The Pulver Chronicles – 5. Off The Radar And Into Harm’s Way

Jackson woke bright and early, the next day. Rather, he assumed it was early, given that he had no way to tell the time. The sun was up, and, looking at the streets through the windows, so were the locals. He put on his military clothes, unbothered by the fact that they had started to smell, grabbed his backpack, and went downstairs. The place offered breakfast, which consisted of some biscuits, dried fruits, and a kind of salted white meat that tasted like poultry. Jackson had never had chicken, fruits, and biscuits together, let alone for the first meal of the day, and he wondered why: this was a great idea!

“I trust you had a good night, sir,” the Goblin hostess (it was her actual title, he had asked her) said.

“Oh, yeah. Worth every penn- err, every steed. Can I have more of those things?” he asked, pointing at the big white fruits he had devoured.

“Whiteberries; of course, sir. Will you be staying with us tonight as well?”

“I’m not sure, yet,” Jackson said. “Oh, I had a question. Do you know if I can find, like, a mage or a wizard or something, around here?”

If the question had disconcerted the woman, she did not show it. “Well, that would depend, sir.”


“Do you wish to see a wizard, or something else? We have all sorts here: wizards, Inquisitors, shamans… Some druids come through the city, but they never stay long. You’ll find them pretty much all on Faithful Hill, with all the places of worship. You’re bound to find whichever service you require there.”

The hostess patiently explained which streets to follow to go to that part of the city. She pointed out a landmark to follow should Jackson lose his way: two spires, one white with a point straight like an arrow, one black with a wavy point. Those spires, she explained, were part of the Sanctotum, the biggest place of worship in Atvello and the Southern Marches, built at the center of Faithful Hill. Jackson thanked her, then, after thinking about it a bit, asked where he could find a safe place where he could store personal items. The Goblin pondered the question.

“Well… You could go to the House of the Living Flame. No matter their… eccentricities, the Atashka can be trusted with valuables.”

She must have noticed Jackson’s expression of confusion, because she immediately added: “The Atashka are a religious sect. They worship something they call the Purest Flame. That’s actually all I know for sure about them, as they make a secret out of most aspects of their religion. Only through initiation may one learn more. The Atashka are almost never found in the Imperial realm, that’s probably why you don’t know them. Anyway, they offer to keep money and valuables even to bejans -that’s what they call outsiders- in the safety of their Houses’ vaults, for an agreed-upon period of time.”

“Where can I find them?”

“On the other side of Faithful Hill, near the rampart. It’s a small, dark red building; you can’t miss it.”

The young man thanked her again, then went on his way. It was a warm day, and most people outside wore something over their heads to protect them from the sun. Jackson regretted having lost his cap somewhere in the forest. Touching his very short hair on the top of his head, he decided he was done with the military buzz-cut. Wearing his hair longer would surely protect his scalp from sunburns. And it would look good, too.

The streets of Atvello proved more sinuous and confusing than Jackson expected. Fortunately, he could see over the small houses the two spires the Goblin had described to him; they were clearly the tallest buildings in the city. 

The sun was about an hour away from its zenith when Jackson finally arrived at the bottom of Faithful Hill. It was one of the only two reliefs of the otherwise flat city, and was enclosed by a seven-feet wall of white stones, decorated with a large series of paintings. Jackson looked at them as he followed the wall until he found the House of… what had the Goblin woman called it? House of Dancing Fire?

The paintings were rather simple and didn’t feature any perspective, reminding Jackson of Egyptian hieroglyphs, or those Greek frescos he remembered seeing pictured in his high school history books. Most depicted people -mainly Humans- on their knees, arms extended over their heads. Others depicted people dressed in some religious garment, black and white in color. Finally, one larger painting depicted a Humanoid, devoid of any features, surrounded by two large spheres, one black and one white.

“Interesting symbology,” Byron said, once again appearing out of nowhere.

“What do you think it means?” Jackson said. “Something about good and evil, I assume?”

“That would be my guess as well. Are you religious?”

“Well… Not really. I mean, my second foster family was Baptist, they took me to church, sent me to Sunday school. But overall… Eh.”

“The Dorsetts,” Byron said.

Jackson opened his eyes wide. “Y-Yeah. How the fuck do you know? I sure as hell never told you about these guys!”

It was Byron’s turn to look surprised. “I… I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? How can you not know?”

“Well, I just don’t!” Byron said, his tone reflecting both anger and confusion.

“Are you reading my mind or something?”

“No. It’s like I told you, I can only hear the thoughts you mean for me to hear. I mean… I think.”

“You think?!”

“For crying out loud, how many times do I have to say it?” Byron yelled. “I don’t know what’s going on with me any more than you do! I don’t even know what I am!” He clenched his jaw and looked away. “Let’s just go find that House.”

The House of the Living Flame was very much like the Goblin had described: a small building made out of dark red stones. It didn’t look as fancy and ostentatious as the other temples of the district: no marble columns, no extravagant displays of art, no preacher standing in front chanting religious songs. In fact, were it not for the four lit braziers in front of the opened gates -two on each side-, the place would have looked abandoned.

Jackson cautiously passed the gates. The interior was lit by two lines of braziers, lightening the stony flooring, but leaving the walls and the ceiling completely in the dark. This gave Jackson the impression that the inside of the building was bigger than its outside -which, as he thought about it, might have been the point.

The word “creepy” came to his mind as he browsed the seemingly empty hallway. All was silent, save for the crackling of the fires. Jackson approached one of the brazeros. They were lit on an iron plate incrusted in a small stone pillar, almost like the baptismal fonts Jackson once saw in a Catholic church. His eyebrows arched as he looked into the flame. Much like the one in the castle, those fires seemed to burn without any fuel: no wood, no charcoal, no oil, no grease…

Something moved in the dark. Jackson’s adrenaline kicked in, and he placed a hand on his ax’s head. A silhouette appeared in the flame’s halo, Humanoid but taller than a regular Human, standing at about seven or eight feet. The way they moved caught Jackson’s eye: they didn’t seem to walk or stumble like most creatures, but to slide or slither. It was only when the stranger appeared fully in the flame’s light that he understood.

Before him stood a creature with the upper body of a Human, covered by a cloak, but the lower half of a giant snake. Their green scales glistened in the low light, seemingly changing color as they moved. Once the newcomer was about three feet away from him, Jackson could see by the shape of their face that it was a woman. Her large cloak hid any curve she might have had. The young man was still stunned silent by the sight.

“Never seen a Lamia before?” Byron said.

“A new soul enters the House,” the snake-woman said, her voice deep and low. “Have you come to seek the light that can only be found in the purest fire, in the darkest of shadows?”

“Um, err… I heard you can keep my stuff safe,” Jackson said, taking out his backpack and showing it to her.

“I see,” she said. “Do you know our rules?”

“I’ve been told it’s only for some time.”

“That is correct. We will give you four seasons -so, until the next spring- to come back and claim your property. If, at the twilight of the first day of seeding, you have not done so, all that you have deposed here will become the property of our order.”

“Um…” Jackson almost asked how long a season lasted in this world, or what she meant by “seeding”, but was worried such strange questions would raise too much suspicion.

“I don’t think we have much choice, here,” Byron said. “However long that is, that’ll probably be enough time to figure out a more long-term solution.”

“Good point.” To the Lamia, he said: “Okay. Let’s do this.”

“Very well. Please follow me. Do not touch anything, do not step into the shadows, and respect the silence of this place.”

With surprising speed for a creature so large, the Lamia turned to her right and slithered away. Jackson followed, making sure to stay very close to her so as to not get lost in the dark. This was made easier by the fact that the Lamia stuck closely to the flames, advancing straight ahead without any hesitation.

Jackson still couldn’t see much beyond the light of the brazeros. He thought about retrieving his torchlight to take a better look at the place, but quickly decided against it. The hallway they followed started sloping and curving at some point, descending low into the earth. A smell of dirt soon reached Jackson’s nostrils, accompanied by a fainter smell of ashes and something burning. At some point, Jackson thought he heard the distant voice of a woman screaming in agony. As if she was being burned, he thought with apprehension. He stopped in his tracks, and lost sight of the Lamia.

“Damnit,” he whispered.

He focused on his hearing to locate her by the sound of the snake woman’s slithering, but the only thing he could hear was a very faint sizzling noise; he struggled not to imagine what that could be. And speaking of imagination, he prayed very hard that the movements he thought he saw in the shadows only existed in his mind… because it looked very much like there were people -or creatures- moving around him.

Something grabbed his arm. He nearly jumped out of his skin, and grabbed his pistol’s handle. Thankfully, it was only the Lamia.

“Do not get lost,” she simply said.

“Yeah, good idea,” he sarcastically said to himself.

The curved hallway went on for what seemed like miles. Eventually, the Lamia stopped, and snapped her fingers. A moment later, two braziers lit up, revealing between them a large door that seemed to be made out of a single, big slab of stone, and looked quite heavy. It didn’t have any handle or lock; as a matter of fact, Jackson couldn’t see any hinges either. The snake woman placed the palm of her hands on it, lowered her head and closed her eyes.

Jackson gasped. In the blink of an eye, the door was set ablaze. His mind reeled from the vision. The rock was actually burning. The flames lasted for maybe a few seconds, then disappeared, leaving the doorway completely open, as though there had never been anything barring it. There weren’t even any ashes on the floor.

Behind the former door was a small room, looking like a cell. The walls were made out of dirt, supported by four stone pillars that met at the center of the ceiling. The Lamia gestured to the empty room, and Jackson entered, still a bit spooked by what he had just seen. He dropped the backpack in a corner, then emptied its contents, making sure to hide them from the Lamia’s sight with his body. He put back one of the pistols in the backpack, along with some ammunition, a sleeping bag, a couple of rations, and a foldable shovel. Then, he put the rest of the weapons and equipment in the tent he had recovered, and rolled it as neatly as he could. He put his backpack back on; its weight was now much more manageable.

As he exited the room, the Lamia raised her hands again. Another bright flame appeared in a flash, and dissipated just as quickly. Jackson stuttered in disbelief when he saw that the door was back in its place, completely unscathed.

“How is that even possible?” he said.

“Give me your hands,” the Lamia said.

Jackson held them out, and the hooded snake woman took them. Her own hands were quite warm, a lot more so than Jackson would have expected from what he assumed to be a cold-blooded creature. A strange light appeared in her eyes, and the young man suddenly felt a sharp, burning pain in his palms. He yelped and jumped back. Looking down at his hands, however, he didn’t see any marks; they were not even red.

“You may now access your safe room whenever you desire,” the woman said. “Simply impose your hands upon the door.”

“And how will I find the door again? Do I have to ask one of you again?”

“When you shall need it, you shall find it.”

And with that laconic answer, she started slithering back along the hallway. After a brief moment of feeling miffed, Jackson half-ran after her. As they went back up, he said:

“While I’m here, I need some magical services. I can pay.”

“We are the Atashka,” the Lamia said with a slight sneer. “The privileges awarded to us by the Purest Flame are not to be squandered for currency.”

Jackson did not insist.

The main hallway was still as dark, silent, and empty when they came back. Jackson couldn’t wait to leave; he missed the noise, the crowd, and the natural light. The Lamia and he stopped at the center of the room. Jackson looked at her for a while, waiting for her to say something.

“Well, err, thanks,” Jackson eventually said, when the silence became too awkward for him. “Goodbye.”

The Lamia bowed her head, then went away to mind other duties.

Jackson sighed in delight when the sun rays touched his face. He had had enough experience with poorly-lit, creepy places inhabited with strange people with magical powers in the last few days to last him a lifetime. Hopefully, the next mage I meet will work exclusively above the ground, and won’t have anything against windows.

He climbed the stairs to the top of Faithful Hill, entering the district proper. The buildings there were a large mix-and-match of many styles of architecture. They came in all sizes and shapes, in all colors and patterns. Small altars made out of wood and pebbles neighbored immense temples of black marble with silver decorations. Realistic statues of Humans and Humanoids were found next to tribalistic sculptures and totems. Richly dressed priests harangued the crowd with impassioned sermons, while others wore simple burlap sacks and remained impassive like Buddhist monks.

Unlike the rest of the city with the exception of the docks and the market place, the streets here were paved. Jackson also noticed that there were more guards here than in the other districts. The Atvello militia, which soldiers Jackson had crossed a couple of times yesterday, wore simple chainmails, covered by an off-white tabard sporting the city sigil -a ship and three coins over a stylised wave. He made the remark to Byron, who commented:

“Given how many different religions seem to be represented here, this is not surprising. I’ll bet they have had more than their share of riots.”

“So they have freedom of religion in this world?” Jackson said. “That’s kinda surprising.”

“Well, they have it in this city, at least.”

“Still, that’s pretty nice of them to have that kind of value.”

Byron made a “hmph” sound.

“There are no values here,” he said, “just good business sense. This is a free city that likely lives off its trade, so they’ll want to attract people from all faiths and all countries.”

Jackson didn’t know what to say to that, although he wasn’t sure he agreed. He kept perambulating before the numerous places of worship, unsure which one to choose or on what criteria to make that choice. The Sanctotum, which was indeed the largest and the tallest building there by far, tempted him at first, but he eventually decided he would prefer a smaller place, with fewer people -fewer witnesses in case he said something he shouldn’t have. After quite some time of spiritual window-shopping, and as the sun reached its zenith, Jackson set his sights on a small wooden temple, with beige-rose painting. It initially caught his eye because it reminded him of the church he used to go to when he lived with the Dorsetts. As he got closer, he heard two people leaving it talking about how the shaman there had been able to find their missing mother with astonishing precision.

“Wait a minute,” Byron said as Jackson was about to push open the door.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s something written above the door.”


“So try reading it.”

Jackson squinted.

“Temple of Va… Vakdag, blessed with the third sight by Miilvii, She of Many Eyes,” he read.

He blinked in surprise.

“Wait. How…”

“You see it too, right? That’s not English. That’s not even the Latin alphabet.”

Byron was right. Jackson had read the writing without thinking about it, but now that he paid closer attention, he couldn’t recognize the characters used. Confused, Jackson kept reading and re-reading the same words. This didn’t make any sense. He first assumed the letters used were close to the ones he had been taught in school, and tried to draw comparisons. But he ultimately found few commonalities -and those he did find were pretty weak-, and many more differences.

“It looks a little like Greek,” Byron said. “Or maybe like the Gothic alphabet. But it’s clearly neither. This is very interesting.”

“You and I have different definitions of “interesting”.”

“It’s as if this civilisation evolved from the same root as ours,” Byron continued, not paying attention to the remark. “Maybe some of our ancestors came to this world the same way you did. Or maybe it’s the other way around. There are some languages on Earth whose origins are unknown to historians. What if…”

He pushed a finger against his chin.

“That doesn’t explain why I can read this,” Jackson said.

“No, nor why you can understand when they talk. Do they actually speak English, or is that the way your brain interprets it? I’m pretty sure it’s the latter… but then again, I hear them speak English too, and we’ve already established that my perceptions are independent from yours. And, come to think of it, they understand when you talk, as well. But then, I traveled to this world the same way you did, so…”

Jackson could read the fascination in his eyes, and hear it in his voice. It was a puzzle, to him, an enigma he hoped to solve. Jackson himself felt more uncomfortable than anything else. It was like there was something wrong with him, like the travel from one world to another had changed him in some way, altered his mind without him even noticing. Then again, it was better than finding himself in a place where he could not understand the language. Deciding to put those thoughts aside, he entered the small temple.

Incense filled the air of the small place, making Jackson a bit dizzy. Large carpets covered the wooden floor, and drapes hung on the walls. In the light of the windows, Jackson saw a man, sitting cross-legged. His eyes were closed and his hands rested on his thighs. He wore some kind of clear blue djellaba, and a scarf was wrapped around his neck. Two black horns protruded from his temples and his head was entirely shaved. Unlike the other Demons Jackson had seen, this one had a dark red skin. Displayed in a circle around him were several bronze bowls, in which some leaves were burning; it was likely the origin of the smell.

Jackson sat on the floor in front of him. The shaman opened his eyes. They were entirely black, with small red pupils.

“What fortune do you seek?” he asked in a nasal voice.


“What have you come to ask?” the Demon said more clearly.

“Err… I want to know someone’s whereabouts. Is that something you can do?”

The shaman nodded. “What is their name?”

“David Schultz. He’s a Human.”

“Do you own something that belongs to him?”

“Huh?” Jackson thought for a second. “No.”

“Are you linked to him?”

“He’s my best friend. Please, I really need to know where he is, and if he’s alright.”

“Then I can help you,” the shaman said, holding out his palm. “For ten steeds.”

The young man took out his purse. He started picking its contents, looking for some silver coins between the golden ones. Eventually, he lost patience, and half-emptied the purse in his hand. Byron groaned.

“Don’t casually show your money like that.” 

Ignoring him, Jackson picked two coins worth five steeds each, and gave them to the shaman. The Demon put them away in his djellaba, and pulled out a handful of dried leaves. One was placed in each bowl, and a small screen of smoke appeared. The shaman took a very deep breath, lifting his chest, then closed his eyes and let his head drop. In a voice so low Jackson could barely hear it, he began singing a strange litany. The smoke started forming a spiral around the both of them, encircling them, before entering the shaman’s nostrils.

“Focus your thoughts on him,” the Demon intimated.

Jackson did just that, picturing David in his mind.

“David Schultz,” Vakdag said after a moment. His voice wavered, like he was sick. “David Schultz. I see him…”

“You do?” Jackson said, skeptical. “What does he look like?”

“A young Human male, barely an adult, brown of hair and blue of eyes,” the shaman answered without hesitation. “There is pride in his bearing, and discipline in his mind.”

Jackson barely contained a gasp. The shaman, it seemed, was no hack.

“Where is he? Is he alive?”

“He is alive and safe, but he is not near. He… Wait.”

The shaman frowned deeply, his eyes still shut. He stuttered, then suddenly screamed and fell back, accidentally flipping over one of the bowls as he did. Fortunately for the carpet, the fire went almost immediately out. The shaman opened his eyes again, breathing hard as if he had run a marathon.

“What happened?” Jackson said.

“My outersight was interrupted.”

“What does that mean?”

The Demon fixed the bowl he had flipped, still out of breath.  “I saw your friend, but as I did, something noticed my scrying. My vision was obstructed.”

“By what? Another mage?”

“Yes. Very powerful.”

“So what did you actually see?” Jackson insisted. “Where was he?”

“I could see very little. He was standing in a stone building… a castle, maybe. I watched through a flame near him. He was talking to someone… That’s it.”

“You can’t tell me more? Not even where he roughly is?”

The shaman put out the fires in the bowls with the tips of his fingers, apparently immune to their heat. “No. All I can tell you is that he is far away, and under the protection of someone with great power. Or their prisoner, possibly.”

Jackson sighed in frustration. “Well, at least he’s alive.”

The Demon bowed. “I apologize that I couldn’t be more helpful. Now, please leave. I must rest.”

Guess I shouldn’t ask for a refund, Jackson thought as he found his way out. I couldn’t even ask him about Byron.

“Goddamnit,” Jackson mumbled as he kicked a rock on the paved street.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted,” Byron said. “But, like you said, at least you know he’s alive. Now, you can put him out of your mind and worry about your own situation.

“I’m not giving up on him. Maybe if I can find a more powerful mage…”

“And what if that powerful mage is the one keeping Schultz? There can’t be that many, out there.”

Jackson clenched his teeth.

“Trust me,” Byron said. “You need to focus on yourself, right now. To think about your future.”

“And why should I trust you?” Jackson asked petulantly.

“Because if you die, I don’t imagine I’ll be long for this world.”

The young man’s shoulders dropped. He hadn’t really thought about that. This meant he was now responsible not only for his own life, but for Byron’s -or whatever he had for a life. He had never been one for responsibilities, and that one was particularly heavy.

“Okay,” he said. “So what now?”

“Your priority should be to find a way to make a living. Since you’re planning on sticking around, you need to make some mid-term plans.”

“Yeah… I’ve never been the best at planning, like I told you. I kinda just… go along with the flow, you know?

“Well, I suppose I can do that for you, then,” Byron sighed. “Let’s start by going to a tavern or a restaurant for lunch. We’ll ask around about soldier work, the local lords and their armies, and the general political situation. If there’s no war going on, then the local militia probably needs recruits to deal with thievery and the like.”

“I’m not joining the militia,” Jackson abruptly said. “Or any army. My time in the US Army was enough for me, thank you.”

“I thought you wanted to try being a mercenary.”

“A mercenary, not a soldier.”

“That’s basically the same thing.”

“Hell no! Being a mercenary means no stupid rules, no PT, no chow, no being ordered around, no doing push-ups until I puke, and no goose-stepping to make the superior officers happy.”

“There is no goose-stepping in the US Army,” Byron said.

“Whatever. You know what I mean.”

“Fine… But do ask what I told you to. Mercenaries need employers, or companies. You need to know who the big shots are around here.”

Jackson nodded.

“And in the meantime, keep a low profile. There’s no telling what people would do to you if they knew you came from a different world.”

“Yeah, I thought the same thing.”

“That means you can’t use your firearms; not unless you have absolutely no other choice.”

“Wait, really? Damn!”

“Those things are loud, in case you forget. And as far as we know, completely unknown here.”

“Maybe I could just say they’re magic.”

“You could, except that some people out there actually know what magic looks like. How much are you willing to bet they can tell the difference?”

The young man saw the logic in that, and reluctantly dropped the subject.

Following his wanderlust, he found himself some time later halfway between Faithful Hill and the market district. He eventually sat at a table in a small restaurant owned by an old female Orc. The owner asked Jackson if he wanted his meal -fish soup- “regular” or “Orcish”. Not knowing what it meant, but thinking it sounded interesting, Jackson answered Orcish. Apparently, it meant a soup so thick it was pretty much a puree. The taste was fine, but the texture was definitely off. The beverage served alongside it (Jackson thought it was beer, Byron insisted it was mead; the former didn’t understand the difference) was also thicker than he expected.

Jackson tried asking the Orc a few of the questions Byron suggested, but she curtly interrupted by saying she was too busy to talk. Indeed, it seemed that lunch rush was a thing even in this parallel world. He asked the patrons a few questions, and, after about an hour of querying, approached a male Goblin, whom he was told was the man to speak to if he wanted to become a mercenary. He didn’t really look the part: he was nothing impressive physically, and the only weapon he seemed to carry was a small knife with which he ate his food. His skin seemed to be a mix of green and orange hues, his forehead was almost covered in sinews, accuented by his receding hairline, and his elongated ears curved downwards like scimitars. He wore a dark blue frock coat with bronze buttons. As he drank his mead, Jackson noticed that the fingers of his right hand were deformed, as if they had previously been broken.

Jackson struggled for a moment to find the best way to introduce himself. Eventually, he decided playing dumb would be the simplest. It had been a proven tactic throughout his life.

“Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me if I’m in the Hexacracy?”

Predictably, the question amused the Goblin, who almost choked on his mead.

“The Hexacracy! You must not be from around here.”

He had a slight accent, which made him roll his r’s and turn his th’s into z’s.

“Not even close,” Jackson said. “I’m sorry if my question sounds stupid, but I’ve been traveling for a while, and I’m really lost.”

“I’ll say. You’re in the free city of Atvello. Batjra! It shall remain so, even if the Hexacracy ever manages to conquer the Marches.”

“The Marches… That’s the Southern Marches, right?”

The Goblin said something in a strange language that sounded like a rumbling. Jackson actually already knew the answers to those questions he asked. But he figured that if he were to work with that Goblin for some time, it would eventually appear that he knew little to nothing about the world he was in. To dispel any future suspicion, he had decided to make it seem like he was just some foolish boy from a very remote country.

“You’re a drollish one!” the Goblin laughed. In a mocking, lecturing tone, he said: “Yes, foreigner, you are currently in the Southern Marches, which is the southernmost region of the Vardan continent. And, before you ask, yes, you are on the planet Erde, and the year is 374. Hopefully you can find where your own arse is, at least!”

“All right, all right,” Jackson said. “I heard you were part of a mercenary company.”

“Of a sort. What’s it to you?”

“My name is Jackson. I’m a mercenary looking for work, but, like I said, I’m really lost around here.”

The Goblin looked at him from head to toe. Jackson felt like a prize cow being examined by a judge.

“You look like you’ve had some training, yes… You’re pretty young, though. Are you bloodied yet?”

“Am I what?” Jackson blurted out.

“Have you ever killed someone?” the Goblin said, rolling his eyes.

“Oh… Yeah. I have.”

The greatly displeasing image of the necromant with his own dagger piercing his skull through his eye flashed in Jackson’s mind. The Goblin nodded.

“Yes. Yes, I can tell. What about your fealty? Are you sworn to anyone?”

“I’m on my own. I just got here, like I told you. Before that, I was in… uh…”

He pondered how he would explain his time in the US Army, but the Goblin raised a hand.

“Your past doesn’t matter. So long as you’re not currently under any oath, or wanted around here.”

“I’m not.”


The Goblin finished his mug of mead, wiped his mouth with the tablecloth, then said: “If you’re serious about this, I may have something for you. Do you know your way around the city?”

Jackson shrugged.

“Right. In the northern part of the city, west of the Crow Gate, there’s a borough called Silky Star. Go there after sunset. You’ll find a vondo parlor called the Hazy Narrian, with a purple sign above the door. Go around the building, where there’s a backdoor. Knock on it three times, and wait.”

This is the weirdest job interview ever, Jackson thought. Not that it put him off; all of this made it seem like he was the hero of some spy flick. He thanked the Goblin, paid his meal, then left.

“Well, we have some time to kill,” he said to Byron. “What did they do for fun in the Middle Ages? Aside from drinking?”

“You should use that time to gather more information.”

“No reason I can’t do both,” Jackson smiled.

He elected to go back to the docks. Initially, he just wanted to do some ship watching, until he happened upon a group of sailors playing a game of dice. With a bit of schmoozing (and a few steeds), he was offered to join. It was a simple game of gambling, similar to yahtzee, but one of the dice used had different colors instead of numbers, impacting the result. Jackson quickly learned the basic rules, but the more elaborate details of the game continued to elude him even after a dozen rounds. Still, he enjoyed himself, mainly due to the company. The sailors were a jovial bunch, loudly talking and laughing as they played.

With a bit of subtlety, and some help from Byron, Jackson managed to redirect the conversation to the city of Atvello. He learned that the city wasn’t ruled by a king, a count, or even a baron, unlike what he and Byron had assumed, but by the Gilded Council, a small assembly of so-called Prince Merchants. The Prince Merchants were, quickly explained, the wealthiest traders in Atvello. In theory, anybody could become one; in practice, every Prince Merchant, past or present, had come from the same families ever since the first Council -the very families who had bought Atvello’s status as a free port from the Empire. They were simply called the Five Families, or sometimes just the Five.

The game proved quite fun, and, with the help of a bit of alcohol, hours flew past. Eventually, the sailors decided they had played enough, and offered Jackson to join them for the evening in a local tavern they knew. The young man was tempted, but explained he had other obligations. In addition, he thought it wiser to remain sober.

As the sun started setting, Jackson went north until he found the Crow Gate. It was rather easy to identify: it was tall, richly decorated, and topped with a tall tower with many openings, in which lots of crows appeared to be nesting. Jackson then headed opposite the setting sun (Byron had pointed out to him that the cardinal points were the same in this world: the sun would rise in the west, and set in the east), and found the Silky Star borough. Contrary to the rest of Atvello, which was slowly going to sleep as the day turned into night, this part of town remained quite busy. More so, actually.

It quickly appeared to Jackson that this neighborhood was home to a very different kind of trade. In front of the houses and buildings, men and women stood in revealing and eye-catching outfits, taunting and teasing potential customers with seductive poses and honeyed words. Most didn’t bother with subtlety, clearly announcing what their patrons would be paying for; some preferred innuendo, leaving it to their prospective customers’ imagination to fill the blanks. Jackson tried his best to keep his eyes upfront. His resistance was put to the test when he passed by a trio of scantily clad Demon women, then by a Human woman with luxurious dark hair reaching her calves, and finally by another creature of indeterminate species and gender playing an enchanting tune on a musical instrument which vaguely resembled a lyra.

“Surprising,” Byron said at some point.

“What? That prostitution is legal?”

“No, that’s not surprising in the least. But look at the customers.”

“What about them?”

“Human customers go for Human sex workers, Demon customers for Demon sex workers… I only noticed one of them crossing the barrier of species.”


That was surprising. Back on Earth, mixed unions (as was the polite euphemism for Humans and Humanoids sleeping and/or living together) were far from a rarity, at least in America and in the rest of the Western world. They used to be, before the early Sixties and the social turmoil of the Crow and Raven Years. But as society and minds evolved, they became more accepted, and more commonplace. Evidently, the society of this world had a different standing on such things.

“Kinda weird,” Jackson said. “They approve of women in the military, but not of Humans and Orcs getting it on?”

“Their society evolved in a different way,” Byron said.

He seemed to be about to say more, but Jackson stopped in front of a building. “The Hazy Narrian”, he read on a placard, over the painting of a stylized, purple cloud.

“Here we are. So, the backdoor, he said…”

The Hazy Narrian was a rather narrow building, a bit smaller than a regular family house, but had three floors. All of the windows were boarded, and there was a strange, piquant smell coming out of them.

“What kind of place do you think this is?” Jackson said.

“At a guess, I’d say it’s this world’s equivalent of an opium den.”


The backdoor was small, about one foot smaller than Jackson. He raised his fist and knocked on it three times, then waited. And waited. And waited.

As he let out an exhalation of boredom, he noticed some movement on his left. Then, on his right.

“Watch out!” Byron yelled.

Jackson leaped back, narrowly avoiding the slashing motion of a blade. He had moved before he realized, guided solely by his reptilian brain. The blade was longer than a knife, but shorter than a sword. It was held by a Human male, about six feet tall, his skin a sickly yellow, and his clothes tattered and dirty.

“Behind you,” Byron said.

The young man looked above his shoulder to see another man, cut from the same cloth, this one holding a club. His mouth seemed larger on one side, and he had a lazy eye. Jackson’s hands balled nervously. This wasn’t good. Both looked more muscular than him, and they had him surrounded.

“Any tips, buddy?” he asked Byron.

“Yes. Get the hell out of here.”

“Don’t think that’s an option. Maybe if I just give them my money…?”

“If they just wanted your money, they would have demanded it instead of immediately moving in for the kill. These guys want you dead.”


Jackson made a move to grab his pistol. Byron had told him not to use it unless he had absolutely no choice, but he really couldn’t see any other way out of this situation. He had tried to be sneaky about it, but the man behind him caught his move, and attacked. Jackson could barely dodge his club, and in fact he avoided the impact more because of his attacker’s clumsiness than because of his own reflexes.

Everything slowed down. As the man with a lazy eye stumbled and nearly fell, the man with the long knife struck at him with a sideways slashing motion. Jackson watched the man as he made his move. He watched his face, twisted in anger. He watched the knife, as it moved excruciatingly slowly towards the part of his body where the shoulder meets the neck. As the blade got closer and closer like an incoming train, he knew there was no way he could react in time. His nerves turned to ice, his brain went numb.

There was a scream, and a good measure of blood spilled on the ground. But no pain. Jackson blinked. The man with the knife had dropped to the ground, his hand pressed against his flank. His shirt had a large tear on the side where he held his weapon, and a red taint had formed around it, which was growing bigger every second. Jackson looked down at his own hand, and noticed he was holding Byron’s ax. The sharp edge was covered in blood. The wounded man let out a pitiful groan, then tried to stand up. Before he could, and before Jackson could piece together what happened, the ax struck him again, cutting the neck deep enough to reach the spine. The man dropped again, this time without a sound.

Stunned for a moment, his accomplice went red with rage and charged like a bull, his club high in the air. Before Jackson could fully comprehend what was happening, he ducked and jumped to the side, dodging the blow while his ax sliced the man’s leg just below the knee. The aggressor roared like a wounded beast, and turned to face Jackson again, blood spraying from his limping leg as he did.

The wound was not lethal -at least not immediately lethal-, but very obviously crippling. The man with a lazy eye now moved slower, and his reach was shortened. He had to be experiencing a great deal of pain -Jackson felt some just by looking at how deep his ax had cut-, but his fury seemed to be an effective painkiller. It also blinded him, as he now simply waved his club without any semblance of skill, screaming inarticulately all the while. Jackson didn’t feel particularly reassured: the burly man’s attacks might have been easier to dodge now, but a single one of them could still knock him out or maybe even kill him, should it connect.

Once more, Jackson’s ax leaped into motion, and seized the attacker at his weapon hand’s wrist. The man yelped, in both surprise and agony, as more blood came to slather the dirt. The red of his face turned into an alarming shade of white. With desperation in his eyes, he wrapped his hand against his wrist’s wound, trying in vain to stop the flow.

Jackson stared in horror as the man bled out. Ever since the fight started, it was like he was simply a spectator, watching as his body moved on its own, as if his mind was no longer in control. Finally, the second man fell on his back, in a pool of his and his fallen comrade’s blood.

“Holy shit!” Jackson said, almost out loud. “Did… did I do that?!”

“I think I did that,” Byron slowly said.

“What… What do you mean?”

The veteran observed the dead bodies for a moment, his expression inscrutable, then said: “That first move you did… When you struck that man’s liver. That’s a move I was taught back in my old unit.”

He pointed at the other man’s knee.

“And this… Severing the artery just below the knee. Someone taught me this one in Sak- during a previous assignment. He called it the Jarnac Slice.”

“But you said you did that?” Jackson said. “How could… I mean…”

Their discussion was interrupted by another voice. Jackson immediately recognized it: it was the Goblin. He came out of the shadows as he spoke:

“I see you weren’t all talk.”

He stepped over one of the bodies, looking at them with detached interest.

“You set this up,” Jackson said.

“Well, I had to test your mettle. And your mettle is more than respectable.”

“Is this how you treat your people?” he said, angered. “By having them killed in some kind of hazing ritual?”

“Those were not my people,” the Goblin said. “Just a couple of bandits that have been killing people around here after sunset, before robbing their corpses. The city guard had wanted them dealt with for over a month now.”

He stood before the young man, a satisfied smirk on his face. It was at this moment that Jackson judged that he would probably never like him.

“But nevermind that,” the Goblin said. “You have passed my test. Therefore, I wish to offer you to join my team.”

“After you almost had me killed?”

“If you wish to be a mercenary, you must understand that this will be your weekly lot: take lives, and risk your own. Such is the job. You will be well paid for it, and for good reason. If you wish for a more relaxed employment, the bordellos are always hiring.”

“He makes a point,” Byron said. “Mercenary work is, by definition, dangerous. And dirty.”

“Well, he could have made that point in a less… messy way,” Jackson thought-said.

“But make no mistake,” the Goblin continued, “if you choose to join us, you will not be treated as a valuable weapon, and used until you break or become dull, like you would in most mercenary companies. You will be our brother. I said you will risk your life, but that doesn’t mean we will sacrifice it. This is not the Imperial Army; we care little for blind obedience, hierarchy, or subservience. We don’t serve any gods or lords; we are sometimes in their employ, but that’s it. We have rules, of course, but no laws or taboos. You will not even be asked to take an oath, in blood or in words. You join us of your own free will, you can leave us just the same.”

At that precise moment, Jackson wanted nothing more than to stick his right fist in the Goblin’s small nose. But if the army had taught him one thing -and it really was one thing-, it was how to bear with less-than-likable superiors. Plus, the Goblin would not be his superior, at least from what he said. As Jackson pondered those some more, he swallowed his anger and made his decision.

“All right,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m in.”

“Excellent choice,” the Goblin said, shaking his hand. His fingers felt very bony, and his skin was dry. “Follow me. It’s time to meet your new family.”

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