“Captain? I’ve got Brogan.” Lewis stepped down into the hollow behind the boulder and grabbed the receiver from Pethoukis.
“Well that worked, Marine,” Brogan said. Well, he doesn’t mince words, does he? “Drones are showing another ten regiments of goblins coming up that cut in the bluff. Artillery is keeping them bottled up…”
“Sir, your arty is losing effectiveness by the minute. Without the magic that the crusaders gave you, you and your men would likely be already dead. In front of the 10000 goblins coming up the ramp despite all your artillery fire are another 6000 goblins getting ready to hit you right fucking now.
“We need to decisively break contact and get the fuck out of here.”
Brogan broke in angrily, “My mission is to conduct a reconnaissance in force…”
Lewis lost his patience. “Colonel, all due respect and all, but what the everlasting fuck to you need to learn here? Are we still worried about building democracy here? I tell you that the Prince and the intelligence he and his embassy represent are crucial to the national fucking security of the United fucking States, and you want to play footsie with an enemy that outnumbers *and* outguns you?” I think he’s still shaken by what the dragons did to his pretty tanks, Lewis thought.
Brogan answered, “Captain, what do you suggest we do, cut and run?”
“Colonel, our fight isn’t here. It’s back home. re you going to sit on that hill and recon until you’re beat down to nothing?” Lewis sighed. “Not to be melodramatic, Brogan, but these men and this knowledge might be all that keeps human fucking race from being ground into paste.”
The radio speaker emitted a howl of feedback. “Fuck!” Pethoukis shouted and reached to turn down the volume. Before he could touch the knob, the sound ceased; replaced by a low raspy hum of static.
Lewis heard fragments of words break through the static, but nothing he could understand. Coleman came over and started fiddling with the set. The static dropped down, and Lewis heard, “…ewis. Lewis!
Lewis looked out toward the goblins. Nothing could be seen. He touched one finger to the pommel of his sword, and heard a deep hum.
Lewis spoke slow and clear into the mike, “Colonel, the enemy is hitting our communications. Like they did back in Ramadi. The crusaders are regrouping at my position. The Dragon is down, hopefully out. You’re cavalry for chrissakes. I suggest you go cavalry or something.”
“Capt…” The howl returned.
The sun was lowering, taking some of the edge off the heat of the day. Shadows of obsidian pillars and hulking Strykers stretched toward him. Lewis sat on a small boulder to rest for a moment. Without thinking, his hand brushed his sword. Though he had become somewhat accustomed to the effect, the sudden overlay of another reality was jarring.
The shadows reaching out now reached out for him. Darker and more threatening, no longer just an innocent artifact of light. He looked around, and outside the ambit of the protective energies that the Archimandrites had raised gathered shadows. They prowled, looking for some gap they could slither through with an cunning that Lewis could feel in his bones. With an effort, he took his hand from the sword and rubbed the back of his neck.
The first sergeant came from around the Strykers and walked over. As he approached, Pethoukis looked over his shoulder at the sun. “Still plenty of daylight.”
“More than enough time for the enemy to get up to the devil’s work,” Lewis said. “Make sure the mortar teams are clear on priority targets.”
“All done. Ammo is served out, Burke knows what to do and when, Coleman is minding the wizards and I changed my underwear. Captain, it’s as ready as it’s going to get. Which means that we can hang out, have a smoke and wait to get fucked.”
Lewis smiled. “Alright, Mike. You got one to spare?” As Pethoukis fished in his pockets for a pack of Saudi smokes, Lewis stood. Across the shallow bowl in the center of their position the Prince rode, attended by his royal guard. Raimond reined in his horse and dropped from his saddle next to Lewis, his helmet under his arm. Father Pietr appeared a step behind him.
The Prince put a hand on Lewis’ armored shoulder. In English he said, “Thomas. We meet again.”
“Good afternoon, sir.”
“Thomas, this is a battle day; a war day. No more of your ‘sirs’ or I will gut you myself.” The prince half pulled his sword from its scabbard, but there was a wry smile on his face.
Lewis drew up and saluted a slow, parade ground salute. “Yes, sir.” Raimond was taken aback for a moment, but tipped his head back and roared laughter. Pethoukis joined him. The Prince’s expression turned serious. Father Pietr translated for him, “Thomas, The dragon is not dead. It is wounded. We cannot know if it will return to the battle. Odo is marshaling the men now, but we must hold here until they are ready. I will stay with my lance and one other.”
“Odo will move up behind, and your men can retire. Then, we break this assault and move south to the highway with the your Snake River Brigade. Is this agreeable?”
“To me? Sure. One problem, though. We’ve saved the Snake River Brigade but we’re having difficulty persuading Colonel Brogan that he’s in need of saving.
“He is unwilling to withdraw?”
“He wants to follow his orders. The fact that those orders are no longer relevant doesn’t seem to weigh too heavily in his thinking.” Lewis paused, rubbed his chin. “I think part of the problem is that your magical talisman or whatever has prevented him from learning that fighting without magical superiority is like fighting without air superiority.”
The Prince raised an eyebrow. Lewis continued, “For us, having control of the air is an essential part of our doctrine; our way of fighting. Having air superiority doesn’t win the war, it can’t – not by itself. But without it, everything is harder. And if the enemy has it, very hard. Before the invasion, we could attack our enemies anywhere we chose, at a time of our choosing. We could destroy a single house in a city from a hundred miles away. We could move men and materiel quickly over any terrain by air. Air power allowed us to see the whole battlefield.” Best not mention satellites, Lewis thought.
Raimond nodded his head. “I see… Yes. I had not considered it in that light, but… Yes. And you believe that Brogan has confused in his mind the protection offered him by the holy icon with the powers of your air armies?”
“I think that’s it, sir. If he were more scared, he’d be more willing to pull back.”
Pethoukis lit his cigarette. “Maybe we saved his ignorant army ass too soon,” Pethoukis said. He offered the pack to the Prince and lit the cigarette the Prince pulled from the open pack.
“Perhaps, Michael, perhaps,” the Prince said. He smiled. “If your colonel believes it to be true, who are we to doubt him? Let us act on his belief, and he will have to follow.”
“The icon does provide him with protection, true. But it does not offer any truly offensive capabilities. The good father, here, told me a moment ago that your artillery is no longer effective against the enemy?”
Pethoukis answered, “To the extent that it ever was, no. Shells are detonating way above target, or not detonating at all. Mojo, right?”
Father Pietr replied, “Yes, First Sergeant, to a certainty.”
“If we, and by we I mean Father John,” the Prince pointed over his shoulder with his cigarette and smiled again, “Can provide *air cover* for your cavalry, then surely they will be more effective, no?”
“Stands to reason,” Lewis said.
“I will discuss the matter with the Archimandrites. We will keep Father Ambrose here with us; he can handle any purely local assault. Father John and Father Theodore can devote all their attention to frustrating the enemy’s attempts to frustrate your cavalry.
“Then, we can continue our journey without further hindrance.”
OK, sure, Lewis thought. “Somehow, sir, I don’t think it will that easy.”
The Prince flashed a smile. “No, it won’t be easy, Thomas. But what worthy thing is easy?”
“Sir, I’m still concerned about my men here. Withdrawing under fire is not an easy task. My men are not a unit – they aren’t even in the same service. They’ve not trained for this. Hell, they’ve never fought with swords or even imagined that they would.”
“True, Thomas, True. But if they retire only after my men have taken a place next to them? This should not be too perilous.”
Pethoukis muttered, “Here, hold my beer…”
Above, the sky was deepest blue, almost purple. There were no clouds, but whenever Lewis laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword, he saw undulating banners of incandescent plasma drift above the heads of the Marines and knights who stood on the hill waiting for the coming assault.
Unlike the aurora he had wondered at a week and half ago, these luminous bands were more defined in structure. The banners twisted in response to invisible winds, they snapped and coiled in response to forces that he couldn’t perceive. It was disturbing to watch.
Whether they were actually there or just a vision provided him by the sword, he had no idea. He understood now that it was a visible sign – to him, at any rate – of the vigorous defense that the crusader sorcerers were mounting on his behalf.
Out on the plain, the enemy had regained focus. Across the plain to the east, six thousand red-armored goblins were gathering for another assault on the Snake River Brigade. Enemy messengers were once more criss-crossing the plain in front of the two American positions. Evans had already dropped half a dozen with his .50 Barret and digital scope.
But that was Brogan’s to deal with. In front of Lewis were more regiments of goblins, silver clad and armed with pikes. They had come up the draw despite the best efforts of the 116th’s artillery. They were situated on his right, and they would hit van Buskirk’s scratch company. Though the enemy couldn’t know it, they had matched strength with strength. Those goblins would be the weakest part of their assault, but they’d be attacking the weakest part of his defense. His men must be a puzzle to them, armed with both swords and firearms; and dressed in armor looted from the dead.
To the left were the trolls. The regiment that had been savaged first by the Prince and then by the injured dragon was now reinforced by a second, full strength regiment of half a thousand. Armored from head to toe, no one had any clue as to what they looked like under the enchanted steel; but it was clear enough that they were half again as tall as any Marine in Lewis’ command. Their long axes would be deadly.
They are coming for me, Lewis thought. And behind them, the giants. Of the dragon, there was no sign. Which was reassuring for right now, but not exactly a comforting thought for the long term.
The day was advancing. Orders had been given and preparations made. The time for frantic action was past, and would come again. For now, there was only waiting and worrying; and listening to the drums beat slowly, calling the enemy to battle.
A sudden chill passed through Lewis like a wind. Lewis gripped his sword and looked. John and Theodore’s magic is getting thick again. At least I hope it’s their magic, Lewis thought. His Marines seemed unaware of what was going on around them. Mostly. Some of them looked up occasionally or twitched nervously when the fight got more intense.
The side effects were disconcerting to him, and he at least had some capacity to see them. He had passed the word, but Coleman was complaining of shadows in the corners of his eye, and flickers of ill intent. Distances and time seemed to stretch and contract unpredictably.
It was unnerving to feel reality become a little less real every time you stopped looking at it. Lewis shook himself to shake off the creeps he felt climbing up his spine. Enough, he told himself. Worry about what you can worry about profitably.
The drums changed tempo, began a rolling beat. The goblins stepped off. He stood taller, braced his shoulders. Mindset.
“Pethoukis, heads up! Incoming!”
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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Seven.