XI

“Angle to the right, Jack,” Ken Houghton suggested as the LAV shoved its way through the tangled underbrush. “The slope’s more gradual. Looks like there’s probably a runoff channel from that range of hills. See the big boulder at about two o’clock?”

“Yeah. For what it’s worth,” Mashita grunted.

“It’s at the left edge of the channel. See?”

“Oh, I see it all right, Boss. I just don’t know if I can get this bitch up it!”

“Well, that’s where Wencit says we need to go, and I know you always perform best under pressure,” Houghton said encouragingly.

“Gee, thanks! Why not just hold a gun to my head and be done with it?”

Houghton chuckled, yet the truth was that Jack had a point. There were many things Gunnery Sergeant Houghton loved about the LAV-25, but for all that, Tough Mama had her drawbacks. For one thing, no wheeled vehicle could turn as sharply as a fully tracked one, like the Army’s Bradley. A Brad could literally pivot in place, turning through three-hundred-sixty degrees in its own length, while any wheeled vehicle had to continue to move forward through its turning circle. For another thing, although he didn’t expect that to be a factor under current circumstances, a LAV’s wheel wells couldn’t be as well armored as the rest of the vehicle, which made them vulnerable targets for hostile fire. But what had Mashita worried at the moment-and Houghton as well, whether he wanted to admit it or not-was that the LAV’s higher center of gravity simply made it less stable. Which, given the nature of the terrain through which Mashita had been picking his way for the last forty-five minutes or so, wasn’t exactly an academic consideration.

“Do we really have to go up there, Wencit?” he asked quietly-or, at least, as quietly as the noise of Tough Mama’s passage allowed.

“Yes, and as quickly as we can.” For the first time, the wild wizard actually sounded tense, almost brusque, and Houghton felt his own nerves tighten in response.

“Quickly and sneakily don’t exactly go together very well,” he pointed out. Then he snorted in amusement at his own words. A LAV was far quieter than a tracked vehicle. That, unfortunately, was much the same as saying that a chainsaw was quieter than a thunderstorm. Both statements were factually correct, but that didn’t exactly make the chainsaw hard to hear when someone decided to cut down a three-foot oak in your front yard on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

“At the moment speed is more important than sneakiness,” Wencit replied. “Besides,” he looked back at Houghton, and despite his tension, there was more than a hint of a smile in his voice, “you might be surprised at just how quiet your vehicle is being at the moment.”

Quiet?” Houghton couldn’t keep the skepticism out of his own voice, and Wencit chuckled.

“Remember what I said about glamours, Gunnery Sergeant Houghton. They don’t work just against spells, you know.”

Houghton turned to look at him for several seconds while Mashita threw Tough Mama into full eight-wheel drive and began-noisily-working his way up the drainage chute Houghton had spotted for him. Then the Marine laughed out loud.

“Wencit, if you can make this thing ‘quiet,’ then I really am ready to believe in magic!”

“That’s good, Gunnery Sergeant. Because unless I miss my guess, you’re about to see quite a lot of it. In fact, I’d suggest that you get your main weapon ready. We’re going to need it shortly.”

Houghton’s eyes sharpened and his nostrils flared. Then he grunted to himself.

“Get your ass buttoned up, Jack!” he said over the commo link. “Wencit says we’re about to run into the bad guys.”

Damn it! Why does this always happen in the middle of terrain like fucking this?!”

Mashita’s intense frustration was obvious. Not surprisingly, given how limited a LAV’s driver’s buttoned-up field of view was. But he dropped his seat down and slammed his overhead hatch, sealing himself in his small compartment beside the thundering diesel Wencit had just assured Houghton no one else could hear. Wencit, on the other hand, stayed where he was, peering into the dark with those glowing eyes.

“Time to get your head down, Wencit,” Houghton said sharply.

“I’m afraid not,” the wizard replied. “Believe me,” he continued before Houghton could explain that Tough Mama was neither a democracy nor a debating society, “nothing would please me more than to do just that. Unfortunately, I not only need to see what’s going on; I may also need to be able to cast spells, and I can’t do that with your vehicle’s armor between me and the spell’s object.”

Houghton had opened his mouth. Now he closed it with a snap. He didn’t like it one little bit, and a part of him wondered if Wencit wasn’t . . . shading the truth just a bit in order to keep his head up. But Wencit was the wizard around here, and Houghton had no choice but to accept that the old man knew what he was talking about.

Houghton, on the other hand, had no choice. He stripped off his NVG goggles and dropped down into the gunner’s seat, with the big twenty-five-millimeter cannon and coax machine gun at his left elbow. Both weapons were in Condition One, and had been for hours. High explosive had been selected for the Bushmaster, the ghost round had been cycled into the chamber, the manual safety was set on “FIRE,” and only the electric safety was engaged. The machine gun’s cover assembly was closed, the bolt was to the rear, and-like the cannon-the manual safety was on “FIRE” and the electric safety was engaged. Now he configured the DIM-36TH sight to thermal mode and started scanning for targets.

He’d just settled into position when he heard Wencit’s voice over his earphones.

“To your right, Gunnery Sergeant! To your right!

Houghton squeezed the gunner’s joystick and sent the turret tracking smoothly to the right just as Tough Mama topped out on a flat bench about half way up the current hillside. For a few moments he saw very little. Then that changed abruptly, and his eyes widened in sheer, stunned disbelief.

Despite all that had happened to him in the last ten or twelve hours, nothing could have prepared him for this. With the sight in thermal mode, targets were often easier to pick out of concealment, but details were usually difficult to make out. Not this time. This nightmare creature’s body stood out as brightly and clearly as any thermal signature Houghton had ever seen. Its body temperature must have been almost as high as Tough Mama’s engine block, yet that scarcely even registered beside its impossible size and the obscene fusion of wings, claws, pincers, mandibles, and horns. The thing had to be at least forty or fifty feet long, with a squat, armored body suspended from spiderlike legs that arched a good ten feet above its back. Bat-wings-two pairs of them, not just one-beat at the night as its serpentine head darted forward, striking at its intended prey.

It took a stunned, detached corner of his mind a moment or two to realize just how big the mounted man and horse in front of the monster actually were. Compared to their horrifying opponent, they looked like pygmies, yet that detached corner realized that the horse was bigger than any Clydesdale or Percheron he’d ever seen.

Not that it should have mattered in the least. Huge as the horse might be, the monster’s head alone must have been better than half its size.

The cavalryman and his horse were both wrapped in some sort of heat-shimmering cocoon. It obviously wasn’t as ferociously hot as the creature they faced, yet in some odd way, it was actually brighter. Or clearer. More . . . concentrated, perhaps. Houghton’s spinning thoughts bounced off the surface of whatever concept they were trying to form, and then he realized the man on that horse’s back was armed with an honest-to-God sword. The biggest damned sword Houghton had ever imagined, and one that glared with its own savage corona, but still only a sword.

Who the fuck does he think he is? Saint George?

The thought flicked through the Marine’s brain between one heartbeat and the next, and then the lunatic charged.

Houghton’s jaw dropped as that glittering sword lashed out at the mounted man’s stupendous foe. The sudden eruption of light and power as it slammed into the monster’s wing almost blanked the thermal image completely. The glaring steel sheared through the creature’s unnatural flesh like an axe, lopping off the wing’s innermost knuckle, and then the huge horse pivoted on its forefeet with preposterous precision and lashed out with its rear hooves.

The monster staggered, almost falling, then whipped around to face its puny opponents with a squall of rage, pain, and fury that half-deafened Houghton inside Tough Mama’s turret.

As that unearthly, terrifying sound went through him, the Marine shook his head, like a prizefighter who’d taken one too many punches to the chin, and a sudden bolt of anger ripped through him. Anger directed at himself, at his own inaction. The sheer, appalling impossibility of what he was seeing had frozen him, turned him into a spectator, and his lips drew back from his teeth as he twisted the joystick and slewed Tough Mama’s cannon towards the monster . . . just in time to find the cavalryman directly between him and it.

“Driver, halt!” he barked. “Target, three o’clock!”

Technically, he should have identified what the target was, as well. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the least damned idea what to call the thing.

Holy shit!” Mashita had obviously caught at least a glimpse of what Houghton was seeing through his own night vision viewer. His reaction to it wasn’t exactly out of the training manual, but he responded instantly to Houghton’s command, and the LAV stopped. Unlike the Bradley, the LAV’s cannon wasn’t stabilized to permit it to be accurately fired on the move, and Houghton’s sight picture steadied as Tough Mama stopped moving. The range was under two hundred meters, perfect for a battlesight engagement. In fact, there was no way Houghton could possibly miss a target that size from this close.

Now if the idiot on the horse would only get out of the-

Houghton’s belly twisted with sudden nausea. It was almost like the sensation he’d experienced when Wencit snatched the LAV into this preposterous universe, yet it was different, as well. With Wencit’s spell, there’d been that sense of falling even as Tough Mama had been motionless underfoot. This time, nothing around Houghton seemed to be moving, and yet it was as if two powerful hands had gripped his stomach and twisted in opposite directions. It was in enormous sense of wrongness, and then, impossibly (although his punch-drunk brain was getting rather tired of that particular label), a huge sinkhole appeared, with absolutely no warning, and a second monster swarmed up out of it . . . directly behind the mounted man.

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