by Dan Devine

A captured soldier struggles to resist the evils of dark magic.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



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 out.

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 black.

* * *

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 vomit—the 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 yellow teeth.

"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 the way.

Before me, the remaining guards all shifted to one side of the room. A couple of them leveled their weapons.

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 English.

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 dark beard.

Surprised at his sudden change in tone, I started and banged my knees on the underside of the table.

"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 tricks.

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 my chair.

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 documented.

"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 with anger.

"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 me.

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 energetic step.

"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 palm.

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 child.

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 eyes.

"I admit to your ability to control me," I pleaded. "There is no reason to continue this."

"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 limited freedom.

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 survivor.

"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 undetected—there 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 identity.

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 inquest.

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 the sergeant.

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."

"Interesting," replied 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.




Copyright © 2008 Dan Devine

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Dan Devine is a scientist by day and an aspiring science fiction author by night, though he'll write any genre that pops into his head. For a short time he served as editor of Fools Motley Internet Magazine, but recently he shut it down to focus on improving his own writing.

Dan has had short stories published in Dark Fire, Afterburn SF, Crime and Suspense, Flash Tales, and other magazines. He has a couple of stories scheduled to be out later in the year in Flashshot. You can find out more about Dan's writing at

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