“Nice day, huh, Sullivan?” Mitchell, the Humvee driver, asks me. He’s a few years older than me, which means just old enough to have beer back home. The guy is about as average as you can get; brown hair and eyes, five-ten, and weighed in at a buck seventy.
I chuckle and give him flat look. “Yeah, it’s only 108 today,” I say. “And we haven’t taken any fire in an hour. I love spring in Iraq.”
“Don’t forget about the sand in all your nooks and crannies,” Johnson says from the turreted fifty-caliber. “Two tours here and I still can’t figure out how it gets into the places it does.” He’s tall, has a shaved head, and is two hundred and twenty pounds of solid muscle, but with the grace of a gymnast. In short, he’s imposing, which is why he’s in the turret. Well, that and he’s the best shot with the fifty. And once you get to know him, you find out he’s also the funniest guy you’ll ever meet.
I’ve been in the sandbox for only a few months, but it’s been more than enough to know you have to laugh, especially on these convoy missions.
“I wish we had one of those v-hull rigs the marines get,” I say.
“Stow the chatter,” Sarge says. “I don’t like the look of—”
It all happens so fast, no warning at all: the first Humvee goes up in a ball of flame, someone yells “IED!” over the radio, and then there’s sporadic gunfire, and more explosions all around us.
It becomes a full-on Charlie Foxtrot in record time. That’s the alphanumeric for the letters C and F. For the civilians, the C stands for cluster. You can figure out the F.
Then, everything goes black.
“Kid, can you hear me?”
I can hear the voice, but it’s miles away.
My brain is a jumble. I’m not sure where I am or what’s happening, but I know I shouldn’t be lying down, or sleeping, or whatever I’m doing. Sarge will be pissed if he catches me.
“Nonresponsive,” someone else says.
“Three, Six, provide cover, we’ll get the wounded inside,” the first voice says.
“Yes, sir,” two voices say in unison.
“Four, soon as we’re in, I want wards up.”
At first I think maybe this is an exercise. But when someone grabs the drag handle on my vest and I’m being pulled along, pain surges through my body, worse than anything I’ve ever felt. I hear someone cry out. A moment later, I realize it’s me. It takes all my focus, but I manage to kick my brain into gear and open my eyes. The world is a stuttering blur of dust and dirt and blood and fire, like a movie with half of every second missing. There are two guys, I think they’re friendlies, but they’re not wearing standard Army Combat Uniforms. Their ACUs are all black. They’re taking cover behind a seriously mangled Humvee, but they’re not holding any weapons. I see the rest of my detail all around me. None of them are moving, except the ones being dragged by more of the men in black.
One moment my memory’s all haze, then next it’s clear. My brain latches on to my training when I spot my rifle and I grab it, though the movement sends even more pain through me.
I look back to the two taking cover behind the Humvee wreckage just as I’m being dragged into a building. I’m pretty sure no one uses flame throwers anymore, and I don’t see a tank on either guy’s back, but one of them is spraying a jet of fire out of his hand. They must be spec-ops, right? Some kind of new weapon system the grunts haven’t seen yet?
As I’m dragged over the doorway, my body bounces. I wince and grit my teeth. For a moment, everything goes white and I have to fight to get my senses back. But I never let go of my rifle. Sarge would be proud of that much, at least.
I hear a voice through the pain.
“Can you hear me, kid?”
I nod, since I can’t seem to get anything out from my clenched jaw. It feels like a month before I get the upper hand on the agony. Someone props me up against a wall. I take a slow breath, then open my eyes. I’m in one of the many buildings lining the street; old and gutted, typical for this area of Iraq.
“I know that look,” a voice says and I recognize it as the one giving orders outside. “That’s a good sign, kid.”
I look up and see one of the guys in black ACUs standing over me. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he has a hood as part of the uniform, so all I can see are some scars.
“You’re hit, but it’s not bad. We’re gonna take care of you. Don’t worry,” he says.
“My squad?” I ask.
“Looks like three others are alive. They’re in rough shape, but I think they’re going to make it if we can get an evac.”
He doesn’t mention the other six of my squad. I don’t have to ask what that means.
“Who are you guys?” I ask through gritted teeth. Anger is making it easier to push back the pain and I’m noticing more details around me. I scan his uniform for patches. There’s no branch or rank detail. There’s just a unit patch, but it’s nothing I recognize. It looks like concentric circles with a Star of David inside and a bold “1” in the center of the star. Each circle is filled with odd script I don’t recognize. It might be Hebrew, but I didn’t think the Israelis had anyone here. And I wouldn’t think their patches would be black with deep red stitching. I look, but don’t see a flag.
“We’re friendlies,” he says, noticing me checking his uniform.
I haven’t been out of boot long, but I know “you don’t need to know” when I hear it. If these guys aren’t Americans, they sure fake the accent well.
I almost jump out of my skin when I hear what sounds like a freight train outside. It’s followed by an explosion that shakes the whole building. Dust falls around me, and I grip my rifle waiting for the walls and roof to follow suit.
The team leader moves away, speaking into a throat mike and listening to an earpiece, but I don’t see any cords or radios on him. I look around and see four others, all in the same black, hooded uniforms. One is, well, it looks like he’s drawing something on the walls with white chalk, more circles and Hebrew-esque letters, while the other three move out of the room and back to the entrance. I look away, and that’s when I see Johnson, Mitchell, and the Sarge lying nearby. They’re not moving, and they’re covered in blood. I stare at Sarge for a long while. He’s in his forties, late forties, with weathered brown skin that looks more like leather. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever met, and I sort of expected bullets and shrapnel to just bounce off him. Seeing him like that does more to rattle me than anything else so far.
I check my rifle and my ammo supply. Weapon status red, ready to fire. Deep breath. I’ve got two magazines on me. Not much ammo, but I’ll make it count.
“Get Three and Six in here,” the team leader says over the sound of gunfire outside. “Then I want full wards up around the room. All elements covered, just in case those bastards have a mystic with them.”
“Yes, sir,” says the one drawing on the walls.
There’s the sound of, well, like a huge electrical arc followed by a boom of thunder that shakes the building. Moments later the team reassembles on the far side of the room. I count seven of them, and notice each has a different number on his unit patch.
“Sit-Rep,” the team leader, who has a “1” on his patch, asks the one with a “4” on his.
“The rest are angels, sir,” he says. “I count at least five IEDs used, all Monday, but these guys didn’t have a chance. Frankly, it’s a miracle any of them are still—”
“I’m not a child,” I say, gritting my teeth. “You don’t have to talk like I’m not—”
“Settle down!” One says. He looks at me, then at my nametape. “Sullivan. I’m sorry for your squad, but you’re in the middle of shit you can’t even begin to process.”
His tone does more to shut me up than the words themselves.”
We’re going to do everything we can to get you and your squad out of here, all of them. But you need to sit back and let us do our job.” His eyes go hard and bore into me. “Do you understand me, private?”
“Yes, sir,” I say more out of instinct. In a moment of panic I’m back in basic training, and calling the drill sergeant “sir”. One doesn’t glare, or scream at me that he works for a living, so he’s probably an officer.
He nods then turns back to his team. I can hear them speaking, but it’s too quiet for me to make out. And that’s when I notice something missing from their gear, and my stomach drops through the floor.
“Christ, you don’t have any weapons!” I say. Not a one of them has so much as a side arm.
One glares at me, and I go silent again. I can’t tell you why, but I now know this guy doesn’t need a rifle, or any kind of gun, to bring a world of hurt down on someone. Honestly, he scared the shit out of me. And he said he was a friendly.
“Are the wards up?” One asks without look away from me.
“We’re sealed tight,” Four, the one who’d been drawing on the walls, says from the doorway.
I blink and stare, but nothing changes. The odd writing that covers the walls now also covers the doorway, but there’s no door. It’s just hanging in the air.
“Who the hell are you guys?” I want to ask, but have enough sense not to. I’m dense, but I eventually learn.
One nods then walks over and crouches down to look me in the eye. “Look, Sullivan, I don’t know who the hell sent your convoy through here today, but we’re on the same side, and we’re gonna help.”
“I sense a monster ‘but’ coming, sir,” I say.
He nods and smiles a little. “But, you can’t ask any questions. Suffice it to say, we don’t exist.” He looks at me for a long while. Through the shadow of his hood, I see his blue eyes, and they almost look to be filled with swirling, faintly luminescent white clouds. “Try not to move, our man’s gonna see to you and your squad, then we’ll try to get you out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” I say. When in doubt, shut up and follow orders.
He stands then turns to Two and nods at Sarge. “Check him first.”
“On it,” Two answers then pulls a pedant of bronze or copper with a vividly clear and bright blue stone set in the center from a utility pouch. He wraps the long chain, of the same metal as the pendant, around his hand a couple of times and crouches over Sarge. With care and gentleness that seems at odds with the circumstances, he places the pendant on Sarge’s chest. A blue light surrounds the still form of the massive man who put the fear of God in me every day, and who I thought was invincible.
A moment later, I remind myself to keep breathing.
“Shrapnel, hit three times. Some internal bleeding,” Two says and nods. “I can stabilize him.” He pauses for a moment. “Check, he should be okay.”
“Good,” One says then turns to Five. “Any sign of Sierra Novembers?”
“That’s negative, sir,” Five says from a window, a hint of Louisiana bayou in his voice. “I see Monday forces only.”
I stare, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing, but I can’t. Five is just standing there, right in front of the window with no cover at all. But somehow, he isn’t drawing any fire. And what the hell are Sierra Novembers?
I look at Sarge, still glowing, and the pendant on his chest. Then I think back to the flame thrower, or what I thought was a flame thrower. That’s when I realize that Five wasn’t saying “Monday” like the day, he was saying “mundane.” A chill runs through me and I start breathing fast. This has to be the result of serious head trauma. Or a dream, a truly messed up dream. I feel One’s eyes on me. When I look up at him, I figure it out, the words just pop into my head. I’m not able to meet his eyes but I know I’m right. Sierra Novembers: super naturals.
In the middle of shit you can’t even begin to process, he’d said. Talk about the understatement of the century.
“This one knocked his head pretty bad,” Two says as he looks over Mitchell. “Possible cerebral hemorrhage, I’m going to pause him till the mundane medics can get here.”
I watch as he traces his finger over Mitchell’s chest, leaving white symbols behind like glowing finger paint.
“They’re closing around us,” another says.
“Sir, if I can get on the roof, I can rain some flame down and thin the buggers out,” says one with a British accent and a “3” on his patch.
One nods. “Go.”
Three turns and runs out of the room.
“This one isn’t so bad.”
I see Two kneeling over Johnson. Two pulls another pendant out, this one silver with a yellow stone in the center, and sets it on Johnson’s forehead. “Just blast damage, he’ll be fine in time.” Two stands and comes over to me.
“What’d you do?” I ask, looking at the others. Sarge still has a glow on him, Mitchell still has the symbols on him and now Johnson seems to be glowing like the Sarge, but instead of blue, he’s yellow.
“No questions, soldier, you heard One.” I see a smile from the shadows of his hood. “Hold still.” He passes a hand over me.
I feel a jolt of cold and flinch. I haven’t felt cold since I got to the sandbox. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.
“Three, no four broken ribs, pulled muscles, and some light shrapnel damage to your left deltoid,” Two says. “Do you feel any pain?”
“A twinge here and there,” I say through clenched teeth.
He chuckles. “Okay, just keep breathing, that’s the secret to staying alive.” He reaches into another pouch and pulls out a green clump. It looks like something a horse would leave behind. He pushes it to my mouth. “Eat this.”
“It looks like horse shit!” I protest.
“Tastes like it too, but it isn’t. It’ll help with the pain.” He holds it in front of my mouth.
After a bit of consideration I decide that even if it is horse shit I don’t care, as long as it helps the pain. I open up and he pushes it in. I’ve never tasted horse shit, but it’s how I imagine it’d taste. I swallow and immediately, truly immediately, I feel the pain fade. I look at Two, dumbfounded.
“Told you.” Two says and then stands up. “Causalities are treated and stable, sir.”
“Good.” One says. “I imagine this is confusing as all hell, private. The only thing I’ve been cleared to tell you is we’re with the American Military. I’m One, that’s Two, our medic. Three is on the roof with Seven, and that’s Four, Five, and Six.” He motions to the three other men in the room who nod in turn.
“How many of you are there? Can I ask that, sir?”
“Seven, always seven.” One answers.
“Well, I’m glad you were there, sir. We’d be dead by now if you hadn’t been.”
One doesn’t answer, he just nods. It’s obvious he’s still upset we were here at all, but that’s one ass chewing that’s above my pay grade, thankfully.
I try to get to my feet. I wait for the pain to hit me again when I move, but it never does.
“Whoah! Take it easy,” Two says, coming to me. “Just ‘cause you don’t feel it doesn’t mean the injuries are gone.”
“I gotta get up.” I say. “Please.”
One nods and Two helps me stand. I walk to the window and look out. It’s the first I’ve gotten to see the situation. The line of Humvees are still on fire and barely recognizable. I try, and fail, not to see the bodies still in them. I turn from the scene, trying not to notice the smell. I can see small groups of hostiles wandering around outside. They look my way and I duck behind the wall.
No one shoots, and when I look up, One and Two haven’t moved at all.
“What the hell?” I poke my head back out and watch more. They look right at me, and then move past like I wasn’t there.
“Can’t say,” One says, but he’s smiling a little now. “Sorry.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see flashes of red and turn to see small streaks of flame raining down from the sky into the street. They look like little comets, dozens of them. They hit hostiles and explode. The blasts send the hostiles flying in all directions.
“Who’s your radio man?” One asks me.
“Sir?” I ask, not looking away. My brain doesn’t seem able to accept what I’m seeing.
“Your radio,” he asks again, more force in his words. “Who had your radio?”
My head snaps back to him and I answer without thinking. “Cruz, sir. Lance Corporal Cruz.”
“Four, Six,” One says.
“Sir?” they answer in unison.
“Get out there and see if you can find that radio, and if it’s still operational. We need to evac these people.” One says.
“Yes, sir.” They exit the room and I watch as they emerge on the street moments later.
“Step back from the window, son.” One says.
“Sir?” I ask.
“You’re not cleared for what you’ll see, private,” he says.
“What are—” I don’t get to finish my sentence. I hear gunfire outside. I instinctively take cover, but can’t keep myself from looking back, peeking around the window frame. I see one of them, Four I think, moves his hand in a circle and the bullets actually curve around him, striking nearby buildings. Six punches the air, and I see two cars surge forward, as if kicked by a giant, and hit a group of hostiles.
“Sullivan, step away from the window.” One says to me again with no room in his tone for debate.
He’s pulled his hood back. He’s in his fifties and has a crew cut with gray in it. That isn’t what gets my attention, though. It’s his blue eyes, in particular how they seem almost transparent, letting me see the swirling, bright white clouds behind them.
“You’re wizards,” I say. “I played Dungeons and Dragons in junior high—”
“I can’t answer that,” One says. “We’re called the Legion of Solomon, and you’re going to be told in your debriefing that you never saw us.” He looks at me unblinking. “You heroically pulled your squad mates into shelter and held up till help arrived. You’ll probably get a medal.” One says.
It takes a moment for me to put it all together. I realize just how much slack he’s cutting me, so I step back from the window and nod. “Yes, sir,” I say, softer than I intended.
“Contact, bloody Sierra Novembers!” says a clipped British voice, soon followed by Three barreling back into the room.
“Say again,” One says, though it’s obvious he heard well enough.
“We have a two incoming mystics, sir,” Three says. “I caught their smell then I saw them. They’re leading a group of about ten insurgents, all mundanes. Bloody mystics must’ve figured out how to hide from us.”
“We need to get clear of this building. They’ll bring it down on top of us if we stay here.” One says. At that moment Four, and Six come back in the room.
“The radio?” One asks.
“Right here, sir.” Four says holding it up.
“Huddle up,” One says.
Five and Seven enter the room and everyone gathers around One.
“Listen up, people, we’ve got incoming hostiles: two mystics, probably working in tandem, and ten mundanes, probably followers.”
There’s a round of muttered curses from the team.
One turns to Two. “Get the best ward you can over the wounded.”
“Five and Six, you two get them off the ground so we can move them fast,” One says, then looks at them hard. “You make sure they don’t get hit again, you hear me?”
Both men nod.
One continues. “Since we’re moving, the wards won’t be as strong. When they’re up, you each move one of the men. Two, you get the one on pause.”
“Three, you call for a medevac, no delays. I want birds in the air before you hang up, got me?” One asks.
“Done and done,” Three says.
I can’t stand sitting on the sidelines anymore while “the grownups” make plans. “What can I do to help, sir?” I ask.
“This is out of your league, kid,” Seven answers. I can’t see his face, but I feel his glare.
“Besides you’re hurt,” Two says, more gently. “Even if you can’t feel it.”
“Sir,” I say to One. “With all due respect, this is what’s left of my squad and I can’t just sit on my hands. Sir.”
One takes a deep breath then looks me up and down. After a moment he turns back to his team. “Okay. Three and Four, you’re with me. We focus on those mystics and bring them down. Hit hard and fast, don’t give them a chance to breathe.”
“Yes, sir,” both men answer.
“Sullivan.” One turns to me. “Get what ammo you can off your buddies, and keep an eye out for any loose magazines outside. . Don’t spend much time scrounging, focus on the mund— the insurgents.”
“Yes, sir.” I pick up my rifle and check it again.
One is saying something to the others while I check Mitchell, Johnson, and the Sarge for ammo. Johnson and Mitchel are dry, but God bless Sarge, he has four mags stuffed in various pockets.
“Everyone ready?” One asks.
“Hooah,” I say.
Two, Five, and Six move over to my squad mates gesture over them. The three still forms slowly lift off the ground, stopping at about two feet.
I just stare and think back to that kid’s game, what was it called? “Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” that’s right. I don’t imagine anyone ever played it like this, though.
Two, Five, and Six each draw something on the chests of the floating men. When they seem happy with whatever is they’ve done, the three of them move towards the door. The three injured, unconscious men float behind them like tethered balloons.
Best story ever and I’ll never be able to tell it to anyone.
“Move, now!” One shouts.
We burst from the doorway, and everything slows down.
A group comes around the corner a few buildings down. I see nearly a dozen with AKs and two in the front wearing Arab style robes. They look unarmed.
I take aim and open fire on the group, the ones who have AKs. A couple go down and the others return fire.
One throws his hand forward and I feel my hair stand up. There’s a cracking sound and a huge lightning bolt, at least it looks huge to me, leaps from his hand, striking one of the robed figures. The bolt sends the man flying several feet, tumbling in the air like a ragdoll. The bolt then forks, hits two hostiles’ weapons, and surges through them into the men themselves. The other robed figure makes a motion, and as a fork heads for him, he deflects it into the ground.
I take cover when the return fire starts, some of which happens to be actual fire.
When there’s a lapse, I pop out and lay down suppressive fire of my own, though mine is strictly the 5.56 millimeter copper alloy slug variety.
“Go, get the wounded to the extraction point!” One says.
Three sweeps his hand out in front of him. A gust of wind blasts the ground, sending sand into a cloud.
“Incoming!” one of the team shouts.
I look up to see a fireball come screaming through the conjured sandstorm. I leap for cover and feel a stab of pain. Guess the horse shit is wearing off. There’s an explosion, and I feel heat on my back. I turn over and see the building we just left blasted to rubble.
One orders us back. I empty the last of my mag into the group, drop it, and load another as we begin moving away in a covering pattern.
Four steps into the street and turns to the group, who’s scattered for cover of their own. He brings up his arms and then down quickly. One building being used for cover collapses like a can being crushed under foot.
The fight goes on like that for what feels like weeks, but is probably less than a couple minutes. I take cover, fire, take cover, fire. All the while the wizards around me toss fire, lightning, air, or buildings and various wreckage. I lose track of how often I fire, and reload, until I notice I’m on my last mag. I focus, conserving my ammo for good shots as we continue our retreat. I can’t even see the three wounded, but that’s a comfort. That means they’re behind me and closer to extraction. The last robed figure steps out and hurls a ball of what looks to be just pulsing light. One leaps forward and sweeps his arm out. The light bounces off something and hits a building. There’s a flameless explosion and the building shatters into dust. The shockwave hits me, indirectly, but that’s enough.
“Focus on the mystic,” One says. “Drop the bastard!”
One, Three, and Four move to the street, I take shots at any hostile who gives me a target. One makes an X out of his arms, then opens them quickly, and Three and Four both drive their fists into the ground. A giant hand of sand and stone reaches from the ground and grabs the mystic.
Without thinking, I take aim at the trapped mystic and open fire, three quick shots.
There’s a red spray as the body jerks in the earthen hand. In a moment, the hand collapses and the mystic’s body follows suit.
Someone screams a phrase I know all too well. I take cover just as the hostiles begin their death blossom: opening fire on full auto in our general direction.
I hear the bullets zip by and hit the wall behind me. When I look up, I see my wounded squad, but they’re on the ground and there’s no sign of the Legion.
Panic hits me as I realize I’m alone and hopelessly outnumbered. It might’ve started at ten, but some passersby must’ve join in because I hear what must be twenty voices screaming at me.
“Hell with it,” I say. I pop up and fire.
My rifle barks twice then goes silent.
I take cover again, and try to figure out my options. It doesn’t take a genius to know I’ve run dry. I hear them in the street, taking position to move on me.
I toss my rifle and grab my sidearm. It’s better than nothing, and at least I’ll go fighting. A couple deep breaths to steady my nerves and I listen; I have to let them get close.
That’s when I hear a loud barking, and I smile like a kid on Christmas at the beautiful, familiar sound of a Browning M2 50 caliber machine gun opening up.
I look and see four Humvees rolling down the street towards me. The two in the front are laying down lines of fire. I sit on the ground, back against the wall, and start laughing. I look at Mitchell, Johnson, and Sarge. The pendants and glowing writing are gone. At this point, I’m not even sure I didn’t just imagine the whole thing.
“Private, you hit?”
A medic is standing over me.
“I’m okay for now, get them in first,” I say, motioning to the three on the ground.
In seconds, the three are on stretchers and loaded in the back of the Humvees. I go to stand and all the pain that was gone just minutes before is back, with a vengeance. I’m having trouble breathing.
“Lay down,” another medic says to me. A second medic runs up with a stretcher. I know I can’t stand so I start to do as he says. Then the pain overwhelms me and I fall over. They move quickly, getting the stretcher under me.
All I see is dark sky and I feel myself being bounced as they load me into the Humvee. I manage to turn my head and see Mitchell on my right.
“We’ve got them, move out.” I hear someone say. We lurch forward and speed down the road.
“What happened?” I hear someone ask.
“Ambush,” I say. “IEDs, lots of them.”
“Don’t worry, brother, we got another team rolling in for the rest of the convoy. We won’t leave them out there,” the voice says.
“How’d you hold them off?” another voice asks.
I take a deep breath and feel stabbing pain. “I can’t tell you.”
“It’s alright,” the first voice says. “It’s common to have holes in your memory after something like that. You saved your buddies’ lives, though.”
“Hope so,” is all I can say.
“You’ll probably get a medal for it.”
“That’s what I hear.” It had to have been real, right? I couldn’t have hallucinated something like that.
“Fritzy, you hear thunder?” the voice asks.
“I think so, but there isn’t a cloud in the sky,” Fritzy answers.
“Man, there’s some seriously weird shit going down today,” the first voice says.
“You got no idea,” I say too quietly for anyone to hear. I look over at Mitchell. “You’re lucky you’ll miss out on the debriefing. That’s going to be fun.”