For a US Navy SEAL, life can be many things — challenging, thrilling, rewarding, hazardous, unexpectedly short. Lieutenant James Salvatori knew all this going in, but nothing could have prepared him for his mission to Laos. What started as an anti-terror operation turned into an experience that was quite literally out of this world!
New lands, mythical creatures, powerful magics, immortal tyrants. What’s a guy like Sal to do, except lock and load?
Ten seconds. Twenty. A minute. Five minutes. Sal started to get restless, shifting in place, rounding his grip nervously on the doeskin-hilt of his katana. He thought for a moment to recite his hilts—two of them now—to calm down, but then realized that he wasn’t feeling that kind of excitement. His focus hadn’t wavered in the slightest from Caravan to the ridge. He wasn’t distracted, fearful, anxious. He was completely centered. He was just itching to get to work, to see some action, to do battle—even if it meant swords and arrows instead of MP5s. After being shot up, thrown in prison, dragged through a medieval forest, and put on trial by a jury of people so not his peers, he was more than ready to relieve some of the frustration that he’d built up over the past few weeks.
Finally, he got his chance. The elements themselves came to life along the road almost before Sal could even see the escort. And even though Jaren had talked to him at length about it—even wrapped as he was in military training—still he was unprepared for what he saw.
Fire, ice, and lightning showered the ridge as the carriage leapt to the escape, evoking an almost immediate magical response from the raiders. The result was… captivating. Massive salvos of color and energy flew from ridge to road and back again, and souls flew into eternity with each impact, yet for all the carnage, the sight itself was breathtakingly beautiful. So awestricken was he that he didn’t see the ice ball streaking toward his head until it burst into powder a foot from his nose, showering him with its snowy remnants.
A hand grasped his collar and yanked—hard—dragging him roughly to the ground. “Have you lost your mind?” Tavin shouted breathlessly.
“I… I’ve never seen anything like this!”
“Aye, and you never will again, if you don’t have a care! It’s not easy to wither a spell in mid-flight, you know.”
“To do what?”
“Never mind. Just know that you may not be so fortunate next time. Now, let’s move.”
The two low-crawled their way through the trees—and spells—making for a drainage ditch on their side of the road. The twang of a bowstring drew Sal’s attention, and he turned in time to catch a nearby archer drawing a second arrow from his quiver. No sooner was it nocked that it sped toward its target, sparking with electricity as it flew. Its aim was true, and it caught a blue-eyed mage high in the chest, the metal tip easily piercing the leather breastplate. The electricity apparently found a medium in the sapphire’s magic, for sparks leapt from the mage to any soul unlucky enough to be standing nearby, severely wounding those few that weren’t killed outright.
“Sal. That way?” Tavin pointed, indicating the ditch at the bottom of the hill which was conspicuously lacking two raiders lying in wait for the prison carriage. Sal nodded sheepishly.
When they got there, they noticed a huge crater in the middle of the road just before the prison carriage. The horses were missing as well. Absently, Sal hoped they were taken by a few escort mages smart enough to get outta Dodge. But as close as that crater was to the carriage, he doubted it. Magic bolts exploded dangerously close to Sal, forcing him to duck down in the ditch beside Tavin and wait for a break in the action. Then it came.
It was a small window, barely enough time to sidestep the crater, but it was likely all they’d get. Sal bolted from the ditch with Tavin in tow, spells raining down around them. The two ducked around the front of the coach just as lightning struck at their feet, turning the road to glass behind them. The concussion blew them off their feet, and sent them scrambling back to the shelter of the carriage.
Tavin rounded the carriage and moved to the door, grasping the lock. His eyes flashed brilliantly as the mana flowed. Sal had seen that look of concentration once before, when Jaren and Laryn had magically aged the prison bars the night of their escape. But before Tavin could finish whatever he was doing, a stray chunk of flying ice glanced off his temple, dropping him in a nerveless heap at Sal’s feet.
Sal ducked under the front of the carriage and reached out to the emerald from behind the wheel. The mage groaned, looked around dazedly, disoriented. “Tavin? Are you okay? Can you hear me?” Sal asked, gently shaking him.
“Aye, I can hear you,” Tavin answered vaguely. “There’s this loud… booming in my ears.”
“Yeah, mine too. That’s the raiders attacking the prisoner escort,” Sal said patiently.
“Raiders? Prisoner escort?”
Sal took a moment to pull Tavin completely under the coach and the meager shelter it offered. “Stay put till this is ov—”
An explosion rocked the carriage, rattling Sal’s teeth in his mouth. Ain’t gonna last too much longer! Gotta get the package and bug out. He gave Tavin a quick once-over, made sure that he wasn’t injured further, then scrambled out from under the coach.
In all the ruckus, Sal hadn’t heard the newly-rusted snap of the lock, so he was surprised to find the door standing wide open, and the coach empty of its passenger. He stood for a moment, gaping, until a barrage of hailstones threatened to shatter the door. He dove reflexively into the carriage as the remains of the door flew from its hinges. He could hear myriad pings and thunks as the tiny missiles peppered the back of the coach, but for the moment the thick wooden frame was holding. Gathering his breath, he unsheathed his sword and bunched his muscles to spring back into the fray.
Then he saw the treasure box, lying open on its side.
The contents of the box had spilled, making a sparkling pile in an undamaged corner of the carriage. Sal crouched there, transfixed by the glittering mound of wealth, the fight outside all but forgotten. Wouldn’t hurt to fill my pockets since I’m already here, Sal thought. After all, his part of the mission had been accomplished. The granite was free. Just one or two handfuls on the way out the door wouldn’t hurt anybody.
Greed threatened to provide any excuse Sal needed, but he tore his eyes away from the riches. People were risking their lives outside, and there he was, already counting his winnings. After the fight was over, he could come back and loot to his heart’s content, he promised himself. Sighing, he half-crawled toward the door and the raging battle beyond, idly sweeping back the gems that littered the coach floor.
As his fingers brushed a particularly large diamond, his head exploded in pain. His left eye blazed in an agony reminiscent of the night in the Laotian laboratory. A grinding sound filled his head, though in his panicked state he would only remember much later that he didn’t hear the sound in his ears. He heard it radiating through the very bones of his skull, stretching outward from his left orbit. As the crunching sound continued, growing louder, he felt his eye crystallize in its socket, growing hard and cold and dry in moments. Sal lost his balance, tumbling out of the coach with his hands clawing at his face.
Black blobs swam in his vision as he wrestled with his fleeing consciousness. Amidst the blobs, a fuzzy form appeared. Sal’s eye cleared long enough to see the form for a guard, dressed in some sort of armored uniform. Whoever he was, he definitely wasn’t one of the villagers. And judging by the sneer of contempt and the wicked looking axe, chances were that he wasn’t friendly, either. But crippled with pain as Sal was, he couldn’t lift his hands from his head… not that he’d have the strength to defend himself anyway.
So he waited patiently for the bite of the axe, almost welcoming it, but it never came. The axe fighter froze where he was, his face taking on a pained look of surprise. Sal’s vision wavered as consciousness slipped away, but not before seeing the guard turn grey and crumble to the ground in a pile of dust and rubble, revealing a young man—with eyes of polished rock—behind him, a brown nimbus surrounding him like a dirty halo.