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The Soldier

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Part 1: The Dream

I can hear the screams of men, and gunfire. I can smell their fear. They

The Soldier Part 1

know something is in the dark; something strange, menacing and very, very hungry.

Oh God-blam-the fuck is that-blamblam- It hurts-blamblamblam-please don’t-blamblamblamblam-Noooooooo- blamblamblamblamblamblam……

I wake trembling in a cold sweat, sheets tangled around my legs. I look across the bed to the nightstand, the green LED lights telling me it’s 4:30 A.M. It was the dream again, the same dream. I glance reproachfully at the remains of a fifth of whiskey and a half empty bottle of sleeping pills lying on its side by the clock. They've never kept the nightmare from me before, but I still have hope it's just a question of finding the right quantity.

My hands still slightly shaking, I grab the bottle and take a healthy swallow then drop it empty to the puke-green colored carpeting that passes as decoration in my bedroom. It burns, but that’s just fine. Knowing I will never get back to sleep and with only another thirty minutes before I had set my alarm to wake me anyway, I throw on coffee and jump into the shower. It’s cold, but that’s just fine too. I stand there, arms bracing me against the wall, head bowed under the frigid stream of water, and try to forget.

I stay like that for several long minutes. Finally when my skin is practically blue I get out and towel off, shivering from the chill. My name is Michael Landry, and today I'm a high school history teacher at the Haverbrook Prep School on the main line outside of Philadelphia.

The shower is just what I needed. Already the vivid horrors of my dream have begun to slowly fade back into my subconscious. I know all too well that they'll be back in full force when I manage to finally drift to sleep tonight, but even this slight reprieve is welcome. I look into the mirror and decide the dark bags under my eyes can be attributed as much to a genuine lack of sleep as my ill-advised bender. I quickly run a razor over the rough stubble of my beard and briefly attempt to tame my mop of brown hair still sticking up at odd angles. Not that long ago I’d have gotten reprimanded if it was half this length. I return to the bedroom and dress in the dark slacks and grey button-down shirt that has become my unofficial teaching uniform. I've worn one uniform or another for most of my life and consider it a shameful waste of time to spend too much effort worrying about what to wear.

Moving to the kitchen I decide to take advantage of my unexpected time this morning and scramble some ham and eggs to complement my coffee. I note that, besides the few remaining eggs and a half-eaten package of assorted lunch meat, my refrigerator is virtually bare, not counting a three-day expired carton of milk and two cases of beer. I grimace at the trash can sitting next to the refrigerator, currently overflowing with empty takeout containers. Slapping the egg-meat concoction between two slices of only slightly stale bread, I throw on my black pea coat to ward off the chill November air, grab my thermos, throw yesterday’s graded quizzes into my valet, and head to the door.

Gripping the coffee and valet under my arms and the sandwich in my mouth, I punch in the six-digit code to my state-of-the-art security system. I step outside and fumble with my keys to work the three separate deadbolts securing the giant steel slab that serves as a front door to my first floor apartment. All these extra precautions might seem a bit much, but Overbrook makes up for its insanely cheap rent with an even more astounding crime and murder rate. With that in mind, I probably would have considered upgrading my security even if events three years ago hadn’t shown me exactly how many scary things existed in this world. That experience is also what prompted me to start carrying the tiny Glock currently concealed in my ankle holster.

I'm on good terms with Gabe Parr, the aging head of security at the school, who generally shares my view on gun control: make sure you’re the one with control of the gun. Gabe had been enlisted twenty years in the Army, just missing the tail end of Vietnam and retiring as a master sergeant following the first Gulf War. Sounding like a cross between Sam Elliot and Ernie McDermont, he is all NCO: crusty, hard-bitten, and essentially every platoon sergeant I’ve ever known rolled into one. Even after finding out that Haverbrook had no weapon searches to speak of, I revealed to Gabe that I carried shortly after starting the job. I reasoned his position would make him the most likely person to find my gun during the course of a normal work day. To my surprise, he was completely supportive.

I would later learn some of the circumstances behind Gabe’s enlightened opinions. On one occasion we had gone out for drinks, he confided in me that his youngest son Billy had been killed two years earlier. His boy had been sixteen and carrying five dollars on the way home from evening basketball practice when he was approached by a strung out junkie looking to score some quick cash. The lone witness to the crime said the druggie took the money then, apparently angry that his efforts had been wasted, shot the boy out of spite. Unfortunately, the witness had been unable to clearly identify the junkie’s features in the gathering dark. The murderer was never caught. Suddenly, Gabe's unique perspective became crystal clear.

The walk from the train station to Haverbrook is a short one, and I find myself walking past the large asphalt parking lot and up the wide cement lined path to the main entrance just a few minutes past six. The entire building is a study in architectural extravagance. Enormous granite archways, steepled turrets, and literal tons of red-brown brick make the whole gala resemble more an exclusive postgraduate university than a college prep school. The official seal is carved into the peak of the entryway arch, its motto, “Mens, Corpus, Animus” proudly emblazoned beneath.

I spot Gabe as I pass through the archway into the entry hall. He is manning the main door himself, as he does every morning. Once during my first year, I asked him why.

“Mike,” he told me, “I man the front cause when the shit hits I want it to go through me first. Twen’y years in, through more action’n I can remember, a’int anything in this world can walk through that door that I a’int fought, fucked, ‘r blown up more’n twice. S’while some greenhorn’s busy pissin’ hisself, I’ve a’ready drawn ‘n put ten rounds in the muther fucker, center mass.”

I couldn’t argue with his logic.

“Morning, Gabe, how’s it going?”

“Ah not s’bad, Mike. Only sorta wanted to gnaw through m’arm at the elbow when I woke up ‘n saw wife number three this mornin’. Still a marked improvem’nt over the last one.” He spits into the used Styrofoam coffee cup he has perpetually in hand, a huge wad of tobacco wedged in his lower lip.

“Good to hear. We still on for hitting the bar tonight?”

“Depends. *spit* You still drink that Yuengling bullshit?”

“You know it.”

“*spit* When you gonna give that shit up ‘n move to a real, ‘merican beer? Like Bud.”

“Gabe, we’ve been over this a hundred times. Yuengling is American. It’s brewed in Pennsylvania. Hey, not that I care but didn’t the dean tell you not to dip on the job anymore?”

“Sure did. An’ I don’t. *spit* Jus’ don’t any less neither. Pick ya up at nine.”

After receiving my discharge from the army, I got in a pretty bad way. Chronic alcohol abuse will do that to you. I applied to Haverbrook in response to a notice that they were looking for a social studies teacher specializing in military history. I figured dropping my name into that particular hat couldn’t hurt. Imagine my surprise when the school not only asked me in for an interview a few days later but ended it by offering me the job. Fortunately only riding a slight buzz at the time, I had enough control to take it.

Apparently the school board saw ‘West Point Graduate’ and ‘Overseas Combat Experience’ as enough to move me ahead of the dozen or so certified academics I was in direct competition with. Two older board members with prior service experience made a case for hiring me to the other eight, stating that no one was better qualified to teach military history than someone who had actually seen combat. They argued competent professional educators would always be available and worst case scenario the board could fire me after a semester and hire one of them.

I won’t say that the Haverbrook job was exactly what I needed to get my life back on track. It’s just a job, albeit one with a good salary and better benefits. It serves two purposes: pay the rent and keep me in booze. That’s all. I won’t say the one simple act of getting a job made me get along with my landlord, my nightmares disappear or the world a better place for everyone to live in. It didn’t. My landlord Mr. Peacomby is still a prick which I attribute to gratuitous levels of inbreeding. My dreams only become worse, more horrifying with each retelling. My men are still dead.

Officially founded in the early 1900s, Haverbrook can actually claim history back to prerevolutionary times when a one room schoolhouse stood on the very spot. That first tiny structure only occupied one small corner of the total grounds allotted to the school which actually encompass almost twenty square miles of rolling, wooded terrain. The athletic compound is by far my favorite building at Haverbrook, specifically because one of the many perks associated with being a faculty member is unrestricted access to any and all of the equipment and facilities. Since I no longer have two hours of physical training scheduled into my day by the government, this fact alone has allowed me to stave off the approaching effects of middle age.

Today is the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, so I decide to go for a run after class lets out. It’s the perfect kind of weather for it, mid-fifties and no breeze; just warm enough not to start out cold, just cool enough not to easily overheat. The main gymnasium contains a locker room for faculty use complete with a small bank of washers and dryers. Such amenities are convenient since they mean I don’t need to be constantly transporting workout clothes back and forth on the train. Distance melts away as the ground speeds beneath my feet. Most days I try to put in five or six miles on the winding forest paths, and there are enough of them that I only need to repeat routes every couple weeks. Today is one of the more difficult trails I frequent, five and a quarter miles of almost constant elevation change. About halfway into the run, my legs are burning and I feel my breathing shorten as I near the top of a particularly brutal hill.

I pause at the summit for a moment to look back and take in the view. Vast acres of untamed wilderness stretch behind me. The crisp snap to the air makes everything seem somehow sharper, but in doing so only accentuates the grey deadness that has insidiously leeched into every aspect of the environment. Hazy, translucent clouds rise in front of a pale sun that seems a shadow of its normal self. It sets very early in the day now, and the shadows are already long. The deciduous trees that blaze like a campfire in the autumn rise up below me, now eerily foreboding in their stark nakedness. The faintest hint of wind stirs the branches, its passing causes the trees to sway and groan with almost malicious intent. I feel a shiver trickle down my spine that has nothing to do with the weather. These are woods from the darkest fairy tales; these are woods that are Alive. Only the distant third floor of the Haverbrook library, just peeking up over the tree tops, serves as proof that I haven’t been unwittingly transported through some magical doorway into a land populated by creatures terrible and unknown. Unbidden, my thoughts turn to memories of another time, another darkness, and the things I found there. Disturbed, I start running again, faster than before, the sun slipping closer to the horizon. As I descend from my vantage point back into the trees, the darkness grows rapidly deeper, the shadows thicker. This can’t be right. Even in winter the sun doesn’t set this quickly, does it?

Appearing out of nowhere, thick black storm clouds have replaced the wispy grayness I observed only moments ago. Deep peals of thunder ride wicked through the seething black seas above. The wind, once only a faint whisper, has become a tormented scream, the death cry of a wild beast. The trees no longer gently sway, but thrash and buck wildly as if trying to uproot themselves from the very earth that holds them. Massive sheets of icy rain begin to pelt down from the heavens, soaking me through to the bone. Instantaneously, a mild afternoon has been replaced by a savage tempest. I fly down the hill, the storm raging about me. Branches seem to reach out to snatch at my arms, roots and stones rise up to tangle my feet. Suddenly, an incredible blast of pain ignites my right shoulder sending stars shooting across my eyes. I cry out, tumbling to the ground. As I roll, a jagged stump appears in my vision, too fast to avoid. Pain. Blackness.

Part 2: The Storm

I lie there in the middle of the forest, not seeing the dueling lightning flashing high above the trees, not feeling the drenching rain that continues to pour down on my still form.

The Soldier Part 2

“Michael.”

A voice cuts through my mind.

So tired. Just want to lay here. Ignore it.

“Michael, you must listen. There isn't much time.”

Go away. Just a voice in my head. Leave me alone.

“Events are in motion. The storm is only the beginning. They sent it for you, hoped it would kill you. They know you have a role, but they can’t know how important you are or they wouldn't have stopped there. “

They? Who… what are you?

“Quiet, there’s no time! We have to… wait. Oh. Oh no. Michael, you need to get up. You need to get up and get the hell out of there. It's coming!”

My eyes flutter open. Disoriented. Can’t tell how long I’ve been out. The storm still thrashes crazily around me. I ease myself into a sitting position and gingerly assess myself for injuries. There's a large lump raised above my left eyebrow, and I can feel a sizable gash running along my scalp, although it doesn't seem too deep. I won’t be able to tell if I need stitches until I can get to a mirror. A sharp stab of pain beams directly to my brain as my fingers probe the wound, so I quickly stop. Various cuts and scratches from my fall are spread sporadically over my arms and hands in addition to a particularly nasty one along my left shin. My shoulder still throbs, not the blinding agony that sent me sprawling earlier, but a dull ache emanating from deep inside the tissue.

Was I struck by lightning? Don’t remember hearing any thunder, so what the hell…

My head snaps up as a deep, inhuman roar rises above the fury of the storm, reverberating over and again through the trees. The ache in my shoulder flares sharply. I suddenly remember the words of the disembodied voice in my head. Still dazed I uneasily stagger to my feet. Concussion based hallucination or not, getting the hell out of here seems like an excellent suggestion.

I manage to find the path and haltingly begin to make my way back towards the athletic facility. The storm continues unabated, bathtubs of freezing rain continue to drench my shivering body, shearing winds carry the chill deep into the marrow of my bones. Lightning flashes periodically, lighting up the pitch sky as brightly as midday. Dizzy, my foot hits a rock in the path. The whole world lurches as I barely manage to catch myself, the throbbing wound on my scalp making my head feel like an abused bass drum.

I stumble along as fast as I am able, occasionally pausing to glance behind me. If they weren’t soaked through, the hairs on the back of my neck would be standing at full attention. Impossible to see or hear anything over the fury of the storm, some primal sense held over from my caveman ancestors blares a warning at me that I am not alone out here in the dark. The savage roar I heard shortly after waking doesn't repeat itself, but in truth I don’t know if that disturbs me more or less. If I hear it again, that means whatever made the sound exists and is somewhere in the woods with me, but at least I would have an idea where. As it stands I can hope the unworldly sound was just another delusion brought on by my head injury, but can’t manage to shake the chilling feeling that the beast is simply remaining silent, hunting me.

At last, after an eternity of fleeting glances and barely avoided falls, I finally emerge from the woods along the path, the school stadium lying before me. The electric lights of the gymnasium several hundred yards down the paved walkway burn cheerfully, oblivious to the violent events of the night. I urge my wooden legs to greater efforts and blessedly make it to my destination, throwing open the door and tumbling inside. I sit there sprawled in the facility entryway, trembling from the cold and fear, watching the storm rage outside.

After what must be several minutes, I manage to gather the will to painfully regain my feet and work my way through the building and down the long corridor to the faculty locker room. The building is deserted, the silence making the noises of my struggling movements seem all the louder. For a moment I wonder at the complete lack of people before remembering virtually all sports practices have been canceled in lieu of the pending week of vacation for the Thanksgiving holiday. Gaining access, I immediately move to the row of sinks and the mirror to get a better assessment of my injuries. The bump above my eye is considerably swollen and will soon turn into an ugly looking bruise. On the plus side, the cut on my scalp is actually more of a scrape and doesn’t appear to require stitches. The cuts on my arms, hands and shin are superficial, but will hurt and itch like crazy while they heal. Suddenly seeing past the painful details, I struggle to recognize the haggard, beaten looking figure returning my stare from the glass.

You’ve had worse. God knows, you’ve had worse. That time… that was a lot worse.

I grimace, my reflection perfectly duplicating the motion. Turning on the faucet I grab a handful of paper towels and begin to carefully daub at the dried blood and dirt around my cuts, not wanting to inadvertently open them again. Satisfied that they have closed up well enough to allow it, I strip off my sodden workout clothes, throw them into one of the dryers, and step into the shower. I set the water to scalding. I stand under the steaming water trying to rub the kinks out of my neck. A small throb in my shoulder reminds me of the incredible pain that first sent me on the way to my current condition.

Reluctantly turning off the shower head, I dry myself, wrap the towel around my waist and return to the mirror. Although certainly cleaner and free of the caked dirt and blood that previously clung to me, I still paint a terrible picture. The cut on my scalp shines red just below my hairline, and an enormous purple bruise has now begun to complement the generous swelling above my eye. I turn my back to the mirror and move my head so that I can observe my shoulder in the reflection to see the scars located there.

Three long marks extend the length of my shoulder blade; the lines are jagged due to the poor nature of the canvas they were inscribed upon. Aside from the nightmares, they are the only proof I have of the reality of the most horrifying experience in my life; the terror and bloodshed that occurred in a Middle Eastern cave three years ago. Tonight the marks are inflamed and wet, as if I had just received them instead of having worn them for so long. Had I not just showered, I’m sure fresh blood would still be oozing from them, though all of my other cuts and scrapes are closed and dried by this point. As if listening to my thoughts, tiny red beads slowly begin to well along their length as I watch in the mirror. Without warning, an intense pain radiates outward from the center of the marks.

At that moment two things happen simultaneously. First, all the lights in the locker room go out leaving me in absolute darkness. Second, I hear the unmistakable sound of the main entry door closing and the slow steps of someone or something entering the building, the otherwise utter silence serving to augment the noise.

The emergency generator kicks in, backup lights humming to life and bathing the room in a weak amber glow. I run to my locker and hurriedly dress, almost tripping myself on my pants, taking care to loosen the Glock in its holster once I have it strapped to my ankle. I throw my coat on, twinging at the pain now continuously radiating from the scars, and grab my valet. The whole process only takes me about thirty seconds, a holdover from years of uniform drills in the army where soldiers who don’t make the time limit are met with insidiously creative punishments.

I creep silently over to the locker room door and gently ease it open just a crack, feeling slightly foolish; odds are the noise I heard is just a student, or maybe a guard Gabe sent to check on the facility. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that whatever is now occupying the athletic wing with me is somehow connected to the bizarre events that have already occurred this evening. Its arrival and the loss of power to the building seem too timely to be mere coincidence. I peer out and down the dimly lit hallway through the slit in the door. At first I don’t see the thing, not until its eyes catch the light, gleaming a sinister shade of red. My breath catches in my throat as a wave of pure terror thunders through my suddenly rigid body. My shoulder screams, almost as badly as in the woods. My mind is struck dumb, crazed gibbering crowds out all rational thought.

God, my God, it’s just like that time just like the last time got to be a dream got to be can’t really be happening I’m still unconscious on the trail from hitting my head that’s it but this seems to be so real what if it’s not a dream then I have to move have to do something why the fuck does this keep happening to me…

I’m only frozen for a single long moment until my brain unconsciously kicks into analysis mode. This feeling of unreality is disturbingly familiar, but other than the fantastic nature of my subject, it's not so different from some reconnaissance missions I've been on. Twenty yards down the hall, the creature stands on two legs and appears to be about eight feet tall. Definitely not a student. Not a guard either, unless Gabe decided to try out some biomedical mutants in the rotation. Other than its immense size, I can’t determine any further details about the entity because of the way the shadows seem to bend around it; almost as if light is absorbed once it gets within about a yard of the creature. As I watch, it raises its head as if sniffing the air. A chill runs down my spine as I realize that’s probably exactly what it’s doing. Its head snaps forward, its incredible blood-red eyes fixed directly on the door concealing me. Ever so slowly it begins silently stalking down the hallway, hunched into a hunting posture, moving with the powerful grace of a natural predator.

My fight or flight response frantically initiates. Logically, I have no knowledge of the identity of the creature, and the Glock only holds four bullets. Something that size, it’s possible the gun would be empty before successfully incapacitating it. The military doctrine drilled into me stresses only committing to a fight when possessing knowledge of the enemy, initiative, and a decisive advantage. At this point, I lack all of those. I reach the conclusion to conduct a tactical withdrawal; to say I’m retreating sounds so much more cowardly. Fortunately, Haverbrook has equipped all its locker rooms with multiple exits for use in the case of an emergency, although I hardly think my current situation was considered in their plans.

As smoothly and quietly as I’m able, I gently close the door and throw the deadbolt, locking it from the inside. I have little hope that the flimsy metal will impede the monster for more than a couple seconds, but I'll take any opportunity to up my odds for survival. Wounds throbbing uncomfortably, I hobble to the far side of the locker room to the emergency exit as quickly as I can and push through it emerging into a utility hallway. No alarm sounds; the electricians must have foolishly attached the warning system to the primary power grid, though it’s not as if help would be able to reach me in time anyway. I break into a limping run towards the shining red exit sign that seems impossibly far away. Just as I reach it I hear what can only be the sound of a rudely abused deadbolt shearing in two and the locker room door being thrown inward off its hinges.

I shove the exit door open, finally reaching the outside of the facility. To my relief, the storm has abated, though in its wake an unnaturally thick and viscous fog has crept in, sinuously enveloping the world in an incredibly dense cloud of white and reducing visibility to little better than nothing. I consider my options. I could try to hide somewhere nearby, but it seems the creature is tracking me by smell or some other method and would likely find me fairly quickly. That means my best bet is to try and put as much distance between me and it as fast as possible. I glance at my watch and see that it is just now a quarter past six. If I push myself, I may be able to make the six twenty back towards Overbrook. I make my decision. Pain and exhaustion slowly overcoming my rush of adrenaline, I stagger forward towards the station. I really hope the bloody train is on time.

Part 3: The Monster

The Soldier Part 3

For once the train is on time, rolling in just as I reach the station. Furtively throwing futile glances back into the impenetrable whiteness for any sign of pursuit, I wait off to the side of the double doors for the train to discharge its few passengers. Standing up is an effort. A professionally dressed, moderately pretty woman looks up in passing and gives me a startled glance as she readjusts the bag on her shoulder. I must look a wreck. The sickly smile I return only seems to disturb her more. I enter the car and fall onto one of the hard plastic benches facing the rear of the train, roughly dropping my valet next to me.

As the train pulls out of the station, I heave a sigh of relief. Whatever that thing was, I seem to have managed to outrun it so far. If my luck holds, I'll be able to get home to my apartment and retrieve some firepower more substantial than the Glock. The heavy weight of my giant .50 caliber pistol would feel remarkably comfortable right now, as would my semiautomatic shotgun loaded with ought six.

The real question on my mind is what the hell that thing was. Granted, it isn’t the first otherworldly entity that I’ve seen in my life, but a large part of me still wants to put that last time down to trauma-based hallucination. Besides, this one was physically different, though the strange feeling of unreality is absolutely the same. I've never heard of anything like this creature outside of comic books and fairy tales. The odds that one man would randomly encounter more than one of these things in a single lifetime have to be astronomical. Therefore logic suggests there must be some connection between the two meetings, but what?

The lights flicker. I look around the compartment and notice I have it almost to myself. In fact, the only company I have is a homeless man I somehow didn’t see when I first got on, sprawled unconscious across a bench towards the rear. I can’t blame him for wanting to get out of the storm, but briefly wonder how he has managed to avoid the conductor since he doesn’t look like he would be able to afford a ticket. Or even half a ticket. I pull my monthly-ride pass from my inner coat pocket and place it into the plastic slot on the back of the seat in front of me. My shoulder sharply throbs causing me to look up.

The first thing I notice is that my formerly sleeping homeless companion is wide awake and sitting at rigid attention. The next is that his eyes are fixed in an unblinking stare directly at me. They are remarkably bloodshot, so red that they bear a disconcertingly close resemblance to the eyes of the creature that was pursuing me earlier. The man slowly stands, his unwavering gaze attempting to bore straight through me. I return his stare, matching its steadiness if not the intensity given by the preternatural color of his eyes. I can feel the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand erect and a rash of goose bumps flush down my arms. I find myself mentally reviewing years of close combat training as my hand, almost of its own accord, slowly edges down towards my right ankle and the tiny Glock concealed there.

I take stock of the man twenty-five feet down the car from me. On the surface, other than his startling eyes, there is nothing that would make him stand out in a roomful of derelicts. He stands about 5’7” with an average build and looks to be in his mid to late sixties. His grey hair is as long and matted as the snarling beard that practically explodes out of his lower face. He is wearing grey sweatpants and trashed sneakers, his toes showing through a sizable hole in one of them. A dark, ratty fleece hat on his head, he is bundled in an old Vietnam-era Army issue jacket, and I briefly pause in my assessment to wonder if he is a veteran. He is carrying no obvious weapons I can see, but I know many ways for an average person to conceal any number of blades, pistols, and other violence inducing implements, many more if that person is clever.

Still, with those eyes… that would be a hell of a coincidence if the two weren’t somehow related.

I grab my shoulder, grimacing as white hot pain lances through it and brings stars to my eyes. Regaining my awareness I realize the man has moved the complete length of the train car impossibly fast and now looms directly over me. Before I can think, much less begin to clear my gun from its holster, his hand flashes down and traps my wrist in an iron grip. A crazed, sneering grin on his face, the man’s other hand seizes my left shoulder and pins me to the back of my seat, the whole movement taking no more than a fraction of a second.

With his face mere inches from my own it's nauseatingly obvious he hasn't bathed in some time. Dirt and other substances whose identity I fear to guess are smeared indiscriminately over skin and clothing alike. Several gigantic flies flit about, buzzing continuously and occasionally pausing to alight on his face, hands, and elsewhere. A sickening cocktail odor of sweat, ammonia, and something sulfurous permeates the air around him as his breath wheezes in and out of his mouth through excessively crooked teeth the color of jaundice. I notice several are missing. I also note those remaining have been filed into wicked points that look sharp enough to shred skin and tissue like so much wet toilet paper. This close to them, his eyes aren't merely bloodshot, but glowing. Their unfaltering scrutiny becomes an indefensible onslaught; I feel as if my consciousness is being forcibly drawn into some blasphemous other-world through a blood-red portal. For a second, I see myself struggling, drowning in molten fire that snaps and swirls where his irises should be, growing to the point not the smallest speck of white is visible in his eyes. Realization hits me like a thunderbolt.

God, he and that monster aren’t connected; they’re the same fucking thing!

In the back of my mind a deeply buried, primal instinct tells me that at this moment something is profoundly wrong with the world; the presence of this unknown entity whose very being mocks the laws of reason, a living nightmare that has escaped its realm of sleep. The most unnerving part is that I have felt this way countless times before: once, three years ago in a dank underground cavern in the middle of a war zone, and every night since while suffering those horrifyingly real dreams of the impossible things my eyes tell me they saw there. A long black tongue feeling like rough leather licks the dried blood from my scalp. I sit completely still, shocked beyond movement, mouth slightly ajar.

“Mmmm, yes, this the one, the one yes, this him,” the man-thing mumbles. I gape up at him.

“Still, not right no, not right… supposed to being has it, doesn’t being has it. No, no doesn’t being has it, but supposed to being. Where’s it being, little soldier boy, eh? Where’s it being hiding it at?”

“…Hiding?” I somehow find my voice. “I think, ah, I think you must have the wrong man. Sir. I’m not hiding anything. I’m just a school teacher. I teach history. In Haverbrook.” Some incredibly small part of my brain mentally chastises the rest of my consciousness, which is currently in the process of wetting itself, to stop being such a silly, helpless little bitch. And I used to call myself a soldier? No wonder I didn’t make it all the way through to retirement.

“Hee, hee, hee, calling Bealz ‘sir’. Little soldier boy thinking he being teacher, being teacher of little childrens, teaching histories he thinking," the man-thing giggles.

“Bealz is knowing saying that those who can do, and those who can’t teach. But you can do, little soldier boy. Little soldier boy can do and little soldier boy will do if Bealz would let little soldier boy do. Teaching of histories you thinks you teaching, histories of men, but not histories, not right histories, and little soldier boy not one to teach them. Little soldier boy one to being doing things little soldier boys being doing if Bealz being letting him, but Bealz not supposed to being letting him. No, but Bealz not sure if Bealz supposed to not being letting him if little soldier boy not being has it. Little soldier boy the one supposed to being has it, but something being wrong. Supposed to being here, but being here not. Where being it, little soldier boy?

A small angry spark flares seems to flare in my mind and I manage to offer up at least the pretense of resistance. I’ve always hated it when people get in my face, probably why I had such a tough time at basic training. The non-pants wetting part of my brain gives a tiny cheer.

“Frankly, Bealz, or whatever the fuck your name is,” I glare at him with what I hope is significantly more confidence then I actually feel, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Now get your damned hands off me!”

My anger only seems to amuse him.

“Hee, hee, damned hands, yes, damned hands, damned arms, damned Bealz,” the dirt-smeared, leathery skin of his face crinkles around the flaming pools glowing in place of eyes as he laughs.

“Little soldier boy does knows more than he thinks he knows he does, but no, little soldier boy not knows what little soldier boy supposed to knows he does not. What Bealz to do? Bealz supposed to being finding little soldier boy, finding little soldier boy Bealz has, but little soldier boy supposed to being has it. Hmmm.” The man-thing’s mouth closes in a hard line as he contemplates this dilemma. I will admit his issue has me completely confounded as well, but for entirely different reasons. Suddenly his face lights, red eyes shining even brighter like two miniature stars that found themselves trapped within a prison of flesh and bone. The same wicked smile again stretches across his mottled lips, razor-like teeth seeming to glint in the harsh electric light of the train car.

“Ah, but little soldier boy already marked by Dark One yes, marked and so Bealz can find again, find again Bealz can little soldier boy’s mark from Dark One, and then Bealz can make sure little soldier boy not to doing little soldier boy things.”

Gripping my arm and shoulder, the man-thing pulls me even closer and hisses in my ear, “You belonging to Dark Ones now, little soldier boy. Once you being has what you supposed to being has, Dark Ones being taking that what belonging to them.”

He abruptly releases my arms, shoving me back painfully hard against the unforgiving seat. The instant I'm free to move I snatch the Glock from my ankle, jump to my feet and snap into a two-handed shooter’s stance. Slightly dazed, I find myself alone in the train car. The creature pretending to be an old man is gone.

Part 4: The Darkness

The Soldier Part 4

I sit sprawled in the overstuffed easy chair that comprises roughly half the furniture in the small area designated as a living room in my apartment. Aside from a threadbare, second-hand patchwork rug covering most of the floor the only other piece is a squat table supporting my television which currently stares hollowly back at me through its black, empty screen. I’ve been home two hours. I am unbelievably drunk. I drop the empty bottle from my hand to join its relatives on the floor. From the look of things it’s a family reunion; attendance is high.

People get drunk for lots of different reasons. Some people think they become the life of the party when they’re wasted. Others want to fit in to a particular crowd. Some, like me, drink because the muddling effect of the alcohol occasionally dulls the pain of particularly traumatic events or memories. The really lucky ones are actually able to use it to forget. I've never had that option. God. I wish I could forget. I want to forget. For me the alcohol only takes the edge off the memories. Sometimes. Most of the time it doesn’t even do that, the buzz just sort of gives me something else to focus on. But, like tonight, if my thoughts happen to turn to that time… to that place… to that… thing. I shudder involuntarily. God, so much blood, so much pain, so many screams, so many, so many…

I lurch up from the chair and run, staggering to the bathroom, flinging myself at the toilet. I barely make it before an inadvisable amount of alcohol forcibly removes itself. Twice. I stay hunched, clinging weakly to the bowl.

All hail the porcelain god.

Sometime later, satisfied that I have finished retching for the moment, I return to the living room stopping by the fridge to grab another beer along the way. I just threw up a bunch of alcohol; need to keep up the pace if I don’t want to start sobering up. I settle back into my chair. As always, despite my best efforts, I have perfect recollection of the evening’s events.

After my encounter with the unworldly thing disguised as an old man on the train, I frantically searched the car for any sign that it was still there, or where it might have gone, or how it got there. I went over the length of the train car for a second time, replaying the sequence of events yet again, trying to convince myself that the whole thing was just a dream, that I’m not crazy, when the Overbrook stop arrived. I picked up my valet and exited the train, the Glock still held in my right hand and concealed in my coat pocket.

From that point, I think my brain shut down for a little while. I remember the walk home, but it’s like looking at it through a thin film of gauze, or underwater; the motions seem slower, the time takes longer. Fog still crowded around me, but I hardly noticed the lack of vision its sinuous creeping provided. I have walked the path a hundred times, my legs worked on autopilot. I was about a block away from my apartment when the man spoke to me.

“Hey, man, that’s a nice fuckin’ coat.”

I turned slowly towards the voice, aware but not aware. I could feel my body move, but like a puppet on strings pulled by someone else. I dimly comprehended the two men facing me under the muted glow of a streetlight, barely more than boys really. In a different world, I might have taught them history. God knows what circumstances forced them outside on a night like this. Doesn’t really matter. One stood around six-two, the other a bit shorter each dressed in the current urban fashion, their clothes loose and baggy. Both had bloodshot, sick looking eyes, and builds entirely too skinny, emaciated. The small part of my mind that still acknowledged my surroundings registered that these two were extremely dangerous.

“You fuckin’ stupid or somethin’, man? Whas that fuckin’ look you givin me, man? Yo, Tio, I think our boy here be trippin’ or sumpin.”

“Tink you might be right, Dre. Look like sumbody beat the shit ‘out dis fool already. You trippin’, bitch? Awfully nice fuckin’ coat to be trippin’. You best be givin’ that over here.” The smaller of the two cautiously approached me from the side, wary as if I were a sleeping dog that might suddenly wake and decide to take a snap at his hand. In a way, I suppose I was. I stood still, dully looking ahead. I felt a slight pinch from the marks on my shoulder.

The one called Dre gave me a look over. “Hey, Tio, what’see got in the bag, man? Tink he’s got some bills in there, man?”

“Lessee what’choo got in this bag, m’man. See if you got some money on you.” Tio started to remove the valet strap from my shoulder.

A moment later he was sitting down on the ground, hand clamped to his mouth, blood seeping through his fingers. One of his teeth lay next to him on the wet pavement. I stared at him in surprise. Looking down at my hand, knuckles bleeding, I realized I'd hit him.

“The fuck, man? What the fuck?!” Tio’s face was livid.

Dre howled with laughter behind him. “Yo, Tio, man, that bitch popped you good! Right’n ya fuckin’ hole! Ha ha ha!”

Tio wiped his lips with the back of his hand and spat, another tooth flying from his mouth. His face was set in a hard expression. “Gonna be the last thing he does too, man.” Tio’s speech sounded off as he tried to talk around two missing teeth. He pulled a knife from his pocket and flicked it open, the streetlight catching the small hard blade. “Think you funny, mutha fucka? Think you just gonna hit me a’int nothin’ gonna happen? You fuckin’ wrong, man. You dead fuckin’ wrong!”

His lunge was wild, sloppy, but would still do serious damage if it connected. Seeing it through the slow-motion fog that my mind was currently operating in, I had all the time in the world to sidestep. Catching the arm holding the knife and tightly gripping his wrist with my right hand, I drew my left back and drove my palm against his elbow, hard, simultaneously jerking his wrist towards me. With a sickening snap, Tio’s arm bent the wrong way against the joint, the knife clattering to the ground. He screamed.

“AAAAAAOOOO myfuckin’god ohgod ohgod myarm muthafucka brokema goddamarm….”

I let him go and he crumpled to the ground, curling into the fetal position. He cried, cradling his broken arm. “Oh god it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, god oh god…”

“Tio!” Dre’s expression was one of open shock. Apparently, this was the first time any of their victims had ever resisted. “You crazy sonuvabitch. Shouldna fucked wid ma homey, man. You jus’ bought yusself a one way ticket to hell.” I bent and picked up the knife, folded it into my coat and stood straight, hands in my pockets, my face placidly unaware of the whimpering heap at my feet. Dre lifted his sweatshirt and I saw a large .45 caliber handgun stuffed into his pantline. “Gonna make you scream, bitch. Gonna make you bleed.” He reached for the gun. Emotionless, I pulled my Glock from my pocket and shot him.

It’s always surprising to me how loud gunshots really are. In shoot-outs on television, the characters have lengthy conversations punctuated by witty quips while firing gigantic machine guns, explosions going off all around them. In real life, a gunshot is an incredibly loud, harsh thing. When bullets are flying the last thing anyone thinks of is banter.

In this case, it took a second for me to regain my hearing enough to recognize Dre’s inarticulate cries over the ringing in my ears. His pistol lay next to him on the ground where he feebly thrashed, shocked at the gaping hole that had, as if by magic, suddenly appeared in his shoulder. I calmly stepped over and kicked the gun away sending it skittering across the street. I stood over the wounded man frowning.

Just because things didn’t work out for them tonight doesn’t mean a thing. Next time it might be someone else they try to mug. Next time it might be Billy Parr.

A bright flash of rage flared up inside me. It must have shown in my eyes; Dre’s cries quieted to soft, helpless whimpers. I pressed the barrel of my Glock to his cheek and roughly gripped his wounded shoulder, painfully hauling him to a standing position.

I should kill him; it would easily be justified as self defense. Already tonight I’ve seen there are monsters in the world I'm powerless to do anything about. I should take care of the ones I can.

Dre’s eyes went wild, he began pleading.

“P-please, man. Don’t kill me, man! We weren’t gonna do nothin’, please man I’m sorry I’m so sorry pleeease, oooh God, don’t kill me!”

He started to cry uncontrollably, the harsh metal of my barrel still digging into the side of his face. I smelled as his bowels emptied themselves. Tio silently watched from where he lay terrified on the ground, his broken arm bent unnaturally, fear plastered across his bleeding face. My finger tightened on the trigger.

Suddenly a sharp flare of pain emanated from my shoulder, wiping away the fog that had been clouding my mind. It’s as if a veil was lifted; for the first time I observed the situation with perfect clarity. I saw the hurt, frightened boy in my grasp, his hysterical breaths coming in short gasps. I saw myself as I must look to them, a wrecked, half-crazed madman with a gun.

My God, what am I doing?

Dre grimaced as I dug my thumb into the bullet hole and leaned in close, talking low into his ear.

“You and your friend go to a hospital. Stay out of my neighborhood. If I see you again, you’ll consider this night a pleasant memory.”

I let him go and he bonelessly fell to the ground with a cry of pain. Tio managed to get enough control of himself to help Dre to his feet again. I numbly watched the two of them stumble off blindly into the fog in the general direction of a hospital, horrified at what I had almost done. I looked down at the gun still gripped in my hand and shuddered. I flipped the safety back on and reholstered the weapon, picked up the single piece of expended brass from the pavement and put it in my pocket.

The rest of the walk home was uneventful. I took my time, knowing that the frequency of gunshots and gang violence in this neighborhood would not hurry a police presence. I couldn’t stop shaking. I finally reached my building, opened the front door with my tenant key, and walked down the hall to my door. Moving like an automaton I unlocked the three deadbolts in succession, heaved open my slab of a door, stepped inside and disarmed the security system. I dropped my valet by the door and painfully shrugged out of the pea coat that had attracted so much unwanted attention on my walk home. Hanging it on the hook by the door, I moved through my small living room towards the bathroom attached to my bedroom, briefly making a side trip to grab the first of what would ultimately be many beers from the kitchen. I finally heard approaching police sirens in the distance, not that I had anything to worry about. The fog was thick enough that all of our features were sufficiently protected from any potential witnesses.

I stripped, tossing the gun in its holster onto the nightstand next to the bed. I examined my shirt, a dark smear of blood from the oozing mark had soaked through the shoulder. I checked over my wounds and confirmed my initial assessments. The scalp was ugly but shouldn’t require stitches. The lump above my eye wouldn't win me too many beauty pageants, but once the swelling went down would be fine. I may even look almost normal by the time classes resume after Thanksgiving next week. All my other scratches and cuts were superficial, although the itching as they heal will be considerably uncomfortable. Most curiously, the mark on my shoulder had reverted to looking like it always had, dead pink scar tissue. Without the stain on my shirt as testimony, I would be inclined to believe I had imagined it bleeding earlier.

Even though I just showered before my escape from the school, the ensuing events left me with a decidedly unclean feeling. The frigid roar of water from the shower head was blessedly welcome. I stood there for long minutes, taking deep pulls from my drink. Toweling off, redressing, and about fifteen beers later find me in my current position, slouched in my armchair, drunk as hell. As I sit staring into space and contemplating the pros and cons of another drink, a sharp three raps issue at the door and cause me to hurriedly lurch to my feet.

Shit, shit, shit… did that thing follow me? Gotta get a gun. No, think logically, it wouldn’t be knocking. Maybe someone saw the earlier attack? Friends of Tio and Dre maybe. Gotta get a gun! No, wait, could be police canvassing the area. But they’ve never done that before, even with that murder a couple months ago. Still, if it’s cops I shouldn’t answer the door armed… what the hell is going on?

Part 5: The Friend

The Soldier Part 5

I unsteadily creep over to my giant slab of a door and stick an eye up to the peep hole to find the stony features of Gabe Parr staring back at me.

Right. Drinks at nine. Completely forgot. Can’t imagine how. Ha. Ow my head.

With a little effort, I manage to work the deadbolts and heave the door open enough to admit the school guard.

“Evenin’, Mike, you bout ready ta…,” he stops short on the threshold as he catches sight of my trashed features. “The hell happened ta you, boy? You look like ya either decided ta challenge a billy goat to a head buttin’ contest or made a pass at my first wife. Same difference. You get in a fight er somethin’? We need to go kick some ‘banger ass?”

“Ah no, Gabe, no fights. Well, I guessh there was a fight, but that’s not where I got these. The fight came later and I kicked the shit out of thosh guys. Coupla junkies.”

“Huh. Good. But then what in blazes did ya do ta yerself? That’s a pretty nasty gash ya got on yer noggin’ there.”

“Eh, I was out running the trailsh at school when it started to rain. Slipped an’ took a header into a tree stump. It’s fine, shouldn’t even need stitches. Hurts like hell though. Beers'h been helping with that.”

Gabe steps farther into the apartment, a single raised eyebrow the only sign of his disapproval as he sees the heaping remains of tonight’s binge littering the ground of my living room.

“Guess ya went an’ got started without me.”

“Sorry. Totally slipped my mind that we were going out, what with the head injury and all. Pretty sure I should call off going out for tonight, but you’re more than welcome to hang here for a bit. You want a beer? There’sh more in the fridge. I need another one too. Here, I’ll go get ‘em.”

“Na, hang on there, Mike, just hang on. I don’t want a beer and you sure don’t need any more either. Looks like ya already drank enough fer both of us tonight anyway.” He takes my arm, leading me back over towards my easy chair. “Why don’tcha take a seat over here an’ I’ll go rustle up a pot’a coffee right quick an’ help ya sober up some.”

“Yeah?” Hot anger flashes red across my eyes. I hate being patronized. “Well how about ‘screw you’ instead? What do you think about that, Gabe? I don’t want to sober up! It’sh my house you piece’a…”

Gabe’s grip on my arm becomes suddenly hard and painful. A dull grey steel slides over the normal sparkle of his eyes.

“Mike, I’m gonna stop ya right there. Yuv obviously been through some stuff tonight and I aim ta talk to ya in a bit here an’ help ya work through that, but I’m not gonna let ya be self destructive ‘bout it. Now, ya got two options. Ya can either take a seat nicely an’ wait fer me to go make’a cup, or I can put ya in a seat an’ go do tha same. Same result, different way’a gettin’ there. Yer smart ‘nuff ta know which one’ll be less grief all ‘round. Now, ‘fore ya start gettin’ ideas ‘bout tryin ta kick my ass too, ya should pro’lly consider somethin’. Ya might be hot stuff with a coupla’ junkies like the pair you ran into tonight. Hell, ya could maybe even hang with me onna good day. But right now, in yer condition, ya really don’t have much a choice in the matter.”

I become aware that Gabe has put himself in a calculated position where he possesses all the leverage to make both of our body weights work in his favor.

“So, what’s it gonna be?”

As he applies the lightest bit of pressure to make sure he gets his point across, I feel how precariously overbalanced I am even without the added effects of the alcohol. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gabe could put me into the chair as easily as he says.

“Fine.” I turn and slump into the chair sullenly. “Asshole.”

“Good choice. Now, won’ be a minute. Then we kin talk ‘bout what’s got ya in this state. Ya should prolly think ‘bout whatcher gonna say, cause I’ll tell ya, boy, I’ve both seen an’ participated in enough benders ta know it wasn’ gettin’ whupped on by a tree’r throwin' down ‘gainst a coupl’a punks that set this off. You just set there an’ think about it.”

For the next several minutes I sit in my chair, glaring venomously towards the kitchen as I hear Gabe clattering about.

“Hey, Mike, where d’ya keep the coffee?”

“Grounds are on the top shelf of the fridge. Filters are in the cabinet above the pot,” I answer grudgingly.

“Got it, thanks.”

Finally I sigh and inwardly concede defeat. It’s obvious that Gabe isn’t going anywhere and that I’m in no position to do anything about it. I settle back more comfortably into the chair and close my eyes, mentally trying to halt the room’s slow spin. Think about what I’m going to say. The man makes a good point; I need to figure out how I can successfully appease Gabe’s annoyingly friendly concern without coming off sounding like a drug addict or a mental patient. Relating the events as I actually remember them occurring sure isn’t going to cut it. I found that out the hard way three years ago. All telling the truth then got me was six months of psychiatric evaluations, a lifetime’s worth of bad dreams, and a truckload of self doubt and loathing. Trying to tell Gabe that I had disembodied voices in my head giving me instructions and was subsequently attacked by a giant nightmare creature, a disturbingly creepy old man, and a couple of druggies would go over about as well as trying to throw him out, if less physically painful. Best case scenario he just thinks I’m crazy, tells me to get help, and I lose a perfectly good friend. Worst he assumes I'm strung out on something and hauls me down to the drunk tank at the police station to sober up.

Gabe reenters the living room holding two steaming mugs and hands me one. He pops open the camp chair I keep against the wall for company and positions himself across from me. Taking a sip he grimaces.

“That is some turrible shit. Now then, Mike, I believe ya were gonna regale me with the facts concerning yer current disposition.”

I look at the man facing me and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness wells up from deep inside my chest. There was a time I would have told Gabe everything, but I've been down that road before. Sharing my truth would only cause more pain and I can't lose one of the only friends I still have. At the same time, although Gabe may talk like a hayseed country boy, he's savvy enough to spot it if I try to outright lie. But maybe a part of the truth will be enough. I stare into the mug cradled in my hands.

“I almost killed a boy tonight,” I say softly, almost whispering. “The punks who jumped me, they were sixteen if they were a day. And I almost killed one of them. Hell, I wanted to kill him, or at least a part of me did. I stopped them easily enough. Had them beaten. But then...my gun was to his head. And I thought, just for a second, how easy it would be. That I could get away with it. That it was maybe even the right thing to do.”

I look up, tears in my eyes. What I'm telling Gabe may not be the whole truth, but the emotions are real just the same. “There's a darkness in me, Gabe, a darkness I brought back with me from that shithole in Iraq. At some point it's going to get out, and it scares the shit out of me what might happen when it does.”

Gabe keeps his gaze fixed on me, a thoughtful look upon his face.

“Well, ya do know what yer problem is, right?” He looks at me expectantly. “PTSD, ya idjit.”

Gabe takes another sip of the horrible coffee and continues. “Shit, Mike, that ain't nothin' to be ashamed of. Hell, half'a us grunts that come back in one piece on the surface got some kinda' shit rattlin' loose up there. An' who wouldn't? Not many folks've seen what we've seen, or felt what we've felt.”

That gets my attention. Could Gabe possibly have experienced the same horrors as me?

“And what's that?” I ask.

He smiles, “Why combat a'course. The very real notion that another human bein' is doin' their damndest ta make sure ya don't come out alive. And on the flip side that you've snuffed out the potential of another person; everythin' they coulda' ever been gone in an instant by yer hand.

“Mike, ya remember how I told ya about Billy dyin'? Well there's a parta that story I maybe sorta held back a little. Now don't be gettin' all bent outta shape, I didn't know ya as well back then. But I do now." He shifts in the camp chair, pausing as if to collect his thoughts, before continuing.

"I found him, Mike. I found the sonuvabitch that killed my boy. Wasn't hard. Went to a few places cops're reluctant tah go, spread a lil' cash, a few ass kickin's. Those fuckin' animals'll sell out their own fer almost nothin'.

“Eventually I talked ta the right guy who graciously led me ta the flop house my boy's killer was holed up in. When I found 'im the lil' bitch was high on sumthin. Layin' there, he was in no position ta do anythin' ta stop what I was about ta do ta him. Hell, he was so far gone, he maybe didn' even know I was there. Had my pistol ta his head, probably pretty sim'lar ta how you did tonight. And ya know what I did?”

I shook my head.

“Not a goddam thing. The bastard that killed my boy in my hands, an' I couldn't do it. I just couldn't, Mike.” There are tears welling in the old NCO's eyes, a slight tremor in his voice.

“Now I'm gonna tell ya sumthin and you listen ta me good. Wantin' ta kill someone, especially some evil muther that'd probly do the same an' worse ta you if given half a chance? That doesn't make ya evil. Hell, Mike, that makes ya human.” He wipes the back of his hand across his eyes.

“Billy dyin' had me torn up for a good long time. I thought maybe his killer gettin' the same might be what it took ta bring me back around. But in the end, it wasn't. It was facing the anger, Mike, facing the rage an' the fear. Lettin' it get bottled up inside only served ta feed it.” Gabe gets to his feet.

“Now, I don't know specific'ly what ya done or seen over there. Don't much really care either. Only thing I know is ya gotta face it, admit what happened tah yerself, or it'll destroy ya.” He moves to the door and opens it, stopping halfway through.

“I'm gonna go home, Mike, an' I'm gonna leave ya here. Yer a grown ass man an' more'n capable of decidin' whether ya wanna keep goin' down this path,” he indicates the pile of bottles, “or actually try tah get better. Yer a good man, Mike, and I hate ta see anythin' get in the way of that.”

My friend leaves. I sit there, staring into the space of my almost empty apartment, for what seems like a long time. Finally, I make a decision. I get up and throw the bolts on the security door and set the alarm. I go to the kitchen, find a trash bag from under the sink, and clean up the remains of my evening. I throw out the sludge in the pot; Gabe is a man of many talents but brewing coffee is definitely not one of them. I undress, get into bed, and lay there for a few long moments staring at the ceiling.

If only, Gabe....if only it was another human being trying to kill me that I was worried about.

Part 6: The Tale

The Soldier Part 6-0

Three years ago...

“Hey, Lieutenant, Tahir's at the gate to see you. Says it's important.”

I look up from my desk to my platoon sergeant. “That's what he said last time when he wanted fuel for his truck. And before that when he wanted plywood for his checkpoints that he ended up selling for a profit. It's always important with that asshole. Take Lucas down there and get the details.”

“Nah, I don't need the 'terp. Get this: Tahir's speaking English. But he says he'll only talk to you.”

This was a new development. My platoon and I had been in Iraq for just over six months. Manning a tiny outpost on our own, the slice of hell we were responsible for was a small shitheel of a town called Al Siniyah up Route Tampa north of Tikrit. Officially Tahir al-Qassim was the leader of that town's Sahwat, basically a neighborhood watch with guns. Unofficially he ran the place. Before the war he worked as an intelligence officer in Saddam’s army. He was smart, cunning, and extremely dangerous. He was also a necessary evil, keeping order in his kingdom through guile when possible and force when required. I'd suspected for months that he understood English better than he would admit, but this was the first outward proof of it. For him to wantonly play a card that big, maybe this time what he needed actually was important.

“Well, Sergeant Troy, I guess you'd better bring him in then.”

I hardly recognize the man escorted into my office. The brash, confident thug I'd grown used to dealing with is gone and in his place is a furtive wreck. Tahir takes a seat across from me and accepts the soda Troy offers him. I notice there are deep circles under his eyes like he hasn't slept in days. His hands are shaking visibly and he has trouble working the tab on the can. Tahir is terrified. I can't begin to say how much that scares me.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mulazim Michael. You will of course be realizing that I only come to you this way out of grave necessity.” His accent is noticeable, but doesn't impede his speech in the least. The man is fluent.

“Well, past experiences aside, it does strike me as pretty odd that you'd suddenly reveal you spoke English, Tahir. Especially after all those awkward conversations we had through Lucas about how you didn't speak English. So I figured there was at least a chance it might be worth my interest. Let me guess: your boys need more plywood at their checkpoints?”

“Would that it was. I suppose I deserve that. I admit I have certainly taken advantage of certain...situational realities in the past,” his eyes grow hard, “But I would ask that you not make jokes at the expense of the dead.”

I sit up straighter. “Are you telling me...”

“All of them, save myself and three others. Two nights ago.”

“Tahir, you had more than fifty men. What the hell happened?”

The broken man continues to face me, but his gaze is far away.

“Why just that, Mulazim Michael. Hell happened.”

It's four hours after my conversation with Tahir and I'm riding shotgun in my mine resistant vehicle. There are three more of my trucks in the convoy following the Sahwat leader in his beaten up pickup. All told I only have twenty of my men with the other ten needed back on guard at the outpost. I didn't want to lie to my commander, but I didn't want to get committed either. Telling him I needed reinforcements to go monster hunting just wasn't going to fly. I can only hope this will be enough.

Some of the townspeople had come to Tahir earlier in the week. Kids had started going missing. The only signs were strange marks leading off into the desert, like something huge and heavy was dragging itself among the dunes. They pleaded with him to send his men after the kids and he complied. Maybe he isn't quite the bastard I thought he was. Tahir managed to follow the marks to a natural cave dug into the side of a hill out in the wastes, several miles from even rudimentary civilization. I'm still unsure exactly what to believe of the rest of Tahir's story. I've known the man for long enough to be sure that something happened but...God, I hope he's lying to me. Or crazy. Bandits and Baathist factions are one thing. Living nightmares that slaughter and eat your men in front of you? That's something else.

It's twilight, the moon just starting to peek up over the horizon. Unfortunately there's some nasty weather heading in, not uncommon as winter is the only time it rains here, and the clouds are going to block any illumination. Damn, but I wish we could have done this mission during the daylight. My gut tells me this could go sideways really fast. If I knew exactly what we were going after, a terrorist cell say, doctrine supports a night strike since our tech is better than theirs. But going in on half blind intelligence, and with the insane stories Tahir's spouting, I'm not too keen facing monsters in the dark. My conscience won't let me wait though; if kids are missing, and I'm sure Tahir's telling the truth about that, it has to be now.

I briefed my men exactly what Tahir told me. It took me a little while to decide whether or not I was going to but, ultimately, I'd rather they have an idea of what we might be up against. Worst case scenario I end up looking like a jackass. Best case, maybe it eliminates hesitation and saves lives. I can only hope we're so lucky.

For anyone who's only ever lived in a city, it's almost impossible to appreciate how absolutely empty and dark the desert can be. Night has truly fallen now and, with the clouds totally blanketing the sky, only Tahir's headlights ahead offer a faint reminder of day. I've ordered my men to drive blacked out; convoys at night are prey for even the merely human monsters.

We left the road behind thirty minutes ago. Bouncing along, the dunes rise up on either side of us, too high for anyone but my gunner to see over. It's like traveling down a narrow hallway walled with sand; it's anyone's guess what's at the other end. I glance over at Robinson my driver. His face is set, eyes straight ahead, hands tightly gripping the wheel. The banter that would normally accompany one of our missions is nowhere to be found.

Abruptly the way opens into a large clear area about fifty yards across and ringed by dunes. Ahead the far end of the clearing is capped by a large hillock about thirty feet high. Tahir's headlights are fixed on a yawning hole at its base that seems to bore into the mound. He stops the pickup.

I call over the radio. “All right, boys, I guess this is the place. Establish a perimeter with the trucks around this clearing, then dismount. Drivers and gunners stay with the vehicles. Everyone else meet me in the center.”

Checking to make sure my rifle is loaded and my grenades are accessible in their pouches I shove open the heavy door of the vehicle and step down to the ground. Since we were driving without lights, I'm already wearing my night vision goggles and the entire world shows up in my monocular sight as alternating shades of black and green. I move to the middle of the perimeter and wait for my men to join me.

Sergeant Troy is the first one there.

“Sir,” he says, “I am again going to reiterate that you should not be going in on this mission. We don't know whats down there and you're too important to risk.”

“I appreciate the concern, Sergeant, but you know my philosophy is lead from the front. I can't very well ask you to go down the scary dark monster hole if I'm not willing to and besides,” I grimace, “leaving two men per truck out here means we only have twelve trigger-pullers including me. Whatever is down there killed almost fifty of Tahir's guys; you're going to need all the help you can get.”

He grabs my vest and pulls me in closer.“Dammit, sir, then swap out with one of the drivers!”

“No, Troy. I'm going and that's it. Now let go and shut up before the rest of the men get here.”

“Fine, but I've got two conditions, sir. Number one, lead from the front or not, you let second squad go first.”

“Fair enough. What's number two?”

“If shit starts going south in there, we are pulling your ass out of the fire.”

“Sergeant, if things go south, I don't think you'll have the chance.”

Letting go, my platoon sergeant reluctantly backs off. The men have begun to trickle in so he makes himself busy doing final checks of weapons and gear. I appreciate his concern, but there's no way I'm sending my men into this situation on their own. If something happens, I need to know about it.

The strike team is fully assembled. A light rain has begun to fall as I turn to find Tahir standing next to me.

“You see the hole there, Mulasim Michael? It is the mouth of hell itself. I wish you the very best of luck, my friend, and for your safe return. As-Salaam Alaikum.” As he turns to go I grab his arm.

“Oh, I'm sorry, Tahir, I think you have the wrong idea of what's happening here. You're coming with us.” If it weren't impossible I'd swear I could see him blanch through my goggles.

“Ah, but surely you jest? For it is very dark in the cave and the last thing I would want to do would be to draw attention to your party with a light,” he smiles nervously, “and I do not have access to the wonderful equipment you do.”

“Well lookie here,” I hold up a pair of goggles, “I seem to have found a spare set!”

Tahir flies into a rage, arms wide, spit spraying from his mouth. “No! I will not go down there again! You cannot make me you damned American...” he tapers off when he feels the barrel of Sergeant Troy's rifle in the small of his back. “Please,” he pleads, “Please, my friend. Do not make me throw my life away.”

I lean in close, talking low into the big man's ear. “Now you listen to me, Tahir. If what you're telling me is really down there then I'm an even bigger bastard than you for making you go in there again. But here's the thing,” I continue, “what you're telling me is fucking crazy. For all I know you sold your ass out to someone and I'm walking my men into a real nice ambush. So I'll give you a choice. You can go with us where I can promise you at least a chance of surviving, or you can die out here right now.” I step back, holding the goggles toward him. “What's it gonna be?”

A look of pure despair passes across the man's face. Shoulders slumped, he takes the goggles from my outstretched hand, completely defeated. Putting them on he turns away and begins walking toward the looming hole.

“You're wrong, Mulasim Michael,” he calls back to me, “I am a dead man either way.”

The rain has picked up steadily, thunder rolls ominously in the distance.

“God help me, but I hope your wrong,” I say under my breath. “All right, boys, let's go. Make sure you have positive I.D. on any targets; remember, there might be kids in there. Second squad, lead out.”

With that my men and I slowly move forward, the sinister entryway beckoning us onward to face what horrors I can only imagine.

Part 7: The Cave

The Soldier Part 7

The hole yawns wide and deep, its top reaching almost halfway up the mound. Sergeant Brown and the four men comprising second squad cautiously move forward in formation. Still sulking, Tahir joins me a little ways behind them while Sergeant Troy and first squad bring up the rear. The rain has continued to fall and, uncharacteristically, shows no signs of stopping. If it keeps up like this, we might have issues getting the trucks out of the sand and back to the road.

Well, on the bright side, I'll only have to worry about washouts if I get out of this cave alive.

About ten feet from the entrance is when a familiar, unmistakeable odor hits me; the cave smells of death. Walking through the entryway, the stagnant air intensifies the stench, wielding it like a weapon. Ahead I hear someone in second squad retch.

The hole itself is actually more like a semicircular tunnel, about fifteen feet high and ten feet wide. Pushing forward the first thing I notice, other than the sickening smell, is that the walls are smooth and unnatural. For about twenty five feet the entire expanse from floor to ceiling is covered with strange cave art, fantastic symbols that bear a passing resemblance to ancient Syrian writings I came across during my studies in college. One small section of the tunnel roof appears to have collapsed, disrupting the otherwise unbroken pattern of art. Whatever ink was used to transcribe the symbols glows with a faint luminescence giving the passage a disconcertingly eerie feeling. The tunnel seems to be sloping gradually downward. Rather than simply leading into the hill the hole burrows into the ground itself, how deep I can only guess. I see movement ahead as Specialist Barnes from second squad jogs up to me. The kid looks scared.

“Sir, Sergeant Brown says you need to come take a look at what he's got up there.”

“Ok, what is it?”

“He said not to tell you, said it's something you've gotta see for yourself.”

“Why didn't he call me on the radio?”

“Tried, sir, radio's out.”

I key my hand mic, futilely trying to reach the trucks just fifty yards behind me.

“Dammit. Must be something in these walls screwing with the signal. Barnes, keep going back to Sergeant Troy and tell him to send a couple guys to let the trucks know they won't be able to talk to us while we're down here. Then meet me up with Sergeant Brown. Come on, Tahir, let's go see what the fuss is all about.”

The Sahwa leader sighs resignedly,“I think you have a very good idea what it is, Mulasim Michael, as I have already told you.”

We continue forward another fifty yards before I reach second squad and discover the source of the smell. Dozens of bodies cover the floor of the cave, torsos ripped open and limbs strewn about in a mess of gore. The blood has dried but based on the smell the remains haven't been here long. All of the corpses exhibit wounds that appear to have been caused by something incredibly sharp. Holding my breath against the stench I lean down to take a closer look at one of the corpses. The body is headless and missing its right arm at the shoulder where it was messily torn off. The shredded remains of the clothing left on the body suggest it's a local. Its stomach has been ripped open and huge chunks of the guts seem to be missing almost as if...something has been eating it. A sharp thrill of fear shoots down my spine as I step back from the thing that used to be a human body.

“Tahir, you son of a bitch, I'm starting to think you just may have been telling the truth.”

I look around until I find Sergeant Brown who beckons to me from where he stands a little ways farther down the tunnel. As I approach him there is a look of silent rage etched across his face, one arm outstretched and pointing to a pile of human bones completely picked clean of flesh and tissue. They are so very, very small. I feel my heart break.

Lead by Specialist Barnes, Sergeant Troy comes hustling up from the rear. He takes in the scene before turning to me and holding out a remote clacker.

“Barnes filled me in. I took the liberty of prepping the tunnel entrance with C4 before coming down here. I highly recommend we withdraw back to the trucks and seal whatever the fuck is in here to rot.”

Numbly I take the trigger from him.

“There might be more kids down there, Sergeant.”

“Sir,” Troy's voice cracks, “you know there's not.”

I think for a long moment. The gibbering caveman part of my brain tells me there's nothing more it wants to do than leave this hole far behind and escape back to the relative sanity of the patrol base. But the rational part, the one I've spent years training to perform under incredibly stressful situations, disagrees. What Sergeant Troy says is probably true; the odds of there being any live kids down here is almost zero. But on the other hand, there's no telling where this tunnel goes, or if there are other exits the creature could use to escape if we destroy the entrance we came through. If that's the case there would be nothing to stop it from killing again. Nothing to stop it from feeding. There's only one way to make sure that these bones will be the last.

“Sorry, Troy. We'll seal the entrance as a last resort, but we have to make sure we stop this sonuvabitch for good. And by my estimation, the best way to do that is to shoot the fucker until it's in too many different pieces to be a threat. We keep going.”

I pause and turn to the Sahwa leader. “Tahir, I'm sorry for doubting you earlier but it looks like you were being honest with me. It doesn't seem right to drag a civilian any further into this mess. You're free to leave. I can't spare an escort, but you're welcome to keep the goggles on your way out if you promise to pass them to my driver once you reach the trucks.”

The big man grips my shoulder a grave look upon his face. “You are a good man, Mulasim Michael. And I think, in different circumstances, perhaps a good friend. I shall wait for you at the entrance. I will pray that if ever Allah watches over the infidel that He do it this night.” Moving rapidly, he disappears toward the entryway.

Looking after Tahir, Sergeant Brown hocks up phlegm and spits to the side, “What a pussy.”

The casual bravado makes me smile. “Agreed. But I'll do my best not to judge him too harshly until we find the thing that did this. Your squad ok staying on point?”

“Sir,” Brown's voice is cold as ice, “It will be my absolute pleasure.”

“I've got a feeling this tunnel is going to start to honeycomb. Use your gut to pick a route, or follow the stench. Radios are worthless down here so don't get ahead farther than shouting distance. Tell the boys to stay sharp. Weapons free. If it moves, shoot it until it stops."

“No worries there,sir. Let's go, second!” He turns and the squad begins making its way deeper down the tunnel. Troy is left standing beside me.

“I'll keep the rear. But remember what we agreed to, sir.”

“I remember, Sergeant. Keep them alert and mark the way back to the entrance with IR chem lights. If this hole starts to branch off, I don't want to get lost down here and I really don't want this thing sneaking up behind us.”

I follow close behind second squad. Just as I suspected, the tunnel soon begins to break off into multiple forks, sometimes as many as three or four different paths at an intersection. The darkness is now absolute, the strange glowing markings near the entrance of the cave a distant memory. I reach up and key the IR flood on the side of my goggles, washing the expanse of the tunnel in a beam of invisible light to help my goggles be more effective. As we move ever deeper into the abyss, I become sharply aware of the crushing weight of the earth around me. I'm not claustrophobic, but down here I may as well be.

We travel for what seems like hours but, checking my watch, is only about fifteen minutes. Brown seems to pick the route at random. Right, left, second from the left; I try to keep track but after seven or eight turns I know it will be impossible to remember them all. Doing some quick mental calculations, I realize if this goes on much longer we'll have to stop and cross load chem lights back with first to mark the route or they'll be running out. I curse inwardly; it would have made way more sense to have the lead element mark the path, but I hadn't been thinking about it at the time. Now I'll have to hope that Troy keeps close or we'll risk losing him and the rest of first squad at one of these intersections.

I pick up the pace to try and halt Sergeant Brown in order to consolidate and reorganize when the latest tunnel abruptly opens into a large subterranean cavern. I have no idea how the geometry of this tunnel system works because while it hasn't seemed like we've been going that far down, the height of the stalactite peppered ceiling almost lost in the darkness above my head suggests we must have descended at least a hundred feet. Brown and second squad have stopped up ahead at the foot of a wide pool that dominates the cavern, reaching as far as I can see in either direction. Despite the size of the cavern, the air is closed and thick, smelling of rot. I look behind me and confirm my fear; Troy and first are nowhere to be seen.

“Think this is as far as we go down this way, sir, less you brought a canoe with you.”

“Knew I forgot something, Sergeant Brown. We have to go back anyhow; it looks like we lost first somewhere along the way.”

“You kidding me? How the ever lovin' did they...”

“Sergeant!” Barnes is shouting. “There's something in the water!”

Brown and I turn simultaneously in time to see a small wave ripple across the pool as something huge moves below the surface. There's a brief pause where all time and motion seem to stop before the water explodes, an inhuman roar echoing throughout the cavern.

Part 8: The Beast

The creature is woven from pure nightmare. Rearing up out of the pool, the thing's head towers twenty feet above us. It resembles nothing so much as some kind of giant centipede crossed with a sea monster, the segmented sections of its body protected by a shiny carapace. Dozens of squirming legs protrude from

The Soldier Part 8

its sides, each tipped with serrated blades. Near the base of its neck, two enormous tentacles like those of a giant squid flail about. The thing's head is the size of a small car. Despite this, its open mouth is simply...wrong; too wide, too many shark-like teeth. Its multifaceted eyes stare at us with a keen intelligence and an almost human malevolence. Time stops as I make these observations in the fleeting instant before hell erupts around me.

Sergeant Brown acts instantly, raising his carbine to his shoulder and dropping to a knee in one smooth motion, peppering the creature's face and neck with sharp, controlled bursts.

“Smitty, put a 203 grenade down that ugly fucker's throat! Cortines, you have two seconds to get the SAW rocking! Barnes and Cook, alternate your fire and aim for the eyes!” The squad leader's calm control does the trick. The monster roars again as it is enveloped in a storm of gunfire that goes on for the better part of thirty seconds. At some point I realize I've gotten down beside Sergeant Brown and added my own instrument to our deadly symphony. I'm mindless of the sharp hisses passing close by as the cave is filled with deadly ricochets from the solid stone walls. Dust from hundreds of impacts fills the air and through my night vision the beast is lost in a haze of green powder. At last, the weapons run dry and the firing stops. I dive behind a two foot high rock to my right to try and get some kind of cover, slapping a fresh magazine into my rifle. Around me I hear the men of second squad quickly and professionally begin to reload their expended weapons. They are nowhere near fast enough.

To my left, Cortines is struggling to load a drum into his SAW. From out of the haze the creature's tentacles whip out too quick to follow. One slaps the machine gun out of his hands while the other envelopes his head and neck. His yell is muffled as he briefly struggles to remove the hideous limb from his face before the second tentacle wraps around his waist and yanks him out of sight into the cloud. Now accompanied by wet, ripping sounds, Cortines' screams grow higher in pitch until they are abruptly cut off.

I can see Sergeant Brown and Barnes a few feet to my right where they have taken cover in a similar position to my own. Barnes jumps to his feet and sprints towards the machine gun lying on the cavern floor.

Brown tries to grab him by the back of his body armor but misses. “Barnes don't....dammit! Smitty get another grenade ready, that fucker's still out there! Cook, help me cover that idiot.”

Barnes slides up to the SAW like a runner stealing second and ratchets the new belt into the weapon.

“Barnes, get your ass back here behind cover NOW!” screams Sergeant Brown.

“Roger, I'm...” without warning the creature roars out of the cloud, its maw snapping shut around Barnes' head and shoulders. As it lifts him bodily into the air, Barnes squeezes the trigger spastically. With Barnes being jerked around like a rat caught by a terrier, the SAW in his hands spits death at a rate of two hundred bullets a minute. I try to make myself as small as possible behind my rock, fatal hisses and pops sounding all around me. Sergeant Brown grunts as a wayward round catches him in the lower leg. Specialist Smith, raising to a knee to fire his grenade, drops without a sound in a spray of blood. From where I lay sprawled I can see his unmoving form, a dark pool slowly collecting around his head.

The firing finally stops. Looking up, I see the creature has tipped its head back and is using its tentacles to push Barnes' still body down its gullet, body armor and all, its neck convulsing like a snake swallowing its prey. I realize we need to get out of here, and fast.

Pumped on adrenaline my own body armor feels almost weightless. I roll from behind my rock, hop to my feet and take two steps before diving down next to Sergeant Brown. He's managed to get his combat tourniquet around his leg but from the blood still pulsing out of the wound its obviously not tight enough.

“We're tightening this tourniquet, then we are gone, Sergeant.”

“Dammit, sir, leave me. Get Cook outta here. I'm just gonna slow you up with this leg.”

“Not a fucking chance, Soldier. Now try to hold still, this is going to hurt like hell.”

I grip the two ends of the windless and twist. I hear Brown's breath catch in his throat beside me and his hand gripping my arm contracts hard enough to leave bruises, but to his credit he doesn't scream. When I can't twist any more, I secure the windless and throw his arm over my shoulder. Glancing up at the creature, all that is left of Barnes is from the knees down.

“All right, back up the tunnel, before ugly notices us. Cook! You've got rear security. Let's move!”

We stagger to our feet and begin hobbling back the way we came, away from the horrors of the cavern. Cook trails a short way behind us and throws furtive glances over his shoulder. Sergeant Brown tries to help as much as possible but is severely hampered by his wounded leg and our progress is slow. Far too slow. We've made it perhaps two hundred yards when the creature lets out a howl and I hear the unmistakable sounds of its enormous mass exiting the cavern pool. We stumble into the first of the tunnel intersections and my stomach drops when I realize the path is unmarked. Three openings beckon from the far side of the intersection. I set Sergeant Brown to the ground as easily as I can and frantically search for any sign of our previous passage that might suggest which way to take, but find none.

“Shit. Cook, this is a terrible plan, but I've got no better ideas. We have to find Sergeant Troy and make sure that somebody gets out of here alive so we can alert higher about this thing. You take the left tunnel, Sergeant Brown and I will take the middle. That gives us a two in three chance of picking the right one. If you find the platoon sergeant, priority is making it out to get reinforcements, then worry about coming back for us, got it?”

“Roger, sir, I won't let you down.”

“Ok. Get going, fast but careful and quiet.”

Cook takes off down the left fork at a jog. I look over to my wounded charge.

“Looks like it's just you and me, Sergeant Brown. Let's make ugly work for the rest of his dinner.” I throw his arm over my shoulder and we again stagger to our feet.

Brown grimaces as we begin to stumble up the middle path. “Unfortunately, sir, I don't think he's gonna have to work all that hard.” The man is shaking. Now that his initial rush of adrenaline has worn off, it's only a matter of time before shock sets in. If I don't get Sergeant Brown out of here quickly, he's going to be dead whether the monster finds us or not.

We haven't gone far when I hear a strange rolling sound, like far off thunder, issuing from back the way we came. It can only be the noise of the creature's passage. I set Sergeant Brown down behind a slight outcropping of the wall and drop to a knee as the sound gets closer. For all the good it will do I raise my weapon and wait with my finger poised on the trigger. My hands are shaking and I realize how terrified I am. The noise grows until it seems that the thing must be right on top of us. Every moment I expect it's grotesque maw to appear down the tunnel, ready to devour us whole. Like Barnes.

Abruptly the sound begins to diminish. The monster must have chosen a different fork to pursue us. I struggle to get Sergeant Brown back to his feet again and we continue our slow crawl up the passageway. Each time it's harder to get him up, and each time he's able to help me stagger along a little bit less. After perhaps two minutes I hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire issue a few sporadic reports before going silent. The thing must have found Cook. It will surely be coming for us next.

As the last of the echoes from the gunshots die away, Sergeant Brown's wounded leg buckles and he falls, dragging me to the ground with him. I rest for a brief moment before fighting to my knees and attempting to stand, but I stumble, both of us falling to the ground again. Groaning, Brown struggles to a sitting position, his back against the wall of the tunnel.

“It's no good, sir. Round musta hit a damn artery. Lucky I made it this far.”

“Well, we've got a lot farther to get you, sergeant, so we'd best be going.”

He shakes his head.

“No, sir, I reckon that's not gonna happen. We both know I'm not making it out of this cave alive either way. And Troy told me about the deal he was gonna make with you before coming in here and made me agree to back him up on it.”

He grips my arm.

“We need you to get out of here, sir. It's like you told Cook, this thing needs killing at all costs and that's more important than you, me, or anyone else. You're the only one who's seen this thing that even has a shot of making it, and you're sure as hell the only one that has any kind of chance of convincing higher that it's real. I went to the commander with this story and he'd have the MPs cart me off for sampling the local drug market.”

His grimaces.

“I've got my rifle and some grenades. I'll keep him off you as long as I can, see if I can't give that sonuvabitch the mother of all indigestion. But you've got to make it out, sir. For Barnes and Cook, for Smitty and Cortines. For those local kids. Someone needs to know and we need to stop this godforsaken thing.”

He lets go of my arm and sinks back against the wall for a moment before sitting up and beginning to prepare his weapons. Lining up his grenades and taking out a handful of parachute cord from his pocket he starts to jury rig them so that one solid tug will pull the safety pins from all five grenades. I stand unable to speak, knowing that the man is right but feeling like I need to change that simple fact. There has to be some way I can change it. Not looking at me, my squad leader ties knots and continues to talk. A part of me dimly registers that the rumbling sound has started again, and is getting slowly but steadily louder.

“And one other thing, sir, for me. There's a letter in the side pouch of my ruck sack. It's for my ex-wife and the kids just...if you get out could ya make sure they get it? And don't tell them what happened. Just that I was thinking about them, and that I love them. Even that crazy woman. Tell her I shoulda tried harder.” He pauses for a moment and looks up. “Please.”

My voice hitches. “Yeah. Yeah, absolutely, sergeant.”

He returns to his preparations. “Appreciate it. It's been a pleasure serving with ya, sir. Now no intended disrespect, but get the fuck outta here.”

I stand there for a long moment, unable to move, unable to speak, able only to look at my friend quietly preparing himself for death. Then, before I can change my mind, before I can truly think about what leaving one of my men says about me as a as a leader, and as a soldier, and as a man, I turn and begin making my way up the tunnel, the rumbling sound echoing and making my head pound in time to my racing pulse. All too soon, an explosion rocks the tunnel behind me, the creature's roar of rage so loud it threatens to shatter my ear drums.

I run.

Part 9: The Relic

My lungs and my legs are burning in concert. The breath heaves in my chest and I feel like I'm going to throw up. The incline that was so unnoticeable during our descent now fights me with every step. At each intersection I take a path utterly at random. Terror has placed my mind on complete autopilot, my only thought to try and put as much distance between myself and the thing as possible. Soon, I am hopelessly lost.

The Soldier Part 9

I'm not sure how long I have been going when the rational part of my brain regains control, but it can't have been very long. Even though the entire expanse of the network looks similar, I am completely certain I haven't been down this pathway previously. As I continue forward I slow my flight to little more than a fast walk. The pounding sound of the monster's passage has faded to a distant throbbing and the combat gear I'm wearing isn't designed for long distance running; best to conserve my energy for when I need it. Even though I know this isn't the way towards the entrance, something seems to draw me forward. It's not anything particular that I can identify, but some kind of sixth sense, or perhaps a slightly less noxious quality to the air. The tunnel begins to gradually narrow until it is little more than five feet wide. There is still plenty of space for me to make my way unimpeded, but the relatively small size of the tunnel may prevent the creature from following me. Abruptly the pathway dead ends in a wall of unyielding rock covered by a blanket of lichen. There's no exit this way, but I could stay here. I could be safe.

Yeah, starving to death might actually be worse than letting that thing eat me.

I run my hands along the wall searching for any sign of a way through or around, not really expecting anything, when I notice a small alcove obscured by the vegetation. I reach inside and my questing hand grasps something about the size of a half dollar. Removing the object I see it is a perfectly round stone, polished smooth to the touch except for a second smaller circle slightly raised in its exact center. I remove my glove and find the stone to be oddly warm, almost as if it were somehow generating its own heat. The geometry is too perfect to have been formed by nature and must have been man made. Whatever it is, someone went to a great deal of trouble to hide it where it would be almost impossible to find. My thoughts return to the unnaturally smooth walls of the entrance to the cave and the strange luminescent symbols that covered them.

As if in response to my thoughts, the edge of the stone begins to softly glow. Upon closer inspection I see that the same type of symbols have been etched along its outer circumference. The detail is astounding; by my best reckoning the piece is ancient, but the markings are so finely wrought that it must have been a truly master craftsman to inscribe them.

I try to put together the messy pile of jigsaw pieces presented to me. There's obviously a connection between the entrance of the cavern and this stone. Also, at some point someone hid it deep within a twisting subterranean labyrinth and protected it with a giant centipede monster. That means it's somehow important.

Unless that monster's not a guard, but a prisoner...maybe those markings at the entrance were what was keeping it in the cave? There was a break in the pattern where the roof fell in. Maybe that's what started this whole mess. No real point in thinking about it too hard since it won't do me any good if I can't get out of here.

out

I hear the word in my head as clearly as if someone had spoken it aloud. It startles me so badly that I almost fall over backwards, inadvertently dropping the stone which falls to rest upon the tunnel floor. Immediately upon leaving my hand the markings fade away, the stone laying on the ground like any normal piece of rock. Hesitantly I reach down and pick it up again, the markings glowing to life at the touch of my bare hand.

“Was that you?” I speak aloud, “Did you say something to me?”

With all the weird things that have already happened to me today, a magical talking stone barely cracks the top three.

Or you're just losing your damn mind, Landry. The mental shock of giant monsters and having your men eaten in front of you might be sending you over the edge. You should probably accept the fact that you're going to die down here, you coward, one way or the other. Like Barnes and Cortines, ripped apart in the jaws of that thing. Be a man and accept it like Sergeant Brown did. No stone is going to help you find the way out.

out

The word repeats itself in my head and this time I manage to keep enough control of myself to avoid dropping the stone. As I stand there, a feeling comes over me that urges me to walk back down the tunnel away from the dead end. It's similar to the urge that drew me this way in the first place, but is undoubtedly stronger. With no better options I start walking, and soon realize I know how to get back to the entrance. It's not that I can lay out a specific path but more resembles how a person walks a familiar route while thinking of other things; the subconscious mind takes over. As I reach each intersection I know without a doubt which way to take. I move cautiously while listening for any sign of the monster, keeping one hand on the stone and the other on the grip of my weapon. Soon I reach an intersection where five different tunnels converge. An IR chem light glows softly by one of the forks.

“Holy shit, sir! Sergeant, he's over here!” Specialist Johnson, one of the members of first squad, is pulling guard from the marked tunnel. Suddenly my platoon sergeant is there, followed closely by the squad leader, Sergeant Parks. In his relief, Troy's usual professionalism cracks just a bit.

“Jesus, you had me worried, sir. When we got to this fork I had no idea which way you went and didn't want to risk just randomly wandering off down one way or the other in case I guessed wrong. Figured you'd realize we'd lost you eventually and hopefully just make your way back to us. Then we heard some gunfire a little while ago but couldn't tell where it was coming from, what with how much these things twist and turn, but I was about to say fuck it and head out looking for you and...” Troy pauses, his gaze focused down the tunnel behind me as if he's just realized something. “Sir, where's Brown and the other squad?”

Dead. Dismembered. Parts of them roaming around in the belly of a beast. They didn't have a magic stone hee hee hee.

Inside my head, I fight to hold down the part of my brain that threatens to send me over the edge into blessed madness. I grip the stone in my hand tighter.

“They're gone, Sergeant Troy. And we need to get the hell out of here.”

“You're not saying...”

“Tahir was telling the truth, about all of it. And this thing...we can't stop it with anything we have on us. Sergeant Brown and the others did everything they could to make sure I made it back. We need to leave. Now.” I turn to my squad leader. “Sergeant Parks, get us out of here.”

The levity of the moment is instantly gone. Parks snaps into motion. “Roger, sir. Cruz and Johnson, lead out. Sir, you and Sergeant Troy right behind so you can figure out the plan on the go. I've got rear security with Pike and Dominguez. Quick and quiet.”

We begin moving smartly up the tunnel back towards the entrance, the gentle mental nudges from the stone confirming the route laid out by the chem lights. Troy shadows me.

“Sir, what are you thinking?”

“Get out. Then blow the entrance. We can't leave it open to allow this thing free reign to come and go as it pleases. There might be other ways out but they might not be big enough to accommodate it, or at the very least might take it farther away from populated areas. Get back to base and figure out how I'm gonna tell higher what happened here.”

“There's no chance that Brown or any of his boys made it?”

“No. Cook was the only one I'm not a hundred percent sure of, and the risks of leaving the hole open are way too big compared to the odds I'd give him. Besides, we can use that as additional leverage on the old man to make sure we get some reinforcements down here. He might not believe in monsters, but he's sure going to send us some help to find a soldier lost and trapped in a cave.”

Troy nods his head in agreement. “Sounds about right to me, sir. Tell you the truth, I'm hoping we can get it to work as smooth as that.”

“What? Why wouldn't it?”

“Well, while I had the boys hunkered down waiting for you, we heard some weird noises. Made me think that maybe parts of the tunnel were caving in all on their own. Robinson's a bright kid though and I'm sure he'll call for help if we don't show up soon.”

I grab his arm and hold him up short. “Sergeant, what kind of noises?”

“Ah hell, sir, some kind of deep thrumming. Sounded like it started out near us and then was moving back away towards the entrance. Cave in was the only thing I could think of that it could be.”

“Oh shit. Sergeant, we need to stop. Johnson, Cruz, hold up! Everyone bring it in.” I look around wildly as the squad converges on me. We're standing in the middle of a rather large intersection, about fifty feet across, with four passageways leading into it including the one we just came from.

danger

The thought flashes through my head as powerful as a bolt of lightning. Apparently the stone is sensitive to certain environmental conditions, and the creature appears to be one of them. Parks jogs up to me.

“Sir, what's...”

“It's smart. It didn't know which path we were on but knew we'd go for the entrance. It's lived down here, probably knows all the different ways through these tunnels. It circled around us to set a trap.”

danger

Troy glances at Sergeant Parks before looking back at me.

“Are you sure, sir? That seems a little more intelligent than I'd expect from some kind of animal.”

“It's different, sergeant, it's not just an animal. You didn't see it, didn't see how it picked us apart. It's waiting for us and we are going to walk right into it if we don't...”

DANGER

The thought slaps me like a physical force, strong enough that I reflexively grab my head with my hands.

Why can't they see? Why can't they believe me?

“Gah! We need to set up a defensive position. It's our only chance. Maybe we can get lucky and find a weak spot or...

DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER

I scream. The thought is a nail being driven through my head, a claxon blaring next to my ear. The stone still in my hand, I collapse to my knees. The fall saves my life.

From one of the tunnels, the creature's tentacles flash out like spears. If I hadn't been moving the first would have caught me directly in the back of my head and killed me instantly at the same moment the second removed Sergeant Parks' head from his body. As it is, the hideous limb only strikes heavily on my right shoulder. In some insidious design of nature, the tentacle is tipped with razor sharp spikes that furrow deep gouges into my back, through body armor and all. The force of the blow throws me bodily forward and I hit the wall face first before rebounding and crumpling to the tunnel floor. I lie on my back, dazed, and feel a cold numbness start to spread from the wound. Whether from the blow or some poison injected by the claws, I can't move. Helpless I can only lie motionless and listen to the pandemonium unfold around me.

Oh God-blam-the fuck is that-blamblam- It hurts-blamblamblam-please don’t-blamblamblamblam-Noooooooo- blamblamblamblamblamblam……

Part 10: The Fury

As I lie paralyzed on the floor of the tunnel, the screams and gunfire seem to extend for an eternity. Where I'd expect my shoulder to be on fire from the gashes gouged into it, I feel only a seeping cold that deadens the feeling in my entire body. I desperately try to move my limbs to no avail.

The Soldier Part 10

Maybe it's not poison. Maybe when you hit that wall you just broke your damn neck. Now you get to wait until your turn on the dinner plate.

Suddenly the ceiling starts moving. It's Sergeant Troy, pulling me backwards up the tunnel by my body armor.

“Come on, sir, let's go! -huph- told you I'd -whuf- be pulling your ass out of the fire if this thing turned sideways. Just didn't -huh- figure it'd be so damn literal.”

I try to respond, but even my vocal cords won't cooperate.

Got to be poison then. Broken neck wouldn't keep me from talking. Wonder if its fatal or if the effects are just temporary. Wonder if I'll get the chance to find out. God, how terrible. I might not even be able to scream while I'm being eaten.

We don't make it very far. Troy isn't in bad shape by any means, but trying to drag over two hundred pounds of dead weight uphill at any kind of speed is almost impossible under the best of conditions, which these most definitely aren't. After only a few seconds, the last of the gunshots and moans briefly give way to a pregnant silence before the monster lets loose a triumphant roar. Its hunt is at an end. The now familiar sound of the creature's movement starts again. Looking over me back down the tunnel, Troy sees it coming. Almost gently he lays me to the ground before raising his weapon and stepping over my body, positioning himself between me and the oncoming horror. The rumbling is impossibly loud; if I weren't completely numb I could probably feel the very walls of the tunnel shaking. Troy begins firing.

“Hey, you ugly motherfucker!”-blamblamblam- “You want him?” -blamblamblamblam- You're gonna have to come through me, you sorry sack of shit!” -blamblamblambla---click* “Dammit!”

Troy drops his rifle and transitions to his pistol but the thing is on him, tentacles wrapping around his waist and neck and lifting him into the air towards its slavering jaws.

“Fuck you!” Troy empties the entire magazine into the monster's face at almost point blank range. It roars in fury and reels back slightly before recovering, whipping my platoon sergeant like a rag doll and slamming him first off one wall, then the other, again and again. I can hear bones snapping with every impact. Finally it stops, and holds Troy's broken body up to its massive head, suspended from his arms and held precariously above its open maw. Then, of all the unbelievable and fantastic happenings of the day, the most astounding occurs. The creature starts to speak. It's voice is harsh, like a band saw cutting through metal, and sounds utterly wrong coming from such a being. Despite that, I have no problem interpreting its words.

foolish mortal. you would stand against the Other Born of the outer Dark, we who have ruled this world since time immemorial? you throw your shallow life away. but fear not, your sacrifice is not in vain. indeed, this one hungers. your misguided courage will be most satisfying, your loyalty most savory. take pride, little morsel, in the sustenance you give your master.”

With that it begins to slowly lower Troy into its waiting jaws, taking obvious pleasure in the anticipation. I redouble my mental efforts but my limbs still won't respond.

Dammit, no! Not like this! Not like this!

NO

The word is like a gong, filling and reverberating through the air even though I know it's only in my head. I feel a blinding heat radiating from my hand, pushing back the terrible cold of the creature's poison. I realize that, incredibly, I'm still holding the stone. Somehow, the monster hears the pronouncement as well, causing it to pause and shift its gaze to me.“impossible! the Light is lost, the Sleepers no more!”

Suddenly, I can move again. I leap to my feet, the paralyzing numbness of a few moments ago already a distant memory. The relic glows with a terrible light, its raised center piece and markings burning as brightly as the sun. Whether through some reflex or from the mental nudges of the stone I raise the hand holding it toward the monster. The heat continues to build until it feels as though my entire being is filled with it, too much for me to contain, so much that I will surely burst if I don't release it. So I do.

The entirety of the power coalesces in a tiny ball somewhere deep in my chest before shooting down my arm towards the stone. An enormous wash of flame erupts from the center of the relic and blasts the monster full on in its horrific face, its head catching on fire. The thing rears back to its full height, its mouth open wide in a silent scream of agony. The tentacles holding Sergeant Troy are neatly seared off and he drops bonelessly to the ground in a heap. I rush to my fallen platoon sergeant.

There's no time to check and see if he's still alive; we need to get out now before the thing recovers. Remains of the power still sing throughout my body and I pick Troy up and throw him across my shoulders as easily as I would a child. I begin running up the tunnel towards the entrance.

We just make the section near the entryway marked by the strange runes when my supernatural strength begins to fade. The open entrance beckons as I struggle towards it, every step harder than the last. Now that the strength of the relic has faded all that remains is an overwhelming exhaustion, even more so due to the extra energy I've expended already. My limbs are wooden planks that fight against my mental commands. Although my night vision goggles were broken when the monster threw me against the wall, the flashing lightning from the storm raging outside and the still present mental urges of the relic guide my way. The creature screams behind me.

no. this cannot be! the Mother will not allow! Impudent child, I will feast on your soul!”

With a roar it throws itself forward in pursuit. I chance a glance backward and see it coming by the light of the storm and the glowing runes, its many legs churning terribly. Its eyes are melted and blinded by the fire, its rage the only thing driving it forward. It is moving far too quickly, gaining ground far too fast.

A last burst of effort sends me through the entrance and out into the howling storm before I stumble and sprawl to the ground, the dead weight of Troy's body pinning me down. Desperately I try to roll out from under him, struggling to reach the detonator in my pocket. The creature is only fifty feet away down the tunnel when I manage to grasp the device, disarm the safety, and squeeze the trigger.

Sergeant Troy made his preparations well. Instantly upon activating the detonator, a deep boom emits from inside the entrance and the tunnel collapses upon itself. The creature issues a final scream echoing over and above the fury of the storm as I watch it buried by tons and tons of unfeeling rock. I have no way of knowing for sure if it's alive or dead, but at least for the time being it won't be able to follow us. It's over.

With no time to bask in my victory I instantly turn my attention to my platoon sergeant. I slip the relic into my pocket before gently rolling him over while supporting his neck. I try to find a pulse. I feel a great swell of relief when I find one, weak but steady. His breath is shallow and he requires immediate medical attention, but Troy is alive. My driver Robinson comes sprinting up from the truck.

“Oh my God! Sir, what the fuck happened in there? Where is everybody?”

“We're the only ones who made it. No time to explain, but we can't stay here. We have to get Sergeant Troy back to the patrol base and get him on a bird to Speicher ASAP, then we can worry about the others. Help me get him into the truck with doc, then we need to call back and tell third squad to get a medevac inbound.”

“Roger, sir, but I think we might have a problem with that. I've been trying to call back for the last hour or so but can't get any response. Think the storm might be interfering with comms.”

“Dammit. Ok. But we have to move. Help me get him up.”

We manage to wrestle Sergeant Troy's limp body into the truck with my medic who immediately begins working on him.

“Jesus. He's really bad, sir, but if we can get a bird in he's got a chance. Might be tricky convincing higher to authorize one with this storm.”

“I don't give a shit about that. Keep working on him, doc. Let's go, we're wasting time. Everybody mount up. White light the whole way back, convoy speed is as fast as we can go without flipping a vehicle. I'll keep trying to reach the patrol base on comms.”

Fortunately my earlier fears of getting a truck stuck due to the rain were unfounded. Whether by luck or fortune the ground is solid enough that we make it back to the roadway without any issues and are soon speeding along the highway back towards the patrol base. I continue to try to raise third squad left on guard but, just as Robinson said, the only thing I get on the radio is static. If we get back and I find they were screwing off I just might kill the lot of them myself.

We make the trip in less than half the time it took to get to the cave. Within twenty five minutes we roll through the gate of the patrol base. I jump down and run over to the truck with the medic to help lift Troy down on the stretcher and we begin to carry him inside.

“Think I got him stabilized, sir! We get a medevac in here within the hour, I think he's gonna make it!”

I'm not as sharp as I usually am. Granted, I'm exhausted, a bit distracted by the events that have unfolded already this evening, and am currently preoccupied with trying to save the life of my platoon sergeant. Nevertheless, I'd like to think that I would have typically noticed how ominously dark and quiet the patrol base was, the telling lack of a guard at the entrance or of anyone to greet us as we came in, but for some reason these things don't register. Needless to say I am completely surprised when the bomb goes off.

“Wake up, Mulasim Michael.”

A voice urges me out of the blackness. I have no idea how long I've been out. Surrounded by armed militants, I'm tied to a chair. Looking around I see I'm inside my command post, the radios and computers stacked in a smoking pile of metal and wires. Across from me Robinson and Sergeant Troy are tied to chairs in a similar fashion, my platoon sergeant still unconscious. Next to them stands Tahir al-Qassim. Robinson is awake and has obviously been tortured. Shallow cuts cover his body and he moans to me through a mouth of mush, his teeth unwillingly removed.

“Suh, suh, thuh kill da othuhs! Thuh sad thuh gonna....” -BANG-

Tahir draws his pistol and casually shoots my driver in the head. My head is swimming.

“Tahir, you fucking animal, what did you do? What the fuck did you do?”

The thug smiles. “Ah, Mulasim Michael. Do I really need to explain this to you?” He leans forward, stinking of sweat and blood. “I. Hate. You. You Americans think you know what is best for my country. You know nothing. I would do anything, anything at all, to rid myself of all your kind. I would go so far as to go into the desert searching for a beast, a legend, at the barest chance that it might help me drive you out of my home.” He steps away and walks over behind Troy. “Marring the runes holding it in its prison was easy enough. The necessary sacrifices to engage its services were...distasteful I suppose, but I have many more men and I would offer up a thousand children if it means the power to be done with the American occupation once and for all.” As he is talking I've started trying to work my hand free into my pocket where I can feel the relic still sits.

If I can only get it...

“You were supposed to die in that cave, Mulasim Michael, yet here you are alive and whole.” He strokes Troy's head, pulling it back by the hair and baring his neck. “Had the ifrit managed to end your pathetic existence I would never have had to resort to these more direct methods.” With his other hand he removes a large kukri knife from his belt. “Alas it was not to be. Fortunately I have no problem getting my hands dirty from time to time. Allahu Akbar. Death to the infidel.”

My squirming hand grasps the relic at the exact moment Tahir plunges the knife into Troy's throat. My vision goes red with rage.

DEATH

The power fills me instantaneously, somehow even greater than before, a star gone supernova appearing in the space where my heart should be. An explosion, as closely related to the earlier bomb blast as a hurricane to a raindrop, obliterates the chair I'm strapped to, the room, and everyone in it. They have no time to cry out, no time to even realize what is happening. The purifying fire is indiscriminate and complete in its destruction.

I collapse to the ground, the ruins of my command post around me. The roof is mostly gone along with the walls. The still falling rain washes over me and begins to put out the smoldering wreckage. Blessed blackness calls and my mind, exhausted from a night of terror and sorrow, gladly answers. I fall into unconsciousness, uncaring if I will ever wake up.

Epilogue: The Knock

Present Day

The Soldier Epilogue

I wake up the next morning refreshed, with only the mildest of hangovers from my bender the previous evening. Since school is off for Thanksgiving, I even take the liberty of staying in bed until late in the morning. This is the first time I can remember since the incident in the cave that I have slept through the night without nightmares. It's still a terrible thing to think about, but maybe Gabe was right; by facing my fears I may eventually be able to conquer them and come to grips with what happened. Maybe I'll even be able to attach some kind of meaning or purpose to them.

Obviously, I came out of my coma after the destruction of the command post. It was about two weeks later when I woke up screaming in a military hospital in Germany. It was another three days before I was calm enough for the doctors to remove the restraints. I talked to some kind, but professional military police who were hoping to get a few details about the events from me. They filled me in on what they knew.

Basically, once my outpost had missed its second check-in, my commander spun up one of our sister platoons to patrol over and see what was going on. What they found was me lying naked and unconscious in the middle of the destroyed patrol base. By the look of things, a bomb had gone off and destroyed everything for about a quarter mile in every direction including ten houses, a mosque, and the local police station. Miraculously, I was the lone survivor, my only injury three deep gashes down my right shoulder blade.

I told the MPs the whole story of what happened in the cave, about the giant centipede monster, the relic, half my platoon being devoured and the other half slaughtered during Tahir's betrayal. Not surprisingly, they didn't believe me. Equally unsurprising, neither did the next group of MPs that talked to me, the internal affairs investigator, my commander, and at least three different psychologists they had analyze me. Everyone's best guess of what actually went down was that Tahir came onto the base, turned his coat, set off a massive suicide bomb, and everyone was vaporized; neat, easy, and much further within the realm of the rational and reasonable. I tried pointing out the inconsistencies with that narrative, at the very least to get someone to go try and find the cave to corroborate my story, but ultimately it was just too crazy. No one would listen. In the end, the doctors and psychologists slapped me with a traumatic brain injury label and nine months later I was out of the army with an honorable discharge and twenty percent disability.

And crippling self doubt. Oh, how I questioned myself. Having a dozen professionals tell you again and again how what you're saying is impossible, how there is no chance on earth that things happened the way you think they did, starts to wear on your resolve after a while. For a time, I managed to convince myself that the whole thing was actually a lie cooked up by my mind from the shock. But I always came back to the dreams, and the screaming, and the scars.

The one piece of evidence that would have truly helped convince everyone of my story was, of course, the relic itself. But that was never found. I managed to talk to my fellow platoon leader, Lieutenant McCartney, who found me lying in the rubble. He told me that truthfully neither he, nor any of his men, had seen anything resembling the stone I described. He's a good man and had absolutely no reason to lie about something like that, so again, more questions were raised than answers. It's possible they simply missed it in the wreckage, or that it was somehow destroyed in the blast, but in my gut I know that's not the case. Somehow, someone took the thing out of my unconscious grasp for their own purposes. Who and for what, I can only imagine.

I make a fresh pot of coffee to help deal with the lingering hangover effects and sit down at my kitchen table. The sun is streaming in through the window over the sink and I take a deep breath, drinking in the aromatic smell of the brew and finding myself truly relax for what seems like the first in a very long time. There's a knock at my door.

I jump up so fast I knock my chair over backwards. I take two steps and dive across the hallway into the bedroom, grabbing my glock from the nightstand. Furtively I creep down through the living room and position myself next to my slab of a door, gun held at the ready. The knock sounds again, this time accompanied by a voice.

“Mr. Landry, are you there?” The voice speaking is female and sounds tired and more than a little anxious. I move to look through the peep hole and see a woman holding a sleeping child standing in front of the entryway. The kid looks to be about six years old. The woman, a brunette, has bags under her eyes as if she hasn't slept in days but even those don't keep me from realizing how remarkably attractive she is.

I shout through the door, “Who are you, lady, and what do you want?”

“My name is Sarah Wilder and something terrible has happened to my husband. I have reason to believe it's coming for me and my daughter next. Please, Mr. Landry, I was told you could help me.”

“Yeah? Who told you that?”

“A woman. Some psychic. It sounds crazy, but she contacted me out of the blue, before everything started to happen. She said when I needed help that you would be able to give it to me.”

“I don't know any psychics Mrs. Wilder, and you're right that does sound crazy. Sorry that I'm not about to take you on faith here.”

“She said you'd say that. She also said to show you this.” A piece of paper slides under the crack of the door. I bend to pick it up. It's a computer printout of a photo of an object lying on a table. It's grainy, but there's no mistaking the round stone about the size of a half dollar, smooth but for the slightly raised bump in its exact center. The relic.

Shit.

I disengage the locks and struggle to heave the door open. The woman squeezes through with her child and I close and lock the door again behind her. The kid hasn't stirred throughout all of this and must be completely exhausted.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Landry. I was afraid you wouldn't believe me.”

I sigh. “Ma'am, I have a feeling the fear hasn't even started yet. Let's let you put the kid down and get you a chair and some coffee. Then you can tell me what's happened from the beginning...”



Written by Shadowswimmer77
Content is available under CC BY-NC


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