Gilles Garnier was less than human. I don’t mean he didn’t have two hands, or two feet, or opposable thumbs – I mean that his spirit was so vile that his mere existence was an insult to the human race.
That’s why he was nicknamed the “Werewolf of Dole”, so we could think of him as a beast and pretend that each of us did not possess that same capacity for evil. Whatever he was, the creature was famous for strangling and eating four children in 16th century France before he was burned at the stake in 1572.
But that isn’t where his story ends. Even the grotesque agony of burning alive was deemed incomparable to the suffering he caused those children and their families. That’s why the secret sect known as “The Order of the Forgotten” was founded that same year, honoring Gilles with their very first sentence.
One life is enough to be forgotten by Heaven.
But one death is not enough to forgiven by Hell.
That was their motto. They would wait until the body (or ashes, in Gilles’ case) were buried before retrieving the remains. The Order of the Forgotten was initially established by the alchemists who used their macabre ingredients to trace the soul of the departed until it found its next iteration of reincarnated life.
The records indicate that Gilles Garner was born again in 1574 under the name of Alisa Hathoway. Once the child was located, she was burned as well, serving as further punishment for the original sin she still carried in bearing Gilles’ corrupted soul. Although subsesquent judgement from the Order of the Forgotten was later restricted to a maximum of five deaths, the soul of Gilles Garner was fated to serve as a warning for all those who would lend an ear to the goading darkness.
That is why Gilles was sentenced to an everlasting death. Every single time he was found. Every reincarnated animal, or child, or plant that possessed a shred of his original essence would sooner or later be located, and without fail, burned to ashes. These would then be preserved in order to find next soul on his eternal journey.
Now in 2017, the Order of the Forgotten has spanned six continents and over 140 countries, and they have entrusted me with killing Gilles for the 28th time.
“These ashes have been preserved for twenty years since his last death,” Father Alexander told me. We were standing in the choir room of his church, now deserted to the lengthening shadows which grew restless with the deepening night.
“Ordinarily,” Aleaxander continued, “we would have found him again much sooner, but the flames of his last death had spread to a nearby forest which consumed him utterly. His remains were contaminated with other ashes, and for a long while we were afraid that his remaining link would be too weak to trace. Although it has taken longer than usual, we have finally been able to succeed.”
I’ve never killed anyone before. The thought of carrying out this deed should have been abhorrent to me, but my oath to the Order was enough to reassure me that I was doing the right thing. After all, I had been a lost soul as well, and I was in debt to the father for sparing me from a similar fate. I will never forget that night when he found me when I was 14, camping in the woods with my friends. Through the trees he came, bearing a flaming brand which burned with the rage of an angry God.
“You are a sinner,” he told me. And there with his billowing robes, basked in the glory of fire and pierced by the wild intensity of his eyes, I could feel my very soul laid bare to him.
“You have killed in your past lives, and you have fallen from grace.” My friends had run, but I stood alone with my back to a tree. I was terrifed by him, but somehow dependent as well. He knew me as I did not know myself, and it was not only my existence but my very nature which begged for his absolution.
The roaring fire inches from my face – my hair smoldering into my scalp – the exhilerating rush of my eternal realization. Did I remember the evils that I had caused? No, but I felt them like a weight on my soul, and I knew in that moment that I would do them again if I was not purified by the flame.
“You are forgotten by Heaven, but if you do as I say, you will be remembered before you die.”
Six years later, I bow to Father Alexander, still fearful of the depth his probing eyes reach.
“Yes Father,” I replied. “I will kill Gilles Garner again.”
Through the maturing night I walked, feeling the bag of ashes warm against my skin as I approach my target. I know he is close, which is why the Father has chosen me to do his bidding. Don’t think of it as killing someone. Think of it as killing the part of myself which fate has cursed me to carry. That’s what I tried to tell myself at least.
It was exciting to feel the bag continuing to warm as I entered the restaurant. I walked slowly now, each step resounding with the unswayable purpose of one following God’s will. The bag of ashes was starting to burn my leg now. Father told me that it will burst into flame when Gilles is beside me, and that I must use it to return him to ashes once more.
“Excuse me, have you been seated?”
I walked straight past the waiter without a second glance. Too old. It had been twenty years since Gilles was burned, so the man I was looking for must be less than that. It can sometimes take years before the soul to return to life, so there were still plenty of options.
“We’re very full, so if you don’t have a reservation -”
I felt a hand on my shoulder, but one look was enough for the waiter to stumble backward. He saw something in me that I had seen in Father Alexander on the night he found me. Such a glorious purpose cannot be seen and turned aside.
“I’m here to meet someone,” I told him. His eyes were masks of uncertainty, so I pointed at a table at the far end of the room. “I’m with them.”
The teenage couple sitting there glanced up. The waiter bobbed his head, disappearing with the kind of relief you’d expect from a man climbing out of a shark tank. The bag of ashes was searing my flesh now, and the smell of it mingled with the aromatic atmosphere wafting from the table. I smiled through it all, knowing my redemption was at hand.
“We weren’t expecting -” the boy started.
“They never are,” I answered, sitting down to join them. He couldn’t be more than sixteen, face still riddled with enough pimples to make a constellation. Was it him? Or was it the girl, staring at me with her wide blue eyes that quivered around the edges. What was she afraid of, unless she felt the pressing weight on her soul?
“Sorry, but who are you?” the boy asked. I ignored him, digging the cloth bag from my pocket and dropping it onto the table. Sparks forced their way out like smoldering gunpowder.
“Leave us,” I told the boy. “I want a word with your friend.”
He half-started to stand, but the girl grabbed his arm and pulled him back into the chair. Her blue eyes narrowed, no longer shaking.
“I’m not his friend, I’m his girlfriend,” she snapped, as though that made any difference to me. “And you’re the one who needs to leave.”
She was loud. Too loud. Several tables had turned to stare at me. There was no way to do this quietly here. Not yet.
“My apologies, Gilles,” I tested her. She didn’t even flinch. And why would she? I didn’t remember my past life, so why would I expect her to remember a man who lived hundreds of years ago? I grabbed the cloth bag and excused myself from the table before the waiter could return. As I walked brisly toward the door, I could feel the bag cooling against my skin.
I waited outside for them to emerge, clutching the bag between my hands, desperate for the lingering heat to reaffirm my beliefs. Her soul was corrupt, just as mine was. She must be punished for me to become clean. But how could she be punished for something she never did? How could I be absolved by killing an innocent?
They exited sooner than I expected. Maybe I had ruined the mood. I waited until they left the ring of lights before I fell into step behind them. It didn’t matter if I had doubts, because I know God was infallible. If he wanted me to kill, then I would enjoy it knowing I was doing the right thing. The Order of the Forgotten had maintained their charge for hundreds of years, and I wouldn’t be weak link in that chain.
The bag was burning again. I watched her say goodbye to the boy in front of her house, hugging him after he seemed too awkward to kiss her. The ashes grew hotter as they held each other close, and then he was gone – walking down the sidewalk. The bag didn’t cool down. That was it then. She was the one.
Dark house. Rustling of keys. She glanced behind her, eyes fixing on the sparkling bag in my hands. Then on my face. I smiled.
“Hello Gilles Garner,” I said. “Would you like to invite me in?”
She shook her head. Back to the door, she fumbled with the keys in her hands. I threw the ashes at her face, watching them come to life as they approached. She threw her arms up to block, but the ashes scattered in firey impact. She screamed, and I can’t deny the satisfaction of hearing my prey realize its helplessness. The burning ashes clung to her like tar, bursting into incandescent color as brilliant as the brand Father Alexander carried when he found me.
I wasn’t killing her. I was just sending her back where she belonged.
Only she didn’t burn. The light burst around her in a luminous aura. She wasn’t screaming anymore either – just staring at her dazzling body in awe. I didn’t understand. I wanted to see her soul being purged! I wanted her to suffer for what she’d done! Father Alexander told me that –
“That’s enough.” It was Alexander’s voice. My eyes were stunned from the light and I couldn’t see him, but I heard his footsteps approaching from the street. “Gilles has revealed himself to you. It’s time to punish him.”
“I’m trying -” I spluttered, but Alexander’s hand materialized from the shadows to preface his enterance into the light. The hard lines in his skin made it look as though it were carved from stone.
“I’m talking to Lily,” Alexander said. His grave face was fully illuminated now, and I could see that he was staring at the girl. “It is as I told you. You do not have to search for the soul in need of punishment. He will find you.”
My blood was boiling. My chest was tight. I could barely breath, but I forced the words out like hissing steam.
“The ashes. You told me to -”
“I told you the day I met you,” Alexander growled. “That you carried a corrupted soul. Each time you return, you are tested again. Not once in five hundred years have you refused to kill, and so not once have you been spared. So are all the souls tested before they are punished again. There is no reason so grand or order so high that can justify the choice you’ve made to kill an innocent.”
The light had all but faded from Lily now. The ashes still sparkled where they rained through the air around her. It had been a trick then. I may not have remembered being Gilles Garner, but I hadn’t refused the chance to kill again either. I turned to run, and neither of them followed me.
But where can I run when it was my nature that I must flee? How can I hide when they have already found me over 200 times? Sooner or later the Order of the Forgotten burn me again, so there is nothing left for me but to wait. To wait and to pray, that next time I will find the strength to make my own choices, and not rely on God to make them in my stead.