“Thomas?” the Prince asked.
“Father John and Isadore have asked for your permisission to look in on your wounded. They have some skill in caring for battlefield injuries, and prayer is ever useful.”
“Ah, I don’t see that that would be a problem. I ask that they defer to Doc Fagan, but certainly.” Lewis turned to the corpsman. “Doc, all right with you?”
“No sir. Can’t hurt.”
At a word from the Prince the two priests, impressive in their vestments, walked with Fagan to the back room where the wounded were resting.
Lewis led the now-diminished party of crusaders outside. He looked down the dusty street and saw Coleman over by the gas station with a bunch of Marines goggling at the crusaders. Everyone seemed to be behaving. “Evans, run and get Coleman. We’ll need him. Tell him to bring his laptop.”
“Sir!” Evans moved down toward the gas station, where they had last seen Coleman.
Evans and Coleman walked toward the back of the room where they’d been keeping their maps and communications gear. The four crusaders and Burhan looked around the taverna’s dining room. Two of the posts were cut straight through and listed sadly, victims of Lewis’ first experiments with stolen goblin weapons. Lewis looked down at his new sword. Remarkable, he thought, it’s been only twelve hours since I strapped that on, and it feels part of me already. New enemies, new tools.
He stretched. He was sore; he felt like someone had been going at his back with a hammer, and his arms hurt in ways he didn’t think arms could hurt. The sword used him as much as he used it, and his body hadn’t been prepared. Exhaustion filled him like a black cloud. Aside from brief naps, unwillingly taken, he’d been awake for nearly 48 hours. And on the run for days before that.
The Prince straightened, and everyone stood to attention. At a soft word from the Strategos, Odo, Father Pietr opened a leather case and began pulling maps out of a case. Coleman whistled softly. The maps were gorgeous. They looked like parchment and they were illuminated like some medieval manuscript. Fantastical creatures entwined in vines and flowers lurked around the edges of the map. Lewis looked for dragons, but didn’t see any. The priest arranged the map neatly on the table and stepped back.
The Prince strode over to the table, waving Lewis forward. Burhan followed. He stabbed his finger down, pointing south of two rivers. A map of Iraq. “We are here, as I am sure you know.” He moved his finger north and sketched a line from Lebanon, across Syria into the Kurdish north of Iraq, and then a bit south and across into Iran. “The Veil. The door between worlds. We crossed here.” The Prince indicated a spot near the Syrian border with his calloused finger.
“In the other world, my Kingdom is under attack as this one is. From what we have learned since we crossed over, the assault on our home is not so strong as here. We hold, for now. The Veil runs through mountainous country on the other side. The demons are bottled in the mountain passes below the veil, and we had long since prepared for this – fortifications strong and well supplied.”
“Now that the Veil is opened and the world is changed, my father charged me with making an embassy to the world that was once our home. As I said, to offer and ask for aid. If evil triumphs here, how long will we survive? Perhaps only so long as it takes for evil to turn its eye toward us. So that is my mission. I understand that your United States is mighty in war, and despite being an infidel nation…” The Prince smiled at Burhan as he said it, “is on the whole just and honorable.”
“And that is why I have sought you out. Now, we decide how to get, my royal aah, person, through the fire to the Gulf.”
“Prince Raimond, this is something we’d discussed more than a little even before you arrived.” Lewis began. The Prince and Odo grinned. Lewis stepped closer to the map. It looked pretty accurate. Of course, though, there was no indication of the locations of enemy forces. Time, Lewis thought, for multimedia.
“Before we talk about exit strategies, I need to show you what we’re up against.” Lewis waved Coleman forward.
“Coleman, start your show.”
Coleman reached into his bag of tricks. From his backpack he pulled out a small projector, and plugged it into his laptop. He aimed the projector at the blank white wall of the taverna and moved around to the keyboard.
Lewis heard a chorus of indrawn breath when the crusaders saw the full color spinning globe of Earth appear on the wall. Coleman drove the mouse and the point of view dove toward the surface of the world. All the crusaders leaned forward involuntarily as the perspective changed. Thibaud, the Abbot-Bishop, audibly gasped. Clearly they weren’t used to moving pictures, Lewis thought.
The sky’s eye view of the map program descended on the Middle East and stopped somewhere above the Arabian peninsula, looking north into Iraq. A glowing yellow line appeared, following the same path that the Prince had traced with his finger on the ornate map that the crusaders had brought with them.
The Marines had had a rough idea of the veil’s location from reports even before the goblins poured out of it. They hadn’t known what it was; hell, they’d thought it was some sort of solar storm causing all the Aurora. They’d gotten more reports that had pinned down the location more precisely, but those reports had stopped suddenly when the drones started dropping like flies.
On Lewis’ orders, Coleman had kept track of all the reports that had been sent out on enemy locations while they were still in contact. Subsequent reports had filled out more details – troop movements, order of battle assessments – at least up until the comms went down.
Splotches of blue appeared on the map. “The blue indicates locations of friendly forces,” Coleman explained. There was a heavy concentration around Baghdad, smaller splotches to the west in Ramadi and Fallujah. A line of dots down the rivers to Basra. More splotches in the north, around Kirkuk. More big blobs down in Kuwait and Bahrain.
Lewis interjected, “The large blue area is Baghdad. We’d pulled out of Iraq almost entirely not that long ago. Nine months ago, the Iranians – the Persians – went nuclear. Our government and others mounted air strikes to take out the Iranian nuclear capability. But the Iranian revolutionary guard stirred up rebellion in the south. When the Iraqi government collapsed and the Sunnis rebelled, we came back in.”
“My unit had just moved to Ramadi after the battle of 3rd Fallujah. We put down the rebellion there in a few weeks of hard fighting. We hadn’t quite settled in when everything went sideways.
“Coleman, please continue,” Lewis ordered.
Coleman resumed his presentation, “Until our communications went down yesterday, we were still getting data feeds from higher. I’ll play the last week at one day a minute.”
The yellow line of the Veil was swallowed by an angry red gash that stretched across four nations. The red widened and engulfed the blue dots closest to the Veil. As the red advanced both north and south from the veil beachhead, it branched and bifurcated. Crimson tentacles reaching for American soldiers and Marines. Lewis had only seen snatches of this, on the run. Seeing it all at once, his intuition was confirmed. Those movements couldn’t be accidental, he thought. The whole thing was coordinated far too well.
Once the beachhead was established, the red paused for a moment and then advanced more purposefully – concentrating down the highway corridors to the sea and up the pipelines to the north. When the little video ended, most of Iraq was red. In Syria and Iran, their intelligence was not so certain – and the area of red was more fuzzy, fading out into an indistinct pink.
Coleman cleared the map, and zoomed in on their current location. At the top of the display was Ramadi, where their own personal nightmare had begun. A green dot appeared. “That was us, a week ago,” Coleman explained.
The red wave appeared at the north of the map. The green dot raced south, west around Habbaniyah lake. Past Al-Taqaddum Air Base where the Iraqis had fled. Lewis had found the few Americans still stationed there dead. Twice the green dot tried to turn east, first at the south end of the lake, again at Karbala; only to be blocked by advancing fingers of red. Caught between Karbala and Razazza Lake, they’d almost bought it.
The green dot resumed its course southward and westward, squeezing between the lake and the redness and ending up… here. A sad tale in that little green dot, Lewis thought.
“So that’s the story up until now. While we were running from the goblins, the whole time we were trying to figure how to link up with the rest of our forces. As you saw, we were blocked every time we tried to turn east – the goblins obviously were making good use of the highways.”
“The Captain had a few ideas on how to get out.”
Two green lines appeared on the map. One led directly east toward An-Najaf. The other led west and then south to Saudi Arabia. Lewis stepped up to the screen. “This path is cross-country over open desert. No roads. It’s only advantage is that it is the most direct route to our forces in Kuwait on the Gulf. It’s guaranteed that we will not get to that highway before the goblins.”
“The other option is to turn west. After we kept getting bounced by goblins every time we tried to turn east, we were figuring we’d stop wasting their time and just go west.” Coleman zoomed out the map, showing the northern part of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the western tip of the Persian gulf. The green line went south and west into Saudi, then turned east just inside the border to run across to Kuwait.
“Good roads means good speed. In front of us, we have a decent road to the border, and once we’re in Saudi, a nice four-lane highway all the way to Kuwait and we hopefully avoid major concentrations of our new friends.
“I think it still makes sense to follow this course, south into Arabia, and east along the highway to approach Kuwait from the south. We’ll be approaching our own forces from the opposite side, which is also a good idea. They’re likely to be trigger happy by this point. And, should the worst have already happened,” Coleman moved the projection forward a little more, and the red encompassed Kuwait. “We can turn south to Bahrain, where we have naval bases.”
“The only other option that is even remotely conceivable is to turn west at Arar, and head for Israel. We have naval forces in the Med, but we’d have to go through three sovereign states to get there.”
Lewis looked to the Prince, who was still staring raptly at the map projected on the screen. You’re not the only one with magic, bub, Lewis thought. The Prince shook his head in amazement.
“My friend, that is a map that I might have dreamed of. It is wonderful to see it made real, here before me. I wonder that your commanders do not lose themselves in it.”
Evans coughed, loudly.
“Or perhaps they do.” Lewis stifled a laugh and even Strategos Odo’s grim face broke into a mild grin.
The Prince strode to the map display and gazed for a moment. He pointed at the green route through Arar. “A good plan, I think. There will be many details to attend to – order of march, overwatch, scouting parties. And we will attend them. We would do well to depart tomorrow. As I said, our presence on this world can not go long undetected. Father John has already sensed the presence of his adversaries. I would be surprised indeed if we have not already attracted unwelcome attention.”
“We have much to discuss, and much to do.”
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Continue on to Chapter 12.