Authors: William R. Forstchen
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Fantasy
William R. Forstchen
he twin moons of Haven shimmered on the horizon, casting their double-lined shadows on the valley below. Mornan could not help but turn her attention away from supervising the preparation of the pentagram to appreciate this final moment of tranquility.
There was a stirring behind her―Danuth, the second in command. She knew that in his mind there would be no admiration, no deeper understanding for the beauty she was admiring; anything that could so easily be destroyed was beyond his caring.
"Too much light," Danuth whispered. "It favors them and their power."
"Precisely," Mornan hissed in reply. "Do you think our master is completely without cunning? Tonight of any night, when the twin moons are full and command the sky, is a time when those fools will think themselves safest, and not watch so closely."
Mornan settled back for a moment, wishing to enjoy the contemplation, but Danuth was insistent―she could almost feel the anxiety in the old sorcerer's voice.
"It is time to conjure the demons. We have no time to waste."
Mornan turned and smiled softly. "Frightened?"
"Allic is the son of a god―of course I'm frightened. You trust Sarnak too much, I dare say. If Allic realizes who conjured a pack of demons on his border, he'll not leave off until we are dead, or worse. 'Cross not a demigod, for they are without a sense of humor', or have you forgotten?"
"'If you wish much, you must risk much,' or have you forgotten
my dear Danuth? Come, come, my old friend," Mornan said mockingly, "aren't you tired of casting the same old tricks to amuse some bored princeling? Even if he is Accursed, Sarnak offers us power. Think of it―a fiefdom for each of us, after we have unleashed the demons upon Allic's domain. They'll never guess we did it. Why do you think the Torm border was selected for our attack? Allic will blame the Torm sorcerers, and thus fuel the tension between him and his neighbors."
Mornan turned. It was one of Danuth's apprentices; he must have finished the pentagram. Mornan looked at him and smiled sadly. Poor boy, he thought that being asked along on this mission was a high honor. Yes, he would learn to conjure demons tonight―but little did he know that if the demons proved intractable, he would be given to them as a sacrifice.
Mornan walked over to the pentagram, examined the lines cut into the turf, and nodded with approval.
"Danuth, we're ready."
Mumbling in some arcane language, Danuth wandered over to one of the points.
"You, boy, over there," Mornan directed. "Be sure to stand within the marks of protection, and leave them not unless I tell you."
Even as she spoke, Mornan looked at Danuth, who gave a silent nod.
From out of the shadows the other two sorcerers appeared, their long robes waving in the breeze. Stepping forward they took their places around the pentagram, making it whole.
Mornan reached into her robes and brought forth the precious crystal given to her by Sarnak. Its power would help protect them from the chaos about to be unleashed. Focusing her thoughts through the crystal, Mornan projected her will to the others.
"Open your minds to find demons in the worlds too long denied Us by the gods. Guide your minds through the myriad portals, and when you find our goal call to the rest of us and together we shall draw the quarry out. I can shield us from Allic's power of sensing for only so long. If you are not ready for this, tell me now!"
The only response was the gentle crying of the wind.
The hilltop glowed with a pulsing, unworldly light as the four sorcerers and their apprentice projected their minds through the crystal and then outward, searching for the openings into universes concealed from all but the most powerful.
War between the gods had been unknown on Haven for three thousand years. The sacred peace was about to end at last.
ochanski, what does radar show?"
"Their Zeros are holding back, Captain."
"All right, gunners, stay sharp. They'll jump us on the other side of this flak."
Captain Mark Phillips felt a nudge on his shoulder, and looking over, he saw Younger, his copilot, pointing forward and up to where the first cotton ball bursts of flak were opening up. They were a little high but Mark knew that the Japanese would soon get the range.
"Two minutes to drop." It was Ed Watson, his bombardier, cold and steady, as if the half-hour running fight with the Zeros were nothing more than a sideshow to provide them with some excitement before the bomb drop. Mark could see him down in the nose, hunched over the bomb-sight, guiding them in for their first visit to the Japanese-held steelworks.
The flak was dropping lower, coming into range. There was a mild buffet, then another. The B-29 surged and tossed as it knifed through the turbulence. Another burst straight ahead, and the
bucked up as it plunged through the rolling black clouds.
"Hold her steady, hold her steady, Mark. One minute."
Icy sweat soaked down Mark's back and his arms grew numb with the tension of holding the lumbering B-29 on course. Another minute, just another minute till bomb release, and they could get the hell out of here to face an eight-hundred-mile flight back to safety. Back to Nationalist Chinese territory with a running fight all the way against the flak belts and fighters, but at least they'd have the tons of death out of their belly.
"Steady, steady... We're lining right up the chute. Steady..."
A blinding flash cut off Ed's words. With a howling, splintering roar, the entire port side of the plane caved in around Mark as flying shards of glass and steel swept through the cabin.
Screams filled the air as the
rolled onto its starboard side.
He was numbed by the howl of the wind; still not sure if he was hurt. He gave a quick glance over to Charlie Younger and all he could see was the wide-eyed terror.
Everyone was shouting, screaming, filling the intercom with a cacophony of noise that could not be separated into the individual cries of fear as the bomber started to slide into a deadly rolling dive.
Mark fought the controls, trying to pull her out. The wheel wouldn't budge. The cracked windscreen was filled with the Manchurian landscape rushing toward them.
He looked again to Younger who was motionless, his hands off the wheel.
"Pull, you bastard."
He wanted to reach out and smash him, to pummel him out of his terror, but he was locked to the wheel in a desperate struggle.
Bring her up!"
Younger looked at him, and as if Mark's rage took hold, he snapped out of his catatonic fear and returned to the struggle.
Jesus, they were red-lining her; the wings were going to rip off.
Not now, dear God,
He could feel the first response coming into the craft: she was coming out of the dive, edging back up. He pulled his left hand off the wheel and slammed the throttles down, cutting back their speed.
Sighs of relief filled the intercom. As everyone started talking, Mark snarled, "All right, you guys, shut up!"
The voices dropped off.
"Yeah, Jose took it bad in the arm and shoulder. The whole radio compartment was blown out by the hit," replied Giorgini.
"Will he make it?"
"Hard to tell."
"Mark, it's Goldberg."
Mark looked over his shoulder to the flight engineer, Sam Goldberg.
"We're losing oil pressure on number three. I'm shutting her down."
"All right, take care of it."
It was hard to hear anything―the hull was ripped wide open and the air screamed past with a high, piercing shriek that was maddening. He looked out his shattered portside window. The wing was a sieve; rolling black smoke poured from the inboard engine.
Mark looked back at Goldberg again.
"I'll have it for you in a minute, but it doesn't look good."
Ed! What about the bomb drop? Mark leaned over and saw with relief that his friend was uninjured.
"Say, Ed, you all right down there?"
Ed looked up at him and Mark could see that he had been as terrified as the rest of them.
"Any hope of lining back up on target?" Mark asked.
"We're already passed it."
"Dump that load and let's get the hell out of here."
surged up as the bombs dropped free to land in the hills beyond the city.
Mark could see the other bombers in a cloud of flak, already several miles away. They were clear of the target area and were already turning in a broad sweeping arc.
had lost the protection of the herd, and with a crippled craft there would be no hope of regaining the shield of fire that a formation could place around itself. The wolves would soon be closing in.
"Look out for company―we'll soon be getting lots of it. Kraut, you still with us?"
"I'm okay, Mark."
Thank god the navigator was all right.
"Listen, Kraut, I'll be following the squadron back on a heading of two seventeen, but if Goldberg says we don't have the juice, I want you to line up our choices and get them back to me."
"Captain, this is Walker."
"How are things back in the tail?"
"Not good, Captain. Three bandits approaching at seven o'clock low."
"I've got them on my screen!" Kochanski shouted.
"Giorgini, lock them into central fire control."
"Here they come――-"
shook as her guns, guided by the B-29's central fire system, swung into action, setting out an arc of tracers to greet the first Zero as it rolled in low for a sweeping pass. The camouflaged plane shot past, soaring upward in a steep climb that would position him for a dive.
"Mark, it's Goldberg."
"Go on, give me the word."
"Losing fuel at over thirty gallons a minute from portside fuel tanks. Our radius of action is four hundred and ten miles at the present heading."
"Can't we switch off starboard fuel and use up portside first?"
"Already done that."
"Watch it," Walker shouted. "Two more boring in."
guns fired deep staccato bursts, which were counterpointed by the enemy's 20mm shells.
Suddenly Ray Welsh, the left side gunner, gave a wild shout of triumph. "We've flamed one, we've flamed one! Look at that bastard burn!"
"Shut up, Welsh, let's keep some discipline!"
"Mark, this is Kraut. It's not good."
"There's no way we'll make it back to base. Our only hope of safety is to head for Soviet territory."
Russia would mean internment. The Reds were still at peace with Japan, and it could take months before they would be cycled back into the fighting. But there were the unofficial orders, as well. The B-29s were the best the U.S. had. Russia might be their ally, but the longer the Russians had to wait before getting their hands on a model, the better high command would feel. Russia was out.
"Here comes that one from above!"
Mark braced himself for the impact. The
shuddered as the enemy's guns stitched yet more holes in the damaged wing. Trying to knock off the Zero's aim, Mark desperately rolled the plane, but he could see they were taking more damage. The enemy shot past, followed by twin arcs of tracers from the bottom guns.
"She's not going to hold up much longer," Younger shouted. "Number four is starting to lose pressure."
Mark could almost smell Younger's panic. How had he ever got stuck with this clown, anyway? His old copilot Tom Seay had been with him in Europe along with Kochanski and Walker, and together the four had made a good team. But a bout of amoebic dysentery got Tom pulled from this eight-hour run. Younger's old commander, John Foss, had ditched him at the first chance, and now Mark could see why. The guy was a coward―he couldn't hack the pressure.
"Russia's out, Kraut. You wanta eat borsch for the rest of the war?"
"Thought you'd say that," Goldberg cut in. "My old man never did have anything good to say for them cossacks, anyhow. Listen, Mark, our fuel loss is increasing. I can give you three hundred miles max, more like two fifty."
"Where does that put us, Kraut?"
"Puts us over to a heading of, just a minute... puts us onto two sixty-five. If we can make two hundred seventy-five miles, we'll enter guerrilla country, along the China-Mongolia border. We might have a chance there. Rough terrain though―we'll have to bail out."
"Mark, we can't jump." It was Kochanski, the radar operator.
"How's he doing?"
"Not too good: he's unconscious. I've stopped the blood loss; his arm looks pretty bad. He's in no shape to jump."
He'd have to order the crew out and then pull the heroic act. If he jumped from a plane leaving a crew member to certain death, he could never live with himself. Once they cleared Japanese space, he'd order the men out and he forced to try to land the plane. Damn it!
"Look, Mark, we might be able to bring her in," Kraut said, trying to sound optimistic. "'It's rough country but there are some long, narrow valleys with open fields. Wonderful terrain for guerrillas. Some of them are probably old warlords still fighting for themselves against everyone else, but it's our only chance."
"I'm on two sixty-five," Mark replied, unsuccessfully trying to sound relaxed and self-assured. "Keep me posted on our fuel."
The Zeros rolled in for one more pass, and with ammunition depleted, finally turned off. Within minutes the
was alone. Number four held on at reduced power and Mark's right leg was soon numb and trembling, as he kept the rudder over to counter the imbalance of the engines.
Every ten minutes or so Goldberg and Kraut updated him and it was soon obvious that they were gradually losing the race. They just might make it out of Jap territory, but the odds were stacking up against them.
"How far to disputed territory?"
"As near as I can figure, another twenty miles."
"Right. Now listen closely. We're down to fifteen hundred feet. I see a ridge line up ahead, looks to be five hundred below us, but it's an open valley beyond. We'll fly straight down that valley and once we cross that twenty-mile mark, I want all of you out."
Suddenly number four engine seized up and cut completely. For a frozen moment of horror Mark looked back at Goldberg who shook his head like a doctor giving up on an injured patient.
started to drop out from underneath them, the ridge line ahead filling the cracked windscreen. There was no time now, nor enough altitude, for a jump. With the fury of despair Mark hauled back on the wheel, watching the airspeed indicator drop to the stall line. It was as if he had two choices of death―hit the ridge head-on or stall the plane and then have it drop straight in.
"Forget the jump. Brace yourselves, we're going in!"
The ridge passed by not a dozen feet below them. The stall indicator alarm kicked on and the plane started to shudder, and then they were past, dropping into a long, sloping valley.
"Prepare for emergency landing. Wheels up! Ready!"
They drifted down the long open slope and the
settled―the props bit the rock-hard ground, metal shrieking as the blades bent back into the wings.
The plane touched, skipped lightly, then came down hard. A shudder ran through the craft as her bottom ripped open.
The impact slammed Mark forward into the instrument panel and his world plunged into darkness.
* * * *
Captain Ikawa Yoshio of the Imperial Japanese Army was exhausted to the point of numbness. His aching body cried out for him to give up, to fall upon the ground and surrender.
he thought almost sadly. Through aching eyes he watched as Sergeant Saito weaved his way down the slope and came to attention, snapping a weary salute.
"The plane is just on the other side of this ridge, but I think the Chinese are already moving in."
"Thank you, Saito. Corporal Kantaro, take four men and try to slow our pursuers, but do not sacrifice yourself. That is an order. Just give us enough time to reach the plane."
Following the sergeant, Ikawa crept up to the brow of the hill and looked over. Yes, the giant was there. Intact. He had heard about the new bomber but this was indeed the first time he had actually looked at one, and he admired its sleek, sweeping lines.
"Captain, look over there!"
He looked where the sergeant was pointing. From out of the hills on the other side of the narrow valley, several hundred men dressed in dark uniforms were slowly advancing. He looked down at the plane again. Yes, the Americans had seen them, as well.
"And there, Captain, look," Saito said softly, "one of the Americans is going over to them. See, there along the trail, he's waving a white shirt."
"The fools. They'll soon find out."
For several minutes the captain watched the drama unfold. Behind him he could hear the high-pitched staccato of a machine gun. His corporal was slowing the Chinese bandits advancing from the other direction. For six days Ikawa's men had been running. Once they had numbered over a hundred, a garrison outpost, but that was before a running retreat that had left a trail of dead over forty miles. Now, with his back to the high mountains, the game was nearly up. Less than a score of his men were left, all knowing that death would overtake them before the day was out. And then came these Americans, landing right in a nest of the bandits who had been trying to cut off their retreat.
Ikawa half suspected what would happen. He should leave them and push on; they could serve him by momentarily slowing the pursuit. But a perverse curiosity compelled him to watch.