So writer boy, what the fuck have you been working on? Truthfully, I find myself working only in small spurts. I have teased for a while now about a new full length novel, and I have finally gotten some time to sit down and edit. Hurrah for snow days.
I have a lot of trepidation about it. Not that I don’t think it’s a good book, but it is a somewhat radical departure from My Babylon. The style is there, but that’s about it. Chasing the Wyrm is an action adventure. It has magic, but it’s of the fantasy variety, not with a K.
Also, the main character is pseudo-military. Which I’m sure not many people are expecting from my non-violent-peace-loving-hippie-ass. But having known so many good men who have been soldiers, I am fascinated with their stories and how they honestly try to do the right thing in impossible situations. So while Chasing the Wyrm will not have the deep philosophical and religious questions of My Babylon, it still examines human nature and has serious undertones. Despite the main character’s lack of a clue.
So here’s another long excerpt from the novel. Give it a try. I think you’ll enjoy.
Chasing the Wyrm – A Christopher Yan, Office of Arcane Affairs Novel
August 12th, 2004
I admired the collection of clay pipes sitting on Eddie’s desk. Like Johnny’s china, Edward Norrell, Chief of Analysis & Research for the OAA collected Presidential memorabilia. Except in Eddie’s case, the Presz were long dead. Each of the pipes bore a small gold placard next to it, “Theodore Roosevelt,” “Benjamin Harrison,” and I shit you not, “Abraham Lincoln.” I’d just spent the last three years studying under Mike’s genteel hand. With the constant mental abuse so close in memory I had yet to develop my trademark smarminess. I let the grown-ups talk.
“Are you up to date on the situation in Columbia?” Eddie asked Mike, who sat beside me, alert but relaxed.
“You mean the FARC?”
Edward, wearing tweed and chomping on an unlit pipe looked like an old college professor. I wondered if that pipe shared spit with a deceased POTUS.
“Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, one of the last communist rebel groups still holding out. They make their money by running protection for the drug cartels and kidnapping. Though I hear they lost one recently.” Mike crunched on an ice cube.
“Exactly. A French journalist actually, had the good fortune of escaping one of their prison camps and making it through the jungle alive. Interpol interviewed him upon his return, and it was recently fed into our database. Upon analysis, the video was flagged as a topic of interest for the OAA.”
Eddie stood up and refilled Mike’s scotch. I looked down at my glass of water. They never even asked.
While Eddie poured Mike talked, “Do you have a copy of it?”
With a wink, “Of course. I think you’ll find it fascinating.”
Without sitting down, Eddie maneuvered his barrel-shaped body around the desk and opened up a cabinet revealing a large monitor. He sank down into his leather chair, clicked his mouse a few times, and a video filled the screen behind him. He swiveled around to watch with us.
On the screen, white on blue lettering appeared. “LUNAR ABYSS NIGHT TOP SECRET/Re: FARC/Debriefing: Laurent Symington/Interpol/10JULY2004.”
It came in with the interview already in progress. The people spoke French, subtitled in English.
“Please say that again.” A man in a suit spoke.
The only person not in a suit looked away from the others. “He changed. He became something else. I’m not crazy.”
The suits nodded somberly.
The room contained all the trappings of your average interrogation parlor: table, uncomfortable chairs, bad coffee in disposable cups. They all must hire the same decorator. The camera focused on non-suit, I guessed the aforementioned Laurent Symington. He looked freshly shaven, comfortably dressed, haggard and nervous.
Everyone waited for him to continue. “What I am telling you is what I saw. Do you understand? No? I don’t understand. All I know is, I saw what I saw.” He lit a cigarette before continuing.
Okay, the difference between European and American interrogation rooms, I guess they still let you smoke in European ones. I noted with silent amusement the two tobacco-addicts in the room with me squirming.
“Okay, so there were these guys who came by every other week or so. I don’t think they were part of the FARC unit. Not that anyone wore uniforms. Unless you count the Che Guevara t-shirts, you know what I mean?”
That elicited a chuckle from the suit crowd.
“They might have been mercenaries, or Venezuelan advisors. They only talked to us when they wanted to give us orders or humiliate us. So I don’t know exactly who they were. They were all big men, not like the children the FARC filled their ranks with. They looked well fed, well equipped.”
He took three drags on the cigarette before he could continue. “So one day, one of the kids, I don’t think he could have been more than fourteen. Anyway, the kid is watching one of the mercenaries talk with the head honchos and trying to look all menacing. He goes to hold his rifle like the way he’s seen the Americans in Iraq do it, hugged up to the chest. He fumbles it. He must have had the safety off. Instead of just letting it drop to the ground he holds on and gets his finger caught in the trigger. It goes off, and barely misses the merc.”
The next drag burned the cigarette a half-inch by itself. He turned red, sweating, obviously traumatized by what he saw.
“The mercenary covers, I don’t know, ten meters in a blur. The kid freezes. The guy, he hauls back and then smacks the kid across the neck. It opens up and spurts blood like a fountain. It’s all over the merc, and he doesn’t flinch. In fact….”
The reporter stops cold, stubs out his smoke, takes a drink of coffee, and stares off into the corner. After two whole minutes, I know because I watched the counter on the video, one of the Interpol agents speaks up. “Go ahead. We know you’ve been traumatized. No one’s going to judge you.”
“No? Just keep me around for observation? Make me see a shrink?” He gets up and throws his hands in the air. “I’m saying this once and never again. I’ll deny it. I’ll say it was the stress. I don’t care if you’re recording this, I’ll never tell this story again. Do you understand?”
They all nodded.
He stayed standing, pantomiming the actions he described. “I’m looking straight at him you understand? And his hand, it’s not a hand anymore, it’s a claw. He brings it to his face. His face wasn’t the same anymore. It looked… he had fangs. And it looked like spots down his arm, like a jungle cat. He growled. I swear he growled. He licked the blood from his hand… his claw. He fucking licked it off!”
Laurent plopped down in his seat. “Then, in an instant, he was a man again. Still blood all over him, but a man. I don’t know. I’m probably crazy, but he couldn’t have slashed his throat like that with his bare hand. I swear he didn’t have a knife.”
They all kept nodding along with that, “you poor crazy bastard,” look on their faces until the video ended.
Eddie swiveled back, looking like a kid who just found his dad’s porno stash. Mike joined in the glee. I couldn’t believe they got off on this shit. Mike asked, “Do you have a theory.”
Eddie leaned back, “It’s a bit far south for it, but I’m guessing he’s describing a were-jaguar.”
Mike nodded sagely. “Didn’t Wade Davis describe were-jaguar beliefs in the Amazon river basin in one of his books?”
“Yes, the Columbian Amazon to be exact. He didn’t exactly call them were-jaguars, but he did describe shamans invoking jaguar spirits. In any case, Mr. Laurent’s intelligence also made it to the DOD. They think they have enough information to run a successful rescue mission to recover the remaining hostages in his former camp. Satellite and local intelligence indicate they haven’t moved. Cocky fellows. I’ve arranged for you and your new protégé to be attached to the Delta unit that’s going in. It would be too much to ask to bring us back a live specimen, but you could at least take some blood for the boys in the lab.”
This would be were Mike’s sensibilities and Eddie’s cavalier attitude parted ways. Mike grumbled when he agreed to the mission. “And having me and Topher there might prevent the Delta team from getting slaughtered if they run up against these things.”
“I’m sure that no matter what, you and Christopher will be an asset to the operation. I’ll let SOUTHCOM give you the rest of the details. Happy hunting.”
Mike got up and gave me the “let’s go,” look. He didn’t say a word to me until after he made it out of the building and lit up a smoke. “Get some sleep. I guess tomorrow you hit the big time.” He gave a reassuring hand on the shoulder. “You’ll do fine.”
Shit, I thought, I’m gonna die.
* * *
Two days later, we sat on folding chairs set up in an airplane hanger on a Columbian army base somewhere outside of Bogotá. Relaxed but alert soldiers, some in uniform, some in t-shirts and jeans, took up the other seats. Each one gave us the eye before they sat down. They didn’t have that clean-cut Marine look; neither did they look scruffy like the Delta guys I would meet later in Afghanistan. They weren’t trying to fit in with the locals here. Every couple of minutes one of the local officer-looking types peeked in on us, but for the most part, the Columbians gave us a wide berth. Mike told me earlier that we were posing as CIA Special Operations Group, gathering intelligence on FARC chain-of-command. I couldn’t tell if the Delta soldiers considered us baggage or bad-ass-motherfuckers. Maybe they were still deciding.
When the CO came in no one stood up or saluted, but they did give their undivided attention. None of the casual jokes, no one continued playing the dozens. Some even took notes. Lacking any form of self-discipline, I faded out while he gave coordinates. The Blackhawks sitting nearby, the coming and going planes, the stories behind the soldiers’ eyes proved much too distracting for me. After the short presentation, everyone went straight to it, changing uniforms and checking equipment. I looked at Mike.
He shook his head at me. “We leave in forty-five minutes. The helicopters will get us as close as they can without being detected. We drop into the jungle, make our way to the FARC encampment, eliminate the guards, and lead the hostages out with making as little fuss as possible.”
Mike picked up on the fear in my eyes. “Don’t worry, Topher, just follow my lead. We’re looking for our objective, but I’m not going out of my way. Priority one is the hostages and the guy next to you, got it?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I watched as some of the Delta team changed out of BDUs into what looked like identical BDUs.
Mike answered the question without me asking. “The uniforms they’re putting on have no insignias.”
I looked at the BDUs we were wearing and noted they had nothing on them. “Why?”
“Even though the Columbian government has given us permission, it’s a political liability for them and for the politicians back home. If we fail, this mission didn’t happen. Plausible deniability.” He got up. “Let’s go get our equipment.”
We walked over to tables that held an assortment of belts, vests, rifles, pistols, grenades, and lots of things I didn’t recognize. I took Mike’s lead. We already had our sidearms, so we went straight to the rifles. Most guys took a short, black, metal and plastic, assault rifle. Mike showed me how it worked. “Galil ACE. Israeli made, the Columbians use it. Good weapon. It uses the NATO 7.62 round since the 5.54 has been known to tumble when penetrating soft cover—like leaves.” I nodded along pretending I knew that he was talking about.
Mike also took a helmet and utility belts with extra magazines and non-lethal equipment. The others took items by what looked like personal preference. Some wore vests, some didn’t, and those that did sometimes added extra ceramic plates. I looked at it longingly, but Mike passed the armor by. He did stop for a few grenades, but when I reached for one he smacked my hand.
We stowed our gear on one of the Blackhawks and walked off away from the others. For a minute, both of us watched the setting sun and enjoyed the cool breeze outside of the hanger. Mike took out a cigarette, lit it, and said, “Go meditate.”
I did my best to load my spells, basic stuff to make me stronger, faster, and more agile. I had my “reality twist,” thing where I could make it so a bullet misses or the shrapnel falls short. Basically, anything that can come down to a flip of a coin could be nudged in my favor. Plus, with a few minutes of concentration, I could lift anything lighter than a grenade with telekinesis. Pretty much all I had mastered by then. Also, I still needed to use physical motions to cement them in my consciousness. I hoped it looked more like some kind of cool tai-chi than a fat kid practicing karate on YouTube.
Keeping them going was the tricky part. This being my first time out of the barn, my mind kept straying. Throughout the process I had a hard time grasping what the OAA expected of me. I spent my days going to college. I guess they didn’t want me ignorant. Otherwise, I trained with Mike and a few times with Johnny and Eddie. My first summer I went through Basic with ROTC. This supplemented Mike’s lessons with firearms, hand-to-hand, and combat magic. After that, on weekends they shipped me around to military bases to go on exercises with the various special forces—Rangers, Recon, Seals. My body went from Halo-addicted-flab to lean cross-country-forced-march-with-ruck in no time.
Understand, I didn’t become an expert in anything. High intensity learning at warp-speed left gaps in my knowledge you could drive a tank through. And learning to drive a tank for a day does not leave you feeling empowered, it makes you realize how little you know.
Johnny and Eddie taught magic theory on occasion. Mike had just started my lessons in spycraft.
So I didn’t know at that time if I was supposed to be a spy, a super-soldier, a researcher, or pulling rabbits out of a hat at the next Bush family barbeque. Fuck, I still don’t know. I’m starting to lean towards, “all of the above.”
Lost in the day-mare of what was sure to happen when I got lost in the jungle, I failed to notice the Blackhawks powering up. Mike had to tap me on the shoulder and point towards our transport. I boarded with him, and force-smiled at the four others sharing our ride. They did not respond. Everyone, including Mike, took off their helmet, put it on the seat, and sat on it. I thought, fuck-the-what? and did the same.
Mike leaned in and whispered in my ear. “These things are armored for shit. One more layer of Kevlar between anti-aircraft rounds and your ass can’t be a bad thing.”
I nodded in agreement just as the engine noise began to rattle my teeth. Flying into the sunset, the three Hawks flew in perfect formation, weaving back and forth over the jungle canopy. Usually, at this point in the movie soundtrack, a nice inspirational sixties protest song swells over the sound of the rotors. Something like “Fortunate Son” or “War.” Mine was “Gunshots by Computer” from Saul Williams via Nine Inch Nails. I can only imagine Mike’s was Ride of the Valkyries.
I kept my eyes on my boots and my mind on my spells. No shots from the ground greeted us, and I assumed we approached without being noticed. Just as planned, we hovered over a clearing about ten clicks away from the FARC encampment. Delta dropped first, leaping calmly out the door attached to a repelling line. Mike stayed behind me. Insurance against me pussying-out. I put on my night-vision, grabbed the rope, hands sweating under my gloves, and leapt. I made a text-book drop, falling to one knee, checking my weapon, and moving out of the way. Before I could take stock of my surroundings, Mike landed behind me with a grunt. His legs bowed but he stayed on his feet, weapon in hand, cigarette lit.
We all rebel in our own little ways. Mike got his digs in. If I end up burying him, I intend to have “Do as I say, not as I do Topher,” chiseled on his tombstone. One, he didn’t wear his night-vision. We were under constant orders to never reveal our abilities to those without the security-clearance. Technically, Mike did not, but I knew he used magic to see in the dark, and I’m sure he left the Delta guys scratching their heads. Two, you don’t hold your weapon while you drop. You may have an accidental discharge. Three, no-smoking. He broke that one a lot. The OAA gave him slack on that. Wizards sometimes use a focus to remind them subconsciously they should be concentrating on their spells. Traditionally this meant wands or staves, Mike uses cigarettes. I use toothpicks. A lot easier to deal with considering the anti-smoking Gestapo. Also, the toothpick out of the side of my mouth didn’t attract attention like the pin-point red glow of a lit Lucky Strike in a jungle black as Dick Cheney’s asshole. The worst I could do was swallow it.
My anxiety rose conversely with the noise of the Blackhawks fading into the distance. All too soon it became dead quiet, until my ears strained for noise. I found it. Chittering, hooting, squawking, chirping, and grunting filled the night around me. As my ears adjusted to the new decibel level, it seemed like a jungle-critter Lollapalooza. Before I could deeply consider which ones were poisonous and which ones would just take chunk out of my ass, we moved out. Delta team A took point. Mike and I kept pace with group B. We passed through the undergrowth silently. Nightvision made everything a varying shade of glowing green. They operated by a combination of low-light collection and heat sensitivity. I had no problem keeping track of my comrades as their forms glowed brighter than anything else around me. A combination of heat, humidity, combat gear, and nerves produced a river of sweat running down my back. My gloves felt soaked through, but I didn’t dare take them off for fear my bare hands would slip on rifle grip.
Einstein once said, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” While I stalked through the fierce Columbian rainforest, blood pounding in my ears, it seemed like an eternity, right up until the soldiers in front of us put up the hand signal to hold. Then time fucking stopped. We were there.
Mike broke rank, making his way to the front. Despite the looks of concern from our team, I followed. Delta B interspersed with Delta A. I figured out just then the second team’s job. They were there to protect me and Mike. I wondered what their superiors had told them. These guys are idiots so you need to watch their backs? Follow their lead? It remains a mystery to me to this day what the people we work with really think of us. There must be some level of resentment.
Without word Delta C slipped off to take up their positions on the other side of the encampment. Mike, and what must have been the soldier in charge took stock of the FARC base. They called it a base in the briefing, but it had no fence, no watchtowers, nothing that looked obviously like barracks. Having been raised in the ‘burbs, this was my first encounter with a type of building that could only be called a hut. Several of them in fact, sat in no particular arrangement in a clearing. The huts had thatched roofs, and sat on platforms raised by poles a few feet above the ground, and open holes for windows. One of the structures could be considered an actual house. It also lacked a foundation, but it did have a door, and glass windows, open, but covered with screens and even curtains.
The most curious thing about the camp was the three covered pavilions. Each one an open area made with poles supporting a roof made of the same vegetation as the huts. Two guards a piece casually watched over them. Before I could figure it all out, they called a huddle. The Delta leader drew the play in the dirt just like backyard football.
He pointed at the squares representing the pavilions. “A and B fan out at this position. C enters from the other side. Prisoners are kept in pits chained together here. These are the primary targets. They have orders to kill the hostages if there’s any sign of trouble. Guards go down on the first shot.”
He looked up and we all nodded in confirmation. “After that we search the smaller structures one by one working our way towards the larger one. I want no resistance when we’re removing the hostages. After we clear the house, we sort out the hostages, determine the best means of transport, and head for the extraction point. There may be more FARC out on patrol within earshot. C will set up a perimeter while we get things moving.”
Without comment we headed towards our positions. I was looking around for an empty spot at the tree line when Mike grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back. I spun to face him, and he shook his head and jabbed a thumb back. The meaning clear, I would not be a shooter. He took up a place and checked his safety. From where I stood I could see almost everything. C signaled with two laser flashes they were ready. I stopped breathing.
Burst fire sounded in unison. A chorus of radio chatter accompanied it.
All repeated in flat monotone as each guard crumpled to the ground.
Just as sudden, silence broke through. No one returned fire. Delta moved, synchronized in teams, crouched and silent. Upon reaching the first hut the lead man stopped and held up his hand. The second pulled out a grenade and smoothly lobbed it through the window. Everyone sank almost to the ground. A “whump” followed by a “crack” ended the brief quiet. Two more echoed the first as the other teams repeated the maneuver. Right after the blast two other team members popped up and searched the smoking ruin, except for one where the flimsy shack collapsed in on itself from the explosion. There were no survivors.
Each team went to their next target. Mike didn’t exactly say stay put, so I sneaked across the clearing to join the others. I suppose I made a tempting target.
The enemy fire came in the form of one undisciplined continuous spray. Instead of hitting the dirt like I should have done, I jumped and ran towards the others. At least I didn’t piss myself. Everyone turned their weapons on me. I think I screamed. Luckily, they did not confuse me for an enemy. Muzzles flashed and I assume hit the asshole behind me stupid enough to shoot back. I toadied up to Mike’s side and he resisted the urge to smack me on the head. His eyes did enough to emasculate.
As our team went to blow-up another hut, Mike turned and grabbed me by the sleeve. “C’mon Topher.”
He slunk away up to the house, and I followed. He stood to the left door, and I felt his magic gathering. In a swift motion he slammed the palm of his hand into the door and it broke open with a splintering of wood. Two reports from a pistol came out. Mike shouldered his weapon, leaned in, and let out three rounds. I heard a thump.
Keeping as low as I could I entered a sitting room, dimly lit with oil lamps. If it weren’t for the big guy in green fatigues bleeding all over the carpet from a hole in his skull, it would look like some rich prick’s vacation cottage. My eyes locked on him, his heavy moustache and open blank eyes. My stomach flopped once. The voice coming from a doorway broke me out of it.
“I’m in here. I’m unarmed.” He spoke in even toned Spanish-accented English.
Mike instantly pressed himself to the wall against the right of the opening, checked it with his rifle, then motioned me to follow. The room contained some bookshelves, a recliner, an end table with an open bottle of wine, and a guy in khakis with a white button down shirt, standing casually with his arms at his sides.
Through lips still clenching a cigarette Mike said, “Mr. Esquival, I’m with the United States government, we’re here to rescue you.”
It’s not that he didn’t look surprised, it’s that he didn’t look worried.
So that’s where I heard the name Esquival before. It gets better.
Just then Delta team B rushed in. Mike turned to them, “These rooms are clear. Check the rest of the house.”
Two of them took Mike’s directive and the other two glared at us, presumably pissed that we went off on our own. The mission leader came in a few seconds after.
Delta Leader looked at Esquival, looked at Mike. “Who’s this?”
“He’s a hostage.” Mike said. It came out rough, with a scowl, like it tasted bad.
I could see Delta Leader roll over a few choice words in his head, and then settle on, “Let’s get him with the rest then.”
“Thank you.” Esquival said, and walked out past everyone like the cock of the walk.
Out in the camp, our guys were lifting hostages out of the pits. All of them were dirty, bruised, and otherwise in rough shape. Unlike our new buddy who looked showered and freshly shaved. I could tell he was rich by the way he wore his clothes, by his haircut, and his manicure. When I got a second alone with Mike I gave him the WTF look.
“Don’t ask Topher, don’t ask.” He lit another Lucky. “All I know is, Señor Esquival has friends in high places.”
I opened my mouth to ask more but he turned away. Was this whole fucking operation planned to rescue this one guy? To take my mind off it I made a feeble attempt to help with the other hostages. Our medic made a make-shift triage, tending to people as best he could, getting them hydrated and ready to walk through the jungle. One had to be carried on a stretcher. Those who could handle the extra weight got our vests.
Team A went out on point and the rest of us left a few minutes after. I volunteered to walk one of the hostages, a rail thin middle-aged woman who found the energy to smile at me when I took her arm. Those of us with a charge kept our nightvision off so we wouldn’t try to drag our hostage over terrain they couldn’t see. The darkness made for an entirely different experience. Not to mention we moved slower, with a larger group. This attracted every biting insect from miles around. Over and over I suppressed the urge to let go of her arm and slap myself all over. Ingrid, I found out her name later, seemed immune to the bloodsuckers’ advances.
We stopped every fifteen minutes to let them rest and give out sips of water. On the third stop the hairs on the back of neck stood up. Not bugs this time. A chill accompanied the feeling. Panicking, I realizing I had lost track of Mike. I looked for him, but couldn’t pick him out in the shadowy forms gathered around me. I did find Delta Leader, facing away from the group with his hand up to his ear.
In hushed tones I heard him say. “What do you mean lost?”
A pause later he added, “Hold your position. We’re going to regroup.” He gave the order to move out. Everyone kept their cool but I could tell something worried them.
Thirty paces out one of the team let slip an, “Oh fuck.” I never saw him bend down and pick it up, and by mercy in the darkness I couldn’t see the details, but I could tell he held in his hand a human head.
“Set up a perimeter.”
Delta went to work putting hostages in the middle and forming a circle around them. I pressed through the busy soldiers and shell-shocked hostages to get a better look at the head before our medic stuffed it in a body bag. Not Mike. Where the fuck is he? What the fuck did that? Why didn’t we hear anything? What the fuck am I going to do?
My sanity slipped a belt, but luckily I caught it in time. I stopped. Bit down on my toothpick and made sure I kept my spells on. When my breathing slowed a tick, I allowed my magical senses to reach out. I had spent months learning to keep my focus, sometimes while Johnny played German opera at full blast in my ear. Sometimes while Mike took shots at me with a tennis ball machine. None of that helped me go more than a few seconds without thinking about that severed head, hair soaked in blood, one eye open.
They weren’t trying to mask themselves, at least not magically. I’m not sure they knew how. It’s like when you know a fly is buzzing around your head but you can’t see it. You know by the pitch and the volume how close it is and how fast it’s moving, but you never know exactly where. We failed to see the thing that hunted us because we looked at ground level. They travelled in the trees.
I turned right in time to see a branch wobble in the air like a diving-board. A few of the Delta must have heard it because they looked in that direction. A new sound interrupted our search, a fast yelp, then a gurgling noise. We spun to see one of the soldiers being lifted up into the air by his neck. The form of the assailant showed bright green in our goggles, a somewhat hunched and long limbed humanoid, holding the stricken man by the throat with one hand.
Weapons went to shoulders but nobody could sight around the victim dangling in front of our target. With the one hand he flung the dead man at us, hitting two Delta with the corpse, sending them to the ground. Those who could opened fire. In one leap it covered at least five meters to the next limb big enough to hold its weight, landing gracefully on both feet. Bursts of fire raged around me, and I managed to get a round off myself before the thing disappeared from view.
Silence from everyone.
The medic called out, “Man down.”
The hostages sniffled, lightly sobbed, but held together. I felt myself coming apart. I’ve seen this horror movie. The Asian guy dies.
Where the fuck is Mike?
I turned to Delta for support. They maintained a professional firing line, systematically searched the trees for targets, and did everything calmly and methodically according to their training. Their faces told the real story. Not fear or panic, just a dawning realization they were in over their heads. That left me as the only one still here holding half a clue as to what just happened. This realization sparked a heated debate between my conscience and my shaking hands and legs. Ingrained Chinese guilt won.
Dragging my feet, I inched out of the circle of soldiers to lessen the distractions and background noise. It took all my willpower to overcome my survival instinct, loosen the grip on my weapon and close my eyes. I reached out again and caught the buzz, two of them. They circled around us, looking for an opening.
It came on quick, the vibration at first faint and non-threatening, and in a millisecond filling my head and making my heart clench.
“There.” I pointed, lacking the vocabulary to call out the direction. I think I said it in a manly authoritative tone and not a girlish screech.
Delta wheeled and filled the air with bullets. By the time I opened my eyes I could see it falling from its perch. It must have taken a dozen hits but it still landed on its feet and keep moving until another volley of three round bursts brought it down. I don’t know what part of my reptile brain told me to hurry up and make sure it was dead, but I made it to the spot first since I stood the closest.
Looking at the creature caused vertigo. Its bizarre unwholesomeness was accentuated by its lack of clothing. The wrongness of it, the sheer, “I’m not supposed to exist outside of nightmares,” quality made me feel like I’d been sucker-punched. It took effort to look at it directly. The face, a mix of human and jungle cat, though the eyes burned an unhealthy green unlike any living creature. The teeth over-spilled its mouth forming a misshapen jaw. Tawny spotted fur covered the ropey muscles of a creature meant to slouch, its arms long enough to reach the ground as it walked. It wore layers of necklaces from which dangled teeth and carved fetishes. Hanging from a strap across its back, a well-kept AK-47.
The soldiers rushed behind me and upon seeing it averted their eyes like Dracula from a cross. In the time it took to look back the teeth had almost receded, and the fur turned to course hair. In a few more blinks the thing became something that could pass for human. The Delta team staggered and swayed, a crowd of camo-dressed frat boys returning from a football game.
“There’s more.” I said.
“Back to positions,” the leader said through the com.
Most of them brushed it off well, a few still looked ashen and disoriented. As I continued to stare at the body I wondered if I sometimes had that effect on people. I had probably saw the worst of it since I arrived a second before everyone else. Then I realized that it had come straight at me. Which meant in all likelihood it singled me out. They could sense me. I jumped back and rejoined the others.
As we settled into watch mode Chinese guilt crept up on me again. If they wanted me, I could lead them away from the group. Maybe that’s why Mike took off. Oh fuck.
I approached the Delta leader. “Um, ah….” I made a point of looking for his non-existent arm patches, not that I could decipher them most of the time.
He cocked his head for a second. “Lieutenant?”
“Lieutenant! Hey… I’m gonna… go.”
“Go? You mean you need to relive yourself.”
“No! Not that. I’m gonna… split off. Find some cover away from the group.”
The sheer insanity of it left him speechless.
“I’ll be okay. I just think I need to find my own way to the extraction point.”
“Sir, I think that would be an extraordinarily bad idea. I’m responsible for your safety.”
I knew by the look on his face I had just made the shittiest day in this man’s life even shittier. “Yeah, I know, but I think they are after me.”
I could only imagine what went through his head. “Are you sure?” He asked.
“No, I’m guessing. But even if I’m guessing it’s worth a shot drawing them away from the hostages.”
The implications crossed his brow. “All I can do is strongly suggest you do not follow that course of action.” The message was clear. He may not understand what the fuck is going on, but if there was even a half a fucking chance of protecting the civilians, he was for it.
“I’ll be careful. Good luck.”
With fifty pounds of lead in my boots I headed away, both Delta and the hostages giving the stare reserved for dead man walking. Leaving the circle of human beings felt like leaving the light for the darkness. Without their warmth and reassuring breath my insides churned turning into Jell-O. I pushed it out, concentrating on detecting the… I guess the were-jaguars, before they smelled me. The annoying insects in my face and the screeches of frightened jungle critters didn’t make it any easier. A monkey called out in terror and I wondered if the wetness at my crotch was perspiration.
After a few minutes stumbling the buzzing came back and I crouched low. It fluttered indistinctly, circling around me. I felt safe enough to poke my head up because of the distance. Just in time to see the muzzle flash.
It fired full-auto, strafing a line between the two trees I stood between. Before I could raise my weapon my eyes saw nothing but pure white and I felt something punch my chest hard enough to send me flying back, flat on my back. I flailed, panicking in those seconds when I couldn’t catch my breath, all the air pushed from my lungs. I heard my own gasps and the sound of Delta returning fire as the bright light turned to shooting stars in my eyes.
Fuck, they use guns too. Something about it though registered in my primal or magical instinct. They didn’t kill this way. They longed to use only their teeth and claws.
I rolled left, grabbing my rifle as I went.
It landed where I was a split second ago, claws tearing into the earth, hissing with rage. He had hit my chest plate on purpose. He wanted to knock me prone.
I pointed my rifle up from the ground without really aiming and squeezed off bursts as fast as I could. It leapt straight up and into the trees so fast I couldn’t tell if I hit it. I shot two more times blindly just to keep it off me while I got to my feet.
I had to get it together. I had to find a way to spot it before it spotted me. The only way to do that would be to close my eyes and willfully shut out all other senses and let my magic find the target. Mike and I practiced this on a shooting range a few times with less than stellar results. I only managed to hit the target, not anywhere in a kill zone, maybe one in five times.
Despite my orders to stay closed, my eyes kept blinking open every few seconds. Funny how that survival instinct works. When I got them to cooperate, the thunder of my heart prevented me from concentrating. I breathed as slow as I could and eventually my Kool-aid pump followed. Again, the light buzzing sound entered my perception. This time, I gave up on any chance to see it with my nightvision and kept following it with my magic sense. It became more distinct, then coalesced into a dot floating in the middle of blackness. Then it flared, charging me, turning into the light of an oncoming train.
My weapon came up. Two bursts. The light stopped and faded. I opened my eyes.
It’s green and white form sprang to its feet only two meters in front of me. I smelled the rage on its foul carrion breath. Despite its fury, it couldn’t leap on me. It dragged a ruined leg as it charged, claws out.
Its gimp gave me just enough time to fire once more, using my sight, hitting it square in the chest. It fell just inches short of my feet, its claws still slashing the air instinctively. I put three more rounds in its head. It twitched, then stopped.
I don’t know how long I stood there, my mind blank, overwhelmed by my almost not victory. My rifle felt lighter, so I reached for another magazine. My only warning came from its growl above my head.
I screamed in its face as the claws penetrated my shoulders and I followed its momentum to the ground. Bowels and bladder evacuated. I saw its jaw open and the impossible tangle of fangs spread wide. The teeth came bearing down. A forty-five went off in my ear.
Its head jerked to the side but the claws tightened making me spasm beneath it. Another gun blast and it released me, landing beside me and flopping on the ground like a fish on the deck, refusing to admit it was dead. Another blast and it stopped.
A hand came down and I weakly reached for it. It pulled me to my feet despite the protest of my shoulders.
“Nice shot, Topher.” Mike.
* * *
Mike stripped the were-jaguars of their magical paraphernalia while the medic dressed my wounds. The pressure bandages wrapped under my armpits felt uncomfortable and reassuring. The rest of the trip went smoothly.
While Delta signaled for our ride Mike patted me on the shoulder making me wince. Despite making up for my fuckery, he still felt the need to treat me like the kid brother.
“What are you grinning at, Topher?”
I couldn’t tell if it came from the new respect and awe given to us by our soldier friends, or the pain medication. I kept up that goofy expression until the choppers landed and I watched Delta help the hostages on board. One hostage didn’t need any. He deftly hopped up into the Blackhawk like it was about to ferry him to the airport for his summer at the beach.
Mike detected the change in my expression. “You did good here, Topher. We saved a lot of people. “
Mike went cold as Delta loaded two body bags. We looked at each other and said everything there was to say with no words at all.