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Chapter no 63

Forgotten Ruin

“I hear you… so c’mon up, little soldier boy,” said the vampire in the darkness as I climbed the curving stairs inside the tower of Barad Nulla. “Got something real nice for you when you get here.”

I was invisible. But that didn’t mean I was inaudible.

McCluskey didn’t sound good. He sounded like a junkie coming down off a bad spike. I could hear him groaning and coughing. I still had the ring on. And I was climbing the stairs. Pistol out and in the high ready position I’d learned in RASP. Finger straight and out of the trigger until McCluskey gave me another chance at a solid sight picture. Then I’d punch his ticket again until he changed shape, or caught fire. His voice was getting close as he talked and I climbed. I wouldn’t miss at this range. And apparently you didn’t need silver bullets, or stakes to the heart, to kill a vampire in the Ruin. Apparently, firearms worked just fine.

“You got me good. I’ll give you that, little soldier boy,” he said as though we were old friends discussing some pleasant remembrance. “Think I lost my eye. Bullet’s still in my skull.”

He laughed like a man dying.

“But I’ve had worse.” His voice was so close as I neared the top of the steps, I was sure I’d see him in a step or two. “I’ll be fine. But you, on the other hand…”

I heard him pop the spoon on a grenade. Then I heard it roll across the floor right toward me at the top step.

“… won’t be,” he finished. Thanks, Captain Obvious.

I flung myself down the stairs, face first, and kissed old dusty stone as the grenade went off behind me. If it had made it down the first few steps, I would have been done for. Instead it detonated on the balcony I had just arrived at seconds earlier.

I was on my feet again even as the dull roar of the blast still echoed within the tower, pushing off stone and following my barrel up into the darkness, ripping another flare and tossing it ahead of me.

I spotted him in the hellish orange light. Just for a second. His pale face ruined by the bullet in his skull. He was laughing like a lunatic.

“So you wanna play with the big boys now!” he screamed at me.

He turned to smoke and rushed for my weapon. Still smoke. Still McCluskey.

I felt his cold hands around my throat and I was bent over the balcony. I’d jerked the sidearm back to keep it away from him and he’d gone for my throat instead. Which meant…

He could see me.

Maybe some side effect of the grenade blast had disabled the ring.

Temporarily? Or permanently.

“How do ya like me now, soldier boy?” said the ghoul luridly leering in my face. Fangs out and wide hungry smile to boot. He was choking the life out of me with claws that were as cold as ice.

I jammed the M18 into his midsection and squeezed. Three shots and he turned to smoke and streaked away from me. I sucked in a gasping breath of air as a trap door opened in the ceiling. He howled like a wounded animal as bright daylight shot down into the darkness.

The thing I saw moving up the ladder, screaming and smoking in pain, was like a cross between a demon and McCluskey. Leering, obscene. And utterly tormented by the sun.

I gasped for more air that wouldn’t easily come and launched myself at the ladder. I wasn’t going to let him get away. I was going to finish this now.

That was when I heard the titanic cry of something from the age of dinosaurs shriek and roar beyond the thick walls of Barad Nulla. Something so unnatural and bone-chilling, my legs literally stopped and said climbing up into the light to follow McCluskey wasn’t a great idea.

A huge shadow blocked out the sunlight on the ladder, and McCluskey disappeared up into the darkness there as some great storm passed close to the tower and its very walls shuddered all around me.

But he had to die. Had to, if just to save Autumn. He’d betrayed us all. Not just the Shadow Elves long before we ever showed up. The Rangers too. And the dead require an answer for such abuses. The dead Rangers I’d written the names of in the journal that had followed me from all the known to this unknown. To the Ruin of everything that once was.

To the Ruin of now.

I looked up and saw the huge tail of a lizard cross the open sky above

the trap door. Just one brief flash of the completely impossible. I’m smart. I could put two and two together pretty fast.

“Come on up and meet my friend S’sruth, soldier boy,” laughed McCluskey wildly up there and out of sight.

No thanks, my mind said as my arms and legs began to climb once again. Gripping the M18 and trying to remember how many rounds I’d fired. Reminding myself I’d gassed up with a fresh mag.

McCluskey, when I found him at the top of the Barad Nulla, was half done for. He was leaning against the parapet. His sword, Coldfire, was out, but it hung limply from his pale and trembling claw, and he didn’t look in any kind of shape to use it against anyone any time soon.

I would have raised my weapon and emptied it into McCluskey, but of course there was the giant dragon, green and gold, undulating across the sky all around us. It was completely unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Its triangular horned head was pure malevolent evil, its eyes like bright burning emeralds that glared with some kind of blazing bonfire at the center. Its belly was shimmering gold and shining and immense, the scales along its back and sides like massive plates of green armor that glittered in the morning sun. Two huge leathery wings spanned away from it, catching the air and keeping the massive lizard aloft.

It howled in triumph, and I felt everything I thought of as strength go right out of me. I was surprised I was even standing. I looked down at the sergeant major’s M18. It felt small and useless at that moment.

McCluskey laughed like a madman being strangled and enjoying it nonetheless.

The dragon was coming straight for us, roaring tyrannically like some elder beast from the ages of darkness before man had ever walked the earth. Insulted at our presence.

I was cooked.

I felt the edge of the parapet opposite the laughing maniacal SEAL at the top of the strange tower. The edge was against my back. I wondered at that moment if I should just keep backing up and fall to my death before I died by dragon.

“Back blast area clear!” someone shouted, a voice from below and behind me in the courtyard where the battle still raged. I turned to see the sergeant major, way down there and just inside the body-littered courtyard

of stone, surrounded by his team. They were engaging fleeing orcs in every direction.

The sergeant major had the Carl G on his shoulder and was stoically aiming it upward in our direction. Solid. Just like the little drawing in the manual on how to properly aim and fire the weapon no matter what’s going on around you. I threw myself to the deck of the tower, and a second later the HE round from the Carl Gustaf streaked overhead, shrieking and smoking as it went, and exploded near the incoming dragon.

The dragon screeched in rage as its armor and flesh was ruined by the anti-personnel round. Eardrums, hearing protection or not, cried bloody murder at the dragon’s howl of wounded rage.

The giant thing was hurt, its body riddled, wings torn and shredded, by tons of small balls meant to ruin human combatants.

It hovered in closer, glaring at me with its purely alien eyes as it snatched McCluskey off the roof in one grab, turned with a flap of its giant leathery wings, and pulled its glittering green-and-gold bulk away and off into the morning sky. Bellowing in rage at the hundreds of wounds it had just received. Flying nonetheless.

I lay there, watching the dragon go. Knowing I should be dead.

But I wasn’t.

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