“Captain Lewis?” Evans had climbed back down from his rock.
“I scoped it out a bit, sir. I think the Prince is coming around the bend. I can’t see him at all through the scope, but if I look through Coleman’s camera, I can see a kind of circle of faint dust devil looking things moving this way. And the air, it sort of shimmers, like a road on a hot day only not so much.”
“That’s the upside. Downside is, there’s thousands of ugly fuckers coming up the draw. That’s a choke point, the gap in the cliff is only a hundred feet wide. I see more goblins milling about down below, but they’re only coming up a regiment at a time. I can’t estimate how many are down there, but it’s at least a fuckload, maybe two. There’s at least five regiments already up here to replace the ones as just got fucked. They’re oriented on the cav, and moving in column.
“But you need to come look at this sir. I think I see some of the giants the Stryker guys were talking about.”
Lewis followed Evans up to the top of the rock. The climb was easy, the black, glassy rock on this side wasn’t even vertical, but the rock had sharp edges and he had to be careful to save his fingers.
Evans handed him the glasses. “Over that way, by the cut in the bluff the goblins are coming up.”
Lewis looked north. Nearly a mile out across level but sandy ground, he could see the edge of a low cliff that dropped a few dozen feet to the plain below. Somewhere not far past the drop off was the border with Iraq. The cliff was scalable and really presented no permanent obstacle to movement on foot. Still, it was far easier to come up the natural path created by a seasonal riverbed that in flood had eroded a draw through the cliff down to the lower ground below.
Up that path Lewis could see a goblin regiment marching. Their armor wasn’t silver or bronze colored, instead it was deep red; and their banners were long and black, hanging from tall standards. Their weapons are different, too, Lewis noted. Most of them carried long spears. Not pike length but shorter; and the blades on the end were long, like a sword on a stick. The file closers on each end of the ranks were carrying drawn swords, tips resting on their shoulders as they marched.
“Just to the left,” Evans prodded.
Lewis panned left, “I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly. Try this,” Evans said, and handed him Coleman’s digital camera. Lewis looked through the long lens of the camera, and he saw them. No shit, he thought, giants. He dropped the camera from his eye, and they disappeared.
“Well fuck me.”
“That’s what I thought, Captain. It was one thing, the goblins fucking with our aim. But at least they weren’t fucking invisible.”
He raised the camera again. There they stood, looking down on the goblins marching up the draw. One of the monsters was speaking with a couple of goblin soldiers, which provided a sense of scale. If the goblins were closer to five feet than six, those giants had to be better than 10 feet tall. Christ almighty.
“They’re tall,” Lewis said.
“No shit, Captain. I make it that the shortest one is over ten feet. The tallest might be over thirteen. And check out the sword the big bastard in the back is holding.”
Lewis looked toward the back of the pack. If that monster were human-sized, the sword would be huge. Seeing as the thing was twice the height of a man, that sword would have to be what, eight feet long?
“Jesus, that sword is longer than Arp. And I’d bet your ass it’s all magicked up like every other fucking thing.”
“I might bet Coleman’s ass, Captain. They could be just really big goblins, and nothing worse.”
“Evans, if they can disappear themselves, how likely is that?”
“Not likely at all.”
Lewis looked behind him, but he couldn’t see Father John. Probably still sitting on the back deck of the Buffalo, invisible to Lewis not through magic but simply because he was behind the vehicle’s cab. We’re invisible, too. At least I hope we are, he thought. Are these spells fire and forget – did the Archimandrite need to keep concentrating on it, or did it just work once he did whatever the fuck it was that brought it into being? I probably should know that. Too damn many variables.
Private Chen poked his head up over the lip of the boulder. “Captain?”
“Doc says he needs a word. Hawkins and Rodriguez are down sick.”
Shit, he thought. “Tell him I’m kind of in the middle of something. I’ll get to him when I can.”
The guns of the 116th Heavy Cavalry Brigade ramped up the volume of fire. That meant another goblin assault. Evans reported that the slight aerial disturbances that he suspected were the magically cloaked crusaders were only about a half mile out from the closest goblin formations moving out of the draw onto the upper plain, which were in turn a half mile in front of the Marines.
“Something should start soon. I hate the waiting,” Corporal Angelo said. His axes hung at his sides, waving slightly as the corporal watched the unfolding battle.
“Yes,” Lewis said absently.
The captain watched the movements of the goblins, trying to get a feel for how well-coordinated they were. Individually, each goblin regiment seemed coherent and well-ordered; disciplined. Despite the differences in equipment and organization he had observed, there was a real similarity.
But not enough similarity, he thought. I don’t think this is one army. Sure, they don’t have radios or GPS, but there just isn’t enough coordination Between the regiments. How can I exploit that?
His worries were multiplying. Too many goblins. Giants, whose capabilities and intentions were completely unknown. No sign of the dragon even though they’d seen it off in the distance several times over the last couple days. And that’s just the enemy.
Then there’s being completely cut off from the chain of command. No support was a mixed bag, he admitted. He didn’t have barracks lawyers and REMFs stepping on his dick every time he turned around, and that was liberating. But it also meant no supply, no support, and no intel. Hell, I even miss the bad intel. Enough, he thought.
“Angelo, get Gamez on the horn and tell him what we’ve seen. The Prince needs to know about the giants first off, and our order of battle assessment, too.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
The guns of the Snake River Brigade pounded the goblin regiments assembling in the plain before their defenses. Brogan wasn’t holding back and his men were poured on the fire. The red-armored goblins streamed across the half-mile wide stretch of flat ground at a fast trot, under fire the entire way.
The goblin high command seemed to have realized that this American unit was worth more care and attention. Rather than throwing regiments at the cav piecemeal, they had held back until they had a large force ready for the renewed assault. That sort of prudence was always worrying.
The goblins were coming up two regiments at a time, squeezing up the cut in narrow columns. Once up on the level ground they performed an evolution, transforming their long narrow formation into the broad front more suited for battle. Counting the two regiments that had just debauched onto the plain, here were now upwards of eight thousand red-armored goblins on this side of the bluff.
Pethoukis looked up from his binoculars. “Sir, these goblins are sharper than the ones we fought. Look how smooth they are – doing that on a parade ground is one thing, but at the quick step and under fire?”
“I think you might be right, First Sergeant.”. Lewis set down his binoculars and looked around, trying to soak in the whole battlefield.
“There’s something wrong.”
“Look at how those shells are falling. The shells from the 155’s should be bursting right over head – watch.”
Another salvo of howitzer rounds arrived momentarily. The gun crews fired at a furious pace, and by rights soft targets in open terrain should be little more than screams and strawberry jam after all the rounds sent their way.
The shells exploded nearly two hundred feet above the goblins. Marching as they were with their shields up, they were suffering almost no casualties.
“Why aren’t they adjusting their fire?” Pethoukis nearly shouted. The next barrage didn’t explode at all. One shell landed on a goblin, crushing it. No others were even hurt.
“I think they are adjusting their fire. It’s just not the 116th doing the adjusting,” Lewis said.
“I think the Prince was right when he said we weren’t fighting their ’A’ team. God, I hope this is their ’A’ team.”
The goblins split into two formations, one angling left and one right, to envelop the whole northern arc of the 116th’s position. They ate up the ground steadily, now untroubled by the mortars and artillery of the brigade fires battalion.
A quarter-mile out, their serene progress across the field was interrupted by the direct fire of tanks emplaced hull down behind the earthwork defenses the engineer battalion of the 116th had prepared.
“They’re aiming high.”
“The gunners should be aiming through cameras! Their aim should be fine!” Pethoukis said.
“Different armor, different war horns. Maybe they have different mojo, too. Or maybe they’re adapting.”
“I don’t like it when the enemy adapts.”
“I don’t think the cav is going to like it, either. They’re going to get hit with six full-strength regiments,” Lewis said.
“Dragon!” someone yelled. Lewis looked up. He didn’t see anything.
“Behind the cav!” Coleman said. Lewis looked past where the goblins were closing on the Army’s defenses. In the distance, about two miles out, he saw it.
“Fuck. Call Brogan, let him know. Then tell the Prince,” Lewis ordered. He lifted up the binoculars again and trained them on the approaching dragon. Arp ran toward the radio in the humvee.
On the run in Ramadi, no one had ever gotten a close look at one. They moved fast, and the tendency of things to explode in their presence made leisurely observation not terribly clever. The thing was right out of legend. But if the legend was based on this reality, the legend got a few things wrong.
“It’s fucking gorgeous,” Evans said.
“Evans, your boyfriend is about to light up a cavalry brigade,” Pethoukis said.
The dragon was stunning even at a distance of miles. Long, sinuous and graceful, it swam through the air with a languid elegance. The wings were huge, almost overshadowing the body.
“That thing must be as big as Hornet,” Lewis said. The wingspan had to be at least 40 feet, he thought. An F/A-18 fighter wasn’t any bigger. The dragon had four legs, tucked back for flight but obviously not very long compared to the length of the body. More like landing gear than something intended for running, he thought, but then ferrets had short legs and they moved pretty fast.
The colors were the things the legend got most wrong. The stories always had red dragons, or black dragons. This one had stripes and whorls, for the most part gold and bronze but with contrasting areas of black and deep red. Evans was right. It was beautiful.
And fast. As the goblins charged up the slope the dragon stooped, plummeting a thousand feet to the deck in seconds. It lined up on the row of armored vehicles for all the world like a fighter setting up for a strafing run.
On the left of the 116th’s front, a pair of Bradley fighting vehicles engaging the onrushing goblins with 25 mm plunging fire from their Bushmaster chainguns. No one but the Marines seemed to be aware of the dragon.
The Brad didn’t stand a chance. Lewis supposed you’d have to call it breathing fire, but it wasn’t anything like a flamethrower. The Hollywood CGI artists fucked that up completely. What burst from the dragon’s mouth was bright like an arc welder, yellow light with a blueish cast that left spots in his vision for minutes after.
The arc of flame hit the rightmost Brad just aft of the turret. The bolt of fire penetrated the armor in a fraction of a second and blew the walls of the vehicle out laterally. For once, an explosion on the battlefield actually did look like the movies, as the dragon fire burned clear through the vehicle and detonated over a hundred gallons of diesel fuel in the Brad’s belly tank. The Bradley exploded in a greasy fireball, sending a thick column of greasy black smoke skyward.
The dragon was already gone. Flapping its huge wings to maintain altitude, it ran down the line. Every few seconds, the dragon spit out another hellish blast of sun-bright fire with unerring accuracy. Abrams and Bradleys both went up in flames as the dragon fire penetrated the weaker top-side armor.
The men of the 116th were fully engaged with half a division of goblins charging at a full run, sword-spears held high and screaming in time with the beating of their drums. They couldn’t even shoot at the dragon as every bullet was needed to slow, even infinitesimally, the tide of red-armored soldiers assaulting from below.
Lewis and his men were silent. There was nothing that they could do except wait and pray that the rest of the plan worked.
“Mother. Fucker,” Evans said quietly.
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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Two.