51: Jack

Jack

The path they followed almost certainly had human origins. At least, Jack felt reasonably certain a trace of either pavement or stamped earth ran underneath the grass. But so much had grown back, he could not tell if it had been a footpath or a highway.

As they marched in silence, the morning light of what felt like a humid spring day slowly unveiled the land, and he began to get his first good look at the world named Chald. He had not formed any expectations, but, except for the ruined castle and fallen beast behind them, it had been surprisingly similar to Missouri so far. The forest surrounding them and sometimes roofing them in could be any number of state parks he had visited.

That impression remained valid until they began encountering destroyed structures, old bomb craters and great linear gashes in the land. Invariably nature had long since begun reclaiming them, but they were still very visible.

Ample evidence of the former people of this place remained. Buildings appeared along the path, three or four to the mile, smaller than the castle behind them, but equally fortified. They all lay abandoned and ruined. Occasionally, they would walk past large fields filed with squat stone cylinders, surrounding a stone table. As they past the third such, he belatedly realized these were graveyards.

At one point, the blasted remains of an immense stone tower rose high on a hill above the path, One side of its upper portion broken and tumbled, and the skeleton of a gargantuan creature, with clear scorch marks over much of the ribcage, lay on the slope below. The two fallen giants seemed connected, as if they had felled each other in a fantastic battle. Beside the skeleton, a gouge in the hillside had filled with trees, but its immense proportions dwarfed the largest of those.

“Theater interdiction class?” Nam had asked as they observed it from the path.

“Aye,” Rogan confirmed after a short evaluation. “A beastie that size must give one pause, but I doubt there’s any left so large.”

“They did not bury it…” she noted, with a tone of disapproval.

“Likely they cremated it in place. That’s why the burn marks. Too big to move. We see the bones after as good a burial as they could do.”

Jack had come to understand it, but that one short story, a few sentences that rebuilt a bit of the past, completed the image of this world in his mind. Not an empty land, but an emptied land, with an apocalyptic past. By no means was it dead– the green vegetation, incessant insect and bird noises and regular sightings of small wildlife made that clear– but calamitous events had swept it clean of humanity.

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And yet they also journeyed through a beautiful land, a beguiling wilderness of thick forests and sunny meadows. He wondered what method of world destruction could leave it in such a state of pristine natural beauty, or at least whole enough to allow nature to fully revitalize in only seven decades despite having been severe enough to drive away all human residents.

Twice he persuaded Rogan to allow him to try walking again, and twice he had convinced Rogan it wasn’t possible within a half dozen steps. So he continued to ride piggy-back, feeling like a fool.

Nam remained at point position despite his misgivings. He hated letting the small woman expose herself to the threats while the larger men walked behind her, but, according to Rogan, her skills made her the best scout. He wasn’t able to follow all of Rogan’s explanations for that, although he gathered that spook powers like what she had demonstrated in the warehouse were at the heart of it.

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She constantly looked out to one side and the other as she walked, which Jack found alarming, because she seemed to completely disregard her footing as she did it. She apparently watched for things Rogan and he were unlikely to see, another thought he found disturbing, although with his own senses awakening, he now understood the concept far better.

Both of his companions were doing an excellent job of hiding their nerves, but he could tell, this place had them spooked as well. Even though Rogan had declared that nothing like the monster at the tower remained on this world, monsters like the one they had fought did remain, and their nerves were more than understandable. Rogan had suggested their recent foe had been in bad shape and fighting without its normal weaponry. If they encountered such creatures who were in good condition, the results could be very different.

Ultimately, these monsters were the cause, the forces that had destroyed the buildings of this world and sent their occupants to abandon their world for refuge elsewhere. Even so, as Rogan trudged onward carrying him on his back, Jack still wrestled with the idea of supernatural foes tough enough to threaten these two superhumans.

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Seventh of eight mass-posted advance chapters.

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