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Chapter no 14

Forgotten Ruin

I hustled back from the interrogation through the deepening gloom of late afternoon. The air on the island surrounded by the river was tense and quiet. Not many Rangers were moving around as the day finished up and we headed into what would probably be a long, violent night.

I was bothered.

Something the little goblin called Jabba had said was bothering me like an itch that couldn’t quite be scratched, and believe me, I was the first to admit that what was bothering me sounded stupid. Real stupid.

But let’s just say evidence and reason were insisting that I needed to start playing by PFC Kennedy’s game’s rules and fully embrace the fantasy. And try to scratch the itch. There were goblins and orcs, a giant, magic. If those were the rules… then it was time to learn more about them.

It was less than an hour from full dark when I made it back to the plane. Inside the aircraft they’d already switched over to tactical operations red lighting, and I found the command sergeant major before I should have done what I first needed to do just to make sure what I was about to say wasn’t as completely stupid as it sounded to me. Because it probably was. But he wouldn’t let me speak until we’d moved away from the plane and stood under the outboard engine on the right side of the grounded C-17. Back in the quiet of the forest and field on that small river-locked island. The gloaming coming on out there to the east. Blue fading to purple. The air getting colder. A chill. Breath turning to steam as we spoke.

“What’d you find out, Talker?” asked the sergeant major once we were out of earshot of everyone else.

I relayed Jabba’s conversation and stuck to the intel John had taught me to identify and disseminate. Even then, as I think about it now, there wasn’t much when I laid it all out. They, this horde of darkness, were coming for us. There were a lot of them. They were never gonna stop.

No real surprises or game-changers.

I’d left Jabba secured and had hustled back before Sergeant Kurtz could find something for me to do. Like police spent brass and build IEDs out of leftover MRE utensils. Some last-minute make-work project that might buy us a few more seconds before all our throats got cut by dirty

knives wielded by green scrabbling claws.

By monsters in the dark.

“There’s something else, Sergeant Major,” I said, interrupting my own report.

The sergeant major asked me to clarify.

I stopped myself from saying, “This sounds dumb, Sergeant Major.” I decided to own my hunch. A gut feeling had started during the debrief with the SEAL Chief McCluskey. And when I got a vague confirm out of something the little goblin dropped near the end of the interrogation, that gut feeling became a hunch that wouldn’t stop itching.

Trust me, it was stupid. But you know how when you read novels and some character gets a hint about who the real villain is in the story or what the big twist is gonna be and the writer was hoping it was vague enough that you would miss it, but you, the reader, you spot it from a million miles off and the rest of the book is just flat-out ruined and you hate the characters because they’re all stupid for not spotting the obvious dangling plot hook even though it’s not their fault because the writer had to make them practically blind not to see it…

You know how that is? This felt like that.

So there I was cutting to the chase and acting on the not-so-vague implication itching the back of my brain. I was telling the sergeant major what my hunch was. Who it was. If I was wrong, then I was a bigger dork than PFC Kennedy. And it was the slit trench latrine pit for me. Probably forever.

“You know how we both had a… bad… if not strange feeling about the SEAL… McCluskey, Sergeant Major?”

The sergeant major scanned the darkening forest and then looked back at me, merely nodding once to make it clear he understood what I was saying. Where I was going.

We were back to nodding again.

“Okay,” I continued. “In the prisoner’s debrief he mentioned only one named figure. Identified their commander, as far as I can tell. What we’re facing seems to be a joint effort by different entities to hit us. Why? No idea there, Sergeant Major. It was above his pay grade, so to speak. But the name the subject used during the interrogation was ’King Triton.’”

I actually used air quotes and it was at that moment I felt that yes, what

I was saying was indeed pretty stupid. But sounding stupid had never stopped me before now. Ask any of the girls I’ve asked out.

“Okay…” I took a deep breath so I could explain Greek and Roman mythology to the command sergeant major and thereby indicate that Chief McCluskey had indeed gone native and turned himself into a warlord probably masquerading as King Triton. My stupid hunch. I know. Here goes…

“McCluskey’s a SEAL, son,” interrupted the sergeant major just as I began. “If a SEAL was gonna call himself something I could see Triton being one those nutjobs would go right for.” His voice was low and confidential, and he cast his gray eyes about the silent clearing at the edge of the field we’d barely made our landing on. “Follow me.”

I did.

I knew it was serious when the sergeant major drew his sidearm as we boarded the rear ramp, passing the two SAW gunners assigned to protect the plane. “Follow me, boys,” he growled through gritted teeth at both gunners. It was clear he was in a mood to bring some hate.

We were heading right to the clamshell nest the sergeant major had made for the chief to wait out the daylight due to his self-confessed state of vampirism. I wondered at that point if I should draw my M-18, but what with the two gunners and all, I felt my contribution to the shooting about to ensue would either be superfluous, or not enough if it was just me left.

Surprise, surprise—we found the clamshell nest empty with McCluskey and all his gear gone. Horse missing out in the woods. No one had seen him go.

A few minutes later we’d find out only one of the fighting positions had seen him crossing the river upstream of them just as the sun went down through the trees in the west. Twilight coming on.

Outside it was dark now. The air was getting cold. And the island and the forest were dead silent. No drums. Not even the smell of smoke from out there in the woods.

But you could feel something coming. Feel the length of the long night already stretching out into a never-seeing-the-sun-rise-again moment.

You could feel that they were coming now. Coming for us. “King Triton” was ordering his forces into battle, marshaling and telling them where to hit us exactly. A dark man on a dark horse, riding here and there in

the shadows of the night out there to make sure all was as he wanted now that he knew what he needed to know.

Now that he had us right where he wanted us.

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