Carmen smelled the smoke from the fire before she saw it.
The burning wood snapped and popped as they broke apart in the heat. Anne was poking at it with a stick while Fleur fanned the fire, making the flames grow bigger and spiral into the air.
“Congratulations,” Carmen said. “Was it difficult?” She hung the pot over the finger and tore the rabbit into smaller pieces before tossing it into the water that was rapidly heating up.
There should be seasoning somewhere…
“It was easy,” Fleur said. “Anne got it right in her first try!”
Carmen just nodded as she thought about how to broach the topic about her identity as an undead to Anne as she went about preparing the meal. For the finishing touches, she tossed a few of the outpost bricks into the cooking stew to soak and soften them, and give volume to the whole thing.
All that remained to do was to cover the pot and let it sit as it cooked.
Sitting back onto her log opposite of the one Fleur and Anne now sat on, she made eye contact with Fleur. This time, Anne didn’t miss it, and the red haired girl began to frown.
Carmen shrugged. Now was as good a time as any since they had nothing to do while they waited for the stew to finish. She leaned forward.
“Anne, I have something to tell you that you must keep secret,” she said, testing the waters of Anne’s mood and possible reactions.
The girl’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I don’t know if I can keep any of your secrets,” she retorted.
At least she was honest about her attitude, Carmen thought. Anne’s straightforward personality was something Carmen liked about her. It made her easy to predict and as long as Anne didn’t change, Carmen felt safe about leaving Fleur with her.
“Are you sure you can’t keep the secret? In that case, Fleur will be the only one who knows,” Carmen said with a smile. “It will be just a secret between the two of us, leaving…you…out.”
With a bewildered expression on her face, Anne turned to look at Fleur as if looking for confirmation, or perhaps hoping that Fleur would deny it. Unfortunately, Fleur nodded. “Yup. We were going to tell you today, but if you can’t keep it…” she trailed off.
Putting aside her tongue that could be quite sharp and poisonous at times, Fleur had a fairly thin voice that made her sound even younger than her age. Now, it made her sound innocent and pitiful, as if she was genuinely sad that Anne wasn’t going to be allowed in on the secret.
The tactic worked wonders to shake Anne’s resolve. Biting her lips and clenching her fist, Anne warred with herself, fighting between her desire to know what Fleur knew and her reluctance to have to keep the secrets of a person she did not like or wanted to associate herself with any further. Carmen watched her fidget, her left and right hands an unconscious representation of her thoughts.
Anne had the option of agreeing and simply violating the agreement further down the line, but she didn’t even consider it.
As a rule with few exceptions, members of the Church tended to keep their words—especially lower ranking ones for whom subterfuge and power struggles weren’t commonplace yet. The virtue of honesty was drilled into them while they were still impressionable orphans after all.
Finally, Anne seemed to have made up her mind. “Fine! I promise that I will keep what you tell me a secret. Hmph.”
She turned away, not looking at Carmen. Surprisingly, she turned away from Fleur too, as if blaming her for having to make the choice.
“I hope you remember what you just said. Now, sit still and don’t make any sudden moves.” Carmen stood up. If she had her sword on her back, she would have unbuckled it and put it aside to show that she truly wasn’t hostile, but the sword was on the ground leaned against the log. As a result, she could only spread her hands, showing that she wasn’t hiding anything.
“I…am an undead.”
Learning from her experience with Fleur, Carmen first said out loud to prepare Anne for what was to come. Fleur had a wry smile on her face, as if remembering the events of the previous day.
Anne had turned back and was staring at her with her eyes and mouth open wide as if unable to believe, or even process what she just heard. “What did you just say? I don’t think I…”
“You heard right. I’m an undead, a knight-class zombie.”
Anne looked over at Fleur, who nodded. Her hands twitched and reached to the side toward her mace.
The birds that had been chirping nearby, singing a joyful afternoon song, stopped and took off, fluttering away. A chill descended on the camping site and the flames of the fire sputtered as undead mana pushed away the mana of the flames.
Anne’s face turned ashen.
“I’m an undead,” Carmen repeated. “But you don’t have to worry, since I’m not interested in hurting the living.”
As if a cloud covering the sun drifted away, the chill vanished as suddenly as it came. Carmen withdrew her aura and once again suppressed it, further hiding its presence within her body with a sheath of holy mana.
“And that’s it. That’s my secret,” she said. “Anything to say?”
Anne’s eyes were still wild and every muscle in her body remained tense, as if she was about to spring up and attack. However, she wasn’t reaching for her mace anymore, not moving even as a bead of sweat left a wet trail down the side of her face.
Did she break?
Carmen saw real fear in Anne’s eyes, almost as she was paralyzed by it. Even Fleur didn’t react quite so badly.
She had thought that since Anne was already a somewhat experienced veteran at fighting undead, she would react much more violently, but she had been wrong. Instead of giving her courage, the knowledge and experience of fighting against undead gave her fear.
Anne knew better than Fleur just what a knight-class undead was capable of, and the fear and hopelessness she felt when confronted with one alone was also a hundred times stronger.
Perhaps this wasn’t the best way of revealing her secret. How should she reveal to Arvel? He won’t have the same reaction as Anne, that was for sure.
“Fleur? What are you doing? If you want to, you can help her.”
“Okay!” Fleur had been worried and hovering over Anne, but hesitated to touch her without Carmen’s permission. With Carmen’s go ahead, she pulled Anne into a hug. “Anne, it’s okay! Camilla is really nice.”
Anne gasped, letting out a long-held breath. “Fleur…you knew that she was an undead?”
Her voice was full of disbelief.
“Yeah. I found out yesterday when we went out on the walk; remember it?”
“And it was there that I found out she’s Carmen. You know, the one that I said always visited me when I was younger?”
“…That’s Carmen?” Anne looked up. “The former Cloud commander?”
Carmen felt the girl’s eyes burrowing into her. It was a hostile gaze, but it wasn’t the gaze of an acolyte looking at an undead she wished to destroy. It was one filled with jealousy, much more than before. But it was also filled with sadness, pain, and hopelessness.
Carmen nodded. “I don’t have proof, so you’ll have to take my word for it like Fleur did.”
But the girl didn’t seem interested in what she was saying. Instead, Anne was staring off into the distance, totally vulnerable, as if her previous state of fear and alertness was just an illusion.
Her lips shifted in a barely visible whisper that even Fleur could not hear, but one that Carmen could just barely make out with the help of reading her lips. “No way…then…what chance do I have left?”
The girl’s words filled Carmen with confusion, because it made no sense.
However, at least Anne wasn’t freaking out about her undeath. For some reason, her identity as the former Cloud commander was never doubted, and Anne believed her immediately. However, why did Anne show such a big reaction upon hearing her old na—her name?
Although Carmen was a little curious, she wanted to get Anne up to date on what they were doing. Barsig hadn’t been very clear on what he expected Anne and Fleur to do in the south except to “survey” and “take care of” the undead problem. The intent was to leave things vague so that Carmen could make the decisions needed without Anne and Fleur needing to go against existing orders.
All Carmen told Barsig was that she was worried about her friend Arvel who had been dispatched on a mission toward the south, and that she would like to bring Arvel’s acolyte with her.
It wasn’t like she had any more information anyways, considering she had been passed out when everything happened, only waking up thanks to Victoria’s help afterwards.
Carmen stood up and walked over to Anne, who was currently nestled in Fleur’s arms, sobbing into Fleur’s chest. She refused to believe that Anne was doing it accidentally.
“Acolyte Anne, compose yourself. We’re going to go over the contents of your mission now.”
Anne sniffed and raised her head, glaring at Carmen with red eyes, but she did sit up straight in the end. However, she still stuck close to Fleur, positioning herself between Carmen and the girl behind her. It’s probably become a habit by that point.
“I’m sure you know that you’re being sent south regarding an undead problem. However, you probably haven’t been given any specifics,” she said.
Anne nodded and wiped her eyes. “What exactly are we going down there for? Couldn’t they have sent some knights or actually priests? Why are we going with you?”
She didn’t even bother hiding the suspicion in her words. It wasn’t entirely unwarranted though.
“Because I was the one to propose this mission. This mission isn’t issued by the Church or the Cloud Order—it’s by Barsig’s orders only,” she said. “I convinced him to help me since Fleur wanted to come along.”
“You! How did you manage to—no, if Barsig knows that you’re the former Commander, then it all makes sense,” Anne said. “This is an abuse of power! Does the vice-captain know you’re an undead?”
Carmen shook her head at the question. “Of course not. All I did was tell him that I was a survivor of the Cloud Order’s dispatch, as well as his former superior. He had no idea I was undead.”
If Barsig knew she was an undead…to say that things would be bad would be the least of his problems. She didn’t want to burden him with more difficult knowledge during such a difficult time. Sadly, Anne didn’t seem to agree with her view.
“You lied to him. How did you become an undead in the first place?” Anne pointed a finger at Carmen. “As a templar with the duty to destroy the undead, it’s your responsibility to end yourself. Or have you forgotten your oaths?”
“Anne!” Fleur cried, shocked that Anne would go so far. But Anne shrugged her off to continue glaring at Carmen.
Carmen had to admit that once Anne got past her fear, she was as fierce as Carmen initially predicted. The nerve of telling a knight-class zombie to go kill herself wasn’t something Carmen came across everyday. She was a little impressed, though there were still a lot of faults she found within the girl. Anne seemed to have the same problem that Barsig did, and that was her impulsiveness and recklessness.
Fleur was a lot better in that regard.
“It’s not like I never considered killing myself, especially when I first became undead. However, it’s hypocritical you to tell me to die when you are creating undead. Did you know that the Church is raising the dead and using them as a labour force?” she asked.
Anne nodded. “Yes,” she said flatly.
Carmen looked at Fleur, who shook her head, indicating that she wasn’t the one to tell Anne. In that case, Anne found out about the program by herself and had already managed to talk herself through the contradictions it raised about the Church.
“I suppose you’ll say that I’m a threat, while the undead aren’t, correct?”
Anne nodded again.
“Then what if the undead weren’t docile? And the Church did not have full control over what they created? Do you still think that the Church is always in the right?”