The road wasn’t much of a road and it petered into nothing after a few miles. They passed an odd rock formation to the left, thirty-foot tall lumps of black scalloped rock sticking out from the sand like fingers.
He could hear gunfire to the North, at least five miles out by the sound of it.
“Pethoukis,” Lewis said. “It’s time.”
“Yes, sir.” Pethoukis
The column of vehicles came to a halt. Lewis jumped down to the sandy trail and walked back to the humvee behind his. Dismounting less gracefully, Father Pietr and Archimandrite John exited the rear seats of their vehicle. Burhan, consigned to the hump in the middle, followed.
“Gentlemen, we’re ready.”
The Archimandrite priest-wizard spoke for some time to Father Pietr, dressed in his brown homespun robes. Pietr’s scalp was sunburned where it was tonsured. At least Father John had a squarish hat which protected his head even if it didn’t provide any shade for his eyes. Pietr looked toward the ground, concentrating intently on Father John’s words.
When Father John finished, Father Pietr finally looked up and began translating. His accent was already less noticeable than it was yesterday, Lewis thought. “Captain Lewis, the Archimandrite says you must bring your vehicles closer together. He cannot hide them if they are in a long line, so,” He gestured at the long column. “When they are in the circle, he and I must sit in the center, and stay there. He must make ready now. Please, which vehicle should we be in?”
“Pethoukis, you heard the man. Get everyone bunched up,” Lewis ordered.
A few minutes passed while the first sergeant arranged the column into a vaguely circlish formation. He put the six Strykers up at the front and the larger cougar and buffalo MRAPs right behind. The company’s dozens of humvees filled out the back and sides of the rough circle.
Lewis led the crusader clergy over to one of the buffaloes. The buffalo was a big six-wheeled vehicle, about the size of a cement mixer truck with a boat-shaped undercarriage of armor designed to protect its passengers from roadside bombs and IEDs. The cab extended back through where the cement mixer barrel would have been to a small open deck at the rear. Ladders at the back and over the rear wheels provided access to the cab and the deck. A mechanical arm intended for disposing of bombs was mounted at the front, and currently folded back along the top of the cab.
“Gentlemen, if you’d kindly step inside?”
Pethoukis led the men to the back of the vehicle. The Archimandrite decided that he’d stay on the deck rather than go forward into the cab.
“Does Father John need anything from us?” Lewis asked.
“No. He will make ready. I have seen this before. When it begins, the sun darkens somewhat. When the light dims, we are hidden from view. We can move, but slowly.”
Pethoukis looked to Lewis. “Never been in a spell before.”
“Every day an adventure in the Corps, first sergeant,” Lewis said. Turning to the priestmonk, he asked, “Father Pietr, how long until it is ready? Do we need to take any precautions?”
“It will be minutes. Ten? Aside from moving slowly, no. If you use your weapons, we will remain hidden from view. But the noise will be heard,” Father Pietr explained.
“OK then. No faster than walking pace, and be quiet. Mount them up, Pethoukis. Let’s be ready to move.”
They crawled across the desert at little more than a walking speed. The sun had dimmed, as the wizard had promised. Pethoukis had been disappointed, Lewis thought, that there hadn’t been any flashy pyrotechnics. Father John had just stood on the back deck looking like nothing more than a priest praying and crossing himself occasionally. After five minutes or so, the light dropped as though a cloud had passed overhead, though the sky was a clear, deep blue. They were all in the shade. Coleman immediately dubbed it a cloaking device spell.
Lewis could see the edge of the spell’s effect move ahead of them, twisting and jumping as it crossed irregularities in the ground just like the shadow from a cloud would. Beyond the shaded area that surrounded them, the ground looked just as bright as normal. One unanticipated benefit of a magical cloaking spell was the cooler temperature; for the men inside the circle it was exactly like being in the shade. Magic is cool, Lewis thought wryly.
Once the cloak was set, Father John sat down on the bench at the back of the buffalo and looked to be resting quietly. That taken care of, Lewis moved forward and mounted Burke’s MGS Stryker. Burke was standing in the commander’s hatch of the large armored vehicle, his hands resting lightly on the machine gun mounted there.
“At this speed, we should be at the field emplacements we saw on the satellite map in about a half hour. Pull up to the middle of them and stop. We should be able to see the shooting from there and God willing, no one will be able to see us.”
“Will do, Captain.”
Someone in the Saudi military had been up here at some point on an exercise. They’d used bulldozers to push the sand up into tank emplacements, probably for range practice. The half-dozen tank pits were protected by sandy berms, arranged in a half circle.
Burke pulled up behind the middle emplacement and stopped. The shade cast by their cloaking spell stopped neatly at the top of the berm. The guns were louder here.
Lewis uncased his binoculars. In the distance about five miles out and a bit east, Lewis guessed, was a low rise of rough terrain; lumps of bare, black rock sticking out of a shallow sandy swell. There the 116th had taken up a defensive posture.
North and west of the cavalry, Lewis could see a goblin assault readying in the flat ground to the left. Seven regiments of goblin infantry were moving out of column. There looked to be about a thousand goblins in each, so at least seven thousand total. They were equipped like the goblins they’d fought back in Iraq; bronze breast plates and helmets, carrying swords and shields. Their banners snapped in the growing breeze. Windrows of goblin corpses in the field before them showed that this wasn’t the first assault, but likely the largest so far.
The artillery of the 116th wasn’t waiting for the assault. Mortar fire dropped in a curtain along the goblin ranks. The cav were firing a mix of 60 and 120 mm mortars. The 120’s carried the equivalent of ten pounds of TNT, their explosions dwarfed the effects of the relatively puny 60 mm rounds. In a just world, that 120 mm mortar fire should be tearing the closely ranked monsters to pieces, but the goblin’s armor was as insanely effective as ever. The largest effect of the bombardment was to disrupt their formation, but the goblins were disciplined and they closed ranks quickly after each explosion.
“Their mortars are killing a lot more than our 60’s did,” Burke said.
Lewis looked more closely, scanning down the ranks of the closest goblin regiment. A 120 mm round dropped no more than a couple feet behind the front rank as he watched. The explosion chewed a huge hole in the goblin formation. Twenty, maybe thirty goblins were shredded by the blast, flung into the air and dropping boneless and bloody to the sand. At the edge of the lethal radius where fragmentation was normally the biggest killer, the goblin armor changed the lethal calculus protecting where human troops would be wounded or killed by 17,000 mph fragments. Even if they were thrown to the ground, they jumped up, dressed ranks and resumed the march.
“I think you’re right. Concussion effects? I can’t imagine the fragmentation is that much more effective close in,” Lewis said.
“Probably. But how long can they keep up that bombardment?”
“That’s going to be the big question.”
The 120 mm mortar was far from the only weapon at the cavalry’s disposal. He didn’t envy the Idaho guardsmen what was about to happen, but at least they had real artillery to thin the ranks of the enemy. All he’d had in the mad flight from Ramadi was a couple 60 mm mortars, which proved woefully ineffective. A Cavalry Brigade Combat team had sixteen 155 mm howitzers and dozens of 120 mm mortars.
“I hope they’ve got ammo out the ass; they’re going to need it,” Burke said.
The larger 155 mm brigade artillery looked to be trying to interdict concentrations of goblins further back and trying to move to the front; disrupting their movements but not exactly stemming the tide. Lewis saw that the dismounted cavalry on the perimeter of the human defenses were firing in volley. Either Lewis’ message had gotten through, or they’d figured it out on their own. He couldn’t get a good read on how effective their fire was, interspersed as it was with the explosions of the mortars.
Lewis pointed to the rocky ground on the other side of the goblin-filled plain, to the west of where the 116th had dug in. “That’s where we need to be. We follow this track north to the wadi. The dry river bed will lead us west and north. We cut left away, into the ravine. From there we can go over the ridge and from that point we’ll be able to cover the Prince when he arrives, and we’ll be in the rear of any goblins attacking the 116th. You lead the way, and maintain this speed.”
“Roger that,” Burke said.
Under the cover of Archimandrite John’s enchantment they slowly crossed to the wadi, invisible to all eyes. The sandy bottom of the dry river bed offered a decent enough roadway for their vehicles and was wide enough that they could maintain their circular formation. The ground rose on either side as they progressed, but not so much that Lewis from his perch atop the Stryker couldn’t see what was happening with the Snake River Brigade. Once the company turned up the ravine, Lewis looked to the right to observe the progress of the goblin assault.
Even in the face of heavy bombardment, their evolutions were crisp and sharp. Each time a mortar round hit, dozens were killed but the rear ranks stepped up and filled the gaps, even as they stumbled over the cratered ground littered with their fallen comrades.
The attack, when it came, was sudden and brutal; announced with a fanfare of trumpets and a steady beat of deep bass drums. The measured pace they had held as they moved from column to line gave way to the double time march of the assault. The blare of the horns attenuated over the distance, but sounded almost like the bugles the Cavalry still sometimes used. I guess those godawful bagpipe war horns aren’t standard issue in evil armies, Lewis thought.
They had only to cover a short stretch of level ground, no more than a football field’s worth, and charge up a shallow hill perhaps ten or fifteen feet high. Atop the hill, the engineers of the 116th had bulldozed a berm, an impromptu wall which provided cover for the soldiers behind. From their sandy battlements, the Americans fired in staggered volleys by company, adding an incremental measure of lethality to the general bombardment.
Lewis knew that the brigade artillery would be further back toward the center, but he could see the gun barrels of tanks hull down behind the berm. From this distance, details were hard to make out as the big Stryker he rode bounced slowly over the river bed. The gunfire paused as the goblins closed. The approaching horde filled the uncanny silence with a wordless cry and broke to a run. They were no more than fifty meters out.
The cavalry dropped behind the berm and the artillery returned with a vengeance. The 116th’s gunners had the location dialed in and they fired for effect. Every gun in the brigade engaged at its maximum rate of fire the charging goblin regiments.
“God loves preplanned fires!” Burke shouted.
Shells from mortars and howitzers rained down so heavily into the densely packed formations that even goblin armor was not proof against the violence. Dusty black clouds with cherry red hearts blossomed in a neat grid overlaying the ragged lines of charging goblins. Even over the thunder of the explosions, Lewis could hear the higher-pitched screams of scores of wounded and dying goblins. Bodies flew, and died.
Lewis watched as one goblin, tossed by one explosion and likely already dead from the concussion, was caught by another exploding round and tossed yet further into the air like some sort of perverted artillery hacky sack. A goblin standard bearer ran ahead of his unit, unaware that he was alone. A stray round hit him square and spread him across a 20 m wide crater. The banner staff he carried snapped in half, and the pennant fell untouched to the ground. Still the goblins charged ahead heedless of their casualties. They approached the base of the shallow hill at a dead run as the artillery bombardment ceased. They cheered, but only for a moment.
Hull-down behind the berm, the armored vehicles of the Heavy Cavalry Brigade were arrayed along the perimeter of the cavalry position. M1A2 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles waited, their main guns depressed to fire along the slope of the berm directly into the oncoming foe.
The 120 mm smoothbore cannons of the M1 tanks fired as one. The canister rounds they fired each contained over a thousand 3/8″ tungsten balls, turning each barrel into God’s own shotgun. This, finally, seemed to do real and immediate damage. Fifty titanic blasts sent lances of fire a dozen yards downrange and raised an enormous billow of smoke and dust. The lip of the berm disappeared behind an instantaneous, sulfurous fogbank.
The blasts cleared bloody lanes through the goblin ranks, overwhelming the magic that had held them invulnerable to bullets and shell fragments. The pressure wave from the cannon blast rocked even those goblins not savaged by the projectiles. The entire assault wavered as the wounded howled, but with a shout they renewed their charge up the slope.
Unnoticed at first, hidden by the roar of the main guns, the rattle of the tanks’ secondary weapons continued as the sound of the cannons faded into echoes. The M1A2 tank had been upgraded after the first Iraq invasion in ’03 with additional armor and weapons. Armor for protection from RPGs; two machine guns mounted coaxially with the main gun and two more machine guns atop the turret for dealing with threats more proactively.
The Snake River Brigade poured on the fire, unleasing as much as humanly possible of the total fire power of a full armored brigade into the narrow strip of sand just outside their perimeter. The 25 mm Bushmaster chain guns on the Brads, crew-served .50 cal machine guns and grenade launchers, SAWs and M4 carbines in the hands of individual troops – all fired profligately into the charging mass of goblins. Bullets sprayed like water from a hose as the Idaho National guardsmen tried to hold back the onrushing tide of charging goblins.
“Holy mother of fuck,” Lewis said. The sudden crescendo of fire drew everyone’s eyes to the battle, and the convoy slowed to a stop. The company watched as thousands of muzzle flashes sparked as the brigade fired from within the yellow-tinged cloud above the hill. <<>>
Good christ, Lewis thought. I don’t know that this much firepower has ever been used in actual combat, probably not even in exercises. Ammunition is just too damn expensive to let an entire brigade just set everything to rock and roll for shits and giggles. Fuck, we’ve never fought anyone that ever bunched up like this. Most of the reason we have so much firepower in the first place is so we can hand out the pain on a dispersed enemy. The result of all that firepower compressed into a narrow front was staggering.
The storm of lead and steel slowed the advance. Lewis focused his binoculars, and saw a goblin standard-bearer’s head buffeted by repeated hits, but he kept up the hill, silvery streaks of lead scarring his bronze helmet. Many goblins took hits and stayed down; dead, or injured by the impact of a 25 mm round even if it didn’t penetrate the enchanted armor.
The cavalry commander had laid out his fires well. But the armor of his opponent was proof against anything but a direct hit from a big caliber weapon, or a lucky head shot from massed fire. He just couldn’t kill the fuckers fast enough. The goblins scrambled up the slope, their boots slipping, desperately trying to gain purchase in the sand and blood, all the while bullets and shrapnel bounced off their armor.
The main guns had reloaded, and had time to fire once more at point-blank range. Swords and spears reached for the cavalry troopers at the top of the slope as the guns fired once more. Jagged cuts in the body of the regiments bled goblins. The assault came to a dead stop, the goblins shocked by the savagery of the 116th’s defense.
Lewis hoped, just for a moment, that that might be sufficient.
“Break, damn you, break!” he prayed. But his own experience told him that it would not. The goblins were tenacious, disciplined, and fast. They had to know by now that if they could get past the hard shell of fire, all that would be left would be a soft, vulnerable interior.
The pressure of the goblins advancing from behind sealed the gaps cut by the tank guns. The front rank, depleted but still thousands-strong, raised their swords and cleared the top of the berm screaming for the blood of their enemy.
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Continue on to Chapter Twenty.