The Pulver Chronicles – 3. Watch It Die


Jackson moved in silence through the trees. One of the soldiers was walking in front of him, and another one behind him; both had been ordered to stick close to him, but neither seemed to want to be too close to him. 

It seemed like Jackson’s brain had stopped working. Certainly, it had given up on trying to make sense of what was happening around him, to the point where he barely even paid attention to anything. Several times, he had tripped on a rock or a root. That’s not to say he couldn’t think. Quite the opposite, in fact: he couldn’t stop thinking. A million thoughts assaulted his mind at the same time. Thoughts about where he was. Thoughts about where these strange people were taking him. Thoughts about what would happen to him from now on. How he was hungry. How he was thirsty. And, above all, how much he needed to sleep. Each of these thoughts was quickly chased away by the next, leaving him unable to focus. His head was a crowded hive which wouldn’t stop buzzing.

Eventually (Minutes later? Hours later? Jackson had no idea), the group of twenty or so people reached the end of the forest. Beyond the treeline were large crop fields; Jackson barely noticed them, but he saw tall plants that looked like wheat growing on them. They followed a dirt path, leading to a village. “Village” might have been not be the proper word for what was just a smattering of wooden houses, but Jackson couldn’t think of any other. On the other side of that small village was a camp consisting of about a dozen tents, surrounded by a trench and a small wooden wall. Jackson was wordlessly led into one of the tents. Although he wasn’t explicitly ordered to wait there and not try to go anywhere, he could see two guards in front and one walking back and forth in the back, clearly to make sure he stayed there.

The tent was just high enough for Jackson to stand in it, although his head was pressed against the roof. At the other end was a small table, with a cup and a plate made out of clay placed on it. Aside from that, the only furniture was a sleeping bag made out of an animal’s fur -it reminded Jackson of a buffalo’s fur, except yellow-ish in color. Jackson sat on it, then dropped on his side. It was about as comfortable as what he had gotten used to in the army, and smelled like goats. But it hardly mattered; tired as he was, Jackson would have slept directly on the ground, had he had to.

Jackson couldn’t think of a time where he had a more restful sleep. It went so fast he woke up before he realized he had fallen asleep. As he sat up, he felt a sharp pain down his spine. It seemed he had rolled on his back during his sleep, and had forgotten the gun he had hidden in his trousers. With a grunted swear, he took it out and threw it on the ground, where it landed near a pair of boots.

The young soldier raised his head. In front of him sat the lieutenant, still here even though he wasn’t. Jackson blinked, then rubbed his eyes. He didn’t expect that to work, and it didn’t. Then, he felt his forehead with his wrist. No fever, although he was sweaty. Jackson took a deep breath, then decided to lie back down and go back to sleep.

“You can’t just ignore me,” the lieutenant -the thing that looked like the lieutenant– said.

“Watch me.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m not a hallucination, or a dream, or whatever you’re thinking.”

“Yes, you are. You’re dead, so you’re not here. Period.”

“I am dead,” the thing said, “but I am also here.

“No,” Jackson said, plugging his ears with his fingers. “No, no, NO.”

The lieutenant said something else, but Jackson talked over him: “This whole thing’s a fucking nightmare. First, the zombies. Then, that weirdo with the weird powers. Now, those freaks dressed like in that stupid George Lucas movie. And finally, this. It’s a nightmare, that’s what it is.”

A sharp pain stung his ribs on the left side of his chest. Jackson shot an angry look at the lieutenant.

“Did you just kick me?!”

“You need to snap out of it. This is not a nightmare either.”

“Yeah? Well, what is it, then?”

The lieutenant sighed. “I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s real. And I’m real… I think.”

“Dude, you stared at your own fucking corpse. How can you even think you’re real?” Jackson looked at his hands and shook his head. “And why am I even fucking talking to you? Am I going crazy? Is that how it starts?”

The other pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “Look, I don’t know, okay? I’m dead, and yet, I’m still here. For crying out loud, I didn’t even realize I was dead until I saw…”

He didn’t finish his sentence.

“Then what are you?” Jackson said.

“I have no idea!” he snapped. “Some kind of ghost, for all I know. I’m guessing whatever happened to me was because of that necromant.”

“You can’t be a ghost, you just kicked me!” Jackson thought for a second. “Wait. Did you also slap me, when I passed out in the forest?”

“Yes, several times. You were out like a light.”

Jackson extended his arm and pushed the tips of his fingers into the lieutenant’s cheek. He could actually feel the officer’s skin, but it was off. There was no warmth, for one thing -it wasn’t cold, just not warm-, and the texture was… wrong. Jackson couldn’t explain how, but his intuition told him that was not how the lieutenant’s skin was supposed to feel. His fingers lingered there until the lieutenant pushed his hand away.

“You can touch me, and I can touch you,” Jackson said. “Unless that’s just my mind playing tricks on me.”

“For the last time, I’m not a product of your imagination, or a symptom of any mental illness. If I was, how could I have touched you while you were unconscious?”

“Well… maybe I just dreamt that.”

“I have half a mind to slap you again,” the officer said with a glare. “Oh, there’s something else.”

He stood up and went to the table. His hand moved to take the cup, but instead passed clean through it without budging it even a little.

“This is… Fuck,” Jackson said.

“I believe that about sums it up,” the lieutenant said.

“How the hell is that even possible?” 

Jackson wasn’t sure whether he had asked that to the lieutenant or to himself.

“Let’s focus on something else, given that we’re clearly not going to solve this now,” the lieutenant said. “Let’s ascertain our situation, and decide our next move.”

“Okay,” the young man shrugged. “Well, as for our situation, it’s pretty simple: I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“You can say that again. We’re not even on Earth anymore.”

“I…” Jackson balked. “You sure about that?”

“You’re not? Feel the temperature.”

Jackson half-closed his eyes and did so.

“Hmm. It’s kinda warm, I guess?”

“It is. It feels like a nice day of spring. But if you remember, it was a cold winter day when we left the base.”

“Yeah… So… But… Maybe we traveled back in time, or something?”

The lieutenant looked annoyed. “Granted, my last history lesson takes me a few years back, but I don’t remember a single period of time where magic existed. Not to mention female knights.”

Jackson bit his lip. “Right, I knew it was stupid when I said it. So, we traveled to a different world. One with magic and necromants and female knights and shit.”

“Yes, a different world. Yet, one that’s similar to our own in several ways. Humans exist there too, for one thing. As do Humanoids.”

“Humanoids? I didn’t notice.”

“That knight… Something tells me she’s not Human. Call it a hunch.”

“The girl with the armor? Yeah… I guess there was something weird about her.”

“The atmosphere is breathable, too,” the lieutenant continued. “The flora looked familiar; the pine trees and such… And then, there’s the biggest thing -and the strangest, too.”

“What’s that?”

“Everybody here seems to speak English.”

Jackson let out a “huh”. “Oh, yeah… I didn’t even notice that. How is that the strangest thing, though?”

“We’re in a completely different world, probably with completely different cultures, completely different countries, and a completely different geography, yet the language is the same?”

“Well, they talk a bit funny… But, yeah, that is weird.”

He pursed his lips and tutted, then dropped on his bed, arms crossed beneath his head. The lieutenant scratched his chin.

“The question is: how do we get back?” he said.

“Get back?” Jackson said. “Why would we get back?”

The lieutenant did a double take. “You’re joking, right?”

“Hell no, I’m not joking. We’re in some kind of crazy fantasy world, with knights and magic. People dream about this kind of shit. Hey, maybe there are dragons, too. Maybe I even have magical powers now!”

“Don’t you have anything to go back to?” the lieutenant said, incredulous. “What about your family?”

“My family? Why d’you think I joined the army the day after I turned eighteen?”

“I didn’t know you did that, actually. What about friends? Girlfriend?”

“No. Well, there’s Dave,” Jackson said. “And he’s on this side, somewhere.”

“Schultz? He’s probably dead by now.”

“Bullshit,” the young man spat. “Did you find his body?”

“No, but it’s very possible that his body might find us.”

“Hey!”

Jackson jumped on his feet and walked into the lieutenant’s personal space -if such a notion still made sense for someone in his particular situation. He tried to stare him down, nevermind that the officer had two inches on him.

“He. Is. NOT. Dead. You hear me?”

The lieutenant cleared his throat and pointed behind Jackson. A soldier had opened the tent and poked his head in. He was looking at Jackson with bemusement.

“Who are you talking to?” he said. By his tone, Jackson guessed he was trying to go for commanding, but had little experience in it. The young man shrugged in lieu of an answer.

“Inquisitor Keziah demands to see you,” the soldier said.

Jackson assumed he was referring to that lady with mismatched eyes. An Inquisitor, he had called her? As in, the Inquisition? As in, those religious nuts who burned witches? Clenching his teeth, Jackson decided he had better keep quiet about where he came from. He could foresee two different scenarios if he let it slip that he was from a different world. One: they wouldn’t believe him, and would declare him a heretic or a nutjob, and treat him accordingly (they burned crazy people in the Middle Ages, right?). Two: they would believe him, and he would become the medieval equivalent of a lab rat, being dissected in an attempt to understand how he managed to travel from another world, not to mention all the technological secrets he could harbor. He accompanied the soldier to another tent, a much larger one that was basically a marquee. The lieutenant was still with him.

“Better not talk to me in front of witnesses,” he said. “We don’t need them to think you’ve got a screw loose.”

Works for me, Jackson thought. The least I talk to you, the better I’ll be.

“Why, thank you,” the lieutenant said, and Jackson gasped -thankfully too low for the soldier to hear.

“Don’t tell me I have to watch my thoughts,” Jackson said in his mind.

“Not all of them. It seems I can only hear those you mean for me to hear.

“That’s reassuring. Kinda.”

The woman -rather, the Inquisitor– was hunched over a large table, her metal-gloved hands browsing through a pile of yellowed sheets of paper. Looking closer, Jackson decided it was probably not paper; at least, not the kind of paper he was used to. It looked rougher and thicker. Copious amounts of text were handwritten on several of those sheets. Jackson tried to peek, but the inquisitor placed them in a leather folder before he could get close enough, leaving just a couple of blank sheets, an inkwell, and a quill on the desk. She nodded to the soldier, who made himself scarce. Jackson noticed she had taken off her helmet, revealing short, boyish black hair.

“We have found the necromant’s body,” she said, raising her head to look Jackson straight in the eyes.

“Just now? How did you know he was dead if you hadn’t found his body?” Jackson couldn’t help but ask.

The Inquisitor cocked an eyebrow, as if she found the question strange. “I have sensed his power wither, then douse.”

She had sensed his power? Did that mean she had magical powers, too? Maybe she could tell if Jackson had some, as well…

“In addition,” she continued, “the fact that the castle he had found refuge in was destroyed was evidence enough.”

“Oh, right, yeah.”

“My people have also found several bodies in the forest, wearing clothing similar to yours.”

Jackson’s throat tightened. Bodies. Not people.

“Did you find any survivors?”

“None so far.”

He tried to swallow, and keep his calm. There was another question he had to ask, a question that was burning his brain and stinging his tongue. But he wasn’t sure he had the courage to ask it; he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to know the answer. No, he had to know. He had to.

“Those bodies… Did you find… Was there…”

Jackson cleared his throat, his heart racing.

“Was there a guy, early twenties, with short brown hair, and blue eyes? He had the name “Schultz” stitched on his clothes.”

The Inquisitor shook her head, and Jackson breathed easier. But then, she said:

“I couldn’t tell you. I barely saw the bodies.”

“Okay, but… Did your men see them? Did they, uh… describe them, or bring them back?”

“I’m afraid that would be impossible.”

“What? Why?”

“Because they were burned,” she said with a tone that implied it was supposed to be obvious.

“What?!” Jackson exclaimed.

“Of course,” the lieutenant said, and Jackson almost jumped out of his skin, having completely forgotten about him. “They couldn’t take the chance that they might come back as zombies.”

Jackson’s mouth suddenly felt as dry as if he had been made to eat cotton. He knew many of -hell, let’s face it: most of– his unit had died, but to learn that their very bodies had been destroyed made it worse, somehow. It was as if they were completely gone, even more so than before. Lawrence, Robert, Bonnie, Myriam, the sergeant…

Something looking like sympathy altered the polished mirror that was the inquisitor’s face.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Their bodies had been cleansed before they were destroyed. Thus, their souls will find rest. Seek comfort in that, Jackson Pulver.”

Jackson had no idea what she was talking about, so those words offered little comfort. He sighed and rubbed his throat.

“I have never seen armor such as yours,” the Inquisitor said. “Where did you say you came from?

“I didn’t,” Jackson said.

Not a single feature of the inquisitor’s changed, but Jackson could tell she didn’t appreciate the wisecrack.

“Have you been sent here specifically to hunt the necromant?”

“No,” he said.

“Why were you sent here, then?”

Her tone was devoid of any emotion, but the rhythm of her questions and their content reminded Jackson of the time he had been interrogated by police officers -that was years ago, something about a joyride.

“Field training,” he said.

This time, something subtle changed on the Inquisitor’s face. Jackson knew what it was from experience: she suspected he was hiding something.

“I do not recognize your colors,” she said. “Are you with the imperial army? Or one of the marquesses’?

“Careful,” the lieutenant said.

Imperial? There was an empire? Was Jackson currently on its lands? He decided it would be safer picking the other option.

“One of the marquesses’,” he replied, slightly butchering the pronunciation of the last word.

“Which one?” the inquisitor immediately asked. “Iorcran? Dolory?”

“Iorcran,” Jackson said, doing his utmost to keep a poker face. Just as he answered, he saw that the lieutenant had unsuccessfully tried to signal him.

“Iorcran is a duke,” she said. “His fief is the Fingers Archipelago, in the Dimming Sea, far away from here.”

Shit.

Jackson bit his tongue in frustration and concern. Clearly, the inquisitor had experience in interrogations. The lieutenant pinched his nose and sighed.

“Oldest trick in the book,” he said.

“Right, well…” Jackson mumbled. “Guess I got my titles confused. All nobles are the same, and…”

“Duke Iorcran doesn’t have an army, either. He doesn’t have the right to levy troops.”

“Maybe I’m remembering the name wrong,” he said, his heart beating painfully fast.

“No,” the Inquisitor simply said.

“You should just quit while you’re ahead,” the lieutenant said.

The woman stood up, and crossed her arms, her eyes piercing right through Jackson’s skull as if she was looking for her answers directly inside his brain.

“I’ll repeat the question. Who sent you here?”

Jackson tried to sustain her gaze, but couldn’t help but look away. The Inquisitor stepped around the table and got close to him.

“We of the Inquisition have an excellent way of obtaining the truth,” she said, “even from the most reluctant. For a variety of reasons, I’d rather not do that. Therefore, I will ask once more, and this time I suggest you be more forthcoming. Who sent you there?

“What the hell is she gonna do to me?” Jackson mentally said to the lieutenant.

“Nothing good.”

“Then, what do I tell her?”

Before the lieutenant could answer, the Inquisitor suddenly grabbed Jackson’s chin with her left hand. Her eyes turned entirely white, her pupils seemingly fading. Then, it was like a flare went off in Jackson’s mind. Whatever was done to him wasn’t really painful, more a combination of disconcerting sensations. His ears started ringing, cold sweat dripped down his forehead, and he struggled to focus. Neither his hands nor his feet could move.

“Did the Hexacracy send you?” the Inquisitor said, her voice sounding much deeper.

“No.” Jackson replied without thinking. The moment he had heard the question, it was like a red-hot needle had been inserted in his brain, forcing a truthful answer out of it.

“Do you work for the Archdemons?”

“No.”

What the hell’s an Archdemon?

“Damnit,” the lieutenant said. “Looks like our inquisitor has got a magical equivalent to a truth serum. Except it actually works.”

“What do I do?” Jackson thought-said.

“Do you work for the Empire?” the Inquisitor said.

“No.”

“She only asks yes or no questions,” the lieutenant noted. “Maybe that’s the best way to get clear answers.”

“Do something!”

“Like what? I’m dead. The only thing I can…”

His face lightened up.

“Hold on. I can actually… feel what she’s doing to you.”

“What?!” Jackson said. “How?”

“I have no idea. But I can sense how she’s affecting your mind. Hang on a second.”

He closed his eyes. One second later, Jackson’s mind seemed to clear up somewhat.

“Then who sent you here?” the inquisitor said.

This time, Jackson managed to refrain from answering. This caught her interrogator off-guard. She tried another question:

“Are you from the Southern Marches?”

Jackson groaned, but otherwise kept quiet.

“Hmph,” the inquisitor said. “It seems you have been trained to resist mindclearing. Not a common trait for simple soldiers.”

“How are you doing this?” Jackson mentally asked the lieutenant.

“Explanations later,” he said, his voice strained. “Tell her exactly what I tell you. You think you can do that?”

“I…”

“Your resistance will fail eventually,” the Inquisitor said. “You do not want that to happen. For the last time, who sent you here?”

The young man let out a strangled noise, then said: “Our sergeant told us we had been hired by a noble from the Empire. She didn’t tell us who, or what the assignment was. We were told not to tell anyone about what we were doing.”

The lines were fed to him by the lieutenant, but it was more like he was talking directly through Jackson’s mouth. That thing the inquisitor was doing to him (Mindclearing, she had called it? His mind felt anything but clear.) made formulating coherent thoughts difficult; it was like trying to run underwater. He understood that this was probably the point: if he couldn’t think straight, he couldn’t make up a lie.

“Are you really mercenaries?” the inquisitor said.

“Yes,” Jackson -or rather the lieutenant- said. “We’re a small band called the Eagle Squadron. Most of us are former conscripts of the imperial army. After the end of our service, we got hired as mercenaries.”

“Did you know about the necromancer?”

“I didn’t! Maybe the sergeant knew.”

Finally, mercifully, the Inquisitor released Jackson from her grasp. He half fell on the table, holding on to it with quivering hands.

“I see,” she said. “It seems that whoever hired you has sent you to the slaughter.”

She went to open a small chest and took out an iron pitcher and a cup. She filled the cup with an orange-red liquid and held it out to Jackson. With a lot of leeriness, Jackson accepted the cup and very carefully dipped his lips in its content. It was beer, but with a stronger taste -and likely a higher alcohol percentage- than he was used to. Still, he took a sip, then another, then another, and finally emptied the cup.

“My apologies for this treatment,” the Inquisitor said. “We’ve had more than a few spies around here, not to mention the Redthroats. The Inquisition doesn’t much like its reputation for paranoia, but unfortunately circumstances often force us to live up to it.”

Jackson put the cup on the table. The Inquisitor wordlessly filled it up again, then placed the pitcher near him. He nodded his thanks and drank in silence for a little while.

“I believe you were honest when you told me how the necromancer died,” the Inquisitor said.

Jackson took another sip and licked his lips.

“Not many people, soldiers or otherwise, could face a necromant and live,” she said. “To say nothing of killing him in close combat.”

“He nearly killed me,” he said. “Killed one of my friends right in front of me, too.”

“Their kind cares very little for the value of life,” the Inquisitor said. “Or rather, they value it in quite a different manner. Few people know of this, and I’ll appreciate it if you did not spread the word, but souls and life force are akin to a currency to them and to their masters.”

“Their masters?”

“We strongly suspect that the Archdemons provide many of them with their powers and knowledge of the Second Forbidden Arcane. Quite a few of the villages and settlements down south have been attacked by their bands of undead.”

“That’s why you’re here, I’m guessing.”

“That’s one of the main reasons, yes.”

Jackson waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

“So what happens now?” he said. “Am I free to go?”

“We have no intention of putting you in the stocks for eliminating one of our enemies,” the Inquisitor said with a narrow smile. “In fact, this brings me to the second subject I wished to discuss with you. You may be aware that the Inquisition places bounties on certain people. This included our late necromant. I suppose you’ll want to claim it.”

“Do it, Pulver,” the lieutenant said. “Wherever we are, money can only help us.”

“Like I was gonna turn down free cash!” Jackson thought-said. Out loud, he said: “Sure.”

The woman nodded, then went back to her chest. After a bit of rummaging, and a few metallic sounds, she stood up, holding a leather purse the size of a fist. She threw it on the table and said:

“Two hundred gold oxen. You’ll have no difficulty using them in the Marches. As far as I know, there’s even some traders in the Hexacracy who will accept them -not openly, of course.”

Marches? Hexacracy? Jackson tried not to show his confusion. He grabbed the money; he could make sense of that, at least. Opening up the purse, he dropped some of its coins in his palm. They indeed seemed to be made out of gold, and were minted in an octogonal shape with rounded corners. One side was decorated with the face of a bull -well, an ox, Jackson guessed-; on the other was the rough profile of a man wearing a crown, adorned with the inscription : “HELBERT STEEDIAN II 799-811”. Jackson assumed this man was some kind of ruler -the Emperor, maybe?

“Where is your home, mercenary?” the Inquisitor asked. “Is it in the Marches? If you know how to ride, I could lend you a horse, provided you live near one of our commanderies.”

“I live, uh… very far from here.”

“In the north, I would presume? I can’t place your accent.”

Does she still think I’m hiding something? No, it didn’t sound like she was. Her tone had changed to something more conversational and less offputting; plus, Jackson figured she would have used her freaky Touch of Mental Confusion thing again.

In fact, now that the interrogation was over and that her initial suspicions were cleared, she seemed a lot more approachable. Jackson still wouldn’t go out for drinks with her -well, in the figurative sense-, but she didn’t at all fit the idea he had of an Inquisitor. She reminded him more of the late sergeant Duval: stern, professional, yet still human. Actually… Was she Human? The lieutenant had suggested otherwise. And she could do magic, but maybe that was typical of Humans in this world.

“Like I said, it’s very far from here,” he answered. “It’s a small village… You wouldn’t know it.”

“I see. My offer still stands, however. I can have a horse lended to you. It’s a two weeks ride to the imperial border. I’d be careful, though. There are almost no paved roads around here, and the Redthroats are rather active ever since the end of winter.”

“It’s fine, actually. I wasn’t planning on getting back home.”

This was technically not a lie. Moreover, Jackson didn’t want to travel for weeks to some Empire he knew nothing about. He decided it would be better to stay in the vicinity, at least he could learn a bit more about this world.

“You wish to stay in the Southern Marches?” the Inquisitor said, arching her eyebrows. “Well, there’s certainly no shortage of work for mercenaries, here.”

“As good a plan as any,” the lieutenant said. “Ask her where the nearest town is.”

Jackson did.

“There’s a bigger village not ten leagues away, but if you want a real city, there’s Atvello, on the coast. You’ll have to travel further west, which will bring you closer to the Hexacracy and its influence. The city itself is a free port, however.”

“Sounds good,” Jackson said. “How far is it?”

“Three, maybe four days travel, depending on the weather; only a day’s ride, though. The Inquisition has a commandery outside the city walls, so again if you wish for a horse…”

“Yeah, I’d appreciate that.”

The Inquisitor nodded, and went to call a guard posted in front of her tent.

“Don’t leave just yet,” the lieutenant said. “There’s one more thing we need to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Our unit’s guns. We have to recover them.”

Jackson scratched his neck. “Shit, yeah. We could –I could use that firepower, especially if there are more crazies out there like that necromant guy.”

“What I’m more concerned about is letting pieces of advanced technology -military technology, at that- in a world that’s apparently centuries away from developing it.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“It would be good to recover some of their equipment, too. Rations, tents, sleeping bags… If we’re lucky, those will still be where the bodies were.”

“All right,” the Inquisitor said after a short conversation with the guard. “You’ll have a rouncey available in a moment. I’m afraid I can’t spare any courser or charger. One of our pathfinders will accompany you.”

“That’s fine, thanks,” Jackson said, although he once again wasn’t sure what she was talking about. Rouncey? Charger? Were those kinds of horses? “There’s something I need to ask.”

“Yes?”

“Where did you burn my friends’ bodies? I’d like to see them.”

The Inquisitor nodded again. “Yes, I understand. My pathfinder can escort you to the sites of the burnings.” She sighed. “I will not lie to you: there is not much to see. We burned them as we found them; we couldn’t afford to give them any proper funeral rites.”

“Yeah,” Jackson mumbled.

She placed her fist on her chest, and bowed slightly.

“Farewell, Jackson Pulver. Oh, and if you’re looking for well-paid work around here, know that the Inquisition could very much use a mercenary able to defeat a necromant.”

“I’ll think about it,” Jackson said. Yeah, no thanks, he thought. Pretty sure I need to stay clear of those guys.

He awkwardly imitated her fist-on-chest gesture, assuming this was this world’s version of a handshake. It seemed he hadn’t done it completely right, as the Inquisitor looked a little surprised -and possibly miffed?- when he left her tent.

“I think you should have bowed deeper,” the lieutenant said.

“Why?”

“It’s common in cultures where bowing is used as a greeting. The higher someone’s status, the lower you’re supposed to bow. That woman was clearly of higher rank, and you’re just some common soldier -a mercenary, in fact, which may be worse.”

“Oh, well,” Jackson shrugged. It wouldn’t be the first time he was not as respectful to an authority figure as he was expected to be.

A middle-aged woman in leather armor, wearing a half-cape of mottled fur and a pair of mud-stained leather boots, approached him. In between chewing something, she laconically introduced herself as his guide (or “pathfinder”, as she said). When Jackson asked her if she meant she was going to guide him to his unit’s bodies or to the city, she simply answered “yes”. Jackson made a small detour by his tent to grab his pistol, not wanting to leave it behind.

The scout walked straight ahead, in complete silence, occasionally glancing at Jackson to make sure he was keeping up with her. She didn’t talk at all, only using her mouth to chew -Jackson still wasn’t sure what. At some point, she spat whatever it was out, grabbed something from a pouch of her saddle and slipped it in her mouth, then resumed her mastication. They trekked for about an hour, then arrived in front of a large depression. At its bottom were three bodies.

Jackson observed them, his jaw clenching painfully. The bodies themselves had been burned to the point where all that remained were charcoal-colored skeletons, yet their military clothing showed no trace of burning. Guess that’s what she meant by “cleansed”. Two of them were laying on the ground, one face up, the other face down. The third body, the closest to Jackson, was seated against a tree stump, leaning to its right, clutching an assault rifle close to its chest. Jackson approached it and removed the rifle to see the name labeled on its fatigues. Carey.

“Ah, godammit,” he sighed.

“She still has all of her weapons,” the lieutenant said, pointing at the sidearm still in her holster. “It seems they didn’t even touch the bodies, probably out of fear that they could turn into zombies.”

He crouched near Carey’s body, examining her with professional interest.

“I have no idea how they managed to burn the bodies and leave their equipment intact,” the lieutenant said. “More magic? In any case, that makes things better for us.”

“D’you think I should bury them?” Jackson said, barely listening to him.

“All ten of them? Well, eleven, counting myself. That would take you an entire day.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t know, I’d feel like a jerk if I didn’t do anything. Maybe just…”

Jackson moved Carey’s neckband, and grabbed her identification tags, ripping their chain. Never knew she was a Baptist, he thought as he read them before putting them away. As he stood over her burnt skeleton, he thought of saying a prayer, but in spite of having attended Sunday school for a few years, he really couldn’t think of one. With another sigh, he settled for improvising a few words, wishing her good luck in the afterlife. Do we still go to Heaven or Hell if we die here? he wondered.

He identified the other two bodies as Robert Woods and Andrew Gomes. Jackson didn’t really know them, having only spoken with them a few times during their service. All the same, he gave them a prayer and collected their identification tags. Then, he took one of the backpacks and started gathering their weapons, their ammunition, their food rations, and whatever else he could stuff in it. He had to disassemble the two rifles (Woods didn’t have his) so that they would fit. His knees buckled when he stood; the combined weight of the weapons and their bullets was more than he expected. As he followed his guide to another part of the forest, he finally understood the meaning of the expression “soldiering on”.

The second site contained multiple bodies, but only one wore a military uniform. Jackson quickly recognised sergeant Duval’s stripes on it. Two empty clips were found on the ground near her final resting place, along with the burned remains of over a dozen zombies. The sergeant was laying back on a rock, her head hanging down; the other bodies surrounded her in an almost complete circle. From the way they had dropped, Jackson deduced the sergeant had shot them dead. As to what happened to Duval herself, the two bullet holes, on her palate and near the top of her skull, made it fairly obvious. She was still clutching her sidearm in her right hand; it had shot its last bullet.

Jackson had never had much love for the sergeant, and not just because of his general dislike of officers and hierarchy. He thought of her as petty and way too attached to unimportant (in his mind) rules. But he believed even she deserved a better fate than that. The young man tried to recover her pistol, but she was holding it so tightly he would have had to break her charred fingers, and the very thought made his stomach churn. He just said his quick prayer, apologized for some of the things he did during his service, then grabbed her tags and moved on.

In total, Jackson was led to five different sites, and found eight of his fallen comrades’ bodies -nine, counting the lieutenant’s. His anxiety had increased every time he identified one of them, and his heart jumped in his chest when he recognized the last one -Sarah Vanderbilt. Despite the confidence he had shown to the lieutenant, he had dreaded finding David among the dead. But he hadn’t. In spite of the scenery, he couldn’t keep from smiling.

“I fucking told you he was still alive!” he exclaimed.

“Well, all we can say is that he didn’t die in this forest,” the lieutenant said. “So, that’s nine out of eleven -ten out of twelve, including me. Who else is missing?”

“Bonnie Gardner,” Jackson said after quickly looking through the tags he had collected.

“So that’s a twenty percent survival rate. Given the circumstances, I would have expected worse.”

“I need to find them,” Jackson said. “They may be lost, or in danger.”

“Let’s worry about ourselves… well, about yourself first. Can we go back to my body? There’s something I’d like to do.”

The lieutenant’s corpse was still where it was when the Inquisition’s soldiers had found it, but it too had been burnt. The man towered over it for a long while, in complete silence, his face devoid of expression. Then, he took a knee. Jackson crouched down as well.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said. “What kind of uniform is that? I’ve never seen one like that before. Are- were you special forces?”

“You could say that,” the lieutenant said.

“What kind?” Jackson said. “75th Marines? Navy SEAL?” His eyes lightened up with excitement. “Holy shit, were you Delta Force?”

“I was once Delta Force, actually.”

“Then you went back to the regular army? Did you fail a mission? Punch a superior officer? Went off the book?”

“Can we keep the questions for later?” the lieutenant said, clenching his teeth. “I’m trying to have my own funeral, here.”

“Oh. Yeah. Right. Sorry.”

Jackson kept quiet for a while, a little weirded out by what was happening. The veteran muttered something under his breath that sounded like: “ashes where once I was fire”. It sounded like a quote from something, but Jackson couldn’t place it. He cleared his throat, and said:

“Err… I was about to say a prayer for you, but I only just realized I don’t know your name.”

“Byron,” the veteran said.

“Is that your first or your last name?”

“Neither.”

Jackson shifted on his feet, uncomfortable. “Okay, then.”

Time stretched, furthering Jackson’s discomfort. Eventually, the lieutenant -Byron- pointed at something on his corpse. The ax on his belt. Jackson looked at the tool, then at him. After a moment, he understood the lieutenant meant for him to take it. He grabbed it by the handle, lifted it, and weighed the head against his palm. It was rather heavy, but well-balanced.

“What’s her name?” he asked with a cheeky grin.

“Name? It’s an ax. It doesn’t have a name.”

“I thought you Special Forces types gave names to your weapons.”

Byron sighed and stood up. “Let’s just go.”

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