Entry 47 – Bad Dreams
Facing horrors beyond your comprehension does strange things to your mind. It happens to men who have seen too much, in the middle of battle, when everyone around them gets torn to shreds. The part of the brain responsible for decisions and actions detaches itself from all the warnings the rest of the organ is flooded with to survive. That is why men who get jumpy when hearing a perfectly normal but loud noise are capable of wading through a river of blood, guts and their moaning and begging friends to reach safety even when wounded. It’s the ultimate failsafe of the mind, one that, once triggered, can never be repaired.
Seeing the squealing worms, I wondered if I had reached that state. In retrospect it’s clear that I did not but it was a surreal feeling, as if I saw myself giving orders to douse the entire mound with gasoline and set it ablaze. Even now I can still hear the squeals whenever I close my eyes. But all this, it was nothing compared to what came after.
It took us several hours to pack things up. The night was calm save for the desert breeze but for whatever reason, much of our equipment – especially the water purifiers – were clogged with sand as if they went through a sandstorm. We had no explanation for it. By that time, the rumors of what happened reached the entire outfit. There weren’t that many witnesses to the incident but mercs like to talk and the demise of one of our sentry teams (or its nature) wasn’t something we could cover up.
The prevailing theory amongst the ranks was that local rebels were responsible and, periodically passing through the camp, I heard more than one promise of bloody vengeance should we run into some of those. Gail and me, we knew better, but thought the worst was over. Until we returned to our tent.
A man was sitting in the sand, his legs crossed. We could not see his face but he appeared elderly to us, his hands – the only truly visible part of his body – calloused and tanned by the hot African sun. He was dressed in an odd garb that was very hard to describe as its brown fabric flowing in strange, unnatural ways. None of the troops in the vicinity seemed to have noticed him and it soon became clear why. As me and Gail approached him with our pistols drawn, we crossed a... threshold of sorts. The man and his surroundings were encased in a bubble of reality and everything outside somehow felt... muted. Even now, with my mind cleansed by whiskey, the memory feels more like a vision, a hallucination rather than something belonging to our world.
“Pawns of the Exile approach,” said the man, his voice rather casual, almost mockingly so, but, at the same time, pleasant. His English was flawless and the only thing that drew our attention was his accent. I could have sworn I heard it somewhere before but I couldn’t place it.
We weren’t sure what we expected but it wasn’t this, so both of us just stood there pointing guns at his head but at the same time afraid to move a muscle as the consequences of anything sudden could be dire.
“Sit,” said the man, barely bothering to lift his hand to point in front of himself. “Talk. Of the Exile.”
I and Gail looked at each other. She was terrified; it was all just like that night in Arizona, I realized. But perhaps we could finally get some real answers. And so we sat in front of the man. Slowly and carefully, as befitted the situation.
Even with him sitting in front of us, we couldn’t see his face. There was a shadow of... something inside the garb but it was hard to recognize and I wasn’t about to make any stupid decisions. Instead, I concluded that actually having a conversation with the apparition was the best way of getting out of the situation without being turned into a clew of worms. Which, at that point, seemed like a very realistic ending to our voyage (and lives).
“What’s the exile?” I tried.
The man slightly cocked his head but said no word.
“We don’t know of any exile, we...” I lost my thread for a moment, “we weren’t exiled anywhere. Aside from this desert but... let me tell you, we’re here for the money, not the sights.”
Right now I am not sure why I tried to make a joke. Perhaps it was another psychic defense mechanism. The man exhaled audibly underneath his hood, it almost sounded like a disappointed sigh.
“You do not know then.”
Gail nodded, carefully watching for any sudden movements.
“That’s right. Whoever you are, you are wasting your time.”
The man cocked his head once again.
“Time... what is that, I wonder...”
That took me off guard and I had nothing to respond to that. But Gail decided to press the issue.
“Who are you?”
For a moment the man lowered his head and looked like he was considering the question. For the first time, he had trouble expressing himself, if only for a short while.
“A simple traveller, that is what I...” he paused for a bit, “am? Yes. That is what I am.”
“Sir,” Gail continued slowly and carefully, “we are mercenaries and we are on a mission to discover a strange energy type. Samuel and I. That is what we do. We fight for money.”
That caught his attention. The desert wraith – for that is what he was to me – sharply turned his head to Gail.
“Yes. I see. He wants to cross and he needs you.”
I did not like the vigor that could suddenly be heard in the wraith’s voice.
The next several things happened so fast the memory is still a blur but it went roughly like this. The wraith suddenly exploded into motion, grabbed Gail’s arm and almost hissed in my ear.
“The Exile must come. It is ordained.”
Gail’s eyes went wide. She let off a bone-chilling, painful howl... and then it was over.
I was sitting alone in front of the tent and around me the world returned to normal. Crews moving, camouflage nets and tents being broken down, the smells of burnt gasoline and breakfasts that’ll kill you in a couple of decades.
All that and yet I knew deep in my heart things would never be the same again.