VIII

“Things are getting complicated,” Wencit murmured.

Ken Houghton heard the wizard over his earphones and glanced at him. Wencit was gazing off into the darkness in the direction of the brilliant blue lightning flash which had split the night. Gauging distances in the dark was always difficult, but the flash had to have been considerably farther off than it had looked. Houghton hadn’t heard even the faintest rumble, and any lightning bolt that brilliant must have been accompanied by the mother of all thunderclaps.

He waited for Wencit to say something more, but the wizard only frowned thoughtfully as long, slow seconds trickled past.

“I beg your pardon?” Houghton said finally, and wanted to laugh at his own astonishingly banal turn of phrase.

“Um?” Wencit turned towards him, wildfire eyes thinning down into bright slits.

“You said things are getting complicated.” Houghton chuckled with harsh irony. “Given the way Jack and I got here in the first place, and all of the certifiably insane things you’ve had to say since we did, ‘getting complicated’ isn’t exactly a phrase I’m delighted to be hearing.”

“I can see how you might feel that way,” Wencit conceded with a chuckle of his own. “And I really didn’t mean to sound mysterious. It’s just that I’ve been continuing that wrestling match I mentioned to you earlier, and I think their glamour’s sprung a slight leak. Unless, of course, they wanted to let me have a peek inside.”

“And why might they have wanted anything like that?”

“I couldn’t really say . . . yet.” Wencit shrugged. “It’s rather like a game of chess, I suppose. Or perhaps the sort of misdirection in which a stage conjurer specializes. You show the other fellow what you hope he’ll see in order to keep him from noticing the knuckleduster coming at him from an entirely different direction.” He snorted. “As a matter of fact, I’ve done it myself, on occasion.”

“Somehow I fail to find that particularly reassuring,” Houghton said dryly while Tough Mama continued to snort along. The JP-8 in the LAV’s fuel tanks had fallen to about the halfway point, and Houghton hoped they weren’t going to end up running them dry before they got wherever the hell they were supposed to be going.

“Did that ‘peek’ of yours tell you how much farther we’ve got to go?” he asked.

“No,” Wencit said. “But that-” he waved one-handed in the direction of the silent lightning bolt “- tells me quite a bit.”

“How?”

“That flash was Bahzell,” Wencit said simply.

“So he’s a lightning rod, is he?”

“As a matter of fact,” Wencit actually laughed out loud, “that’s a remarkably good description of Bahzell Bahnakson, in a great many ways. But the lightning didn’t strike him, Gunnery Sergeant. It came from him. Well, from him and Walsharno.”

“Sure it did.” Houghton decided he should have sounded rather more skeptical than he actually did.

“They can be a bit flamboyant,” Wencit said. “Mind you, Bahzell is a Horse Stealer, too. He knows the value of creeping about in the bushes, and he’s quite good at it, when he puts his mind to it. But he must have decided the ‘bad guys,’ as you call them, already know he’s in the vicinity. You might say that was his way of warning them that he knows they are, as well.”

“And he thinks sending up flares to tell the other side he’s coming is a good idea because -?”

“I could say it’s because he’s a champion of Toman?k. Or because he’s a hradani. Both of those statements are true, and either one would be more than enough to explain it. But I imagine the simple truth is that he and Walsharno are angry, Gunnery Sergeant. And, believe me, you really don’t want to be the person who makes those two angry.”

“But if you’re already concerned about the odds, doesn’t that mean . . . ?”

Houghton let his voice trail off. There was no need to finish the question, after all.

“Very few champions of Toman?k die in bed.” There was little humor left in Wencit’s quiet reply. “Bahzell is capable of remarkable subtlety, despite the slow-talking barbarian persona he’s fond of presenting to the unwary, but at the heart of him, where all the things that made him a champion in the first place come together, he doesn’t let the odds dictate his actions.”

“Great,” Houghton grunted in a long-suffering tone. “I end up in an entirely different universe, and I’m still dealing with John Waynes.”

“‘John Waynes’?” Wencit repeated.

“Idiots who have trouble separating movies-stories-from reality and think they’re immortal and bulletproof because they’re the heroes of the piece. Or the kind who still think people win wars by dying for their countries, instead of encouraging the other guy to die for his country. Or, even worse, who just don’t care what happens to them-or anyone else-as long as they’re dying for ‘the cause.’ Whatever the hell ‘the cause’ happens to be this week. Trust me, I’ve seen more than enough of that kind of fanatic to last me two or three lifetimes, Wencit!”

“Bahzell Bahnakson is as far from a fanatic as any man you’re ever going to meet,” Wencit said sternly. “And he doesn’t think for a moment that he’s ‘immortal’ or invincible. In fact, I’m fairly certain he fully expects to die one day in the service of his god. Not because he ‘doesn’t care’ or because he’s eager to die, or because he thinks there’s anything particularly glorious about it. He expects to die, Gunnery Sergeant, because he’s constitutionally incapable of standing aside and letting the Dark triumph. Because he recognizes that all men die, but that some of them get to choose to do it standing on their own two feet, with a sword in their hands, standing between the Dark and its victims.”

Houghton started to throw something back at the wizard. Something flippant. The sort of witticism he and his peers regularly used to deflate pretension and guard against any belief in such antiquated and dangerous concepts as “heroism” or “honor.” But the flippancy died unspoken, because in that moment he realized those concepts weren’t antiquated, after all. That they lingered at the very core of the code to which he and those peers continued to adhere, however unwilling they were to admit it to anyone else . . . or even to themselves.

No one knew better than Kenneth Houghton just how ugly, savage, and vile war truly was. How voracious its appetite was, how appallingly it chewed up and crushed the innocent, as well as the guilty. How little of “glory” there was to its reality. Indeed, it was that ugliness and savagery which had sent Houghton into uniform in the first place. The belief – naive, perhaps, yet no less real for that-that he could make a difference, protect the things in which he believed, the people who could not protect themselves. The belief that there truly were things worth dying for, however much a man might want to live.

And be honest, Ken, he told himself. There was a reasonyou chose the Corps. “The few. The proud. The Marines.”You wanted to be a part of that. To be known not just as a soldier, but as a warrior. As someone who’d chosen to make that commitment, to be one of the best in the service of what you believed in. So, are you really so different from this Bahzell of Wencit’s?

“What can you tell me about the odds he’s facing now?” he said instead. “Do you have any better fix on that than you did have?”

“I imagine he’s starting to suspect there’s more going on here than the surface might indicate,” Wencit replied. “What he may not have realized is that he’s up against at least two separate Dark Gods’ servants. By now, I’m sure he’s figured out that what he’s actually been following are servants of Sharn?, which means he’s expecting assassins and demons. But he probably hasn’t realized that the raiders he’s pursuing are working in concert with the wizards they’re about to meet up with. Or, for that matter, that it’s almost as important to the Dark to kill the mage those wizards have captured as it is to kill him and Walsharno.”

“Wait a minute. ‘Mage’? You mean another wizard?”

“No, not a wizard at all. A mage’s powers are those of the mind, and they come solely from within. They aren’t like the art, at all.”

“Then what makes him so damned important?” Houghton knew he sounded exasperated, and didn’t especially care. “Just how many people are these ‘Dark Gods’ of yours gunning for out here, anyway, Wencit? I mean, is there anyone in Norfressa who’s not on their ‘Needs Killing’ list?”

“I don’t suppose anyone could blame you for wondering about that, under the circumstances,” Wencit said wryly. “The problem is that a great many currents, plans, and possibilities are beginning to come together. It’s not quite time yet, but both sides-the Dark and the Light-know the Fall of Kontovar, however cataclysmic it may have been, actually decided nothing. It gives the Dark the advantage at present, but the true battle has yet to be settled. For that matter, it has yet to be fully joined, and the Dark Gods are doing all they can to eliminate the people most critical to theLight’s chances of final victory. Bahzell is one of those people. Which is one of the reasons I’ve been so bent on keeping him alive. Mind you, I’ve got personal motives of my own, especially now, but those weren’t what brought him to my attention in the first place.”

The wizard shook his head, then snorted.

“Actually, in a peculiar sort of way, Bahzell acts as a sort of . . . focusing lens. You can almost use him like some living compass or dowsing rod. The Dark can’t seem to stop trying to pick him off, despite how . . . costly the process keeps turning out to be. And along the way, their servants keep adding other people to the list as they become aware of those others’ importance to the future events swirling about him. Which tends to identify those same peoplefor me if I haven’t already noticed them on my own.”

“In all the stories about this kind of stuff back home, wizards and gods can see the future,” Houghton said.

“It doesn’t work quite that way.” Wencit shook his head. “Seeing thefuture-in any sort of useful detail, at any rate-is almost impossible, even for a wild wizard. Most wizards can see the past, and there are stories about wizards who could actually travel into the past, although it’s always seemed to me that only a lunatic or an extraordinarily desperate man would try to do it. It’s . . . complicated. For one thing, no one can travel into his own past, the past of his own universe. He can only travel into the past of another universe, and if he does, he can change things there. Most often in completely unpredictable ways.

“The same sort of problems apply to seeing the future, if not in quite the same way,” the wizard continued, obviously warming to his topic. “Even if you can do it, then you’re like the dragons. You don’t see one future; you see all possible futures, or as many of them as a mortal is capable of seeing, at least. That’s one reason conversations with dragons can seem so . . . peculiar. Gods can see all possible futures, but not even they can tell ahead of time which particular future will transpire in which particular universe. And, just to make things even more interesting, the Dark Gods and the Gods of Light spend quite a bit of their time trying to confuse their respective opponents as to which of the various futures they can see are most likely to occur.

“Now, the precognitive mage talent doesn’t work quite that way, which is one reason wizards find it so fascinating. Apparently, the way it works is-“

“Stop,” Houghton said plaintively. “You’re making my brain hurt. What you’re telling me is that no one really knows what’s going to happen, only what they think is most likely going to happen, right?”

“More or less,” Wencit agreed. “As the occupants of any particular universe get closer and closer to an event, though, the possibilities for the particular outcome they’re going to experience in their universe begin to narrow down into probabilities. That’s the point the predictors on either side look for-the point at which they can begin to accurately identify the most critical players.”

“Like this ‘mage’ of yours, I suppose,” Houghton said, nodding his head slowly. “But if he’s so damned important and they’ve already got their hands on him, why don’t they simply go ahead and slit his throat right now?”

“Arrogance, mostly.” Wencit shrugged. “Distrust probably comes into it, as well, and self-interest is definitely a factor. In fact, to be honest, self-interest’s probably an even bigger factor than arrogance, really. I told you the Dark Gods don’t get along with each other a great deal better than they get along with the Gods of Light. None of them quite trusts the others, and all of them-and their servants-are constantly scheming to make sure they don’t inadvertently improve one of their rivals’ positions more than their own.

“At the moment, I suspect, the Carnadosans’ are holding out for a mage to study as their price for cooperating with Sharn?’s church in the first place. They don’t understand the mage powers at all-there are no magi in Kontovar; they exist only in Norfressa-and the Council of Semkirk, which consists of magi specifically pledged to fight black sorcery, is one of their major potential stumbling blocks. So, I’m sure they find the notion of studying Trayn-Trayn Aldarfro, the mage they’ve captured-particularly amusing. After all, why not get as much additional benefit as possible out of eliminating someone important to Bahzell’s future? I’m sure they’ll be perfectly willing to simply go ahead and kill him in order to keep him from being rescued, but they’d really prefer to use him as their . . . specimen. If he might otherwise have played a significant role in their defeat, then they’ll take a particularly vengeful pleasure in destroying him-as painfully and slowly as possible-in the course of learning how best to combat all magi.”

Houghton nodded slowly. He’d never met any of the followers of the Dark Wencit was describing-not the ones from this universe, at any rate-but he was bitterly familiar with the same mindset. He’d seen it often enough.

“So what we basically have here,” he said, voicing his thoughts in the process of organizing them, “is two theoretically allied factions who actually hate each others’ guts. They have common enemies they both want to beat, but they’re simultaneously trying to protect and strengthen their own power bases for the dogfight between all the various factions on their own side after they’ve kicked the snot out of the other side. Which means that while they’re willing to cooperate, more or less, in this little operation, each of them has its own price, and the ‘Carnadosans’ price is this Aldarfro as their guinea pig. Their experimental animal, I mean.”

“Exactly.”

“And the other faction? This ‘Sharn?’ you keep talking about. What’s his side’s special price?”

“Oh, Sharn?’s price is Bahzell himself,” Wencit said softly. “None of the Dark Gods like what may happen if Bahzell lives, but Sharn? likes it even less than his relatives do. Part of it’s going to be much more . . . personally painful for him. In fact, there’s probably only one person in all of Norfressa Sharn? would rather see dead than Bahzell.”

“And would that person happen to be you?”

“Actually, no. I’m probably no higher than third, possibly even fourth, on Sharn?’s list. His attention’s on some rather younger people. And as much as he and his friends and family-well, family, at any rate; I don’t really think Sharn? has any friends-would love to see me killed, I’m not one of the main attractions for this particular ‘little operation,’ as you put it.”

“But on the other hand,” Houghton said, gazing at the wizard shrewdly through his NVG, “here you are, walking straight into it. And from what you’re saying, you’ve been doing that sort of thing for quite some time. Which, given as how you’re talking about gods pulling strings on the other side, suggests to my naturally suspicious mind that they’ve probably made at least some allowance in their plans for dealing with you.”

“No doubt they have,” Wencit conceded with what Houghton privately thought was rather appalling cheerfulness. Or perhaps it only seemed that way because of his own proximity to Wencit and whatever the other side might have planned for him, the Marine admitted to himself.

“No doubt they have,” Wencit repeated. “On the other hand, none of the gods-Light or Dark-can act too openly in the mortal world. As I pointed out earlier, if they started having direct confrontations with one another, they’d probably destroy this entire universe, which would rather tend to make their entire struggle over who it belongs to ultimately pointless. That particular restriction is one of the reasons Bahzell-and I-keep so stubbornly and persistently surviving.”

“I see. And might I hope that you intend to do some more of that stubborn surviving this time?”

“Oh, indeed I do,” Wencit said softly, his smile broad and somehow almost gentle. “Indeed, I do, Gunnery Sergeant. I’ve got far too many things still to do . . . and too many people still to meet. Dying would be much too inconvenient.”

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