© 2020 by S.J.Rapala
SOLDIERS OF LIGHT
"For at one time you were darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light"
- Letter to the Ephesians, 5:8
Al-Naziza District, Fallujah
Another F-16 roared over their heads launching more air-to-ground missiles that streaked the sky. Xander's eyes trailed them for moment and he blinked against the brilliant flash of light that followed. His head snapped back to look at the two men who were with him and with his chin he motioned for them to stay huddled against the broken stone wall of the house. They jerked at the sound of the explosions and tried to make themselves smaller in the cavity just beneath the gaping hole of what used to be window. Distant gun-fire paused for a moment, but then picked up again, ferocious and menacing.
TA-TA-TA-TA-TA... TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA was the easily distinguishable sound of the AK-47s, they were overlapping each other.
"How many of those fuckers are there?" Dusty breathed into his ear.
Xander adjusted his combat helmet, but before he could reply, the familiar machine gun sound was overtaken by a much louder BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM - slower, harder, evil.
"Fuck, where did they get an M2?"
"They'll be chopping down anything in their path, Sarge," Billy's feverish whisper followed Dusty's question.
"Stay cool, soldier, and don't move," Xander hissed. "That's their problem, not ours now. The 5th can handle themselves and they have the Iraqi cowboys with them, just eager to eat up the Al-Qeada. We have our own problems now." He pointed at the tall building around the corner. “That sniper’s got us pinned.”
Dusty and Billy stared back at him, their eyes childish and fearful. Gone were their brashness and their jokes, and their bragging about pussy-grabbing cheerleaders. Now they were just a couple of scared kids.
Xander looked up, his teeth clenched. His eyes closed, he hid his own fears. Clouds were stacked up in the sky above him, dark and menacing. The F-16s were gone, their friendly missile streaks already dispersed through the air. They were alone in enemy territory and he was there with a couple of scared kids, and it was up to him to lead them out of the mess.
“Don’t move,” he repeated. He placed his helmet on his rifle’s barrel and slowly stuck it out from behind the corner of the destroyed house that served as their shelter. A single shot broke the silence between the M2 and AK-47 rounds that echoed in the distance. It was dry, a crack that broke the crispness of the morning air. The helmet danced at the end of his rifle’s barrel, struck squarely in the middle, a big gaping hole in it.
“Fuck,” Xander breathed. “Don’t move,” he said for the third time.
“We can backtrack and take him down from the south,” Dusty suggested.
“Iraqi militia is already moving into the neighbourhood,” Xander replied. “No way to tell which way their mood will swing, so that way is closed off.”
“We can move east, away from the bastard,” Billy said.
“The 5th is west of here and we’re due to meet up with them.” Xander gave him a hard look. “You want to miss the rally point and what? Wander around Fallujah just for the hell of it? You want to go sightseeing, book a fucking tour.”
The youngsters quieted down. Xander Phillips was their CO and their god; his real-life heroics during Desert Storm made him a bona fide hero and his expertise on Iraq was unrivalled. When Xander, code name “Dragon”, told you to shut up and listen, you did what you were told.
“We can’t stay here,” he said after a short pause, but the comment wasn’t directed to anyone in particular. “South is blocked by the militia, east makes no sense, not without adding hours to our mission and by then, the extraction point will be lost. North is an open field, might as well be a football field, no cover. He’d pick us out one by one in ten seconds flat. Fuck!”
Dusty and Billy did not interrupt. Far away, the distant sounds of the AK-47s, the M2 50 caliber guns, and the hand grenades, continued and they reassured them – absurdly – that somehow they were safe. The 5th continued to hold ground, brazenly facing an onslaught of Al-Qeada insurgents. They were probably surrounded, but they must have dug in and as long as they continued to hold position, there was enough time for the Black Hawks to swoop in, secure the extraction point and get them all the hell out of Fallujah. Problem was, the three of them still had to get there and blocking their path was a ruthless sniper. And who knew, maybe he was on the radio trying to get his Al-Qeada buddies to smoke them out of their hiding spot.
“Back up slowly,” Xander ordered. “We’re moving south, we’ll take our chances with the militia if we run into them. They shouldn’t be stupid enough to open fire on us. If we’re lucky, we’ll circle around and get the fucker from the other side.”
Dusty and Billy started a slow backwards crawl.
“Stay down, and keep your heads low,” Xander added and turned back to look around the corner one final time. The sniper was hidden in a clock tower of an old City Hall building across from the house they were hiding in. As long as they could stay away from open windows...
His train of thought was interrupted by the sound of two dry cracks that broke then air, one after another, seconds apart. Xander’s head snapped around just in time to see Dusty and Billy both crumple to the sand, bleeding. A perfectly circular wound adorned each of their foreheads; they tumbled face first into the dirt.
Xander’s head hung low. Their glassy eyes stared back at him.
Battle Creek, Michigan
He woke suddenly in the middle of the night, his mouth open in a silent scream and cold sweat streaking his naked back. Darkness stared back at him like an open abyss and it took a few moments for Xander’s eyes to adjust to the blackness and to find the familiar contours of the bedroom furniture. His chest heaved under the burden of the nightmare, the memory of which was quickly fading. He swallowed hard and reached for a glass of water he kept on his night stand, but found it empty.
The clock showed 2:00 o’clock in the morning.
Xander swung his legs over the bedside and stood up slowly, quietly, careful not to wake Cassie. She woke sometimes with him when his nightmares came, but this time she slept through it. His scream was voiceless this time, and it only echoed in his head.
He walked down the stairs with the empty glass in his hand, night lights lighting up along the way as he passed them. In the kitchen, he filled the glass with cold water from the tap and drank it eagerly. Outside the large glass windows he saw stars blinking back at him. The city streets outside of their apartment were quiet. A few cars drove by now and again, a few late patrons were leaving the downtown bars, hailing taxis and Ubers.
Xander sat on the bar stool and rested his elbows on the counter, his face hidden in his hands. Dusty, Billy, and others – friends and enemies – their lifeless eyes haunted him every time he closed his. Pale faces of lifeless kids hailing from a generation that glorified war and violence in games and movies, and whose first face-to-face encounters with said wars were marked by piss and shit in their pants – their eyes were dead and glassy in his nightmares, but somehow they still pleaded for him to save them. Other faces, darker, brown faces of the Iraqis, the Afghanis, all the different insurgents he killed over the course of the various tours he had completed – their eyes were puzzled because death is always a surprise if it comes from a hand other than yours. In the last moments of their lives, right before his bullets tore through their bodies and ripped them open to release their final breath of life, they questioned the reality of what was happening to them.
Because death, in all of its inevitability, always came as a surprise.
And there was never anything glorious about it – the patriotism and heroics of action heroes belonged to a different plane of existence, they were a commodity conceived and commercialized by men and women in boardrooms for the purpose of churning out profits for the stakeholders. Bu their immaculate New York and L.A. boardrooms were far removed from the reality of war – the shit, the piss and the vomit of greenhorn kids whose movies and games were replaced by real bullets capable of tearing them apart in mere seconds. And because death always came as a surprise, their last looks were always disbelieving – the guts gathered in their hands could not have been theirs, the bloods staining the sand around them could not have been theirs and the agonizing screams could not have originated in their throats.
Some had met their death from the merciful hands of a sniper and the darkness gobbled them up before their brains even registered their end. Such was the case with Dusty and Billy, good kids, but dumb, dumb kids who glorified the flag and thought the war was nothing more than an extension to a game they played on the Xbox, a fucking DLC.
No resets. No lives left. Just the smell of guts spilled, the shit, the piss, and vomit.
Xander drank another glass of water and stared blankly at the window. A line of twisted faces stared back at him from the reflection. Some were vivid, their gruesome head wounds picture perfect, their features grotesque in their life-like appearance. Others were faded, like those of his friends from the Desert War, so many years ago. But their eyes were all penetrating and they hit him like punch to the gut, taking his breath away.
Cassie tip-toed into the kitchen and wrapped her slender arms around his bare chest. Xander twisted his head to look at her and smiled.
“I can’t sleep,” he said.
“Then come to bed,” she whispered back. “Let’s go make that baby.”
She pulled him by the hand and led him back upstairs.
Xander glanced back at the window one final time on his way up and he saw dozens of eyes trailing him, bulging eyes that stuck out from deformed, gruesomely disfigured faces of all the dead he had left behind.
New Constantinople, Pacific Ocean
Cassie was a petite woman and she had to look up to peer into her husband’s solemn face. There were tears in her eyes and his eyes were wet as well, and he looked away.
“Xander,” she whispered.
Instead of answering, he opened his arms and she leaned in to accept the soft embrace, the last one. Her lips quivered and she said nothing more, her voice gone. Good-byes were always difficult, but much more so when there was no chance of ever meeting again.
Xander felt a little hand tug his pant leg and the lump in his throat got bigger. But he was strong and when he looked down on his son Joshua, he even managed a smile. The child knew nothing and only wanted to be held up to see through the clear windows which opened up into the raging Pacific.
“Woooah!” the little boy cried and then giggled when Xander playfully swung him over his shoulder. Cassie had to turn away. She dreaded this moment and here it was, and her son was losing his father. And she was losing her husband.
Xander placed the little one on his shoulders and Joshua nestled in tightly.
“Daddy!” he pointed at another wave breaking against the floating airport.
“That’s awesome,” Xander said but his mind was elsewhere, beyond the walls of New Constantinople.
Into the light. Into the stars.
That was the task and the command of Uriel who had visited his dreams. Follow the others, the angel said. Tame the mouth of fire and become a Soldier of Light.
Xander had no idea what it meant at the time, but the dreams returned each night. Uriel whispered into his ear and his fiery sword touched his neck. The voices of the dead screamed his name and called for vengeance. Xander asked for repentance.
Joshua was five and he only understood that his daddy was leaving.
“When will you be back?” he asked, his voice full of childish confidence and his blue eyes bright and trustful.
Xander wiped away the tears and pointed at another wave forming far out in the ocean. The airport hovered over foaming, unforgiving waters where the dragons could land and lift off – where their fiery breath and the savage wind swept up by their great wings did not threaten the lives of innocent people.
The first one had landed in Washington a year ago, and it tore up a city block. The light of its scales was unlike anything else seen before. It blinded the sun. Its cry drove people mad and its breath leveled entire buildings.
Veterans of various wars came forth upon that sign and they spoke of their dreams and the Mark of Uriel. Xander watched the news as he cradled his young son in the dead of the night, thinking that no one needed to know.
The call was strong, though, and he was a soldier. Uriel’s sword burned through his neck and he felt it day and night. Soldier of Light, he was named. His fate was already bound to the enlightened beasts that came from the Cosmic Void looking for Riders.
Xander had completed three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and he was sure that his warring days were over. But the people he killed, they had called for vengeance and the Angel Uriel offered a chance at repentance.
The dreams changed then. He watched a parade of pale faces, bodies ridden with bullets, everyone he remembered and those that he didn’t. In the service of Light, he was told now and he scowled. He was told that before, too.
Darkness was coming and soldiers were needed. Uriel had marked those who needed redemption. New Constantinople was built, an engineering marvel and an international effort, and once it opened, the dragons started arrived in full. Only a few came at first, but then there were more. A few every day, then a few dozen, and finally hundreds a day. Soldiers came to the airport, too, and they were to be the Riders.
Joshua pulled on Xander’s ear.
“Let me go, daddy,” he whined.
“Phillips, report to L.O.S. 11A, Phillips, report…” An impassive voice on the speaker sounded over their heads. Cassie looked over at Xander and whispered, “No.” Xander slowly put down his little boy. Joshua sat on the floor and looked up at his parents.
“I’m tired,” he complained, his voice small. “Can we go home now? I’m tired.”
Xander knelt beside his son and ran his fingers through his blonde hair. How many more times? It never seemed enough.
“You’ll be on your way soon enough, little buddy.” He tried to control his voice, but found it breaking. So little time.
“And you, daddy?”
Cassie choked back the tears and looked away.
He looked over at his young wife. She understood and accepted it, but the little one was to be without a father. So little time for them.
Repentance, he said one morning after a vivid dream in which Uriel screamed into his ear and put a sword straight through his neck. His skin bubbled and seared and when he woke, there was a scar – the Mark of Uriel.
Hundreds had gone by then and none of them returned. The dragons carried them into the Light and into the stars, and they rode the sky fighting the Dark. There was no news of war. But the sun shone every day and the birds sang their songs, the flowers bloomed and the winds rustled the tree leaves, and that was news in itself.
But more dragons arrived and more Riders went. Then the same dragons came back and by that time New Constantinople was running at full operational speed and the dragons were tagged, though they did not like it. They were beasts but beautiful; their scales outshone the sun, their colors were bright and eyes intelligent. The same ones came back, but no Riders.
Xander squeezed his wife’s hand, harder than usual because time had come and he knew it to be the end. Joshua played with a toy truck at his feet.
“Can we go home, Mommy?” he moaned.
“Warden, report to Lift Off Station 16F, Warden report to…” The voice came again, and Cassie wetted her broken lips. Xander looked at her and their eyes met.
He picked up his son and gave him the hardest, fiercest hug, as if he tried to keep him, or take him. And maybe he did, a piece of him anyway, his young, bright and innocent soul that could go on now because of his father leaving.
The boy sobbed, sensing that something was wrong. Cassie wept too when they hugged because Xander was the only thing she knew, her whole world.
Xander stayed strong for Joshua and for Cassie. He swung the travel bag over his broad shoulder.
“I love you,” he whispered and it broke her inside. She crumpled to the ground and hugged her son because they were alone now. Xander wanted to rush over and embrace them, but he found that he could not. There was no time.
Tears came when he turned and they could not see. But his walk did not stray and all they saw were his strong shoulders, his tall frame moving hastily through the crowd. They did not see the tears.
And Joshua would forever remember his father a hero.
Darkness of the Cosmic Void
His dragon was a Dragon of Light and he was the ghost, the Rider. They were one and they raced through the stars to meet the Horde of the Dark. All around them was chaos, fiery snouts spitting flames, and shrieks and snarls carrying through the vast space and the stars.
They were ghosts, but brothers. They were marked by the Angel Uriel and they were given a task. And the Horde was waiting in the darkness, swords drawn and dripping venom.
Xander, who now had no name because he was a Rider, had a brief recollection of his previous life, right before he clashed with the Dark Horde. As the snouts came forth, as their jaundiced eyes met his, as the bloodied teeth snapped at him, there was a picture in his head, a still-frame in his mind. A young boy of five, his hair blonde and his eyes blue; a familiar smile and a trust that couldn’t possibly be betrayed. And then there was a woman of raven hair, embracing him, and her smile was calm because she was at peace. In the hurt and the pain, there was peace and there would be peace because the Riders came forth and advanced in a steady line to meet the Dark Horde, an army like no other.
Xander’s dragon, the Dragon of Light, his body a beautiful arc steered by the hand of a seasoned warrior, plunged into the abyss at lightning speed and it rained death and destruction on the army of Darkness.
And the sun still shone over the Earth and the birds sang. The flowers bloomed and the wind carried the laughter of children whose fathers were ghosts.