Summary: Major Philip Howard is a rogue American Special Forces member, nicknamed "Al Azif." Haunted by strange visions as he hunts a terrorist cult, he is forced to gather unlikely allies to determine the cause. The secrets he uncovers extend back to antehuman antiquity, and things better left forgotten.
The Convoy Ambush
Major Philip Howard had many lives and names, but his vivid imagination was constant between them. With a polymathic intellect and athletic prowess, he was a keenly honed blade in a man's body. His dark brown hair had grown unkempt for months, giving him a hirsute appearance. He comported himself with a distinctly martial discipline in all things, a fact which he attributed to his survival in more than one occasion.
Howard laid amidst the choking dust of an unstable Middle Eastern country, a bed of ancient sand that had been trodden over by legions of conquerors. History consigned them all to the oblivion of prehistory's uncouth creatures, but monsters still peopled the country. Hiding in that bed of scrub brush, the Special Forces operator thought he heard the resounding march of lockstep legionaries echo from antiquity. Clad in a uniform belonging to no officially recognized unit, he scanned the dirt road for his target through the scope of a rifle.
A distant dust cloud heralded the arrival of uninvited guests. An outdated Soviet tank led the convoy, its turret a rust-covered, bulbous cupola. Behind it was a trio of black SUVs that reflected the light of the dusk sun in their unmarred windows. For vehicles in a warzone, they possessed an uncharacteristically immaculate condition. The terminal end of the convoy was a technical, a wheezing pickup truck with a heavy machinegun mounted in the back. From the way it rattled, Howard doubted the improvised chassis could withstand the recoil of the weapon.
As he studied the caravan, Howard scanned for his target. He prayed to any gods that would listen for a drone strike or strafing jet. Repressing memories of what happened to his squad, he realized he would have to face this alone. Within the SUVs were a myriad of squirming shapes, but only one was the terrorist mastermind he sought. Having little time to prepare for the ambush, he inhaled to steady his aim for the coming moment. The landmines had been planted the prior night by the Kurdish peshmerga, but they did not have enough to cover the entire length of road. Due enemy advances, he had been forced to engage the enemy himself.
Howard almost flinched when the anti-tank mine went off, turning the lead vehicle to flaming slag. With automatic swiftness, he put a round into the technical's engine block. The second round took the heavy machinegun out of commission, but gave time for the SUV drivers to react. Like spooked gazelle, the column scattered across the sandy expanse. Complacent engines roared to life as they preternaturally weaved through the minefield that awaited them.
Howard took a few spiteful shots at the fleeing vehicles with the anti-materiel rifle. Clods of sand and dust erupted from the ground, erupting like a dozen dusty volcanos. His eardrums resounded with his weapon's voluminous report, but his trained instincts guided his aim. The second SUV wandered in front of his attempt to line up a shot on the first, but an anti-tank mine forever terminated its flight. The remaining duo wove between landmines like a lethal pirouette upon thin ice.
As his magazine went dry, Howard's ire rose as he saw the vehicles had almost cleared the minefield. He drew the Kalashnikov he had stashed earlier and opened fire. From the distance now between him and his targets, his bullets were no more than pebbles flung into an unbounded ocean of sand. Through the grit kicked up by the tires fleeing, he almost hoped they would return and fight. Their expeditious retreat had wounded only his pride, as if he were some inconsequential insect unworthy of being swatted at.
Howard thought he saw something upon the distant horizon. He beheld a row of mountains rising above a plain where only flat, flaking deserts were a moment prior. Atop the peaks marched a procession of inhuman forms towards a destination over the horizon, forms he could only identify by silhouette. No scale appeared before him that he could compare himself with the distant beings, but their cyclopean statures easily bestrode valleys with each footfall. Beyond the peaks, he caught fleeting glimpses of reflected gold and marble alabaster. Each was as tantalizing glance of a supernal glory beyond comprehension. He could not focus upon that land of distant glory, for the sun above sprouted three irregular tendrils of glowing plasma that lashed the night sky. In disbelief, he covered his eyes with his hands.
Like a dreamer awaken from a Lethean stupor, Howard's ears rang with the cacophonous peals of unearthly instruments indescribable by human language. He felt his hands press against coarse, ashen dust of a larger grit than the fine sand of his ambush spot. He smelled a potpourri of aromas that somehow transmitted simultaneous impressions of weal and woe. He felt all sense of balance, of physicality, of matter melt away as though they had drowned in an overwhelming torrent. Nevertheless, he felt something within him resist.
Howard felt an indescribable, but physical urge, ground him as though a tank was shackled to his feet. With each passing instant, the weight upon him grew heavier as an unknown force drew him back towards the ground. A martial phantasmagoria presented itself upon that endless bight, that of an advancing army. Rank upon rank of polished brazen armor reflected the light of the unfamiliar heavens. Distant galaxies and alien skies were reflected in armor that resembled archetypes of both Occidental and Oriental antiquity. Every soldier bore equipment like an ancient nobleman, with mirror-like chainmail, dome-like helms resembling minarets, scimitars with impossibly ornate bejeweled hilts, laminated bows like those of distant steppes, arquebuses with stocks carven from the bones of some unreal behemoth, shields bearing occult and mystic symbols, and lances reflecting the enigmatic constellations above.
Despite the surreality of the distant army, Howard found an odd comfort in the familiarity of the sight. He recognized the distinctive gait of marching cadence, the jiggling of weighty gear, and the fatalism of soldiers advancing towards a distant battlefield. Behind the army, he saw what he assumed was a supply train of equally surreal courtiers. Canine-headed beasts with bodies like those of men walked along alternating between bipedal and quadrupedal stances. Robed musicians with bodies like those of blowfish swelled and contracted as they blew into looping brass horns. Drummers pounded titanic drums drawn upon the backs of impossible, scaled beasts. He stared as they headed into the distant mountains, which faded from view.
Howard took a step forward, intend on following them. He wondered if the army was pursuing the misshapen beasts across the mountains, hunting giants as he hunted terrorists. As he took another step forwards, a feminine figure stepped up block his advance. Her figure was concealed beneath the chainmail armor she wore, but her eyes and face revealed her true sex. Her brown skin and dark eyes rested upon a narrow Persian face of vague familiarity, and all else about her figure was concealed beneath her helmet and chainmail. She pulled one of two swords from her belt, and passed it to the perplexed operator. Slowly and curiously, he studied the weapon.
Howard's fingers probed the scimitar's ornate etchings and sharpened edge. He felt a wet, pungent texture with his hand, as though the blade had been recently quenched in oil. He held the weapon in hand, as if to rehearse a cut. The weight of the blade was far better than any he had handled in real life, but the echoes of a memory haunted him. He knew he had handled a sword like that before, and he knew the woman whom had given it to him. He looked up at the woman and the army once more, only to find them vanished like a desert mirage.
Howard opened his eyes just as the sun vanished over the horizon. Deciding his vivid hallucination had been some daydream brought on by heat exhaustion, he scanned his immediate vicinity for threats. The two remaining SUVs had joined the third as twisted wreckage upon the sands. The fires that burned in each undoubtedly died down in the interim, and nothing moved within the hulk of either. He decided that the fickleness of fortune had finally claimed the drivers, and that their scattered remains were a testament to careful positioning of anti-tank mines beside the dirt road. Out of ammunition for his heaviest weapons, Howard drew a Browning Hi-Power automatic and cautiously approached the downed vehicles. Curiously, he momentarily noticed the pistol's slide was etched in an identical pattern as the sword from his dream. He forced it to the rear of his mind as he advanced.