XVIII

“I’m thinking its past time Ken and Jack were going home, Wencit,” Bahzell rumbled.

He and the wizard stood with Houghton, fifty yards from Tough Mama, as the rising sun poured golden light over the churned and broken ruins of what had once been a large hill. Much of that hill had tumbled down into the streambed at its foot, and a large pond or modest lake was already backing up behind it. The liberated captives-over sixty children, and eleven surviving adults-sat on the wet, rain-washed grass above that slowly broadening sheet of water, staring up at the blue sky and sunlight they had never expected to see again.

Bahzell and Walsharno had healed the hurt among them, and the cleansing power of Toman?k had blunted the worst of the memories, taken away the most horrifying of the nightmares.

Trayn Aldarfro sat with them. The mage’s face was worn, his eyes filled with shadows, yet a deep, indescribable sense of peace enfolded him.

Mashita and Walsharno were much closer to the LAV. The corporal had his digital camera out, busily snapping pictures of the wreckage, the damaged LAV, and-especially!-the spectacularly deceased demons spread out across the landscape. Walsharno, who continued to find the Montanan’s facinated horseman’s admiration highly amusing, posed obligingly amid the demons, with one massive forehoof planted triumphantly atop a shattered, horned skull and his own head tossed high in noble victory.

Houghton didn’t really want to think about how the intelligence pukes were going to react to Jack’s little photo album.

“I suppose it is time I started figuring out exactly how to get them there,” Wencit conceded after a moment, in answer to Bahzell’s question, and smiled at the gunnery sergeant. “I’ve been just a bit busy, you know.”

“Excuses, excuses,” Houghton replied with an answering smile. Then he looked at his battered LAV and shook his head. “On the other hand, I’m not entirely positive sending us home is the best option. When Lieutenant Alvarez sees this-!”

“Well, as to that,” Bahzell said slowly, looking at the faint blue glow, visible only to a champion of Toman?k, which clung to Houghton even now, “I’m thinking as how we could be finding a place for you here, Sword Brother.” Houghton looked up, eyes widening slightly at Bahzell’s form of address, and the hradani smiled gravely at him. “We’d not have stopped that demon without you. That makes you one of our own . . . and a man’s never after having enough sword brothers to watch his back.”

“I-” Houghton paused and cleared his throat. “I’m honored by the offer,” he said then, forcing himself to set aside the habitual armor of levity and match Bahzell’s willingness to speak the truth of his feelings. “Deeply honored . . . Sword Brother. But I have obligations, oaths I’ve sworn to my own universe and my own country.”

“No doubt you have,” Bahzell agreed. “Still and all, a man’s the right to make the choices his actions have earned. I’m thinking you and Jack both fall into that category.”

“It’s tempting,” Houghton said frankly. “Very tempting. In fact-“

The Marine broke off, eyes widening, as someone else stepped out of infinity into the now.

Kenneth Houghton had never before seen Toman?k Orfro, God of War and Judge of Princes, but he recognized him instantly. The deity stood before them, half again Bahzell’s height, brown eyes and hair gleaming in the morning light. The crossed mace and sword of his order glittered on the breast of his simple green surcoat, and an enormous sword was sheathed across his back. The power of his presence reached out like a fist, yet there was no threat in it, no arrogance, and he smiled.

“I did warn you and Walsharno you’d find brothers in strange places, didn’t I, Bahzell?”

Houghton hadn’t believed it was possible for a voice to be even deeper and more resonant than Bahzell’s, but Toman?k’s managed it easily.

“Aye, so you did,” Bahzell agreed, turning to face his deity. “And I’m thinking as how I’d just as soon be keeping him.”

“I know.” Toman?k looked down at Houghton, and the glow around the Marine strengthened. But then the god shook his head. “I know,” he repeated, “and I’d be most pleased to see Gunnery Sergeant Houghton numbered among my blades. But this isn’t his place, Bahzell.”

Bahzell started to open his mouth, then closed it firmly, and Toman?k chuckled. The sound ran through the morning like music, and two or three of the children by the water laughed out loud.

“There are times, Bahzell,” Toman?k said. “Oh, there are times. But I see that even your stubbornness has limits.”

“I’d not be saying that,” Bahzell replied. “If it’s ‘stubborn’ you’re wanting, then I’ve all of that you might need. But I’m thinking there’s more than you’ve said.”

“Because there is,” Toman?k agreed. “And not just the oaths he’s already mentioned, the obligations any man of honor must meet if he’s to be true to himself. That would be reason enough, but there’s a stronger and far more important reason, as well.”

He turned his attention back to Houghton and shook his head.

“I know what you’re thinking, Kenneth Houghton,” he rumbled. “And you’re wrong.”

“Wrong?” Houghton repeated, and Toman?k nodded.

“You’re thinking that what’s happened to you over the last day or so has been your salvation. That you’ve rediscovered the difference between good and evil-the reason it’s necessary to choose between them. And you’re afraid that if you return to your own time, your own place, without your Gwynn, without such clear-cut choices, you’ll lose that certainty.”

Houghton’s eyes winced at the mention of his dead wife, but he continued to meet Toman?k’s gaze levelly, and the war god nodded.

“I know what you fear, and why,” he said gently. “Your universe is very different from this one. It’s not mine, any more than this one is yours, but I know it. And as you’ve visited this one, I’ve visited yours. As I’ve explained to Bahzell, all universes are one, in one sense, even while each of them is unique. And just as Bahzell and Walsharno exist in dozens, or scores, or even hundreds and thousands of other universes, so do you. In some of them, you know Bahzell and Walsharno well. In others, you’ve never met . . . and never will. But in every universe in which you live, you, like them, have decisions to make. And, like them, you make them well.”

“But-“

“I didn’t say you always feel certain about your decisions,” Toman?k cut him off gently. “I said only that you choose well. You’ve questioned and doubted your choices in your own world. Indeed, you’ve blamed yourself for failing to choose at all. But the truth is that you’ve always chosen, and the choices you’ve made have been worthy of the man Gwynn Houghton loved. The man she still loves.”

Houghton’s eyes burned, and a huge hand rested gently on his shoulder for a moment.

“Your universe is not mine, Kenneth Houghton, but a part of you always will be. Bahzell can tell you that I know my own, and I know you. In another universe, even I may be someone else, yet still I will know you for my own whenever we meet, wherever we meet. And I will claim you as my own, proudly. But now, I must send you home. You have things to do there still, and people who depend upon you. So go home, Kenneth Houghton. Go home, remembering all that happened here, and remembering this promise: someday you will meet Bahzell again, and your Gwynn will be with you when you do.”

Houghton nodded, unable to speak, then blinked rapidly as Bahzell clasped his forearm. He looked up at the hradani, and Bahzell swept him into a sudden, crushing embrace.

“It’s just as well, I’ve no doubt, that you and Brandark never meet, little man,” the hradani rumbled. “One of you per universe is enough and more than enough, I’m thinking.”

“I’ll miss you-you and Wencit both,” Houghton said, and knew it was true. “It’s been a hell of a ride.”

“That it has,” Wencit agreed. “I’ll try not to catch you up in any more misdirected spells, though.”

“Probably just as well,” Houghton said, regarding Tough Mama’s damages. “The repair bill this time around is going to be enough of a bitch. And I don’t even want to think about the paperwork when I start trying to explain!”

“Some things not even a god can protect you from,” Toman?k rumbled. “Still, the least I can do is see to getting you home again without making Wencit sort through all the possible universes first. Assuming, of course, that he’d get it right this time.”

“Thank you,” Wencit said mildly, and Toman?k chuckled again.

Mashita had finally put away his camera . . . after snapping several shots of Toman?k for his collection, of course. Now he walked across to join the others, and Bahzell turned to clasp his forearm, as well. The younger Marine started to say something, then stopped and simply shrugged. Bahzell nodded back, and Mashita gave Wencit a nod of his own, then trudged back to cimb up onto Tough Mama’s scorched and seared deck.

Houghton followed him, climbing back into the commander’s hatch and taking one last look around, engraving every detail on his memory. Then he drew a deep breath and looked across at Toman?k.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

* * *

Lieutenant Jefferson Enrique Alvarez walked moodily across the vehicle park.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep. Company and Battalion had both been less than amused by his report that someone had apparently decided to beam one of his LAVs up to the mother ship, and he wished he could blame them. Unfortunately, he couldn’t. He couldn’t even blame them for their obvious doubts about his own contact with reality. If he hadn’t had over two dozen witnesses who all agreed with one another on the essentials, he wouldn’t have believed it, either. Fourteen-ton armored vehicles didn’t simply up and disappear in flashes of blue light. They especially didn’t simply up and disappear taking his senior noncom with them.

Alvarez’s jaw tightened as he admitted the truth to himself. No one liked losing men and equipment, even when he knew what the hell had happened to them, but losing Houghton-that was what really hurt. The Gunny had been the Platoon’s true heart and soul. Alvarez might have commanded it; Gunny Houghton had run it. And he’d even managed, along the way, to keep one Lieutenant Jefferson Enrique Alvarez from fucking up.

But he wasn’t going to be doing that any-

WHUMPF!

Alvarez stopped dead as an LAV materialized suddenly. It simply blinked into existence, twenty feet in front of him, and a fist of displaced air hit him briskly in the face. A ring of dust blew outward around it, and Alvarez heard a chorus of startled shouts rising from behind him.

The lieutenant stood there, staring at Tough Mama. She was missing one wheel entirely. Her right front wheel well was badly damaged-it looked for all the world as if something with claws had ripped it apart. The upper deck was pitted, burned and singed- looking, the paint badly blistered where it hadn’t been scorched completely away. And there were what looked like more claw marks on the front of the turret, as well.

But she was here.

The commander’s hatch opened, and a familiar helmeted head poked up out of it. Alvarez’s heart leapt with a tremendous sense of relief as he recognized it, but he was a Marine. And so, he folded his arms and glared up at the man standing in that hatch.

“And just where the hell have you been, Gunny?” he barked. “Do you have any idea how much goddamned paperwork I’ve already had to do about this? And look at this vehicle! Just look at it! How the hell are we going to explain this-” he unfolded one arm to wave at the battered LAV “-to Maintenance?! What the hell did you do to my perfectly good LAV?!”

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the growing chorus of distant shouts behind them, and Alvarez refolded his arms, tapping one toe in the dust while he waited. And then-

“Well, LT,” Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton said, “it’s like this . . . .”

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