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Chapter no 9

Forgotten Ruin

“What do you mean… a vampire?”

It was the pilot who asked the question everyone was thinking about asking. The rest of us were just Easter Island statues. Even me.

Hey, I’m learning to Ranger!

So I just sat there as the command team had throughout the entire insane-sounding debrief. Except it wasn’t really insane given current events. Or… was it what crazy sounded like in a world that had lost its marbles, and humanity, ten thousand years or so ago? Hard to say. And that’s not an understatement. But for everyone else sitting around me it was like they’d heard this sorta thing before. Or shades of it. In all the other dark places they’d been sent off to die in across their careers. They knew crazy because they’d seen it before. And they knew that if crazy was the set of rules you were supposed to play by… then it was best to embrace it sooner rather than later.

Chief McCluskey nodded to himself and launched into the story of how he became a vampireHalf of me felt like an idiot for just sitting there and listening to it, and the other half couldn’t resist hearing it. So much so that at certain points I had to wipe my sleeve across my mouth just to make sure it was closed.

And still… it felt like it was a performance played for the thousandth time one too many. The SEAL turned escaped Ren Faire lunatic knew all the beats of it a little too well. All the jokes too pat. And I couldn’t help myself from thinking, as I listened to him, that it was little more than a bad script read I was sitting through for a bad B movie I’d never admit to watching.

Long story short. He and his team had been crossing into “the Crow’s March.” The place he’d told us was old Germany. More specifically, Bavaria. They, his SEAL platoon, had gone into an alpine human village high in what was now called the Giant’s Teeth. You could say this much for the new world order: the location names were more colorful. Three of their team took injuries during exfil, or getting out of the village of the living undead. Yes. They did indeed suffer bite wounds. Within thirty days of walking away from the place they’d left in flames on a snowy dawn

morning, the three with injuries began to show signs of some sort of virulent infection their on-hand meds couldn’t lick. They got weaker and weaker by the day. It became clear in pretty short order that they were dying of some kind of wasting disease.

The team medic diagnosed it as extreme anemia. Massive iron deficiency. And the infected SEALs couldn’t tolerate daylight. They broke out in severe burns, almost third-degree, even when exposed to the wan winter light the team was struggling through. Then came the hunger for what they thought, at first, were just animal proteins. Soon it became apparent that it was blood the dying SEALs wanted. The team figured it out, adapted, and overcame a bad situation.

“But there were some benefits too,” said McCluskey.

“Such as?” asked Chief Rapp from the shadows of the briefing area. Interested. Probably because he was doing a mental health evaluation. That was my guess.

“It’s really, and I mean really, hard to kill me,” McCluskey replied. “Don’t know if a stake to the heart’ll do it. But I’ve been hacked, slashed, and stabbed just about every which way you can cut somebody. I’ve been what the team medic called ’dead’ a couple of times. I go into a kind of stasis, and if you keep me outta daylight then I come back after a while. Feel like roadkill though… but it’s better than being permanent dead, know what I mean? I can see in the middle of the night, even with no moon, clear as day like it’s straight-up noon. And I’m stronger than I ever was back at Coronado. I don’t know how much I can bench, but one time I picked up a warhorse and threw it over a stone wall because we were being chased by grave trolls down in Skeletos. Greece, I mean. Skeletos is Greece now. Man, haven’t said that word for… a long time. Greece. And I’m fast, too. Faster than I ever was… before. It’s been a long time since I’ve broken down a weapon and put it back together, but back on the teams, with an MK18, thirty-four seconds was my best. In pieces to rock and roll. I haven’t used a firearm in about twenty years, but given time… I bet I could beat my old record now easily. I’m totally sure of that. Here—hand me my sword. I’ll show you a trick if you’re all up for it.”

Chief Rapp looked unsure. But Captain Knife Hand nodded once for approval, his eyes wary and tired at the same time. The command sergeant major just sat in the back, motionless. Seeing, and not seeing, everything. I

couldn’t tell if anyone had completely bought McCluskey’s story as of that moment. If these were their poker faces, then I had to wonder what they were doing in the Army. They could’ve cleaned up at tables in casinos around the world.

Then I remembered that the world we’d known was dead now. And that there were no more casinos or endless shrimp buffets. You wanted shrimp, you were going to have to get a rowboat and kill them yourself. Then figure out how to make butter. And there were probably sea orcs and lobster trolls all down in the ocean now. The possibilities of how one could die expanded geometrically each time I stopped to consider the mess we’d ended up in ten thousand years late for our mission to save the world. This… this was losing its luster fast. And there were a whole lot more troubling and unasked questions looming and hiding that would surface once immediate survival wasn’t a factor. What were we fighting for? Were we still under the terms of our enlistment, which should have expired, at the outside, nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-six years ago?

Did coffee still exist?

Granted, that last question was personal more than big-picture stuff. But no less dire, in my opinion. I was currently sitting on thirty-six packets of instant. In the land of no coffee I was the king of the blind, or something. All I knew was, I had that much, and it wasn’t enough as far as a real coffee junkie was concerned. I needed all the coffee. Only then could I relax and try not to get killed by the sea orcs, or something equally bizarre.

Chief Rapp half stood and handed McCluskey’s sword, hilt first and scabbarded, to the self-professed vampire in our midst. The SEAL was just sitting back in his chair with his hands between his spread knees like the most unconcerned and relaxed Ren Faire tragedian dude in the world.

What happened next was fast. Lightning-fast. Faster than anything I’d ever seen happen up close and personal.

Chief Rapp, being a big man, and tired, had barely stood to hand the sword over and across the table to Chief Petty Officer McCluskey. The giant Special Forces medic had clearly had the intent of just sitting back down in his chair and watching whatever happened next. The trick McCluskey was promising to show us. You could tell from his posture that that was Chief Rapp’s next move. He was tired from two nights of combat and a lot of meatball surgery. That was to be expected.

But in the next second McCluskey had somehow shot out of his chair like a blur, drawn the sword from its scabbard so fast it didn’t make even the slightest sound, and thrust the blade forward again like a streak of lightning, landing its razor-keen edge right against the chief’s neck with incautious precision.

Or at least that’s what had to have happened by looking at the final result and using inductive reasoning to figure out how we’d arrived at a conclusion wherein with the slightest flick of his wrist, McCluskey could open a vein in Chief Rapp’s neck.

No one said a word. The silence was stunning. And McCluskey just stood there, blade resting against the chief warrant officer’s neck. A hungry smile on the SEAL’s face, his eyes casting about for approval because he knew the trick he’d just pulled was pretty slick and neat to boot. And it was clear he liked the adoration of being the best at something. This was his big move.

Then, in the stunned silence, Chief Rapp began to laugh. Because what else could he do? He really was a good-natured man even though there was a dark black sword with a pretty sharp edge held right to his thick neck. He rumbled with laughter and sat back down.

Oh yeah. It was a black sword. Black armor. Black horse. Black sword. McCluskey definitely had a thing for black. Add to all this that apparently he was a vampire, and we had ourselves a real live character.

This is the truest thing I can tell you about Rangers. They. Do. Not.

Like. Characters.

It makes them uncomfortable. And things that make Rangers uncomfortable have a tendency to end up dead. A sergeant in RASP, a sergeant who made sure I got through, explained that to me. He saw my effusive and outgoing personality and the problems it might present in a Ranger batt, and he took me aside and told me what was what. I heeded and knew wisdom.

McCluskey, on the other hand…

It was like he wanted to play the villain even if he was on the wrong team to be cast as such. He was gonna do villain anyway.

“So,” said the SEAL easing back down into his chair. “I’m quite fast.” He casually re-sheathed the sword, leaving it on the table between everyone where he could pick it up quite easily again and kill us all real fast if he

wanted to. It wasn’t like we could stop him. He was really that fast. Message received. Because that’s what it felt like. A message. Even more so later.

I’d felt a lot more confidence in Captain Knife Hand before this meeting. I’d seen him as a competent soldier and a no-holds-barred killer who would get us through this by any means possible. Whatever it took, he’d do it. I also had no doubt the command sergeant major had gone exciting places and killed interesting people in horrific ways more than anyone else in the detachment. But now… I wasn’t sure about what I knew. Not about them. Not totally. Not like they were false idols and my phony personal security religion based on them had been exposed for the fake that it was. More… I was unsure about the thing in the briefing with us. McCluskey. Like there was a shark swimming nearby in the dark waters you found yourself in. You really didn’t know where it was, but it was there all the same. Have fun.

You never think about that when you go swimming in the ocean. But that’s where sharks are. That’s where they live. The first time you do think about sharks swimming in the same water you’re swimming in, it’s hard to stop yourself from thinking about it forever after. You find yourself swimming a lot less once that picture gets into your personal hard drive.

McCluskey was a shark. And he was sitting right across the table from me. Swimming.

I guess we, or maybe just me, were hoping he was a friendly predator. Because he was definitely a shark of some kind, and we were in his ocean now. Even with all our Rangers and weapons and gear, this world was his. He’d been swimming in it for twenty years. Hence the dark armor, wicked sword, and vampire-enhanced skills.

What would we all look like in twenty years? If we survived.

“So… how do you… sustain yourself… if you need blood or plasma?” asked the chief, in his seat once more.

McCluskey was back in his seat too. Same easy-going helpless posture of hands between his leather-clad thighs. That was for show. He was trying to teach us. Or convince us. Or lie. To us. That he wasn’t really a shark.

It’s just that he couldn’t help being one.

“Blood of my enemies,” he murmured with a knowing smile. “Topped off on my way in. Now all I need is some sleep until dark. And then I can

either stay and help you—if you’ll let me—or I can slip back through the attacking force and link up with the team. Gather some useful allies and start hitting the enemy rear to relieve the pressure on your line. It’s your call, fellas. What’s your situation? Exactly.”

He looked around at everyone and landed on the captain. Then, so fast maybe only I noticed, he flicked his eyes off toward the front of the aircraft where the Forge was busy cranking out more ammo for us to burn through tonight when the orc horde came back to finish the job.

And he’d also caught me noting that I’d caught him noting where the Forge was. His eyes flicked to the staff I’d been carrying since returning from the mission, a quick appraisal and then back to the audience before him.

“So…” began the chief again. “Daylight burns you but… you were out in it this morning when you came inside the wire. And there’s the light still coming in through the rear cargo door and a few of these windows. How isn’t this bothering you right now, Chief McCluskey?”

“Well,” said the SEAL, running his hand through his thick curly hair. “Truth is… it’s killing me. But you’re gonna find out that, even though this world takes away your weapons, well, there’s all kinds of fun prizes it gives you to make up for it. Magic being the number one, Chief. Real live magic. This…”

He pointed to the intertwined serpent hoop in one ear. The piece of jewelry that made him look like a pirate. To me at least.

“This here is a magic charm. It mitigates some of the more serious effects of daylight. My redundant backup protection system is this cloak. The elves of Charwood call it a Cloak of Darkness. Basically, with the hood up, it’s midnight for me. Even in broad daylight. And this…” He tapped the scabbarded blade on the map-covered table. “… this is Coldfire. Took it off the Shadow King down in the Underworld beneath what we used to call the Italian Alps. Blade is the sharpest I’ve ever felt. You get cut with this, it doesn’t heal, and it hurts like you wouldn’t believe for a long time afterward. Like you’re freezing and burning up all at once. It’s a real party. Believe me.”

He smiled, and it was then we could see the pronounced canines. Like he’d learned to hide them and then show them when needed. Now he was showing.

“But even with these tricks, I gotta stay out of the daylight. Sick as a dog when I’m in it. These just help me move around like I’m fighting off the worst flu ever. But come nighttime… hell, I’m ready to party, know what I mean, guys?”

He looked me right in the eye, no doubt wondering what in the hell a PFC was doing here in the CP. Why I was getting to listen in? What was my deal? That seemed to vex him for a moment. A look that said so crossed his face.

The captain declined the subtle invitation to lay out our disposition of forces to the SEAL. So that told me I knew the trust and love wasn’t mutual on both sides so far. That Captain Knife Hand was still a cagey animal. And I sensed that wasn’t lost on the SEAL either.

“Grab some rest, Chief,” said Captain Knife Hand. “Sergeant Major can get you settled somewhere that meets… your needs. We’ll discuss what to do next later and then I’ll let you know what we need from your element. We appreciate the cooperation.”

The meeting broke up, and the sergeant major nodded at me to stick around while he took the SEAL off to a space between some stacked clamshells that would be dark enough, apparently.

I waited around outside the grounded plane for a few minutes and tried to wander away when the Deep State guy came up out of the quiet woods. He looked like he was coming from Sniper Hill. Or he’d been out along the line along the river’s edge. He was looking inside the plane now, but not going in.

“What’s going on in there, Private?” he snapped at me.

I shrugged. It’s a special skill PFCs have. One day I’d join the E-4 mafia and learn all new powers of shamming. But right now I thought it best not to divulge what I’d heard. Best not to have anything to do with this guy. He was stupid. You could tell that from a long way off. He was smart stupid. Someone had made the mistake of treating him like he was special because of his big brain and right schools he’d gone to. And that had promptly gone right to his head. He actually did think he was better than everyone else around him. I’d seen a lot of that in my old life inside academia. Smart stupid people. Combined with a sense of certainty and ego, it made them very dangerous to everyone.

My E-3 shrug didn’t deter him in the slightest. You could tell he didn’t

really see people whom he considered lesser than himself. They weren’t there. He only saw the people above him, the ones he could suck up to for goods and prizes. Everyone else was just a thing to be used by him, for him, to advance him.

“Hey, PFC,” he said earnestly, as if actually seeing me now, though he clearly didn’t.

This is another skill those types possess. They’re convinced they can relate to “commoners” like he perceived me to be. He turned back from trying to see what was going on inside the aircraft and faced me in the woods, putting on a friendly-buddy face. Maybe Captain Knife Hand had thrown him out before the meeting, citing the debrief as a military matter?

“That’s a nice, uh… walking stick. How are the men?” asked Deep State faux-sincerely. No longer Deep State Volman. More… Comrade Buddy.

But seriously?

How are the men?

Who was he kidding? This lame attempt at concern was laughable. The men. Why not use fellows, or mates, or even chums. Each of those would have been as off-putting and out of place to a real soldier as the word choice he’d just employed. The men. I should know; I’d been masquerading as a soldier ever since I’d raised my right hand during enlistment. Someday, if I didn’t get killed by an orc werewolf or troll dragon, if I kept doing Ranger stuff with the Rangers, I might become a real soldier. Or at least that’s how I felt.

This guy never would.

“No idea, sir,” I told him. “I’m just the linguist, and there’s no one to talk to in any of the languages I speak. So, Auf Wiedersehen.”

That means take a hike in German.

He faked a laugh like he understood what I’d just said.

“That’s the Army for you, huh, PFC?” he said with his mouth and not his eyes, like he was relating to common old me. His new working-class buddy comrade. Not really a statement. Not really a question. Nothing really. That was probably his skill. Managing to never say anything he could end up being hung out to dry for. You could tell he was pure political animal, and that was an alien thing in the military. I’m sure it existed somewhere. Higher up. And there was a kind of politics here for sure. But

not this kind. Not so far in my training experience. And definitely not in the Ranger batt.

By his eyes I could tell he was done with me. I hadn’t been recruited to inform and be on his “side.” Plus, I couldn’t do anything for him. I was just some extraneous piece of the Ranger company he had no idea what to do with. Useless to him and the power games he was no doubt up to. What was he gonna do, have the captain impeached? I had no street cred with the men for him to use. I watched the math in his eyes add up as he turned and walked away, barely throwing a goodbye over his shoulder as he went. He definitely looked like he was off to find more busy to body.

Auf Wiedersehen off a short pier, dude.

A few minutes later the sergeant major came off the cargo deck walking right past me and dragging me along in his wake once again as he muttered through gritted teeth, “C’mon, Talker. We got work to do. Now, son.”

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