Julian Gamier took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the humid tropical air. The sluggish breeze still carried a suggestion of smoke and decay, the calling cards of death. This land, saturated with the emotional residue of violence and misery, bore yet something worse. Something more subtle, that teased just beyond the senses. Unseen,
indefinite, but undeniable. The land bore the taint of true evil. Julian knew he stood behind enemy lines, so to speak. The domain of the Darkness. The sense of menace dangled just above his head like the proverbial Sword of Damocles.
He hadn’t been able to relax since his arrival, always tensed, his nerves strung taut as guitar strings. You volunteered, he reminded himself. One of the Twelve—the “stand-in Shemsu-Ra,” he liked to call them—needed to be here, to support the combat troops. The Knights. Those who got their hands bloody. Though he had never considered himself one of them, Julian knew he was more qualified than any of the others in the areas of both ballistic and magical warfare. The knowledge that he constituted the highest ranking “officer” of the battalion did not comfort him.
One of the helicopters hovered over the camp, silent as a ghost as it settled to a landing. The helicopters patrolled the skies while sentry teams scoured the surrounding terrain. The fact that this one had returned meant they had encountered no resistance. The Enemy remained unaware of their presence, then. The cloaking spells were working. Julian allowed himself a sigh of relief.
“Sir.” One of the Knights approached. “The two women have arrived.”
“Bring them to me,” Julian said. He watched as the men helped a couple of women from the helicopter. One of them, a pretty young redhead, struggled to keep the wake of the helicopter’s slowing rotors from lifting her shirt, which appeared to be her solitary garment. He noticed that she favored one leg, a crude bandage around her thigh darkened with blood. The other wore a bra and some bizarre headgear. The two followed their escorts, their mannerisms telling Julian they were still not convinced of his people’s good will.
“And who the hell are you, then?” the young woman demanded when they reached him.
Julian’s garb, more colorful than the other Knights’, was not dissimilar. Classical Renaissance regalia coupled with the latest in military economy. He looked the part of one in command. The young woman seemed somewhat less than impressed.
“We are friends,” Julian said. “As I’m sure the others have tried to explain to you.”
“Sure,” she replied. “No better way to say ‘hello’ than with tear gas.”
“It wasn’t tear gas.”
“What the hell difference does it make?!”
“Please,” Julian said, holding up an open palm. “We could make no assumptions as to who you were, whether you were allies or enemies. I do apologize for the manner in which you were greeted. I assure you, we mean you no harm.”
“Who are you people?” Gale asked. “We,” Julian answered, “are the Brotherhood of the Lotus.”