The trolls pulled back under fire. Lewis let the point of his sword drop to the ground. When they’d cleared 100m or so with no sign of returning, he gave the order to cease-fire. The Prince raised the visor of his helmet with his shield arm and looked behind him. Noting the obvious lack of an Odo or indeed the bulk of his cavalry, he looked to Lewis and raised an eyebrow.
Lewis said, “Odo. West.” Lewis pointed to the west with his sword, and looped the sword around, sketching out the movement he had ordered Odo to take. He pointed now to the east, “Cav coming!”
The Prince looked at the trolls still retreating, and at the massed goblins behind them. He assessed the situation and nodded curtly. “Oc.” Raimond walked off.
Pethoukis finishing shouting orders, and Fagan’s team of airmen came up carrying bags of water bottles and MREs for the men on the line. Most of the men, Marines and knights both, sat down on the sand to rest while they could. One Marine laid down flat and poured water over his head. Lewis felt the ache spread throughout his body. He felt burnt, muscles sore and bruised. His armor kept the pointy bits away from his skin, but didn’t stop the impact from hurting. If he lived, he was going to be bruised to shit. He sheathed the sword and felt a moment of disorientation as the world snapped back to color. It felt smaller somehow, but warmer and more… human.
The first sergeant joined him. Pethoukis looked like death warmed over; tired and sweaty.
“How you doing, Mike?” Lewis asked.
“I don’t know how many times I almost fucking died,” he replied. He sat down on a smallish boulder and took a long pull from a water bottle labeled in Arabic. “Gotta be a new record, anyway.”
He took another drink and handed the bottle to Lewis. “I owe the Baron like, twenty cases of beer. And a good bottle of scotch. Fuck, hookers and an all-expenses trip to Thailand.”
Lewis laughed. “Siegfried might like it. I doubt the good fathers would.”
“I know, right? I can get my head around magical powered armor, and ginsu swords. I’ve seen enough CGI wizards in movies and shit that even that crazy pillar of fiery death didn’t even trip me up. Fucking cool, actually. But these priests, they’re as serious as Father Basil ever was back in Detroit. But Father Basil couldn’t blow shit up with his mind. Not that I ever saw, anyway.
“I don’t know what to make of them. I’ve gone to church but I never thought the shit could be real. Really, real; you know?”
“Maybe it’s all magic, like technology we don’t get. Like Coleman was saying, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology…’” Lewis said.
“That’s not how Father Pietr explained it. And speak of the Devil,”
Father Pietr joined them as the Prince and Baron Siegfried walked over. “Captain Lewis. First Sergeant.” He nodded at the two Marines politely.
“Whatever the Father did when he blessed us feels gone. I’m beat.”
Father Pietr said, “First Sergeant, you may not feel it as you did at first, but a blessing lasts… a long time.” He smiled.
“I sure as fuck hope so. Those troll motherfuckers are not staying away.”
The Prince looked pissed. The expression looked odd on his normally cheerful countenance. Father Pietr translated, “Thomas, what have you done with my cavalry?”
Lewis tried to look contrite. “Your highness, there was no time to consult. I sent Odo west…” Lewis explained his reasoning and what he had seen to the Prince and the Baron.
“In any event, Odo agreed with my judgment. And it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”
The Prince grinned. “True enough, Thomas. I confess I’ve used that logic on my father many times, myself.” He looked over at his aide, the Baron, and shrugged. “If things are as you say, then indeed I might have given the same order. I would have preferred to give it myself, mind you,” he mock-glared at Lewis, and then smiled.
“It is what it is. Better that we take the fight to them than sit here like old women and wait to die. But you do realize what that means for us, here?”
“I do, your highness, I do,” Lewis responded somberly.
“Very well. We will hold. We can do no other. Let me see to my men.”
“Yes, sir.” Lewis turned to Pethoukis. “Let’s finish getting the men topped off with water and food. Things are going to heat up again soon enough.” Lewis said.
“Will do, Captain. Will do.”
Crusaders and Marines took their places again on the line. They stretched and readied themselves, checking gear and ammo. The trolls had pulled back, but they hadn’t routed. They regrouped on the edge of effective machine gun range, harassed by mortar fire and Evans. Lewis noted that the giants had moved to the front of the reforming trolls. Apparently, they would lead the next assault. Fuck, he thought.
Lewis and Pethoukis stepped down from the line and walked alone behind the line, doing a visual check of preparations. “Pethoukis, have the mortars to keep the pressure on the front of the line. Keep firing until they’re right on us.”
“Yes, sir.” Pethoukis lowered his voice, “Tom, you sure about sending the crusaders off? Our asses are going to be hanging out here without the support.”
“I’m not.” He laid a hand on the hilt of the sword. “When I had this in my hand, Mike, I could see it. I saw us chewed up and spit out a hundred different ways. Sending Odo out – it was the only choice that didn’t end with us gut shot and bleeding out.”
Pethoukis turned a skeptical eye on Lewis. “That thing is showing you the future? Seriously?”
Lewis didn’t answer for a moment. “No, it’s not like a prophecy or anything. It’s like… knowing all the outcomes.” He paused again. “Or most of them. And most of them were shitty. I chose the best path that I could see. And it’s no guarantee that we won’t still end up dead.” The two Marines walked on for a while, watching their men prepare for battle again.
“Mike, you remember that story you told me about your uncle when he went deer hunting?”
Pethoukis smiled. “Papa never let that one go.” He looked over at the cav’s hill, and spit on the sand. He smiled a more evil smile. “I still don’t like it. Too much to go wrong. Too many places to fuck up. They…” he hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the trolls, “aren’t going to cooperate.
“Captain, I always say it’s a ratfuck and it’s all going to end in fire. I really don’t want to be right this time.”
Lewis looked at the gathering trolls. “It’s the only way.”
“Evans, you need to concentrate on the giants. Work your way in from the sides, but every round needs to have a giant’s name on it,” Lewis said.
“Give me a hand, here,” Lewis asked. His muscles ached and burned, but he put an arm on Evans’ shoulder and jumped up onto the rock. With the hollow crump of mortar fire, and the more distant detonations as backdrop, he addressed his Marines.
“Men! The universe has once again seen fit to pinch a giant loaf on our beloved Corps. More goblins – thousands of ‘em – have joined the party. If we stay here, we will be corncobbed. If we run, we will be corncobbed.
“But we are going to come up smelling like fucking roses. The only way out is to hit the fuck back. Our task is to hold here and kill. We’ve been killing the enemy retail so that we can start killing him fucking wholesale.
“The Snake River Brigade will sortie from their position and assault from the right. And… I have sent the bulk of the crusader cavalry to flank the enemy on the left. We are going to do them like Hannibal did the Romans, or like Evans does his sister. Fuck them hard.”
The men laughed, if not easily. A few cries of “Oorah!” rang out. Lewis drew the sword, and raised it high.
“Let them throw goblins, trolls, giants, space aliens and the goddamned tooth fairy at us.
“We will stand here and they will fucking break.”
This time, the Marines joined in shouting, “Oorah!”
Mortar rounds rained down on the advancing enemy. The shells were fused to burst a dozen feet off the ground, head height for the massively armored giants. That armor shielded them almost completely from the 17,000 mph fragments that lanced out from every explosion, but couldn’t protect them entirely from the blast effects. The giants staggered with each round, as waves of concussive force found the gaps and crevices in their armor. Lewis had felt that force; the gut-churning over-pressure and the disorientation and deafness it caused. The giants couldn’t be immune to that. Or maybe it’s just pissing them off.
The giants and their troll minions had hundreds of yards to cover; a gauntlet of machine gun fire, mortars, grenades and the massed fire of Lewis’ company. They would take casualties, but not enough; then they would charge to meet their tormenters with sword and axe. That was still minutes away.
Above him, the shimmering dome that had protected them since the battle was joined brightened and abruptly disappeared. What the fuck? Lewis tried to understand what was happening, but the interplay of magical forces above him had grown far too complex. A ridiculously tangled rat’s nest of forces writhed and surged, and he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. As he strained to see, parts of the scene became clearer, as though the sword were attempting in some way to interpret and represent to his eyes the arcane energies warring in the air above him.
Lewis looked outward, with the senses the sword had given him. Father Theodore rode beside Odo as they left the hill from the back. His hands made the sign of the cross, and the crusaders dimmed, but did not disappear. Lewis could still see the riders, ghostlike and incorporeal behind the gossamer net of energies that Theodore had woven around them. From the center of that net a came a skein of dimly glowing ribbons of light, braided, writhing and alive. It did not rise up and greet the emanations of the goblins over the plain; instead it hugged the ground and flowed back to Father John where he stood on the MRAP.
The Hierodeacons no longer maintained the shield, and they seemed not to be concerned with the delicate fabric of energies that had, briefly, allowed radio communications to resume. That tapestry Lewis could see fraying and fading over the ground between his position and the Snake River brigade. Now Jerome and Ambrose had crafted mirror-like diamonds, weightless aetheric shields they wielded like kites; with deft movements of their hands interposing them between dark energies and their targets.
While the apprentices handled the defense, the Archimandrite coiled the energy flowing across the desert from Father Theodore energy around his arms and added to it. Lewis felt the power coil up, compressed by Father John’s will into something fierce and unimaginable. A density of purpose, golden and scintillating; wholesome yet terrible. Lewis averted his eyes.
“Holy fuck!” Pethoukis shouted. Lewis felt every hair not just stand on end, but make real efforts to leave his body altogether. The very air seemed to glow as if every molecule emitted its own eldritch light. All around he felt heat and pressure, so thick that for a moment he couldn’t breathe.
Like a river of incendiary gas from god’s own flamethrower, the light arced over the heads of the giants and trolls, hammering down upon the narrow thread of black smoke that snaked into the sky. The inimical powers that the goblin mages had summoned were crushed in fire, dispersed and harried. Streams of fire flowed out, searching and consuming. Lewis felt the evil presence depart like a wind he’d been leaning against had suddenly failed. He’d hardly noticed it, but once it was gone the hot desert air felt cooler, and cleaner.
The Prince looked over and grinned widely. He smashed an armored fist into his open hand. “Motherfuckers!” he shouted in his thick accent.
“Who taught him that?” Lewis asked.
“Sorry, Captain.” Pethoukis said. “I think we won that round, though.”
“Oc?” asked the Prince
“Oc,” Lewis replied.
The giant stumbled over the low – for him – wall of troll corpses. He righted himself and charged up the hill. Jesus, that fucker is huge, Lewis thought. And Jesus, that sword is fucking huge.
Lewis threw up his shield to catch the blow, and screamed as the sword hit with the force of a thunderbolt. The impact drove him down, and his boots slid backwards on the sand as he strove to keep his balance. The pain in his left shoulder left him gasping as he charged back. The giant pulled back his enormous sword for another swing; Lewis darted forward.
Up close, the size of the giant was beyond intimidating. Once, he had snuck up onto a diorama at the Natural History museum where they’d mounted a polar bear reared up on its hind legs. At seventeen Lewis had come up to the waist of the bear. This was worse. Lewis looked up at the monstrous head, encased in slab like armor like the prow of a battleship four feet above. The sword reached out, hunting for a weak spot and finding none. The tip of the sword grated along the armor, leaving a bright scar a foot and a half long on the breastplate but doing no harm to the giant inside.
Machine gun rounds flowed in a torrent over the heads of the crusaders and Marines, leaving silvery splashes of lead where they scored the giants’ armor. Mortar rounds hit just behind the leading edge of the enemy advance, sending showers of shell fragments lancing between gaps in the line. Lewis felt them ricochet off his armor, and weird eddies from the blast waves hammered his ear drums and made his stomach squirm.
He was inside the giant’s defenses, but that meant shit against a twelve-foot tall titan. The giant brought the pommel down, and Lewis’ sword-guided reflexes were barely fast enough to get his shield up and save his head. The impact sent fresh pain lancing down his arm. Lewis stabbed down, piercing the lighter armor on the giant’s foot. The giant screamed and lashed out, catching Lewis on the chest with a gauntleted fist. He swayed back, rocked by the blow while the hobbled giant struggled to step forward and came down on one knee.
Lewis lunged, putting all his strength into the thrust and spitted the neck of the dumbfounded giant behind it. His hand almost went numb with the shock. Lewis peered through the narrow slit of his visor at the welling blood around the rent in the gorget and time once again slowed into a deadly rhythm.
“Dragon!” Evans shouted. “Dragon inbound!” From his sniper perch atop the boulder, he could see better than anyone on the hill save Lewis. The captain looked up, and boiling up out of the sand was the dragon. Why it had hidden, he didn’t know; but now it rose up behind the giants, behind the regiment of trolls. It couldn’t fly after the damage its wings had suffered so it ran; heedless of the goblins and trolls it crushed as it came.
The tiger stripes were covered with dust and sand, muting their stark and sinuous beauty. The dragon reared up like a cobra, its tattered wings outstretched. Its forelegs left the ground, looking almost like the tiny arms of a T-Rex; but tiny only in comparison to the rest of the massive dragon. Each of those claws were probably half a foot long.
After the blast that had slain the goblin summoners, it surely knew where the thing that had hurt it was. And it was coming to kill it.
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Continue on to Chapter Thirty-One.