When I was fourteen, a supernatural knife chose me as its wielder. Now I’m fifteen, and I’ve spent the last year working with the Army to save the world from monsters, demons and other vicious creatures—while keeping it a secret from nearly everyone I know.
Including my mom.
My name is Matt Archer. And I’m a soldier.
* * *
Eleven Green Berets lined the benches on either side of the C-130 transport plane. The team sat shoulder to shoulder, each loaded down with a large pack carrying both a chute and supplies. I had a pack too, weighing me down in my seat as the plane bumped along in turbulence caused by the mountains.
Two knife wielders and ten support staff, ready to go.
The middle of the aircraft was empty except for the chute-line track running down the center of the fuselage’s ceiling. A grim-faced Air Force jumpmaster watched us from the front of the cargo hold, scowling like he was worried we’d break something. The interior of the plane looked just as grouchy. Its parts were painted black, army green, or gun-metal gray, including the diamond-plate metal floor.
Uncle Mike stared intently at me from across the cargo bay, absentmindedly twisting his wedding ring around his finger. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t taken it off and zipped it into his jumpsuit. Sure he’d only been married four months, but this was ridiculous.
“You know, Badass Aunt Julie’s gonna kill you if you lose that ring somewhere over the Himalayas,” I shouted over the roar of the engines.
“Probably,” Mike said. “But I won’t lose it—good luck charm.”
Good point. I took a quick inventory of my own talismans against evil. Magic knife strapped into the custom-made sheath sewn into the right thigh pocket of my high-altitude jumpsuit. In my left breast pocket, an LED flashlight, a souvenir from my first solo hunt. My right breast pocket held two things: an arrowhead and my sister’s lucky exam pencil. Mamie was a brain, so giving me her lucky pencil in the midst of SAT prep was a big deal. The arrowhead came from the Peruvian medicine man who made my knife. I never went anywhere without it.
Yep, I had everything.
The knife buzzed, vibrating against the zipper that held its pocket closed and an alien voice murmured in my head, We fight today.
I took a long, deep breath as an irresistible hum filled my mind. My pulse sped up; it always did when the knife’s spirit latched onto my consciousness. I was still getting used to sharing brain-space with a supernatural being, though, and hearing a strange voice in my head was freaky at best. Part killing machine, part external conscience, the knife-spirit’s hold on me was hard to explain. I was one of only five men who could wield a spirit-blade, and the knives were necessary to our mission. Why else would a sophomore be spending Christmas break running around India with Army Special Forces?
“Gentlemen, we’re going to be departing the aircraft shortly, so everyone get set,” Colonel Black hollered.
My breakfast rose in my throat. The colonel must’ve seen the look on my face because he chuckled as he drew a black watch-cap over his salt-and-pepper hair. From the look of things, he wasn’t the least bit concerned about jumping out of the plane, which made me feel like a wuss. That feeling wasn’t helped by the fact that Colonel Black was six-five, every bit of it solid muscle. Sure, I’d grown nearly a foot in the last year and put on some muscle of my own, but I had nothing on the colonel.
“Oxygen on,” the jumpmaster barked. “Eight-thousand feet.”
I sighed and put on a mask like the ones you see in hospitals. We were jumping from high enough up that we had to breathe pure oxygen from the plane’s air system until we switched to the tanks we’d wear on the way down. Uncle Mike explained this was to keep us from getting the bends from the altitude drop.
“So,” Colonel Black called to me, his voice muffled by his plastic breathing mask, “where are you this week?”
“Greece. Field trip for that ‘gifted and talented’ program General Richardson cooked up as my cover,” I said. “So far, so good. If my mom knew I was really jumping out of airplanes at high altitudes to hunt monsters, I think my number would be up.”
“Speaking of jumping…” Mike nodded at me. “You got that thing strapped on tight enough?”
My hand flew to the buckles and clasps holding my parachute pack to my back. “God, I hope so. Does it look loose?”
On my right, Lieutenant Johnson said, “Kid, the major’s just yanking your chain. You tighten those straps any more and you’ll cut off your own arm.” His laugh rumbled louder than the engine. “Stop worrying so much. You’re ready for this.”
“I’ve only done practice jumps, not combat.” I settled back against the wall and glared at Uncle Mike. “Just because you’ve jumped out of a perfectly good airplane onto mountains doesn’t mean I have. I’m allowed to be extra careful.”
Mike’s brown eyes crinkled up at the corners. Mine did the same thing when I was laughing at someone else. “Chief, what did you think being part of the 10th Airborne meant? The word ‘Airborne’ kind of gives it away.”
Schmitz, my hunting instructor, piled on. “Hooah, Major Tannen. We live to jump, sir!”
“That mean you’re going second today, Master Sergeant?” Mike yelled.
“Amen to that, sir!” Schmitz danced in his seat a little. The smallest member of our squad, Schmitz was wiry and less than medium height, his hair a five-o’clock shadow barely hiding his skull. He also practically buzzed with energy. “You hear that, ladies? I get to go second.”
“Not sure that’s a good idea, man. You’re so short, we won’t be able to spot you in the snow and one of us is bound to land on you,” Lieutenant Johnson said.
Schmitz made a face but his retort was cut off because the jumpmaster stood to start the ready protocol. Using a special set of hand signals, he motioned for us to prepare. The roar of the engines changed pitch and I felt the plane jerk as the pilots slowed so they could kick us out.
The jumpmaster gestured for us to stand and hook our parachutes to the anchor cable, shouting, “Green in ninety seconds.”
“You heard the man. Last check on equipment,” Colonel Black yelled.
My stomach did flips. “When do I go?”
“I’ll go first, then Schmitz, then you,” Uncle Mike said. He wasn’t kidding around anymore—his voice was tight and sharp. “Johnson will come behind you. Then the rest of the team.”
We took off our oxygen masks, lined up and clipped our chute lines to the wire suspended from the side of the plane. Schmitz stood in front of me with his head bowed.
“Our Lady, bless us and keep us,” he murmured. “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” He did the sign of the cross then let loose a bloodcurdling “Hooooo-aaaahhhh!”
The praying didn’t calm me down much. Too late to back out now, though, because the ramps at the rear of the aircraft opened. The sky yawned through the wide-open hatch and sunlight glinted off the metal around the edges of the ramps.
The jumpmaster signaled “stand by.”
Oh, man, this was it.
Mike turned around, his face totally intense. “Yellow light. Masks on.”
I slapped my mask into place on my helmet and a plastic smell invaded my nostrils as the oxygen started to flow from my reserve tank. Shouts of “Hooah” came from every which way, while my heart slammed around like a marlin caught in a net.
“Countdown!” the jumpmaster shouted. “In five…four…three…two…one. Green light. Go, go, go!”
Mike ran down the ramp, dragging his chute line, then leapt from the airplane with hands folded over his reserve chute’s ripcord. By the book. Seconds later, his chute opened.
Schmitz followed, screaming “Geronimo, you mother…!”
The last of whatever he had to say got drowned out in the howling wind.
Johnson gave me a shove. “Go, kid!”
I drew a huge breath and held it, ran, jumped, soared off the ramp just like I’d been taught in jump school. I braced myself for the pull of the chute as it slowed me down.
The tug never came.
My parachute didn’t open.