The next day we were taken to a mountainous area. Without provisions, a map, or compass, we were to find our way back to camp. All this time we would be harried by bands of wraiths. Not weak privates, like before, but corporals and sergeants. These were creatures who could fight. So we spent the next three days dodging wraith ambushes while searching for food, and trying to get some rest.
Early the fourth day, there was some optimism among the eight of us that had survived. We'd just come down a ridge when we saw the camp. A rope bridge was the last obstacle between us and camp, and we began the crossing.
Halfway across, my ears were assaulted by a trumpet blast. A squad of archers appeared from behind the bushes we'd just passed. The air filled with arrows. The man just in front of me was fatally hit, but he did not fall from the bridge. I turned to tell the man behind not to trip over the body. As I spoke, an arrow pierced his neck. I made it to the end of the bridge. Just as I was across, an arrow hit the ground inches from my foot. After that, I started running toward the gate and didn't stop until I was safely inside.
Only three of us made it across, back to camp. In nine days, I'd seen fifty-seven men lose their lives, many of them stronger than I was, most of them faster than me. I spent the next few hours sitting on my bunk, feeling guilty I was still alive. Later, I made my way over to the other survivors. One, a tall guy in his mid-twenties with a crewcut, made small talk. The other was a stringy kid who couldn't have been twenty. He just gazed blindly at the floor as I spoke. None of us slept much during that sleep period. We knew that tomorrow, only one of us would be left.
The next day, we were taken back into the mountains. Turrell led us up a narrow trail. We passed through a forest of unusually healthy-looking pine trees. The trail ended at the entrance to a long tunnel.
"This will be your last test," Turrell said. "If you survive, you'll have proven yourself. Your task is simple. There is but one other way out of this mine. You're to find it."
We entered the mine single-file. There were a couple of encouraging things about the mine. The support beams were in good shape, not rotted, as I had feared. Large patches of florescent moss grew along the walls and ceiling. After a few minutes, my eyes adjusted to the dim light, and I could see a reasonable distance away.
We continued down the tunnel, not saying a word to each other. We came to an intersection which must have been used as rest area. There were a few benches set into the floor, and lockers set into the walls.
"You wanna stop and try to figure this out," I said.
The tall guy sat down. "O.K.," he said. "But I don't know what's there to figure out."
"Why did Turrell call this the last test? It seems more than one ..." I became distracted when the kid began looking through the lockers. He pulled an old, rusty pickax from one of the lockers. He suddenly lunged at us. I sprang to my feet and moved, backed against the wall. The tall guy tried to get up, but the ax swung down, hitting him in the thigh. The kid then started hacking away at him.
I looked around trying to find anything to defend myself.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
He rose to his feet. "Don't you see what this is? We're supposed to kill the others."
"Treachery," he said, stepping over the bench where I was sitting. "All they've done to us, that has to be a quality they respect. I don't want to do this, but I don't want to become one of them."
I'd scraped a bit of the moss from the wall. As he began to raise the ax, I threw the moss at his face. He squinted and blinked as though he'd just seen a flashbulb go off. I rushed over and knocked him against the bench. He fell to the floor, still holding the pick ax.
I looked around and saw several branch tunnels. If I could get deep enough in the mine, I might be able to outmaneuver him and get the ax away. He was still on the ground when I started for one of the tunnels.
It became apparent that this was no mine. It was a carefully planned maze. Passageways intersected, became inclines leading up or down, and had plenty of nooks for ambush. It might have been nice to be able to stop and try to get a bearing on where I was going. But I knew the kid was too close for such niceties.
I began hearing water splashing. I followed the sound and found a passage leading to a ledge; beneath the ledge was an underground stream.
A stabbing chill pulsed through me as I lowered myself into the water. It was only about two feet deep and I was able to crawl along the bottom. I made my way in agony; sometimes having to submerge completely to avoid low hanging rocks. I was beginning to feel numbness set in. Then, as I rounded a bend in the stream, I felt a breeze against my back. I could see an opening. I stuck my arms outside and then squeezed myself through the narrow passage.
I was greeted by Turrell and a sergeant, who helped me from the stream. Turrell put a blanket around me. "What happened to your companions?" he asked.
My teeth were chattering, and I was shivering so violently, that it took me nearly ten minutes to answer. "The kid killed the one and tried to kill me," I said pausing the chattering for a moment.
"Sometimes larger groups will make it to this point. They go in there, with the same instructions as you, and soon a free-for-all breaks out. But eventually it's the skillful, the level headed and the lucky that survive."
"What'll happen to the kid?"
"By now, he's probably become hopelessly lost. He'll die of starvation. When he rises, he'll have the rank of colonel, and be your aide-de-camp, General Parker."
The induction ceremony was held four days later. Turrell gave me my white cape and tunic; after two weeks of nudity, it felt a bit strange wearing clothes again. Then MacNeal rode up and handed me my sword. Sheri, who'd been allowed to attend the ceremony, stood there impassively. It was as if she knew I did not deserve the honors. The fifty-nine unfortunates, now my command, were proof of this.
A carriage was brought up for MacNeal, Sheri, and myself. As we started for the village, Sheri looked at me and put her head on my shoulder. "Selma Kendall killed herself last night," She said.
I looked at MacNeal. "Were you telling the truth about the mines and forges?"
"The mines were depleted centuries ago," he said, in a low moan. "The forges are hard work, but beneath the dignity of a corporal's wife. As you're her husband's commanding officer, her assignment is your decision."
Early the next day I reviewed the fifty-nine wraiths who were now under my command. Turrell explained my responsibilities -- I was to continue developing my unit's ability to make warfare. It was a job I felt completely unqualified to have.
A carriage pulled up carrying a wraith dressed in a violet tunic embroidered with gold threads. Turrell introduced the wraith to me as a Count Lopez, a member of the royal court. This dour wraith spent the day observing my actions. A few times, I noticed him stroking his left wrist with his thumb. I moved closer and could see several large scars on that wrist.
That night, I went into the barracks to tell Kendall that his wife was assigned to make the officer's tunics -- the easiest job I could find. He was with O'Connell and Lomax. He nodded, and thanked me. But he seemed different. They all did; they were polite enough, but distant.
I decided to walk back to town. Leaving camp, I saw Turrell and asked him to accompany me. Then I asked him about Kendall's aloofness, and about MacNeal's dislike of me.
"The answer's the same in either case, sir," he said. "You're not one of them. Wraiths, particularly those of lower rank, grow rather contemptuous of humans. They'll respect your status, but that's it. MacNeal, on the other hand, comes from a long line of soldiers. He takes the war very seriously. For the upcoming batch of recruits, he's making us find men who have seen action."
"But why have you always been so cordial with me?"
Turrell smiled. "While I was never at anything as famous as Gettysburg -- like Corporal MacNeal, Confederate States Army -- I did have a military career. Saw a little action in World War Two, and made it to Major. I know your survival was more than luck. Despite your lack of military training, you have the necessary ability to lead."
"If you say so," I said with a shrug. "There never is going to be a war, is there?"
"The King says there will be one, and that's what counts."
"I see," I replied, glumly. "How long has this place been here?"
Turrell thought a bit before speaking. "I've spoken to soldiers who marched with the first Kings of Egypt. There are some old Vikings around who think this is Valhalla."
I turned and grabbed his shoulders. "What is it, really?"
"Please sir, there are things wraiths can understand much better than humans."
"Tell me anyway," I said, continuing down the road.
"This is Earth. Not of the past or future, or hidden in some cave. Basically, the world's like a stereo LP. Most humans exist on one track, and most wraiths on the other."
"The light," I said, thinking about the escape attempt. "The record has a skip in it. A passage in ... or out."
"Sir," Turrell said, alarm in his voice, "I know what you're thinking."
"Can it be done?"
"Yes, but you'll be tracked down and disciplined."
"What? Would I be executed? Does MacNeal hate me that much?"
"The King might overrule MacNeal's objections to that happening." He then looked at me and nodded.
"What about you?" I asked. "Knowing my intentions, would you turn me in?"
Turrell took a far deeper breath that his decomposed lungs needed. "I don't ever see you and MacNeal getting along. My experience is that friction between generals always hurts those beneath. Side with one, the other will feel betrayed. Try to stay neutral and bear the animosity of both."
As we arrived in town, Turrell asked for his leave. After he'd left, I went to a storage building, picked up a black tunic, and hid it under my cape. I then went to the restaurant and got Sheri. "Here," I said once we were outside of town, "get into this."
She took the garment and put it on. She looked at me with a puzzled look on her face. I pressed my fingers to my lips, and motioned for her to follow.
A little way down the road, I saw the sentry's post. There were several wraiths standing guard. I told Sheri to go around the trees to a point just beyond the sentries. I walked up to the gate and was greeted with salutes.
"Any units out?" I asked.
"No sir," a sergeant answered. "The portal's only open for three minutes this time of year. General MacNeal has a fit if a team doesn't make it back in before it closes."
"Fine, as you were," I said walking forward a few steps.
A tiny bit of light appeared a few feet from where I was standing. It soon grew, becoming a large luminous ball. When it touched the ground, I called for Sheri. The guards saw what I was doing, and rushed towards me. I pushed Sheri into the center of the orb. She disappeared in the light
Two wraiths grabbed me. They turned me to face their hut. MacNeal stepped outside, a pleased grin on his face. "Not unexpected," he said. "You know, I know a couple of delightful ways to punish insubordination."
"Against another general?"
"We are peers," he blustered. "But we are hardly equals."
"What are you going to do? Kill me?"
"But you wouldn't," I countered. "If you did, in three days, I'd outrank you. You'd still be a general, I'd be a count."
"You are still human," he sneered. "I could convince the King that your training was invalid. You'd be busted all the way back to recruit, all previously acquired ranks revoked."
"Then do it."
He squinted his eyes as he looked at me. "What did you say? You've been lucky thus far. But that's bound to run out."
"Eventually, and I'll become a wraith -- fine. But how many of these new recruits will die before that happens? How many men who deserve to be officers? Maybe even one who truly deserves to be a general."
He looked at me, his entire face contorted with hatred.
"Let me go," I said, "or bust me all the way back to recruit."
"When the war comes," he growled, "you'd be worse the worst of the Yankee generals. Probably turn traitor at the first setback." He walked right in front of me, his nose almost touching mine. "Get out of here!" he shouted. "Go back to your home and your wife."
The guards released my arms. I turned around and walked into the light.
I reappeared in a cemetery. I looked around and found Sheri sitting on a tombstone. "Read the names," she said, standing up.
They were ours.
"I wonder how it happened." I said. "They both seemed so healthy."
"You know," she said, cautiously, "We're going to have a lot of explaining to do."
"We could go back."
She laughed as she put her arms around me. As we left the cemetery, we could see the sun starting to rise. A bus drove by and a few people looked out, amused by our attire. Already, I could tell it was going to be another hot day. But I knew I'd sleep well that night.