Note: This story gives some background for a character I introduced in To Be or Not to Be.
"How did I get myself into this mess?" Lieutenant, Junior Grade David Phillips asked himself. "Oh yeah, I volunteered."
The first rule of the military was "never volunteer for anything." Phillips had lost count of the number of times he'd broken that one. First he'd volunteered to join. Not exactly volunteered: he'd worked for his appointment to Annapolis. And then he'd worked his tail off for four years as a midshipman to get through it and to earn his commission as an ensign in the United States Navy.
But that hadn't been enough for him.
He'd graduated from Annapolis near the top of his class. He could have taken his pick of assignments in the Navy. He volunteered for the SEALs.
SEAL training had made the academy look like a cake walk, but he'd made it through. He'd been assigned to a SEAL team. He'd been on missions that never happened, in places that the Navy had never been. He'd been wounded twice, and earned himself a Navy Cross: the citation for which was so deeply classified that he couldn't tell anyone about it.
He'd been promoted along the way, and then there had come one of those meetings, where he and a few other men had been led into a small room, and told that they were being asked to volunteer for a special assignment. They were told that nothing would be said if they turned it down, but everyone knew the real score: if you did turn down something like that, you'd never be asked to volunteer for anything again, or ever be assigned to anything that mattered. You'd never get another promotion, and when the end of your current term of enlistment came around, you'd be told "Thanks, but no thanks." Not volunteering when they asked you to was the kiss of death for a Navy career. Of course, they'd all volunteered.
Life as a civilian was looking good to him now.
Prague had one of the oldest sewer systems in the world. As the only SEAL on the team, he'd gotten the job of leading his squad into it, to try to flush the thing out into the open. Captain Miller had looked a little too happy when he handed out that assignment. Why did Miller think that being a SEAL qualified him to wade through waist deep water—and who knew what else—in cramped, underground tunnels?
As sewers went, this one wasn't bad. Phillips was reminded of the huge vaults that Joseph Cotten had pursued Orson Wells through in The Third Man. These sewers were a lot smaller, but some of the brickwork looked similar, and there were a few places where you could almost stand up straight.
This mess had started a few months ago. One of the neo-nazi groups that had sprung up in Eastern Europe had started targeting Prague's small Jewish community. At first it had been some minor cases of vandalism of synagogues: some spray paint; some broken windows. Newspapers and TV had reported the incidents with alarm, decrying the sort of people who would do such things, but nothing substantive had been done to curb it.
The attacks had escalated. People had been harassed in their homes. A Molotov cocktail had been thrown through a synagogue window. A rabbi had been beaten, and left for dead in the street. The police had made inquiries, collected evidence, interviewed suspects, and arrested no one. Members of Prague's Jewish community became afraid to leave their homes at night.
And then skinheads had started turning up dead. They hadn't been shot, or stabbed; they had been crushed and mangled. Some of them were ripped limb for limb. The attacks against Jews had stopped, but the skinhead deaths hadn't, and soon it wasn't just skinheads. The local authorities were unable to deal with the problem, and the the Unit had been sent in, under NATO auspices.
It was plain what was going on. Someone who wasn't happy with what had been going on in Prague had thought that raising a demon to deal with the problem was a good idea. And as so often happened when people did such things, the demon had gotten out of control. So now Phillips and his squad were wading through a dark, cold, wet, sewer, toward where they believed the thing to be.
Phillips didn't like it. So far, they had very little intel on just what it was that they were looking for. They didn't know what it would take to kill it. The magazines of their weapons were loaded with a variety of rounds. Lead slugs would kill a lot of things. The iron or silver jacketed rounds would hurt a lot of magical creatures. The incendiary tracer rounds could kill a vampire. What they had in their weapons could kill about 80 of the demons that they might run into, but for about half that number it would take a lucky shot hitting in just the right place. And then there was that other 20. The thermite grenades, or the holy water, or the new and improved tasers they had would take care of about half of those things. That still left 10. There was a one in ten chance that whatever it was that they were after, none of their weapons would stop it. That was one too many, in Phillips' opinion.
His opinion had been listened to, and duly noted by his superiors. Unfortunately that's just the way it was sometimes. Sometimes you had to go in without all the intel you wanted. Who was he kidding? You always wanted more intel than you had. He wanted to know how big it was. He wanted to know what it ate, if it slept, what TV shows it liked to watch. If this thing had a favourite colour, he wanted to know about it.
Much of the data they had on it seemed to conflict. No one had seen it, and lived to tell the tale, but they knew it was big. It brushed against both sides of door frames that it went through (as well as the top, sometimes) but it also managed to squeeze itself through spaces that would have been a tight fit for a child.
It left traces of river clay behind it, wherever it went. The corpses of the people it had killed were covered with it. The police had followed its trail of mud from several of the scenes of its attacks to the sewers. That seemed to be how the creature got around the city without being seen. So many of the world's cities had sewer systems that allowed all sorts of things to move freely through them, without being noticed. Captain Miller sometimes waxed poetic about the tunnel system that had existed under Sunnydale: broad passages that were usually dry too. That town had been designed to give the demons easy access to everything. Prague's sewers weren't nearly as accommodating. There was barely room for Phillips' four man squad to move through this tunnel in in single file.
Phillips heard the captain's voice crackle in his earpiece. "Squad Two, what's your location?"
"We're just coming up on Checkpoint Bravo," Phillips replied quietly. "We should be there in another minute."
"Roger that," said Captain Miller. "Be advised that Squad One is in position at Checkpoint Alpha."
"Roger," said Phillips. If they had guessed right about where this thing was holed up, Squads One and Two should close in on it from two sides, leaving its only escape route a tunnel that led back to the bank of the Vltava River. The plan was to flush this thing out into the open, where the rest of the team would be waiting for it.
They reached the smaller tunnel connecting to the one they were using that marked Checkpoint Bravo, and Phillips radioed to the captain that they were in position.
Miller gave the signal, and they moved forward again. The tunnels came together in a "Y" intersection, with Squads One and Two coming down through the top two tunnels, and the demon, hopefully, caught with no option but to retreat down the third tunnel, back to the river.
Phillips and his team were moving too quickly to be truly stealthy anymore. Stealth wasn't the plan. They were supposed to be the beaters in this operation, flushing the demon, and forcing it to run into the trap that had been set up for it on the river bank. He peered ahead, trying to catch sight of their quarry. He saw flashes of light, amplified by his night vision goggles, and heard the muted sound of Squad One's weapons firing. They had made the first contact with the demon.
The two tunnels they were using approached each other at an angle, so there was little chance of a friendly fire accident occurring as Phillips kept moving forward. He still didn't fire his suppressed MP5, not without having a visual confirmation of what it was he was shooting at.
Something blocked the end of the tunnel. Phillips could see the creature: large, and more or less man shaped: two arms, two legs, and a head on top. Even with his light amplification goggles, he couldn't make out any details. He didn't need to; what he saw was too big to be human. He fired off a four round burst: one each of each type of round loaded into his magazine. It still sounded much too loud in the enclosed space, despite the silencer built into the barrel.
The creature staggered back, but it made no sound. No cry of anger or pain. More bullets struck it, coming in from its side. This time Phillips heard their impact. It sounded just like bullets hitting wet clay. He fired again, and the creature vanished: driven down the tunnel that they had planned for it to use to make its escape.
He reached the tunnel intersection and paused, hugging the left hand wall, to give himself the best view down the tunnel that the creature had retreated through, while protecting himself from any stray shots that might come from Squad One, though they had stopped firing. "One, this is Two," he radioed. "We've reached the intersection."
He didn't need his radio to hear the answer. "Roger Two. We're right around the corner."
He glanced around the corner, and saw that Lieutenant Richards, the Army Ranger leader of Squad One, was only a few feet away. "Let's go."
The combined tunnel was broad enough to allow them to move two abreast, and the water was only knee deep here, allowing them to slog ahead at double time. The creature, whatever it was, was already out of the range of their night vision gear, though they could still hear the splashes of its movement far ahead of them.
"It's in the open!" he heard the captain report over the radio. "All units, engage!"
It took another half minute for Squads One and Two to reach the tunnel exit. Once there, they fanned out on either side of the tunnel, and their fire joined the rest of the Unit's.
It was an eerily quiet battle, illuminated by the stroboscopic muzzle flashes from their weapons. They had the creature caught in a crossfire, trapped in a narrow fan of mud on the riverside beneath a retaining wall. The creature still wasn't making any noise, other than the slapping sound made by the bullets that hit it. The creature flinched away from the impact of the bullets, so they were obviously causing it pain, but they didn't seem to be doing enough damage to drop it.
Phillips heard the sound of an RPG being fired. He saw the rocket exhaust streak down from the embankment above him, and impact into the creature. The warhead detonated, and blew the creature in two. Phillips was splattered by something wet, and cold. He wiped something from his face, and looked at his hand. He rubbed it between his fingers. It had the consistency of clay, like the trail the creature had been leaving behind it, wherever it had struck.
Weapons stopped firing, and everyone waited, for a moment, to see what had happened to the creature: to see if it was dead. Phillips could see the upper half of its torso, lying in the mud. He was just starting to think that it might really be dead, when it started to move again. Its flesh seemed to flow, reforming the lower half of its body. It stood up, but it was smaller now, no bigger than a large man.
Another RPG was fired at it, but this time the creature dodged out of its path. Phillips was splattered with more mud, just like the stuff that had come from the creature.
Even as he watched, and fired more bullets into the thing, it started to grow. It was drawing up more mud from the river bank, replacing what it had lost in the explosion.
"Thermite!" Phillips called to his squad. "It's made of mud! Maybe we can dry it out!" Every one of his men, and the men from Squad One, grabbed one of their thermite grenades, and pulled its pin. "On three!" he yelled. "One…two…three!"
Eight grenades flew through the air, and landed in the mud around the creature. They all went off at once, in a brilliant flash of light. Phillips could feel the heat against his skin, almost too intense to bear, even at this distance. For the first time, he heard a noise coming from the creature. He thought at first that it might have been a scream, but then he saw it come stumbling out of the conflagration, steam venting through cracks in the hard shell of dried clay that now encased it. He saw the creature's outer layer get sloughed away, and fall into the mud of the river bank. The creature drew more mud up into itself, replacing what it had lost as quickly as it fell away.
The creature started to come toward him, braving the fire coming from all of Squads One and Two's weapons, trying to get back to the tunnel. Phillips was tempted to let it go. Let it get away from here; find some other place to fight it; someplace where it couldn't absorb more mud into itself to replace what it lost. But if it got away now, he'd have to lead his squad back into those sewers to flush it out again, and he really didn't want to do that. If this thing wanted to get away, it would have to go through him to do it.
He threw another grenade, in front of the creature. The heat of it drove it back, for a moment, but it only burned for a few seconds. They might be able to hold it back for a minute, but they didn't have enough grenades to do more than that.
"Check fire!" he heard the captain ordering over his radio. "Check fire! We have Slayers incoming!"
The muzzle flashes stopped immediately. Everything seemed to stop. Everything went quiet. Phillips could hear the distant sound of city traffic. Even the creature stood still for a moment, before it started coming toward him once again. Only Phillips stood between it, and the tunnel entrance, and he had no intention of moving. He stood his ground, with his weapon raised, and ready, hoping that the order to resume firing would come before it was too late. In the back of his mind, Phillips really hoped that this thing was more interested in getting away, than it was in destroying him. He might still survive the encounter.
The creature was almost upon him, when someone dropped down from above and struck the creature with a two footed kick to its chest. The creature was stopped in its tracks, and the person seemed to just bounce off it, straight toward Phillips. He didn't have time to get out of the way, even if he'd thought of doing so. He barely had time to lower his MP5 before he was hit and knocked back onto his ass. They both wound up sprawling in the mud.
Phillips found himself looking at the face of a girl about his own age. She flashed him a quick smile before she sprang back to her feet, and spun around to face the creature again. Blonde hair, pulled back in a pony tail, swung out from beneath the black toque on her head.
Two more girls splashed down into the mud on either side of the creature, and they all drew weapons. The two new girls were carrying large, two handed swords, while the blonde had a smaller sword for her right hand, and an axe for her left.
The girls looked tiny as they circled the creature. It towered over them, and its reach was longer than theirs, even with the swords they were carrying. Its reach didn't help it though. The girls were lightning fast as they moved around it. As the creature lunged for one of them, another would dart in to strike it from behind. The girls moved together in what looked like a coordinated dance, keeping the creature off balance. Each blow they struck carved off a blob of clay. More than once the creature lost an entire arm as it tried to reach for one of them.
At first it seemed like they were having little overall effect, but soon Phillips could see that the creature was shrinking. They were carving off pieces faster than it could draw up new mud to replace what it was losing. As its reach lessened, the girls moved in closer, their swords flashing in the darkness, carving off pieces faster and faster.
They stopped when the creature was no more than man sized. The blonde stuck the point of her sword down into the mud of the river bank, and left it there as she moved in on the creature. She fended off a blow with the axe she was still carrying, and struck the creature with a punch to its forehead. Her fist sank up to her wrist in its head.
The world stood still for a moment. Nothing moved. And then the creature slowly collapsed to the ground. The blonde's fist came free of its forehead with a sucking squelch as it fell over. It lay still in the mud, looking less like a man, and more like a giant pile of turds.
Phillips wished that that simile hadn't occurred to him. It seemed that something similar had occurred to the blonde. She shook her hand with an "Ewww!" trying to shake off the muck.
Phillips moved slowly forward, keeping his MP5 pointed at the remains of the creature. "Is it dead?"
"I think so," said the blonde.
"What was that thing?" asked Lieutenant Richards. "I've never seen a demon like that before."
"It wasn't a demon," said one of the other girls, still holding her sword. "It was a golem."
Phillips saw one of his men start to open his mouth to say something.
"Don't bother," said the other girl. "We've already done all the Lord of the Rings jokes."
Phillips heard movement behind him, and looked back. He saw Captain Miller coming down a narrow flight of stairs from the top of the wall, with a fourth girl following along behind him. This girl looked even younger than the others. Miller came across the mud to join them, and stuck out his hand toward the blonde. "Hey Buffy, good to see you again."
Buffy! thought Phillips. Wow! This wasn't just any Slayer. This was the Slayer! The one that the captain and the major always talked about!
She shook his hand. "Hi Graham. How are you doing?"
"Better, now that this thing has been taken care of." The captain looked down at the pile, with a grimace. "It is taken care of now, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said the girl who had followed him. "When Buffy obliterated the first letter of the word of power that was written on its forehead, the spell that animated the golem was broken. It's just a pile of mud now."
"First letter?" asked Buffy. "You said the last letter, Dawn! Erase the last letter!"
"Yeah, but it's written in Hebrew, which goes from right to left, so the first letter was the last letter." Dawn knelt down in the mud beside the creature's head, and pointed to what was left of its forehead. "See, it says 'Meit' now, which means 'dead.' It used to say 'Emet' which means 'truth.'"
"So, it's finished? Can we just leave this thing here?" asked the captain.
"Pretty much." Dawn got back to her feet, and tried to brush the mud from her knees. That just spread it around some, and got it on her hands as well.
"Will someone be able to raise it again, if we leave it here?" asked the captain.
Dawn shook her head. "Nyah. With the spell broken, it would be simpler to start over from scratch, with fresh batch of mud. You might want to break it up a bit, so it looks less like a body down here, but a couple of rain storms should wash it away."
"What about whoever summoned it?" asked Lieutenant Richards. "Might he try it again?"
Buffy shook her head. "He's not really evil. More like he was really desperate, and had just enough knowledge to get himself into trouble. We really can't do much more than give him a stern talking to, and let him know that we'll be keeping an eye on him in the future."
"That's it?" asked Captain Miller. "He caused the deaths of a dozen people, and he just gets a stern talking to?"
"We don't kill people, Graham. Not without a lot more cause than they got stupid. And we don't have a prison we can drop this guy into. We've given Riley his name. What he does with it, is up to him." She fixed the captain with a sharp gaze. "But we are keeping an eye on him. If you people have any thoughts about executing him, forget it." She shrugged. "But if you want to lock him up in a nice prison for the next ten years, be my guest."
She looked down at her mud saturated clothes. "Now, I'm going back to my hotel, and I'm going to soak myself in a nice hot bath for an hour or so, to see if I can get rid of all this mud. And then I'm going dancing." She raised her voice. "Hey guys! We're going to be at the Lávka in a couple of hours. Why don't you come join us?"
Phillips didn't make it to the Lávka. They were all taken back to the Czech army base that they had staged out of, where they got to spend the rest of the night cleaning themselves, and their gear, and getting their mission debriefing. When all that was done, he just wanted to go to sleep for the next week. Too bad he could only get about four hours before they had to ship out to Burkina Faso, a country in Western Africa that Phillips had never heard of before.
As he settled into his uncomfortable seat on the C17 Globemaster III that served to transport the Unit, and all their gear around the world, Phillips reflected on a meeting that he'd had with Major Finn a week earlier. It seemed that the Air Force was looking for someone with Phillips' qualifications, for some Top Secret operation. Finn hadn't been able to give him any details about what the Air Force wanted with a Navy SEAL who had spent the last year hunting monsters in some of the most unpleasant environments that the world had to offer. He couldn't tell him anything at all about what his duties would be. Finn just told Phillips to think it over, and give him an answer in a couple of weeks. There hadn't even been the usual 'nothing will be said, if you turn this down' speech. There had been no pressure at all.
That was a little troubling.
On the other hand, he'd had a chance to look up Burkina Faso now. The place seemed to be pretty much the armpit of Africa, and the Unit was going to be spending at least a couple of weeks there hunting down some demons that were eating some of the local villagers. It was going to be damn hot, uncomfortable, dangerous work.
Phillips made up his mind, and rose to go talk to the major. He'd take the Air Force job, as soon as they were done with this assignment. He was volunteering again, but then, how dangerous could any operation be, that was based in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado?