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Sword Brother: Section Four
Last updated: Thursday, September 21, 2006 16:32 EDT
"Boss, are you sure this is a good idea?"
Houghton's lips quirked as Mashita's plaintive voice came over the commo link. The youthful PFC was driving with his head poked up through his hatch. He'd have to drop down inside the vehicle and button up if -- or when -- they ran into the trouble they all anticipated, but he had a much better field of vision this way than he would have from inside. Houghton could see only the back of Mashita's helmet when he looked down from his own position, but he didn't have to see the driver's face to know exactly what his expression looked like. Jack Mashita had been born and raised in Montana, and, despite his ancestry, it didn't appear that he'd ever heard about "inscrutable Orientals."
"Of course I'm not," the gunnery sergeant replied as Tough Mama snorted across the prairie. "But you heard Wencit. He says he can't send us back until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest." He shrugged, standing in the gunner's hatch now, rather than the commander's, while he gazed out into the steadily gathering gloom. "You have any better ideas on how to spend the time?"
"As a matter of fact, yeah," Mashita said. "Personally, I thought your idea about camping right there until he got around to it sounded just peachy."
"Yeah, sure you did." Houghton snorted.
Mashita started to reply, then stopped, and the gunnery sergeant grimaced. Jack had seen Wencit's magically conjured images, too, and Houghton was pretty sure it was the kids which had made up the driver's mind.
Mashita was barely more than half Houghtons own age. Sometimes, the gulf seemed much broader than that especially from Houghtons side. Jack projected a sort of world-weary cynicism which, Houghton suspected, the youngster thought made him look older and more experienced.. He also made a point of always anticipating the worst; that way, he'd once explained, any surprises had to be pleasant ones. And he always asserted -- vigorously -- that the only time he'd ever volunteered for anything in his life had been the day a Marine recruiter had taken advantage of a hung-over young high school graduate which, as Houghton knew from personal experience, was a crock. But underneath that armor, there was someone who truly believed it was the job of people like the United States Marine Corps to make a difference in the world. Someone who'd seen more ugliness and violence than any dozen civilians his own age, and whod been decorated not once, but twice, for dragging wounded civilians to safety in the middle of a firefight. Someone who'd spent hours of his off-duty time assisting the "hearts and minds" medical teams, and who helped coach a Marine-sponsored basketball team when he wasnt out with the docs.
Someone who'd seen the deliberate butchery of children in Wencit's moving images.
That was all it really would have taken to get Jack Mashita to sign on for the mission, and Houghton knew it. But he also knew that if he hadn't agreed, Mashita wouldn't have either, kids or no kids. And if Kenneth Houghton understood exactly why Mashita had volunteered, he was less certain about his own motives.
Partly, he knew, it was the fact that Wencit had a schedule of his own to keep. Preposterous as everything which had already happened seemed, it was obvious that there were really only two possibilities. One, Tough Mama had driven over an IDE, and one Kenneth Houghton was floating through the weirdest drug dream he'd ever heard of while the docs worked on him. Two, he really, truly was in an entirely different universe, and a white-haired wizard with FX eyes really was the only person who could ever get him home again.
Personally, in a lot of ways, he would have preferred the first possibility, but he doubted the answer could be that simple. In either case, he might as well proceed as if it was really happening, and Wencit was obviously far too concerned over his friend -- this "Bahzell" character -- to sit around a campfire toasting marshmallows (or whatever the hell they used instead around here) while he waited for the "ripples" to settle so he could send them home again. Short of holding a gun on the wizard, Houghton couldn't think of any way to make Wencit stay put. And the more he saw of the old fellow, and the deeper the acceptance of magic -- in this universe, at least -- sank into him, the more he found himself doubting Wencit would have allowed him to do anything of the sort.
The old bugger can "summon" a fourteen-ton LAV out of an entirely different universe, he reflected. So just what makes you think he'll let you sit there with a dinky little .45 pointed at him, Ken?
He couldn't think of a single answer to that question, and since Wencit was obviously going to go haring off into the night in an effort to rescue this Bahzell all by himself, the only logical thing for Houghton and Mashita to do was to tag along. After all, they could hardly afford to let him get himself killed before he sent them home.
Actually, Houghton rather liked that analysis of their situation. It was logical, pragmatic, with a strong dollop of tough-minded self-interest.
It was also, like Jack's insistence that he'd never volunteered for anything, a crock.
Gunnery Sergeant Houghton was uncomfortable with that realization, but there was no point pretending it wasnt true. Wencit's images had gotten to him, too, and the old wizard was right. There were responsibilities any man had to accept, regardless of the universe in which he found himself, if he ever wanted to face his mirror again.
Yet even that fell short of the full answer, and he felt his mind going back, wandering into memories he'd spent two years sealing away behind an impenetrable barrier. Back to the days when he'd been a husband who'd expected to become a father soon. Gwynn always understood, he thought. She knew what made me tick, what I had to believe to be me. And she believed it with me -- believed it for me, deeply enough to keep me sane.
Where had he lost that certainty, he wondered? Had it died in the same Ford Explorer as Gwynn? Been crushed with her and their unborn son on an icy mountain road by a pulpwood truck with a blown tire? Or had he lost it later, when he no longer had her to talk to, to confess to, to share the pain with. A tough-as-nails gunnery sergeant wasn't supposed to need to do those things. Which was stupid, of course. Gunnery sergeants were human beings, too, whatever the unwritten rule book required them to pretend. But Gwynn had always known better than that, always been there for him, always made him share the dark things with her, as well as the bright.
She'd been his moral compass, he realized. Not the only one hed had just the most important of them all. He'd survived without her, relied upon all those other compasses, but it hadn't been the same. Not as he'd confronted a world in which human beings turned themselves and even their own children into living bombs in the twisted name of God. One in which the enemy murdered captives in front of cameras and broadcast the images over the Internet and snipers routinely opened fire on religious processions while bombers deliberately targeted mosques and synagogues. One in which the people fighting those murderous fanatics altogether too often inflicted horrific collateral damage of their own and even some of the good guys -- even some of Houghton's fellow Marines -- found themselves infected with the same soul-deep sickness and committed acts every bit as brutal as any of the "enemy's. It had all hammered down on his own sense of loss, his own grief, and hed lost his certitude. What had once been clear-cut and unambiguous had become something else, and he'd feared that he was becoming something else, as well. Something tainted, which Gwynn would not have recognized.
That's really what it is, isn't it? he reflected. It's that simple. However you got here, wherever you are, it's that simple. Wencit's offered to give you back that certainty, at least for a while. You're free to choose between good and evil, between those who preserve and those who destroy, in a universe that isn't even yours. One where you can know you chose.
One where you can be the man Gwynn loved again.
"How much further?" Houghton asked an hour or so later.
He turned his head to look at the man standing next to him in the right-hand hatch. The Montana-born and bred Mashita had almost literally stood there drooling when he finally got a good look at Wencits horse. The wizard had explained that it was something called a Sothôii warhorse, yet magnificent as it obviously was, it wouldnt have been able to match the LAVs speed and, especially, endurance. Houghton had been uncertain what to do about that, but Wencit had simply spoken calmly into the saddled horses ear for a moment, then pointed in a northerly direction. The horse had responded by lipping the wizards hair with obvious affection, then trotted cheerfully off in the indicated direction. Somehow, Houghton was certain Wencit and the stallion wouldnt have any trouble finding one another again later.
Since the wizard was now a passenger (and totally untrained in any of the vehicle crews duties), Houghton had put him at the commander's station so that he himself could take over the gunner's duties if it proved necessary. Technically, the vehicle commander was supposed to ride standing in his hatch on the right side of the turret at "name tape defilade," with just his head and shoulders clear of the vehicle. The gunner, on the other hand, was supposed to ride in his seat, inside the turret, watching through his optical and thermal sights. The vehicle commander could do some of the gunners job for him the hand station joystick at the COs position allowed him to control turret traverse and fire the twenty-five-millimeter cannon and coaxial machine gun but that was really the gunners responsibility. He was also the crewmember specifically located and assigned to deal with any misfires, feed jams, or other problems with the armament. Given the fact that Wencit didn't have a clue how Tough Mama's weapons or sights -- worked, Houghton had decided he had no choice other than to take the gunner's station for himself, but he was still the vehicle commander, as well.
Wencit had been parked in the seat which was normally Houghton's, adjusted to let him sit as comfortably as possible in the cramped, flat-topped turret. Fortunately, Diego Santander had left his helmet aboard, which did two useful things. First, it let Wencit tie into the LAV's commo net. Secondly, it protected his skull from all of the many objects waiting to come into painful contact with it as Tough Mama bounced and swayed unpredictably across the grasslands.
Houghton wondered how much time Wencit had spent admiring the bevy of unclad and semi-clad young ladies whose pinups adorned the overhead, but he understood why the wizard had decided to stand back up, despite the outstanding attractions of the art gallery.
Long marches standing upright in the hatch might be both exhausting and painful, and it wasn't at all unheard-of for an LAV to roll. When that happened, a man had to be able to drop quickly down into the turret if he didn't want to get squashed like a bug, which made adjusting his seat so that he could sit looking out unwise. The driver, on the other hand, should be protected in a rollover, since the turret ought to hold the vehicle hull off the ground. That was why Wencit's seat was adjusted to let him sit with his head safely inside. But the wizard was just as tall as Houghton was, and the LAV had clearly been designed for people Mashitas size. Claustrophobia would have been bad enough, even without all of the interesting protrusions eager to leave their mark upon Tough Mamas passengers, but no doubt Wencit needed to stretch some of that length out.
"It's hard to say how much further," Wencit replied now, in answer to his question. "I still can't get a clear look through their glamour."
"Sounds like a lot of so-called 'intel' I've gotten handed over the years," Houghton snorted.
"I did tell you there were going to be problems," Wencit pointed out mildly, and Houghton surprised himself with a chuckle.
"Yeah, you did," he agreed, almost as if all of this made some sort of coherent sense after all.
Darkness had finished falling a good two hours ago. Mashita was steering by the aid of his night-vision gear, and Houghton had his own goggles down. Although NVG wasn't as big as an advantage as it once had been back home, since the other side had started acquiring the same sort of technology, the Corps had managed, by and large, to stay ahead of the curve. Here, though, no one had ever even heard of electronics, he thought, watching the gray-green universe moving steadily past as Tough Mama's wheels churned through the tall grass.
Of course, he thought sardonically, some people seem to be able to see just a little bit better than others.
"Tell me, Wencit," he said, "have you always been particularly fond of carrots?"
"What?" The bright spots of the wizard's peculiar eyes vanished for an instant as he blinked in obvious perplexity, and Houghton grinned. It was the first time he'd managed to throw the other man completely off balance with a simple question.
Then the brightness of Wencit's eyes reappeared, and Houghton's grin faded. His question might have gone right by the wizard, but it was obvious to him that Wencit, without any artificial aids at all, could see in the dark at least as well as he could.
And why shouldn't he? Nothing else that's happened so far makes any sense, does it?
"Never mind." He shook his head. "I know you said something about 'glamours' and 'scrying spells.' I even understand that glamours are like camouflage, or maybe what we might call stealth back home. And that scrying spells are the way you wizards get around the glamours. But I'm a simple jarhead from someplace where no one ever heard of magic that really works. I don't have a clue what you're talking about when you wander off into those detailed explanations of yours. So could you try and put it into very, very simple terms even I can understand? If you can get through their defenses well enough to know which direction to go, how can you not know how far to go?"
"The problem is that it's not just any old wizard on the other end of that glamour," Wencit replied after a moment. He turned to look ahead, and the diamond-bright pin pricks of his glowing eyes disappeared from Houghton's gray-green world.
"Glamours and scrying spells are like a wrestling match, in a lot of ways." He chuckled sourly. "You did say you wanted a simple analogy, and that's about as basic as it gets. Each wizard has a certain inherent strength, and each wizard knows a certain number of 'holds' to use against the other in something like this. Depending on how the match goes, you can tear certain bits and pieces of information away from the other fellow, but you can't always predict exactly which ones you'll get. And the better matched the 'wrestlers' are, the less predictable the outcome becomes."
He glanced back at Houghton, who nodded to show that he was still with him so far, at least.
"Well," Wencit continued, "as I already told you, I'm what people call a 'wild wizard.' That means I'm capable of much more powerful spells than most wizards can produce. And I've also been around a long, long time, so I've learned a great many 'holds' over the years. But there are limits in all things, Ken Houghton. And, unfortunately, there are some very powerful and well-trained 'wand wizards,' as well. Worse, wild wizards cant combine their sorcery with anyone elses, but wand wizards can. And it happens that there are at least three of those powerful wand wizards out there in front of us, two of whom are combining their efforts to maintain their glamour. Theyre very good, too. In fact, unless I'm very much mistaken, they arent Norfressan at all."
"What's 'Norfressan,' and why should it matter one way or the other?" Houghton asked.
"Norfressa is the continent we're currently driving across," Wencit said dryly. "Most of the people on it are descended from refugees who fled to it about twelve hundred years ago from another continent, called Kontovar."
He paused, and Houghton grimaced.
"Why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like finding out what caused them all to decide to relocate so abruptly?"
"Because of the fact that I called them 'refugees', perhaps?"
"That was probably it," Houghton agreed.
"Well, it was certainly the appropriate word," Wencit continued rather more grimly. "The short version of what happened is that there was a rebellion -- possibly it would be more accurate to call it a civil war -- which led to the fall of the Empire of Ottovar, the most powerful empire this world has ever known. The war began as a revolt against the authority of the Strictures of Ottovar, the fundamental law Ottovar and his wife Gwynytha had laid down to govern the use and misuse of sorcery at the time they created the empire. The rebels won."
For just a moment, Wencit's voice was like a shard of rusty ice, hammered flat and cold.
"The Council of Ottovar, the council of wizards charged with enforcing the Strictures, was destroyed along with the Empire. I was a member of that council. In fact, I was its last head. I know you've seen horrible things in the wars you've fought, but I very much doubt that you've ever seen the equal of the horrors the Council of Carnadosa, the black wizards, loosed upon the world in their arrogance and mad ambition. The demons they set free, the way they twisted and perverted their slaves and victims. The way they played with the Races of Man like vicious children with toys.
"I'm willing to believe that at least some of them didn't deliberately set out to give themselves to the pure service of evil. There's a hunger in any wizard. The art is like a fever, one that calls out to you. A wizard can't refuse that call, and for some of us any limitation, any restriction that prevents us from pursuing the full and free exercise of our art, is all but intolerable. Which was precisely the reason Ottovar and Gwynytha created the Strictures in the first place, to protect those who couldnt command sorcery from those who could. But once the Strictures were broken or rejected, the lure of unbridled power did what it always does. It drew them further and further from the Light, and as they sank deeper into the Dark, they embraced it like lovers."
He paused and drew a deep breath.
"We saved what we could. It wasn't a lot. And after we'd gotten out everyone we could, the last surviving members of the Council of Ottovar strafed Kontovar. We rained down death and destruction across an entire continent. We burned cities and entire realms, Gunnery Sergeant, killed every living creature for thousands of leagues in all directions from Trôfrôlantha, the ancient capital of Ottovar.
"We couldn't kill everything, of course, and the most powerful of their wizards were protected behind their own shields, their own wards. But we killed their lesser allies . . . and their armies, their slaves, their sorcerous creations. We killed the victims they would have used as their tools to conquer all of Norfressa, as well. It was the only thing we could do, the only way to prevent them from following us here, to Norfressa, to complete their victory, and the price of that devastation was high. The spells we created and invoked-- the spells I crafted -- cost the lives of almost every other member of the Council, but they worked. Oh, yes, they worked."
"Christ," Houghton muttered. He might not understand much about the bizarre universe in which he found himself, but however little he knew of this "Norfressa," he understood more than enough about men to grasp the bleeding anguish in the depths of Wencit's level, unflinching voice. These people might never have heard of nuclear weapons, but it didn't sound like they needed them, either. And, preposterous as it might be on the surface, he discovered that he didn't doubt for a moment that the man telling him the tale had seen the events he was describing with his own eyes -- that he was over twelve hundred years old.
"You did enough damage to keep them out of -- Norfressa? -- for over a thousand years?" he asked.
"Yes and no." Wencit's shoulders twitched. "It took them several hundred years to begin recovering to anything like their previous strength, that's true. And by the time they did, the Norfressan realms -- especially the Empire of the Axe -- had grown strong enough to deter any thought of an invasion over such an enormous distance. Or, at least, any thought of an invasion not supported by the full power of their sorcery."
"So since they don't seem to have invaded and conquered you in the meantime, I assume there's some reason they can't use sorcery against you?"
"I still control the spells that strafed Kontovar," Wencit said coldly. "Once opened and activated, they remain ready to my hand for as long as I live, and I remain the most powerful single wizard in the world. They know that if they were to attempt an outright invasion, I would use those spells again, if it was the only way to stop them."
Houghton swallowed hard at the iron-harsh certitude in Wencit's voice.
"But they also know I won't do so lightly," Wencit continued after a moment, his voice much closer to normal. "Whatever the ambitions of the Kontovaran lords, whatever crimes they might be prepared to commit, most of their slaves have no voice in their decisions or their actions. My fellows and I slew millions of those slaves once, because we had no choice, no other option, but in doing so, we dipped too near to the very thing we were fighting. The Strictures our enemies had violated prohibit the use of the art against non-wizards, or even against other wizards, except in direct self-defense or the defense of others, yet we killed more innocents in that single afternoon than any conqueror or tyrant in history. I . . . don't want so many deaths upon my soul again. If there were no other way to keep the perversions of the art, the horrors the Carnadosans the wizards who have given themselves to the service of Carnadosa, the patroness of black sorcery -- practice even today, from the shores of Norfressa, I would not hesitate. But neither would I unleash such devastation unless there were no other way."
"Sort of like the old Cold War back home," Houghton mused. Wencit turned his head again, cocking it questioningly, and it was Houghton's turn to shrug. "For about fifty or sixty years, there were two major power blocs in my world. Each of them had weapons with the capacity to completely destroy the other -- hell, to kill every single person in the world, for that matter! And because the leaders on both sides knew it, there was a standoff between them. The major nations on either side didn't dare to fight one another directly, for fear it would lead to the use of those weapons."
"That might, indeed, be an appropriate parallel," Wencit agreed. "Especially since I noticed that you said they dared not 'fight one another directly.'"
"I see where this is going," Houghton said unhappily. "What you're telling me is that somewhere up ahead of us are two or three of those 'Carnadosans' or 'Kontovarans' of yours. They aren't ready, or willing, at least, to go for some sort of decisive, open attack, but they're perfectly willing to nibble away at the edges, right?"
"Precisely." Wencit exhaled heavily. "Very few Norfressans are aware of it, but there's a constant, ongoing fight in the shadows. Most people don't want to know about it, really. They don't think about Kontovar at all, unless they have to. And whenever the fighting spills out of the shadows, they tend to think of it as something that's purely Norfressan, not something afflicting us from outside. They don't realize how continually Kontovar keeps probing at our defenses, keeps seeking ways to weaken us, or allies they can recruit to distract us, or to attack us from within. Their rulers are very careful to avoid anything so open, so clearcut -- so immediately threatening -- that I might loose the spells once more. But for almost a thousand years, I've been dealing with efforts to 'nibble away at the edges,' as you put it."
"Which is what's going on here," Houghton said.
"Yes. The one good thing about the Kontovarans is that their factions don't get along a great deal better than the Dark Gods themselves do. They hate us much more than they hate each other, but they're constantly jockeying for positions of advantage in their purely internal struggles, which means mutual suspicion and distrust often hamper their efforts. Unfortunately, sometimes their deities manage to pound a little cooperation into them."
"Wait," Houghton said. "Wait one minute. You mean there are gods -- real gods -- involved in this?"
"Of course there are." Wencit sounded puzzled. "That's not the case in your universe?"
"People in my universe have been killing each other in the name of God for thousands of years, Wencit," Houghton said slowly, "but He doesn't appear in person to approve their efforts. You asked about the war Jack and I are fighting back home? Well, a lot of it stems from a bunch of lunatics who're convinced that they know what God wants, and that anyone who disagrees with them is too vile to live. But their beliefs are based on their interpretation of scripture and teachings, not on the direct, recent revelation of God in any sort of personal appearance. In fact, a lot of people where I come from, no longer believe God even exists.
"I find that . . . difficult to envision," Wencit said slowly. "Oh, I've always known the forces of Light and Dark manifest differently in other universes. And, for that matter, that they don't intervene directly at all in some of them. But a universe in which people don't even believe they exist? Don't see their own responsibility to choose between them?"
"It's not quite that bad," Houghton replied a bit uncomfortably, almost defensively. "Even a lot of people who don't believe in any sort of gods believe in the difference between good and evil and human beings' responsibility to choose between them. It's just . . . different from what you're describing."
"It must be, indeed," Wencit agreed. Then he shook himself. "But, yes, in answer to your question, the gods do indeed involve themselves in our struggles. They can't confront one another directly, because -- like your cold war nations -- they're too powerful. A direct clash between them would very probably destroy this universe completely, so they act through their followers. Through their worshipers, and in the case of the Gods of Light, especially, through their champions. Like Bahzell."
"Your buddy -- the guy who's riding into the trap?"
"Yes. In fact, unless I'm very much mistaken, the primary motive for this entire endeavor is to destroy him and Walsharno. Mind you, I'm sure they have other objectives, as well, but they've been trying for years now to kill Bahzell."
"Why him in particular? And if they're so hot to kill him, what about you?"
"There are a great many reasons for them to want Bahzell dead. Most of them would be happy enough to kill him for simple revenge's sake, given how much damage he's done to their plans in the past. But they -- or, at least, their masters -- also know things about his future threat to their ultimate objectives. Things Bahzell himself, I'm sure, doesn't even suspect at this point. In fact, I'm fairly certain they'd like to see him dead almost as much as they'd like to see me that way. And, yes, they do make periodic attempts to kill me, too. On the whole, however," Houghton could literally hear the predatory smile in Wencit's voice, "they've discovered that such attempts are a losing proposition."
Houghton nodded slowly, thoughtfully. He was certain there was a great deal Wencit wasn't telling him. Or, perhaps, it would be fairer to say that there were a great many things Wencit had already told him which he simply lacked the background to understand. But one thing, at least, was crystal clear.
He's really serious about the direct intervention of gods. The good guys and the bad guys, and the differences between them, really are that clearcut. That . . . positive.
They'd been a time, before Gwynn's death, when it had been that clear for Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton. Not simple, or simplistic, but clear. When he'd known which was the side of Light, as Wencit put it, and which the side of Dark, and which side he stood upon. When he'd been able to give himself to the pure service of the things he believed in . . . and been able to believe he himself was still worthy of his convictions.
Where did it go? It wasn't just Gwynn. It wasn't just her that kept me knowing who I was, and why. But losing her, especially that way, so . . . meaninglessly . . . .
He remembered how furious he'd been with the universe, with God Himself, for taking away his Gwynn. His life. And as he tasted once again the cold, drawn ashes of that anger, he recognized the truth at last.
It wasn't the meaninglessness of Gwynn's death which had destroyed his certitude. It was his anger. He'd been so angry that he'd turned away from the things in which both he and Gwynn had believed. If God was going to take her from him, then he would strike back in the only way he could. He would turn away from the Light, like some petulant child, never realizing -- or caring -- that in the process he hurt himself so much more than he ever hurt the Light he blamed for failing Gwynn.
No, he thought bleakly. Not for failing Gwynn; for failing me by taking her away. For leaving me to deal with the pain of the hole her death tore right through me.
For the first time in two and a half years, he faced the truth of the decision he'd made. He'd never turned to the Dark, however much he'd turned away from the Light, but he'd exiled himself to the cold, gray wasteland between them. He'd convinced himself that the difference between them was one of degree, not of kind, and he'd clasped the cold bitterness of a struggle against shadows to him. He'd been one of those shadows himself, no longer fighting evil out of conviction, but only out of habit. Only out of momentum, and a dull burn of shame went through him as he finally recognized the choice he'd made. He hadn't even realized at the time that he was making a choice, but he should have.
Just as he should have realized how ashamed of him Gwynn would have been.
"Well, Wencit," he heard himself saying now, in a voice he scarcely recognized, "if these Dark Gods of yours are so eager to knock off your friend Bahzell, what say we go argue the point with them?"
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