Flashback: Siren Song

Summary:

The year is 1969. Yancy Lazarus—bluesman, gambler, future world-class mage and fix-it man—is just a dumb, unlucky kid serving with the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines in Vietnam.

With just a few weeks left to go until Yancy gets shipped back to the States, he’s just trying to keep his head down and avoid a body bag—no mean feat in Nam. But when his squad is tasked with conducting a routine patrol deep in enemy territory, everything goes to nine kinds of hell, and he quickly sees his chances at survival slipping away.

When the radio operators start to pick up some funky, dirty ol’ blues all the way out in the backcountry, it’s a nice change of pace. At least until the men in Yancy’s squad start losing their minds, turning on each other with murderous intent as the music works its deadly power within them. Convinced it’s some kind of new psychological warfare initiative, the squad leader forces the men to push deeper and deeper into the Vietnamese jungle, obsessed with locating the music’s source. What they find, however, isn’t some new technology, but an ancient spirit awoken by the terrible war. Even worse, the music is changing Yancy too, awakening something buried inside of him. Only one thing is certain, nothing is ever going to be the same.

See how it all began …

ONE:

That Funky Music

The music was back again, drifting through the humid jungle air, dancing between twisting vines and groves of palms, sending a railroad spike of fear into my guts. It’d been a good long while since I’d heard a decent set of tunes—and the band, whoever they were, were way past decent—but I’d been hoping, praying even, that there would be no music tonight. The music meant death was coming.

Tonight it was a feisty up-tempo number, a big band piece from the 40s—the Andrew Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein.” The fat horns blared their brassy call, tones bouncing back and forth like a smooth-dancing zoot suit man. The trombone, in turn, squawked and warbled while the player worked his plunger. A clarinet, just a skosh off-key, cried and wailed like a caged songbird in time with the tinkle of black and whites. The sound was oddly distorted as it floated through the Vietnamese bush. And underneath it all a bass thumped out a steady rhythm, like the pumping of some giant heart. I could feel that bass all the way into my bones, like the noise came right up from the ground below me.

Yeah, the Andrew Sisters, at least I think that was right, it was hard to tell though. I’m a musician at heart, a bluesman, and the tune sounded right, at least in an off kilter kind of way. But the voices singing? It wasn’t Vietnamese, and it sure as shit wasn’t English. All the sounds were wrong, the consonants too slick, too elegant for any human tongue I’d ever heard. A trio of females sang, the sound as smooth and smoky as a good cigar, their voices working in a way that didn’t seem possible. Their voices were hypnotic, beautiful like a piece of sharp, glittering glass, digging right into my friggin’ ears, making my guts boil and writhe.

The music was never the same. This was the third night, and so far we’d heard slow waltzes, gritty blues numbers, hard bopping rock and roll, and strange oriental stuff with far too many stringed instruments. Each night a different set that went on until the sun broke the horizon and cast the darkness back down for another day.

“Music’s back,” Greg muttered into my ear. “The daggon music. Dammit all to hell.” His stocky shoulders hunched and knotted with tension as he peered into the trees—the visibility was nearly zilch now that the sun had dipped below the horizon. Not like he could find the music by looking anyways.

I bent over and vomited into some tangle of jungle greenery, before dropping to my ass and pressing the palms of my hands into my eye sockets, trying to relieve the pressure building up inside my head. The pain was worse every night, the weight inside my skull growing heavier with every note the band played. It was that bass riff, bum-bum-bum-bum, working its way up from the ground, then bouncing around inside me like a bullet. The sickness would pass soon—it came in waves—probably wouldn’t last more than another ten minutes. I just needed to wait it out.

I clutched my M-16 tight to my chest, hugging it like a drowning man might hug a life raft.

Greg turned and looked at me, running the back of one hand across his brown face, mopping away the sheen of sweat lingering on his brow. “Yancy, you’re gonna be alright, we can beat this. Just hold it together, brother. Tonight is not your night. You hear me? Tonight is not your night.” He sounded cool, composed, self-confident, but then Greg Chandler always sounded that way. He was sorta unflappable, had been since we met back in high school.

He couldn’t hide the fear in his eyes though, the tightness around his mouth, the creases of worry marring his forehead. Despite his reassurances, he was afraid that tonight was my night, that tonight I would lose my shit just like Moody, Wilson, and Lewiston had. That I would turn my rifle on the other Marines in the squad, murder one of my friends—maybe more than one, even—and then be murdered in turn.

None of the others had gotten sick like me, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. No one had any experience with anything like this before. It could be me.

Shit, it probably was me. After all, I was already seeing things, had been for a couple of days now. I was seeing the music. It floated on the breeze in streaks of silver and gold, snaking strings of muted light like vines with wicked barbs. The visions would come and go, but I was sure they were real. When we first heard the music, it seemed to come from all around us, like the jungle itself was bleeding out the noise. It was impossible to tell what direction to head in, but I knew where it was coming from, because I could see it, even then.

Eventually, I told Corporal Stanton. At first he didn’t believe me—why would anyone believe that shit?—but every day I managed to lead us a little closer to the music, and every day it grew louder, more clear.

I clutched my M-16 tighter. If it was my time, I hoped I could do what Ox had done: turn the rifle on myself, a round right up under the chin would do the trick. Better that than laying into my buddies. I’m not exactly a pillar of moral strength and conviction, but the thought of turning my weapon on Greg made my blood run cold.

“We have to get a move on,” he said, slinging his rifle and gently pulling me to my feet. “Corporal Stanton’s gonna wanna track the music again, and that means you.”

He pulled me along, one arm wrapped around my shoulders, supporting my frame while giving me direction. We clomped through thick vegetation, pushing aside plants and long hanging creepers, stumbling through foliage underfoot. After a minute or two we found the rest of the squad—or what remained of it. Just six of us now: me, Greg, Stanton, Rat, Wrangle, and Phillips.

When we started on this assignment, we’d been twelve. Jackson and Cortez had both been murdered, one by Moody, the other by Lewiston. Naturally, Jackson and Cortez were our communication bubbas, and, of course, all the comm gear had been destroyed in the attack, so we couldn’t even radio back to Company. Moody, Wilson, Lewiston, and Ox had all gone mad—the music was behind that—and we’d had to put ’em down like rabid dogs …well, except for Ox. He’d done himself.

We’d taken care of the other three as cleanly as possible—wrestled ’em to the ground, held ’em down flat on their faces while they fought and raved, then put one right in the back of the brain stem. As clean as such a thing could be, but still messy, dirty. Corporal Stanton actually took the shot, said it was his responsibility as the NCO, which I was grateful for. I’d watched Martin come apart at the seams after he stepped on that 105 round, and I’d even shot a VC kid right in the chest. But none of that was near as bad as holding down Moody’s arms while Corporal Stanton put a round in his noggin. Thinking about it made me want to vomit again.

The remaining four Marines twirled on us as we came through the bush, muscles tense, rifles tracking on us, fingers a little too close to triggers for my comfort. Everyone seemed to utter a collective sigh of relief, their muzzles dropping back down. Except for Phillips. His muzzle stayed on us for just a handful of seconds longer than the others. Probably nothing. But he’d bear watching. I could see the music, and it was wrapped around Phillips like a boa constrictor, entwining about his arms and legs and neck. If anyone was going to go tonight, I had my money on him.

“There you two knuckleheads are,” Corporal Stanton said, voice gruff, unamused, and filled with the twang of Kansas farmland. He was a burly white guy—stateside, he’d been a gym rat, practically slept on the weight bench—with a thick growth of beard obscuring his jaw. “You still sick, Lazarus?” he asked me.

I nodded my head, then doubled over and puked again as though to illustrate the point. Thankfully I was running on empty at this point, so it was mostly a dry heave with a bit of stomach bile thrown in.

“Can you still see it?” he asked, apparently unconcerned by my illness.

I pushed myself upright. The swirls of gold were dancing around us, moving to the beat of the music, circling our squad, pressing in from every side, trying to get inside us. All of us. Digging at our noses and mouths, probing at our ears, forcing itself into our lungs with every breath. Like toxic gas.

“Yeah, I’m still seeing it.”

“Good. Good.” He paused, staring into the bush as if he too might be able to see the music if he just looked hard enough. Who knows, maybe he could. “We need to find ’at fuckin’ music. This is big. No way the VC are doing this on their own. They don’t have the technology for it. The Russians, maybe. Some kind of psychological warfare program or some other shit like ’at. I heard the Nazis were experimenting with some weird shit. It’s the only thing ’at makes any sense,” he said, more to himself than to us.

“With all due respect, Corporal”—Greg came respectfully to parade rest—“I think we should turn back. This wasn’t our mission. We aren’t a recon squad. This is supposed to be a daggon forward listening operation. Set up our bivvy, put up the radio equipment, and listen—that’s the whole of it. Well, I’d say we’ve heard plenty, so I think we should head back and report. Leave this mess to someone with the paygrade for it, call the higher-highers and make it their problem.”

“Oh is ’at what you think?” Corporal Stanton’s forward hand clamped down on the rifle guard, while his rear hand strained against the pistol grip, his knuckles going white.

Maybe I was wrong, maybe it’d be Stanton who broke tonight. This really wasn’t like him. He was a tough guy, kind of an assbag, but underneath he was alright, a cool head—cared about people.

“Last time I checked, Lance Corporal, I’m the squad leader here. Not you. Any more insubordination from you and you’ll be lucky to make it back to the rear at all. You tracking with me? Now, we are not goin’ back until we find the source of this music. How we ever gonna explain what’s happened without the music? We need to find it.” He talked about finding the music in the same way a junkie might talk about their drug of choice.

“Roger that, Corporal,” Greg said, his finger subconsciously edging toward the trigger of his M-16. I could see the streaks of music pressing in at Greg, trying to wriggle in deeper.

Stanton swiveled, spreading his hard gaze around the rest of us. “We’re moving out. I want a single column, and remember to keep your interval.” That meant he wanted us to spread out so that if a bomb went off it would only kill the unlucky son of a bitch who stepped on it. “Rat,” he said, “you’re on point with Lazarus and Chandler. I’ll take middle, then Wrangle. Phillips, you’ve got the rear. Everyone keep your shit together here. I want everyone to make it back, clear.”

“Yeah, right,” Rat mumbled as he moved to comply. Neither Wrangle nor Phillips said anything at all as they moved away, taking up staggered spots ten or so feet apart. Greg guided me forward, carrying the bulk of my weight. My knees were wobbly, my legs threatened to give out at any moment, and my head pounded away in time with the music. Rat glanced back, saw Greg and I struggling through the snarls of green, and trotted back to give a hand. He slipped up on my other side, taking a bit of the stress off Greg. He was a wiry little shit, maybe 5′4″ and a buck thirty-five, but he could hold his own.

“You guys believe this shit?” Rat asked. “I can’t believe he’s making us push on. Five dead, Lazarus might as well be holding hands with the Reaper, and still we’re pushing.” He shook his head in disbelief and readjusted his hand on his rifle’s pistol grip. “Grade-A clusterfuck. You guys know I’m not yellow—I’m a tunnel rat, for shit sake—but this is a suicide mission. Stanton’s a muscle-headed moron. Too bad he ain’t got a little more muscle up between his ears.”

If there was anyone who knew about suicide missions, it was Rat. The VC had a huge underground system of tunnels—winding passages that were often times only a few feet in diameter—and Rat’s job was to go in first, armed only with a .45 pistol, a bayonet, and a flashlight. He’d clear the tunnel, plant a shit-ton of plastic explosives, and bring the passageways down. Most dangerous job in country. A thousand things could go wrong, and more often than not they did. Tunnel rats had a notoriously high turnover rate; their motto was non gratum anus rodentum, literally not worth a rat’s ass. If he had that many reservations, it really said something.

We trudged on, in silence for a bit, the clomping of our boots lost amidst the ruckus of nightly jungle noises: the drone of unseen insects, the ruffling of leaves, and the snapping of branches off in the distance, accompanied by the occasional yelp of a monkey, and, of course, the music. Every few feet I glanced up, caught sight of the drifting strings of music, and redirected our course. After a solid ten minutes of walking, the sickness slipped away and the nausea diminished, while strength returned to my arms and legs.

I shrugged free from Greg and Rat, staggering for a moment before I got my balance. “I’m alright,” I said over my shoulder. “It’s passing again, should be solid for another couple of hours.” Something warm and wet ran over my top lip, so I reached up and ran a hand across my mouth. Even in the low light I could see the red. I dabbed at my lip with my tongue and immediately tasted coppery blood. The nosebleeds were getting worse, but at least the blood wasn’t coming from my eyes anymore. A day ago, I’d literally shed bloody tears. Scared the great good bejesus outta me.

We moved on for a few more minutes, Greg and Rat both much closer than they should’ve been. The VC liked to put out land mines, and at this range, one mine could take us all out. But no one wanted to be alone, not with that music still thumping and pumping unabated.

“So can you really see it?” Rat asked me after a time. “Back before the Corps I used to trip acid and listen to Pink Floyd—thought I could see music too. You sure you aren’t just holding out on us?” He smiled a little, a strained expression, a failed attempt to lighten the mood.

“Go blow yourself, asshole,” I wheezed out, too tired and sick to say anything clever. I was getting my steam back, but my head still felt like it might crack right down the middle, a balloon filled to its utmost capacity. “It’s like looking at a string of Christmas lights floating right through the air. It’s right there”—I waved a hand out in front of me—“right in front of your face.”

“You think we’re gonna make it outta this?” Rat asked after a long pause, his false smile gone now, fear making him grimace. “Whenever I go into the tunnels I wonder the same thing, but there’s a part of me that kinda knows it’ll be alright. Like getting out is just in my cards. I can feel it, y’know? Not this time, though. This time … this time, I feel like I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“Quit your bellyaching,” Greg said, “and keep your voice down. Charlie could be out there anywhere. Remember Charlie? The VC’ll be more than happy to put a bullet right down your Chatty-Cathy throat. I’m sure we’ll be fine. We just have to keep our heads on right, stay cool, and keep our voices down.” The last was a muted growl.

“Yeah.” Rat shrugged and grinned, his pinched face and overlarge teeth making him closely resemble his namesake. “Yeah, I know it. I was just joking around a little. Everything’s gonna be alrig—”

A crack of gunfire split the air, the ambient jungle sounds growing still as someone wailed and cried into the night, a holler of agonized pain. The frantic shouts of Corporal Stanton followed, and then another round of chattering weapon fire.

TWO:

Chaos

I ducked low and darted off toward a fat jackfruit tree, a tall son of a bitch, with several watermelon-sized fruits sprouting from the trunk like malformed, cancerous growths. One of the first rules of a gunfight: find cover and evaluate the situation. It would do no one a lick of good for me to stand out in the open like a jackass waiting for someone to put a bullet in me. I pushed past a clump of vegetation near the base of the tree and pressed my back against the trunk, the whole while my heart beating like mad inside my chest. For a moment there, it was hard to tell the difference between where my clamoring heartbeat ended and the driving bass line began. For a moment they were one and the same.

I heard more shouting off in the distance, both too close and too far, followed by a burst of gunfire and the whomp of what was probably a grenade going off. This was all wrong—there was too much gunfire, too much movement and noise out there in the bush. The six of us combined couldn’t make that kind of commotion on our own, at least not without blasting rounds into the air for the fun of it and tossing around grenades just for a hoot. Which meant we weren’t the only ones out here. Shit. That meant the VC, which was just exactly what we needed. It seemed like a break just wasn’t in the cards for us.

I mean sure, we hadn’t seen any sign of Charlie since leaving on this shitty mission, but it was stupid to think that we wouldn’t ever see them. Had to happen sometime.

I heard a rustle in the undergrowth and instinctively brought my rifle up to ready. This wasn’t my first rodeo, and I wasn’t about to get caught off-guard.

It was only Greg, with Rat close on his heels, both of them crouching low and moving with purpose. Greg had his rifle up in his shoulder pocket, ready to put down fire. Rat had his M-16 slung across his back, his beefy .45 Colt in one hand, while his other hand roamed nervously over his grenade pouch.

“You hit?” Greg asked, crouching down beside me while his eyes scanned the trees surrounding us.

“Fine. I’m fine,” I whispered. “We need to circle back around, try to get behind this crapalanche and find Stanton and the others. Any idea where the gunfire’s coming from?”

“I thought I saw muzzle flashes coming from over there,” Rat said, gaze shifting as he waved his free hand back and vaguely left. “Hard to say though.”

“Damn,” Greg said. “I was gonna say I thought the fire came from the other side. Could’ve been from one of our guys, though. No way to tell. Ought to split up. Yancy, you and Rat circle back and right, I’ll go left—see if we can’t outmaneuver these commies, box ’em in. Rendezvous back here once the action dies down. And don’t shoot me—I’m looking at you, Rat. I know that .45 works great in the tunnel, but if you put a careless round into me, I swear I’ll hang you up by the toes right over a punji pit.”

“Don’t sweat it, man,” Rat said. “I’ll keep things on lock down.”

Greg nodded once, then moved into a low crouch and slipped off into the jungle, quickly lost to the dark. I turned to look at Rat. “I’ll take point. You cover our asses, okay?”

“Yeah, man, yeah. I got it,” he said, though I could see the jitter in his hands, the tremble in his pistol barrel. Normally Rat was a pretty steady hand in a firefight—couldn’t go through as many crazy missions as he had without getting a little numb to it. It was the music working on him. I could see it encircling his throat, glowing first metallic silver, then shifting to a burnt red as it tickled at his skin. Looking at those strands of music sent a chill running up from my guts—and that’s when it hit me.

It really was the music that was doing it—it was bringing out the fear in him. In Moody, Wilson, and Lewiston it’d brought out their anger, and believe you me, in Nam there was a lot of anger to go around. Shit, if anger were snow, Vietnam would’ve been experiencing an ice age. But Rat wasn’t an angry guy, he was a laid-back stoner with the backbone of a squid. There’s a reason he ended up as a tunnel rat: he couldn’t say no to anyone. Ever. Even when they told him to grab a friggin’ handgun, crawl into a black hole by himself, and go hunting for VC.

I thought back to Ox. I’d caught a glimpse of him before he went off to take a piss and wound up planting a bullet in his head instead. The music had danced around him in shades of vibrant purple.

Though the fear might not seem as bad as maddening fury, it would certainly get Rat killed in its own way. Sure, maybe he wouldn’t go on the warpath, picking fights and shooting rounds into the night, but if he froze up when the heat was on—like, say, right now—he’d catch a bullet, no doubt about it.

The music glided over to me, apparently sensing my own anxiety, twirling around me like a hazy, low-hanging cloud of cigar smoke. It brushed up against my skin, exploring me, crawling over me like an army of spiders—a million faint swishing legs caressing my body. I shuddered, goosebumps running over my arms and legs, sprinting up my spine. So gross. So dirty. I’d never experienced any kind of sensation with the music before. Up until this point, it had only been a visual thing … this feeling was new. And I liked it about as much as I’d like having an actual army of spiders crawling through my clothes.

I reacted instinctively, in the same way you might react to a mosquito landing on your arm—I lashed out, flexing some mental muscle I’d never used before, a muscle I wasn’t even aware I had. The motion sent a fraction of the mounting pressure within me spinning outward in a spasm of force, like some kind of internal knee-jerk reaction …

The music retreated a step, its tendrils easing away from me, focusing entirely on Rat once more.

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

The music had retreated a step. The music had reacted to me—I’d changed it, influenced it somehow.

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

What the hell did this mean? I was sure I’d done something, though the exact details were unclear to me. But I’d done something. The real question was, could I do it again?

I glanced back at Rat, watching as the music hammered on him, a construction worker banging away at a demolition site.

A thought hit me like a baseball bat between the eyes. If I’d pushed the music away from myself, then maybe I could push it away from Rat, too. Sure, maybe it didn’t work like that, but if there was even the slightest chance I could help the poor schmuck, I couldn’t just leave it be. Besides, what harm would it do to try? We weren’t exactly loaded down with good choices at the moment.

“Give me just a sec,” I said over my shoulder. “Feeling lightheaded again, just thirty seconds to catch some air.”

He offered a weak smile, almost impossible to make out in the dark, then bobbed his head in acknowledgment.

I moved into a crouch and let my eyes go slightly out of focus, keeping Rat in my peripheries. It seemed to hurt less if I looked at the wavering music out of the corner of my eyes instead of straight on. The thick coils of energy still surrounded him, squeezing at his throat and boring into his nostrils, but now I could feel the music in a way I hadn’t been able to before. It was like the thrum of a high voltage wire filling the air with its barely controlled energy.

I reached back inside myself, exploring the new sense I’d discovered a moment before, poking at it the way a kid might poke at a scabby knee. I could feel something inside me, alright. Worming around. It wasn’t so much like having an extra sense as it was like having an extra pair of clumsy, undeveloped limbs. Some kinda weird internal mind-arms—man, was that just about the weirdest thing I’d ever conceived of. But there it was. I flexed those invisible limbs again, feeling them surge and stretch according to my will. Moving those new muscles kinda felt like trying to roll a busted-ass Ford up the side of Mount Everest, but move they did.

It was like some kinda unseen, but very real, extension of my will. And it was time to see what I could do with it.

I pushed the mental arms outward, an inch at a time, sweat beading on my forehead and rolling down my face as I strained toward the thick strands of music wrapped around Rat. After what felt like a couple of lifetimes—but which was actually only a few seconds—I managed to pry my mental finger into the shining ropes of energy. They were slick, oily things that wriggled in my mental hands. The music fought against me as I tried to pull it free, resisting my interference, subverting my attempts to manipulate and control it. Manhandling all those separate strands was about as productive as herding a room full of pissed off jungle cats.

Focus, I needed focus. The no-good music actively fought against my intrusion now, irritated at my meddling. I breathed deeply, trying, only somewhat successfully, to block out the clack-clack-clack of rifle fire and the muted shouts and screams of the wounded and dying. The coils of music tried to wriggle free, but still I held, digging in my metaphorical heels. Not today, you slimy son of a bitch, I thought. You’re not taking someone else.

My head was a boiler on the verge of explosion as I grappled with the music, but I muscled through it and, after a handful of seconds, the pent-up tension migrated down from behind my eyes, through my chest, and up into my extended preternatural limbs. A gray, semi-translucent mist leaked out from my skin in a cloud, bubbling and wafting into the air, drifting right into Rat’s face.

The mousy guy seemed completely oblivious to what was going on, which made me think he probably couldn’t see the gray mist any more than he could see the music. The metallic-red strings of music, however, sure as shit sat up and took note—the tentacle of power recoiled and melted away from the mist, slinking back like a mangy dog before darting off into the jungle to seek easier prey, leaving Rat free from its intrusive manipulations. The mist oozing from me slowed to a trickle and died completely.

The whole thing had taken a grand total of maybe twenty seconds, but I felt like I’d just run a marathon on my hands with an eight-hundred-pound gorilla attached to my back. I also felt a damn bit better, the way you sometimes feel after getting epically sick: gross and exhausted, but relieved down to your core.

“Lazarus,” Rat finally said, a confidence in his tone that I swore wasn’t there a minute ago, “we gotta go. We can’t just ride it out here. The other guys need us, man.” He slid his free hand up under my armpit and dragged me up with a tug. I groaned and shifted to my feet, knees wobbling beneath me, but other than that I felt about a bijillion times better.

“If you can’t do it,” he said, “it’s alright. I get it. I can leave you here, come back for you once we put these zipperheads into a shallow grave.”

I didn’t say anything, but rather just pushed forward, moving past a clump of brush and stealing for a palm tree not far away. Rat swore softly under his breath behind me, but then followed my lead, padding forward on nearly silent feet. I pushed on, moving as quickly as I could manage while still keeping an eye on the surrounding jungle. I knew from personal experience that the VC could hide themselves away in a patch of shadow that didn’t seem big enough to conceal a lawn gnome. They were scary good in the bush—it was their backyard after all.

Another few minutes brought us right into the heat of things. Muzzle flashes tattooed the night with strokes of white while their harsh sound ripped through air. I pressed my back up against a thick, gnarled tree and cautiously peeked my head out from the side. There was a little clearing, and a shaft of moonlight was shining down on the crumpled form of a body missing most of its lower jaw: Phillips. He’d been shot in the back at close range. The round had traveled through his spine and upwards, punching through his teeth and leaving devastation in its wake.

I was cold, detached from the scene, numb inside. That was the shock setting in. Eventually the gravity of things would come back to roost, but for now my body was running on autopilot, co-opting the controls so I might have a chance at survival.

I pulled my head back behind the tree trunk, lungs laboring, as my mind worked away at the scene, like a math problem that needed solving. The VC hadn’t done that, I was nearly positive. Corporal Stanton had assigned Wrangle as the rear guard, and Wrangle was damn good at his job. He wasn’t a killer, not the way you might think; he was more like a machine. Some guys got addicted to the killing, got the bloodlust inside of ’em and took a certain pleasure in death, made a game out of it even. But Wrangle was as solid as the gnarled tree I had my back pressed to.

He was sharp and vigilant, with his head on straight, the kind of guy who did the work because it needed doing, but took no joy from it. There was no way the VC slipped by him and put one in the back of Phillips’ head. So either the VC had crept up behind Wrangle and slit him from ear to ear—unlikely as winning the lotto—or the music had pushed Wrangle over the edge and he’d taken Phillips out. The thought of Wrangle dead made me cringe on the inside, made me want to set the whole jungle on fire and watch this country burn, but the thought of him alive and raving mad was almost worse.

I didn’t want to be the one to have to put him down. I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to do it again, not with one of our own. And the notion that Wrangle might be hunting us was a thought too scary to entertain. Better for him to be dead, than that.

We needed to find Greg and Corporal Stanton, then we needed to get our asses gone.

Steeling myself to move, I glanced back toward Rat, only to have a round whizz by my face—the rush of displaced air brushing against my skin—while another round smacked into the tree with a thunk. Rat let out a squawk followed by a string of highly creative profanity, and then the blast of his .45 entered into the fray. I dropped to a knee and spun out, keeping my body low and close to the trunk, raising my gun muzzle in the same instant. A slight man, maybe late thirties, wearing the telltale gray uniform of the VC, crouched amongst some jungle shrubbery, his AK47 raised and ready to deal in lead.

He pulled the trigger the second I came into view, his reflexes cat-quick. It probably should’ve been end game for me—the guy had me dead to rights. But instead the gun seized up, a glint of brass protruding at an odd angle from the ejection port. The unlucky son of a bitch had a double feed—two rounds simultaneously sliding up from the magazine, jamming the bolt. Double feeds happen to us all at some point. A dirty weapon, a bad mag, a chamber blockage, lots of things can cause a misfire, and you just gotta hope it doesn’t happen when it really counts.

Right now, it really counted. Lucky for me, very unlucky for him. He wouldn’t even live long enough to regret his misfortune. I sighted in, smooth and practiced, not fast mind you—as the saying goes, slow is smooth, smooth is fast—and pulled the trigger. I placed a pair of shots into his chest and a third into his head. His body bucked and jerked as the rounds plowed through his uniform—gobs of blood staining the gray, dirty fabric—then he toppled over and back as the third round passed into his cheekbone, shattering his skull and dropping him for keeps.

I ducked behind my tree, adrenaline tightening my muscles, making it hard to breathe with the flak jacket weighing down against my ribs. There was a lull in the gunfire, a lull which pointed me to the fact that the music had shifted and changed. The Andrew Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” had faded out, only to be replaced by the fast bopping swing tune “Sing, Sing, Sing.” This was a dance number, and the players were frantic on their instruments, horn-men wailing like mad, the piano man tinkling keys fast enough to make my fingers ache just thinking about it. I know music, and the tune was definitely building to something.

I leaned back onto the tree, taking in Phillips’ dead body, scanning the area for either more enemies or any of our guys who might have survived the attack.

“Shit! Contact rear! Contact rear!” Rat hollered from my right. His .45 threw up a flare, but he wasn’t firing toward the clearing, he was shooting back into the jungle behind us. I pivoted and spun, just in time to see a trio of men, who hardly looked human at all, slinking through the trees in our direction. They were Vietnamese, sporting dirt-caked cammies with unit patches that marked them as Dac Cong, or DC, the Vietnamese Special Forces.

Those cats were crazy sons of bitches to a man. Everyone had heard the rumors about them—damn near legends, really—which made them out to be some kinda jungle spirits. I’d talked to some Army dogs who’d run across the Dac Cong once. Guys said they didn’t make a noise, never spoke a word, could disappear and reappear at will, and faded right into the trees. I could believe that shit. Hell, the regular VC could do most of that stuff. One story told of a whole platoon—thirty men—that had been ambushed by a handful of DC. Three of our guys came out, without a single confirmed DC death. The DC moved like mist and wind and darkness.

The men before me were worse than anything my mind could’ve ever dreamed up on its own. Whatever they’d been before, they were something more now, something worse. The music had taken the latent insanity and cranked it up another level, introduced that insanity to crack and steroids, then gave it a machete. These men were feral, skin pale and gaunt, eyes a little too large, dirt smeared across faces and hands, and yes, they actually had machetes—though no rifles, thank God. These men were animals. I could see it in the way they moved, slinking through the bush without making a noise, without breaking a twig or rustling the undergrowth. They moved like a pack of wolves. Hungry, hungry wolves.

And all the while, the music danced around the approaching forms, great clouds of angry gold energy, which flared black and then silver as it filled them up.

The clatter of gunfire came from the clearing. I glanced back, just a brief look, and saw Greg burst through the trees, dragging Corporal Stanton behind him, a small pack of DC materializing behind them. Well, shit.

“Run!” I yelled at Rat, lurching to my feet and scurrying into the jungle, headed in the same direction I’d seen Greg and Corporal Stanton going.

THREE:

Run For It

Maybe the Dac Cong could move through the bush as quiet as a shadow, but I was not Dac Cong. I sounded like a bulldozer running over a cage of cymbal-banging monkeys: rifle clattering, boots smashing through brush, lumbering past trees, pushing away anything that tried to slow me down. Running like this was a terrible idea on general principle. Sometimes I read books where the hero runs through a forest, balls to the wall, and never has a problem. Let me just tell you, forests and jungles are not meant to be run through. Pits and hidden rocks threatened to trip me up with every step, while scraggily vegetation grabbed at my clothes and whipped me in the face.

And that was just the natural dangers. In Nam, there were punji pits to worry about—shallow trenches filled with stagnant water, human waste, and, most importantly, sharpened bamboo stakes just waiting to impale the unwary. Then there were trip wires, artillery shells rigged to explode, actual no-shit land mines, and fifty-gallon drums full of foo gas—napalm and high explosives—secreted away, waiting to turn the careless into a crispy critter. Napalm … fifty gallons of napalm.

But, believe it or not, the scary-ass DC ghosting along behind us, eating up ground no matter how much speed I put out, scared me more than a punji pit full of bamboo stakes, land mines, and napalm-spitting cobras.

Rat was scrambling to keep up; every ten or fifteen feet he would turn and fire a shot or two at the men loping through the forest like lanky man-chimps. Off to my left, and slightly ahead, Greg and Corporal Stanton broke through the dense tree line, likewise running for everything they could manage. Unfortunately, what they could manage wasn’t a whole helluva lot. Greg had one arm wedged up underneath Stanton’s arm and wrapped around his back. Stanton had one hand pressed against his right thigh while he hobbled along, making pretty good time for a guy who, presumably, had a serious leg wound.

Good time wasn’t good enough, however. Those pale sons of bitches were getting closer by the second. No way were we gonna outrun these jokers. If there was any hope of walking—or limping, in Stanton’s case—away from this mess, we were gonna have to put these rabid shits down. We’d tried flight, but it looked like fight was the only way to win this one. I angled left and, with a heave, kicked on an extra dose of speed, pulling up alongside Greg, my breath coming in long uneven pulls from the sudden sprint.

“We gotta fight,” I yelled over the terrible ruckus we were making. “No … way … we … can … outrun them,” I said, panting in between words, straining to get more oxygen into my lungs. Probably all the cigarettes. Shit, what I would’ve given for a cigarette right then.

“Overturned tree, ahead,” Greg called back, not even sparing me a glance. He moved left toward a semi-clear path winding through the trees, meandering this way and that. About fifty feet ahead, and completely obstructing the middle of said path, lay a huge, felled tree, its roots thrusting up into the sky, thick jungle vegetation running over its surface, reclaiming it, repurposing it to make way for the new. That was the law of the wild—move on, kill, win, grow, or die. I looked back over my shoulder and nearly busted my ass in the process.

“Tree!” I yelled at Rat, waving madly with my free hand at the blockade, our future makeshift defensive position. “Fire position!” I yelled, making sure he understood.

I slowed my pace, urging Rat on, letting Greg and Stanton stumble past me. Even as sick as I felt, I was still in the best shape to buy us all a little time. Stanton was practically useless with his leg wound, and thus Greg was rendered useless since he had to carry the man. Rat was a good enough guy, but he wasn’t John Wayne with that .45 of his. If we were in a narrow tunnel, with the enemy ten feet away in a straight line, he’d be a rock star. But running through a friggin’ forest at night, being chased by gibbering madmen? Not so much.

Greg and Stanton were at the tree now, crawling over the knee-high barricade at an agonizingly slow pace. Rat quickly caught them and threw himself over like a lineman going for the sack, flying through the air and disappearing as he tucked into a sloppy roll.

I spun left, ducking behind a drunkenly leaning tree, my M-16 up and at the ready. The DC—eight or nine of the sons of bitches, it was tough to tell in the weak moonlight—were almost on us, maybe twenty feet and closing quick. I popped off round after round, not really aiming at any one target, but rather laying down a blanket of sparse cover fire.

The goal was not to pick off eight or nine running men who had decent cover and jungle-ninja skills. Since this was real life and I didn’t have a mean ol’ Ma-Duce—a beefy fifty-caliber machine gun that was the first and last word on personal firepower—to work with, that shit just wasn’t gonna happen. No, my goal was only to slow ’em down, push ’em to take cover, so the others could get set up and ready.

Clack-clack-clack. My rounds bit into loose earth, sending up bursts of dirt, and chewed into trees; leaves and bark rained to the ground below. Even though the DC seemed like men possessed—and from what I could tell they were possessed, possessed by the music—they weren’t completely careless. Bloodthirsty human monsters, yes, but careless, no, which was both good and bad in its own way.

They slowed their approach, sliding into undergrowth and behind trees, melting away like dreams upon waking.

“I need cover fire!” I screamed out to my boys. After a few seconds, the crack and whistle of carefully placed rifle fire followed: a pair of guns working in tandem, probably Greg and Stanton, making sure there were always rounds heading downrange, pinning the shifty little DC in place. I fumbled at my web gear, my hands trembling minutely as I pulled a set of grenades from their pouches. My last two. But I couldn’t think of a better situation than this. I pulled the pin on the first, carefully holding down the spoon, before lobbing the matte-green death-ball into a clump of bushes to the right of the path. Aiming for a spot I’d seen some of the Dac drop behind.

I went to work as quickly as I could, freeing the pin of the second grenade and likewise chucking it off to the left, spreading the destructive firepower around a bit, hoping to get as many of those freaky assholes as I could while they were pinned down by rifle fire. I ducked back behind the tree just as the first grenade went off—a monstrous boom that rattled the ground and sent a plume of light and heat coursing into the air. The second one followed suit, creating another massive explosion and a brief column of light that left the nearby trees smoking and aflame.

My ears rang, the din temporarily muting the music, though not blocking it out completely. I shook my head, as though I might just be able to shake away the sound, then cautiously poked back around the trunk, surveying the damage. Several trees were burning, there was a smoking crater on the right, and on the left I saw what might’ve been a pair of bodies.

“Moving!” I yelled back toward Greg, Stanton, and Rat, letting them know not to shoot me. Then I sprinted my ass up the narrow path, scrambled over the log, and dropped down as quick as I could. Running like that, with my back exposed to possible enemy fire, always made my shoulder blades itch something fierce—always felt like someone’s finger was on the trigger.

“How we doing?” I asked Greg, easing myself into the kneeling position, careful to keep my head low while I positioned my rifle barrel on the log—a damn good shooting brace to help steady my hands. “Any movement?”

“Clear so far,” he said, though he kept his rifle trained downrange, eyes scanning for any sign of movement.

“I got nothing here either,” Rat whispered. He had his back to us and was doing a continual sweep of our rear and flanks, making sure the slippery DC bastards didn’t get around us without at least sending up a warning. Corporal Stanton was no longer in the kneeling, but rather laying on the other side of Greg, his weapon leaning upright against the log, while his right leg sat propped at an angle on a green Alice pack. His breathing was heavy, audible even over the music, a sheen of sweat coated his face, and he had his eyes tightly closed.

“How’s the Corporal?” I whispered into Greg’s ear, not wanting the man to know we were talking about him. We never left a man behind, but sometimes the odds of a guy making it out were slim and grim. If Stanton wasn’t ambulatory—if he couldn’t walk mostly unassisted—there was a damn good chance he wouldn’t leave this jungle alive. We were deep in the bush, now lost, with diminishing gear and a shit load of baddies out there, and that was without counting the music. We could take turns fireman carrying his hefty ass, but it would be tricky, maybe even impossible.

“Stable for now,” Greg said. “Managed to get a pressure dressing in place before those freaks showed up. We’ll talk later, first let’s get out of this mess, yeah?”

“Do we bunker down here or move on?” I asked. With Stanton temporarily down for the count, Greg was the acting squad leader. What we did at this point was his call, and I trusted him to make the right one. Had Stanton listened to Greg in the first place, we wouldn’t have even been in this situation.

He was quiet for a moment, eyes never ceasing their restless motion over the terrain. “We have to move out,” he said at last. “That daggon grenade stunt was good work, Yancy. Real smart, but I have no doubt that some of those boys are still kicking around. They know we’re here. They’ll be coming sooner or later. So we move. Tight diamond formation. Yancy, you’re on point. Rat, you’re on right flank. Rat?” He lightly slapped Rat on the back of the head. “You listening, or what?”

“Dammit, Rat, pay attention.”

Rat turned a sheepish gaze on us, a nervous smile playing across his lips. “Sorry, man, sorry. I thought I saw something out there.” He paused, unsure of himself. “Probably just my imagination, fuckin’ woods, play tricks on your mind, y’know?” he said after a moment, not really a question, more of a justification.

“We’re moving,” Greg said again. “Tight diamond formation. Yancy has point, you’re on the right, I’ll take Corporal. Yancy, follow the music.”

“Are you kidding me, asshole?” I said, louder than I meant to. “We need to go back. I’m done following the music. We’ve lost enough on this stupid-ass mission.”

“Dammit,” he said. “We’re in too deep to turn back now. You think Stanton’s gonna make it back in this condition? Even if we left him, we wouldn’t make it back. Our supplies are running low, and I don’t have a daggon clue where we are. You? Rat?”

We both shook our heads, almost in tandem.

“That’s what I thought. This is a survival mission now. Whoever is behind that music likely has food, water, medical equipment. They should also have some kind of radio to broadcast that daggon music. So, if we can get to that, I can get a signal back to camp, maybe get us an airlift. And if I can’t get an airlift …” He fell silent, his shoulders slumped forward in resignation. “Well, I’ll call down an airstrike right on our heads, enough bombs and napalm to make sure that music never reaches another pair of ears. This is it, Yancy, it’s do or die time. No other options.”

A soft breeze blew through the trees, a warm breeze that seemed to fling the strands of shifting music right into our faces. Mocking me, taunting me, calling to me: follow, follow, follow.

“I hate you so much sometimes,” I said, turning his argument over in my mind. He was right. Dammit, he was right. I had three weeks left in country, three friggin’ weeks before I was slated to go back to the real world and leave Nam behind for good. I’d survived countless humps, a million missions, firefights, and ambushes. Just my luck, last month in would be my last month ever. “Fine.” I moved into a crouch, then padded forward as quiet as I could while Greg hastily shook Corporal Stanton awake and helped him to his feet.

“But,” I whispered over my shoulder, “I want to go on the record and say you’re a colossal shithead for dragging me into this war in the first place.”

I turned my back to the log just as something collided into me; lank arms wrapped around my waist, while a set of shoulders hammered into my ribs.

FOUR:

Burn

My rifle flew out of my hands and cartwheeled through the air, landing near a tree far outside my reach. I hit the ground a moment later like a boulder dropped from an airplane. I happened to land in a reeking, muck filled puddle, which splashed warm disgusting water all over me. ’Cause yeah, that’s just what I needed. One of those DC shitheads was straddling me at the hips—he rained fists and elbows down on my face, neck, and chest.

I brought my fists up into a classic boxer’s guard, tucking my arms in tight, using my long limbs to protect my face and head from the savage beating, though that left my ribs and stomach exposed. The DC continued to lay into me. His strikes walloped into my forearms and biceps, painful blows even if not debilitating.

I bucked beneath the man. If I wanted to survive this fight, I needed to get into a better position, needed to get out from the bottom. My defense was good enough to buy me a little breathing room, but I couldn’t hold like that forever. The guy on top of me was an animal, his blows so intense, his strength so frightening, I couldn’t afford to waste time.

I glanced through the narrow gap between my forearms, waiting for the right moment. There: a big right hook. I dropped my defense.

The blow plowed into the side of my face—clever of me, I know, letting the enemy beat me senseless until he got bored. My face was very unhappy with my tactical decision, but it did afford me the opportunity I needed. I hooked my arm around his extended limb, clenching tight and locking him into a painful arm-bar. I bucked my hips and twisted at the same time, using the leverage from the arm lock to pitch him over while I rolled up, now inside his guard, a classic reversal.

The man seemed undeterred. He clamped his legs down around my waist, squeezing at my center like I was a human-shaped blister he was hoping to pop. He kept his arms slightly bent and slashed at me with his hands, pulling me down with his legs so he could reach my face. Son of a bitch was trying to gouge my eyes right outta my head. Fighting doesn’t come any dirtier than that.

I wasn’t beyond fighting dirty. I’d lost my rifle when the asshole tackled me, but I still had my little Smith and Wesson 15—a gift from my wife, sent all the way from the States—in the leather holster at my belt. I was not at all above capping an unarmed man. I mean, he was unarmed, sure, but he was a long, long way from defenseless. I wrestled the gun from its holster, only to have the dirty DC bat the weapon away with a furious blow to my wrist, which left my fingers numb.

I stretched for the weapon, throwing my weight against the man’s viselike legs. He budged, but I was still a good couple of feet short, and his blows were coming faster now, picking up in intensity like a fire catching a gust of air.

Time to change tactics. I gave up on the gun and threw a series of tight jabs at him, working his exposed belly and ribs, which should’ve taken the wind right out of his sails. Everyone thinks face shots are the best way to go—and there’s something to that; no one wants to get bumped in the kisser—but gut shots can be just as effective. Sometimes more so. If you’ve never been gut punched by someone who knows what they’re doing, let me tell you, it sucks more than a Hoover vacuum. It’s almost worth picking a fight with someone who knows what they’re about just so you can experience the pain, the panic, the loss of oxygen, and the feeling of near suffocation. Go through that, and you’ll gain a whole new perspective on life.

Unfortunately, the DC seemed oblivious to the pain and punishment I was dishing out to his torso. The music, now a madcap 1920s flapper number, was wrapping around his head, darting into his ears and nose, skipping through his vision, and turning his eyes glossy. The strand of music was burnt-gold, slowly fading to black with every passing second. It was spurring on his blood lust, his killing instinct, getting him drunk on murder. It was also inoculating him from the pain. Shit. That meant I wasn’t gonna be able to beat this chump the ol’ fashioned way. No way was he gonna tap out of this bout.

Both my rifle and pistol were just a little too far away, but Greg’s olive-drab Alice pack was within reach. And right on the outside, secured by a set of alligator clips and a thin cloth sheath, was a collapsible black shovel, called an E-Tool. The E-Tool was a multipurpose lifesaver. You could dig a ditch with it, use the serrated blade running along the shovel’s edge to split wood, or, in a pinch, it doubled as a club to beat off insane Vietnamese Special Forces. Like I said, a lifesaver.

I moved for the pack, throwing all my weight against the man’s stomach crushing leg hold, and managed to get my hand around the handle just as my knees buckled. The pressure eased up around my waist, which almost certainly meant trouble, but I didn’t have time to think about that. I ripped the tool from its canvas sheath and hastily unfolded it as I scrambled to my feet and spun to face my opponent. He was on his feet, moving for my revolver in a low crouch. No way in hell was that shit gonna happen. I lunged, the shovel flying out and connecting with the DC’s outstretched wrist. His forearm snapped in the middle with a terrible crack, which almost sounded like a gunshot.

I moved forward—not wanting to lose a second and risk losing my advantage—and reversed the movement of the shovel, slicing upwards in a ferocious underhand blow that caught the man across his chin and sent him falling back onto his ass, a great bleeding gash now running up the side of his jaw. My vision was red. The music pumped through me, working its power on me, urging me to lash out, to cave the man’s skull in, to hack him apart at the seams. I raised the shovel high above my head, muscles straining with power as I prepared to smash this fuck right into the ground, to obliterate him.

Someone screamed—one of our guys I thought. I glanced back over my shoulder, just a pause before delivering the killing blow, and saw Greg laid out on the ground. A DC loomed over him, bringing the M-16 I had dropped up into his shoulder pocket, preparing to put down my best friend. Time slowed, it paused and took a breather, like a boxer retiring to the corner between bouts. The DC seemed to be moving in quarter speed, a giant slug playing at being a man.

The music yelled in my head. It cried at the injustice, at the inhumanity of the scene before me. This simply couldn’t be the way things ended. It couldn’t. I wasn’t about to let my best friend go out like that. A nasty sneer curled my lips up at the corners, and suddenly, I felt myself nodding along in agreement with the music, nodding my head in time with the base riff while one foot pounded out the backbeat on the jungle floor. This was an injustice. And these monsters deserved to pay, deserved to perish in whatever shitty hell they believed in.

Energy built in me, just as it had with Rat, though this time it was driven by the fury raging in me, an inferno of hate. It started in my head, beating wildly behind my eyes, before flowing down into my body, turning my guts to a boil as though I’d just downed a fifth of Jack. That strange muscle I’d tapped into earlier stirred again, my newly discovered ability reaching out on instinct, ready to enforce my will on the world around me. And right now, my will was to see those bastards burn … and I thought I could do it, or something close enough that it would make no difference.

I’d affected the music before, made it leave Rat be, but I was pretty sure I could change it just as easily.

It was all right there, the answer right in front of my face, as clear as the clarion call of a trumpet. The music was wrapped around the Dac Cong, all of them, its coils clinging to damn near every surface of their skin and uniforms, flowing into them and through them. Once again, I could sense the raw power flowing through the music; it was damn near a free-flowing line of electricity. Before, I’d used my newfound sense to round that power up and disperse it, sending it away as though I were a bouncer booting some no-goodnik from the bar after too many drinks.

What if I pumped more energy into those cables of music, kicking them into overdrive? I wasn’t sure how that would play out exactly, but I had an inkling that it wouldn’t be good for the Dac Cong.

I held out the E-Tool with one hand, arm raised, elbow slightly bent, my eyes tracking down the handle and over the shovel’s head. Having the E-Tool helped me to focus my new sense, just like the sights on a rifle. I pictured what I wanted to happen in my mind, the music supplying me with everything I needed, amplifying my hate and violence, channeling all that pent-up emotion into something potent and deadly.

In my head I could see the fire, could see the Dac Cong burning bright. That was what I wanted. The music cooed in my ear. Yes, it whispered, yes, burn it down, burn all of it down. They deserve to die. I agreed. I pushed that vision of death, married to my will, out along the shovel’s edge, shaping and directing the power inside me. With Rat, I’d only managed to puff out a wispy cloud of smoke, but this? This was a focused beam of silver force.

That pent-up pressure rushed out of me in a breath, churning and boiling as my mental hands gave it shape and form. A shimmering whirlwind of silver wrapped around the E-Tool in delicate twists, before rocketing outward and branching off into a handful of thin streamers, each no thicker than my pinky finger. The braids of will lashed out in different directions, weaving through the jungle air like guided missiles, landing on the DC assaulting my buddies.

The silver tongues licked over the chords of music wrapping up the DC, dancing and merging with the music, becoming one. A flash of brilliant orange and red tattooed the night, the silver strands of power suddenly bursting into life as though I’d thrown a match into a barrel of gasoline. The six remaining Vietnamese soldiers were wreathed in terrible, consuming light and heat. They fell away almost as one, screaming in terror and agony as the music that had been buffering their senses—preventing them from feeling pain—burnt away.

The DC beat at the waves of fire frolicking over their clothes and chewing at their skin. The heat flared, sending out flashes of warmth that played uncomfortably against my cheeks. A few men dropped and rolled, but the fire seemed utterly unimpressed by their efforts and continued to burn them up unabated.

It was horrifying, watching them burn like that. The smell of cooking meat filled the air and assailed my nose with its stink.

What the hell had I done? For a moment I wanted to call back my terrible act. But sometimes once a thing is done, there’s simply no undoing it. There’s no taking it back. It was the music, I told myself, the music made me burn ’em. It was them or us, there was no other way. But deep down I knew it was bullshit. The music still wailed around me, still whispered in my head, but now those sweet inhuman voices seemed to be laughing at me.

Those thoughts sprinted through my mind, one after the other as I watched those guys fry and die. Slowly. Revulsion reared up inside me like a hooded cobra ready to strike. What the hell had I done? I mean, killing is one thing—I’d killed before, and more than I’d like to admit—but this was different. No one deserved to die like that, to be burnt alive like that. No one, not even the Dac Cong.

The silvery energy encircling my E-Tool sputtered and died as I lost focus, my body now empty and hollow from all my effort. I dropped the shovel and stared on wide-eyed, knowing there was nothing for me to do now but look on my handiwork and shudder.

Rat and Greg shuffled away from the burning soldiers, raising weapons and shooting into the writhing, shrieking forms, putting them out of their misery. I slumped to my knees, endless weariness breaking on me like ocean surf. Already my eyelids seemed to weigh more than a pair of burning bodies, and my limbs felt oddly numb. Greg looked at me—what I saw on his face made me want to curl up into the fetal position and go to sleep forever. What I’d seen was fear. There was concern in his face, sure, but running beneath like a riptide was a strong current of terror.

I tumbled over onto my back, my lungs struggling to hold in breath. Jungle trees stretched up around me, reaching leafy arms toward the sky in a silent prayer for the dead men below. I could hardly see the sky, just a few black splotches interspersed in the canopy. If there was a God, I wasn’t sure he could hear what happened down here. It seemed to me that Nam was a little piece of hell on earth, the kind of place a good God wouldn’t much care to look in on. That was the last thing that flashed through my mind before my lungs fell still and my eyes slipped closed, dragging me down into darkness, a place which was thankfully devoid of fire.

FIVE:

Downtime

It was still night when I woke up. I knew both because of the darkness surrounding me and because of the music floating along on the evening breeze: a gritty, down-and-out, jump-off-a-bridge blues tune that I couldn’t quite place. Someone—probably Greg—had rolled me onto my side and tucked one of my arms beneath my head, a triage recovery position, designed to keep me from drowning in my own vomit while unconscious. Nice guy, Greg. A real sweetheart.

I sat up feeling, for all the world, like I’d just had a solid twelve hours of shut-eye. My head felt less hazy than it had in days, and my thoughts came clear and unobstructed, though I was having one helluva time remembering how I’d gotten here. I had no problem remembering the freaky-ass Dac Cong chasing us through the trees. I remembered holding them off at the overturned log, and even getting into a brutal knockdown drag out with one of those thugs. But damned if I could remember how that whole mess had ended. One moment I was reaching for the E-Tool, and the next moment I was blinking my eyes open.

There was a hole in my memory the size of a bomb blast, and I had some nagging sense that those missing moments were important.

Whatever. The way I reckoned things, I was alive, which meant that we’d beaten those bastards back and broken free. Good news just about any way you cut it. Not to mention, my muscles felt alive and vital, my spirits surprisingly refreshed. What I wanted was a bottle of beer, a fat celebratory cigar, and a long night of dancing at a shitty tavern. I don’t even really like dancing, but dammit, I felt that good. And though the music trickling through the trees was depressing enough to make a guy want to down a bottle of pills or swallow a gun barrel, that only made me feel more alive. I’d dodged a bullet and I knew it, all the way down to my soul.

Shaking the thoughts free, I scanned the area looking for any sign of Greg, Rat, or Corporal Stanton. We were in a small clearing and nothing looked even remotely familiar. The tree trunk we’d been sheltering behind was nowhere to be found, and a patch of brightly colored flowers, little stars of red, spread over a swath of jungle floor a few feet away. I swatted off a fat fly that landed on my cheek while a flare of annoyance flared up in my belly. Where the hell was everybody? What kinda damn game were they playing here?

I pushed myself to my feet, making far more noise than I intended and not caring.

Someone or something rustled behind a broad tree with broad leaves and wandering roots. I instinctively reached for my pistol, but my hand landed on an empty holster. I couldn’t believe those assholes had left me lying by myself, in the middle of enemy controlled territory, without a weapon. Bunch of assholes. Greg was gonna hear about this for sure.

More rustling followed, and after a moment, the tip of a Colt 1911 poked out from behind the tree, its owner completely obscured by tree cover. “Yancy?” Rat asked, his voice warbling with the squeak of a teen going through puberty. He got like that when he was scared.

“Yeah, it’s just me, Rat,” I called out, moving slowly forward, palms upraised in case he was actually looking. “Put that thing away before you hurt someone, dickwad.”

“Don’t come any closer,” he said, the gun muzzle bobbing slightly as he spoke. “I mean it. You just sit back down and cool your heels, man.”

“What?” I asked, disbelief thick in my throat. “The hell is wrong with you? It’s me, Yancy. Now where in the hell are Greg and Stanton?”

“I’ve got Corporal here with me,” he said. “He’s resting. Greg’s out securing our perimeter, but he’ll be back soon, so don’t get a wild hair up your ass and do something stupid. I like you, you’re a real gone cat, and I don’t wanna put you down. But I’ll do it, man. Swear to God, I will pull this trigger if I have to. I’ve done it down in the tunnels plenty of times, so don’t push me.”

I slowed to a stop, confused, then slowly sat back down, legs folded beneath me Indian style, hands still out in front of me. This didn’t make a damn lick of sense. I just couldn’t square any of this in my mind.

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll stay put. Just don’t go doing anything stupid. If you pull that trigger, we’ll both regret it, and neither of us wants that. Now how’s about you calm down and explain what happened? I think maybe one of those DC shitheads clocked me in the noggin or something.”

“What happened?” he said, both a question and statement. “You set ’em all on fire, man. Roasted those dudes like pigs on a spit, that’s what happened. I’ve never seen nothing like it.”

That damn fly buzzed around my face and I swatted at it again, before rubbing at one temple. Set ’em all on fire? A grenade maybe? But that didn’t sound right—I’d used my last two to scatter our pursuers just before I’d jumped over the downed tree. I was missing something, but I knew it was there somewhere in my head, fuzzy, buried, but not gone.

“I don’t understand,” I said in a quiet, unsure voice. “Look, Rat, I don’t know what happened back there, but I’m still me, I swear. I’m not like Moody, Wilson, or Lewiston. It’s all me here.”

Rat poked his face around the side of the tree trunk, eyes narrowed, and squinted as he looked at me in the ghostly moonlight. “No shittin’ me?” he asked.

“No shittin’ you.”

“Tell me something then, man. Make me believe it’s still you.”

“You yankin’ my chain?” I asked. “What do you want to hear? Want me to tell you about Lauren or the kids? Maybe you want to hear about how I like blues, gambling, mouth-watering ribs, and long walks on beaches that don’t have land mines? Huh? Or how I never shoulda joined the friggin’ Marine Corps? No, I got it. You want me to say something about you, about what a good guy you are, maybe. Well, you’re a jackass, Rat, a likeable jackass, but a jackass.” I batted at the fly, crushing the little buzzing shit up against my neck. I hate bugs. “Now put that shooter down and tell me what the hell is going on here.”

His face split into a wide grin, mouth filled with uneven teeth. “Shit, man, it is you.” He moved out from behind the tree and slid his piece into his leg holster, then motioned me over with one sweep of his arm.

I stood, still moving at half-speed just in case he was on edge, which seemed damn likely to me. I strode over and followed him a little deeper into the bush, pushing past the tree and through a clump of green leaves. Corporal Stanton was indeed lying on the ground, eyes shut, a damp, dirty rag over his head, while his injured leg sat propped up at an incline. He was breathing, but each breath was shallow and appeared labored. His wound was covered with a new pressure dressing, so I couldn’t get a good look at the extent of the damage, but from the sheer amount of blood that had soaked his pant leg, I knew he had to be in bad shape.

Rat turned to me. “I don’t think he’s gonna make it, man,” he said, his eyes wide and a little wild, his lip trembling as he spoke the words. “I don’t even like Stanton, but I can’t stand the idea of anyone else dying. Shit, man, I’m glad I didn’t have to shoot you. It’s a good thing it really is you—I’m not sure I could’ve done the deed, y’know? Probably woulda chickened out at the last minute.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. He jumped a little from the sudden presence. Partly it was genuine fear, genuine worry and regret, but it was also the music, already back at work on him.

“It’ll be alright,” I said, knowing that sometimes a word of comfort could have its own power. “We’ll get out of this shit-storm. We’ll find the music, find medical supplies and a radio, diddy-bop right on outta here. Get you back to see that old lady of yours—Cindy or Candy or whatever the hell her name is.”

“Cinder,” he said absentmindedly. “She goes by Cinder. She’s just some nasty skag. I wrote her seven times, y’know that? Seven times and she never wrote me back. Not once. Bitch has probably slept with every guy in the barracks by now. Shit, man, I doubt she’ll remember my name any better than you remembered hers.” He looked down at the jungle ground, running one hand absently over his short-cropped hair. “But I would like to see my mom again. We didn’t leave on such a good note, her and me, she didn’t want me signing up. Didn’t want me coming over here. I wish I’d listened to her. Two years, man, two fuckin’ years since we talked. Feels longer, though.”

We were both quiet for a while.

“You’ll see her, Rat,” I finally said. “We’ll all get outta here. You can see your mom, I’ll see Lauren and my boys, Corporal Stanton can see his favorite workout bench again, and Greg … well, Greg can see my knuckles when I punch him in the nose for dragging me into this shithole.”

He smiled; it was a small grin that pulled the lips up at one side of his mouth. He shrugged my hand off and plopped down to the ground. “You’re full of shit, y’know that?” he said. “You don’t believe that line of crap. We ain’t gonna make it outta here. But hey”—he shrugged his narrow shoulders—“who knows, maybe with you on our side …” He trailed off, as if he didn’t want to finish the thought.

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied. “I’m telling you, last thing I remember is that son of a bitch with his legs squeezing the shit outta me, then picking up the E-Tool. Goes blank after that.”

“Seriously?” he asked, his face twisted up in disbelief. “It was epic, man. You picked up that E-Tool and turned the fuckin’ thing into a flamethrower. Except I ain’t never seen a flamethrower like that. The fire was alive. Moving around in the air like pot smoke, curling, slithering, wrapping around those Dac Cong dudes. You looked at me—right at me, man—and I coulda swore I was next. I thought that fire was gonna swallow me up too. Even if we do make it through this, that’s a sight I’ll never forget.” He shook his head, as though he might just be able to shake those pictures away after all.

We were both quiet for a moment, him with a far-off look glinting in his eyes, me struggling with the idea of shooting fire out of the E-Tool. I couldn’t quite get my head around it, but my hands burned as I dug deeper into my mind, trying to bring the memories to the surface.

“I never told anyone this,” Rat said, “but getting burned alive, that was my worst fear coming over here. I heard about guys getting drenched in napalm, scared the shit right outta me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t wanna die—who the fuck wants to die, y’dig?—but gettin’ burned up? That has to be the hands down worst way to go out. When they made me a tunnel rat and gave me all these explosives”— he ran a hand over his belt, absently patting at the frag grenades and incendiary white phosphorus charges stowed away in his web gear—“it was like my worst nightmare walking right up to me and kicking me in the junk.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, no response seemed good enough. “You’re an asshole,” I said, because I needed to say something. He grinned again, because he understood. “Enough of this touchy-feely bullshit, huh? You got a smoke or what?”

He reached into his sleeve pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of Chesterfield cigarettes. He upended the pack in his hand and shook loose the last smoke, slightly bent in the middle, but unbroken and totally smokable.

“Last one,” he said. “We can pass it around if you’ve got a light?”

“Asshole,” I said again, thinking back to our conversation about fire, then nodded and fished around in my pocket, pulling out a thin Lucky Strike matchbook. He put the smoke in his mouth, letting it dangle from his lips while I tore a match free. After a little fumbling, I got the thing going and held it up beneath the cigarette’s end, watching the tobacco burst to life and glow cherry red. Rat took a deep drag, holding it in for a moment before letting the smoke trickle from his nose.

“That’s some good shit,” he said, passing me the cigarette.

I took a long pull—it was old, stale, and tasted like a bag of ass. I never did like Chesterfields, and it wasn’t good, but it was also sublime. I nodded my head. “Yeah,” I said. We sat there smoking through the cigarette, passing it back and forth as Corporal Stanton slept and we waited for Greg to get back.

“Did you see Phillips back in that clearing?” Rat asked as we smoked, a cloud of gray wandering between us.

I bobbed my head.

“I always liked that guy,” Rat said. “He was down to earth. Not much of a sense of humor, but he never treated me like a shitbag, not like most of the other guys.”

“Yeah, I liked him too.” I grabbed the cigarette from Rat’s outstretched fingers and drew a deep lungful of nicotine.

“You think Wrangle did him in?” he asked, holding his eyes closed.

I paused, not wanting to say anything, since we both knew what it meant: one of our own was still out there somewhere, loony as the Mad Hatter on acid and maybe hunting us. “Yeah, probably,” I admitted.

We smoked the rest of the cigarette in silence, wrestling with thoughts of Phillips and Wrangle. Wrestling with thoughts about all of it.

Greg stomped back into the clearing fifteen minutes or so after we’d killed the smoke. When he saw me sitting there with Rat, looks of relief and fear flashed across his face in turns. I could tell that he wasn’t sure about me, but was also happy that Rat hadn’t put a round into my skull.

“You good?” he asked me.

“Yeah, super,” I said. “Sunshine and daisies all around. And I’m me, if that’s what you’re asking.”

He nodded, though he didn’t speak for a beat. “Well, alright. It’s good to have you back. Now how’s about the two of you stop lollygagging around and get ready to move. Last time I checked, the Corporal was the only one with a serious wound.”

“And go where?” I asked. “Look around, Greg, we’re lost in the sauce. I can’t tell my head from my asshole out here. We need a plan, or we might as well just wait here for the VC to gun us down.”

“I’ve got a plan,” he said tersely. “The plan is to go put an end to this daggon mess.” His lips compressed into a tight line. “I think I found where the music’s coming from.”

SIX:

Wrangle

Greg led from the front, taking his time, picking his foot placements carefully, keeping as quiet as he could considering the circumstances. I lingered back five feet or so, Corporal Stanton slung over my shoulders in a classic fireman carry, while Rat brought up the rear. The trek wasn’t a long one, maybe half an hour of steady humping, but it was as brutal as a mule kick to the groin. Carrying my pack and Stanton—who wasn’t exactly a welterweight—was taxing, especially since the path Greg forged through the trees seemed to be on a damn near ninety-degree incline.

The climb seemed to last for ages, but Greg was right—we were going in the right direction. Every few steps I glanced up from my plodding journey, and sure enough, the strands of music rolled down the hill like a waterfall of brilliant color in the night. We hiked on, until at last a strange structure materialized out of the trees before us, suddenly appearing like a ghost taking form amidst the greenery. I’d been expecting a bunker, a tunnel, or even some kind of concrete testing facility, but I wasn’t expecting an ancient and dilapidated temple of rough, moss-covered stone.

It was a monstrous complex, which seemed to twist and wind through the forest, as though built to accommodate the behemoth tree trunks spread throughout. Several of the smaller outbuildings had fallen to the ground, now rubble, in the form of giant stone blocks. They obstructed our ascent to the central temple, nestled a little further back into the lush vegetation. The main building was a blocky structure covered in carvings and reliefs, capped with an intricately wrought conical spiral jutting from the top. Even more incredible was the massive banyan tree, which grew over and out of the building, its roots and gnarled limbs draped over the walls, encompassing the structure.

The tree was dead though, only a massive stump sticking up into the air like a broken bone, black char marks marring its surface. I couldn’t be sure, but I would’ve wagered that the base of the thing was thirty or forty feet in diameter, which meant it had been one big-ass tree. Had it been alive, it would’ve dominated the tree line like a skyscraper, looking down on lesser buildings. The center complex only had a single dark opening, a giant black eye staring at us as we threaded our way through the debris. Flowing from it was the music. We’d found the source.

Once we got a little closer, I was able to make out some of the “art” on the stone walls, and I use “art” in the most liberal sense of the term. The reliefs and statues were grotesque things, pictures of some old god, made entirely of tree roots, drinking blood, crushing the skulls of his enemies, and towering over a pile of corpses a thousand deep.

This wasn’t a Buddhist temple. We’d come across a couple of shrines, but trust me, this wasn’t that. There wasn’t a Buddha anywhere to be seen, the typical hulking temple guardians were also absent, and there weren’t any carvings of the dharma wheel—the primary symbol of Buddhism, representing the Eightfold path. Nope, none of that jazz. This was a primal place, not a temple built to seek enlightenment or refreshment, but a shrine to proclaim death and darkness. I could feel all that hateful energy radiating outward in waves of force that battered against me while, conversely, calling me onward.

We were almost to the temple doorway when something collided into my shoulder with a whack and sent me sprawling onto the rubble covering the jungle floor. Corporal Stanton’s weight landed on me with crushing force. What the hell had just hit me? I heard shouting and a few gun reports, but I couldn’t quite make sense of what was happening. I reached up to shove Stanton’s body off me but stopped when I felt warm liquid against my fingertips. I pulled my hand back; my fingers were coated with slick red. I screamed and pushed Stanton away with a grunt, flipping onto my back and running my hands over my body, looking for the bullet wound, sure I’d been hit.

There was blood all over me, soaking into my cammies, but I couldn’t find an entry or exit wound. I glanced down at Stanton—most of one side of his face was gone. Just a mess of red gore. I screamed louder, the sight so sudden and unbearable. All the killing, all the death…

What the fuck?! I swiveled and cried out, “I need help here!” I pulled my flak jacket free and ripped my blouse off, revealing a filthy green skivvy shirt marred with blood, both old and new. I crawled over to Stanton and pressed the blouse onto the wound. A pointless effort—the man was dead and nothing would bring him back, but my mind seemed unable to grasp that truth just then.

“Let him go, Wrangle,” I heard Greg call from off to the side. I swiveled away, still keeping a hand on Stanton’s mortal wound. Greg had his rifle up, trained on a spot behind me. I turned again, trying to get some idea of what was happening. That’s when I saw Wrangle cautiously circling toward the temple, with Rat held in front of him, his M-16 pressed up under Rat’s jaw, jammed deep into the smaller man’s throat.

Wrangle looked nine-kinds of crazy. His eyes were wild and unfocused. He had his head cocked too far to one side, listening to the music, nodding his head as if he were hearing some unheard set of instructions.

“I’m. Ta-king. H-h-him,” Wrangle said to Greg, the words disjointed and hard to follow, like maybe Wrangle couldn’t rightly remember how English was supposed to work. “An Off. Ering. For Th-th-the Mus. Ic.” He backed into the tunnel, Rat held before him, eyes wide with panic. “Don’t follow. I. Will. Kill. Hi-Hi-Him.” Wrangle spat, one eye twitching in time to the beat of the tune—a spicy, big band number I didn’t recognize—blood dribbling from his ears and the corner of one eye. Poor son of a bitch was gone, and I knew he was just as much a victim as Stanton.

“Don’t let him take me,” Rat cried. “Please-please-please.”

“Don’t worry, Rat,” Greg said, his voice even and reassuring. “We’ll come for you, we’ll get you out of this mess.”

Wrangle pulled Rat into the shadow of the doorway and disappeared into darkness. Greg gave it a solid ten count, keeping his gaze fastened firmly on the entrance, just in case Wrangle decided to take another pop shot. Then he turned and hustled over to my side, giving me a once over before sizing up Stanton lying on the ground, his head a misshapen lump under my blouse.

“Yancy?” he asked.

I turned my face toward him and wiped the back of my hand across my cheek, rubbing away the fat tear making tracks in the dirt on my face. “I’m fine. It’s not my blood, all Stanton.”

He looked down to the blouse covering Stanton’s face. “He’s dead, Yancy.” He spoke slowly, like maybe I wouldn’t be able to understand. “Nothing we can do for him now.”

“You think I don’t know that, shithead?” I looked back at Stanton, not wanting to leave his body out here to rot in the sun or to be eaten by jungle critters. But there wasn’t anything I could do about it, not now. Greg held out a hand, which I gladly took, and pulled me upright. I glanced back at Stanton, unable to take my blouse away, not willing to look at his face, then turned toward the temple’s entry. “Let’s go slay some bodies.”

The temple’s interior was dark and gloomy, though broken up by occasional wall-mounted oil lamps, which looked like a fairly recent addition. Greg pulled a flashlight from his bag and guided us in, the beam of his light cutting swaths of illumination through the gloom as we moved deeper and deeper into the complex. The place was huge, with small hallways breaking off at random intervals, hooking off in other directions before quickly disappearing. Several times we ended up taking lefts or rights, following the music. If it hadn’t been for that music, finding our way might’ve been damn near impossible. But I could see it going strong as ever, a thick wicked vine of gold, beckoning us onward.

At every turn, Greg paused, pulled his K-Bar from its sheath, and chipped away a rough arrow to guide us out, should we actually be lucky enough to make it out. After ten or fifteen minutes—time seemed to twist and bend in funny ways down in the dark—we came upon a circular room, maybe thirty feet in diameter, with six tunnels (seven counting the one we’d entered from) breaking off at even intervals like the spokes on a wheel. The music drifted from the tunnel directly across the room from us.

But another sound drifted down from one of the other passages. A lonely, miserable, weak cry for help.

“Please, help me,” the voice called out, echoing down a passageway to our right. “Mercy, have mercy.”

Greg slowed his step, glancing back over his shoulder, as though to ask, Which way here, boss? What do we do? I paused, not sure what the best play was. It was clear that the music wasn’t coming from the same direction as the plea for help. So if we wanted to get to the bottom of this, we needed to put the blinders on, stick straight, and forget all about the person literally begging for mercy. But could I live with myself if I let some innocent guy rot down in this shithole? Hell, for all I knew, it was a trap. Yeah, probably the smart thing to do would be to move forward and worry about rescuing captives after we’d dealt with the primary threat and got Rat back safe and sound.

“Please,” the voice came again, cracking and dusty with age. “Anyone, I’m trapped here. Mercy, I beg of you. Mercy.”

Dammit. I stopped, unable to push myself further into the labyrinth of passageways. I’d done a lot of bad things, hurt people who maybe should’ve had a chance to live, seen friends die and enemies die—all that death, ignoble and ugly. If I could help that poor schmuck down there, save even one life, maybe this stupid mission would be worth something after all. Maybe Stanton, Phillips, Jackson, Cortez, Moody, Wilson, Lewiston, and Ox wouldn’t have died in vain.

“This way,” I told Greg, pointing toward the passage to the right, before trudging off down the corridor.

SEVEN:

Myths and Legends

The tunnel wasn’t especially long and ended in a square room filled with a dozen blocky cells, each with iron bars standing in place, all well-maintained and functional despite their obvious age and the general disrepair of the rest of the temple.

“Here,” the man rasped. “Please, free me,” he wheezed from beneath a shaggy pile of tattered clothing. The guy was in one of the cells lining the back of the room, although why anyone would’ve locked the poor schlub up was beyond me. He was a bent and withered Asian man, crushed beneath the weight of time, his skin a pale tapestry of wrinkles, his mouth devoid of teeth, milky cataracts covering both his eyes, while a long wispy beard covered his jaw. He was filthy, what little hair he had was matted, and even from ten feet away I could smell the sour stink of his fragile body.

“You really think this is a good idea, Yancy?” Greg whispered into my ear before continuing his scan of the room. “Could be this old timer’s in here for a good reason.”

“Of course it’s a good idea. Stop being so friggin’ paranoid all the time. We’re here to get a radio, get Rat, and get our asses outta here, but we’re also here to throw a wrench into this freak-deaky music machine. Whoever is running this show sure as shit ain’t on our side. So enemy of my enemy and all that jazz.”

Greg grunted his reply, obviously unconvinced, but offered no more overt objections.

I padded forward slowly, not wanting to startle the old geezer since it was obvious he couldn’t see a lick. “Alright there, old-timer, if I let you outta this cage, you’re not gonna cause any trouble, right? My friend back there thinks you might be dangerous—he’s got a quick trigger finger, so don’t give us any reason.”

“No,” he said softly, “I’ll offer you no trouble at all, young one. That is quite the problem, I’m afraid. I can’t cause anyone any trouble these days. Once, I was set to guard this tomb, this prison, but …” He trailed off, raising rail-thin arms. “It is as plain as the nose on my face that I am not much of a guard. Not anymore.”

I reached out a hand and pushed at the door, expecting to find it locked, but it swung in without a hitch. I scrambled back a step, raising my rifle to the ready, training the muzzle on grandpa. “Gate’s not even locked,” I said. “You’re making me real nervous here.”

“Fear not,” he said, his voice resigned and oddly peaceful. “I cannot walk, cannot move. The lord of this place has already exacted a portion of his revenge. Broke my legs, crushed my pelvis, smashed my feet to pulp, and threw me in this place to suffer endlessly.”

I glanced down at the rags wrapped around his torso and waist. What I’d at first taken to be filth was actually globs of dark, clotted blood. The smell wafting off him was a sickening mix of metal and rancid decay. Meat gone bad, then left out in the heat of the day.

“Aw, shit,” I said, feeling appalled, wanting to look away and forcing myself not to. “I can’t help you,” I breathed out. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you, nothing anyone can do for you.”

“With this?” he asked, waving an arm over his lower half. “No, I should expect you cannot do anything for this. But that is not the help I seek. Please, you and your friend, come here. Sit with me for a few moments. Let an old man say his piece, so I may die with satisfaction and, mayhap, hope.”

“Can’t do it, Yancy,” Greg said from behind. “We gotta move it.”

“Wait, young man,” he said with a feeble smile. “Do not be so rash. Youth are always too rash. Come, sit with me. I will tell you about the lord of this place. Is not a little foreknowledge of your enemy worth a few minutes’ time?”

Greg didn’t say anything for a moment, and I could almost hear the wheels clanking away inside his head. “Fair ’nough,” he replied, “but don’t even think about pullin’ a fast one over on me. Puttin’ you down would give me no pleasure, but you better daggon well believe I’ll be ready to fire.”

“Yes, fine. Fine,” he said. “Now come, boy. Come.” I walked into the cell, Greg following closely on my heels. I copped a squat near a wall a few feet away from the crusty geezer, while Greg stayed standing in the cell entryway.

“Alright,” Greg said. “You’ve got two minutes to make this worthwhile, so …” He twirled his finger in a let’s get this show rolling gesture.

“Do you believe in magic?” the old man asked, speaking to both of us, though clearly looking at me, even though I knew he couldn’t possibly see with those milky eyes of his.

“I’m not twelve,” Greg said, “so no, I don’t believe in magic.”

I, on the other hand, didn’t say anything—couldn’t say anything. Before all this shit started I would’ve said magic was a load of bullshit as deep as the ocean. But after seeing this place? Seeing the music? What the hell did I really know? Hell, according to Rat, I’d turned my E-Tool into a flamethrower. Magic? Hell, maybe.

“But you do believe in God, yes?” the man asked, turning his head toward Greg. “I can see it in you. The White King has marked you.”

“God,” Greg said, “isn’t magic. He’s God. You got a minute and a half left, better move it along.”

“The point is simply this,” the man said, apparently unconcerned over Greg’s threat. “You believe in that which you cannot see. God, angels, demons … Magic. It is true that you cannot see the magic underpinning creation, but it is real nonetheless. Your unbelief does not make it less true. This magic, though, may not be what you imagine in your mind. There is energy, you see, energy in life, in creation. This is the magic. The Vis.” He uttered the last word almost reverently.

He held up a hand, a small smile playing at his lips. A globe of light, nearly the size of a basketball and shifting from blue to violet and back again, sprung up before the old man’s outstretched palm. I thought for a moment that Greg would put a round right into the guy, but for once, it seemed like he was at a loss.

He wasn’t the only one; it sure as hell felt like someone had snatched all the pep right out of my step. In fact, the display of power made me positively squirm in my seat. If that was real, maybe Rat’s accusations were dead-on.

“Now that I have your attention,” he said, his voice a soft whisper, “let me tell you about the lord of this place.” The globe spread and grew, changing and transforming in shape: a miniature three-dimensional banyan tree, towering over a pristine jungle, floated in the air before us. “Once upon a time,” he intoned, his voice taking on the familiar cadence of a storyteller, “before men covered the world, a great tree stood. In truth, it was the tree which now covers this temple. This tree was home to a great spirit, a Leshy of the Fae Court. But he was no ordinary Leshy. No, he was one of the few great Tree Kings of Old.”

Before my eyes, the banyan tree distorted, and a massive face emerged from the trunk’s surface—emerald green eyes the size of car tires sat over a gnarled, bulbous nose, which, in turn, sat above a wide smiling mouth. “Xuong Cuong was his name,” the man said, “and he was a benevolent ruler, a peaceful spirit who cared for the jungle and its inhabitants as any good monarch should. But, as with so many stories, tragedy awaited the great Tree King.”

Tiny lights, the flicker of a thousand fireflies, appeared in the jungle, spanning out from the great tree. The flames drew closer, revealing tiny men and women, holding torches and carrying crude axes. “Man, in his rush to claim dominion over all things, foolishly attacked the Leshy. Xuong Cuong was a creature of peace who had never known war. When they came for him, there was naught he could do, and so he fell.”

In the floating picture I watched as the people swarmed the base of the tree, watched as the poor Leshy looked on aghast, his emerald eyes wide with terror, as the diminutive people hacked through his bark and scorched his leaves with flame. After a time, the tree crashed to the earth like a meteor, ablaze with fire. Dead. Broken. Destroyed. The people celebrated, their voices raised in one accord as they waved their axes in the air and danced around the smoldering ruins of the once great tree.

“Normally,” the withered old man continued, “when a Leshy’s tree is destroyed, they die. Their spirits blink out and go wherever such spirits go. But no one had ever killed a Tree King. Why, no one had ever even heard of such a thing.”

The vision melted and flowed, a jumble of chaos, before coalescing once more into a new image: a hulking creature made of roots, vines, and dark flowers, filled with sharp, biting teeth. A demon if ever there was such a thing. “Xuong Cuong’s spirit did not move on. It … it was reborn, you see. Reborn of death and fire and hate. These things shaped it and gave it form. The creature that emerged was hungry for retribution against all manflesh.”

The beastly thing in the vision moved through the jungle like a ghost, stealing into crude human villages, hunting men and women indiscriminately, its vines choking the life from human throats, while thick thorns opened wrists and spilled too-bright red upon the earthen floor.

“The blood sustained Xuong Cuong’s spirit, nourished him, and bound him to this Earth. And, after a time, the humans built the temple to appease the dark godling. In exchange for peace in their villages, they brought him offerings: human sacrifices as an act of worship and contrition for the mistakes of their forefathers.”

The great tree spirit now sat upon a stone throne in some dark chamber, watching with scornful emerald eyes and a snarling mouth as humans slaughtered bound captives, dribbling their blood over thick tree roots covering the temple floor.

“Many men tried to slay the jungle demon, of course”—images of armor-clad warriors rose and fell like waves—“but it was I who finally managed to subdue the creature … oh, this would be near five hundred years ago.”

A young, fresh-faced man arrayed in flowing robes of blue silk stole into the temple under the cover of night, accompanied by a stunning woman in red.

“That is me there,” he said, looking at the blue-robed figure with a fond sadness, “along with my dearest love, the heart of my heart.” He glanced at the woman in red. “In those days, I went by Du Van Mau. Such a cocky young man.” He sighed, long and wheezing. “A shaman with the Vis flowing powerfully in my veins. I had communicated with the ancient fae beings of the Endless Wood and learned of a way that the creature might be defeated, subdued. The price … well, the price was high, terribly steep. I managed to wound Xuong Cuong, to cast him into a dreamless hibernation, but, in the end, I could not pay the price to end him. An act of betrayal which cost me my love and bound me to this place.”

The light dimmed and faded, bleeding away until the cell showed no sign of the spectacular light show.

“Wait,” I said. “That’s it? Well, what the hell happened? If this demon thing was asleep for five hundred years, why is he awake now?”

The old man offered a wary smile, which never reached his eyes. “Your war happened,” he said softly, then sighed. “Even in his prime, Xuong Cuong was never so efficient a murderer as modern man has become. So much violence, so much killing. The blood, dripping into the soil, soaking into the trees, awoke him from his slumber.” He fell quiet again, letting his accusation linger in the air like a putrid smell.

“I don’t know about this,” Greg said, looking around the room. “About demons or magic, tree gods and human sacrifice. I don’t like it, and I don’t truck with no daggon hoodoo, but I want to put a stop to whatever the hell is going on here. So here’s what you’re gonna do, old-timer. You’re gonna tell us where that music is coming from, and you’re gonna tell us how to shut down whatever operation they’re running here. I don’t want no lights and I don’t want no tricks—you spell it out in plain English for me.”

“A warrior’s warrior,” the man said. “That I can respect. The music is siren song. Upon awaking, Xuong Cuong contacted the sirens, mercenary creatures of the Endless Wood, home of the fae. The music is for a celebration, of course, a party to christen Xuong’s new reign. But the song serves another purpose: Xuong Cuong seeks new disciples. For now, he is bound to this temple, unable to go forth, and so the siren song calls new disciples to him, calls those with a murderous spirit, draws them here to worship at the feet of their new master. When the party is over”—he shrugged his shoulders and lifted both hands into the air—“the sirens will move on, having served their role, and Xuong Cuong will send his pupils forth to sow death in his name.”

“And how do we stop this Xuong and all his nutball followers, huh?” Greg asked.

“Time draws near for me,” the man said in answer, his misty eyes flashing back and forth in their sockets. “I will tell him”—he pointed a finger right at me—“and him alone.” I felt a sinking sensation in my belly—I knew this was coming. Just like when you get on a roller-coaster ride. The car pulls you up that big-ass hill and you know eventually you’re gonna go back down again, but damned if that foreknowledge makes it any easier when the bottom actually drops out.

“Yeah, alright,” I said. “Greg, post up at the end of the room. I’ll be quick.”

He shifted his gaze between me and the dying man on the floor, as though we might be some coconspirators in some dubious scheme, but then finally sighed in resignation and turned away, moving back over to the prison entryway to give us space.

“Alright, bub, spill it,” I said. “I’ve got a missing friend, so say your piece.”

“You are like me,” he whispered, just loud enough for the noise to reach my ear. “You have the spark, the gift. I can see it in you. A latent, inborn talent.” He paused, smacking his mouth to work moisture into his lips. “Marvelous,” he said, “just marvelous. My lord must be merciful indeed, to send me such a boon in my greatest hour of need.”

“The hell you talking about, old man?” I scowled, folding my arms across my chest.

“Don’t play coy, boy. You see the music, as do I. That is but a single manifestation of the Vis. This music, meant to drive men to madness, has instead provoked your own talent into action. Awoken it within you.” He paused for a moment, searching my face with his milky eyes as if he could see right through my skin, all the way down into my heart and soul. “You’ve tapped the power,” he finally concluded. “You will not be able to turn back now. No putting this gift back in the box, I should think.”

“Look,” I nearly spat. “I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t want to know. I want to finish this mission, I want to get the hell out of this shithole, I want to go home to my family, and I want to forget any of this ever happened.”

“We don’t got all day here, ladies,” Greg called from the doorway. “Let’s move this show along.”

I pivoted, looking at Greg. “Almost done, shithead. Just cool your heels for another thirty seconds, kay?” I turned back to the old man. “You heard him,” I said, “tell me what I need to know to put this all behind me.”

“My betrayal … that is the key,” he said with a grimace. Then, moving faster than I could blink, the old man’s hand was in motion—rising up and then plunging into his guts with a sickening squish. I sat there, both petrified and mortified. For a moment my vision seemed to narrow and darken at the edges—pretty sure I was gonna pass out—but then the feeling faded.

He pulled his hand back out, a loop of gray intestine, spotted with black blood, wrapped around his closed fist. His fingers worked over the bulge of gray meat, digging into the soft flesh, before finally pulling free a chunk of brilliant emerald, about the size of a chicken’s egg and beautifully flawless, save for the jagged edge running up one side.

“When I came here to defeat Xuong Cuong, it was to be the end of me—my life was to be forfeit. The ancient fae taught me a way I might bind the Leshy to myself, making both of us neither mortal nor immortal, yet tied together as one creature, straddling the world of life and death.” He held up the stone, looking at it in the low light.

“I ripped this from his face, one of his eyes and a piece of his soul. I bound the creature unto myself, but was supposed to take my own life once the deed was done. In doing so, the Leshy would be made vulnerable, mortal, so long as he remained incomplete. So long as he doesn’t have this stone. I have hidden it within me, these many long years, but now is the time, I think.”

He quietly examined the stone, before carefully holding it out and pressing it into my hand. “Once Xuong was mortal, my love was to use the stone to strike the final blow, ending his existence and freeing him from his suffering, but when the time came …” He paused, a far-off look entering into his milky eyes. “I couldn’t do it, couldn’t take my own life. Xuong murdered her because of my weakness. He couldn’t kill me, nor I him—death may only come to me by my own hand—but in my wrath I bound us both to this place and cast him into his slumber.”

“So what do I do with this?” I asked, holding the stone tight, feeling the force, the power that buzzed within it, like a hive of pissed off bees.

“You finish the job. I will soon die, just as I should have five hundred years ago, and you, you must use the Stone to kill Xuong.”

“Listen,” I whispered, urgency filling my words. “Let’s say I believe you about all the magic mumbo jumbo—I don’t know how to use it. I mean, yeah, I think maybe I touched it before, but I can’t remember jack shit.”

“When the time comes, it will use you. The only question is whether or not you’ll survive the experience.” He coughed, dark blood spraying from his lips. That was it—I bent over and dry-heaved onto the floor, spitting out a mouthful of yellow stomach bile. I righted myself after a moment and scooted back a step, then slipped the stone into my pocket, eager to have it away from my skin.

“You alright?” Greg called.

“Fine, just another second here,” I replied. “So what do I do with the stone?” I said, turning back to the man. “How do I use it?”

“You must channel your power through it. Just as I can only be killed by my own hand, so it is with Xuong. But the stone, it is him, a part of him. Any power channeled through the stone will be, in part, a manifestation of his own power. A clever loophole, you see.”

“So it’ll be like he killed himself,” I said, nodding my head in understanding.

“Aye, aye,” he said. “But be warned. You …” he gasped and shuddered, dropping flat, his breathing slow and shallow, his chest rising and falling less frequently with every heartbeat. “You are weak, untrained,” he continued after a moment. “The stone may turn on you, it will fight you for control, and it may well kill you as surely as it may kill him. But, you must succeed. With my death …” He paused again, his eyes dropping shut, and I thought that might be all she wrote.

“Shit, old-timer,” I said, “with your death, what?!”

He was quiet for a long beat. “With my death,” he finally muttered, his voice wet and slick with blood, “the demon will be unbound. Free to leave the temple once more.”

“You’re crazy, old-timer,” I whispered, standing and turning away, not wanting to watch someone else die. He didn’t respond, though, didn’t acknowledge me with a flick of his eyes or a twitch of his lips. I headed toward Greg, not sparing the old man another look.

“You got what we need?” he asked, carefully surveying my face, as though he might be able to discern just what had passed between the old guy and me.

“Guy’s bat-shit crazy. Let’s just find Rat and get this done.”

He nodded. “Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.” He moved into the hallway, heading back toward the main passageway.

EIGHT:

Party On

We moved through the murky tunnel for another ten minutes, following the wide stone floor as it sloped down, twisting and turning deeper and deeper into the earth. The music jabbered on, getting louder, more intense as we drew closer to its source. At last a flicker of light intruded on the gloom surrounding us. As Greg and I crept closer, the light grew—a lurid green illumination playing against the rough stone wall, occasionally interrupted by the flash of black silhouettes. The hallway dead-ended and hooked to the left, presumably leading to the temple’s main chamber, since this seemed to be the source of both the light and the strange music.

Greg pressed up against the wall before carefully peeking around the corner, just a glimpse. He pulled his head back almost immediately, and though much of his face was obscured in shadow, I could tell he was pretty damn shaken up by whatever he’d seen. He slipped back a step, then motioned me over with a quick jerk of his arm. I pushed in close, careful not to disturb any of the rubble or dirt underfoot.

You gotta see this, he mouthed at me, without actually saying the words, then backed up a step further so I could get into position. I silently crept around him and hugged the wall, just as he had done, preparing myself to take a peek. My breathing sounded thunderous in my ears and my heart labored away in my chest, pounding away like Big John Henry driving steel. This was it, the end of the line. Whatever was in the connecting room was all that stood between us and safety, between us and freedom. I took one more deep breath, then popped my head around the corner, ready to get a sense of just what we were up against.

The sight was so disorienting I almost couldn’t figure out what the hell I was looking at. My mind didn’t even have a frame of reference for this kinda screwiness. The chamber beyond was a large rectangular room, maybe 1,500 square feet, just about the size of the VFW hall my pop used to drink at. The floor was rough stone like the rest of the temple, but everything else looked like something right out of a nightclub. A very, very twisted nightclub. Maybe the old guy in the clink hadn’t been as full of horseshit as I’d originally thought—there certainly was one helluva party going on down here, with decorations to match.

Strings of intestine hung from the ceiling and walls, for all the world like rolls of crepe paper draped about. Stacked against the right wall were the party favors: metal drums that reeked of Napalm, crates filled with mortar rounds, boxes of weapons, and ammo. Enough arms and munitions to equip a small army. Wooden, oriental-style lanterns dangled from the ceiling and sat on round banquet tables surrounding the chamber, shedding sickly and unnatural green light, casting the partygoers in deathly illumination. And the partygoers themselves …

Men and women—both Americans and Vietnamese—all of them dirty, disheveled, and bloodstained, sat around the tables, eating from platters of food while they jawed away, talking loud enough to be heard over the music. Occasionally bursts of manic laughter broke out, the eerie sound of people no longer a part of the rational, normal world. Everyone also, uniformly, had an odd tri-leafed flower sprouting from their necks—a thick green vine, sunk right into the carotid artery like an IV drip.

A clump of men and women dotted an open patch, which apparently served as a dance floor, moving and swinging, grinding and groping, as they boogied like the end of the world had come and gone, and there was nothing left to live for.

Against the left wall, someone had erected an elaborate stage covered in purple satin, which housed the main attraction. The raised platform held maybe twenty men—all with blue-tinged skin and dressed to the nines in fancy-pants tuxedos a couple of decades out of date—each playing a different instrument, and playing the shit out of ’em. Trumpets and saxophones, clarinets, and a quartet of strings. A piano man working away at a beautiful dark wood Bosendorfer Imperial Grand. Unless those cats had a crazy-good special effects department tucked away somewhere in the back, they weren’t human.

It was the three women dancing center stage, however, who stole the show and held the audience in hypnotic rapture and adoration. They just had to be the sirens the old coot had mentioned. I knew they weren’t card-carrying members of the human race, just like I knew the sun didn’t rise in the south. One look was enough to tell me that. Those women were about as human as classic Greek sculptures. Sure, they had the same general shape as real women, but everything was too right, too perfect by a mile.

They each wore 1920s flapper dresses—each dress a different hue, one red, one gold, one black—encrusted with sequins and cut away to reveal too much in some ways, while not revealing enough in others. Their skin was pale and smooth as alabaster, their breasts too damn big, their waists too damn small, not to mention they had hips like a pair of battleships and legs that went on from here to eternity. The trio should’ve been any guy’s wet dream, but they looked about as real as life-sized Barbie dolls and made me want to go to a confessional booth on general principle.

The truth was, they were unwholesome—and not in the good, fun, lets-drink-and-boogie-the-night-away unwholesome. More like we-will-steal-your-soul-and-dance-on-your-friggin’-grave unwholesome. Yeah, pass.

A massive noise reverberated from the back of the chamber, the sound rich and deep like the sound of an earthquake or a tree crashing to the ground. A moment later, a voice called out. It was Wrangle.

“Our guests have finally decided to join us,” he said in monotone. “Please, stop the music, let us receive them.”

The women ceased their swaying, words trailing off as they turned large eyes, completely purple without any sign of pupils, toward the doorway. The men and women on the dance floor likewise stopped their frantic movements and shifted away from the floor, settling into seats amongst their fellows. Okay, so previously I said the singing women commanded the room’s attention, and understandably so, but that was only because I hadn’t been afforded a clear view of the far wall.

But now that the dancers were all sitting, I finally caught a glance of the party’s host. He was a living tree, no two ways about it. A massive creature, five or six feet wide and nearly six feet tall even sitting, that looked like the friggin’ jungle had just come alive. I’d seen this thing in the strange vision the old man had shown us, but the reality was something altogether different. Gnarled roots and jungle vines composed his entire body, while wispy growths of moss clung to his … let’s go with face … forming something that resembled a beard.

Bright colored flowers—exactly like the flowers protruding from the partygoers’ necks—dotted its body, each swaying in some gentle, unfelt breeze. On second look, I realized those flowers weren’t swaying in a breeze, they were breathing.

In one massive hand he held a staff made of gnarled wood and jungle blossoms, shaped like a jaguar scaling a tree. He had his other hand wrapped around Rat’s scrawny neck. He wasn’t choking him, not yet, but the posture was clear: One wrong move and I pop his head like a meat-balloon.

Wrangle stood just behind and to the left of Rat, eyes vacant and glazed, flower protruding from his neck; clearly, whoever had previously lived inside his head had moved out and something else had taken up residence. The Tree man inclined his head, just a fraction of an inch. Wrangle moved without a thought, beelining across the room toward the weapon stocks. He bent over and rummaged through a large wooden chest for a moment before withdrawing a boxy green radio—a PRC 25, which had a range of eight klicks—and a satchel of colored smoke grenades, used for marking position for airlift.

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. Probably, there’d be another US squad somewhere in range—hell, our platoon might’ve sent out a search and rescue party for us—which meant that radio was our ticket out of this shithole. Except, I couldn’t see any possible way that we’d be able to use it, considering we didn’t stand a chance in hell of walking out of here alive.

“Please,” Wrangle said, though I got a firm impression that the Tree man was the one driving the ol’ Wrangle mobile. “Please, come in, mageling, you and your guest both.”

“No thanks, your Royal Treeness,” I replied, pulling my head back. “I think we’ll just hang tight right here. Hey, how ’bout you just send us out the little guy in your hand along with that radio and we’ll just call it even? No harm, no foul, no need to make this messy.”

The creature issued a great booming laugh that shook the temple and sent a few loose rocks tumbling from the hallway walls. “I like messy,” Wrangle said after the wall-shaking laughter finally subsided. “Messy is fun, messy is entertaining. Not to mention the fact that I have the advantage. A roomful of armed and loyal killers, a hostage, and your only means of survival. No, I think we shall have to do it the messy way.”

“Asshole,” I called back. “I hate to bring out the big guns, but I’ve got magic powers and shit. So you better just let us go, or I’ll bring down this whole place right on top of your smarmy-tree-head.”

The creature laughed again, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. “It is true that you have power,” Wrangle said. “I can sense it in you, wafting off you like a sweet fragrance. But you are unformed, your gift just awakening.”

I paused, trying to work through this in my mind. It seemed we were at an impasse here, and I wasn’t sure how to move forward. “Whatever,” I said at last. “Let’s cut the pillow talk, bud. Obviously you hope to get something, or you wouldn’t be talking, you’d be shooting. So how about you just get to the point and tell me what you want.” It wasn’t a question—the guy had an angle he was working, though damned if I knew what it was.

“I have plenty of men and women to do my bidding,” Wrangle said, scanning the room with his glassy eyes. “Pawns who will perish by my will and in my service. But a raw, untrained mageling? Now that is a prize worth having.” Wrangle went quiet. He stood perfectly still, mouth agape, eyes moving back and forth in their sockets, like he was looking for something. Like maybe the creature inside his head was flipping through his Wrangle dictionary, searching for just the right word.

“In chess,” he finally said, “sacrificing two pawns for a knight is a fair trade—occasionally a risky gambit, but as they say, nothing wagered, nothing gained. So I will trade you for your two friends, this Greg and Rat. I will allow them to go free from this place, with the equipment they require, and, in turn, your power will serve me.” The Tree King held out his staff; a pitch-black flower bloomed from its tip. “A gracious offer, no?” Wrangle said.

Yeah, gracious. The offer was clear as good crystal—if I was going to serve the Tree King, it would be under the influence of his freaky-deaky flower-power. That wasn’t gonna happen.

“Give me a minute to think, huh?” I called out, before turning back to Greg. “The hell do we do here?” I asked him. He looked deeply shaken, maybe more deeply shaken then I’d ever seen him before. For the first time in our friendship, he looked lost. Greg was always so solid, so levelheaded, but that was because his personal motto was Semper Paratus—always ready, always prepared. He could be coolheaded in most situations because he always had a plan. But there was no plan for this, no precedent.

“I just don’t know.” He shook his head slowly back and forth. “I just don’t daggon know.” He paused for a beat, clearly kicking something around in his head. “Yancy,” he finally said, “we can’t leave this be. Maybe we don’t walk away from this, but we have to make damn sure this thing ends here. I saw the firepower they’ve got in there. How many people are gonna die for us to live? Even if we leave, those crazy sons of bitches in that room are gonna murder hundreds.”

As much as I hated to admit it, he was right. I’m not a hero. I never wanted to sign up for the Marines or fight in someone else’s war, but I sure as shit didn’t want hundreds of men or women to die if I could do something about it. I reached into my pocket and groped the ragged chunk of crystal the old man had handed me. I ran my fingers over its rough edges, feeling the electric thrum of power run up through my hand and nestle behind my eyes, the energy building. Someone needed to put this overgrown houseplant on notice, and it looked like I was the guy holding the lawn mower. Just my luck.

“Alright,” I said, pulling my hand from my pocket. “I got this. Just keep on your toes. We’ll play it by ear. Be ready to move. And if it all goes south … well, you get your ass outta here. Don’t do anything heroic, alright?”

“Is this about what that old man told you?” he asked, his voice low, pitched with concern.

“Yeah, but like I said, I’ve got this.”

He grunted, then nodded, though I could tell he wasn’t easy with it.

I raised my rifle, bringing it up to the ready, then stepped out into the open. “We can deal,” I said, “but I’m feeling just a mite suspicious, so I’m thinking some good faith is in order here.” I paused, doing a quick scan of the room, trying to figure odds. I was also scouting a good spot to take cover behind. Off to my left, there was a pile of stone rubble, which looked to have been cleared away from the dance floor. Not a perfect position, but not half bad either.

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” I said. “You have meat-puppet Wrangle there”—I nodded toward the man handling the radio—“bring those supplies this way first. My friend Greg gets the gear, then I’ll drop my gun, come in there, and you let Rat go, you dig it?”

The Tree King nodded his massive head, which creaked and groaned when he moved, then casually waved his staff at Wrangle. “Aye, very well,” my former squad mate said. “I can display a little ‘good faith.’” The creature gave a crooked grin, which revealed a mouth full of blunt stone teeth.

Wrangle thoughtlessly shuffled toward me, quickly drawing in range, radio held out in offering. Which is precisely when I moved. I let my rifle drop—trusting the sling wrapped around my body to catch it—while I ran behind him, wrestling an arm around his throat in a chokehold and maneuvering his body in front of my own. I hastily drew my revolver and jammed it up against his head, just for good measure.

“Drop the radio,” I said, gritting my teeth. The Tree King looked vastly amused and completely unconcerned by the turn of events and once again nodded his head. Wrangle, without thought, dropped the box and satchel containing the colored smoke grenades. Carefully, I pushed Wrangle in front of the gear so that he and I were shielding Greg from any potential fire.

I didn’t even have to say a word—I could hear the scuffle of feet behind me, and I knew Greg was gathering the equipment. The reality was, Greg, Rat, and I probably weren’t leaving this room alive, but it’s always good to have a backup plan just in case.

“You have the radio,” the Wrangle-puppet said. “Honor our agreement. Release my servant, and come to me.”

I didn’t move and I certainly didn’t let Wrangle go. He was my temporary shield, and I wasn’t about to give that up.

“Release. Him. Now.” This time it was the Tree King himself who spoke, and the short sentence was a command that reverberated around the room, rattling my teeth and resonating in my bones. “I grow weary of this game and wish to return to the party,” Wrangle said as the sound died away.

I glanced at the Sirens, who had all begun to sway on the stage in eager anticipation, as though they could sense the impending change in the air.

One of the inhuman singers cast a sultry look at me. “Come,” she cooed with a voice as sweet as honey, “come dance with us, mageling, indulge in release, free yourself from inhibition.” She shifted her hips and ran a hand over her chest, the strange light playing against her silky smooth skin.

“Yeah,” I said, bobbing my head. “I’m all about freedom—just maybe not the way you’re thinking.”

This was it. My finger tightened on the trigger.

A quick squeeze, and the gun jerked in my hand. Wrangle’s weight dropped as a spray of blood misted into my face. I let him fall and dove left as a chorus of gunfire opened up, not from in front of me, but from behind me: Greg laying down suppressive cover fire. I glanced back at Wrangle’s limp body crumpled on the floor and wanted to quit right then and there. Wanted to throw in the towel and give it all up. I’d thought it would be easier to kill him—I mean he’d turned on us, he’d gunned down Stanton, kidnapped Rat, and dragged us into this shitty situation.

But I still felt like the biggest bastard to ever walk the face of God’s green earth. He’d been a victim too, and even though there hadn’t been any other choice, I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to live with myself, assuming we did make it out of this alive.

Though you know what they say about assuming … But, making it out alive wasn’t likely, so at least I wouldn’t have to live with the guilt for long.

Though I couldn’t see much from my hiding spot, I could hear the Tree King’s forces scrambling to defend themselves—flipping up tables, snatching up weapons, and returning fire in the space of a few seconds. Strangely enough, the musicians on stage didn’t take cover, but instead started another set: a big band version of “Paint it Black” by the Stones. The music was accompanied by the booming commands of the Tree King, speaking in some primal language I couldn’t understand.

“What do you hope to accomplish?” The question came from fifty different throats, all of the Tree King’s enslaved servants speaking as one. “You cannot stop me. I am a Leshy King, clothed in immortality. This will gain you nothing.”

“We’ll see about that, asswad!” I hollered back.

As quick as I could manage, I jammed my hand into my pocket and fished out the emerald, clutching it tightly in my fist and drawing its power into me, its force filling me up like water in a dry sponge. Now I just needed to get Rat—if he was still alive, of course—backtrack out from this death-trap room, and burn the place to the ground. I waited for Greg to start another round of cover fire before popping up, pistol in my right hand, emerald in my left, held out before me in a tight fist.

Several men and women lay scattered around the floor, some twitching, others moaning, a few completely still. The ambush had taken a pretty serious toll, but we were still outnumbered thirty to one, not counting the otherworldly musicians or the Tree King. Speaking of the Tree King, he was up and lumbering toward me, his one good eye fixed on the pulsing stone in my hand. And boy did he look pissed—like a junkyard dog who’d lost his favorite squeaky toy and then got blasted with a pellet gun. Uber, uber pissed.

On the plus side though, he was no longer holding Rat, who was now cowering in the corner with his arms wrapped around his head. Small victory, there.

“My eye!” A chorus of voices cried out from around the room as the Tree King moved ever closer. “Give it to me or suffer an undying existence of misery and torture. You will be rooted to the ground, jungle ants will pick the flesh from your bones, maggots will feast on your organs. Give it to me!”

“I’ll give you this, you really know how to sell it,” I shouted as I leveled a few shots at the approaching hulk, which, as expected, did pretty much zero to slow his approach or really affect him in any way whatsoever. But that was okay. I had the stone, and I had a metric-shit-ton of raw power eating me up on the inside, demanding that I do something with it. In my mind, I envisioned fire—hungry flame that needed to burn and consume—pumping up out of the stone, washing over the Tree King, who also happened to be King of the crazy assholes.

I pushed the thought outward, sending the image and the energy back through the stone. Ribbons of green fire shot out, wild and uncontrolled, like striking lightning. A few coils snaked out toward the soldiers hunkered down behind tables, while a few more lashed out at the crates against the wall, setting some of the wood boxes on fire. That could prove to be problematic in the long-term, since there was foo-gas and lots of bombs over that way. But that was really only a problem if I survived the next five minutes. Not likely, considering only a handful of the green beams even went in the Tree King’s direction.

I couldn’t control the power. It was flowing through me and I knew I was giving it form, manifesting it into flame, but I couldn’t seem to bend it to my will. It was the emerald, its innate force overloading whatever meager ability I’d gained since starting this shitty mission. Trying to rein that energy in was like trying to control a wild, bloodthirsty baboon with a leash made from yarn. Not to mention the fact that the Tree King had power of his own. Tree roots had sprouted from the ground in columns, shielding him before the flames ever came close to touching him.

More roots ran over the floor, living things that creeped around my feet and ankles, literally rooting me in place. I aimed down and pumped the few remaining pistol rounds I had into the creepers, which blew apart in sprays of woodchips. Though the Tree King seemed to move with the plodding slowness of a mammoth, he’d managed to cover most of the distance between us. I struck out with another round of jade-flame, a more concentrated beam of fire about the width of my wrist, which plowed into his leg and set it burning bright. Score one for me.

The Tree King let out a howl of displeasure and pain, one great hand beating at his leg to stifle the embers glowing there. I tried to zigzag the beam up to his torso, but with no luck. Instead the beam just flickered and died, unwilling to cooperate with me.

Something slithered around my throat—a root, which had torn itself free from the wall—constricting and cutting off the oxygen flowing to my lungs. I dropped my spent pistol and grasped at the vine with my now free hand, trying to cram my fingers into place, desperate to yank the thing loose.

My fingers strained to find purchase, but couldn’t make any headway, not even an inch.

I gasped, my mouth working open and closed like a fish on land as I struggled for air, my head quickly growing heavy. Fuzzy. I changed tactics, dropping my right hand away from my throat and fumbling for the M-16 secured to my body by its sling. I got my hand around the pistol grip and pulled it up, firing haphazardly from the hip at the hulking Tree King. I pumped my finger, firing shot after shot in a last-ditch gambit. Many of the rounds went wide or plowed uselessly into the ground, but a few careened into the jungle beast: flowers spinning through the air, jagged pieces of wood raining to the floor.

But he still seemed unconcerned. He had eyes—well, one eye—only for the stone in my hand. He wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t let me leave here alive with that damn stone. Having it back was everything to him. It meant being whole. Seeing me pay for my insolence probably came in a close second.

The rifle clicked dry, my mag spent. I let the weapon fall, now worthless. My vision had gone almost entirely black, and even though I continued to struggle for air—because, let’s face it, what else was I gonna do?—I knew it was a losing battle. This was it. End game. I’d done a helluva lot better than I thought I would. Rat was still alive and there was a good chance Greg could make it out of the temple in one piece. Hell, with that radio in hand, Greg might even get home alive, the jerk.

When I blinked my eyes open again, the Tree King’s giant, ugly mug was right in front of my face, a fat stupid grin splitting his malformed face in two as he reached for the gem with one gnarled hand. This close, I could smell the stench of rotten fruit and moist earth wafting off him like bad perfume.

“You should have given it to me, mageling.” It was obvious that he was using his “inside” voice, and it still made my eyes want to pop right out of their sockets. “Now, I will have it all. I will be complete. I will enslave your mind and use your talent, and…” He held the last word, savoring the taste of tension. “And I will kill your friends. Just. Because. I. Can.”

His hand wrapped around my fist and tangles of jungle growth entwined themselves about my wrist and fingers like mini serpents, working to pry my hand open and free the stone.

I gripped the gem until my knuckles turned white, clamped down until the edges of the emerald cut into my skin and warm blood ran down my wrist.

The thought of him getting the stone and then murdering Greg and Rat was too much to bear. Not on my watch. Fuck that jazz.

Hate boiled in me, churning inside, a hate so strong it was almost blinding. I fed all of that anger, sadness, terrible regret, and loss into the stone. Another beam of jade-power shot through his wooden hand and up into his arm—the limb flew apart at the seams, exploding into lawn mulch. Green fire splashed over his torso and face, turning him into a living bonfire. He staggered back, tottered for a moment, and crashed to the floor with a boom that shook the ground beneath me.

The vine loosened around my throat and I tumbled onto my ass, now weak, exhausted, and spent. My body shook with jittery adrenaline, my chest labored to pull in some much needed oxygen. I looked on the fallen titan, feeling disconnected from the whole scene. I’d done it. I’d beaten that prick, despite all the odds stacked against me. How about that? If I’d had the energy for it, I would’ve pumped my fist and done a victory jig while yelling obscenities into the air.

Which is precisely when that giant son of a bitch pushed himself back upright, despite the fact that he was burning like the sun at high noon.

There was a terrible knowledge in his good eye, the knowledge of his own impending death. He was confused about what had happened, that much was obvious, but it was also clear that he knew his moments were numbered and ticking down by the second as the green fire ran over his body. His doom was inevitable, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The damage was already too extensive for anything else. But there was something else burning in his eye as well. Revenge. He was going to die, true, but not before he crushed me to meat-paste and danced a spirited victory jig of his own right on my bones. And there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop him.

I slipped the stone into my pocket and used the wall behind my back to worm my way upright. If I was gonna meet my end, at least I could meet it on my feet. A flash of movement caught my eye, something moving just behind and to the right of the Tree King.

Rat scampered fully into view as the Tree King took a ponderous step forward, throwing his body around the creature’s good leg. That crazy son of a bitch. I never would’ve thought he had it in him. Rat was no hero, and he certainly wasn’t the guy to take one for the team. Not by his own choice anyways. The creature glanced down, a look of sheer annoyance passing over his inhuman face. It was the same look someone might spare for an actual rat.

“What the hell are you doing, asshole?” I yelled at him. “Get outta here, idiot—I’m saving your ass here.”

Rat just shook his head and gripped the monstrous leg tighter. Fear wormed across his face before hardening into resolve. “My mom!” he shouted. “Tell my mom I’m sorry.” I could barely hear the words over the clamor of the music, but I did hear them. Time seemed to grind to a halt, everything moved in slow motion. The Tree King reached down to pull Rat free with one of his burning hands, but it was already too late for that. Rat had a smoke grenade clamped tightly in one fist, the pin missing and the spoon depressed. The little guy must’ve grabbed it from the stockpile of weapons and munitions.

There was a pop, followed by a flare of light, and then a thick white fog belched out, along with a gout of flame. Though the grenade was meant for marking purposes or concealing troop movements, every solider knew it could be used as an incendiary device. The shit inside those smoke canisters was white phosphorus, aka Willie Pete, and that shit was worse than Napalm. Napalm burned, and burned hot, but Willie Pete burned at damn near 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, stuck to the skin like shit to a blanket, and couldn’t be put out—not even with water. Stuff burned right down to the bone.

The flame spread up over Rat, racing up his arm and over his cammies, clinging to his exposed skin and biting down. He let out a scream, a tortured sound, which only lasted for a moment. The Willie Pete quickly consumed the oxygen around him, so his cry became only a wordless portrait. The fire didn’t stop with Rat. It spread up the Tree King’s leg, branching off to join with the bright green flame, a river flowing into the ocean to become one. The Willie Pete burned through the Tree King’s lower extremities, and he toppled once more, his legs now charred stumps.

The music died away at last, fading as the Tree King thrashed and groaned on the floor, the life finally draining out of him. I tore my eyes away from Rat’s burning body, unable to watch for a second longer, and glanced at the stage. The band was filing through a shimmering portal, which let out on some city that didn’t belong anywhere I’d ever seen. One of the sirens offered me a wink, then blew me a kiss as though to say Au revoir before the doorway snapped shut around her. The band vanished as completely as though they’d never been here at all.

I needed to move. Rat had paid an incredible price to give me a shot, and I couldn’t waste it, not even if my body refused to cooperate with me. I pushed myself away from the wall, stumbling into a lurching run as I made for the exit. I rounded the corner and saw Greg standing a few feet up the passageway, just as a gigantic explosion ripped through the air, filling my head with ringing and my eyes with white pinpricks. The ordinance against the far wall must’ve finally gone up. My damn knees gave out and my eyes slid shut as a rush of hot wind washed over me.

NINE:

Recruitment

I woke up a couple of times after that, though my moments of awareness came as brief flashes—half remembered images that seemed to be indistinct and dim around the edges. In one, Rat looked at me as the fire raced up over his face, clinging to his skin like a sheen of oil, his cammies melting away into globs of fabric. I remembered him trying to scream for a few moments, an agonized thing that lasted forever. Over those images, I could hear Rat’s voice in my head: I never told anyone this, but getting burned alive, that’s my worst fear … I don’t wanna die—who the fuck wants to die, y’dig?—but getting burned up? That has to be the hands down worst way to go out.

I remembered the whirl of helicopter blades and the shouts of soldiers as I was loaded up into a Chinook and airlifted away.

I remembered seeing a medic bent over Greg’s body while another worked away above me.

I even remembered offering a delirious account to some higher ups, telling them about the music and the Leshy King. But it was all confused in my mind, just bits and pieces, like a fragmented quilt of memory.

When I woke up for real, it was in a hospital, a nice hospital—not one of those shitty medic tents they had in Nam. This was an actual building with walls and real beds and nurses. I found out not long after that it was Walter Reed Army Hospital in DC. That meant they thought something was seriously wrong with me—only guys with substantial injuries got a pass to Walter Wonderful.

Although, truth be told, I didn’t feel like I was in that bad of shape. First thing I did was check my body over, making sure all the important pieces were still there and intact. I was in a hospital gown, my legs tucked up under a thin white blanket, bandages running over my arms and face while IV tubing protruded from my arm and twisted away to a saline bag. But as far as I could tell, I wasn’t missing anything.

A shitload of scrapes and gashes, some ligature marks around my neck from that damned vine, and a bunch of minor burns, but that seemed to be it. For the first time in my life, I felt like I’d actually managed to catch a lucky break. I tried not to think too much on that though, because it invariably caused me to think about the guys who hadn’t gotten off so light: Wrangle—dead by my own hand—and poor Rat, right at the top of that list.

Since I’d officially come to, countless doctors and nurses had come and gone, taking blood, scribbling notes, and asking questions. For weeks that bullshit went on. I’d given my after-action report a dozen times over to officers from various branches and ranks, and not a one of them believed me. I knew because I’d also been evaluated by half a dozen shrinks, a couple from the military and several from the civilian sector.

I found out that Greg had made it too, and, apparently, in better shape than me. He was being kept somewhere else, though, and from what I could gather, he wasn’t talking at all—not about any of it. As tight-lipped as a frozen clam. Maybe he really didn’t remember, though I wouldn’t put money on it. Likely, he was just keeping his pie-hole shut because he was smarter than me and he knew just how ridiculous the truth actually was. Greg was a lifer; the Marine Corps was his future, so telling anyone about what had transpired down in that temple was akin to committing professional suicide. I just didn’t have two shits to give, though. Besides, someone needed to know the truth, someone deserved to know about Rat.

A gentle rap, rap, rap came from the door, which promptly swung open to admit a tall well-built guy in an immaculate suit. He stood maybe 6′4″ and had wavy brown hair, styled up in a 1920s do, which oddly reminded me of the otherworldly male musicians from the temple. His suit was light tweed—matching pants and dinner jacket with a waistcoat underneath and a spotless button up. He wore wingtips and stood with the air of a man who was better than everyone else and knew it. I’d never seen this guy before, but I knew he wasn’t with the military brass, which meant either a doctor or another shrink.

“Mr. Lazarus?” he asked, though it didn’t really seem to be a question. His eyes flashed over me, measuring me up to size, a small smile playing at his lips.

“Listen, guy,” I said, “I don’t want to be insulting, but I’m done talking to doctors and shrinks, especially if you’re just here to interrogate me about what happened down in the jungle. Everything I’ve got to say is already in a bajillion different reports, so just move along and get to reading. Put down that the ‘patient was uncooperative.’ I’ve been hearing that phrase a lot lately. Seems like the go-to sentence.”

The man shut the door behind him, ignoring me completely, and moved over to my bedside. He pulled out one of those rolly, backless doctor’s seats and carefully sat.

“Mr. Lazarus,” he said again, extending a hand, which I looked at for a moment, but made absolutely no move to take. He shrugged his broad shoulders, let his hand drop, then cast me a wide smile. “My name is James Sullivan. I’m not a doctor nor am I a shrink, but I am genuinely interested in hearing your story. I’ve already read the reports, of course, but I really would like to hear it from your own lips.”

I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms across my chest. My patience for this bullshit had just officially run its course. “Fine, asswad,” I said, “I’ll tell you, just like I told everybody else. There was a temple down there in a jungle. A temple with some kinda evil tree spirit and a bunch of magic hotties who could sing music that turned people friggin’ crazy. Evil, murderous, shoot-your-friends crazy. Me and a few guys went in, shit got hairy, and I burned the whole place down.”

“With fire that came out of your hands, isn’t that right?” he asked, which made me want to punch him in the teeth.

“Yeah, asshole. With fire that came right outta my hands. Now if you’re here to commit me or something, just get it over with already.”

“Oh no, Mr. Lazarus,” the man said, holding up one hand. “I don’t think you’re crazy at all. In fact, the organization I work for is very interested in hearing your story more fully. I think we might just be able to help you make sense of all this.” There was a flare of light and a wave of heat. A ball of flame, about the size of a baseball, floated above his outstretched hand, spinning slowly, lazily for a moment, before vanishing in a flash, leaving only a faint afterimage behind. “Like I said, my name is James Sullivan, and we have a great many things to discuss, you and I.”

Dedication

For all the men and women who have ever served in the United States military. Thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and your loss. And this especially goes out to the knuckleheads from CLB-13: Collins, Hoyt, Bement, Castro, Wheeler, Holdman, Dixon, all the troops (you know who you are) and the cats over in Motor-T. Semper Fidelis.

—Sergeant James Hunter,

United States Marine Corps, 2015

Copyright

Flashback: Siren Song is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by James A. Hunter and Shadow Alley Press, Inc.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, email the publisher, subject line “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the email address below.

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