The last thing I remembered
was heading back towards Mosul, my unit packed into the back
of an armored personnel carrier like so many sardines. The
air in the vehicle was pungent with sweat and anxious fear.
The taste of sand had not left my tongue for two months now.
We were trying to mask our
emotions with the usual show of manly bravado. Ernie was just
working his way around to the punchline of a crude joke about
Private Bank's lack of popularity with the local women when
the IED went off below us. I never got to hear how it turned
The roar of the explosion
deafened me instantly. I felt hot blood splash across my face,
had no idea if it was my own or one of my friends'. My brain
couldn't compute images fast enough to make any sense of the
confusion of fire and flying metal it was faced with. My head
slammed against the barren, rocky ground and everything went
* * *
I reawakened to find myself
kneeling in an awkward crouch with my arms and legs tied behind
me. A strip of coarse cloth was tied around my neck and wadded
deep into my mouth My vision was slightly double and I had
to fight an urge to vomitthe fabric tickling at my throat
did not help. At best, I must have had a serious concussion.
My arms and legs were too numb to register pain and I could
not twist around enough to examine them for further injury.
I was far from alone in the
dank room, which I judged to be in a basement from the high,
shuttered windows that just barely filtered in enough light
to see by. A line of prisoners stretched from wall to wall.
I was positioned slightly to the left of center. We were being
watched over by a half dozen men in Republican Guard fatigues,
machine guns slung on straps across their shoulders. I could
only make out a portion of the line from where I knelt. By
craning my neck I determined that some of the other prisoners
were members of my own unit, but others were unfamiliar to
me. One woman wore civilian clothing, and I took her to be
member of the news media.
There was another Iraqi in
the room, dressed in the type of plain black robe that the
local desert dwellers favored. He was working his way along
the line from my right and stopping to examine each of us
closely, like a slave master taking inventory of our worth.
Pausing before me, he reached
out a hand and grasped me uncomfortably about the neck. I
was surprised to find his flesh cold despite the desert heat.
I shrunk away in surprise, but he held me firm, turning my
head from side to side. The sudden motion made the room spin
and I fought off a new wave of nausea. I closed my eyes for
a moment, in response to the dizziness, and when I opened
them I found him staring at me intently. His irises were unsettling,
golden in color and bright and vibrant like metal. Still,
I defiantly refused to look away as his gaze bore into me.
He smiled, displaying broken
"This one," he said
in Arabic, nodding to himself.
When none of the guards moved
to comply, he gestured furiously towards the nearest.
"Now!" he barked.
The man lurched into action,
his face betraying a flash of fear. He grabbed me by the shoulder
and began dragging me backwards towards a door into another
part of the basement. The black clad man strode by me to lead
Before me, the remaining guards
all shifted to one side of the room. A couple of them leveled
The door closed before the
shooting started, but it did not block out their muffled screams,
which mingled with my own.
* * *
My bonds were cut, but only
long enough for the guard to strip me, dress me in a sort
of white jumpsuit, and push me down into a stiff-backed chair,
to which I was tied at the waist and ankles. The chair was
shoved beneath a plain rectangular table of thick wood. At
least my gag had been removed.
The black clad man seated
himself across from me and stared silently with his strange
golden eyes. He nodded at the guard without looking up, and
the man made a quick exit, looking relieved.
This room had clearly been
recently added onto the preexisting structure. The walls,
floor, and ceiling of the room all had the dull look of matte
steel. At first, I thought it might have been constructed
as a vault or bunker, but the shelving lining the walls was
filled with vials of bright liquids and strange devices whose
functions I could not fathom, and I decided it must be some
kind of weapons laboratory.
"You are wondering why
I have chosen you," said the man in thickly accented
I shrugged. It was nice to
have my arms free, though it hurt to move my right shoulder
and there were patches of burnt skin along my left arm that
also cried out in protest.
"You were chosen because
you are weak!" he screeched. Spittle frothed into his
Surprised at his sudden change
in tone, I started and banged my knees on the underside of
"You are susceptible,"
he continued more calmly. "Though I doubt you are aware."
I maintained a stoic silence,
though on the inside I was terrified. Who knew what sort of
torture this man had in store for me? I vowed internally to
hold out as long as I could, but there is only so much that
any man can take, and I had doubts about myself. Still, he
would not have the satisfaction of seeing my fear.
There was a small drawer built
into the head of the table; the warped wood made a scraping
sound as he opened it. From inside, he withdrew a plain metal
knife. Its only noteworthy feature was its almost primal lack
of decoration. There was little to distinguish the primitive
handle from the blade other than the fact that only one end
held an edge.
It shone like a tiny oblong
mirror in the room's fluorescent lighting.
He lifted the knife above
his head and released it. Instead of falling, it hovered there
and began to spin like a propeller, increasing in velocity
until it became a blurred circle.
I watched this display uncertainly,
wondering what the man hoped to gain by showing me such parlor
His hands danced gracefully
through the air and the spinning ceased. The knife shot directly
towards me, as quick as a bullet. I instinctively tried to
dodge out of the way, but could only press back farther against
The point of the knife stopped
about a millimeter from my eye. I could feel a gentle pressure
against my cornea.
"I suggest you reach
up and take that," instructed my golden-eyed companion,
with a trace of dark humor, "before I lose my concentration
and allow it to slip."
I forced my hand to be steady
and slowly plucked the knife out of the air. I immediately
considered tossing it at his throat.
"Having murderous thoughts,
I see," he observed, no doubt reading something in my
expression. "Perhaps you should take them out on yourself."
He motioned with his arms,
but I did not follow their movement, for I was arrested by
his gaze as he again looked deeply into my eyes. As if acting
on its own volition, my right hand flew up and ran the blade
across my forehead.
Blood dripped into my eyes,
blinding me with its sting. My forehead throbbed faintly,
but I knew the wound was not serious. I knew the game he was
playing. This was merely a show of dominance.
I began to wonder if I had
been slipped a dose of drugs before awakening, something to
make me hallucinatory or open to the power of suggestion.
The use of such things in brainwashing prisoners was well
"Good." The golden-eyed
man smiled. "My senses did not fail me. You are very
sensitive to the touch of magic."
"If you say so, Wiz,"
I replied with a shrug, and was rewarded to see his face flush
"I will teach you not
to be insolent," he snapped imperiously. "Again!"
This time I was not taken
by surprise, and my muscles shook with the effort of resisting
his order, but the knife rose again and was drawn along my
skin perpendicular to the first cut. It sliced down from the
edge of my hairline to the bridge of my nose, forming a perfect
cross. Blood ran down over my lips and into my mouth; small
drops stained my clothing and spotted upon the table beneath
He continued to watch me with
his thin lips set angrily, not sufficiently satisfied that
I had learned my lesson, then visibly brightened as a new
idea occurred to him.
"Ah! I do believe the
Devil himself has inspired me with your next lesson in obedience."
He stood and quickly made
his way to the door, a rising excitement visible in his suddenly
"Don't go anywhere,"
he added sarcastically, pausing to look back at me over his
shoulder. He raised a hand as if to say goodbye, and the knife
was tugged out of my grasp. It flew gently to land in his
When he came back a moment
later, he was joined by another guard who was dragging the
corpse of Thomsey, a younger member of my own unit.
"Up, on the table,"
instructed the dark-cloaked man. He was bouncing up and down
slightly at the knees, and reminded me oddly of an impatient
The guard heaved Thompsey's
body up in front of me. I could not help but look away.
"No, you fool!"
complained my captor, actually daring to cuff the soldier
in the back of the head. "The other way! I want his head
to face him."
The guard swung Thomsey's
form around, looking disgusted. The man with golden eyes motioned
for him to leave at once and the soldier retreated, shooting
his comrade a dirty look once he was sure that I had recaptured
the man's attention.
"You'll be needing this."
He barely opened the hand,
but the knife flew my way like a hurled javelin. I caught
it out of defensive instinct.
"You seem to have something
of a big mouth," he said, retaking his seat but continuing
to fidget with excitement. "I thought perhaps your friend's
tongue could help you fill it."
I looked at him blankly, but
my hands were already reaching to open Thomsey's mouth.
The boy's face was a ruin,
almost unrecognizable, and the bullets had knocked out several
of his teeth. Still, those remaining scratched up my wrist
as I found myself reaching down his throat to saw at his tongue.
My limbs moved jerkily, clumsily, but I did not have the strength
to stop them.
Again, I looked away, but
my hands kept working. The man frowned at me and muttered
something that might have been Arabic under his breath. My
torso twisted against my will to keep me from averting my
"I admit to your ability
to control me," I pleaded. "There is no reason to
"Ah," he replied
gleefully. "Not so. You must not simply comprehend my
power. You must experience it firsthand and know it with every
fiber of your flesh."
The tongue did not come free
cleanly, but finally the last strand tore away wetly in a
splash of congealing blood and saliva. My hands dropped the
knife and raised the tongue towards my mouth.
I cried out in horror from
between clenched teeth. "No!"
I tried to scream aloud as my mouth was forced open, but I
was choking and retching all at once.
The man's laughter echoed
through the room and seemed to stay with me after he had left.
* * *
It was only a week before
they ceased even to restrain me, though I continued to be
confined to the room. It mattered little. My mind cried out
to escape, but my legs would not obey me. More than once I
tried to kill the black robed man, both with his knife and
barehanded, but my own limbs betrayed me each time, and this
only prompted him to come up with inventive new punishments.
I do not ever want to think
back on the deeds performed at his urging to earn even that
At the end of the second week,
my captor told me I would soon be released. While I did not
place much faith in his words, his personality seemed to favor
straight out torture to deception, so I had no reason to assume
he would lie to me. Instead of feeling any relief, the announcement
left me with a cold dread in the pit of my stomach. Whatever
he was planning, I was sure no good would come of it.
"You are completely under
my control now," he gloated arrogantly, and I hung my
head for I knew it to be true after the things that I had
done while under his care.
"I shall now cast you
forth as a weapon. We shall release you and your side will
welcome you back with open arms to celebrate you as a brave
"But you will be but
a snake in their midst, and when the moment is right, you
will strike down your commanding officer."
I cringed, loathing this man
and his power over me.
I was allowed to remove my
white prisoner's uniform and was brought fresh American military
fatigues. I did not bother to contemplate where they had found
them. I was shown the places where knives were concealed in
the boots and sleeves. The dark clad man explained that he
had cast a spell upon them so that they could not be detected,
and they would kill with the slightest cut.
I was blindfolded before being
brought upstairs, but the guards did not bother to bind me.
It was not necessary, for I had been broken by the will of
the strange dark man, and I feared the punishments for disobeying
him even more than the voice of my own shattered conscience.
After a short ride, they dumped
me unceremoniously out the side of the Jeep to land coughing
in the dust. As I heard their laugher and the sound of the
vehicle receding, I removed my blindfold to find myself within
easy walking distance of the base where I had been stationed
what seemed like another lifetime ago. I wondered how they
had gotten me so close undetectedthere should have been
manned checkpoints to stop and investigate incoming traffic,
and they had been Arabs brazenly transporting an American
prisoner. Perhaps the golden-eyed man had cast a spell upon
them as well.
I stood up and brushed myself
off, then made my way towards the gate of the complex at a
slow, resigned pace. I had lost the heart to fight my master,
but I still clung to the minor disobedience of a lackluster
performance of his bidding.
The sentries hailed me skeptically.
My captors had provided me with American clothing but had
not thought to let me shave or cut my tangled hair. The passwords
I knew were all well outdated by now. I was placed in an interrogation
room and kept there until an officer was able to confirm my
Next, I was questioned by
a series of stone-faced M.P.s, who released me only after
they had compared notes and decided that my answers were consistent
with the facts and each other.
"I need to speak with
Colonel Mayor," I demanded, once I had the opportunity.
"I believe that I have overheard information that could
save a number of lives."
"Then report it at once,
and we will deliver it straight to the Colonel," replied
Lieutenant Walden, who was heading the team performing the
I shook my head.
"What I've learned is
too confidential," I bluffed desperately, unsure of what
else to say. "I will deliver it to his ears only."
Walden blustered and cursed
at me for nearly an hour, but I stood my ground firmly.
"The Colonel is not here.
He's currently in the field heading a raid, and is expected
to return by nightfall," he said finally.
"The take me to him immediately!"
I insisted. I have no idea what drove me to react so aggressively.
I had no plan and was playing things completely off the top
of my head. I figured it must have been some aspect of the
spell placed upon me that pushed me onwards. Whatever the
cause, the urgency in my manner convinced Walden, who relented
and grabbed a squad drilling in the yard and ordered them
to take me to the Colonel.
Clearly, Walden did not trust
me completely, and I was pleased with his caution. I hoped
that these men would be able to stop me before I finished
the task I had been assigned.
The troops escorting me watched
me closely, but were not unkind. They chatted with me on the
trip over, asking nervously about what I had witnessed while
within enemy hands. I gave them an edited version of the truth,
as I had the military police, and in return they explained
that Mayor had been involved in a raid on a stronghold of
enemy resistance in one of the local neighborhoods.
The building was surprisingly
close to the base and looked innocent enough from the outside,
a typical Iraqi family residence. The architecture betrayed
evidence of recent fires and was riddled with bullet holes,
but even that was not an uncommon sight in the city.
The inside was strewn with
broken furniture and trash, and was otherwise unremarkable
except for the smell of fresh blood.
"The Colonel is this
way," instructed the squad's sergeant, pulling me along
by the elbow. I hadn't bothered remembering his name. Even
if I succeeded in my mission, I couldn't imagine living long
enough for it to matter.
A couple guards followed behind
me, weapons held pointedly at the ready. I bit back a bitter
laugh at the irony. Released by my captors only to become
a prisoner of my own side.
Stepping out of the basement
stair, I froze in mid-stride. A plain, dilapidated rectangle
of a room, but I would never forget it. When I closed my eyelids,
I could still see the row of prisoners struggling against
their bonds as the guards opened fire.
"What is it?" asked
I ignored him and turned to
stride towards the open door where I could hear other men
speaking. The men looked inquiringly at the sergeant, but
he only shrugged and motioned for them to follow along.
The golden-eyed man was not
with us in this room where he had gleefully watched me perform
so many sins, but I felt his presence here just the same.
It was as if he lurked just behind me, still taunting and
laughing. One of the tiny knives seemed to find its way into
my palm from the place where it had been stitched into my
sleeve. My hand hung down by my side, where it was concealed
by my thigh.
"It's like some kind
of crazy cross between a magic shop and science lab in here,"
a grinning engineer was saying to the Colonel. He threw some
sort of capsule on the floor and it exploded into a waist
high cloud of smoke.
The Colonel coughed, and crinkled
up his nose at the odor. The engineer's smile shrank and he
cleared his throat uncomfortably. I took a couple of small
steps closer, trying to keep my face impassive, silently wishing
one of my escorts would notice the sweat that had appeared
on my brow and grow suspicious.
"The walls, floor, and
ceiling are all made out of steel," continued the engineer
more sedately, knocking on the wall beside him for emphasis.
"And they're lined with high power electromagnets, with
a sort of focusing apparatus that we've never seen before."
I was almost to him now. I
began to lift my arm, part of me still begging someone in
the room to sense something was amiss, praying for a bullet
to finally come my way.
"What is their military
functionality?" asked Mayor.
The engineer shrugged.
"That's the thing, we've
got no idea," he said. "But watch this! Ready, Bobby?"
The engineer picked up a couple
of wrenches from his belt and tossed them into the air. One
fell to the ground to ring loudly against the steel floor;
the other hovered impossibly in the air, then began dancing
clumsily through figure eights.
"What the hell?"
The Colonel scowled.
The second wrench dropped
to the floor and the engineer bent to retrieve it.
"Neat, ain't it? You
can pinpoint the magnetic field accurately enough to manipulate
one object without affecting one right next to it. Probably
useful technology for medicine and the like."
Mayor, scratching at his chin. "Perhaps this was some
kind of field hospital..."
I had reached Colonel Mayor
unimpaired. The sergeant was just opening his mouth to announce
me. I had already thrust the knife out before me, but it slipped
from my loose fingers onto the floor. The tiny noise it made
was far softer than the wrench that had fallen a moment before,
but it was enough to level half a dozen rifles in my direction.
"Who is this man?"
demanded the startled Colonel, noticing me for the first time.
But by now I was oblivious
to their shouts and stares. I lay helplessly bawling on the
floor, my tears puddling against my cheek on the cold metal.
The Colonel would survive
this day, and the golden-eyed man's experiment had failed,
but to me it would be little consolation. My soul would never
escape the fact that I had entered that room with murder in
my heart, that magic or no, he had placed me under his spell.