Chapter Seven

 

Tank, Bullets and a Trap

 

All three travelers could hear the high pitched whine of the rift a good five miles before they came near it, and brought their mounts up short, Stockholm taking his bestial form to deaden some of his hypersensitive nerves.  He tore a small piece of cloth from a rag in his bag, and stuffed the material in his wide, triangular ears, blotting out some of the noise, though not enough to be merciful.

 

“Why is it so loud,” Timothy called down from his horse, his own hands clasped over his angular ears.  “The other one made almost no noise at all!”

 

“Is it possible that something else is coming through,” Hina called over the high whine of the rift.  The noise sounded to her like a judge’s whistle being amplified by a malfunctioning bullhorn, one that has taken it into its inanimate mind to play a cruel trick by hyping the pitch of the whistle blown into its small end.

 

“That much is indeed a possibility,” Stockholm shouted over the din, trying to make himself heard and understood by the mages astride their mounts.  The horses themselves bucked and whinnied at the sound, shaking their heads and rearing up now and again, forcing Hina and Timothy to take up their reigns or grab their saddle-horns for fear of being thrown.

 

After enduring this sudden upswing in the rift’s noise level for a solid half an hour, the trio found themselves equally worried when the whine ceased, and the chattering of automatic mecha weapons’ fire started up, along with mingled screams of command and panic.  Stockholm pulled the cloth plugs from his ears, took his animus form, and looked up to Hina and Timothy.  The look he gave them was one they had both come to know now that they’d spent enough time traveling with him.  That look said simply this; be ready to help, but be ready for trouble all the same.

 

This silent understanding between them forged, the trio loped ahead to the east, toward the second rift in their reality that required sealing.

 

Colonel Bradley Ashford had proudly served in the United States Marine Corps for coming up on seventeen years, the first three of those years as an enlisted man, then spending a full year in Officer Training School.  After that, he had swiftly worked his way up the officer ranks until he stopped himself just shy of the rank of general.  And why had he done that?  Why had he held himself back, and politely refused to earn that first gold star?  Because, as he told his superiors, that would take him out of the action in the field permanently, and he didn’t want that.

 

When his entire unit, performing a routine exercise in the barrens of Nevada, had felt a windstorm start to sweep over them, colonel Ashford had seen it as an opportunity.  He would use the conditions to test his men in the sort of wind and sand-swept environment they would be fighting in if they were indeed deployed to Iraq.  What happened during the windstorm, however, could never be prepared for, no matter how much of a hardcase he and his men were.

 

Some enormous bubble of gray, liquid-like energy, had appeared perhaps a mile south of their unit.  Several of his men had merely stared in wonder at it, but Ashford, who’d read more than his fair share of fantasy and science fiction novels, thought he might have an idea, crazy as it was, of what the bubble was.  It was a doorway of some sort, he realized with wonder, a doorway like the one that had appeared over Roswell, New Mexico, so many years ago.

 

He knew damned well what the flyboys were holding onto over there in Roswell, and he’d actually been briefed on it once.  His unit had been given orders to transport the object that had come through the Roswell portal to a base tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, and though he’d been given explicit orders not to look in the massive shipping container, he had.  What it held had looked like nothing so much as it had looked like a huge, metallic egg.  But he knew from his adolescent days reading Asimov and Roddenbury what it was, and he didn’t choose to comment on it further with even his most trusted men.

 

This bubble reminded him of that egg-like craft, for it held over him a sort of wonder.  His men raced about and screamed at each other, none of them stopping to check with him about what to do in this situation.  A line of Marines had quickly assembled about one hundred yards away from the bubble, crouched down with their weapons aimed at the bubble, expecting something to come out of it that they could mow down with their weapons.  Except, Ashford had thought, nothing’s going to come through at all.

 

Being a life-term Marine hadn’t dulled Ashford’s imagination, and he knew instinctively when the bubble began to emit its horrible whine what was going to happen.  A moment later, it began to do just what he’d suspected it would, and those men closest to the bubble started to levitate off the ground, screaming in a mindless panic that was close to hysteria.  They were then flung forward, into the bubble, and they disappeared!

 

“Sir, what the fuck are we going to do,” someone shouted at him as he stood there in his battle fatigues, staring in wonder at the bubble.  He didn’t even look at the man, but stood stock still, waiting for the object to pull him through next.  Equipment and tents began to flap all around them, and these too were drawn into the void of the grayish liquid portal.  “Sir!?”

 

“Nothing,” Ashford said after what seemed an interminable amount of time.  “We aren’t going to do anything, Johnson.  Get back to your men and be ready when we go through,” he said in a calm, even voice.

 

“Go through?!  Sir, what the fuck are you talking about?  This isn’t some bullshit like that show you’re so fond of, sir!  We’ve got men being dragged into that thing, and half our shit is going with it!  We’ve got to do some-,” the man called Johnson said, but he was cut off as the bubble sucked him, screaming, into its gaping surface.  Ashford clutched his rifle to his body, and prepared to be transported.  When he was lifted off the ground, he flew through the air toward the bubble, the only man in his unit to go without screaming.

 

Nearly a week and a half had gone by since that day, and colonel Ashford had his men back in their working routine in less than two days of that time. Though they had all been terrified, confused, and utterly speechless after landing amid piles of their gear and hills that were nothing like those of the state of Nevada, Bradley Ashford had whipped them back into order quickly.  He hadn’t done it in the gruff, heavy-handed way he usually did when giving them orders.  He had seemed more like a mentor to them in their time in this strange new world, and not one of the men under his command thought any less of him for it.  If anything, their respect for him grew.

 

Everything that had been in their exercise encampment had been pulled over into this world, and the bubble they had been pulled through now stood about five hundred yards away from their camp’s western edge.  The Marines’ time in this strange world hadn’t been uneventful, either; they had been visited by two groups of wagoneers calling themselves Jurians, and Ashford had spoken delicately with them, handling the meetings with more diplomacy than his men thought him capable of.  Many of his men had marveled at the primitive looking strangers, for among them had been several reptilian men, and a handful of what they all knew had to be Minotaurs, like they’d seen in fantasy movies and read of in books.  The Humans appeared to be much like them, except the Humans of this world appeared to be slightly shorter in stature, and had the wind-burned and brutish appearance, even in their older age, that spoke of hard lived lives.

 

On their fifth night in this strange world, the men set at what their compasses told them was their southern perimeter had shouted in alarm.  They then opened fire upon something that Ashford could only think of as an enormous, violent and poisonous looking worm, huge and purple-fleshed, eyeless and with a hundred razor-like teeth in its mouth.  Though huge and vicious for sure, several hundred rounds of good old M-16 ammunition had pocked its hide until it bled out, thudding to the ground thunderously and dying where it lay.

 

That night, his men discovered that despite the creature’s poisonous look, when cooked thoroughly, its meat was sweeter than anything they had in their ration packets.

 

There had come a good number of strange and mostly hostile surprises after that, some of them from the vast plains around their camp, the world they were currently residing in, and some from the bubble that was the portal they’d come through.  The creatures in both instances were nothing that Ashford recognized from his world, which he was coming to miss after a week and a half here in this strange place.  He wanted to move, to explore this world, but the majority of his men waited patiently for him to give the order to return to their world through the bubble portal.  Most, unlike he himself, had families and a normal life to return to.  Most probably wanted to forget their time in this strange, marvelous world.

 

But Ashford found reasons to remain, and he used these few remaining excuses every morning when his second in command, Major Johnson, asked him for his standing orders.  Ashford liked Johnson well enough, but he knew the man’s mind, and knew that Johnson wanted to get back to his home world worse and worse every day.  Johnson had no children, but the man’s wife was probably going bat-shit worrying about him, Ashford knew.

 

On the eleventh day of his unit’s stay in this world, Ashford received a scare that was good enough for him to finally agree with Johnson’s wishes.  It came in the form of something, several dozen somethings, coming through that portal to the west of the Marine encampment.  Those somethings gave him a severe case of the spooks, and he wondered finally if perhaps he should have returned his men to their world immediately upon arrival here.

 

Those somethings were dozens of fox-men riding on what appeared to be motorcycles, firing weapons at his men that emitted short beams of blue light. The first of his men to see the fox-creatures coming through was struck by one of the beams, and what was left behind was a smoldering pile of clothes without a man to fill them.

 

Stockholm, Hina and Timothy came over the swell of the hillock on the run, and what they saw dismayed them.  However, they also took heart in the single fact that though the scene appeared violent, it also appeared manageable.  To Timothy and Hina’s mind, the situation appeared quite clear.  They would sweep in and aid the Humans, whose morale appeared to be slowly flagging as more of the strange fox-men with their two-wheeled mecha vehicles swooped in large circles around their camp.  Hina and Timothy surely had spells at their disposal to give offensive, defensive, and healing aid.

 

To Stockholm, however, the sight of the quickly unraveling battle ahead had a different effect.  What he saw below, however, he saw not just with the eyes in his face, but also with the Eye of Divination.  Left alone to their devices, the Humans could not seem to mount an offensive against the fox-creatures, not yet. Mayhap if they used the tank, they could strike back with a few powerful cannon shots.  But then one of the fox-man riders would surely vault from his motorbike (Stockholm knew the term from the Age of Mecha; aye, he’d seen and ridden a few of the beastly things himself in his time). Landing, the creature would open the top of the tank, and use his blaster weapon to turn the soldiers inside to so much smoke.  Their earthly bodies would blow away more bountifully but no differently than a smoldering cigarette.

 

But if he held back with Timothy and Hina, he knew, they would be able to act in reasonably better odds.  The Human militants would most likely all perish (oh, those fellows who were youngest seemed at their sanity’s edge at this!), but they would leave most of the outriders into this reality dead or wounded. Stockholm, Timothy and Hina could swiftly round them up and either have done with them, or toss them bodily back through the rift.  It would be quite easy to do, and he had half a mind to put one strong hand on a shoulder of each mage to hold them in their place.

 

But he sensed the same thing that they did about the Humans and the fox-men.  The Human militants, though not of their world, did not seem to pose any real long-term threat.  They would eventually return to their own world, or decide to stay on here, and in neither case would it be all that bad.  The orange-furred, leather clad fox-men, however, were quite the opposite.  They rode their motorbikes with battle armor affixed to them, blaster weapons of unknown mecha technology were fired without hesitation, and they appeared to have outright bloodlust in their eyes and snarling smiles.  They were wrong somehow, more fundamentally so than the Humans.

 

I would know a demon when one knocked upon my door, Stockholm thought, mentally quoting one of his favorite religious verses of the mortal Races. “And I would repel him as surely as I do you,” he whispered aloud.

 

“What,” Timothy asked, wheeling about on his heels.  Stockholm shook his head quickly, banishing the mythos before it could creep up on him too far.

 

“Nothing,” Stockholm said, hastening his head nod and taking each mage gently by the shoulder.  “If we’re to make a move to help the Humans down there, we’re going to have to go about it quickly.  See how those fox-men riders are circling the camp,” he asked, pointing down the hill to the madly jeering and laughing creatures that fired over and over again at the gathered Marines.  Tim and Hina both nodded, remaining silent as they brought their reserves of mana to bear.  “We’ll take only a minute or two, and memorize the pattern of their movement.  When one of us finds the break in the pattern, point it out to the other two, and we’ll move in swiftly.  Hit them hard with something lethal from the get-go, if you can.  If you don’t, those machines they ride upon are liable to run us down harder than a horse!”

 

Without further instruction, the mages and Stockholm stood three hundred yards away from the outer perimeter of the fighting, looking for that break in the pattern.   Timothy spotted the break in the circle of the riding fox-men and thrust his left hand out, pointing to the spot as it moved forward in the chain of outriders.  Hina nodded, as did Stockholm, and the three of them were moving swift once again.  The horses they left behind for their own safety, and with a weapon held at each traveler’s side, the trio swept toward the battle, adrenaline rushing through their blood streams.  The wind whipped like a screaming harpy in Tim’s ears, and he felt something inside of his mind slip away.

 

These creatures don’t belong here, he heard himself rasp in his own mind. Not the Humans, and certainly not these machine-riding horrors!  The Humans could be tolerated, but he would have none of those fox-men in his home world, nay, not while breath moved about in his lungs.  He fully intended to put paid to them, and in such a rush that their drifting souls would continue on a while as their bodies had done before wondering why they never got hungry or thirsty of late.

 

Thus it was that, despite his usual natural speed and power, Stockholm arrived on the scene of the battle, at the crux of the outriders’ pattern, behind Timothy.  Timothy Vandross, heir to the bloodline of tyrants and madmen, appeared to Stockholm to be somehow different in this moment than he had been only a minute ago, before young Tim had spotted the weak point in the circling pattern of the fox-men.  While automatic weapons guttered about from the Humans running hither and thither, Timothy tuned out all sound except that one tiny voice in the back of his mind, a voice that Stockholm might have known very well- the call of battle lust.

 

The air around Stockholm and Timothy rippled with raw power as Hina entered the break seconds behind Stockholm, standing to his right with Timothy in front of her.  She looked ahead at the young half-Elf Void Mage’s stance and poise; his hands were out at his sides, the fingers bent into clutching claws, his knees bent and his head down.  A swirling wind of mana twisted about his body, fluttering the fur on Stockholm’s body and Hina’s long hair back away from Tim. Hina thought she could make out the scent of campfire ashes wafting up from Timothy as the forerunner of the fox-men came around the corner of the Marine encampment, streaking toward Tim at what its gadgetry told it was eighty units of its measure of speed.

 

Timothy clapped his hands together in front of him, and a pulsing beam erupted from his joined fingertips.  The beam appeared to be purple in hue, and it warbled with the sort of moan one quickly associates with long-slumbering beasts of the earth’s depths, creatures that can and must eat a city’s worth of mortal flesh before going back to sleep.  Hina and Stockholm caught a brief glimpse of the expression on the lead outrider’s face before the beam struck him.  All possible mortal terror could be seen in the depths of its normally merciless eyes, and its jaw hung open wide as it brought its arms up in a pathetic attempt to ward off its own fate.

 

An explosion rocked the air and earth around them as the beam widened, in response to Timothy’s separating hands.  The energy had reached down and struck the motorbike, rupturing its propellant tank.  The second and third outriders came around the corner of the Marine encampment, blindly plowing headlong into their own destruction.  Shards of motorbikes and fox-men splattered and splashed all around the Marine encampment, but those few Human militants nearby had seen what they needed to; there were newcomers, and they’d come to give aid.

 

Stockholm whirled around on his heels, just in time to be caught in a bull tackle by one of the fox-men on foot.  The two crashed to the ground in a flailing jumble of limbs, the Red Tribe Werewolf allowing the fox-creature to get in two solid punches to his long jaw while he extracted his claws.  With a twisting thrust, the fox-man held atop him, Stockholm plunged his arm all the way up to his elbow into the creature’s abdomen, feeling the warm rush of its blood splash his front as he landed on his back in the grass.  The look of shock and agony on the creature’s face did little to make him feel bad about the situation.  The creature would have tried to bash in his face with its mace, had it been granted the chance.  Stockholm felt the touch, scraping object his clawed hand was still groping for, and he slid himself out from under the still struggling creature.

 

Kneeling now on top of the fallen fox-thing, Stockholm’s face split with a mirthless grin, his hand clenching around the thing he sought inside the injured creature’s body.  When he had a solid hold on it, he yanked forward and up with all of his considerable lycanthrope strength, coming away with a broken length of the creature’s spinal column.  The sight of this blood-drenched stretch of bones was almost as satisfying to his eyes as the squelching, snapping sounds that came from the creature as he performed this execution maneuver.  His legs were now matted with blood, and the jeans he’d been wearing now appeared as fiery as his own fur.

 

They’ve run mad, Hina managed to think as she turned her attention from Timothy to Stockholm and back, herself only using Sleep spells and Confusion spells on pairs and triples of the riding fox-men.  Of course, the effects of her spell casting was no less disastrous, in the long run.  Those fox-creatures on foot that fell asleep or became strange in behavior were cut down by the Humans’ guns, or killed one another in folly with their blaster weapons.  Those riding the mecha with two wheels crashed and killed themselves with loud snapping and wrenching of bones as they fell asleep at the wheel.

 

In the first few minutes of the battle, the trio conducted themselves in this fashion throughout.  However, Hina saw to her right a few minutes in that Timothy was quickly exhausting his reserves of mana on so many powerful silent spells, a few of them appearing to be what she knew of as the most potent elemental magic spells a mage could learn.  Volcannon Strike from the school of Pyromancy, Gaia’s Unerring Split from Gaiamancy, Ice Storm from Aquamancy, and even the spell Furious Wind Cutter from the school of Aeromancy.  All of these spells did Timothy use, and with such a fierce countenance and glow about his eyes that she feared not only for him, but of him briefly.

 

But his strength was flagging, she saw.  The number of outriders and fox-men on foot had been severely reduced, and as Stockholm did battle with them hand-to-hand, she moved herself closer to where Timothy stood, putting up defensive spells of tremendous strength around himself and the Human warriors near him.  Though the Marines didn’t exactly understand what was going on other than a fight for their very lives, they each of them felt a little better with the queerly colored lights around their bodies than they had before.  These domes of force appeared able to absorb the bolts from the fox-men’s weapons, and did not deter them from returning that deadly fire with lead of their own, so why worry?

 

Hina reached Timothy after stopping to defend herself several times from the fox-creatures, and once from a confused Marine who mistook her for an enemy.  She did not kill him, but merely put him quickly to sleep while stripping him of his own strange mecha weapon.  She cast the rifle aside and reached for Timothy’s shoulder, and at her touch, he collapsed to his knees, the battle fire extinguished from his eyes, which had gone slightly slack.  “Timothy!  Timothy, you must get up,” she screamed at him, slapping his face to try to gain his attention.

 

“Don’t worry about it, ma’am,” said a strong, confident voice from near to her left ear.  She turned her head, and there stood a handsome black Human fellow in the uniform the Human militants were all wearing.  His was the lapel with the silver eagle upon it, confirming his position as leader of these men.  “We’ve got him covered.  Wilson, Barkey!  Over here, now,” the colonel shouted, and two of his most experienced combatants rushed to his side, eyes peeled for anymore of the oncoming fox-men, whose numbers indeed seemed to be dwindling.  “Help me guard these two!”

 

“Aw shit, colonel, isn’t that the guy shot that freaky beam a few minutes ago,” one of the men, Wilson, asked as he fired a short three bullet burst into one of the fox-men approaching on foot with a mace in hand.  The creature’s head exploded in a shower of brains and gore, his body trundling forward one more step before thumping to the wheel-trampled ground.  “What’s wrong with him?”

 

“He’s used too much mana too fast,” Hina said, not certain these Humans would even understand what she meant.  “He has a great deal more mana left in him, but he has seldom ever had to use so much so swiftly, most likely,” she shouted above the clatter of more weapons’ fire.  The colonel nodded, himself having a pretty clear understanding of what she meant.  The young man had a lot of magic energy available, but little experience in using lots of it at one time.  Too much of a shock to his magical systems, colonel Ashford thought with a touch of a grin.  Though this world had suddenly scared the hell out of him, he suddenly knew that he would not be returning to his own reality with his men.  Not if he could help it.

 

Elsewhere, Stockholm had hunted down and finally caught up with the actual leader of these strange forces, a single fox-man much more powerfully built than all of the others.  He had abandoned his motorbike and set upon one of the outer groups of Marines with ruthless efficiency, brandishing little more than an oversized flail whip with a spiked ball at its end.  Fifteen Marines lay scattered in pieces around the heavyset leader beast, and Stockholm worked his own way through a few handfuls of its henchmen toward it.  The fox-creature grinned at him, and in that grin Stockholm saw that, physically at least, it did not appear too much different from him.

 

Gods above, he thought, let the Humans be able to tell the difference between us and not mow me down with bullets!  T’would surely not be a fair death for one such as I, who have no great love of machine weapons.  The fox-man pointed the finger of its free hand at him meaningfully, and then waggled it toward itself in a ‘come on, friend’ gesture.  “So that’s how it is to be, eh,” Stockholm mused aloud.

 

“Grou, that it is, warrior,” the fox-man leader rasped in a voice that sounded both deep and full of phlegm.  “Nar us do panwak,” it said, and Stockholm took just a moment to wonder after its strange garbled words.  Grou?  Nar?  Panwak? Though he’d never heard these words before, he was able to construe their meaning by context, a capacity most lost in the heat of battle.    Grou meant yes, in answer to his question.  Nar likely meant let, and panwak battle.

 

Stockholm drew his battle axe from its loop on his belt, and hefted it to the half point of the handle in his hand.  The mixed odors of gunpowder, spent copper casings, and blood seeped into his nostrils from the surrounding battlefield.  The call of his immortal blood sounded in his ears, the purpose of his being rising up within his body and spirit.  Outcast God of Adventure, Ignatious Stockholm, heard only in his mind the trumpet calls and drums of war beating madly away at his temples.  The feel of the ground under his feet, moist with death, told him more than the fact that the patch of ground he would now fight upon was soiled with blood.

 

It told him how he must distribute his weight on his legs for each specific type of blow he would offer or defend against.  It informed him of the movement conditions he would be handling.  The Eye of Divination blasted his field of vision into a single focal point, a tunnel of darkness surrounding a single point on the fox-man leader’s right upper torso.  A muscle had torn from wielding the flail whip too haphazardly upon the Humans, and it would be a source of weakness.  By staying on the creature’s right side or flank, Stockholm could minimize the threat of bodily harm to himself.

 

His view of the field and the opponent before him scoped out once more, and Stockholm realized another amusing advantage he held over the fox-man.  The leader of these fell creatures was wearing some sort of strange armor, and it did not appear on the exterior to be metallic.  However, Stockholm thought, armor is armor, and he thinks that’s going to help him.  Time to bring that train of thought to a screeching fucking halt on his accord, he thought.

 

The fox-man leader dashed forward, bringing his right hand up to his left shoulder as he streaked toward Stockholm, meaning to bring the whip out in a wide backhand arc.  But Stockholm would not be fooled; he took three steps forward, and crouched low, the spiked chain whip passing only an inch over his lupine head.  The fox-man was fast, terribly so, and so it’s dazed expression couldn’t be helped when its attack struck naught but air.  Stockholm shot to his full height, bringing his empty right hand forth in an overhand punch to the creature’s right shoulder.  The Fist of the Breaker connected, and the Red Tribesman shivered with sadistic satisfaction when he felt the armor buckling, as well as the shoulder bones themselves, break apart and give way.  The creature was sent spinning back by the blow, and Stockholm made no move to follow up the counterstrike.  Not just yet.

 

And why would he not deliver the final blow right away?  He assumed, rightly so, that if he had attempted to follow up his counterattack with a killer attack of his own, he might fall prey to a counter of the fox-man’s own devising. When two experienced and worthy opponents squared off, it often came down to who was faster, more experienced, and was able to counter more attacks from his foe.  This at least was Stockholm’s observation on the subject of personal combat. As the fox-man sprang back up to its feet, using a kick-up maneuver, Stockholm caught a glimpse of the serrated sides of its riding boots.  Yes, had he followed after the Fist of the Breaker, he would have been sorely cut.

 

He also had another reason for letting the fight continue on longer than the previous scuffles.  In a way, it was the natural flow of war, and he could do nothing else if not abide by his origins.  In most great wars, he knew, troopers fought and killed troopers in short order and small numbers.  Those who managed to survive were elevated through the enlisted ranks until they earned a safe duty, like drillmaster of recruits.  Officers commanded units of troopers, and often slew many opposing troopers on their own accord and with considerable skill.  That was, after all, how most gained the post of officer in the first place.

 

And standing over these officers in rank and file were the commanders of those overall forces.  Often in war they found themselves amid the scuffle and bloodshed of the troopers, slaying handfuls of troopers and sergeants, even a few lesser officers than they.  But eventually, the two rival commanders would meet, and their battle would be long and hard fought, for both would not die of a simple stab wound or lacerated wrist.  That was not what true warriors were meant to die of, and Stockholm knew it as well as anyone.

 

For this second and much more complex reason he didn’t follow up his breaking of the fox-man leader’s armor and shoulder.  It wouldn’t be right to end it so quickly, not without also offering it the choice of admitting defeat and going back to the rift, back to its world to raise hell there instead of here.  “Go back,” he called to the creature, pointing in the direction of the rift.  “Take what few of your riders there are left and leave this place,” he yelled.  The fox-man cracked its whip across the ground, creating a long rivet in the hard packed soil.

 

“I think not, fellow warrior,” growled the fox-man.  It grimaced when the whip cracked, and Stockholm’s sensitive ears heard another sound under the lash of the weapon, the grinding of the broken bones in the creature’s shoulder.  It switched its grip to the left hand, slashing the whip through the air with another harsh crack, demonstrating that it still had the ability to fight.  “This thing between us ends in na’musca,” it growled.  “Rise, Zentuho,” it cried out.  The whip in its left hand glimmered with an odd black illumination, and Stockholm immediately felt a rush of energy come from the atmosphere around him, pulsing toward the glowing whip.

 

“I rise for thee, master,” called a hissing, serpent-like voice, seemingly from the whip itself.  A sentient weapon, Stockholm thought.  Interesting.  “What is thy bidding?”

 

“Destroy mine enemy,” the fox-man leader cried out, cracking the whip at Stockholm.  The energy-laden whip lashed out at the Red Tribe Werewolf, and he dodge rolled to his right.  However, the whip changed direction with his roll, slashing across his back as he stood.  He cried out in howling pain, fire seeming to race up his back from the lash of the sentient weapon.  The fox-man pulled his weapon back, holding the tip in his sagging right hand.  “Do you see now, warrior,” he said, a mocking smile playing across his lips.  The tip of the whip now held the form of a snake’s head, and lashed its leather tongue out at Stockholm.  “Nothing can defeat me and my Zentuho!  Not even you!”

 

That’s what you think, Stockholm thought.  He looked at the whip, gazing into its eyes made of energy, and knew the weapon’s strength immediately.  While it would indeed make the battle more formidable as long as it was allowed to be awake, the fox-man seemed to be depending on the weapon’s intellect and powers to keep him away from Stockholm.  All he had to do was close the gap between himself and the wielder of Zentuho.  Without any warning or war cry, Stockholm started forward, his hands flicking out his claws at his sides as he streaked toward his foe.

 

Once again the whip lashed out, streaming at him in an impossibly animal-like movement, and once again he duck rolled out of the way of the strike.  When he stood this time, however, his right hand was behind his back, and he caught the striking end of the whip in his hand.  There came a muffled shout of surprise from Zentuho, whose head was caught in a crushing grip by Stockholm.  The fox-man’s snarl of triumph fell immediately into a look of crumbled defeat, mouth agape. “Nobody has ever caught my Zentuho,” he muttered, and Stockholm took advantage of the moment to rip the handle from the fox-man leader’s hand.  “I will crush you with my bare hands!”

 

Stockholm tossed the now sleeping Zentuho to the ground, and gave a beckoning hand gesture to the fox-man, bracing himself.  The fox-man closed the gap and launched a left roundhouse punch at Stockholm, easily blocked with a simple hand movement.  This parry Stockholm followed by whipping his left hand in a backhand slap across the fox-man’s face, knocking him back.  Once again he gestured the fox-man forward.  A left hook kick came next, and Stockholm caught the leg under his right arm.  He twisted his body, flinging the fox-man to the ground on his face.  Stockholm, still holding the offending leg under his arm, planted his own right foot on the ground between the fox-man’s legs, and twisted his own body fully eastward.  A satisfying snap and scream issued from the fox-man leader.  Stockholm dropped the limp, broken leg to the dusty ground.

 

Stockholm knelt down next to the fox-man’s upper body as he rolled over and clutched down at his broken leg, tears streaming from his huge eyes.  “I ask you once more, give this up,” he said softly to the fox-man leader.  “There is no more need for violence between us,” he said, feeling the eyes of the remaining fox-men upon him.  Those remaining had abandoned their fight in order to view their leader’s defeat at the hands of the Red Tribe Werewolf.  He felt no enmity from their gazes, but only a strange sort of depression.  They had been bested, and here their great leader had been handily dealt a crushing blow to his body and pride.  The fox-man leader looked up at Stockholm, meeting his gaze for only a moment.

 

“You, you are probably right,” the creature stammered.  He looked down at his ruined leg, which was still facing down into the dirt from the knee down.  Blood had begun to pool on the ground beneath the creature’s tattered pants.  “I concede victory to you, warrior.”  He looked around at the handful of his own men still remaining, and saw that behind each of his own men, at least three Humans, each armed with machine guns, stood at guard.  The creature thought of his home world, and wondered when the last time was that he’d seen lead-throwing weapons, especially among the inferior human race.  A long time, he decided.  He looked up at his own men once more, and made a grunting noise low in his throat. “We are defeated, men.  Gather the bikes, those that can still run, and prepare to go back through the gateway.”

 

“But sir,” one of them protested.

 

“Don’t you ‘but sir’ me, Agan,” rasped the fallen leader, trying to stand with Stockholm’s help.  “Get the bikes and let’s get the hell out of here!  And Agan, bring me my Zentuho,” he said.  The fox-man named Agan grabbed the whip, and coiled it up before handing it over to his leader.  A Human was approaching Stockholm and the wounded fox-man leader, the man that Stockholm had marked as the Marines’ leader.  Agan took up Stockholm’s place, and started helping his leader toward the rift, what the leader had called a gateway.

 

“Thanks for your help, big stranger,” the black man said, extending a hand to Stockholm.  “Colonel Ashford, United States Marine Corps,” he said.  Stockholm took his hand and shook, surprised at the strength in the Human’s grip.

 

“Ignatious Stockholm,” Stockholm replied, letting go of the man’s hand. “Have you seen the Elven mages?”

 

“They’re all right,” Ashford said, leading Stockholm through the ruined encampment as the fox-men vanished through the rift, presumably back to their home world.  “The young man took a bit of a tumble.  I think he used up too much energy is all,” Ashford said.  “Your young lady friend is with him.  You their leader?”

 

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Stockholm said.  Something resonated from this Ashford fellow, a sense of belonging.  Stockholm took a moment to mentally contact the gods, and received an immediate message in return to his silent question.  Yes, if this man wished to, he could remain in their world.  “How many men did you lose, sir?”

 

“No need for sir with me, Mr. Stockholm.  You can call me Brad.  And I don’t know just yet, but I’m sure Johnson will give me a quick report when he finds out. He’s my second-in-command of the unit.  Here we are,” he said, guiding Stockholm through the camp and right to Timothy and Hina, who were still being guarded. “At ease, gentlemen,” Bradley Ashford said to the two Marines, who sagged and started to walk away.  “Find me Johnson as soon as you can, gentlemen.”

 

“Yes sir,” they said in unison, moving off with purpose once more. Stockholm noticed how these Humans moved now that the killing was done. There was a sort of reluctance in their motions, as though they had really lived for moments of conflict like this one just passed.  Good, solid troopers, he thought of the Marines.  Stockholm was relieved to see that Timothy Vandross was sitting up and sipping water from one of their skins, his back to Hina’s front as she sat behind him, arms wrapped protectively around his stomach.

 

“How are you holding up now, Timothy,” Stockholm said to the Void Mage. Tim gave him a sick smile, his eyes puffy and tired-looking.  Stockholm didn’t care for the look of that at all, but he sensed that Tim did indeed still have a lot of mana left available to him.

 

“I’m doing fine, boss,” Tim croaked despite his sips of water.  “Just used too much mana too fast.  I’m not used to using so many high-power spells so fast.  I’ll get better at it with time.”

 

“I’m sure you will,” Stockholm said.  Ashford had moved off to speak with another Marine, presumably the Johnson fellow he’d mentioned.  “Hina, stay with him a few more minutes, would you?”

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, squeezing Tim for emphasis.  Stockholm started toward Ashford as he dismissed his man, who started barking orders out at his surrounding men.  Ashford looked over at Stockholm with a grin.

 

“Getting your men ready to leave,” Stockholm asked.  Ashford nodded, and looked around at his troops.

 

“Yes I am.  And despite the fact that I was having some second thoughts about it, I don’t think I’m going back with them.  Johnson won’t be happy about it, and the high command are going to have some hard questions for him when he gets back to base, but I think he’ll be okay.  Certainly time for a promotion for him anyway,” Ashford said with a chuckle.  “Think I’ll be staying on with you and yours, if you don’t mind.”

 

“Not at all, Brad,” Stockholm said.  “I’d advise that you get a few more magazines for your speed-shooter though,” he said, pointing at the M-16 strapped over Ashford’s shoulder.

 

“You know something about our technology,” Ashford asked.

 

“A little.  The Age of Mecha is long past here in our world, but we still have technology that works.  Mostly autocarts and guns, and some limited communications equipment.  But the vast majority of what we find throughout the realm is junk now.”  Ashford nodded, thinking about the old Zenith television that’d gone belly-up on him about three months before.  Had these people ever had such a thing as television, he wondered?  Probably, but if Mr. Stockholm said most of it was junk, then it probably was.

 

“Radios,” Ashford asked.

 

“A few, though only a handful of towers that still pump out broadcast signals,” Stockholm said, watching the Marines quickly breaking down their camp and readying themselves for the trip back to their home world.  “Mostly it’s Gnomes that deal with that sort of stuff, them and Dwarves.”

 

“Gnomes?  Dwarves?”

 

“Aye.  Gnomes are a Race obsessed with the mecha of the old world. They’re also the best suited to use the stuff.  They’re heavily gifted with technology and science, mostly to make up for their lack of skills with anything else.  The Dwarves, well, they use most technology for war purposes.”

 

“I see,” said Ashford, though he in truth did not.  He hadn’t yet met a Gnome or a Dwarf, and more and more he thought he was going to enjoy living out his time in this strange world he’d stepped into.  “I’ve got to go talk to Johnson, Mr. Stockholm, give him the go-ahead.  It shouldn’t take long for my men to go through, so we’ll just have to wait a while.  What brought you here, anyway?”

 

“It’s my task to close the rifts like that one,” Stockholm said, pointing to the shimmering tear in reality.  Ashford shrugged his acceptance, realizing now that he was indeed going to go through with his original plan to stay in this world.  He jogged off then, to tell Johnson of his decision.  Stockholm headed back for the mages.

 

An hour later, the majority of the Marines and their equipment had disappeared back through the rift, this time much more peacefully than they had been taken through the first time.  Johnson had offered surprisingly little argument to Bradley Ashford’s decision to stay on in this world, and had even given his commanding officer a farewell hug.  “You take care of yourself, sir,” he said before taking off through the rift.  As the tank rolled through, the last piece of the Marines’ equipment with the last men inside of it, Stockholm felt a moment’s regret.  They had been fierce warriors, losing only twenty-two men out of a nearly one hundred and fifty man unit, and Stockholm thought they would have done well for themselves in his world.  Still, it was not their world to live in, and that much they’d decided unanimously.

 

Stockholm might have tried to close the rift as soon as the tank was through, but thought it might be best to give it a few minutes still, just in case the Marines needed it to remain open until they were through on their end.  Timothy was up and about once more, using his Farseeing spell to search the surrounding area for signs of anymore foreigners to their world.  He found nothing that stood out, and reported such to Stockholm.  “Nobody left but us, Stockholm,” he said, sounding a little winded still.

 

“You should have let Hina make the check for us, you know,” the Red Tribesman said in a level voice.  He ruffled Tim’s hair then, making Timothy giggle and shrug his hand off.  “Still, good to see you’re doing okay now.  We’ll give it another few minutes, and then I’ll close up the rift.  Last chance, Brad.  You sure you want to stay on with us?  Because we’ve only got two horses, and riding on my back is going to be a hell of a rough ride if you try it.”

 

“No, my time there is done now,” said Bradley Ashford, former colonel in the Marines.  “I think it was done the moment we saw that thing in Nevada.  You want me to stay with you guys, I’m game.  You want to see me to the nearest town, I’m up for that too,” he said with a smile.

 

“The more the merrier, right,” Hina offered as she approached the trio of men.  “You’re a warrior, and you’ll help maintain a little balance in the group. Right Stockholm?”  The Red Tribe Werewolf grunted and nodded his acceptance of Ashford, and shook the man’s hand once again.  Hina noticed something then that none of the others did, as their attention was on one another and not the rift.  The quality of the light around the rift had changed, she thought, an almost imperceptible shift in its energy.  She didn’t care much for the new look of the thing.  “Stockholm, if we’re going to close that thing, we should do it now,” she said, striving to keep the worry out of her voice.

 

“Right you are, Hina,” he said, starting off down the hillock toward the rift in reality.  Timothy, Hina and Ashford all followed, the whole while with the Elven Q Mage wondering what precisely she’d seen change about the rift.  If she could pinpoint the change, she might give Stockholm some clue, but thus far she couldn’t make out the exact change in the rift.  She didn’t want to distract him from his task, though later she would look back and wish she had given him some better warning than she had.

 

The company was now within fifty yards of the rift, and finally Timothy noticed the subtle change as well, though Stockholm and Ashford both remained ignorant of it.  He took Hina’s hand and gave it a light squeeze to gain her attention, and the look that passed between the mages said everything that needed to be said.  Something’s wrong, they communed mentally with one another.  Something’s wrong, and we need to get it fixed in a hurry.

 

Stockholm sniffed at the air, only slightly concerned in the sudden change in the scent in the air.  As they’d approached the rift, he’d only smelled the sweet grasses, the sweat of his companions, and the blood from the battlefield behind them.  Now there was another odor clinging to the air, a scent of hot metal and overcooked onions.  A bitter smell, and it made his eyes start to water a little. Twenty yards from the rift, he brought the company up short, putting his hand out to stop Ashford.  “Something’s not right,” he whispered.

 

At this moment Guirdejef made his move.  There came a low flat pulse of energy from the rift, knocking all four travelers sprawling to the ground, each grunting in pain as they hit the turf.  A warbling sound started to emanate from the rift, and a sort of suctioning, pulling sensation.  Ashford’s eyes opened wide, and he realized all too late what was happening; they were going to be pulled into the rift again!  “Stockholm, it’s pulling us in,” he shouted, but his voice was drowned out by the warbling of the rift.

 

Stockholm knew now that he should have closed the rift as soon as the tank had gone through, though there was nothing for it at this time.  Clutching the ground with his claws, he felt his legs start to levitate up from the ground, and he dragged through the ground with his powerful hands for several yards.  Timothy tried to grab his arm, but Ignatious Stockholm was then pulled violently through the air, off into the rift in reality.  Timothy flew up after him, Hina colliding in mid-air with him.  Lastly came Bradley Ashford, and in the moment before he disappeared through the rift, he had time for one last thought.  Where are we going to land, he thought.

He prayed it wasn’t in the world those fox-men had come from.

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