As I hustled out from the hangar into the Persian Gulf twilight, my muscles tightened, and power flowed into my hands. Soon I would do what I did best. Soon I would kill a sorcerer.
The U.S. Army base tarmac gave off a blistering heat mirage as I scrambled across it. A helicopter's blades rotated at ready; their wash blasted hot as I boarded. The door slammed behind me, and the copter, christened Valkyrie, took off.
The five men of my team saluted, then went back to checking their equipment. They showed no impatience at having waited on the pad for orders; they were used to the bullshit. I sat toward the front for quick off-headphone interaction with the pilot when we hit the spooky stuff.
For a silent aircraft, the Valkyrie made plenty of noise inside. Next to me, Cpl. "Vulture" Volant yelled my nom de guerre. "Casper. Is that like the friendly ghost, sir?"
"Not that friendly, Corporal."
"A killing ghost, sir?" But, seeing that I was unamused, Vulture again inspected his sniper rifle, and I was grateful that I didn't have to order him to shut the fuck up. It was my fault for choosing a shitty cryptonym, and not just because of the ghost reference. "Casper" gave a clue to my job. Casper, or Caspar, had been one of the Three Wise Men. A magus, or what Americans with knowledge called a craftsman. Why hide my identity only to give it away through the back door?
My father had written me a warning that "We Mortons are too practical about the craft, and too crafty about the practical." Yeah, my real name was Morton, Captain Dale Morton. Other craftsmen tended to have strong opinions about my family. I didn't blame them.
My men didn't know about my family or magic, but they aimed uncomfortable glances at me. I didn't blame them either. These five had trained together, a seamless whole, but not with me. I was too important a secret to expose to others for too much time. Our unit designation, MAC-66, appeared in no records. The Pentagon didn't formally acknowledge Delta Force and SEAL Team Six but allowed their existence to be known. Craft ops were different; knowledge of their existence could be fatal.
Two of my five were boot camps, green as Uncle Sam's toilet paper. Vulture and Lt. Shaheen were more experienced. Shaheen knew Arabic and regional detail and doubled as team medic, so he was Doc. And there was the old man, my NCO, Master Sergeant "Zee" Zanol.
All good men, but I couldn't get too close. They were smart enough not to question the bullshit, but they would know the word from this land to describe me: assassin.
* * *
Hours before, I had stood in a prefab conference room shoved in a corner of the base hangar. The room served as an office for people who weren't officially there. Colonel Hutchinson had explained my mission. She was my favorite officer, my favorite craftsperson, and my favorite living human being, all packed tight into a tall fortysomething mix of Kate Hepburn and triathlete.
"H-ring is calling it a snatch and grab, but you'll assume your usual prejudice against the target," she said in her easy rural New England way, as if she weren't sentencing some stranger to death. "Intel says he's a Farsi speaker, a Persian." Persian — better than any existing nation's name to describe ancient loyalties. Hutchinson pointed to a printout map. "He's been farseen here, about fifty klicks southwest of the bridge."
"A long ways from home, ma'am," I said.
"He's not such a wise man for a magus," said Hutchinson. "We expect a go before sundown."
"Isn't Sword up next?" Code name Sword was the third craftsperson on base, though for security I was kept sequestered from him. I wanted this mission, but I had a gut suspicion of irregular assignments.
"This mission has been called by Sphinx herself," said Hutchinson, "and Sphinx doesn't want Sword. She said something to the effect that if we didn't send you on this mission, we could pack up Western civilization and shove it up our asses."
"Me, ma'am?" As far as I knew, neither the Peepshow at Langley nor their top oracle Sphinx ever selected the individual for an assignment.
"Don't let it go to your head, Morton. This bozo isn't important. Must be a butterfly-effect scenario."
"So I crush the butterfly," I said.
"Right," agreed Hutchinson.
I respected Hutchinson more than my rarely seen parents, and whatever Hutch said, I would execute, with my usual and extreme prejudice. But it was more than personal loyalty. I shared the sense of duty of my ancestors: Philip "Foggy" Morton who delayed the British with bad weather at Brooklyn Heights to save George Washington's army, Richard "Dick" Morton, who calmed the storms over the English Channel for the D-Day invasion, and Joshua Morton, who gave the last full measure for the Union he loved. Like them, I would serve my country to the utmost.
* * *
I checked my watch. We'd be within forty klicks by now. We were coming in low and below radar, but I wasn't worried about the conventional firepower of the locals. The target would strike soon. I kept my anticipation of the supernatural blow to myself.
The first sign of attack came as a gut-lurching, sideways drop, followed by another. The chopper shook as if an oversized child was pelting it with boulders. Yes, a probable SPACTAD — spooky action at a distance.
I clambered forward and crouched behind the pilot, Lt. Nguyen. She had "Born to Kill" on her helmet. "What's that turbulence?" I asked.
"Sir, we need to turn back," said Nguyen.
"Just because of some wind?"
"Look at this," said Nguyen. On the radar, a wall of disturbance moved toward us. Sandstorm.
"Fly above it?"
"I've never seen anything go so high," said Nguyen.
"Keep flying," I said. "We'll be fine."
"But, sir ..."
"That's an order."
"Yes, sir." Fortunately, Nguyen had been thoroughly warned to follow my every order, no matter how apparently suicidal. But she didn't sound happy, no ma'am.
I made a controlled tumble back into my seat, and held some laminated maps in front of my face. But my mind followed the storm. I felt the enemy craftwork behind it, craftwork that had been wreaking havoc on air and land traffic in this sector for months. I could try to fight the whole spell, but I wasn't on my own ground, so that would drain me, and that was probably what the target wanted.
So I'd shield the copter. It would look strange, but what could the pilot say? I touched my hand to the wall of the aircraft, and rubbed and patted it like a horse. I felt the pulse of the life of the air beyond. "Calm air, calm air," I murmured, and the air around the speeding copter flowed calmly by.
My headset crackled. "Sir," said Nguyen, "the sand is blowing, but we seem to be in a clear pocket."
"Roger that. Carry on, Lieutenant."
Compulsively, I checked my weapons and gear again — way beyond the necessary. I carried a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun with its clean first shot and a Sig Sauer P226 9mm pistol, because I didn't want to adapt my father's .45 with the electronic safeguards. My team's equipment appeared standard for a Special Ops unit, but it had hidden features for craft-enhanced ops. The surest weapon in a craftsman's hands is his opponent's mind. Each weapon had a "Stonewall" chip that would prevent firing at a team member (including oneself) under any circumstances. I smiled at the chip's name. As my ancestor Joshua Morton had illustrated to General Jackson at the end of an otherwise bad day at Chancellorsville, getting the enemy to shoot their own took very little craft.
After the mission, the team would be kept under 24/7 surveillance and quarantine for a month, in case any craft time bombs had been dropped into their psyches. I grimaced in sympathy, but their minds wouldn't be great concerns if I eliminated the target quickly.
The men had technical explanations for these safeguards. Too much SciFi Channel had accustomed them to all kinds of nonsense — that they might be subject to chemical hallucinogens, microwave mind control, or perfect holographic projections. Like Dad had written, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
For a long mission, another man might carry amphetamines or other stimulants. I carried only one pill: a black cyanide capsule. And in case I hesitated, there was an exception to the Stonewall chip. One man in the unit would have the order and the means to kill me rather than allow my capture. I bet it was Sergeant Zee.
I felt the gs as the copter veered right. "Sir," said Nguyen on headset, "we're about two klicks from the target location, approaching from due south."
I didn't look up from my equipment. "Keep flying north, full speed."
"But the target is ..."
"He'll run," I said. I moved forward again for a face-to-face.
"But we're coming in quiet," said Nguyen.
"He knows that we're coming." The pilot looked at me, horrified at this hint of a security breach.
I viewed the ground through the copter's night-vision screen. Sure enough, far ahead on the lone road leading out of the village, a jeep raced toward the north. In night vision, the jeep glowed bright green with heat, but in my vision, the target burned red with craft. Perhaps if the target had tried to flee quietly without throwing sand in our faces, he would have made it, but that wasn't magi style. "That's our man. Try not to lose him."
If the target was talented enough, he would shake us with some sorcerer stealth unless I could guess where he was heading. That's why I was here, and not some Predator drone — this chase required craft and intuition.
Where will he run to? My objectives liked old ground. Any other place, I could just pick out the nearest ruin, but here in the Near East ancient sites with occult potential dotted the landscape. Wait, there on the map, straight down the road, a familiar name. Drones had seen some recent small-unit activity in the area, but that wasn't what concerned me. I stepped back to show the map to Doc. "Isn't there an archeological site here?"
"Yes, sir, an Assyrian settlement near the town. Looters have been digging pits during the recent unpleasantness."
"Pilot, head to MC 9146 4211."
"Roger, wilco — wait a minute. He's off the scope, sir."
"Understood. Circle the point where you last saw him for ten minutes. Then, head to MC 9146 4211 on a curved vector, veering thirty degrees west of true until midpoint." I didn't want the target to see us pursuing in a straight line behind him, and I didn't want to beat the target to the site.
I called up maps and photos of the dig on my handheld. Yes, an old tunnel excavation into a nasty temple to AssurMarduk — the target would like that. And something more organized than looting had been going on in the last two years, with the maze of tunnels opened up to the surface, then covered from view with a series of tarpaulins.
I turned to Sergeant Zee and pointed at my map. "Let's run through the mission. We'll insert a few kilometers downwind of the town, here." It was a small town with a long Arabic name, and before that a Greek name, and before that something in Assyrian. And something else before all that. Every place they sent me was like that. Small towns with large history lessons.
"Don't make me pronounce it right, sir," said Zee. "I just forget them all afterwards."
"Doesn't matter," I said. "Our objective won't go to the modern town. The drones have spotted activity just to the west in the excavated mound."
"What kind of activity, sir?"
"Hostile activity." Zee didn't need to know about the other aberrant sandstorms and equipment failures. Like me and many of my ancestors, my target was a weatherman. "Vulture will clear the entrance to the dig. Then, you'll all cover the town and any approaching bad guys." Any conventional bad guys.
"You're going into the tell alone, sir?"
"That's correct." Odd that Zee knew the word tell.
"An ancient city? Hmm." He narrowed his eyes at me. "I've seen some strange missions, sir. A crypt in the bottom of a mine in Bosnia, a temple older than the Mayans in Central America. I don't like that kind of strangeness, but it doesn't frighten me."
"I hear you, Sergeant." The man was saying that he understood something about craft ops — that I could rely on him not to panic in the face of magic and to keep his mouth shut afterwards. That I could talk to him. That I didn't have to go into those ruins alone. But craft was different from most military secrets. Besides, I preferred to hit the target myself. A mundane soldier was just somebody I'd have to protect.
"We'll talk afterwards," I continued. "So we understand each other, no one else is to enter the ruins under any circumstances. You understand my orders, Sergeant?"
Having completed my checklist, I prepared my most important weapon — my craft. I focused on my breathing to find my center. I hit the mute button on my senses. The chopper engines, the camouflage colors, the smells of fuel, equipment, and sweat — all perceived through foam insulation. Very internal, intimate time, turn the lights down low, baby. Some of this quiet bubble was common to most elite soldiers before a mission, but some of it was the peculiar meditation needed for my power.
Ritual and formula were just two possible focal points for magic. The essence of craft was to hold two exact images in one's mind at once — the thing as it was and the thing as it would be. Then, still holding the images, the craftsman placed the word of action between them. To do all this instantaneously required talent, practice, and energy.
But with my power running high, one of my natural gifts showed itself without effort. The team's auras flickered around me; the small letters of their sins, scarlet a's of petty fornications and k's of military duty, tried to distract me. I ignored them. In my bubble, I waited. I was alone; nothing else existed. I felt the craft energies flow up and down my spine. More than enough juice for one sorcerer. I was ready.
Nguyen signaled: two minutes. I resurfaced. I mumbled a prayer to an absent God that, this time, my team would just face flesh and bullets, leaving the more powerful horrors to me.
"Get ready." The copter slowed to a hover. "Move out!"
The metal door flew open with a slide-slam and we were down the ropes and fanning out through clouds of dust in a scattered deployment. Better for this sort of op that, until it was done, the aircraft not touch the ground, or stick around too long. The pilot swooped away like a bat copter from hell. My night-vision goggles gave the world a greenish hue. Unlike most Special Operations Forces, this unit had no video equipment. No recording of a craft op would ever be made; no amount of operation review could justify the inevitable leak that would endanger all practitioners.
"Let's move." We started jogging toward the tell. I loved the desert at night. Human beings seemed like a blot on its purity. Cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, lamb, exhaust. Sure enough, the inevitable smell of Middle Eastern cuisine mixed with diesel wafted over from the town, making me hungry and queasy at the same time. I hoped the civilians would, unlike their smells, stay at home. Home, and safe from me and my team.
We found cover behind the piles of moved earth. An all-weather tarpaulin, the first of many over the dig, made a tentlike roof to the mound entrance; its loose corners wagged or flapped in the wind. Someone had organized the digging and the tarps, creating a flimsy yet safer ceiling for their ancient home.
Two bad guys stood guard at the entrance, talking, one in a burnoose, the other in a deracinated uniform. Doc listened with a parabolic mike (a craft op standard) and sent me their text. "Heard chopper. Concerned." Not concerned enough by half. They were lighting cigarettes, which glowed like flares in my night vision. But the guards didn't glow with craft. Vulture lined them up in his silencer's sight. Conventional means for conventional people. Always better to take life with a bullet, as the law of karmic return was more lenient and indirect with nonmagical action.
Two bullets snapped. Unavoidable sounds, but they didn't matter. Any target worth his craft would be tipped off at this point.
I let go of the breath I had held. "Thanks, Vulture." Then I turned to Doc. "Keep the site sequestered. Talk any civilians out of coming near. We want zero casualties for us and them. I'm going in. Sixty minutes. Mark." No craft duel had ever lasted longer than an hour, if the craftspeople meant business. Simply not enough energy in one person to go longer at full throttle. A battle with multiple practitioners relieving each other in shifts could go on longer, but that didn't happen very often. If I wasn't back in an hour, I was dead, or a danger to my own team, or something worse.