Chapter no 8

Forgotten Ruin

We reported back to the sergeant major, and he made sure we got to heat up some MREs at a station he’d set up near the casualty collection point. Then he told me to hang on to the intel and we’d link up later to review the SSE material. The rest of the Reaper Team heated their rations and took off back to their assigned positions in the defense, but I just sat for a while, not really as interested in the Chicken Chunks as I could usually work myself up to be. I was still covered in wizard blood, and even the small Tabasco bottle didn’t make it any better. Considering the blood… it kinda made it worse.

Nearby, Chief Rapp was sewing up slashes while Rangers groaned at the first-rate care they were being given. They roared and swore when whatever the chief was using for a disinfectant got liberally splashed around to clean out the wound first. After that they grunted and tolerated. I guess everything after the sudden fire of the cleansing felt like a picnic. One guy was probably going to lose a hand. So, there was that.

Fun times at the CCP.

The sergeant major came back from somewhere, moving swiftly in that long-legged road march stride he had, and scooped me up in his wake with a terse command to “Follow.” Once we were clear of everyone else he added, “Need you to listen in on something and assess.”

What? Was I actually going to do languages? Had the insight and forward planning of someone at the Pentagon finally paid off? I could hardly contain myself. It was a good thing I was dead tired, or I might have been too excited about getting to do the special thing I did.

“Capture a bad guy, Sergeant Major? What language? What’s it sounds like?”

Yeah, I couldn’t help myself. I still hadn’t mastered Ranger Tough. Which basically meant brooding with a mouth full of dip and staring off into the forest while either thinking up all the ways you could get killed or thinking up new ways you could kill those who were trying to kill you before they killed you first.

Basically, hit some dip and think about revenge. That was how you looked like a Ranger.

But on the way to the briefing I was just hoping the language was one

of mine. Though even if it wasn’t, I could most likely get an anchor on anything anyone spoke given enough time.

“We did get a subject to interrogate, Talker,” said the sergeant major, moving swiftly ahead of me through the trees back to the CP in the C-17. “But this ain’t that. Guy from another one of the detachments came through the line this morning ’bout the time you guys came back over. I want you to say nothing and just listen to what he has to say. Comprehende?” he said in Tejas-English. As a party trick I could’ve told him within a two-hundred- mile radius exactly in which border town he’d picked that up in. But not important right now.

I was learning.

Ten minutes later the brief started in the CP. Except it wasn’t a brief. It was a debrief. We were listening to information instead of disseminating it. In attendance was the captain. The XO, who’d I’d never really seen. The sergeant major was there of course. And the pilot. Chief Rapp, who was more than just a medic, arrived a few minutes later. The was a Green Beret, or what Rangers liked to call a Green Beanie, was an operational detachment advisor. And now I was going to see him doing work that didn’t involve doling out stitches, water bottles, and motrin.

Oh, Captain Knife Hand had dried blood on his forehead. I was betting that was someone else’s. Just wanted to point that out.

And then they introduced the person we’d be debriefing: Chief Petty Officer McCluskey, Naval Special Warfare Operator… or what most people call SEALs. Apparently this was the dark rider we’d seen cross the sandy shallows along the river just before dawn as we came back across ourselves. Turns out it wasn’t just the light that had made him dark. He still cut a dark figure there in the gloom of the cargo deck of the C-17. If it weren’t for the otherworldly blue in McCluskey’s hooded eyes, his face would have been nothing but white stripes and black grease. A kind of night camo he’d applied. His hair was dark and curly. And long. Definitely not Ranger short.

I guess SEALs are different. I’d only ever seen them in the movies, played by actors. So, not actual SEALs.

He wore supple high black boots and armor fashioned of black leather and dark rings. Like some thespian might wear at the local Renaissance Faire. The guy playing the rogue villain at the four-o’clock fencing demo near Ye Olde Timey Mead Hall. I’d dated a girl who went in for playing

mead hall wenches and other wonderfully bawdy waifs. It was a scene. Wilder than I’d guessed for a bunch that was into playing dress-up and make-believe and talking funny. Using words like sheweth and thine. It didn’t last between us. She made me nervous. She slept with a dagger and had night terrors she could never remember.

A dark cloak was wrapped around Chief McCluskey’s body, the hood only barely pushed back over his thick hair. But I could see a silver hoop, like a pirate might wear, in one ear. I guess the Navy is cool with that too. In the Army there’d be no end to the smoking you’d get if you showed up to morning formation with something dangling from your ear. It would be like asking the first sergeant to have a stroke right in front of you while you did grass drills for the rest of your life. The silver hoop was formed of two twisting snakes intertwined, and it caught the light in its dangle.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, I told myself, but there had been no one who looked like this back at the doomsday briefing on the Fifty-One airfield. Less than two weeks ago. But, y’know, also ten thousand years or so ago. So how this guy was with one of the detachments but practically looked like he belonged out there with the rest of the I-am-Gondo-of-the- Gondori lunatics didn’t really add up in the first seconds of the debrief. No one looked more the opposite of Ranger than this guy.

Chief Rapp examined a big sword still in its fancy duelist Ren Faire Ye Olde Leather Shoppe scabbard. He held it in his hands like some mythic sword of kings. Almost reverently. Black leather with silver ornaments and moon charms. I guess they’d taken it off this guy before letting him into the command post. It was like something out of a movie. A real pro-level prop.

I shifted my focus back to Chief Petty Officer McCluskey. SEAL.

How? I sat there wondering in the back of the briefing inside the captain’s little CP. I had a lot of How questions about the SEAL. Plenty of Whys, too.

“Twenty years ago,” began Chief McCluskey to everyone as I sat there and wondered. “That’s how long we’ve been on the ground, fellas. Since I know you’re asking.”

Fellas. Uh, there were three officers and a sergeant major here. And a chief warrant officer. Rangers most of them. Things were indeed different in the Navy. If someone had called Sergeant Kurtz a fella, Kurtz would have killed him with a brown MRE spoon regardless of if we were in a

combat zone or not.

The SEAL’s voice was easy. Friendly. He was the good-timin’ guy in the squad everyone liked and was easy to get along with. The bad kid in school who wasn’t really bad so much as just a rebel who liked to have a good time. He could score beer long before fake IDs. Chicks dug him. But you could tell, he was the mistake those same girls shouldn’t make, but did anyway. He was the kind of guy who probably had a muscle car and a couple of dirt bikes he dragged around from post to post. He followed a football team like a Catholic priest reciting the tenets of faith. Pretty much unlike anyone I’d met in the Language Arts departments of any of the ivory towers I’d studied in. He could probably rebuild a carburetor.

That was my initial assessment, probably not what the command team was looking for. Nor would it be of any use to anyone. But hey, that’s me. Why fight it?

“We came in twenty years ago off the coast of Normandy,” continued McCluskey. “That’s where you guys are, if you haven’t figured it out yet.” He stared around at us, daring us to call him a liar or present evidence to the contrary. “This is Europe about ten thousand years in the future as near as I… we can tell. There’re some things that have changed. Like…” His eyes searched the roof of the grounded aircraft. “Like England and the continent are now connected by a land bridge. But this is future Europe for sure. Took a while for us to figure that out. And before you ask… I have no intel on America.”

“And you were with?” asked Captain Knife Hand. He was writing all this down like it was McCluskey’s job interview at the DMV. Like the mysterious SEAL had come in for a low-level GS position, or to report a crime, or to give a final interview to the parole board. Completely administrative.

“First Group, Team Five. Lieutenant Commander Rudd commanding. But… he got himself killed first year out. So I guess that QST ain’t as accurate as they thought it was, right guys?” He laughed. No one else did. Rangers and SEALs have different senses of humor. SEALs probably know regular-people jokes that everyone would find funny. Rangers tend toward the horrifying for their amusements. The jokes they know would cause people to switch seats on an airplane.

“We only left the night before you all were supposed to take off,”

McCluskey continued, “but we showed up twenty years earlier. Go figure. Time travel’s wacky. Way-above-my-pay-grade stuff. Anyway, we go through the QST and we’re over water when we come out a moment later. Pilot decided to fly east, and we link up with the French coast at Normandy, though of course we didn’t know that at the time. Set down right there on the beach like it was a second invasion and all. Anyway, like I said, all that was twenty years ago, and things have developed since. A lot of things. Don’t worry. We ain’t gone native or nothin’.”

He laughed and seemed not to notice that no one else found this amusing.

“And what have you been up to, Chief?” asked the captain as though there were a question on the form he was writing on that desired exactly that information and needed to be filled out properly or the world would fall into the sun or something.

“Doing what we do. SEALs. First in, last out. Strategic reconnaissance operations. Trying to figure out the situation on the ground. I personally have been as far east as a region north of Turkey they call Umnoth now. Bad place. Real bad in fact. Oh, and by the way, there’s no Black Sea anymore. Big meteorite broke apart and scored a direct hit there and a bunch of other places a few thousand years ago. A lot of topography got changed in the interim.”

In the interim.

He paused for the captain to write all this down. No one said anything. Chief Rapp shifted in his chair. It groaned and cried out in anguish because his legs were the size of tree trunks. I’m not kidding. Even his muscles had muscles. He was jacked, as they say.

The captain wrote like an administrator whose passion was the smallest detail. Exact detail. Focused. Sharp. Complete in studying the world in the words he was putting down to make sure he had it all as it was supposed to be. Not concerned in the least by the uncomfortable silence in which he worked. I had no doubt everything was going down on that paper precisely as it was being relayed.

That bothered me about Captain Knife Hand. He could go completely Roman on the enemy, and then write it all down like it was just some bureaucrat’s report on labor statistics. “Subject made gagging noises and cried briefly while I strangled him from behind. Hyoid bone broken twenty-

two seconds into strangulation. Death followed one minute later. Assassination complete.” I could imagine him writing that kind of report. He was the epitome of cold-blooded. He was that kind of machine. The kind that kills you and then subtracts your number from the global equation.

The tough guys in the squads aspired to be the captain. They were lucky. They’d gotten the kind of officer they wanted.

I allowed myself to consider what would have happened if instead of going enlisted linguist I had taken the recruiter’s offer to go off to OCS. Officer Candidate School. Yikes. Everyone would be dead or feasting on one another for a decent meal by day three if I was in charge of this operation. I have no faith in my ability to lead anyone into anything. Everything would be Mad Max by the end of the week. I gave the captain at least a month before we resorted to the cannibalism that would have marked my administration from the get-go.

You have to be honest about these things.

The captain sniffed and muttered for the SEAL to, “Continue.” McCluskey obliged.

“Three days ago, I hear tell among the tribes that a big bird came down out here in the western end of the Loire Valley. That’s where we are. We, humans, used to make wine here. But they call this river the Low River now, and the tribes call the valley the Catch. In their language. Orc. That’s what we call them, the guys drifting dead in the river out there. Orcs. Because… well, you’ve seen the movies. Spitting image. Am I right, guys?”

So it wasn’t just PFC Kennedy who saw it. Funny how things often just name themselves. No one has to decide—you just know it when you see it. Orc. Giant. Washing machine. Truly new words, pure neologisms, are actually far less common than you might think, outside of marketing departments. Mostly we just reuse and repurpose the words we already have. Or they repurpose themselves. Evolve on their own.

I wondered what McCluskey called the goblins.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I knew what that meant. The big bird part. Knew one of ours had finally come in through the QST. Or at least that’s what I hoped. So I hopped on my horse and tore out for you guys. By then the orc tribes already had scouts all out in the woods looking for you. You were surrounded within twenty-four hours. I captured a few and found out

what I needed to know after conducting a short interrogation. Then I took my time and got through the lines just hoping the operational countersign from day one was still good. I never forgot it. Never ever. We knew you’d show up one day, and we wanted to be ready for you. And now… here you are. Know what I mean, fellas?”

Fellas. The nerve of this man!

“Where’s the rest of your team?” asked the sergeant major bluntly. McCluskey leaned back. Up until now he’d talked fast. Eyes sharp.

Train of thought clear. Now he leaned back and looked off to his left like he was considering what to say next.

John, the guy whose name wasn’t really John, had spent three hours of our two weeks in the cheap hotel in Vegas telling me everything he knew on the subject of lie detection. And if the things not-John had taught me were true… then this guy was about to tell us all a big old lie.

“Team’s gathering,” replied McCluskey. “Sent word using a communication system we’ve set up. If they get it soon enough, and remember, things are a little Bronze Age here in the future… but if they get it, they’ll be ready to come in and assist. I can signal near nightfall and we can find out if they’re out there yet.”

“What weapons and assets does your team still have?” asked the captain.

“Well,” said Chief McCluskey, leaning forward as if to think, letting his hands dangle between his leather-clad legs. “We ain’t got this fine gear you got. Ain’t seen an MK18 or an MP5 the way I like it rigged in a very long time. And you won’t either, not much longer. Weapons, equipment that is, everything machine-made and technological beyond a certain level… it all breaks down here after a while. You’ll notice it first when your optics go offline. Then about a month or two later the weapons’ll start malfunctioning regularly. Get so bad you can’t go five rounds without clearing a jam. That’s what got Stillwater killed up around the western edge of the Crow’s March. That’s old Germany, FYI. I can draw you a map once we’re clear of this fight. Point some interesting things out for you. So yeah…”

He looked around. Spotted the sergeant major.

“I’d start trainin’ your Rangers to learn to fight with axes and swords here. Because that’s what it is from here on out. Once your weapons go sideways, it’s all over. You gotta go savage or end up in the pot, know what

I mean, guys? That’s the way the world works now. Only way there is to it.” He laughed about this to himself but didn’t expand on the subject. “What’s the geopolitical situation like, Chief McCluskey?” asked the

captain, matter-of-factly.

The SEAL laughed again and slapped his knee. Gently. “Ain’t none.”

Now I realized what was bothering me about this guy. And it might just be me, so I didn’t know what to do with what was itching in my brain. But… here it is. I’d been in training for basically most of my very short military career, and I might not be too familiar with how the various branches treated one another. But even for a newbie like me, I couldn’t help but take note of the fact that at no point did Chief Petty Officer McCluskey of the SEALs ever use anyone’s rank or address superior officers with respect of rank. Stuff that had been drilled into me from day one of my military service.

Everyone in the debrief—everyone except me—outranked him. But Chief McCluskey seemed not to notice, and no one took a moment to correct his egregious breach of protocol.

And that was odd to me, too. Them not correcting.

I was just waiting for the command sergeant major to lock the SEAL’s heels and rip McCluskey’s spine out so he could show it to him and how it should look when addressing Captain Knife Hand with the respect due his commander’s rank.

But maybe things are different in the worlds of darkness that are the special warfare groups. The Rangers certainly had a passion for rank and respect. If there were modern-day Spartans filled with nothing but hate and coldness and a grim fatality despite all odds, it was the Rangers. Even lower enlisted Rangers at the E-4 rank got addressed as such. They’d earned it in the miserable suck that was the Ranger batt, and it would be noted. Every time. Unless perhaps you reached some inner circle that was entirely beyond my experience as of yet.

But hey… I was new in town. So I continued to listen. Keep my mouth shut.

If I’d said something like, But Sergeant Major, he didn’t use your rank,

Kennedy’d have help digging latrines one minute later.

There was something else. Something I saw and heard in McCluskey’s

manner that stuck out as odd. Out of place. Maybe the thing that counterattacked us when we hit the HVT out in the woods had messed with my head, but… for just a second… I was reminded of the thing that looked like Sergeant Thor.

The Doppelgänger.

I looked around to see if anyone noticed anything else odd. Later, I’d realize the captain had. He’d been subtle about it, repeatedly prompting McCluskey by using the man’s rank as if to remind him how things ran ten thousand years ago back when we’d all sworn to support and defend. But Chief Rapp, the command sergeant major, and even the pilot were like Easter Island tourist attractions watching the whole debrief go down. They just sat there listening, giving away nothing.

So I made like a rock and just listened too. Filing my bit away for later in case everyone was so out of ideas they actually came to me for anything.

“So no other detachments have come through since you and your team arrived, Chief McCluskey?” the captain asked.

“Negative. We have not made contact with anyone in the last twenty years, nor have we encountered any evidence that any other friendly task force element has come through the QST.” Then he added sir. For the first time. Like he’d read my mind and everything I’d been thinking in the seconds before. Or like giving an official report and using the word negative had awakened something ancient within him. Something he’d forgotten during twenty years of Robin Hood Outlaw. Some memory of what it was like to still be in. In his defense, I posited how often he’d been called upon to use actual military courtesy in the last twenty years.

Probably not often.

Maybe that was his defense, and it had to be considered. If just to be fair and keep an open mind about things. Perhaps he had gone native despite indicating he hadn’t. Maybe he didn’t even know he had. What do they always say? Crazy people don’t know they’re actually crazy.

It was to be expected. Going native, that is. Hell, he was the one who sat here looking all Game of Thrones. This was the new normal. We were the ones out of place. Out of time. Out of our element. He’d said it himself. You gotta go savage. That, or die.

“Ain’t nothing left, if that’s what you’re asking, sir,” said the new McCluskey, suddenly conscious of rank. “No human civilizations or

kingdoms anywhere. Nowhere. Or at least none that we ever found, sir. Just a few villages and enclaves in very, very inaccessible places, and more often than not, there ain’t much human about ’em anyway anymore. Everything you knew… all of you,” he looked around at us as though challenging us, his blue eyes looking into and past us, “it’s flat-out gone now. Long gone, long, long time ago. And this is gonna sound crazy. Even I know it does…”

Like I said, his manner was so friendly and easy, intoxicating in a certain way, you wanted to believe him. Wanted to be his buddy. He was capable. He radiated capability in that way operators do. You wanted him to be on your side. Especially when your back was to the wall. And Ranger Alamo was starting to feel like some kind of wall we had our backs to. If not tonight, then some night.

“This world…” continued McCluskey softly. “It’s filled with nothin’ but big bad real-life monsters now. Nothin’ but evil. Humans are all gone now. You’ll find the occasional, but we have nothing in common with them. They’re used to what we would call the monsters and magic of this place; what’s foreign to them is us with our high tech and weapons and old- fashioned mores and culture. They don’t have rules of engagement here, sir. If you’re an enemy, they try to kill you with everything they got. All of you. Prisoners of war? Conventions? Cease-fires? Nah, they don’t do that here. Best you can hope for is a chance at being a slave until they need the calories one tough winter. And… spoiler alert, as we used to say… all the winters here are tough. Then it’s the pot.”

He paused. “Closest to us, in values and civilization… maybe… and they’re still weird… is the elves. If—and it’s a big if—you can find them. Which you never can when you need to. They’re all underground and hiding out in the woods and caves. There are also dwarves, we call ’em. They’re not like midgets, but more like the ones in the movies with Frodo and Sauron. The dwarves aren’t allies, but they don’t like orcs any more than you do right now. And the orc tribes comin’ at you are going to be only your fourth biggest problem here in the Ruin. That’s what they call the whole world. The Ruin.”

The SEAL seemed to relish the brief dramatic pause, all eyes locked on him. “So let me tell you about problem number three. That’s the Crow’s March. Vampires. Werewolves. Ghosts. I kid you not, sir. And yes, I know

it sounds crazy. But it’s like…” He searched the darkness above his head. “Think of it this way. It’s as if the old Soviet Union went all Nazi Germany, but with boogeymen in control. Very, very, dark place. They’re ruled by a character who calls himself, you’ll like this… the Black Prince.”

You’re dressed in black, psycho, I thought, and then watched as McCluskey’s serial-killer blue eyes flicked over toward me for half a second. Like I’d said what I’d thought out loud, instead of thinking it all quiet.

“That’s problem number three for you. The Crow’s March. Problem number two is the Saur. They’re a race of—and believe me, even if I sound real casual about this, or… what’s the word… blasé … it’s only because I’ve lived it, here on the ground, for so long. But the Saur are a race of lizard men. They’ve ruled this whole place starting about a thousand years after we departed the scene and the plague wiped out human civ. Okay? Got it? The Saur keep to the south, like down around Old Eygpt. Let’s just say they’re asleep right now. They’re into some dark stuff and they got designs and prophecies about enslaving the whole Ruin forever and ushering in a whole Dark Millennium. Bad stuff.

“But your Problemo Number One-Oh… is a being. And I use that word specifically because I don’t think he’s from this world if half the stories we’ve heard are true. Think of this being as more of… well, a lot like that Sauron character. I think he’s like an alien from another dimension or something. In the tales and records of the various shamans I’ve encountered, he starts showing up about the same time as the ’sky fell,’ as they say around here in their oral traditions. That’s when that meteor broke apart and slammed into Western Europe and North Africa. Anyway, this being—problem number one for everyone here, including me—is called the Nether Sorcerer. And these boys, the orcs trying to cut your throats out there in the dark tonight, the ones trying to wipe you out, they basically work for the Nether Sorcerer. Though I’d say most of them don’t exactly understand it that way.”

The captain began to write once again, and we all sat there listening to the scratch of his pencil against the sheet of paper he worked on. The form he was filling out. Preventing time as we know it from suddenly reversing course and flinging us all off the planet.

McCluskey leaned forward, his black leather armor creaking softly in

the silence.

“And there’s one other… thing… and I should be honest about this with you, up front and all… but that plague that was changing all of us way back then, ten thousand years ago, that’s what it did. It changed the very fabric of… everything. It still does things to people. But I think… in a way it’s done its work, mostly, or… run out of juice. But you should know something about me if we’re gonna work together from here going forward. I ain’t evil or nothin’. I’m no monster like the things out there trying to kill you. I’m still just Mike McCluskey from Michigan. Joined the Navy and went to Special Warfare School at Coronado, BUDS class 299. Fought in Iran and Iraq. But… well… I’m what you’d call a vampire now.”

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