as he looked at the men and women around him. They were dressed in strange clothes that seemed to come straight out of a period drama. Jackson couldn’t name a single of their pieces of clothing, but he was certain he had seen them, or something looking like them, in some medieval-themed movie. They even had the weapons to match: bows, swords and spears.

Those equipped with bows were dressed light, and mostly in leather. The ones wielding swords and spears, however, wore a heavy-looking suit of armor made out of chainmail and some kind of blue and red sleeveless overcoat. On that overcoat (Jackson would later learn it was actually called a tabard) was displayed a large sigil: an open eye with a dark iris and a clear pupil. Jackson immediately thought of the knights from some of those comic books he used to read when he was younger.

He realized the strange men and women were looking at him the same way he looked at them. Clearly, they found his accoutrement as peculiar as he found theirs. Some even seemed to hide their smiles. One stepped forward. It was a woman wearing a suit of black and white armor which covered her entire body. The outline of her face was covered by a steel helmet, with its visor opened. She had olive skin, and a scar barred her left eye, which was of a slightly different hue of blue than the right. Her right hand was placed upon the handle of her sheathed sword, on her left hip, but she seemed perfectly calm. She was about one or two inches shorter than Jackson.

“Who are you?” she said, looking straight at the young man.

“How about you tell us who you are first?” Jackson said.

“Now’s not the time to play smart,” the lieutenant said in a low voice. “They don’t look hostile; let’s keep it that way.”

He stepped carefully towards the woman and said: “I am Lieutenant Byron. We’re not here to cause you any trouble.”

The woman ignored him and kept staring at Jackson, her gaze stronger. Feeling ill at ease, he decided to answer the question too:

“My name’s Jackson Pulver. I’m just a private.”

She squinted a bit. “Are you the one who killed the necromant, Jackson Pulver?”

“The…” Jackson said.

Necromant? She must have meant that man with the weird powers, who seemed like he was ordering those zombies around. Jackson shot the lieutenant a look, silently asking him whether or not to answer that. The lieutenant nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Yeah, I am. But he tried to kill me first.”

He had added that last part without thinking. Jackson had always felt queasy when questioned by figures of authority -in no small part due to his time in the army-, which this woman clearly was.

“You don’t appear to have any weapons,” the woman said. “Surely you didn’t kill him with your bare hands?”

“No, I… I stabbed him. He had this dagger, and… uh-”

“Are you alone?” she interrupted.

“No,” the lieutenant said. “We were twelve in total. The zombies got some of us.”

“The rest must be around somewhere,” Jackson added.

The woman wordlessly gestured to some of her people, and two men and another woman left without a word.

“On whose orders did you come here?” she asked.

“Uh… Sergeant Duval, I guess. Probably someone above her, I don’t know.”

“Where is she?”

“I think she’s dead,” Jackson said, his lips curling downwards. Growing impatient, he blurted out: “Look, who are you? Why do you all look like you’ve come from the Renaissance fair or something?”

“Do you still not get it?” the lieutenant said.

“I guess I don’t,” he said. “Why don’t you do the talking? You’re the officer.”

The man behind the lieutenant, a middle-aged spearman with a large nose and thick lips, jerked his head in surprise, then pointed at himself with obvious confusion.

“Who are you talking to?” the woman in armor said.

“What do you m-” Jackson said, annoyed, but he was cut off by the sound of someone calling.

“Ho there!” the male voice said from behind a bush, a short distance away down the slope. “There’s another body here.”

The woman in armor went to see, as did several of her people. Jackson followed, expecting someone to stop him, but no one did. Please don’t be Dave, please don’t be Dave, he thought.

It fortunately wasn’t David Schultz, but Jackson was still in shock when he recognized the deceased. It was impossible… It simply couldn’t be. And yet, there was no mistake. The young soldier immediately turned to look at the lieutenant, whose expression he couldn’t even begin to describe. Jackson had never had a large vocabulary, after all, and as far as he knew, there had never been a word for the emotion one displays when staring down at one’s own corpse.

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