Patrick Martel’s bright umber eyes misted over as the UH-1 helicopter lifted out of the Virginia forest. The thrill of just completing Hell Week for Officer Candidate School countered every pain his exhausted six foot four frame currently suffered under, including a broken toe and dislocated wrist.
Ten weeks earlier he had been a normal college student slogging towards a degree in Health Sciences. Now he would be a Marine Officer upon graduation. Five other men, college students just like him, filled all but one of the six other seats in the Huey helicopter.
All heads were slumped forwards on their packs as each man finally could let his guard down. The nervous young crew chief Stephen Le Faye seemed more concerned about not disturbing the six beat down candidates around him than he did with his own breathing. He sat to Patrick’s left keeping both arms pinned in his lap to avoid even touching shoulders with those around him. Patrick guessed him to be no older than seventeen.
He drew in a breath to tell Le Faye he could relax but the helicopter gave an unnerving twitch and Patrick let go of his com button. A curious vibration now buzzed in Patrick’s seat and wriggled up his spine. The tickling sensation would have made a great massage were they not a thousand feet in the air. Now it only made Patrick’s neck tighten and a clammy sweat prickle his forehead. He depressed his intercom switch again.
“Captain Matthew do you feel—” The chopper lurched to the side and Patrick’s head slammed against the bulkhead with a crack. One of the tail rotor blades sheared off and the three foot piece of sharpened metal tomahawked towards the single turboshaft engine. Armor-less, the transport’s skin yielded to the projectile without a fight.
“Hydraulic failure. I have no response in the pedals,” Captain Matthew shouted. “Quantico tower, this is Rutledge One—”
The radio feed cut out and the control panels went dark.
“Le Faye, keep those boys in their seats back there. Le Faye?”
Matthew twisted around, looking for his crew chief among the six officer recruits he had in the back seats but the helicopter lurched to the side and whipped his neck forward. The crying screech of metal on metal drowned out his words as the engine belched smoke. The disintegrating turbine now played the role of a machine gun, riddling the cabin with shards of hot slicing metal.
“Ellis, auto rotate now. Go to auto rotate,” Matthew called out. His co-pilot lay slumped over in his seat, a fan blade stuck out the back of his helmet.
Patrick heard Matthew’s shouts, but the shriek of the engine destroyed the Captain’s words. Black smoke, so thick it felt fluid, now sprayed into the cabin. The helicopter yanked sideways and a blast of wind cleaned out the burning haze but threatened to drag every man out the open doors. Another cry rang out in the din from Patrick’s left. It wasn’t the captain this time. This one held panic.
“Bayern, hold on,” Patrick yelled.
He dove across the floor of the helicopter, straining for his comrade who had tumbled from his seat. Their fingertips only grazed and Patrick watched his friend flip out the open door. Bayern’s body gave a sickening crack when it struck the top of an old tree before vanishing into the leaves below.
More shouting from the pilot turned Patrick’s stunned gaze from the merry-go-round view out the door to the crew chief, Stephen Le Faye, as he slammed into the roof. Le Faye went limp and his foot hooked under a seat. One by one, the violet spinning ripped Patrick’s friends towards the gaping door. Each one, screaming, tumbling, grasping for the slightest hand hold. Patrick’s free hand found a pant leg here, a backpack strap there, even a hand for the briefest of seconds, but could never hold on. Doan, Nyquist, and Kane, all slipped from his touch and vanished into the fast approaching forest. The last man, Titus, caught the side of the door and his wide eyes met with Patrick’s.
“Don’t let go Titus, hold on soldier,” Patrick shouted.
The spinning bird wreaked havoc on Patrick’s outstretched hand, flopping it about never letting more than a fingertip graze Titus. The dying chopper pitched onto its side and the force peeled Titus away.
A twang coursed through the air as one of the main rotor blades shattered against a tree. Le Faye’s unconscious body unhooked from the seat and slid toward the door. Patrick screamed with fury and abandoned his one hand hold. He could not watch another man slip past him. Praying for a miracle, he lunged for Le Faye and caught the Navy Seaman by his boot but both continued to careen towards death. A final fan blade from the shredded turbine shot through the roof and pierced Patrick’s leg. The foot long piece of jagged metal played the role of savior and pinned him to the floor of the helicopter
The swirling chaos around him grew dim and darkness crept in around his sight. A pop followed by fiery pain exploded in his shoulder when he tried to pull Le Faye back inside.
“Stephen,” Patrick yelled. “Wake up…help me.”
Ground and trees rushed closer and Stephen’s limp head hung under the skid. Patrick took one look at the bloody metal shard sticking up from his leg and clamped his jaw shut. He let go of the strap his hand had found and the flesh of his calf bore both his weight and Stephen’s. His right shoulder was dislocated but with his free left arm he yanked Stephen out from under the skid. A claymore of glass exploded as an army of branches shattered the cockpit. Patrick threw himself on top of Stephen as the helicopter slammed into the ground. The nose crumpled like tinfoil while splintered rotors slashed at the dirt. The aircraft cartwheeled in a cloud of smoke and dust before grinding to a halt.
Patrick’s hacking lungs brought him back to consciousness. He spit the blood and grit from his mouth and tried to push himself up. His right shoulder buckled and he collapsed back on to what he thought was the floor. A terrible pressure filled his head and made his sight flash with lights. The helicopter rested on its side with its floor and roof now serving as the walls of little box. Patrick hung by his impaled leg like some cannibal’s prize on the now vertical helicopter floor. Stephen lay a few feet below him on the ground but still within the helicopter.
“Stephen, wake up. We need to move, wake up.”
A hissing crackling sound turned Patrick’s head and what blood he had left ran cold. The first yellow tongues of fire danced to life in what remained of the mangled cockpit and dead pilots.
“Stephen, can you hear me? You have to get up!”
Stephen groaned and rolled onto his side. The fire continued to spread but Stephen didn’t move again. Patrick thrashed against the piece of metal that now threatened to kill him, but it held fast to his leg.
The heat of the fire filled the helicopter and the sickening smell of burning flesh assaulted Patrick’s nose. Captain Mathew and his co-pilot’s bodies were hissing and popping—Patrick’s fate while still alive if he didn’t get free. He sat up, gripped the metal blade,, and drove all his remaining strength through his good leg. This didn’t remove the piece from his calf, but it did unseat the shrapnel from the helicopter. The five foot fall punched him between the shoulders. Wheezing and nauseous from pain, he staggered to his feet and threw Stephen’s arm around his shoulder.
“Let’s go buddy, you got to help me here. That fire isn’t going to wait. Can you climb up the seats?”
Stephen groaned a response and set a limp hand on the first sideways seat. Fire claimed the cockpit along with the pilot’s bodies and oozed out on a sheet of oil below Patrick and Steven. Bit by bit the pair worked their way up and out of the helicopter with the fire licking at their heels. Together they threw themselves out the open side of the Huey and staggered away from the burning wreck. A few yards away Patrick screamed, staggered, and collapsed. His pant leg shone red and a sudden dizziness swam in his head. The sight of trees and sky above him grew farther and farther away and the sun stopped making any light. Stephen’s shouts echoed around him but they sounded so quiet now.
“Patrick, don’t go to sleep…Patrick….Patrick…”
The sound of a woman crying snapped Patrick awake. She had her face buried across Patrick’s chest and sobbed into her arms. She withdrew when Patrick pushed up onto his elbows. A little crimson flashed on her cheeks. Her brilliant emerald eyes were swollen and shone with tears but Patrick could not pull his gaze from them.
She wore a burgundy sweater, jeans and a fine necklace bearing the most brilliant blue sapphire Patrick had ever seen. Radiance seemed drawn to her. Light shone around on the edges of her clothes and on her long chestnut hair like a powerful lamp was behind her. But the only light source was the noonday sun filtering through the trees. Each tear that clung to her chin twinkled like a star, as did the sapphire she wore around her neck.
“Why are you crying?” Patrick asked. “Did someone hurt you?”
“I apologize for my tears. I didn’t think this would be so hard. I came to thank you for what you did, and because the doctor said talking to you might help.”
Patrick sprang to his feet and brushed the leaves and dirt off his fatigues.
“Why? What doctor? I’m fine.”
“See? And thank me for what?” he asked.
The young woman’s face didn’t brighten. She kept looking down at Patrick’s feet. His gaze followed and then his heart stopped; the turbine blade still ran through his calf. It caused him no pain but sticky black blood stained his pant leg and boot. The charred helicopter crash sat a few yards away but was dark and cold. Patrick stammered while pointing to his leg and to the helicopter.
“Okay here goes…I’m Jayne Le Faye,” the woman said. “Stephen Le Faye’s sister. I came to thank you for saving his life. You will be glad to know he survived and only because of him did they find you. He does have a broken ankle and some burns but they are not serious. He told me what happened…how he had been invited by the pilot to go with them to pick up the OCS recruits. Then about the crash and how you pulled him from the burning helicopter. I thought that stuff only happened in movies. Oh…I’m guessing you already knew this but no one else survived. Maybe it’s better you are like this for a while, it might be…somehow easier to learn that later.”
Jayne sat back on her heels and wiped a fresh flood of tears from her eyes. Patrick’s face went ashen and the light drained from his eyes.
“I could have saved them. I should have saved them all, but I…wait...We’re still in the forest. Quantico is twenty miles away. How can you be here?” Patrick said.
“But we can’t talk about that awfulness,” Jayne Continued. “I’d be an absolute wreck if five of my friends died all at once. Okay, my idea is a story. I love fantasy stories, especially the classic hero and heroine tales. You are just a college student like me so let’s make the main characters be college students. I’ll be Sapphire and you can be Tatric.”
“What are you talking about!” Patrick shouted. “I like stories as much as anyone, but this doesn’t make any sense at all. What is going on? Please answer me.”
Patrick grabbed his head as a surge of pressure made it pulse with pain. He groaned and slumped down against a tree. Jayne knelt in front of him and laid her soft hands over Patrick’s. Her touch drove the pain back and Patrick’s breaths began to slow.
Jayne smiled and out from behind her shoulders spread a pair of transparent wings. They rippled like flags in the breeze and seemed to be half mirage, half physical. Their deep amethyst color flickered with tiny bolts of red, green and blue like the feathers were some strange dark opal.
“I hope you like your name. I’d let you pick it if you could,” Jayne said.
“Yeah...Sure. The name is great.”
All Patrick’s attention was fixated on the glittering feathers. He stopped his out stretched hand inches away and his eyes asked Jayne if he could continue. She nodded and moved her wing to touch Patrick’s finger willingly. She gave a soft giggle when he stroked the long flight feathers from base to tip. Her other wing tip reached forward as if it were a finger on a hand. The plumage pushed Patrick’s chin up until he looked her in the eye.
“I go to school at Jay University in Southern California,” Jayne continued, “and have often pretended it is a magical world. Promise to not tell anyone. I keep that a secret along with my Tinker Bell movies under my bed.” She gave a playful smile and continued. “Let’s start with where I live. On campus it’s a boring apartment complex called Lancer Arms. But in this story, I live in a castle in the Mountains of Sal-Marcern. That’s Lancer Arms with the letters all mixed around…I love anagrams. Anyway, come with me. It’s just over that hill.”
Patrick nodded with his mouth gaping. Jayne’s wing pushed it closed before she took his hand again. Jayne led the way and Patrick followed a step behind at her side. With each stride a pulse of warm wind caressed Patrick’s face and a strange sensation gripped him—this little walk over the hill was not what it seemed. He was traveling somewhere but it wasn’t caused by the steps he took.
With each passing moment his perception of the world shifted ever so slightly. The trees seemed taller and stronger and there were a new kinds Patrick was fairly certain didn’t grow in Virginia. Jayne’s wings came and went in the light of a richer sun and little flowers bloomed at her feet as she walked.
They crested the small ridge and Patrick’s mouth dropped open again. The rolling Virginia forest ended and a mountain valley spread out before them. Colossal snow-covered peaks drew Patrick’s eyes up and made his legs weak.
“You…you live in the mountains?” he asked.
“I’m a sorceress of sorts in this world and being such I can’t live just anywhere or in only one place,” Jayne said. “In the spring and summer I spend time in that little house with the tower by the river. See it down by the bend? The bedroom in the tower has the best view of the sunrise you can imagine.”
The walk into the mountain valley washed away every sensation of familiarity from what Patrick’s senses brought him. He was no longer in Virginia that was certain. Jayne kept moving towards the river but Patrick paused at the tower and laid his hands on the cool stone. Flowering vines snaked over every block and colored the structure with glittering blue petals.
“I can’t help but think of Rapunzel looking up at this. So you’re a sorceress in this story or dream or afterlife or whatever this is. What does that make me?” Patrick asked.
A violent concussion of sound rang out from the sky before Jayne could answer. It was like some invisible giant had hit the world’s biggest kettle drum in quick succession.
“Yes, I know,” Jayne called out towards the sky.
“What was that?” Patrick asked rushing back towards her. “I need information, anything. Please, am I dead? If I am and you are the angel who is supposed to take me somewhere that’s fine. But please answer me. Say something Jayne!”
Jayne just stared up at the southern mountain range and the embankment of black clouds that crept over its peaks. She whirled around and smiled when Patrick came up to her.
“Let me tell you about my castle next…that is where I live most of the time. Maybe one day you can help me with part of it.” Her slender hand pointed high up the northern mountainside. Only a pair of black stone turrets and one balcony managed to peak through the pine trees. The castle seemed built into, rather on the mountainside.
“That is my real home. Up there I have a magical bathhouse, a library, and a bedchamber to die for. What I need help with right now is deciding what enchantment should guard my bedchamber. Something sweet and pretty? No, no that would tempt people to go inside. That’s my job. I know, a dragon face seal. It would burn into the wood like embers and roar if someone bad came too close. Maybe your quest will bring you there.”
“My quest?” Patrick asked.
“Time is short, Patrick, I can’t stay much longer. But I want to finish this bit of the story because it fits so well with what you are going through right now. Every story needs a quest the hero goes on, something that motivates him and allows him to push through the darkness.”
Jayne’s eyes then turned back to the boiling storm clouds that now blotted out the sun. They rippled with lightning and a coldness filtered through the valley. A clap of thunder that sounded eerily like a laugh to Patrick detonated in the black clouds. Jayne’s wings flashed open and hatred glared in her emerald eyes. The stone tower and house collapsed to a pile of smoking dust as more thunder made the ground tremble.
Her defiance melted into bitter frustration in a few seconds. Her wings drooped and she gave a cry, stomping her foot. .
“This feeling of powerlessness to help is breaking my heart,” she said. “I’m frightened for you. I don’t know how the story ends. It could—”
Another thunder clap exploded and the black clouds rushed down the side of the mountain like an invisible dam had burst. Its rolling form bristled with thunderbolts and tore across the valley floor. The deafening blast of wind that preceded the onslaught tore feathers from Jayne’s wings and ripped both her and Patrick off their feet.
“We need to find cover,” Patrick shouted. “That is going to cross the river in seconds and—”
His voice trailed off as movement caught his eye. It was high in the clouds above the mountain peaks. Jayne fought to her feet and rushed to get in front of Patrick when she saw it too—a figure in the storm. He dwarfed the mountains and filled half the sky with his cloaked form. A gold veil spanned the opening of his hood and reflected Patrick and Jayne’s image.
“What…what is that?” he asked.
“I can’t stay much longer…please fight, Patrick. Fight!”
The avalanche of black storm clouds crossed the river and hit them both. Jayne blocked much of the force but feathers poured off her wings and her body began to grow transparent. She turned her back to the onslaught and drew close to Patrick.
“Our story has to end now, but you must keep fighting,” she said.
A renewed blast of the storm destroyed her and nothing but swirling darkness surrounded Patrick—darkness, and the unyielding stare of the Gold Veil. Pain shot back into his leg. His shoulder popped back out of joint and every cut and bruise from the crash hit him all at once. He crumpled to the ground as the dark figure above him grew more terrible.
Images of Patrick’s friends sliced in and out of the blackness. The cries they made hit Patrick with force. A metal bat would have done less damage. Each blow not only broke flesh, it struck Patrick’s heart with a darkness far greater than that which surrounded him. The poison of despair leached in and took hold. The world had no use for Patrick, he was nothing but a cosmic joke whose impotence had killed five men.
The Gold Veil seemed to cackle from every direction as Patrick collapsed to his knees and tore at his own hair. The form of a gun materialized from the darkness and Patrick snatched it up. He drove the rifled barrel to his head and gritted his teeth. Tears poured from clenched eyes as his finger touched the trigger.
“God save you. My hero.”
Jayne’s voice echoing in the air broke Patrick’s heart and his hot tears flowed even more. The gun still drove into his temple but his finger came off the trigger.
“I’m not a hero,” Patrick sobbed. “I’m nothing, I’m no one.
The heaving cries rattled Patrick’s chest as he curled up on himself. The attack of the Gold Veil did not cease. It redoubled. Patrick screamed in pain and his one free hand clawed at his chest. The finger returned to the trigger. Again it began to pull. A bitter coldness filled his body and death felt like the warmest of friends. The hammer on the gun began to quiver but a touch warmer than death’s promised relief fell on his hand. Jayne. She had not returned physically but the sensation of her hand on his put the horror he was under to shame. Then a kiss landed on his forehead. With the yell of battle, but not yet victory, he hurled the dark gun away. The Gold Veil held its attack constant but Patrick could now endure. For curled up and beaten down as he was, he now held an amethyst feather tight to his chest and it wouldn’t let him die today.
The rapid unsteady beat of a heart monitor filled the ICU room at Quantico Hospital. A young woman in a burgundy sweater gripped Patrick Martel’s hand and pulled her lips from his hot forehead. He lay silently on the bed, eyes taped shut and a breathing tube down his throat.
“God save you. My hero,” she whispered.
A knock on the doorframe turned her head around.
“Jayne, are you ready now? This is going to cut your flight close.”
“Sorry, Stephen. I had to stay a bit longer.”
“Come on. Mom and Dad are waiting back up in my room. You were in there quite a while. What did you say to him?”
“I told him a story is all.”
“I made up a classic hero-on-a-quest-to-find-the-heroine tale. Used my Cal Jay campus as the skeleton for the world. I imagined he would be the type to enjoy that kind of a story – even if he was hoping to become a Marine. Didn’t get to finish it though…”
“Jayne, you know the doctors said he’s…brain damaged. The chances he heard anything you said are…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say things like that.”
Jayne’s chest heaved and she burst into tears.
“I know…I know he is hurt bad but I thought if I told him a story from my heart he could…hear me with his heart and that would help him to…to keep fighting.”
Stephen dropped his crutches in the middle of the hallway and took his sister in his arms.
“Yes…yes I am sure he heard you. You got through.