Reporting for Duty
The Army’s Spectral Assault division must be getting desperate. I’ve never seen a necromancer below the rank of lieutenant, but the two chevrons on my summoner’s shoulder mark him as a corporal. I’m a captain, so this is about to get awkward.
I glance around at a dusty old warehouse, empty and dark, as I float above a pentagram drawn in chalk. The lines are wavering and imprecise, and there’s a slight flaw in the Symbol of Serah. I glare down at the corporal. The nametag on his fatigues reads Valdez.
“Captain,” Valdez says and salutes.
“This is a sorry excuse for a containment pentagram, Corporal Valdez. If I was a malignant entity, you’d be fucking demon chow.”
“Uh, I’m sorry, sir,” Valdez says and finds something on the floor in need of intense study. He can’t be more than twenty, but he looks about fifteen, small and thin, swimming in his fatigues like a little kid in his daddy’s suit. But necromancers are rare, and beggars can’t be choosers. From what I remember from my last tour, Spectral Assault are most definitely beggars.
“Save it, Corporal,” I say. “Just point me at my vessel.”
“Yes, sir.” Valdez mutters an incantation under his breath, and I am suddenly free of the containment pentagram. I am also under his direct command. Like I said, awkward.
“If you’ll follow me, sir,” Valdez says, and I give him points for phrasing his command as a request. I follow. Not like I have a choice.
The necromancer leads me to a corner of the warehouse where a small command center has been set up. There are three other soldiers there. One I recognize.
“Captain Fielder,” Major Ava Smith says and shoots me a crooked smile. “You look like shit.”
“Well, ma’am, I’ve been dead for five years. What’s your excuse?”
Corporal Valdez’s eyes widen in horror at my insubordination, but the major and I have been friends a long time.
Major Smith laughs. “It’s good to see you, John. Really.”
“You too, ma’am,” I reply. “Now, what kind of shit detail have you got for me this time?”
Her smile fades. “Things are bad, Captain. The Fallen seem to have more cultists willing to take a bullet for them every day.”
“Well, demons have always had a way with the gullible and stupid.”
“And the world’s full of both,” the major replies with a shake of her head.
“I’m ready to do my part,” I say. “What’s the mission?”
“Let’s get you into your vessel first.” Major Smith points to a nearby gurney. There’s a body on it under a tarp. The major lifts the covering to reveal the corpse of a man in his early thirties. He’s not bad looking, if you can get past the bullet holes in his chest and face. A pentagram has been carved into the corpse’s chest. It looks like better work than Valdez can manage.
“Well, at least it’s mostly intact.” I turn to Valdez. “Go ahead, Corporal. I’m ready.”
“Yes, sir,” he replies and begins to chant.
The world fades to gray, and I close my eyes. When I open them again, I’m staring at the ceiling, the cold steel of the gurney beneath me. I sit up, moving my arms around in slow circles to get used to the feeling of flesh again. Doesn’t take long. I hop off the gurney and Major Smith hands me a set of fatigues.
Once I’m dressed, she gives me the details. “There’s a nest of cultists—Baal’s faction—holed up in a building about two clicks from here. We can’t budge ‘em.”
“Sweep and clear?”
She grimaces. “Sort of.”
The building used to be an office high rise. It’s mostly intact, which says the cultists probably have a warlock with them. Wards are excellent at blocking inanimate objects like bullets. They don’t work on organic matter—living or dead.
I start taking fire two hundred yards from the entrance. I run in a zigzag pattern, but I’m hit four times. Three of the bullets pass through my dead flesh without slowing me. The fourth cracks the femur in my left leg, reducing me to a limp about twenty feet from the building. I take more fire, blasting chunks off my vessel. Luckily, it’s nothing that impedes my movement further.
I feel a slight tingling sensation as I pass through the warlock’s bullet ward. I fling open the doors and rush into the lobby, then tear open my fatigues. There’s enough C4 strapped to my chest to level the Empire State Building. The cultists in the lobby scream in horror and hose me with more bullets. They shred my vessel, but I retain my right hand long enough to trigger the detonator.
I’m back in the pentagram. Valdez has done a better job this time. Things are a little hazy, the world blurry and indistinct. You can only come back so many times before your tether to the material realm frays and snaps. I might have one more tour of duty in me.
Major Smith is the only person in the room, and her face is lined with fatigue and something else. “Good work, John. You got every one of those bastards.”
“Just doing the job, Major. Happy to help.”
“I know,” she says, and I realize that something else on her face is pain. And not the physical kind. “Will you do me a favor, John?”
“Can you tell…” she falters, and I see tears in her eyes, feel the pain radiating from her soul like a nuclear reactor.
“Oh, God, Ava. Not Robert.”
“I’m afraid so. This morning.” Ava wipes at her eyes.
“What do you want me to tell him?”
“Tell him I love him.” She swallows, and her face hardens into her war mask. “Then tell him to report for duty.”
About the author:
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of the baseball horror novella Effectively Wild, the Iron Kingdoms Acts of War novels, and the flash fiction collection Night Walk & Other Dark Paths. His short stories have appeared in Dark Matter Magazine, On Spec, and Pseudopod, among others. Aeryn is a heavy metal nerd, a baseball geek, and knows more about dinosaurs than is healthy or socially acceptable. Learn more about his work at www.rejectomancy.com or on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.