Chapter no 62

Forgotten Ruin

The next wave of orcs came against the tower as I just stood there getting hit by the occasional hot brass from the nearby blaring two-forty. It was going to be close, and right at that moment it was starting to look like we’d get overrun. An arrow streaked through the main opening, past Tanner and Kurtz who were defending there, and barely missed me. It shattered on stone behind me.

“Get down, Talker!” shouted Tanner. “They’re coming through.”

But all I could do was watch Last of Autumn run out into the shadow of Barad Nulla to meet her death against the powerful vampire who’d been one of us. Once and long ago.

“Get him down!” shouted Kurtz. And as he moved into the doorway, firing and ejecting spent shotgun shells from his weapon, Tanner dashed at me and knocked me down.

“You don’t wanna die today, Talk!” said the wily PFC who was, when I really thought about it, my best friend in the detachment. “Need you here, brother.”

That brought me back to life. Told me what I needed to do. We, all of us, were in this together. We were brothers. And we had a sister. She’d gotten us off that island, Last Queen of the Elves or not.

For a moment I turned over on my back and watched the snipers higher up in the tower, its central floors and roof collapsed long ago, still engaging the defenders at the forward defenses. Then I got to my feet and searched for Autumn.

What I saw was the most amazing sword fight I’ve ever seen in my life. Better than pirates or ninjas or superheroes. If the Rangers were going to stay here in the Ruin, they’d definitely need to get good at combat with hand weapons. They’d need to be trained by her, or whoever had taught her.

The SEAL, Mike McCluskey from Michigan, King Triton servant of the Nether Sorcerer, or whatevs, moved like living smoke as he fought the elf to the death. Last of Autumn. Queen of the Shadow Elves. She shouted as she went out to meet him sword to sword. His black rogue’s cape twirled, misdirecting his movements as his body turned to a living liquid-like smoke and suddenly exploded another step forward in their battle. Then he

corporealized into McCluskey and his dark-bladed weapon lashed out in savage fury, hammering at her. He was controlled chaos, but he fought like a wild beast cornered.

Then there was Autumn. As fast, if not faster, than the vampire SEAL. Her movements were darts in one constant direction, slashing at the shifting vampire in the morning light with her bright weapon. Her blade like sudden lightning strikes should have ruined the vampire, but instead all she did was slice smoke as the battle raged closer and closer to the tower.

That was his goal. I could tell. McCluskey was retreating toward the tower even as he attacked relentlessly.

I could see his strategy. And I understood.

I remembered him talking about how he didn’t do well in sunlight and that he had charms and wards to protect him, but even still he felt like he had the flu in daylight.

Was that true? I didn’t know. But it was the only intel I had to make the call.

Inside the ancient and formidable tower, he would have darkness. Utter darkness. Something close to night, or at least far better than direct sunlight. He might even lock it and wait for night.

And right now, it looked as though he was using Autumn’s vengeful fury to pull her into the tower. Into his web. Into a trap.

McCluskey unleashed a series of dizzying attacks against Autumn, shifting the balance of power in the battle and driving her back and to her knees as she flashed her blade back and forth doing everything she could to protect herself. Then McCluskey turned to smoke and streaked off toward the open black door of darkness that was the entrance to Barad Nulla.

Last of Autumn needed help.

I went out the same ruined opening she had and raced toward their battle, pulling my sidearm as I ran. At the last second McCluskey rematerialized into his dark rogue form, turning from black smoke thing to man, and I fired, unsure if I was even getting hits. He laughed like he’d won and ducked inside the tower.

“Don’t go in there!” shouted Autumn at me from the stones of the courtyard. He’d knocked her down and almost run her through. Maybe he had. I couldn’t tell. I was blind with rage.

A gate was coming down to seal the tower and I was running into the darkness beyond it. Into Barad Nulla itself.

This probably wouldn’t be good.

I slipped the ring on and got under the gate as it fell. Then I turned saw Last of Autumn slide in too at the last second just before the gate sealed us in and we found ourselves in the total darkness of the other side.

And silence. Except it wasn’t. Insane whispers in the darkness and the sounds of things with claws scrabbling up and away. I felt webs, old and hot and dusty. I slapped at my carrier, sure I’d felt some black pulpy spider scurrying across it.

I heard her in my mind. Autumn.

It’s magic, Talker. The darkness is. It negates the Hunters’ Fellowship.

The Moon Vision. But I can see a little.

Why did you attack him all alone? I asked her. The Rangers could have helped you. And if the Fellowship is negated, how come I can still talk to you?

The vampire laughed at us in the darkness. It was a cruel laugh made by an unhinged mind. He sounded high above us. Far up and away in the tall and massive tower. But at the same time, the smoke in the dry laughter was present and close in the thick darkness.

This was a very strange place.

“Gonna kill you, little linguist,” whispered McCluskey. He snorted derisively. “Knew you were a problem from the get-go. Didn’t know why. Couldn’t put my thumb on it. But y’know, instincts. It’s what separates people like me from the amateurs. Pros from the rest of you sheep. Know what I mean, little soldier boy playing at Ranger?”

I wanted to tell him he wasn’t people anymore. He’d crossed a line a long time ago and left his humanity somewhere lonely and awful. My guess was there were probably a bunch of dead SEALs there, wherever that lonely place was, wondering why they’d been done by one of their own. But my voice was dry and it didn’t want to say anything tough or brave.

I focused on getting a new magazine in my pistol. Or at least, it was my pistol now. It had once been the sergeant major’s. Now it was mine. After it had… cleaned Deep State Volman… I guess we decided without saying anything that it was mine to keep. And I wasn’t here to have a conversation with him anyway. I was here to remove yet another obstacle to

mission success. And a fully topped-off pistol was gonna make that a lot easier even if the suck was ramping up.

“Fine,” I muttered, feeling myself embrace it. “I’m more than fine with that.”

You are special, Talker. It was Autumn inside my head. Her voice calm and cool. And intimate. Like we knew each other in ways we hadn’t when using our voices. They call what you can do, Talker of the Rangers… sainikku. A power of the mind that crosses realms. Vandahar sensed it. You have a rare power. Most aren’t even sure what it is, or what it does. There is much to fear about it, and not just because it is unknown. But sometimes in the Ruin… sometimes… even good things are revealed here. Some of your Rangers are becoming the thing they will be in time. That is the Ruin and what it does. It reveals, Talker. It reveals us for what we truly are.


I came after him because it was he who hunted my people after the betrayal at the gates of Barad Nulla long ago. He owes a debt, and I have come to collect for my people.

Okay. Sainikku. That sounded close enough to the Japanese word, Saionikku. So… psionics. Whatever. No time for that right now. I’ll get Vandahar to explain it but that’s probably what he meant when he was being all cryptic. But first I’ve got to get us out of here. Get her out of here without both of us dying.

Suddenly the urge to kill the vampire wasn’t as strong as the urge to save Autumn. I could tell she knew she was going to die today. And she knew that if she could get in a fatal strike against her people’s enemy before that happened…

… well, that was big for her. That was something worth dying for.

Maybe that was the psionics talking. I had no idea. I could just tell that was what she was thinking. That her death might provide an opportunity for a better tomorrow for someone else. The way all heroes think.

But I didn’t want her to die. I didn’t want anyone to die today. I had other plans.

Make the other guy die. Everyone goes home today. Those were my

plans. Those were my thoughts.

I had a flare. Five in fact, on my carrier.

Don’t, she said, reading my mind and seeing my plan.

I pulled the flare and ignited it, tossing it onto the floor with my M18 out and scanning the darkness all around us. The weapon the sergeant major had given me. His weapon.

I hoped I was still invisible.

A large piece of pottery came flying out of the darkness above and landed nowhere near me. He was aiming for Autumn. She moved fast toward the base of a long stair that curved around the wall of the massive and empty tower.

Although, now that the flare was lit, I could see that it was not totally empty.

The Forge was here. Sitting dead center in the main room. Revealed by the hissing red light of the smoking flare.

McCluskey opened fire with some kind of automatic weapon. He’d had the Forge for two weeks. It was to be expected. We’d figured he’d try to gin up a weapon for himself.

He fired at Autumn because he could see her. I was still invisible. Rounds smashed into her armor and threw her against the wall along the curving stairs climbing up into the gloom. In the guttering light of the hissing flare I saw her face go pale as she slid down the wall and slumped on the stairs.

And I saw McCluskey too, up there in the dark, leering over a high balcony ledge and laughing down at her. His fangs making him look like a hideous monster. A man no more.

I fired the sergeant major’s sidearm at a stupidly ridiculous distance for a high-percentage pistol shot, but the front sight was crisp when I broke the trigger and for some reason that I couldn’t explain, I felt pretty good about it. Or the Hunters’ Fellowship still worked on some level. Or Chief Rapp’s school of SF shooting had made me just that good.

What had Brumm said? All skill. No luck. Don’t jinx it.

McCluskey dropped the weapon and grabbed for his head, disappearing back into the darkness and blocked from my view by the high balcony. Swearing as I heard him stumble away from that ledge. His heavy black boots scraping against the stone as he groaned in pain and screamed.

At that moment I wished I had silver bullets. Was that vampires or werewolves?

“Damn you!” he shouted down at me, and his enraged bellow echoed

off the high walls.

I raced up the stairs to Autumn and knelt next to her, checking for wounds.

“I don’t think… it’s serious,” she gasped.

I popped a flare and ran my hands across her armor, near her heart and lungs.

“What about him?” she tried to say. But she couldn’t seem to catch her breath.

“He’s hit,” I said. “Don’t know how bad.”

I remembered McCluskey saying he healed fast. And that he’d died before and come back. Wasn’t that what vampires did?

My gloves came away with a little blood. I pulled one off and checked that area. It was red. But not dark red. No artery hit or nicked. I pulled back her cloak and inspected the wound. The round hadn’t penetrated her fine silvery armor; it had just destroyed the delicately made chain linkage that felt like silk. Her armor had acted like bulletproof Kevlar plates. I suspected it was magical. Still, the two rounds that had hit her had probably fractured some ribs. Magic armor or not, physics still gonna physics.

“Lie down,” I told her. “Just try to breathe, Autumn.”

Her eyes fluttered for a second like she was going to pass out right there as I tried to make her more comfortable. Then they were back. Watching me. Just the way they had in that vision I’d had of us in a small sailboat, heading south toward the Cities of Men.

She swallowed thickly and found some inner resolve to hang on.

“I gotta go kill him now, Autumn,” I told her, ejecting a mag and sliding in a new one. “Wait here now.”

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