Chapter no 7

Forgotten Ruin

We crossed back over the river and onto our island before dawn. For much of the rest of the night before we did, we watched enemy attacks come and go against our defenses along the water’s edge as the strange dark force hurled itself out of the midnight forest and into walls of intersecting and accurate fire put up by the Rangers from inside their fortified positions. From our vantage point just within enemy-held territory, it seemed like we were winning. That the defense of the tiny river island was easy and that our side effortlessly repelled these titanic assaults that broke against the dug-in Rangers.

Three different elements of the orc horde did manage to get close enough, despite the overwhelming fire, to engage in hand-to-hand combat. But they had to literally trample their wounded and dead just to push forward across the dark river and through the bright lines of intersecting tracer fire to attack with spears and axes. To take the fight right up onto the shore and straight into the face of the Ranger-manned pits. Only to be pushed back.

And all the while mortar teams were busy dropping fire all over the staged masses out there in the forest, no doubt spotted by drone recon, and the booms of the snipers’ powerful Barretts could be heard from the hilltop at the northern end of the river island. With each shot Sergeant Thor would wistfully remark to the rest of us hiding there in the dark tangle near the river’s edge, “Got another one.” As if he could see the shot in his mind’s eye. As if he was watching the geometry of fatality and finding it beautiful. Like some benched athlete playing the game from the sidelines.

It seemed like we were winning, judging by what we could see and hear of the battle out there in the dark. But based on what we heard over the comm, revealing the portions of the battle we could not see, it was clear we were not winning. We were holding, at best. Not letting the do-not-cross lines get crossed.

Then again, “not losing” was a win on that long night.

The Rangers would tell you “surrender” is not in their vocabulary. So that wasn’t gonna happen.

On the western side of the island, the defenses we could not observe

from the tangle of our hide were getting hit hard. Real hard. They had wounded. Two KIAs just after midnight, and that was a portent of all the bad things to come. A promise from the snarling orcs that their horns and war drums would win and overwhelm us in the end. They had the numbers. And the willingness. Three pits were overrun toward O2OO. The Rangers, led personally by the captain, violently retook them. One of the platoon leaders was killed doing so.

No one made any LT jokes as we sat there in the dark and waited.

We didn’t make our poncho rafts until the last moment in case we needed our gear and weapons, but when we did, and they were completed, we slipped back into the dark, cold water and tried not to look down along the drift of the southern current. Down there where the waters were clogged with the bodies of dead orcs in the half-light before dawn. Where the rotting giant still lay against the far shore. Large wolves had come out of the forest to tear at him.

I spent much of that night just thinking about the “intel” I’d secured off the dead sorcerer. Our high-value target. That’s what PFC Kennedy had called the man we killed out there in the night. No—Kennedy had said “wizard.” Not “sorcerer.” Where was the line between such things? I pondered word meanings and roots, usages and origins. My happy place that was not here.

Maybe it was time to embrace what the little geek PFC Kennedy was trying to tell everyone from the bottom of the latrine slit trench that people kept throwing current events down into for him to digest, comment upon, and illuminate. Like a character from a Joseph Heller novel. A dark comedy about war and battle and the opinions of someone who didn’t count in the big scheme and would get killed in the end, and was right about the whole mess all along.

The fool in any Shakespeare play.

PFC Kennedy was trying to say that somehow we’d ended up in another world. A fantasy world of monsters and goblins like something out of The Lord of the Rings or some mega-budget MMO. That we should wake up and smell the witch’s cauldron of boil and toil and trouble. That maybe this was something more dangerous than insurgents and hajis with RPGs. That even though it seemed fantastic, it was best to be honest about things before we got ourselves killed by not knowing what we were going up


Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Something wicked this way comes. Open, locks. Whoever knocks.

I’d sometimes used translations of Shakespeare in other languages as flash cards to improve my comprehension. In the night, inside the enemies’ world, those lines stuck out and seemed to echo in my mind as I listened to the battle and the dark all around us alongside the river. As Rangers died. Overrun by “fantasies” with snarling fangs, sharp knives, and hard-swung axes. To those dying Rangers in their last moments, it probably didn’t seem like much of a fantasy. Not like any book or game.

To them, it was all too real.

And so I turned my mind to what intel I’d managed to find on the headless corpse of the wizard of Oz, or mad sorcerer of the Purple Tower, or whatever he was here in whatever this place was. The one Thor had gone completely Viking on and decapped.

Join the Army. Rifle the bodies of dead sorcerers in the bare moonlight, I’d told myself as I searched the corpseI guarantee you that would have beaten every Army recruiting slogan ever dreamed up as a marketing tool by the DoD and Fifth Avenue. Probably even Call of Duty, too.

The most obvious piece of intel was a book. A… sigh. Stop it, I told myself. Embrace it.

spell book.

Or at least what I would imagine a spell book would look like. I’d never played any of PFC Kennedy’s games with strange little dice or on a computer screen in some internet café. Never much of a gamer. Wasn’t my thing, and I’d never even met PFC Kennedy before Fifty-One. But I knew people in college who did those things, and they were always trying to get me to join their imaginary adventures. I guess they figured the books I always had my nose in were some kind of common ground. That if I wasn’t part of the tribe, I was at least a distant cousin.

Languages and the histories of them, the origins and roots of words and the civilizations that employed them, that was my thing. My little game. My worlds to explore. I didn’t know I needed anything else until one day I did. That’s how I joined the Army.

So I always declined. Never played those fantasy make-’em-up games.

I’d seen movies though. Movies like the remake of Evil Dead. There was what I assumed to be a spell book in that movie. The Book of the Damned. And this thing I took off the headless corpse in the dark clearing somewhere after midnight, it was pretty close to that prop from the movie.

It was bound in the skin of something—something that didn’t feel like supple leather from the Ralph Lauren Home Collection my mother had furnished her “barn” in back in upstate New York. If you had told me it was pixie skin or minotaur flesh, or some other mythological creature skinned for dark and thaumaturgic purposes, I would likely have believed it. It was something other and not sane, and I just sat staring at the thing in the wet grass of the clearing while Gomez gave me a red-lensed headlamp for me to inspect everything. The fog was still dissipating along the ground, and Sergeant Thor and the rest of the Reaper Team were still securing the objective’s perimeter.

Those goblins that we’d almost ambushed in the stream—that’s what we’d decided to identify them as, goblins; we didn’t need PFC Kennedy’s help with that particular designation—should have been close enough to hear the fire of Brumm’s 249. And drone recon was down for the moment, according to comm. So while the others established perimeter security, Gomez was tasked with me to assist with the SSE. Sensitive site exploitation. Or collection of intel.

Anything I could find on a dead, headless, wizard’s body was intel.

Join the Army, kids.

Embrace it, I told myself. Like the special operators are always saying. About embracing “the suck,” as they call it. Now I was telling myself to embrace the situation, “the suck,” as presented. Whether I wanted to accept it or not, I was in it to win it. We all were. This was “the suck.”

Embrace the fantasy, I told myself.

“Think he’s booby-trapped?” whispered Gomez as we crouched over the headless body in the wet grass.

No, I thought. Not until just now when you reminded me he might be booby-trapped. And a wizard’s version of a booby trip would probably banish you to the nth dimension where time has no meaning and hell is every day. Basic Training forever, in other words.

I was already freaked out having to search a headless corpse in the

middle of the night on a dark otherworldly battlefield. Now I also had to worry about magical IEDs exploding in my face and burning my flesh off or turning me into a newt. Great. Fun. I’d like to re-enlist now, if you please.

“I don’t think…” I began, not really sure if I did think but trying to reason out whether this strange headless man could be rigged with magic explosives. “I mean, Thor cut off his head,” I said finally, muttering low, so the goblins with bone daggers and spears, wearing shark-tooth necklaces, couldn’t hear us. LOL. “Any… explosives… would have detonated then. Right, Gomez?”

Like Ranger PVT Gomez was suddenly an EOD expert.

In my head I heard myself explaining why I hadn’t completed the mission. Sorry, Sergeant Major. Couldn’t bring back any intel because I was afraid of magical IEDs. You know how it is and all, dawg.

About a minute later I’d be digging slit trench latrines with PFC Kennedy. Being all that I could be.

“Dunno,” said Gomez with a shrug, and I watched the circumference of the red light Gomez was holding grow and become thinner at the same moment. He’d wisely backed away a step or two.

Fine, I said to myself, and I started to search the body, convinced I’d get blown up or have my hands suddenly torn off by something like that thing from the old John Carpenter movie where the guy’s chest caves in and a giant fanged mouth cavity just bites the other guy’s hands off.

Fun stuff. I wasn’t even sure if, ten thousand years in the future, I was even getting paid to do this. Would someone give me a medal?

Embrace. The. Fantasy.

I found the spell book in a large messenger bag type thing the sorcerer kept around his body, though I’m sure he didn’t call it a “messenger bag” like he was some metrosexual film critic who’d picked it up at an haute store on Fifth Avenue in NYC.

Ten thousand years ago.

Inside the worn “messenger bag” the first thing I found was the spell book made of dried dragon flesh leather, or whatever. Dried dragon was probably what you made these things out of, right? I put the book to the side. I’d recovered it, and nothing the command sergeant major said indicated I had to look inside. I was curious but I wasn’t stupid. That was

how you end up turned into a toad or something worse. Is there a worse? Yeah. There probably is.

So I didn’t look.

I put the book aside on the poncho square I’d laid out and then found some sheets of parchment. That’s old-timey fantasy paper if you’re playing along. Yellowing. Crumbling. Ancient. Put that aside too. I did note that on one sheet there was a fairly accurate map of the island but no clear markings indicating our defenses. Just some scrawled symbols that seemed vaguely familiar.

That was interesting.

Next, I found some disgusting stuff. Orders were orders, so I took what amounted to eye of newt and bat’s tails and jars of foul-smelling dust. One small crystal bottle was filled with what looked very much like blood that hadn’t congealed, and a few pouches contained what I guessed were either the dried brains of small animals or spongy dark mushrooms that would probably fry your mind.

The dead guy had a staff, too. Because of course he did. Gomez found that in the dirt nearby. It was made of dark wood, like the mahogany I’d seen in some of my father’s high-priced lawyers’ offices. One end of the staff had been carved into the head of a dragon, its snout wide and toothy and malevolent, its carved eyes glittering with dark destruction. Even the wood itself was unsettling, its patterns and whorls seeming more like other places than mere textures in the grain. Worlds and hidden rooms if you looked close enough. I had that thought, and then at the same time, I had another thought. Namely, That doesn’t make sense.

“It’s heavy,” said Gomez when he picked it up.

I looked up only briefly from my work on the body. Which by the way was still drooling blood and gore into a congealing puddle in the wet grass. I had my issue Oakley Assault Ranger gloves on, but it was impossible not to get things bloody. A lot of the Rangers wore Mechanix gloves. Gomez handed me some rubber surgical gloves he kept in the calf pockets of his assault pants.

There was a pouch full of strange coins, all with different stamps and words on them. Some were shiny like gold. Others dull like copper and silver. I was pretty sure I could read some of the languages on them, but I would need better lighting to inspect them closely. NVGs didn’t nail that

level of detail. The images stamped in relief on the coins were human. And that… that was somehow comforting. Like somewhere in this crazy world we ended up in there were still other human beings who existed. Better yet: humans who charged each other for stuff. Basic commerce can be very comforting. Especially when you thought the world ended while you were off leaping through time in the back of a C-17.

So, humans existed, or had existed. Once.

Then I remembered that this headless corpse I was groping had been a human too. Or at least human-looking. But so had the thing that had gone for Brumm. The lookalike that disguised itself just to get close so it could tear out our throats. I didn’t need PFC Kennedy to know what that particular monster was called. Doppelgänger. Doppel meaning double, gänger for goer. German word. Common literary device in certain literatures and old wives’ fables. They were never well-intentioned beings. Real monsters. A myth preying on the human fear that something known and familiar might not be what you think it is. Might be something else. Something with bad intentions. And maybe, I thought, kneeling there in the grass, maybe this wasn’t so much the future, but more the past reasserting itself once again after a brief and inconvenient interruption by our modern civilization. The one we’d left. The one that had been getting overrun by a technological plague gone wild. Something that got away from a defense lab in China. Something that never should’ve been made, much less thought up.

There should be a special place in hell for the real monsters that sit around thinking that stuff up. Whoops, my science experiment just croaked the world is a pretty poor excuse.

I checked the sorcerer’s hands, remembering the low-hanging claws that dangled from the doppelgänger killer’s frame. No claws. The dead sorcerer had human hands. But… there was a ring on one finger.

I pulled hard, dislocating the finger in order to remove it from its cold, stiff host and studied it. It was made of a dull silver, but like the staff, it felt heavier than it should have. Much heavier.

When I’d patted down the rest of the body, we notified Sergeant Thor we were good to go. A minute later we all withdrew from the objective, taking a different route back. We went farther upstream, away from the battle, cognizant we might run into flanking forces out there in the dark.

It was while we were on the way to our crossing point that the orcs back at the island really pushed the eastern defenses hard. They hit the emplaced mines on the sand bars and pushed on through by sheer numbers, never minding the steel balls and flechettes from the mines, nor the flying body parts of their victims. IR flares went off from our lines, throwing spooky shadows and changing the colors within our NVGs. The illumination shells started going up so often I switched from NVGs to plain old analog human night vision. We sat for twenty minutes acclimatizing to the shifting darkness and then continued along the animal track we were using to get to our new crossing.

Off in the distance the 24Os chattered death. Talking to one another above the bellow and roar of the swarming orc horde pushing once again like they had all the numbers in the world to burn just to take ten more meters. Their tribal Uroo Uroos urgent and insisting that now was their moment to be seized.

It was do or die, lads, some orc NCO might’ve been bellow-barking in orc tribalese. Like this was their Little Orc Roundtop. Their finest hour.

I wondered… What if they take the island? What if there’s nothing for us to cross back to? What then? What do the seven of us do after everyone else has been killed?

The mission would seem to be over at that point. We’d be down to just doing survival. And how long could that last? What exactly was the high score we’d need to beat?

We sat in the dark for a long time near the crossing. Hidden in the wet mud and tangled trees, listening to the battle out there in the dark across the quiet river. It grew and faded sometime around three. An hour later there was one last push by the enemy, but it petered out pretty quickly. Like those orc NCOs’ hearts just weren’t into it this time. Or they’d all been killed, and the last assault was just for form rather than meaning. Then it was time to cross back over. We constructed our poncho rafts and eased back into the cold water. The current had picked up and we got carried downriver a bit as we paddled and pushed to make the crossing back inside our line. We were paddling and pushing hard when Brumm gasped, “Look at that down there.”

The first light of distant morning was in the sky, coming through the skeletal trees to the east. To our left, south along the eastern defenses, a

horse and rider all in black, or maybe that was just how the bare pre-dawn light made them look, were easing out across the mined shallows where the bodies of dead orcs floated and drifted away. The rider had one hand up and was calling out something to our forces. I could barely hear him from here.

“Sounds like,” said Thor, pushing and paddling with me, “sounds like he’s using the original operational countersign. From day one.”

Now I could hear someone from the weapons section down there, bellowing out the challenge in that Ranger-pit-bull bark. No doubt more than willing to light up the dark rider after a night like the one that had just passed. Probably jittery with spent rage and bottoming out as the adrenaline of combat disappeared in the first dawn light. Piles of expended brass all over the pit. But the challenge must have been met with the countersign, because as we pushed onto shore, we could see the rider walking his dark horse ashore as well, hands up, the Rangers coming out to cover him with their rifles.

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