Categories > Books > Harry Potter

The Truth Is Out There

by mattappleby 4 Reviews

New Mexico, July 1945. The first-ever nuclear bomb has just been detonated...but it hasn't gone to plan. Impossibly appearing from nowhere, an abandoned village is now next to the crater.

Category: Harry Potter - Rating: R - Genres: Fantasy,Horror - Characters:  - Warnings: [V] - Published: 2011/08/14 - Updated: 2011/08/14 - 7724 words - Complete

Before we start, I need to make a quic note. The Summary should have made this obvious, but just for the sake of clarity, I'll state it here anyway:

This is an Expanded Universe story. No locations, characters or events from the Harry Potter series are featured, or even referred to, but this still firmly a Harry Potter joint, and must be approached on those terms. I'll assume you're all familiar with the Expanded Universe concept, so I won't elaborate, but I feel it important to state that, if you're simply looking for further adventures of the Chosen One and his mates, you won't find them here. But if you're after something a little unusual, well, I'm hoping you'll find that.

Well, that's enough talk. To the story...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
- Bhagavad Gita
(Robert J Oppenheimer's response to the Trinity nuclear test)



Sergeant Ben Sullivan raised his goggles to his eyes. They were night-vision: a
technology so new, he hadn't even been aware of its existence until yesterday
morning. Being confronted with this bulky and inconvenient, yet totally revolutionary
gadget had been a bit of a surprise, but then again, a good soldier was always good at
dealing with the unexpected. And at any rate, considering what the previous thirty-six
hours had revealed, there were now far more puzzling things in his life than this new-
found ability to see in the dark.

Across the New Mexico desert, each no more than a kilometre away, were two
of the oddest things Sullivan had ever seen. To the left was a hundred-metre crater,
the only remains of a twenty-metre tower, filled with green glass and surrounded by
scorched earth. Whilst this was strange in and off itself, the truly odd part only existed
if you knew the reason for it, as he tried to pretend he didn't.

But to the right, another kilometre from the mound, was something even
weirder: a village. There were fourteen adobe buildings, arranged in an approximate
two-tier circle, around a low wooden platform in the centre. Each building was squat
and small, with a rough, almost careless construction, more like theme park versions
of adobe than the many real things that dotted the region. And perhaps more to the
point, the village appeared to be deserted, with that strange, indefinable air of not
having seen its occupants for a very long time.

That was the strange part. Despite the apparent age of this village, it hadn't
actually existed forty-eight hours ago.

That was why Sullivan and his team were here. To find out just how in the
fuck an entire village had suddenly sprouted from the desert.

Sullivan lowered his goggles, and turned to his second-in-command. Corporal
Robert Stone was a new addition to his usual four-strong team, parachuted in from the
Marines especially for this mission. He was a sniper, apparently very skilled - he'd
been awarded a Bronze Star Medal in Guadalcanal, which wasn't nothing - and whilst
such a position wasn't entirely necessary for the operation, their superiors wanted to
cover as many bases as they could. This was too important, not to mention too
classified, to leave things to chance.

"Corporal Stone." Sullivan said.

Stone didn't react. He seemed to be deeply lost in thought, though his
expression was more anxious than simply far-away. It was as if he saw a movie rather
than the real world, and it wasn't one he liked.

Sullivan couldn't say he was surprised. He'd seen other soldiers snap into their
own reality like this, especially after he'd come back from Italy eighteen months ago.
But whilst he was usually understanding about this sort of thing - after all, he was
hardly a stranger to combat himself - now was not the time for it.

"Corporal Stone!" he yelled, his voice echoing across the empty desert. Even
though there wasn't anyone in the village to hear him (hopefully), he still winced a
little at having to be so loud.

Stone blinked a few times, then turned to face his superior. He still looked a
little unsettled, but there was now a clear annoyance too.

"What?" he snapped.

Sullivan let the insubordination slide. Stone obviously still wasn't entirely
back to reality.

The sergeant looked at his watch. 00:21, it said. They had been keeping watch
on this village since first light yesterday, mostly from a tiny, desert-camo tent pitched
a few hundred metres behind them. This was standard procedure for such an
operation: whilst the place seemed long-abandoned, and free of any potential threats,
they were taking no chances. Such a lengthy operation was the only recognised test,
short of the actual investigation they were about to carry out. But they had watched
for long enough now, and if it turned out the village was inhabited and
unfriendly...well, they could take consolation from the last twenty-four hours, hot,
sticky and uncomfortable ones, being the most thorough preparation they could make.

The scheduled operation start time was 00:30. But now was close enough.

"We're moving out." he said. "Private Hodges, inform command."

Stone, Hodges and the others all nodded their assent. PFC Neil Hodges, the
group's comms man, pulled out his radio and dialled headquarters. They had given
reports every six hours, as per procedure, and this would be the last. Once Hodges
signed out, both sides would maintain radio silence until the extraction time at 06:00.
Command was a little confused about them entering the village nine minutes early,
but they gave it their assent.

Hodges turned off his radio. Each of the five men took hold of their weapons,
hung from straps round their necks. With another series of nods, the team started
walking across the desert.

Sullivan ran the mission through his head one more time. The briefing they'd
received, at 19:00 on Monday, had certainly been an eye-opener. General Groves and
General Granger had explained that, since 1941, the military had been working on an
ultra-top-secret project: to develop a weapon of unprecedented power, one that used
the very fabric of the universe to trigger catastrophic explosions. Earlier in the day, at
05:29, July 16th 1945, the very first of these "nuclear weapons", codenamed "Trinity",
had been test-detonated in this desert. He'd seen the photographs, not to mention the
crater Trinity had left behind, and he wasn't sure if he should be impressed or
terrified. It was clear the world would never be the same again.

It wasn't until 09:18 that the village was first noticed. No one saw it physically
appear, but still, it had very clearly not been there before the detonation. Who lived
there, why they had left, where it had come from, and not to mention how it had
arrived, were all complete mysteries. Those at the Manhattan Project, as the nuclear
weapon development programme was called, were obviously concerned that Trinity
was responsible for this event, and wanted to know if their baby was being a lot
stranger than they'd anticipated. By sunset, Sullivan and the others had been located,
flown in and briefed, and Operation Manhattan had begun in earnest.

Sullivan wasn't entirely sure why this squad been chosen for the assignment.
A mission of such importance and secrecy - no one even considered that the events
here, even a known and deliberate one like Trinity, were sane enough to be revealed -
was invariably entrusted to the Marines, and only highly-skilled members at that. But
here, only Stone was from the USMC: the rest, Sullivan, Hodges and PFCs Danny
Mace and Aaron Hudson, were bog-standard Army grunts, fresh from eighteen
months of thumb-twiddling "guard duty" at Sempola Supply Station, Wisconsin.
Admittedly, they'd all shared several years' worth of combat experience, mostly in
North Africa and Italy - and in Sullivan's case, you didn't get to be a sergeant by
sitting around doing nothing - but they were still vastly under-qualified for this
operation. Considering command's need for a better-than-textbook outcome, such a
decision felt perverse at best. But all the same, Groves and Granger hadn't provided
any clues, and they were in the wrong business for asking questions.

Despite the situation, Sullivan didn't really feel under pressure. Partly because
he was still too confused by it all, but mostly just because he was a soldier: he was
given orders, and he followed them. His concern was the "how", not the "why".

They were almost at the village. Tonight was a full moon, with the bright
starscape only deserts can produce, and visibility was high. The buildings and their
decorations, the cream adobe walls and strange red symbols, seemed more like
varieties of grey in the half-gloom. The scene was completely still, not even the wind
moving across the cold desert night. The only sounds were a few unseen insects, and
the low crunching of the soldiers' boots on the dirt. Their footsteps still felt loud, far
more so than Sullivan would have liked, but there was no avoiding it.

The team approached the first two buildings, the central circle visible between
two others beyond it. The buildings were one-storey, flat-roofed and rectangular, each
no larger than five metres by ten. Each probably contained no more than one or two
rooms. There didn't seem to be any electricity supply, and water and drainage also
didn't look too hopeful.

Sullivan pointed at Hudson, Hodges and Stone, and then pointed off at other
parts of the village. They nodded and walked away, the first two off to the left, and
the third to the right. The sergeant and Mace headed for the buildings directly in front.
With the village being such an unknown entity, splitting up perhaps wasn't wise, but
they'd already agreed this was the only way to search it all before sunrise.

As they walked between the two buildings - the doors seemed to be on the
other side, facing the centre - Sullivan took a closer look at the wall symbols. There
was one on each face, each about thirty centimetres across. The rough plasterwork
made the image a little jumbled, but it seemed to be of a skull, with a long snake
protruding from its mouth. There were no clues as to its meaning, save that it clearly
wasn't a good omen. He shivered a little, and he wasn't sure if it was just because of
the cold.

Mace looked at the symbols. "This place is just plain fucking wrong." he said,
after a few seconds.

Sullivan murmured an agreement, and they carried on walking. They passed
the buildings, entering what was only approximately a street. It was only a few metres
wide, and formed a very rough circle, zigzagging randomly as other buildings got in
the way. Faint track marks, the thin kind made by wooden carts, ran up and down in
overlapping lines, sometimes curving off into the central circle. None of them seemed
to be particularly recent.

They turned left. The door to the nearest building was about five metres away.
Suddenly, Sullivan felt something move behind him. He span round, his rifle
raised. But there was nothing, only the empty street. His heart started beating again.

"What was that?" Mace asked.

"Nothing. Let's get moving."

They turned back and entered the building. The wooden door creaked slightly
as it opened, the noise making them pause for a few seconds. But then they collected
themselves, and passed through the doorway. Everything was black for a few seconds,
but their eyes soon adjusted to the reduced light.

This was clearly someone's home, and far more luxurious than its outside
suggested. The floor was covered by a thick carpet, decorated with an abstract pattern
of reds, golds and blacks, a bigger and bolder version of local designs. There were
two high-backed armchairs, looking not entirely unlike thrones, and three ornate
cabinets covered with exotic-looking ornaments. A tall grandfather clock stood in one
corner, ticking with a complete and unnerving silence. The large fireplace in the far
wall, with a pile of unburnt logs and a black pot hung from a metal pole, had a portrait
hung above it: an old Caucasian man, bearded and with medieval-looking clothes.
Sullivan didn't recognise him, and didn't expect to. A door in the right wall led to
another room, or rooms, most likely the bed and toilet. It was an unusual mix of local
Indian and Victorian England...but then again, what wasn't odd about this place?

They started to move around the room, examining all the different ornaments.
There were a number of unlit candles, sat in tall and elaborately-shaped holders, and
several ornate hand mirrors and wooden boxes. Lying on one of the armchairs was a
feather quill and a sheet of parchment, the only words "properties of steam engineeri".
Some other things were of a much creepier variety, such as the severed hand resting
on a wooden base, with a small scroll clutched firmly within its withered fist. On one
of the cabinets there was a small book, propped open on a stand. Sullivan looked a
little closer, picking out the title from the worn and dusty cover: Necronomicon, it
said, in gothic-looking gold letters.

He frowned. Whoever lived here, they were into some seriously weird shit.

"This place is fucking demonic." Mace's voice startled him, and not just
because of its suddenness. He practically growled the words, with a contempt that
didn't seem entirely human.

Sullivan couldn't say he was surprised with the private expressing such
sentiments. For all its many grey areas, war was surprisingly absolute when it came to
faith: if you left home with a belief in God, then you returned with it either crumbled
or iron-clad. Mace was one of the latter, and had been so for the entire three years
they'd known each other. It was fairly inevitable that he'd see severed hands, occult
texts and all the rest as signs of the devil's presence.

Personally, Sullivan didn't much care. He'd already established that this place
was weird, and right now, his only concern was finding an explanation for it all. He
didn't expect this house to give any answers, but he'd keep searching through it
anyway, just in case.

"The only thing we're going to find here is evil." Mace continued. "We're
better off just air-striking this shithole."

"Hmmm."

Following his sergeant's hint, Mace didn't elaborate on his feelings. They both
went back to their examinations. They opened the cabinets, checking their contents as
well as their surfaces. They didn't pick anything up, just looked, and tried to draw
conclusions. However, after thirty seconds or so, there was the distinct sound of a box
being opened. Then Mace suddenly laughed.

Distracted from the object he was looking at - a metal cigarette case, with the
inscription "C G B S", on a bottom shelf - Sullivan stood up and turned round. On top
of the cabinet next to Mace was the box he'd opened, a small wooden one without
polish or decoration. Inside were five chocolate animals: frogs, it seemed, each no
more than five centimetres long.

"Finally, something normal." Mace said.

They would both come to regret that statement. With a timing that would've
been comical in any other circumstances, something happened that made the last
thirty-six hours look sane.

One of the chocolate frogs moved.

Sullivan and Mace could only stare as it lifted its head, then pulled itself over
the lip of the box. It looked from side to side, seeming to examine them both with its
featureless eyes.

Now this was fucking demonic.

Still in complete shock, they were caught even more by surprise when the frog
jumped onto Mace's out-stretched arm. He was near-paralysed with fear, breathing
hard and eyes bulging. The frog started to slowly crawl up his sleeve.

Sullivan's chest hurt, his heart feeling like it had stopped. One thought kept
bouncing through his head: they were being attacked by a chocolate frog. This was
unnatural, definitively unnatural. He wanted to be sick at the perversity of it.

"Fuck..." Mace whispered.

Then, just as he felt his least responsive, Sullivan's soldier training kicked
back in. He raised his rifle and fired a single shot. The frog burst, spraying chocolate
over the cabinet. The crack of the bullet was sky-splitting, masking a dull thud as it
embedded in the plaster wall.

At the sound, the other four frogs all poked their heads up. Still a picture of
raw terror, Mace whipped out his pistol and fired repeatedly into the box. Chocolate
and wood splinters flew everywhere, Sullivan feeling a splash of the former on his
face. But before long, the cracks of Mace's handgun were replaced by a high click, as
the eight-round magazine ran out. He quickly reloaded, but didn't fire a ninth shot.

They remained still for the next few seconds, whilst the ringing in their ears
died away. The only other sound was Mace's ragged breathing, as he tried to get
himself back under control.

"Are you alright?" Sullivan eventually asked, wiping the chocolate from his
face. In a spirit of curiosity, he tasted it: it wasn't too bad, actually.

Mace turned to him with an incredulous look. "What the fuck do you think,
sarge?"

Sullivan didn't reply. Not only was the question rhetorical, but he also didn't
get time. At that moment came another laugh, this time from someone else. It was
elderly and eccentric, not to mention mocking.

The ice cold, no-heartbeat feeling returned, as he and Mace slowly turned to
face this intruder. The man in the portrait wasn't a static painting: his hand was raised
to his mouth, and he was nodding gently as he laughed.

"Bless me." he said, voice high and scratchy. "Scared by some chocolate
frogs! Amphitryon was right. You are primitive!"

Sullivan couldn't speak. Even after the frogs, being insulted by a sentient
painting was still too disturbing for its own good. But he wasn't sure he had to worry:
he could hear, not too far off, the sound of running.

But, eventually, he got his tongue back in order.

"What?"

The old man smiled, a little more benignly. "Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm not
unsympathetic. The last two days have been as confusing for us as they have for you.
I must say, your little experiment has caused us a lot of-"

Suddenly, Hodges and Hudson burst into the room, weapons at the ready. The
former had a rifle like the others, whilst the latter carried the group's Tommy Gun.
Perhaps overkill in this context, but the hour for subtlety had passed.

"Sarge, what's going on?" Hodges half-shouted.

Sullivan simply nodded towards the sprayings of chocolate, and then the
painting. The old man smiled in return.

"Ah, there you are!" he said. "Where's the other one got to?"

The two newcomers didn't answer. Instead, Hodges kept his attention on his
sergeant.

"Sir, it's not just here. This whole village...it's...it's alive! We found this quill
pen, in one of the other houses, and it...it was writing for us! By itself!"

To Sullivan's amazement, Hodges actually seemed excited by this. But then
again, he'd always been one for going native: after Operation Blackstone, in
Morocco, he went so far as to actually attend a local mosque. No one could still quite
believe that one.

The old man butted in again, this time with another mocking laugh. Sullivan
could feel his fear being slowly replaced by annoyance.

"My dear boy...you really don't get it, do you? It's not alive. It's magic!"

The man in the painting stopped, and then sighed. "But I wouldn't expect you
to understand. You're Muggles, after all. Still at the primitive stages. You're not up to
that level, at least not yet.

"I should just warn you, though. We're not stupid. Some chocolate frogs and a
quill weren't the only things we left behind."

Sullivan's fear returned with a bang. He knew the old man couldn't be
referring to anything good. He also couldn't help wondering what "Muggle" meant,
though it obviously wasn't a polite term.

"What?" he half-asked, half-shouted. "What the fuck's going on?"

The old man didn't reply. Instead, he just gave a quick smile, and walked out
of the painting. Just like that, he was gone.

Sullivan quickly turned back to his men. "Hodges, what did that quill say?"

Under the circumstances, it felt like an odd question to ask, but he needed to
know. They were here to find answers, and the quill might have provided them.
Whilst now wasn't a great moment, they might not get the luxury of a better one.

He also realised, with a small jolt, that he'd said "Hodges". He'd known these
three men for a long time, and they all had intense respect for each other, but they
always took great care to use "private" and "sergeant". They were soldiers, after all.
He was definitely more on-edge than he thought, which didn't bode well.

Hodges stared at him, evidently caught out by the question. But after a few
seconds, he managed to get some words together.

"It said we'd...we'd evolved. It was talking about that bomb, and something
else...the "Philadelphia Experiment", it said. I don't know what it was talking about.
You started firing before it could explain. What was that about, anyway?"

"You're better off not knowing." Mace said, with a little more force than
strictly necessary.

Sullivan didn't know what the "Philadelphia Experiment" was, but he had an
inkling as to what it involved. He could only hope his theory was wrong. But now that
Hodges had explained his thing, there were other problems to deal with anyway.

"And right now," he said, with as much authority as he could muster, "we've
got bigger issues. If that painting guy wasn't fucking us around, then we're not alone
here. Whatever's sharing this village with us, it won't be good, so we need to find
Corporal Stone, then track it down as a group. And we need to do it ASAP."

In another moment of almost comic timing, this was when another gunshot
rang out. It was the distinctive, and distinctively loud, crack of a sniper rifle. A second
later, there was a roar, a sound that was primal and vicious, the kind that made your
subconscious want to run and hide.

"I guess Stone found the monster already." Hudson said, sounding much less
alarmed than his sergeant felt. "I think they're in the square."

Mace pulled out one of his signature grenades. "In that case, let's get over
there and help him fucking hurt it!"

Despite the roar's caveman terror still pulling on them, no one needed telling
twice. The foursome ran out of the house, and quickly passed between the two
buildings in front. They found themselves in the central circle, an open dirt area at
least thirty metres across. The only feature was the low wooden platform in the
middle, no more than ten metres by ten, with the top of a well sticking out just above
its surface.

But this wasn't the focus of their attention. On the other side of the circle was
a building larger than the others, its right half built up into a second storey, with what
seemed to be a roof terrace on the left. A large sign above the door said "The Kachina
Saloon". Stood beneath it was Stone, a messy-looking wound in his side, standing off
against something every bit as nightmarish as its roar.

The creature looked like a turbo-charged wolf. It stood on two legs, towering
at least two heads higher than mere humans, and though thin, had the appearance of
being nothing but muscle, power and psychosis. Its matted grey fur was stained with
blood, turned deep black in the moonlight, where a bullet had entered its upper back.
With a chill deeper than anything he'd experienced so far, Sullivan knew precisely
what this thing was.

The werewolf growled, and turned to face the four soldiers. Its face, twisted
with berserk rage, only confirmed the savagery of this monster. The pain of a close-
range sniper shot was keeping it still for now, but this wouldn't last.

The best plan would be to just run like fuck, and then call in an air-strike. On
the other hand, it was also obvious that the werewolf would annihilate them before
they got ten metres, so the smart solution wasn't going to work. There wasn't need to
discuss the next move, but Sullivan gave the order anyway.

"Fire at will."

He and Hodges fired their rifles, and Mace let loose with his pistol. The
werewolf rocked backwards as a series of bullets ploughed into its chest, but
incredibly, managed to stay upright. Stone took another shot with his sniper rifle, the
round bursting through its shoulder, but it still didn't go down. Then Hudson drowned
out everything as he opened up his Tommy Gun, a continuous deafening stream of hot
lead that finally pitched the creature over onto its back.

Everyone stopped firing. A thick cordite smoke hung in the air, purple and
acrid. The werewolf lay on the ground, rivers of blood flowing onto the dirt. The
world held its breath, as they waited to find out if it was dead. It had taken a lot of
rounds, but if anyone knew anything about werewolves, in it was that being shot lots
of times didn't necessarily mean anything.

And then it happened. The monster stirred, and gradually pulled itself to its
feet. No one took another shot, if only because it felt pointless.

What would they do now?

But then, through the fog of painful death-inspired terror, Sullivan had an idea.

"Give me your grenade." he said to Mace. "When I say, everyone open fire.
And keep away from the saloon."

No other words seemed to be needed. Mace silently handed over his grenade,
and everyone else reloaded their weapons.

The werewolf was on its feet. It howled, a piercing cry of pain and fury.
Sullivan needed more time to psyche himself up for his stunt, but he didn't have it.
This was do-or-die.

"Now!"

Everyone started shooting once more. Within the same second, Sullivan
started running. The werewolf, weighed down by gunfire, wasn't able to follow as he
bolted around the edge of the circle. He ran for what could only have been a dozen
seconds, but felt like an age of the Earth, certain of death with every step. But,
eventually, the saloon was within reach. He came to an abrupt halt by the doorway,
almost colliding into Stone.

The werewolf toppled over a second time, and the firing ceased. With a nod to
his second-in-command, Sullivan entered the saloon, Stone close behind. They waited
only a second to adjust to the light, just long enough to avoid hitting anything.

It was a big room, at least fifteen metres long, and with the inbuilt dirt and
grime of all saloons everywhere. There were seven large round tables, with three
chairs stacked on each. The bar ran the entire length of the back wall, right down to
the stairs at the far end. This was the important part.

Sullivan ran down the length of the room, stopping at the bottom of the stairs.
Stone had to clutch at his stomach wound as he moved, cutting down on his speed, but
he was there only a few seconds after.

They waited for the werewolf to make its move, and prayed it would be the
right one. Indeed, ten seconds of eternity later, there were the snuffling and gravel-
crunching sounds of the approaching monster.

It stepped through the doorway, and turned to face them. Sullivan pulled the
pin out of the grenade and bowled it down the length of the room. It clattered loudly
as it rolled across the uneven floorboards. The werewolf simply growled as it stopped
by its feet.

Sullivan and Stone were already running up the stairs. By the time they
reached the top, a lounge-type area they didn't have time to take in, the grenade
exploded.

They were thrown to the floor, the whole building shaking under the
explosion's gargantuan roar. It felt like the earth was caving in, and for half a second,
Sullivan thought it was really happening. But then the detonation ended, as quickly as
it had begun. The air rang in its violent wake.

They stood up gingerly, Stone wincing as muscles moved underneath his
wound. It was bleeding heavily, staining his uniform black.

"You alright, Corporal?" Sullivan asked.

Stone grinned. "Yes, Sarge. Doing good."

"You need to get that bandaged up." They all carried a basic first aid kit.
Frankly, he needed a medical team, and soon, but there wasn't much they could do
right now. The werewolf might still be alive.

"Yes, Sarge. I'll do that soon."

They slowly headed back down the stairs. The grenade had devastated the
saloon. The walls were still intact, though stained black, but the tables, chairs and bar
were all shredded into matchsticks. The werewolf, contrary to all previous events, had
obeyed the laws of physics, and been turned into a messy pulp. Bits of fur, flesh and
organs were spread all over the joint, along with a liberal amount of blood.

Sullivan smiled. Finally, something had gone the way he'd expected.

He and Stone headed for the exit, the crap-strewn floor alternately crunching
and squishing under their feet. However, the sense of universal balance restored
couldn't last forever, and when they got halfway down the room, there was a harsh
voice from behind them.

"Hold it right there!"

They did so. It wasn't wise to disobey someone who could be armed,
especially when they could sneak up on so you so easily.

"Good. Now, turn around. Slowly."

Again, they did exactly that. They turned to see a man stood at the bottom of
the stairs. He was Caucasian, somewhere in his thirties, and wearing what could only
be described as a set of dark red bishop's robes. He looked almost medieval, and more
importantly, thoroughly hacked off.

Rather than a gun, he was holding what looked like a twenty-centimetre stick.
It didn't look especially threatening, but then again, Sullivan had only recently been
surprised by a chocolate frog. Regardless of the weapon, if this man said "jump", then
saying "why?" probably wouldn't be smart.

The robed man nodded. "That's good.

"You know, you guys are extremely fucking annoying. The last thing I needed
was to be coming here myself. That werewolf was going to be the perfect security
system. If you five got eviscerated, then your bosses would do the decent thing and
leave us the fuck alone. But you ruined that one, and now I'm here for Plan B."

Considering Plan A, Sullivan didn't expect anything good to happen next.
He'd become quite far enough out of his depth already.

All the same, he felt it worth reminding himself that he wasn't a coward. You
didn't get to be a sergeant by being easily scared, and anyway, he'd always been good
at dealing with the new and unexpected. But regardless, there was adaptability and
courage, and then there was being confronted with crazy villages springing from
nowhere, not to mention living chocolate, sentient paintings, killer werewolves and a
man who thought all of the above was a decent Plan A. You could only cope with so
much in the space of one night.

This when he heard the sounds of Mace, Hudson and Hodges entering the
room. The robed man gave an aggravated sigh.

"I was wondering how long it'd take. I suggest you three just stand there and
look pretty. This may just look like a little stick, but I assure you, it's a far more
dangerous weapon than anything you five possess."

They seemed to take the man at his word. There were a few clinking and
rustling noises, distinctive of guns being lowered. Sullivan wasn't sure if he should be
annoyed they weren't stepping in, or glad he wouldn't get caught in the crossfire.

Stone, however, didn't seem to be worried by all this. "So what's Plan B?" he
asked, with an almost mocking tone.

"Oh, that's simple." the robed man said. "I kill you all. I would ask you not to
take it personally, but actually, I think that's kinda the point. After all, if you guys
hadn't been fucking around with that bomb of yours, then none of us would be in thi-"

He stopped abruptly. His expression suddenly changed from anger to worry,
which did absolutely nothing to reassure Sullivan.

"Oh shit." he said, pointing his stick at Stone's wound. "That's a werewolf
bite, isn't it?"

Stone smiled and nodded, a gesture that started ringing alarm bells in
Sullivan's head.

"Yes, it is. The bastard jumped me when I was checking the workshop next
door. But I can't say I mind. I mean, I'm gonna be a werewolf! That's so cool!"

Sullivan found himself stepping back a few paces. He knew the corporal was
unhinged, but this was going into "danger to society" territory now. And it really
wasn't cool.

"Oh, don't look at me like that." Stone said with mock hurt. "I'm mean, you're
not the one who'll have to deal with the problem. It's his world I'm going for.
Granger explained the rules to me. People like us can't use his wand, but now I'm a
werewolf...well, I'm a magical creature now. All I need to do now is kill him, take
his wand and start my playtime. It's gonna be great!"

Everyone in the room just stared at him, though all arguably for different
reasons. For Sullivan, it was because of one simple phrase: "Granger explained the
rules to me".

Granger explained the rules...

And suddenly, he knew his "Philadelphia Experiment" theory was entirely
correct. He and everyone else in the room was now completely fucked.

"We've been stitched up." he said, after a few seconds' silence.

Stone smiled and nodded again. "That's about it, yes. It's all a little bit
complicated, but basically, command already knew about this place. Or at least places
like it. They've been searching for this kind of village for a long time. And when the
Manhattan Project starts playing with its new toy, they stumble across one. Just like
that! So then they rounded up a bunch of nobodies, you guys, and threw you in here to
see what happens when a place like this gets poked. They get a better picture of their
opponents, and seeing as you're at the bottom of the pile, no one will care when the
price is four corpses. Everyone wins...except for you, but you don't count.

"As for me, I'm just here to make sure fighting actually happened. It was
either this or a court martial, frankly. I was on Iwo Jima, and some other places. I
went a bit crazy, and there were...problems. Some of our soldiers suffered fates that
are best left unspecified. But I'm doing much better now. Especially since this
mission has gone so well. I mean, you guys started shooting up shit all on your own!
And I'm so glad I ran into that werewolf. For pretty much no work at all, I get to run
off with a full pardon, a large paycheque and some once-in-a-lifetime magical
upgrades. Like I said, life just doesn't get any better."

Everyone was still staring. There was a lot to stare at. But, in some odd way,
Sullivan couldn't say he was entirely surprised. He was a soldier, and he knew what
the army higher-ups were like. Getting fucked over was just one of those things you
had to deal with sometimes. That didn't make it pleasant, or even tolerable, but he had
no right to say it was unexpected.

"You're insane..." the robed man exclaimed. "You're actually insane."

"Quite probably, yes."

Mace gave his characteristic growl. "You're fucking evil, more like. Betraying
a nest of demons doesn't make you a fucking angel."

Stone laughed dryly, then turned towards Mace. Notably, this meant he had his
rifle pointed at the private's head.

"How poetic." the corporal said. "Also so utterly sanctimonious it makes me
want to vomit."

Mace spat at the floor. "Go fuck yourself."

Stone just shrugged. "You first."

He pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Mace in his nose, but with a sniper round
from only ten metres, the exact location was ultimately irrelevant. His head pretty
much exploded, blood and brain spraying across the wall as his body pitched
backwards.

Barely even a second later, almost drowned out by the gunshot, the robed man
yelled out the word "Stupefy!". A red light shot from the end of his stick - or rather,
as Sullivan now understood, his truly magic wand - hitting Stone square in the back.
Without even a cry, he crumpled to the floor.

The gunshot continued to bounce around the room, the ringing slowly dying
away as the shock began to set in. Mace was dead...they'd known the man for three
years, fought and survived beside him, more than once because of him, and now he
was simply a headless corpse. There wasn't even time to build up to the idea.

Sullivan didn't know how he felt. Or maybe he did, but just couldn't find the
words to think about it.

The robed man lowered his wand, and peered at the unconscious Stone. "Well,
that nearly went very wrong." he said.

Sullivan suddenly had a massive urge to smack the guy. But he kept his fist
under control, if only because that wand would make him regret it.

"If it's any consolation," the robed man said, looking at Mace's corpse, "you
three can leave if you want. I think you've seen enough of what we can do."

The invitation to run for the hills was deeply tempting, but with a certain
dullness of soul he couldn't quite describe, Sullivan knew that his job here wasn't
quite done.

"Not yet." he said. "We came for answers, and we're not leaving without
them. What is this place? What happened during Trinity?"

After a few seconds of thought, the robed man just sighed. "I'd like to explain,
I really would, but I don't think I can. It's all a bit complicated."

"Try us." Sullivan said.

"It's like trying to explain horcruxes to a skrewt. You're just not ready for it."

That was when someone laughed. To everyone's surprise, it was Hudson, the
normally taciturn soldier deciding to break his habitual silence.

"That's just what that old guy in the painting said. "Primitive", he called us.
But here's how I see it. We've developed a bomb so powerful that it needs to split
atoms for fuel, and you're still writing with quills and parchment. You don't even
have electricity or piped water. So here's me thinking...who's the primitive ones?"

The robed man just smiled. "That's a good point. But can you do this?"

He pointed his wand out of the nearby window. "Temporaccio Eldridge."

For a few seconds, there was nothing. And then, somewhere outside, there was
a gargantuan series of crashes and scrapes, sounds of metal being buckled and torn on
a truly massive scale. It felt like a sonic recreation of the end of the world. The mind-
crushing noise seemed to go on forever, causing unspeakable dread without pause or
compromise. But, like all things, it eventually finished.

Sullivan, Hudson and Hodges all ran outside, only to be confronted with a
sight that once again raised the bar of incredible. Off to the left, some way outside the
village, was a warship. It was huge, at least a hundred metres long, easily dwarfing all
the buildings, and nearly the village itself. It was also lying on its side, bits of gun,
antenna and other things loosely hanging off, the product of a rolling landing from
wherever it had been summoned. In the moonlight, it looked almost fake, like an
Airfix model on a giant scale.

More human noises were starting to come from the interior, various cries and
shrieks and moans, as its crew were beginning to realise what had just happened.

This time, Sullivan couldn't say he was scared. This spectacle was strange and
perverse, too much so to be genuinely impressive, but he'd seen too much weird shit
tonight already. His resources of shock and awe were starting to run low, even for
something so obviously more extreme than even the werewolf.

He suddenly realised that the robed man was stood next to him. He wasn't sure
if he'd just appeared, or if he merely hadn't been paying attention.

"That's the USS Eldridge." the robed man said. "Two years ago, a wizard on
hard times sold an invisibility spell to your military. They tried to test it on that ship,
in the Philadelphia shipyards. But they didn't have a clue what they were doing, and
they managed to make it teleport instead. It was sent from Philadelphia to Virginia,
and then back again. And thanks to me, it's now come via here too.

"Luckily, your people's capacity to reject the impossible knows no bounds.
Hardly anyone knows it took place, and those who do will never believe it. The only
exceptions are your superiors, but they are few, and not the problem we once feared."

He turned to face Sullivan, who was still too focused on the Eldridge to return
the favour.

"The bottom line is, I'm a wizard. I'm someone who can control and apply the
forces of magic. But I'm not the only one. There are thousands of people like me,
maybe even millions, spread all across the world. We go to great lengths to keep
ourselves hidden, lengths you wouldn't even consider. There are too many like
Private Mace and Corporal Stone, who will never understand us.

"But like that Philadelphia Experiment, your bomb yesterday threatened to
change everything. Truth be told, we're still not entirely sure what happened. What
we believe is that, because magic distorts reality, and Trinity essentially did the same
by splitting atoms, the two forces met in this village and cancelled each other out. It
only removed the shield spell that keeps your people from seeing it, which is why the
shockwave didn't reduce this place to ashes. Which we're grateful for, but it still
caused more than a few problems, didn't it?"

As if only just realising that it was still there, the robed man suddenly pointed
his wand at the Eldridge. With a cry of "Tempero Reverto!", the warship disappeared
with a quite literal pop. The lack of ceremony, especially considering the manner of
its arrival, was almost comical.

"Sergeant Sullivan," he continued, "I'm glad I decided against killing you. It's
definitely made all this a lot easier.

"I think you've seen enough to understand what we wizards are capable of.
And we've come to the realisation that, thanks to your nuclear bomb, you now have a
weapon you can use against us. So what I am suggesting is a truce. From now on, you
don't try to "poke" us any more, and we don't have you butchered in cruel and
unusual ways. Everyone leaves everyone else alone, and we can all sleep comfortably.
"That's why you three are still alive. You're to tell your superiors about my
suggestion. Whether they take it is their choice, but remember what you've seen here
tonight. We would do well not to mess with each other."

Hudson pointed towards the saloon. "What about Stone?"

"He's a werewolf now, which makes him our problem. I'll take him away with
me. There'll be some use for him, I expect.

"Well, I should be going. Places to go, people to see. You know how it is."

Actually, Sullivan didn't, but he wasn't going to comment. He had all his
answers now, all the ridiculous shit he'd come here to get, and now he was going
home. Maybe he'd try and drag his superiors through a hedge for trying to fuck him
over, but then again, maybe not. He'd never win that battle anyway.

"This village is yours to do with as you wish." the robed man said. "We're
never coming back here. Personally, I suggest you raze it, and fast. You don't want
too many people asking questions, do you?"

"No, I guess not." Sullivan said dully.

The robed man started to walk back into the saloon. However, he only got a
few paces before Hodges called out to him.

"Can I come with you?" he asked.

Everyone turned and stared. Even for Hodges, this was a new one.

"Excuse me?" the robed man asked back.

"Well, all I've got to go back to is another eighteen months guarding some
nowhere ammo dump. But you've shown us a whole new world. I'd like to see some
more of it."

The robed man paused and thought for a few seconds, then shook his head.

"No. It's not the right place for you. If you had magical ability, it'd be a different
story. But you don't, so it isn't. That's just the way it is."

Hodges just shrugged, but he still looked disappointed. Sullivan couldn't say
he sympathised, but he wouldn't be so cruel as to say that.

The robed man had just reached the saloon doorway when Sullivan thought of
another question. "Who are you?" he called out.

The man turned his head, and flashed a quick smile. "I'm a wizard. What else
is there to know?"

"I guess not."

The wizard headed into the saloon, and was lost to view.

Sullivan, Hudson and Hodges all turned to each other, taking a few seconds
before speaking. The village, finally silent, seemed an almost relaxing place. Of
course, you had to squint a little to forget everything that had happened here, but that
was only half the point.

"So, what do we do now?" Hudson eventually asked.

Sullivan already knew the answer. "We go back to base. We still need to
debrief, and get someone out here to collect Mace's body. And then we find
something better to do with our lives."

Hudson smiled. "Amen to that."

Just before they turned to leave, Sullivan took another look at his watch.
02:13, it said. He almost couldn't believe it...but only almost.
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