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Chapter no 64

Forgotten Ruin

Me helping Autumn as much as she was helping me, the both of us limped from the tower of Barad Nulla. The orcs were dead. Or leaping to their death from the open edges of the crag that supported the Dark Spire. The Rangers were giving no quarter. No mercy. And the orcs, warriors in their own way, chose no mercy.

It was like something out of the Bronze Age.

The Lost Boys were there, taking Autumn away from me, glaring at me as they pulled her away. And just before she was gone, she gave me a look.

It was that look in the vision of the sailboat. I don’t know what to call it. But it’s the look that says there is more than duty, service, and this life we are prisoners of. Something that’s just us. One time, before I’d read the books written by Stephen King, a fellow scholar had been bemoaning the institution we were both at. He was leaving to go do charity work in the third world. Giving up everything for a river upcountry in the Stone Age and some people to lose himself in. I suspected there was more to it. When I asked him why he was going, he simply replied, There are other worlds than these.

He told me to read the Dark Tower series. Then I would understand. I didn’t. But I read the books anyway and I knew the phrase. And now, watching her being led away by the Lost Boys, I knew what she was telling me. If we were other people, it could be different. She wouldn’t be their queen, destined to face the dragon that had almost just killed me. Alone. Instead we’d be those people in the boat. Sailing to the Cities of Men. It was the opposite of the David Bowie song “Heroes.”

We could just be us, if just for one day on a boat.

And maybe that last look said, All things are possible, Talker. Things dreamt, and things never dreamed of.

***

It was Tanner who found me as I crossed toward the ruined tower of the Lost Library. He was pretty rough to look at and broken up. Tears ran away from his angry eyes. And there was all the pain the world can ever know in

there. No one needed to tell me it was bad. I knew.

“He’s dead, Talk,” he shouted at me, sobbing and bellowing. “And I don’t want any of this anymore!”

I didn’t need to ask who. I knew. But I did anyway.

“Brumm,” wailed Tanner, wiping the dirty sleeve of his fatigues across his red-rimmed eyes. Unashamed. Tanner, the least of all the Rangers. The one who’d been there and done that. The three-DUI, two-stripper-marriage, lifetime PFC. The one who thought you didn’t have to be hard to be a Ranger. You just had to Ranger, and you could be funny too. And you could cry when your buddy didn’t make it.

“They got him down there,” sobbed Tanner as he came close.

“No,” I think I mumbled as I pushed past Tanner, making for the tower and the crowd of tired Rangers gathering there. I felt like the world was going to fling me off it once more. Because a lot of people, me most of all, should have died before Brumm. Brumm who killed the giant and said Carl G don’t care like it wasn’t anything special. Brumm who wasn’t afraid when the rest of us were.

“Yeah,” said Tanner, and swore at something, someone. Everything. “He killed most of ’em but he was out of ammo. Just whatever he could get his hands on at the end. They cut him up. Bad, Talk.”

“No.”

No.

I was still moving to the Lost Library when Kurtz came out. Holding Brumm in both arms. Brumm stared skyward seeing nothing. He was indeed cut up bad. He was dead.

No.

Because… you don’t want it to be like this.

Kurtz was shaking. But he wasn’t crying. He looked like a man who was trying to hold on while the world spun him off in every direction it could. He looked like he was being carried away by a flood.

“They were brothers, Talk,” shouted Tanner as I stumbled toward the scene, Tanner unable to control his crying as he swore at himself.

Kurtz began to walk away from the tower, carrying his dead soldier like a good NCO. Like a Ranger. And I knew he’d keep walking until he hit the front gate and he’d go out and maybe never come back to the Rangers.

“Same dad,” wailed Tanner. “Just different moms.”

I turned toward Tanner. I’d had no idea. No idea Kurtz and Brumm were actual blood brothers. That Brumm wasn’t a mini Sergeant Kurtz trying to Ranger hard. But that he was his little brother. Trying to…

“They joined the Rangers to be together. Lived in separate states when they were kids. Only got to get together once a year during the summer when they was growing up. That…” And Tanner started crying so hard I could barely understand what he was saying as he followed me and I followed Kurtz. But what Tanner said was something to the effect that they kept in touch with each other. Every day. By ham radios. “Switching to on” had been some kind of code for that between them. Between brothers.

Some kind of message that no matter what—having different moms who change your last name out of spite, alimony and divorce, just terrible parents, poverty, life, and other states—they were still brothers no matter what.

Switching to on.

Every family has those. Words and phrases I’ll never understand no matter how much I try. Words that mean nothing. Words that mean everything.

I felt useless.

And then I was crying too. And I couldn’t look anymore because it was too much. Because we were supposed to have won.

And it felt like we’d lost.

Other Rangers, now that the fighting was over, were coming to watch Kurtz carry Brumm out for the last time. Silence as they watched the best of them carrying his dead brother away to bury him alone.

And then… Chief Rapp happened.

He came into the courtyard, his sleeves and carrier covered in blood. Ranger blood. I heard his big resonant voice bellow. Whether it was grief or something I don’t know. It was just a cry that said, “Oh no!” He let his high-speed SF weapon go, dangling from his sling, and he moved swiftly toward Kurtz, holding out his massive arms and hands, saying “Oh no!” over and over again.

“Lemme see him, Sergeant,” bellowed the giant SF operator. But Kurtz, who was much smaller, was just shaking his head and the tears were starting to come but his mouth was shut tight. Sealed. It would stay shut forever. His lips pressed tight. Pure rage and anger and endless grief.

Forever.

Someone told the chief that Brumm was dead.

“Maybe!” shouted the chief. “Maybe,” he said again, his rich voice echoing out over the courtyard. Somewhere there was shooting as some last holdout of orcs was done in by Rangers still securing the fortress. “Or maybe,” said the chief, now speaking to all of us, “maybe this place here is different than where we come from. Maybe there is some kinda magic here. And maybe something more.”

He tried to take Brumm’s lifeless corpse away from Kurtz, but Kurtz jerked his dead kid brother from another mother away and held him like he was a treasure he’d never part with. Roaring something unintelligible in his strangled rage.

“Nooooooooooarrrggggh!”

“I know,” soothed Chief Rapp in his Mississippi mud accent, towering over Sergeant Kurtz, the chief’s bulk and muscle double the size of the tough-as-nails Rangers weapons team sergeant.

“Set ’im down and lemme try one mo’ time, son.”

He took hold of the body and eased it down onto the stones of the courtyard. Kurtz was still enraged and yet hoping the universe had got this one wrong. Just this once. Maybe he had a little faith left.

Oh please, I thought. Just this one time. Let me be… wrong.

So it can be right.

The chief studied the body of Brumm for a long moment as he knelt down next to it on the bloody stones of the courtyard. Then he pulled off his helmet and rifle, undoing his carrier as he raised his hands to the sky and started to speak. Speaking like a black preacher on the last Sunday of all Sundays. Powerful. Rich. Awesome.

“There’s magic!” he shouted. At all of us. “Always was! Now I believe in it more than ever.”

He lowered his hands and stared at Brumm’s lifeless body. We were all silent. Unsure what was going to happen next.

“He got this!” shouted the chief, and slammed his hands down onto Brumm. Slammed them down like he was forcing something that wouldn’t fit… back into a place it had to go.

Had to.

And then he resurrected Brumm from the dead.

Brumm came back to life like he’d been hit by the shock paddles. Gasping and staring around wild-eyed at every Ranger standing around him in stunned silence.

The chief backed away, raising his hands and praying. Or praising.

Thanking Jesus. The Rangers began to shout and cheer.

Kurtz held his brother, whispering something.

Switch to on, little brother. Switch to on.

We’d won. The fortress was ours. The Forge was back in our hands. And death had been cheated. If just for today. If just for one man.

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