At first, I don’t recognize the street until we pass the stooped old guy with the long white beard pulling the goat cart and I know what’s about to happen. It’s the dream. The same dream I always have and it pisses me off. I hate this dream but I’m in it now and there’s not much I can do about it but go along.
The windows are up, despite the one hundred-fifteen degree heat and the barely working air conditioner. Sweat slips down from below my helmet to sting my eyes. I’d rub them, but I’d have to push up my goggles to do it and the gloves I’m wearing wouldn’t do anything but smear the salty drips around. I wear gloves because the steering wheel in the up-armored Humvee would otherwise burn my hands, and my weapon, if we get in a firefight, quickly gets too hot to hold. The truck makes me feel as if we’re roasting in an oven, slowly, on low broil. I’m so damn hot I want to dive into a tub of ice water, but the gloves, the helmet, all my gear and the long sleeves are necessary, life-saving even. But when you’re not in a fight for your life, it’s just plain uncomfortable.
I glance to my right and look at the captain that will make the same mistake he always makes. He looks at his watch and grows impatient.
“Turn here,” he says.
If we kept straight we’d go through the market. The traffic gets jammed up in there but there are plenty of civilians around. If we turn right, we go down an alley, tall buildings on both sides, little room to maneuver and one convoy had already been ambushed there. A known kill zone. The vegetable cart partially blocking the road in front of us, almost forcing us to make the turn doesn’t feel right, either. I know what he’ll say but I give it a try anyway.
“Sir, that’s not a good idea.”
Maybe it’s because I’m a woman. Maybe it’s because he’s an officer and I’m just a staff sergeant. Whatever, he won’t listen to me. He never listens to me and instead yells for me to turn and I follow orders and as soon as the vehicle behind us turns the corner we hear ping, ping, ping and Bates, who had planned to wear his dress uniform to his sister’s wedding in a few weeks, slumps down from the turret, most of his head gone, blood everywhere and then whoosh, the vehicle behind us goes up in flames and the explosion lifts the tail end of our truck until we’re nose down at an angle that feels like the first big hill in a roller coaster. The truck slams back down and it’s like everything flies apart. The hood of the truck crumples like paper, my door is falling off its hinges, and everything is red, my ears ring, the smell of burned rubber, burned bodies, cordite and muffled screaming like I’m hearing everything from deep underwater. I can barely see through the smoke. I feel a punch in my shoulder and my thigh. The unrecognizable sound of my own voice, as if I’m not the one controlling it, saying I’m hit, I’m hit. The zip of rounds flying past are so numerous I want to slap them away like annoying flies. The captain—the stubborn sonofabitch, always trying to prove something, opens the door. I tell him not to get out, but my advice, as usual, means nothing to him. He falls back into his seat, his face a red pulpy mess, his mouth moving. Maybe he’s telling me he should have listened to me for once.
I’m in the hospital and they tell me the captain is dead, Bates is dead, just about everyone in the second vehicle is either dead or missing limbs or barely hanging on. They tell me I’m okay, just graze wounds, but I’m going home. I say patch me up. I’m not leaving. They argue, but I pitch a fit and they finally give in.
Why do I do that? Why didn’t I just go home?
Because I don’t want to leave the guys in my unit who are still alive.
I’m walking around, looking at everything while on a personal security detail. My M4 is at port arms but we’re all relaxed, no real fear of attack. I listen to the curator giving yet another tour of the pyramid—the Ziggurat—in the town of Ur. We bring all the distinguished visitors here. The Iraqi guide is telling the Senator about the ancient towns throughout Iraq, how the war is destroying so much history. The senator doesn’t give a shit. She’s so uncomfortable in the heat, her makeup is melting, her hair is damp and flat against her head. I can tell she’s annoyed and would rather go somewhere to cool off but the reporter following us around forces her to stay on her good behavior so she smiles and we continue to bake in the desert furnace.
I see something glinting in the sun. They tell us over and over, if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up. It could be a bomb, a booby trap, something dangerous meant only to hurt you. If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up. The group has stopped while the curator keeps talking about the pyramid, the way the Tigress and the Euphrates rivers met here, making the town a thriving center of civilization and culture.
I stroll over to the shiny thing. Standing over it, it looks like something ancient, something important, my curiosity so intense it feels for a second like energy vibrating around me, a kind of humming in my ears.
If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up.
I pick it up. It’s a large gold coin, rough around the edges, the profile of a woman on one side, the other side decorated with an eight pointed star. I turn to ask the curator about it when I realize everything has stopped. The people around me in her hand over her face as she tries to wipe sweat from her eyes. The curator’s mouth is open, but nothing is coming out. The other soldiers, frozen too. Masterson stands as if in mid-stride, one foot in the air. If I pushed him, would he topple over? I turn in place looking at how everything is at a halt but me.
In the silence, I hear laughter that sounds like the beauty of a waterfall. I turn to see her. She shimmers in front of me, close enough to touch. Her brown skin glows in the sunlight, wide almond-shaped eyes outlined in kohl, wide-full lips stretched in a smile that makes me want to smile back, warm, friendly, familiar. Her long, ebony, tightly curled hair floats in the non-existent wind and she wears a golden crown laced with jewels with one large ruby sitting in the middle of her forehead.
I think her splendor could stop the earth from spinning and I don’t even swing that way.
Her golden plate armor over a white silken dress makes her look like a warrior. She carries a shield with the eight pointed star on the front. The hilt of a sword sticks up at an angle over her right shoulder from where it hangs on her back. She speaks to me in a language I shouldn’t understand but somehow do.
“Hello Hester. I have waited long and forever for you. I am Inanna and you are my vessel now.”
I open my mouth to ask her how she knows my name, a question minuscule in the scope of things I should be asking, but can’t get the words out before I am blinded by an explosion of white so intense my eyelids provide no barrier from the assault. My body stiffens, as if from an electrical charge, my arms and legs spread wide and I am inches from the ground, lifted up and up and I’m shuddering in ecstasy, hearing myself scream not in pain but in pleasure, so overwhelming I think I’ll die from it. An icy cold feeling shoots out of my fingers and toes and latches me to the earth. Another jolt of frenzy shoots through me as I feel a sudden connection with the universe, the sun and the fine grains of sand beneath my feet, everything. I can feel and see and be all.
When I open my eyes, I am breathless and confused and the curator is still talking. Everyone is acting as if nothing has happened but I know that everything has changed.
Then I hear a voice in my head. “You and I will do great things together, my vessel.”
I‘d chopped off plenty of heads before, but I’d never seen a new head grow back in its place.
“How many times do I have to kill this damn thing?”
“I’m sorry, Hester,” Quincy said. “None of my research said anything about multi-head regeneration.”
“Great.” Rashid said, moving in close to slash at the ogre’s knee making it roar in pain, the scream coming out of the mouth on the head that had just re-appeared. “And I always thought you could find anything on the internet.”
The men made eye contact and laughed. Yes, the Ogre was frightening and should have been dead twice over, but we hadn’t had a good fight in a long while.
“Gods, this would be far more enjoyable if his blood didn’t smell worse than a sewer,” I said. Considering the fact that we were in a sewer and his blood – thick purple viscous stuff that made me wonder how I’d ever get it out of my hair – smelled worse than the muck we stood in. His pungent odor took all of the fun out of the fight.
I’d always dreamed of a more normal life. After I’d picked up the coin in the Iraqi desert, I knew I’d never have the white picket fence, husband and kids kind of thing in my future, but at least I could still hope for a life not filled with demons and monsters, a life I could tell my two sisters about without fear that they’d want to send me to the VA psych ward.
No matter how great a story it might make, I’d never be able to tell the women closest to me, that when I’d hacked off the demon’s head for the third time, a new one rose up from between its massive shoulders.
There were only two people in the world I could share the stories with.
“Here it comes again,” Rashid said, flicking blood off his blade and backing up; not out of fear. He’d seen this part of the movie before and it grew ever more annoying the longer it was stuck in repeat.
“I don’t understand it,” Quincy said. “Maybe we’re supposed to use a different kind of blade.”
“This is a bad time to second guess your research,” Rashid said.
You could tell from watching the monster guard trundle toward us, that it didn’t have much in the way of higher level thinking. It didn’t talk or seem to understand anything we said. It only wanted to kill whoever or whatever attempted to get past him. Each time it’s large, boil-covered head popped back up, covered with slime and just as ugly as the previous one, the seven-foot Ogre shook the goop off and came at us, angry and swinging a massive club the size of a telephone pole. The three of us, Quincy on my right, Rashid on my left, backed up until our shields overlapped forming a solid wall.
We’d been battling the giant Ogre for half an hour, trying to get past him and into the inner sanctum he protected, to get at the golden egg; this one more purplish than golden. We’d known the purple blood monster was down here, on duty twenty-four-seven for the last two years, protecting the egg that, when hatched would unleash a super-mega demon thing that would be even harder to kill then the multiple head-regenerating Ogre trying to kill us now. There was only one day, in all that time, which you could be sure to destroy the egg. Hatching day. We’d thought we had everything timed to the minute but we hadn’t counted on the multiple heads and the clock kept ticking. If we couldn’t get past the Ogre within the next hour, the egg would hatch, the demon would live, and people could die.
So, us to the rescue.
“Are you sure it wasn’t the heart?” I asked. “Stab it, cut it out, something like that?” The monster wore tattered breeches and only a leather harness over his massive torso, the straps woven together in the middle of his chest. “Maybe his heart is hidden behind that patch of leather.”
“No. Take off the head. That’s what the book said.”
“Any particular head,” Rashid asked, his frustration showing. “The fourth head, or the seventh head?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, obviously this isn’t working.”
“Shields up!” I yelled, and we all went down on one knee bringing our shields over our heads just in time to avoid being pulverized by the Ogre’s club. The monster’s crushing blow rang against the Kevlar of the shields and the three of us grunted in our efforts to stay upright.
We wore battle dress modeled after the Sumerian goddess Inanna’s army, but with Rashid’s modern upgrades. The white tunics, plate chest pieces, golden overskirts, greaves and shields he’d designed and made of light-weight Kevlar. Our shields were decorated with the eight pointed star that mirrored the symbol on the coin I’d found in the desert, the one that had made me Inanna’s vessel and the modern-day embodiment of the Sumerian goddess of war and love and fertility and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Rashid slashed out at the Ogre’s legs, then hacked down, taking off one of its toes. The Ogre roared and stumbled backward, tripping on its own feet and went down on its behind, making the ground shudder.
“Can you get a signal down here?” I shouted at Quincy. He started to answer but we didn’t have time. “Go. We’ll keep it busy.”
Quincy didn’t argue. He sheathed his sword in the scabbard on his hip, then ran down the sewer tunnel toward the manhole we’d climbed down to get here. Hopefully, he could call up his research and get clarification on what we needed to do to kill the thing. In the meantime, Rashid was just being mean, darting in and out, provoking the ogre while it bled.
“Looks like his toes aren’t as lucky as his heads. They don’t grow back. Go figure.” Rashid dodged right, then left as the thing brought his club down over and again, missing my Persian warrior each time. The ogre regained his footing and shambled forward, favoring his injured foot.
I ducked to avoid the swing of the club, then brought my sword down on the big toe of his other foot, lopping off a good portion of it. The ogre roared again, foul smelling spittle flying everywhere, the few rotten teeth in its head now purple with blood. His snarled cry ended with a high pitched wail of pain.
“Let’s cut off some other stuff. See if we can at least incapacitate him.”
“Works for me,” Rashid said, running full out at a wall of the tunnel, letting his momentum take him up a couple of meters, then launching himself, spinning in the air as he reached out with his scimitar to lop off the first finger of the Ogre’s club hand. The severed appendage hit the floor with a loud plop. The ogre stared at it for a second before screaming his pain and anger, his eyes wide in shock.
I started to feel bad for the big, dumb thing. It reacted to the pain it felt by wailing but he seemed to grow more fearful, as if just realizing that he could lose this fight.
Since he only had four fingers on each hand, removing one finger made it more difficult for him to keep a grasp of his club. He tried to use both hands, but looked too top heavy to bring his massive grip to bear on the enormous bat. He raised it over his head, bringing it straight down at me, a move that made him lose his balance and go down on his knees.
Bouncing on my toes, I moved out of his way. Then advanced on him as he tried to push himself up from his knees. With his head down, something shiny glinted in the torchlight of the tunnel.
“Rashid, what’s that on his neck?”
“His neck?” he said, leaping to avoid a sweep of the bat, then landing lightly, staying in motion. He crossed in front of the Ogre, who was still down on one knee, using the club like a cane to prop himself up. Rashid’s sword flashed as he managed to get another good whack at the fingers of the ogre’s other hand. The tunnel floor became covered in thick, sticky ogre blood and the growing stench made me retch.
“Screws.” Rashid said. “They look like big screws.”
“That’s it then,” I said, running straight at the monster. I leaped to land one foot on the monster’s knee, then jumped higher to slash out with my shield to knock the club out of the way from where he leaned on it. The supernatural guard, started to tumble, off-balance and hurt. I drew my sword back and swung with all my might, lopping off its head again, this time taking the head of one of the screws on its neck with it.
When it hit the ground, the head sounded like a smashed melon and blood spurted up like a geyser from its neck as the head rocked back and forth a few times before stopping, the ogre’s eyes and mouth opened wide in surprise.
Rashid and I stood bent over, hands on our knees catching our breath when we heard Quincy running toward us. “Screws!” He yelled. “Cut off the … head of the screws with the …” He stopped and stared at us. “Shit,” he said. “I guess you figured it out.”
I smiled at him. “Head of a screw. Head of an ogre. It’s all good.”
“Sorry, my goddess,” he said, his face so red with exertion and shame it almost matched the flaming color of his hair. He lifted his shield over his head to hook it on the back of his armor. Rashid and I copied his action. Then Rashid sheathed his centuries-old scimitar in the ancient jeweled scabbard he wore on his hip. I kept my sword in my hand as we climbed over the stinking body of the ogre to the massive entrance of the nest and stared at the impenetrable looking doors.
I held my hand out to Quincy and he gave me a post-it note where he’d scribbled the Sumerian words needed to open the doors. After I recited them, nothing happened.
Rashid and I looked at Quincy, silently questioning his accuracy.
He sighed in frustration. “This part I know is right,” he said as he pushed past us and shoved at the massive doors. They made a loud grinding sound as they slowly opened to reveal the large purplish, glowing egg sitting upright on a raised pedestal.
“Can we just smash it or … “I asked.
“Smash away,” Quincy said.
I used the tip of my sword to send the egg tumbling off the pedestal where it shattered on the floor and we were hit by an ungodly smell almost physical in its assault. The splintered shell released a reptilian-like creature. The small greenish thing lay rolled tightly in a ball and covered in a gooey, placenta-like sack.
We’d all recoiled at the offensive smell of the thing. “Oh my gods,” Rashid said. “That is so rank.”
As we stared at the creature, one eye opened as if we’d disturbed its sleep. It started to unfurl its tail but it seemed trapped inside the sticky, stretchy sack. It rocked itself from side to side as it tried to break out of the confines of the bag.
I held my nose as I approached it. “Sorry kid. This world isn’t the right place for you.” I held my breath while I wrapped both hands around the pummel of my sword and stabbed it straight down into the lizard’s head. It thrashed around, finally breaking out of the sack, a high pitched screech assaulting our ears. I stabbed it again, its movements slowing, until it remained still, a long shaky warble marking the end of its short life.
We continued to hold our noses as we pulverized the hard shell, pushed it along with the goopy insides and the lizard thing into a pile, doused it all with lighter fluid and set it ablaze.
We stood around the small fire, watching the flames dance for a bit. I recognized the triumphant feeling and smiled at the men. It had taken several years, but I’d finally come to terms with the fact that I never felt more alive than when the three of us, Quincy, Rashid and I, faced death together.
“Well, that was fun,” I said, wiping purple blood off my sword onto my tunic.
Well done, the voice of the goddess Inanna said in my head. You perform well as a team.
While I didn’t always appreciate her input, she was right about our teamwork. Together, we could do just about anything.
“I can’t believe I messed that up,” Quincy said.
“No big deal, Quinn,” I said. “It all worked out in the end, and Inanna says good job by the way, to both of you.”
Quincy’s face glowed in embarrassment. “She’s too forgiving sometimes.”
“What? You expect punishment? Not when I’m driving this train.”
Rashid smiled his approval. When it came to Inanna’s life, the duties and responsibilities of her world, the Persian warrior was the expert. I always felt a bit of pride when I received a nod from him.
“Well, since you’re driving,” Rashid said. Can you get us out of here? To the Bat Cave, please.”
“Yes, please,” Quincy said. “To the Bat Cave.”
I sighed, “Would you stop calling it that?”
They laughed while they each put a hand on my shoulder and I propelled us back home, to the space above the restaurant, our normal hangout we used to meet up and train.
Quincy headed straight for the weapons closet. “Just leave your things here,” he said. “I’ll clean the gear for you.”
Rashid and I exchanged looks, wondering if Quincy had lost his mind. “You don’t have to do that,” I said. Ogre blood stains were particularly difficult to get out and quickly dulled edges and gunked up scabbards if we didn’t get them cleaned right away.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Let me make up for screwing the pooch on this one.”
I shrugged and handed him my sword, leaned my shield against the rack and pulled off the scabbard I wore in the middle of my back. “You don’t have anything to feel guilty about, Quinn. We all make mistakes.”
“I don’t,” Rashid said, with a wink. “Have fun with that buddy.” He clapped Quincy on the shoulder while dumping his gear at his feet, a puddle of purple ogre blood forming under the gore-covered gear.
‘You’re sure? I can stay and help,” I said.
He shook his head no. “You may not blame me, but I do,” he said. “This’ll make me feel better.”
“Okay. In that case, I’m taking a shower,” I said, shuffling toward my bathroom, wondering if I’d be able to get the blood out of my hair. “After this, I’m buying the shots.”
“Yes, shots,” Rashid said, going into the men’s shower room. “Copious tequila shots are in order.”
“You and I will do great things together.”
I woke with a jolt, the remnants of the familiar dream fading, my heart rate slowing. Sleep dissipated with a tingling energy pleasantly flowing across my naked flesh like rivulets of moisture cascading off me.
I turned my head toward the windows. The deep, blue skies made me think a quick ride around the lakes would be a perfect way to start the day. Contented. Tranquil. I loved mornings that started this way. No rushing. No worries. We’d bested the ogre, destroyed the demon egg. All was right with the world.
I yawned and stretched my arms overhead, a long, slow acknowledgement of every well-trained muscle in my body from finger tips to toes. Now, relaxing after the stretch I ran a habitual hand over the scars on my shoulder and thigh, noted the desert dryness of my mouth and a slight soreness in intimate places.
Then I remembered the night before. The celebration of our battle with the ogre and our slaying of the lizard-demon thing. And Tequila. Lots of it.
The sounds of deep breathing next to me finally drew my attention. I leaned up on my elbow and looked down at him.
I’d known he was too young when I’d first laid eyes on him, but the goddess always felt a bit randy after a battle. When he’d sat himself down at my bar, surrounded by a bunch of cocky, college buddies, I’d known how to keep her satisfied.
Watching the rise and fall of his chest, I tried to remember his name. Something familiar. A name that reminded me of a comic book character. Bruce? Wayne?
“Clark,” I said, running a hand down his muscular torso, “like Superman.” Chiseled and bronzed but now marred by the scratches and red welts I’d left across his shoulders and chest. He stirred, grasping my hand for a moment before rolling over and settling back to sleep.
I’d enjoyed his shock when he realized that I’d said yes, and that his awkward flirtations had earned him a trip to my bed. His wide-eyed expression had been priceless and cute. In the next moment, he’d looked petrified. He’d had no idea what he’d gotten himself into.
Still, he’d been an athletic and enthusiastic lover, even though I could almost hear him formulating the stories he would tell afterwards. Bragging to his friends, proud of his conquest. A bit full of himself, I figured Clark would be a problem at some point, but one I could handle later.
The Sumerian goddess of love and war, queen of heaven and earth, purveyor of fertility both in human life and in the fields, had earned her reputation in her day, especially in the bedroom. Ever since I’d bonded with the goddess, I’d had to learn how to keep her satisfied. I didn’t usually pick college boys, but regular and frequent sex with men was just one of the changes my life had undergone to ensure our partnership worked and admittedly, looking at the slumbering beauty sleeping next to me, one of the least burdensome ways my life had altered.
-end of excerpt-
Look for The Bonding Spell at Amazon.com in mid-November.