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Chapter no 6

Forgotten Ruin

Sergeant Thor was on comms with the drone operator. The target was back in the clearing and up to the same thing again tonight. We were well inland now and moving slowly through a dark forest. Meanwhile, back on the island the orcs were hitting the eastern edge of our defenses, and from the west, out in the wetlands opposite the heavy weapons team, hundreds of hidden archers were filling the night sky with arrows. Arrows arching in the moonlight and then raining down. We could hear them whistling, a chorus of mournful high-pitched shrieks shooting off into the night, and through the gaps in the trees, off to our right, we could sometimes see their swarms unexpectedly cross through the cold early evening sky. If we turned off our NVGs and flipped them up, that is. Which I admit to doing. The rest of the Rangers kept their NVGs “down” or “on” as we continued the patrol.

We followed the bottom of a small, barely moving stream, our pace not much faster than the water’s, because we had no idea if these orcs had their own version of IEDs. Something they might have left lying around for us to get stuck with. Best to move slow and safe as we closed on our target.

“Slick and silent, smooth and quiet,” Sergeant Thor periodically whispered into the comm as we followed our course to the hit, tactically problem-solving and navigating different pieces of terrain as they presented themselves, addressing each situation along the route. Chokepoints. Open fields of fire. Lines of drift. Places that looked ripe for an ambush.

As we were getting ready to climb a steep dirt-and-overgrown-root embankment to move up into the trees that surrounded the clearing, Specialist Lucke held up a fist, freezing the patrol in place, signaling that he’d ID’d the enemy’s presence. They were working their way down the same narrow stream the patrol was working its way up.

“Hasty ambush,” said Thor quietly over the comm and pointed quickly with numbered fingers where he wanted us, roughly moving us into an L- shape along a slight bend in the streambed with Brumm and his SAW anchoring our attack. I was placed with Brumm, and the two of us hunkered behind a dead log lying in the burbling water while the rest of the team faded into the brush off to the right.

It felt like forever as we just lay there and waited. And then, peering

over the log through my NVGs, I saw them coming straight at us. They weren’t orcs. I mean, they were similar, but smaller. They had large, flappy ears that twitched and flicked. Wide luminescent eyes mischievously scanned the dark as they slowly padded along the stream bottom. No torches. No lights. They muttered one to another, and from what I could pick up it sounded familiar. Like maybe there was something in its construction that was similar to a few of the languages I knew, or knew of. They carried curved bone daggers and feather-laden spears. They wore little clothing beyond ragged loincloths and toothy-teeth necklaces, like some Bronze Age group of hunter-gatherers from the long ago had mobbed a shark at one point.

Brumm was waiting on the signal to open up and start the ambush when abruptly, before they reached the leading envelope of our kill zone, the twitchy little creatures headed off into the forest to the north, falling to all fours and climbing up out of the streambed like fast-moving spiders, snooting the earth of the forest. In seconds they evaporated into the dark trees, it was as if they hadn’t ever been there at all.

Thor let them go, and we waited for a long moment in the new silence, listening and trying to hear them over the distant gunfire erupting back at the island. A fresh round of mortar strikes began to whump whump, and the tribal battle horns, farther away now, seemed to call up more forces to the action.

Ranger Alamo was getting hit hard tonight.

“Patrol up,” said Sergeant Thor softly once he was sure we were safe to move. “Continue to objective. CP says the target is still active and affecting the battle.”

What happened next went exactly as it was supposed to… until it didn’t. Then it got wild. Real sideways, real fast.

We made our turn up onto the embankment and into the woods that surrounded the hidden clearing and the location of our HVT. The trees there smelled damp and rotten, with branches twisted among each other like snakes frozen in their embraces. This was a forest that had been wild and tangled for a very long time. And it was cooler here than it was down along the stream bottom, and that didn’t seem right.

“Feel that?” Brasher asked as I followed him toward the hit. I didn’t reply.

“Don’t feel right, do it, Talker?” he said regardless.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, pretending to myself that it was the truth.

Brasher gave a grunt in reply.

Maybe the air temperature, I confessed to myself. But at the time I didn’t want to admit that what we were heading into simply… didn’t feel right. Like Brasher said. I suppose it would have meant a loss of control of some sort if I had admitted that things weren’t making sense on a basic level. And if I did admit that, if I admitted something as simple as things didn’t feel right, then things like up is down might be the new normal. It would be like opening a gateway to dark stuff you might not be able to stuff back in the bottle no matter how much you wanted to.

A moment later, Specialist Lucke halted us along the approach to contact. Through the woods ahead the trees began to thin, and the space was so filled with silver-blue moonlight it created a swirling column of dusty- light, fireflies, and dancing motes. A pillar of soft, otherworldly glow leaving us here among the murky trees in a state of otherwise near pitch- black darkness.

I had to remind myself that this was where the predator preferred to be. In the dark, unseen and watching. And the Rangers were the predators tonight. We had come out to hunt. The darkness was our world now.

“Wait one…” said Thor, who had his MK11 up and the thermal sight active, scanning the darkness ahead of us. I watched all of this completely unsure what was actually happening. The rest of the Rangers were scanning their sectors, watching the gloom all around on one knee. I took off my comm headset and listened.

I could hear something.

I held up one hand and whispered into the comm telling them what I was hearing. Someone muttering in low monastic tones. I didn’t add that it sounded ominous and extremely creepy. But it did. The advanced hearing detection mounted on our helmets, and in our earmuffs, should have picked it up. But it didn’t. And that had been my hunch. Just like the guy being invisible on everything except thermal. He was silent, electronically speaking.

“Not even picking this guy up on thermal now,” Thor muttered through gritted teeth. “Anyone have visual on Jackpot at this time? Anything on

night vision?”

“Jackpot” was Ranger for an HVT. Negatives all around.

Since the drone’s thermal imaging system had detected our target, the thermal scope Sergeant Thor was carrying should have done the same. That was the plan. But Thor’s bitter oath indicated that the scope he was running was high-priced junk. Now he sat there, staring into the darkness ahead, searching the empty moonlight with his cold blue eyes.

“He’s there,” he whispered. “Drone has him.”

I knew what he was thinking right at that very moment. He was thinking we were supposed to hit the equivalent of an invisible swordsman. Yeah, it made no sense. That didn’t matter. Right now, the main body was fully engaged with a horde of savage orcs trying to overrun them and slit their throats for bonus points. Apparently reason, logic, and things that made sense hadn’t come through the QST gate on the ride we’d taken into the future. This—fighting orcs and giants and invisible “wizards”—this was what reality was here. Which meant the sergeant had to figure out a way.

“We’ll frag it,” he muttered in the darkness so low you could barely hear.

No one said anything. After a moment he outlined the change in plans over the comm.

“Gomez and Lucke. Take the right and move up slow and close. Right to the edge of the wood line over there. Once you’re in position we’ll move forward in a firing line. Deploy your grenades on my signal. After they’ve detonated, Specialist Brumm will lay down suppressive—full pouch with the SAW, Brumm. Then the firing line will sweep the clearing. We should get it via overwhelming firepower. If I had mortars, I’d tell them to just delete the grid square, but we don’t, and that’s why we’re here. Roger, Reapers?”

Affirmatives all around.

Three minutes later, Lucke and Gomez were in place and ready to toss grenades into the clearing in order to kick things off.

And that’s when the plan went completely off-rails.

Gomez tossed the first grenade, and it was a good throw—according to him later—right into the dead center of the clearing. Except as the tossed explosive neared the top of its arc, it just bounced off an… invisible shield.

And came right back at them.

Bounced off an invisible shield.

Say again. It. Bounced. Off. An. Invisible. Shield. Yup. Crazy town.

Lucke, who had lightning reflexes and a cooked grenade ready to go himself, grabbed Private Gomez and fell on top of him. They had no idea where the tossed live grenade had gone. A moment later it detonated in the woods nearby, and in the moment we had no idea if either of them were hurt. Lucke had the presence of mind to take the cooked grenade he’d intended to deploy and toss it off in a safe direction away from us and the clearing. He threw it back toward the river, and it detonated harmlessly.

The plan had called for them to toss at least two more apiece before Brumm opened up with the 249. But instead Lucke was telling Sergeant Thor over the comm that there was some kind of invisible barrier up.

“A what?” asked Brumm, listening in. Then he swore and opened up with the SAW anyway. “Switching to on!” he shouted.

A blur of bright fire streaked out into the moonlit clearing as the specialist dragged the chattering weapon across the small open space, raking it with bursts of fire. The barrier shimmered from dozens of impacts, then collapsed with an audible pop.

Sergeant Thor shouted, “I have visual. Engaging!” and pulled the trigger on his target. A second later he was staring through the thermal sight mounted on his MK11, scanning the field of fire. Then, “Wait! What…?”

I was on pins and needles as to what all this meant. That was what I’d learned about combat so far. It was really confusing to pay attention to what was important because everything was important. And there were lots of loud explody things going off all around me.

I looked out into the moonlight. There was indeed a man out there in the center of the clearing. No—there were now six men out there in the clearing. All of them wearing those bamboo hats you find all across southeast Asia. In Chinese it’s called a dǒulì. Which literally means bamboo hat.

This is how linguists contribute to pitched battles between Rangers and invisible sorcerers in the dead of night. Identifying the enemy’s haberdashery.

That was when my mind locked in and remembered that the muttering

I’d heard had sounded vaguely Chinese. Like a Hui dialect with some Persian and Arabic.

Sergeant Thor fired the suppressed MK11 again. It was still loud because I had my hearing protection off, trying to hear what the muttering guy was saying that wasn’t being picked up by the electronics. Which was impossible what with the grenades detonating and the M249’s roar. Brumm was changing over to a drum now as the rest of the team began to try and hit the man, the men, in the clearing. They, the men in the dǒulì hats, were blinking from place to place, shifting in and out of existence, here one second, over there the next. Y’know… to make things easier for us.

The men in the clearing were all the same man. We all saw that. The same Chinese peasant in bamboo hat and dark robes. Hands weaving in almost balletic movements. All six of him blinking in and out of existence as the Rangers tried to acquire and fire. Did I mention the blinking out of existence? Because it was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen… up to that point.

Ask yourself… how many times have you seen something like that outside of a video game? Teleporting.

The men, the man, they were weaving their hands around, most likely about to do something that would vaporize us all in an instant. The feel of wild energy loose in the night air was palpable, and suddenly the trees were alive as though something invisible and angry was up there and moving through the treetops.

It was at that moment I realized everyone should probably have been paying more attention to the nerdy and ever-punished PFC Kennedy. Absorbing his geek knowledge a lot more than we had been. Instead, the sergeant major had been keeping him close to the C-17 doing every lowlife task there was to do. Which mainly consisted of digging a latrine pit near the aircraft. It had been three days of nothing but MREs since we got here. Eventually that sanitation pit was gonna be much-needed.

Fog suddenly swirled up from the ground and all six blinking men, like figures on a cycling slot machine, began to slow their roll until there was only one. But by that time the fog had choked off the moonlit clearing and we were facing a wall of solid mist through which we could see absolutely nothing at all.

“Cease fire!” yelled Thor, swearing. He was scanning the fog,

mumbling that the thermal should work despite smoke, fog, or dust.

“Mag up!” shouted Brumm. “Want me to spray the clearing again, Sar’nt?” He was just hefting the M249 up when sidewinders of burning comets rocketed out of the fog and found the SAW gunner. They slammed into the ESAPI plates he wore in the plate carrier across his chest, scorching like white-hot phosphorus, and Brumm was shucking out of his gear just to get clear of the tiny hellfires burning there.

A moment later I felt the worst sinus infection I’ve ever had. All at once and suddenly out of nowhere. The kind that abruptly clogs your nose and ears and makes you feel stupid all at once. I felt like someone had just added a five-pound weight to the brain inside my skull.

Not only was there fog everywhere now, my brain was covered in a mental wool blanket. Thinking back about it now, if you’d asked me what my name was at that very moment, I probably couldn’t have told you. Couldn’t even have guessed what it might have been.

To my right I could see the rest of the team firing into the clearing. But everything was slow. Like when the footage of a camera is undercranked. Like I was seeing only every other frame of the movie. The explosions of the weapons seemed far away and distant, and somewhere else not here.

Farther to the right—where later I would remember Lucke and Gomez had gone, though at that moment such a thought, any thought really, was hard to hold on to—I saw a sudden streak of lighting race through the fog, crooked and sharp. And then a massive thunderclap.

As if my brain were catching up to thoughts it had already had, I told myself, “Hey, this guy is some kind of wizard!”

“Cease fire!” shouted Sergeant Thor on my left, not concerned in the least if the high-value target was a wizard or not. But he said it in slow motion, underwater, covered in syrupy dripping molasses. Or at least that’s how my mind processed the whole thing.

I looked to my left. It took forever to get my head over there and see what I wanted to see. This wizard had definitely done something to me. Thor had dropped his rifle and drawn his M18 and one of the tomahawks he carried. I missed a few frames of what happened next because my mind was so scrambled, but I knew he was heading into the fog, pistol leading and scanning the terrain in front of him, tomahawk down and ready to come up to play. In my completely stoned state, I thought he really did look like an

action hero striding out to do battle. The pagan warlord he’d lied to become just so he could pick up chicks off post. He really could make it in Hollywood.

That’s what I was thinking as we almost got killed.

Or maybe it was what he’d tried to tell me back on the hill when we were prepping for the op. That this place was weird. And that it was him, too, in a kind of way. I thought that, because at the same moment, another Sergeant Thor appeared off to our left. Coming suddenly out of the dark trees there. I turned, willing my eyes to see our Sergeant Thor’s back just disappearing into the fog bank ahead. Then I snapped my head back to my left, except that it took forever, and I could feel my tongue and open mouth trying to catch up. Like some actor playing the village idiot in a comedy of manners about exits and entrances, lords and ladies. I was just the simple village idiot in this one.

An action hero I’m not.

And there was Sergeant Thor again over to my left.

He walked right past me, a strange and evil smile on his face as he headed straight toward Brumm, who was up and out of his armor, the 249 ready once more and scanning the right flank into the fog.

It was at that moment that I thought it strange for New Sergeant Thor to have big long demonic claws hanging down below his knees. And that his stride was… rather robotic. Like something wearing a human skin… but not really knowing how to human. Or even walk like one.

New Sergeant Thor was saying something to Brumm, and the voice was a dead ringer for Thor. But there was no way this was the sergeant. I didn’t want to believe that.

That was when the fog lifted from my brain. Just like that. Like stepping suddenly from darkness into light. Except your eyes didn’t have to adjust. They just had to remember what seeing was.

I immediately saw New Thor for what it was. And what it wasn’t was the sergeant, or even vaguely human beyond being basically bipedal. It was tall and demonic. Its skin was a mottled mixture of pale and red like some utterly poisonous spider you don’t want to mess with. Topped off with a throbbing exposed brain and horror-show eyes alive with a mindless hunger.

I could feel Brumm’s mind tagging the approaching creature as

Sergeant Thor regardless of what I was seeing. I could hear Brumm’s thoughts inside my head. Or maybe I was just reading them on his face. He wasn’t even thinking on a conscious level that This is the sergeant. His mind was just accepting that the thing coming toward him was Sergeant Thor.

And as I did nothing, like action heroes never do, I thought… That ain’t the sergeant, Brumm.

And…

That thing’s going to attack and rip your throat out with those claws that are already opening and closing like the mandibles of some vicious predator from a pit no one should’ve ever gone looking in…

I heard Brumm’s mind hear my thoughts, and I felt him think Whoa as he recognized the creature for what it was. His mental eyes had opened.

Maybe he’d read the look on my face?

With zero hesitation Brumm dragged his right arm back, bringing to bear the heavy weapon he’d picked back up after getting hit by the shooting comets, and he fired a single burst of fire right into the hideous brain- headed creature. The flurry of speeding bullets tore the thing’s bulbous rib cage to shreds. The monster flung up its long demonic arms and screamed like a shrieking spoiled girl, but it was already falling to the dirt in the night.

Brumm, unfazed, just stepped over and shot it a bunch more, hosing it like some shopkeeper spraying last night’s filth off the sidewalk. The thing twitched and flopped, and the Ranger filled it full of lead, perhaps to make sure monsters died just like everyone else.

In the silence that followed, staring into the fog, we heard nothing. And then the shooting started. It sounded like someone was rapid-firing their sidearm, and accompanying that sound was Sergeant Thor roaring like the Viking warrior he’d convinced the chain of command he was just so he could get an epic beard going.

We waited in the silence that followed and heard someone grunting and heaving.

“Sar’nt Thor!” Brumm called out. “What’s your location? I’m up and can support with fire!”

There was no answer.

But a moment later, Sergeant Thor came out of the dissipating fog bank

carrying the bloody head of the wizard, sans the bamboo hat. The whites of the sorcerer’s eyes were rolled up into his leathery skull. A drooping gray mustache hung down along tattooed cheeks scrawled with meaningless symbols and numbers. The mouth hung agape in horror at what had been done to its owner.

Or so I thought.

Later, in my mummy bag, I knew the horror written on that face wasn’t at what had been done to it, but at what was coming.

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