Authors: James Hunter
Tags: #Men&apos, #s Adventure Fiction, #Fantasy Action and Adventure, #Dark Fantasy, #Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, #Thrillers and Suspense Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mystery Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mage, #Warlock
“Enough!” The word was a whip crack in the air. “The Morrigan is a powerful being and waging war with her could incite a large scale conflict with the greater Tuatha Dé Danann and their considerable allies in the Endless Wood. Not prudent. Better to let the slight go.”
“A slight?” The word tasted flat and sour in my mouth. “This is a person were talking about. And you’re just going to move for appeasement?” I turned to the assembled crowd. “It could be any one of you next time. Now that the Morrigan has shown that we won’t even protect our own, other monsters will come. You hear me? They’ll pick us off one at a time until we’re too weak to stop them.” I turned back to face the Council. “You just ask Hitler how well appeasement works.”
Arch-Mage Borgstorm was of Swiss and Polish descent and from the old-world, no less, so my remark had to have hit home.
“Remove him from the proceedings,” she said, her words calm, clipped, precise. “It is clear that Mage Lazarus is not currently of sound mind.”
Two men approached me from my left, a man and a woman closed from the right. I knew them all well, like family even. The other four members of the Fist of the Staff, the elite wet-works branch of the Guild. I was the fifth member.
“Let’s go Yancy, no need to make more of a scene here,” said the Fist Leader, Stanley Quinn, a stocky, powerfully built German man with a blunt face and muddy hazel eyes. Nearly as old as the arch-mage and hands down the best battle-mage the Guild had. I couldn’t take him in a fight if he was blindfolded, gagged, and had both arms and both legs tied behind his back. Scary good.
“How? How can you do this to me? You knew Ailia, how can you betray her like this?”
“Duty,” he said, creeping closer. “Our duty is to the wellbeing of the Guild first, and the Elder Council determines what is best for the whole Guild, not just a select few. Come now. We can finish this outside.”
I turned to the two approaching figures on the left, James Sullivan and Trisha Galindo. “You too?” I asked.
Trisha just nodded. James smiled an apology He was my friend, like a fucking brother. “It’s okay,” he said after a moment. “Let’s just get outta here, huh? Grab a drink, some excellent Scotch maybe, work through this. Look, I know this is bushwa too, Yancy, but now is not the time or the place. Let’s go. Blow off a little steam, maybe lite up a cigarette and get zozzeled.” Trisha nodded in encouragement with his words.
The betrayal worked its way into my gut, a sharp pang that kicked at my kidneys, a knife burning hot in my back.
“I’m done with all you cowardly sons of bitches. Done with you!” I screamed. “If you ever come to me again, I’ll nuke the whole fucking bunch of you!” Tears streamed down my face. These people were supposed to be my comrades, my family. I’d bled for them, left my real family for them. Given everything they’d asked and more. But now, when I needed them most? Finally, I saw the Guild for what it was—a load of shit. And it hurt. Deep, deep down.
Suddenly the members of the Fist were around me, except now they wore Ailia’s face, creamy white skin, soft green eyes with a few crow’s feet at the corners, and a big smile, all framed by waves of golden hair. I could smell the lilac scent of her skin. They were all over me, grabbing and pinching, tearing and biting. I beat at the four Ailias, desperate to have them off, frantic to be away from this friggin’ nightmare, from the pain of seeing her face again and the gut-wrenching agony of betrayal.
I conjured a construct of wind, propelling it outward with all the force I could muster, flinging the doppelgangers away in a sprawl of intertwined limbs. Then I ran, away from the council looking on in judgment without an ounce of pity, and fled toward the door and freedom.
The world seemed to turn on edge, the floor dropped away and the walls disappeared, replaced by dense jungle on all sides. An M-16 appeared in my slick hands—sweat, humidity, and fear making my grip unsure. I was hunkered down one knee, thick foliage all around me, obscuring my view, though I could easily hear the
clak, clak, clak
of automatic gunfire reverberating in the air around me. A
somewhere far to my right: a grenade detonating in wet green vegetation. Screams—always screams in firefights—though dim compared to the report of rifle fire.
I remembered this scene as well, just like the encounters with Lauren and the council. This was my first kill. I’d been separated from the platoon when the rounds started popping into the bushes and trees around us with thwacks
“Incoming fire!” Greg Chandler, my fireteam leader and bud, yelled, before pushing me hard, sending me into a tangle of jungle growth. Probably saved my life, again. The bark of rifles ripped into the air, and the louder
thud, thud, thud
of our M60 squad engaging. I low crawled into deeper cover, my belly dragging through sticky jungle muck. A scraggily grove of palms afforded me some shelter while I regained my bearing. This wasn’t my first firefight. My first had been when Martin died, blown all to hell by that 105 round. I’d taken a thigh full of shrapnel on the first go.
I’d been in plenty of firefights since though, and each and every one kinda felt like the first. Even with some experience, each gunfight basically amounted to a bunch of chaos and confusion. A horror show fueled by shaky-hand adrenaline—too many noises, too many sensations, distorted images, people everywhere and nowhere.
I pushed myself into kneeling, fumbling with my rifle, while I tried to slow down my panicked breathing. With one hand, I swiped sweat and dirt from my forehead and eyes, and brought my rifle up to the ready, pushing the muzzle alongside a tree trunk—
A branch snapped, just ahead of me, the ruffle of palm fronds being shoved aside.
Oh shit, oh shit!
I eased myself back into the prone—a lower profile meant less chance of taking a round—and crawled free of the palm grove, foot by tedious foot, angling in and toward the sound. I stopped behind a copse of tangled green, leveling my M-16, pressing my dirty cheek up against the butt-stock as I sighted in. He was in front of me, maybe thirty feet, an easy shot with a pistol—and with a rifle from the prone? I’d blast him back into whatever subterranean tunnel he’d pulled his ass out of. The shot was perfect, clean and clear, front sight post trained center mass. An easy kill.
Except my finger wouldn’t seem to work. The mutinous little jerk had stage fright or something.
The Viet Cong killed Martin, I reminded myself, murdered McClellan and Hall. I was here to send all these pajama-wearing, rice-farmer clowns into whatever hell they believed in. They deserved it. Commy shitheads.
Except my finger refused to pull the trigger.
Slow and steady squeeze
, I commanded with a nearly inaudible mutter. But nothing.
He was just a kid
, my finger seemed to argue. Shit, he looked younger than I did and I was just out of high school. Smooth-faced, this kid, with a narrow, caved-in chest, wearing one of those dirty and ill-fitting gray uniforms the VC slunk around in. Still. A kid. Probably didn’t have to shave more than once a month, tops. Fourteen or fifteen? Not old enough to have a steady girlfriend and certainly not old enough to be fighting in a war.
But he held a no-nonsense AK-47 in trembling hands, and had a little Chinese K-54 pistol tucked in the waistband of his trousers. Might’ve been a kid, but those weapons were all adult and all business.
Still, I hesitated. I’d been in a fair number of firefights, even sent some lead down range. But for all I knew, not one of those shots had ever found their mark. This was different … Intimate. Sure. Final. If I pulled that trigger, I’d kill him, I’d watch him die. No uncertainty to ease my conscience.
He stumbled forward, his face scrunched up in a grimace. I shifted, just a little. Somehow he heard me, heard the sound over the distant cries and the whiz of bullets. He raised the AK into his shoulder pocket, barrel trained at thigh height, sweeping the muzzle back and forth, eyes tracking the undergrowth.
Oh shit, oh shit!
The kid’s eyes widened as his gaze passed over my hiding spot. His finger twitched …
I pulled the trigger.
Pop, pop, pop
. Three quick shots—measured fire suppression, disciplined marksmanship—a tight grouping of gaping red wounds flowered on his sunken chest, tight around his heart. He looked around wildly, AK falling away while his hands explored the wounds for a moment. He coughed up a gout of blood and toppled over, chest heaving and racking, more red spurting out. It wasn’t like the movies. He didn’t drop dead instantly, nice and clean. I couldn’t pull my eyes away. He moaned for a while, the sound wet and choking.
Eventually, his twitching ceased.
Still in the prone, I turned my head and vomited my morning C-rats, ham and lima beans.
The kid’s body twitched.
That wasn’t right. He was dead, three to the chest, a tight group. I’d watched the life leak right outta his body. That was how it happened, that was what I’d seen so often before.
He sat up, and damn if he didn’t look different. He smiled and his jaw broke loose with a
, shifting and elongating until his mouth opened wide as a shark, rows and rows of jagged teeth glinting in the dusky green jungle light. He gained his feet, his arms dragging on the ground, too long by double, and capped with monstrous hands sporting spider-like fingers, each hollowed out.
What was this?
The creature—no longer just some young Vietnamese boy—sprang forward, leaping from tree to tree like a nightmare ape, before descending on me in a flurry of fingers and fangs. Teeth snapped into one of my arms while claws dug into the flesh around my ribs, seeking my heart like a barrage of homing missiles. I struggled weakly in its grasp. I needed to get it off me, but the pain was an alien presence clouding my thoughts.
After a moment, I bucked with a titanic effort, dislodging the unwelcome tick. He was still a lightweight, regardless of the other changes. I rolled onto my back, side drawing a little Smith and Wesson 15 from its leather holster at my belt—the gun had been a gift from my wife, sent all the way from the States. The creature crawled forward, his knees now inverted, allowing him to scuttle toward me like a monstrous crab.
I brought the pistol up in both hands, taking aim. The creature’s eyes, now strangely purple, seemed to mock and accuse me:
Will you kill me again?
You already murdered me once. Can you do it again? You know this is what you deserve. This punishment is right. Why fight?
The words weren’t quite an audible voice, more like a whisper somewhere back in my mind, but I was sure the creature
speaking to me.
I pulled the trigger, squeezing off all six rounds, littering the torso and head with bullet wounds. I never could have done this to Lauren or the boys, I couldn’t hurt them, not ever. But this kid? I regretted his death, carried it around with me like a scar, but it’d been the right move. He was a child and he shouldn’t have been there. But I’d been a child too, and in that instant it was him or me. One of the worst memories of my life, but I’d do it again just the same. Sometimes you regret a thing, but know deep down that it was still the best thing, the only thing, you could do. This was like that.
The beast collapsed in a heap. It hadn’t expected me to shoot. Something clicked in my head and I knew what was happening here. When the creature, which had once been a boy, finally passed, a purple-black tether—sort of like an umbilical cord—shimmered into existence. The cord extended from the boy’s skull, snaking back into the jungle canopy like some grotesque python. There, in the trees: the cord connected to the rounded belly of the shadow creature I’d first sensed in the subterranean tunnels and later glimpsed in the living room of my old house. Except now I could see her clearly, she could no longer shield my mind from the truth.
Long legs and arms, a flabby belly and a pair of sagging breasts, all covered in purpled flesh, the color of a fresh bruise. Great gray wings jutted from her shoulders, oddly fluffy and elegant. Her face seemed equal parts human and owl, wide purple eyes flashing with human intelligence set above a sharp, tearing beak where a nose and mouth should’ve been.
Just my luck—a friggin’ harpy.
Forest of Suicides
The harpy fled, leaping from tree to tree, the tight jungle canopy restricting her from taking to wing. She was pushing at me with her mind, trying to force me back, force me out of the mental link and into my own body again. Harpies liked to operate from a place of power, using illusion, regret, and fear to dominate their prey—feeding off the hurt and terror. Once you saw past their tricks, however, they could be harmed.
As the harpy darted away, the Vietnamese bush began to twist and distort, thick and winding green giving way to a forest of gnarled, stunted, black trees—warped things that both mimicked and mocked the human body. There were faces on those trees, each one screwed up in a grimace of agony. In life, these trees had been men and women. Dante’s Forest of Suicides, home to the harpies, though not all the victims here were suicides, contrary to the forest’s nomenclature. Here were murderers, child abusers, drug addicts, and, yes, suicides. People filled to the brim with regret, each and every one.
The harpies waylaid such wandering souls, rooting them here in the forest, feasting until the regret was all eaten up, the souls just empty husks.
The trees were widely spaced, and the harpy lost no time in launching herself into the air, her great wings flapping in long powerful bursts. My power was weak here—Vis comes at least in part from the body, the material—but I could still feel it, a long way off and obscured by a thick veil of fog. Not beyond reach though, and I’d be damned if I was gonna let this owl-faced-bitch fly away scot-free. No sir. I opened myself to the deep power, feeling it trickle in.