Lucas cracked a green glowstick to illuminate the big room at least a little bit. He was covering the door at the end of the room, PVS-14 on; he hadn’t forgotten someone in the hole had shot him a short time ago. The human form that had been, well, born by the giant monster was nowhere to be seen.
Dare was examining Johnson, and Farro was bemoaning their lack of water, when something occurred to Lucas. “Hey, how come you can do magic down here now?” he asked Dare.
“Not sure,” Dare said absently. “Whatever was suppressing me is gone.”
“Huh. How’s Johnson?”
“I’m not a medic or an exorcist,” Dare shrugged. “But he’s been, I don’t know, infected I suppose. You said he got stabbed in the back by Sergeant Weller, right?”
“Yeah, just missed his kidney.”
“Two things about that. First of all, the wound has closed up completely.”
“What? It was yesterday!” Lucas said. “What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure,” Dare said, quietly. “The other thing is, well—what the hell did he get stabbed with? A rock? It’s a really weird looking scar. Real jagged.”
Lucas just shrugged. “Can you get in touch with the unit? We can’t stay here much longer.”
“Yeah, probably. I’ll put in a call to Stone.”
Dare’s “putting in a call” turned out to mean lying on his back, eyes closed, head propped on a pack. Lucas saw him draw out something he wore around his neck on a thong and hold it tightly over his heart.
Farro had stopped moaning about his thirst, so it was silent for several minutes before Dare sat up.
“Good news is Stone believes me about what happened. Bad news is that lieutenant already called in to the FOB, and the local commander has put out a BOLO, unofficially a shoot-on-sight order on us. We’re dead men if they catch us.”
“Well, fuck.” Lucas and Farro said together.
Four days later
All three of the conscious men had fallen into a torpor after days in the dark. Dare had been able to get them water, but they were out of food. They sat in the dark because the sounds that came from beyond the door at the end of the room—Dare had blocked it up with stone—when the room was visibly lit were too disconcerting to tolerate.
The only light the soldiers saw was through the shared PVS-14 they were using for guard duty. They’d stripped the batteries from the others just in case the monoculars drained them even when turned off. Johnson’s pack had held a large supply of IR chemlights, which provided useful light for the NVGs.
Lucas jerked as a loud crunch sounded above him, and several chunks of rock clattered to the stone floor of the room they’d been living in. He shined his weaponlight—with a red lens filter—at the ceiling, and spotted the hole. It was pitch black above ground.
“Sun!” he said, finger on the trigger of his carbine.
“Devil.” came the calm reply. “It’s Stone. Time to get you out of dodge.”
Stone wasn’t alone. He had several other wizards with him, and shortly had all four men out of the hole. They piled into two Toyota SUVs, with most of the wizards in the lead vehicle, and Lucas and his men in the rear vehicle. They’d had to haul Johnson—who still had not woken up, but who seemed fine despite his lack of food or water—into the back cargo area.
Lucas couldn’t understand how the drivers could see. Their lights were off, and it was a cloudy night, so it was almost pitch black. None of the wizards had night vision. More magic, he supposed.
Eric Stone, the de facto leader of the combat wizards in northern Iraq, was driving their vehicle. He was a stocky, muscular man, with a salt and pepper beard to go with his shaved head, and light blue eyes. He did most of the talking, explaining what had happened since Dare had gotten in touch with him.
The news was grim. The convoy they’d escaped had hauled the bodies of their section-mates into the FOB, and their platoon first section had found Sergeant Weller as well, back in the cave where they’d gone missing. It was popularly believed that Lucas, Farro, and Johnson had fragged their team leader, then tried to run for Turkey. The story was the rest of the section had followed them, but had been lured into a terrorist ambush by the renegade team, and ultimately killed in a firefight.
“You boys need to go dark, for good,” Stone said, heavily. “I’ve got connections. But you need to be dead, you understand me? We’ll help you, but you need to forget who you are. If you don’t, you will be dead for real. Word has already leaked back to the States. Outrage is hardly the word for the public mood.”
“Can’t we prove we didn’t do it?” Farro protested.
“You did do it, in all the ways that matter,” Stone said. “I saw those bodies. They were shot to dog meat. Nobody’s going to do an autopsy on them.”
“What about Weller? He was possessed! Dude came back to life, for God’s sake.” Lucas said, angrily.
“Well, his body is in the morgue now. What’s done is done, boys. I’m sorry. I’m not in the chain of command, and the FOB commander simply is not listening to me. What I’m doing here? This is all I can do for now.”
The team was silent for the rest of the trip. After about an hour, they pulled to a stop.
“Where are we?” Farro asked, getting out of the SUV with the rest.
“With friends,” Stone said, simply. “We’re near the Turkish border. Someone will be down soon.”
The moon peaked out from the clouds briefly and they could see the suggestion of building on the dark mountains above them. Dare talked quietly with some of the other wizards, but Lucas and Farro stood silently at the rear of their SUV, waiting.
After another half hour or so, a light began bobbing its way down the hill. It soon resolved into a oil lantern, carried on a staff. Several men were visible in the dim yellow light it cast. The men behind the leader were carrying something long and narrow.
The men were a strange sight. They looked powerfully built and wore long, dark cloaks despite the warmth of the night. Other than the man in front carrying the lantern, their hoods were up.
A glint caught Lucas’s eye as the man with the lantern reached them, and he realized the man was wearing a sword at his waist. The light had glinted off the steel pommel. He raised his eyebrows, but kept silent.
“Well met,” the leader said in accented English. “Who have you brought us, Eric?” He jammed the lantern staff into the ground, removed his glove—gauntlet, really, Lucas thought—and shook Stone’s hand.
“These boys ran into some problems, and they need to disappear. They’ll tell you all about it.” He introduced the men, and the leader shook their hands in turn, greeting them.
“I vouch for them,” Stone continued. “They’ve been working with my guys. We need to get back. Will you help them?”
“Of course,” the leader said. “We would not have brought the stretcher down if we were unsure of them,” he said, mysteriously.
The men behind him, who had been standing silently, unfolded the thing they’d been carrying. It was an old-fashioned wooden stretcher that looked like it dated to about World War One. They brought it to the rear of the SUV and began gently unloading Johnson’s still-bound form.
“Can you help him?” Lucas asked the leader, who had not yet given his name.
“It’s too early to say,” the man said. “Come, my friends. We should not linger here at night.”
Stone assured them he would be in touch, then joined one of his men in his SUV and drove off.
Lucas, Dare, and Farro shared uneasy looks, but followed the cloaked men up the hill.