Chapter Twenty-Five

Coleman’s profanity broke the spell that held the Marines still. Lewis turned back and saw the archimandrite stagger. The man’s face was white and his eyes were open but unseeing. Lewis started toward him, stopping only when Father Pietr placed a hand on his chest.

“No need, Captain. The father is very tired. He will recover in a moment.” At Lewis’ raised eyebrow, the priestmonk continued, “Men can learn magic, Thomas. But dragons are magic. It is their nature. Father John is so very tired because the dragon is so strong in magic. Pray God his sacrifice was enough.” Pietr crossed himself, and Lewis found himself doing the same, though he hadn’t since high school.

“Enough?” Lewis asked.

“Magic is treachery. Treacherous? Magic is treacherous, and it comes at great cost, both to the body and to the soul. The greater the magic, the greater the cost, Thomas. We must hope that his sacrifice was worth the cost,” He held up two fingers, “That the dragon is out of the fight, and that the Archimandrite is strong enough still to face that which is to come.”

Bright sunlight warmed Lewis’ brow. He looked up, and the shadow which had followed them for hours was gone. Father John shook his head like he was shaking off sleep. His eyes were focused now, and some color had returned to his face. He looked up at the Pietr and Lewis and spoke.

Father Pietr translated for Lewis, “There is no need to hide any longer. The enemy knows us now.” Pietr turned back to Lewis. “The enemy will have its own adepts. They will attempt to strike us down.”

Coleman came over with a bottle of gatorade for the wizard. The Archimandrite drank it greedily. “Dude looked like he ran a marathon, sir.”

Lewis nodded. “Coleman, stay with the Father. Get him what he needs. Keep him safe.” The father finished the bottle. He looked better. Lewis hoped he was.

“Aye, aye, sir.”

***

Odo rode out from his division, kicking his horse into high gear. In moments he outpaced his men and headed straight for Lewis.

The strategos crested the hill and dropped from his saddle. He handed the reins to a confused looking private and strode over to the Marine captain. Odo doffed his helmet, and behind his grey beard was a large smile. “Good fight!” he shouted with an atrocious accent. The Marines near him laughed.

“Oorah!” Pethoukis yelled, to more cheers.

Father Pietr appeared almost instantly. The man is uncanny, Lewis thought. Through Father Pietr, Odo said, “Thomas, once my men have passed through your lines, my captains will marshall them there,” he said and pointed to the shallow bowl empty but for a few of Lewis’ vehicles. “It will be a short while. You hold here, for the Prince, yes?”

“Yes. We’ll do that thing.”

“When we are ready, we will move up and take the line.” The general looked around him, and said, “Now, who shot my giant?”

Lewis smiled and pointed at the Stryker parked hull down behind the sandy ridge. Pethoukis climbed up the rear ladder and banged on the hatch. Lieutenant Burke popped his head out a second later. “What’s up, sunshine?”

“Nice shooting, tex.”

“First one’s always free. The next will cost you.”

“Send me a bill. Someone wants to talk to you.” Pethoukis pointed at the Strategos in his black armor. Burke clambered out onto the roof of the Stryker and dropped down to the sand. Odo strode over and wrapped him in a bear hug, picking the thin lieutenant completely off the ground. He set him down, and spoke sternly. Burke looked confused. “What was that, sir?” Burke asked.

Pietr translated. “The Strategos said, ‘I was about to kill that giant. You were very rude to interrupt.’”

“General, sir, your sword was broken.”

Odo laughed. “True! You, I name, ‘Giant Killer.’ I owe you my life. That enormous bastard had me. But you! You will be cleaning what’s left of him out of my armor!”

Burke smiled broadly and saluted. “Yes, sir.”

Lewis walked up. “Saddle up, Giant Killer. The dance is about to start. How are you on ammo?”

“Low, sir. We shot through all the HE and penetrators. Each of my trucks has two rounds canister. We have two salvos for the trolls, and then we’re done.”

“As soon as you’re shot dry, you get ready to bail. Keep up fire with your secondaries until my men start to pull out.”

“Yes, sir, captain sir.”

“Get it done, Lieutenant.” The Lieutenant saluted as Lewis and Strategos Odo turned to deal with the incoming crusaders.

***

Lewis hurried along the perimeter. Following him were Father Pietr and John’s apprentice, the Hierodeacon Jerome. Now that their cloak was gone and the crusaders inbound, Pietr felt that an assault was imminent. Well, no shit.

Two assaults, really. One he could see brewing; the goblins and trolls gathering on the plain before him. The pace of this medieval warfare was maddening. Most ways, it was no different than a life in the Marines had accustomed him to. Lots of waiting. But the tempo was different. Without airpower, armored vehicles and modern communications everything was necessarily slower.

The other, though. Enemy wizards have our number, and we don’t know when they’ll be calling. Or what the fuck happens when they do. None of which changed the fact that he had too much to do and not enough fucking time to do it in.

“Van Buskirk!” he shouted.

“Here, captain.” The Marine Lieutenant had regained his footing rapidly once Lewis and his men had popped him out of durance vile in the Saudi border station. Frankly, Lewis thought, he’d done outstanding work getting his mixed bag of grab-assing stragglers shaped up into something almost like a unit. Fucking remarkable achievement for the few days he’d had.

“Lieutenant, your time in the sun has arrived,” Lewis said. He pointed toward the goblin regiments reforming on the plain. “You’ll hold the right flank against the goblins. You need to keep the men on the line until the crusaders come up and relieve them. I think that will be the weakest part of their assault.

“If we had a different mission, I’d send everything against that weak flank. Exploit it, hard. Right now, I need you to just hold. Once the crusaders take over the line, we pull back and mount up. They’ll handle breaking contact.

“You’ll be on your own here. I’m taking my company, reinforced by the Prince, his guard, and Burke’s strykers to hold against the the other flank.”

Lewis pointed at the slender apprentice. “This is the Hierodeacon Jerome. He’s Father John’s understudy. He’s going to mojo you up.”

Father Pietr interjected, “Father Jerome will set guards and wards, which will hinder the assault. He will also perform a blessing. May it strengthen you in your trials.”

“Lieutenant, you heard the man. Gather everyone round, and then show him your perimeter. Pietr will stay here to translate. Remember, you need to hold. If they get round us, we’re all fucked.”

“Understood.” van Buskirk smiled, “I’ll play up the mojo thing, sir.”

“Good.”

***

Jerome walked the Perimeter with Pietr, setting up the wards. The men were used to that now, they’d seen it every night since Iraq. The blessing was different. Most of these kids had been in church, some more than others. Not a one of them had ever seen a priest who didn’t just hope, but knew, that his blessing would have real and immediate effects. Corporal Ray was shaking his hands nervously. His family was backwoods Baptist, getting a blessing from an robed and bearded priest would be unsettling enough. To have that blessing make you feel like you just snorted a handful of cocaine and steroids? A lot for a Baptist boy to take.

The air suddenly thickened. Lewis’ skin tightened like he was too close to a fire, though he felt no heat. Jerome stopped his incantation and looked up and to the north. He crossed himself hurriedly and took a deep breath before beginning a new chant, deeper and faster. He moved his hands in a subtle pattern.

Lewis couldn’t see that anything was different, but everything felt wrong. His skin crawled and throat seized up. Even in Fallujah, he’d never sensed danger this strongly. With an effort, he took a deep breath. Pucker factor about 9.5. He drew his sword. The world flickered into greyscale for a moment, then back. Something’s happening. Lewis looked north, but all he could see was the goblin regiments marshaling.

Wait… Wisps of smoke twisted up into the sky above the center of the mass of goblins. Campfires? He’d have dismissed it but for the fact that a few yards above the tops of the waving banners the smoke stopped like it hit a ceiling; it spread outwards and stretched toward him.

Jerome finished assembling his mojo. He lifted his arms, and the arms of his green robes slipped down to his shoulders. Between his hands a small spark hovered. It looked like the business end of an arc welder and Lewis squinted at the brightness. The Hierodeacon made a fist of his right hand, and wound up like he was on a pitcher’s mound. The spark drifted lazily back over his shoulder like it was on a bungee cord. He made as if to throw, and the spark throbbed brighter, pulsing.

Jerome threw. The spark shot up, arcing skyward and growing as it rose. It exploded, silently.

“What the fuck was that?” asked an Army private.

“Sir, what’s going on?”

Van Buskirk shouted, “Belay that shit. Let the wizard deal with the magic shit. You worry about shooting at what I tell you to shoot at.”

The men settled, though they were clearly uneasy. Lewis motioned van Buskirk over. “Can you see it?”

“See what, sir?”

Lewis pointed up. He said, “When the spark exploded, it made a dome. I can see it almost, it’s like a heat mirage.”

Van Buskirk looked up. “No, sir, I can’t.”

Lewis looked at his sword. “Carry on Lieutenant. Let me speak to Jerome.”

“Yes, sir.”

Lewis looked to his left, back toward the where the vehicles were parked. On top of the Buffalo, he could see Father John. He gripped the sword tighter. He tried to look harder. Nothing. What the fuck am I doing? This is bullshit, he thought. He was about to put up his sword when he saw a nimbus of light surround the archimandrite’s outstretched hands. Where an instant before Lewis had seen only sky, he saw a ominous dark cloud gathered at the shimmering edge of the mystical shield that Jerome had erected.

The light John had summoned was insubstantial, hued in crimson; yet Lewis had never seen anything so impossibly real and solid. The incorporeal light made Archimandrite John and the twenty-five ton armored vehicle he stood on seem as thin as a morning fog about to burn off in the light of the morning. The light took shape. Not like the phoenix that had brought down the dragon but frozen thunderbolts, jagged and many-armed. Like an orchestra conductor, John marshaled them in the air above him. Lewis looked about him. None of the soldiers or Marines could see it.

The black cloud sent tendrils of smoke like questing fingers toward the shimmering dome that Jerome had manifested. They touched and Jerome cried out in pain, bent over like he’d been gut shot. The apprentice slowly straightened. His dome stretched inwards, compressed not by force but by pure ill intent. There was a buzzing in the air, almost inaudible but unnerving.

Van Buskirk’s men were looking around for the source of the sound. Seeing nothing, they ducked their heads like they were expecting incoming fire. The malevolence in the air raked Lewis’ nerves. This was no magical version of artillery, lethal but senseless. He could feel, though he had no idea how, that something conscious and evil was outside that fragile shield. It was hungry and it wanted in.

Jerome staggered again. The dome shattered. In pieces, it was a kaleidoscope made of molecule-thin glass floating in air and reflecting sunlight and shadow alike. Like a cuttlefish swimming over a coral reef, the shadows for a moment took the form of the spinning shards before reverting back into formless night impossibly present in the middle of a daytime sky.

The frozen lightning, in ordered ranks above the Buffalo, launched themselves at the Archimandrite’s command. An incandescent thunderbolt so bright it hurt Lewis’ eyes stabbed into the heart of shadow. The shadow absorbed the light, and even the sun seemed to dim.

Lewis peered at the shadow, trying helplessly to discern the contours of this new battle but seeing nothing. The buzzing stopped, and time slowed. The world turned grey, and Lewis saw inside the shadow and felt hatred. A glimmer of light like a firefly in an evening fog lit, and faded. Lewis felt his blood pulse in his temple.

Jerome cried out again, not in pain but in joy. The shadow cracked open, burnt by the light of a dozen suns kindled within it. Pillars of light speared out from the shadow through the rifts in the shadow, spotlighting the ground and drawing cries of surprise from the men around him. The light and the shadow both faded away to nothingness. Father Jerome collapsed, and Pietr ran to assist him.

Lewis scanned around him, but could see no immediate threat. Away in the middle of the goblin army he sensed a malevolent power, quiescent for now. This attack at least was over. He strode towards the two crusader clerics. Jerome was standing now. He looked like he’d been through a three-day firefight, but he was alive.

“What the fuck was that, Father? And why could I see it and no one else could?” Lewis demanded.

“Thomas, I think you know why.” The Priestmonk looked pointedly at Lewis’ sword. “Do you expect your enemies to come to battle without their guns? No more would this enemy be without their black summoners and witches.”

***

Lewis stood beside one of the large obsidian boulders that lined the edge of his hill, his left hand on the hilt of his sword. To either side of him, streams of crusaders rode by on horseback. The smell of horses and sweat overwhelmed the flinty smell of the desert. He smelled leather and steel; and blood.

The 116th was pounding the ravine, trying to slow the influx of new regiments. Evans reported a half dozen regiments moving toward the cav’s position, gearing up for another assault. He lifted his binoculars and watched the shells fall. They were exploding dozens of yards above the heads of the marching goblins, shell fragments raining down on armor like hail on a tin roof and causing as much damage. Goblin countermeasures were improving.

Fuck. Black summoners and witches; making guns useless and calling on creepy fucking evil clouds to attack us. God, I love my job, he thought. He laid his hand on his sword, and again he could feel, what? No other word for it, he could feel the evil that was coiling in the midst the goblin regimental banners. He felt eyes upon him. An almost unbearable sensation of vertigo overcame him; and for a moment he felt he was falling not down but across the sand toward the enemy.

“Shit!” he shouted, but with a flash of light the feeling passed.

“Sir?” Pethoukis asked.

Lewis didn’t look back. He called over his shoulder, “Pethoukis, radio the Prince…”

“Can’t, sir. Gamez bought it. He’s gone.”

“Shit.”

“The Prince will be here in a few minutes, anyway.”

“Okay, see if you can get Brogan on the horn.”

Pethoukis went over to the radio. Lewis looked back to the battle. Like an awkward moment in a dinner party, the battle was suddenly almost silent. The guns were momentarily quiet, and with both divisions of the Prince’s men having broken contact with the enemy the boiler room clamor had dropped. Clearly, he could once again hear the drums of the enemy, counterpointed with the sharp blaring of their horns.

Odo’s men had pulled even with the Prince, only a quarter mile in front of him. Some of the men-at-arms were riding double; the giants had wreaked havoc on their horses.

More smoke began to rise over the goblin army.

***

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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Six.