The IX
to your question, Lex . . . Yes, I am a Sir . By your references, a general. Although not one you’d find in any of your armies.”
    “So who do you serve, General? And how did we wind up in this place?”
    “Ah, the answer to that is quite complex. But it’s why I’m here.” Extending a huge hand back toward two logs positioned side by side, Beren said, “Come. Let’s sit down and talk. I know you’ll have a huge list of questions, and my associates and I will be happy to answer them in a way that will help you come to terms with what’s happening.”
    As they made their way to their seats, Lex asked, “Before I . . . before all . . . this , I was with some friends. We were in an ambush. Do you know if any of them survived?”
    “Oh, you mean your commander and the native people of that prairie you were snatched from? Yes, many of them are quite safe.”
    Lex almost dropped his mug again. “What? Do you mean Captain Houston is here?”
    “Of course. As are your fellow officers. What were their names again? Smith? Yes, that’s it, Wilson Smith. Samuel J. Clark, too. A charming surgeon with a most cordial manner. Oh, and quite a number of those indigenous folk. Their chieftains are quite remarkable. Do you know, they’ve remained calm during the entire relocation process? My colleagues are quite impressed.”
    Chieftains? Does he mean Snow Blizzard and his cronies?
    “I see,” Lex mumbled. Slumping down, he vented a huge sigh of frustration. Then he cursed himself for forgetting the obvious. “And what about the young woman we were escorting? And her uncle? Please tell me they made it?”
    “Lex! Relax. The process involved in bringing you here was quite complex. Let me assure you, almost your entire platoon survived the transition without incident. The young native girl and her protector included.”
    “Thank God!” At least I didn’t screw that aspect up. He gazed into the flames. I wonder what other surprises I’m going to get tonight.
    A ball of lightning appeared above the fire.
    Lex managed to retain a firm grip on his coffee cup until it spoke.
    Mac soared. Blinding white light engulfed him, burning him as it purified his soul. Transformed, he was lifted ever higher into the heavens.
    So this is what it feels like to die. Strange, I thought it’d be over before I knew it. Still, this isn’t so bad.
    The light dimmed. As his sight returned, he dared to peek between eyelids that had been squeezed firmly shut. A frantic, kaleidoscopic rush of conflicting impressions rushed past. They were followed by a deafening roar that threatened to swamp him. He screamed, only to discover no sound issued from his lungs.
    I must be riding the leading edge of the shockwave.
    Mac thought back to a previous time in his career when he’d been caught in a car bomb blast. On that occasion, he had been swatted away from the source of the explosion as if he were an insect in a gale. As the initial surprise receded, he had found himself sailing serenely through the air, as if swimming in a water-like medium. The trauma of the incident had turned everything into a torpid, slow-motion drama, and Mac remembered how weird it was to see every detail of the incident unfold around him so lethargically.
    But this was different.
    This experience was like being trapped in a wind tunnel, bowled along by a hurricane that was straining to overtake him. It overpowered his ability to think straight. Yet he hadn’t managed to qualify for Special Forces without being resilient.
    Straining against the gale, Mac twisted and turned as hard as he could in an attempt to check on the welfare of the men under his command. Nothing! I can’t see a damned thing.
    An overwhelming compression blossomed behind him. Mac felt as though he’d been impaled on a thousand red-hot needles. His skin bubbled and blistered. The burning sensation sank into the pit of his stomach, and he doubled up into a fetal position. Just when he thought

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