A mile up the road in a shallow ravine, three Humvees and a beat-up white Toyota pickup were parked off to the side in the shadows of the setting sun.
As Evans and Pethoukis pulled their two humvees up behind them, two men came around from the back of the pickup. They were US Army, wearing desert khaki BDUs and body armor. Both carried M4 carbines slung casually, barrels pointing down.
Lewis watched their expressions as he and the Prince dismounted from the bed of the Humvee. Lewis was in Marine utilities, and so normal-enough looking except for the sword he wore at his side. But the Prince, now; golden plate armor was not standard evening wear for the Saudi border, Lewis thought. The two soldiers shared a mildly surprised look. But not too surprised, Lewis noticed.
The Prince set his helmet on the hood of the humvee. “Your countrymen, Thomas?” he relayed through Burhan and Pietr.
“Yes, from our army. Please excuse me for a moment while I speak to them.”
Lewis saw stripes on their shoulders, along with Ranger, Airborne and Special Forces tabs. SOCOM types. They were of a kind, these two; on the tall side and wiry. Both had beards and the unkempt look of men too long in the field. Their gear, though, looked immaculately maintained. The two men sketched brief salutes. Lewis only nodded; Marines never saluted in the field.
“Captain Thomas Lewis, 1/9 Marines,” he said.
The slightly taller one replied, “First Sergeant Marcus Kimball. And this is Staff Sergeant Richard Paine. Fifth Special Forces Group.”
“I’m informed that there’s trouble at the border.”
“Some. The Saudis have shut down the border. And they’ve interned at least a hundred that got here ahead of us. We might have walked right into it, too.” Kimball called over his shoulder, “Hey, Vance, bring Air Force Guy around.”
“We were operating near the Syrian border when everything went pear-shaped. We were out of communication so we decided that our current mission was, aah, no longer truly relevant. We made our way here and when we arrived, we found Air Force Guy.”
Two more men came around from behind the truck. One was clearly another Green Beret; though of the squat, massive subtype. That must be Vance. The other man was aggressively average except for the bright red hair.
“Tell the nice captain your story, Air Force Guy,” Kimball said.
“Didn’t you bother to learn his name?” Lewis asked.
“Not safe to get to emotionally attached to Air Force personnel in a war zone, Captain. If he lives, we’ll name him,” Paine said. He had a deep voice.
The squat Sergeant Vance chimed in, “We’re thinking of naming him Rover.”
Air Force Guy seemed to be taking this in good humor. “Technical Sergeant Lee Furber, sir. We were at Al-Taqqadum Air Base doing training when the order came to pull out. We tried to get to the highway, but that totally didn’t work. Monsters everywhere. It was just me and another guy; when we couldn’t get east, we just drove south as fast as we could.”
“Eventually, we got here, and the Saudis had a roadblock set up across the highway just up there.” Furber pointed up the road. “We stopped, and they made some noise like it was a customs stop. Then more Saudis came up and ordered us out of the car at gunpoint. Deluca, the guy that was with me, he got out of the car. And I was about to when I saw the holding pen they had a little further down the road. I slammed the truck in reverse and beat it on out. They started shooting, but they didn’t chase after me. I stopped here to try and figure out what to do, and that was when these guys showed up.”
“What have you learned since?” Lewis asked.
“Seeing as Air Force Guy saved us from an unsavory fate at the hands of Saudi border guards, we were looking at that. Vance and I scouted things out,” Kimball said.
Kimball gestured over the ravine wall behind them. “We wandered around back and eyeballed everything. The Saudis have a simple roadblock set up, and a dozen men manning it. Back aways toward the overpass, they set up a handsome little field-expedient concentration camp. We couldn’t get an exact count, but there’s at least a hundred Americans in there; some Air Force, a couple Marines. I am embarrassed to admit that most of them are Army.”
“On the other side of the road they’ve got all the vehicles they jacked. Humvees, Cougars, Buffaloes, six Strykers and a hash of random. All up, I’d guess there’s maybe a company worth of saudis. They’re well enough armed; but they’re about as sharp as a bag of wet mice.”
“We were discussing what to do when your sergeant arrived. We were considering what we could do to free and arm the internees, but honestly the planning was getting hairy. We’d have to steal weapons, then sneak them into the compound….”
“Well, I think we bring a new element into the equation,” Lewis said.
“I was wondering when you’d mention him,” Kimball said, nodding at the Prince, who had been waiting patiently while Lewis assessed the situation.
“Short version is this: the man in the golden armor here is Crown Prince Raimond. He’s from another world, from a kingdom founded by crusaders who crossed the Veil almost a thousand years ago. He wants an alliance with the United States because the goblins have invaded his country just like they’re doing here,” Lewis said.
“He and his men have magic armor and weapons. They’ve brought wizards along, too.”
“You don’t seem surprised, sergeant,” Lewis commented.
“Well, Captain Lewis, I’ve seen some strange things in my life. Nine of the ten strangest, I’ve seen in the last week. Strange isn’t always bad. Just almost always. Stands to reason some of the strange would be good. We were calling them orcs, though.”
Lewis nodded and smiled. “Fair enough, you can discuss nomenclature with my company geek. We were thinking the same thing when the Prince and his men did for two regiments of goblins been chasing us all the way from Ramadi. We watched them cut through 2000 goblins like they were pussies. He has substantial combat power. Hell, just by himself he could probably take out a tank.”
Lewis paused and reflected, “I haven’t really seen the wizards in action, so I can’t speak to their effectiveness. God knows what they can do.”
“Seeing as we’re facing a global invasion, I’d rather not be randomly killing people we might need later, no matter how much of an asshole they each individually might be. Let’s see if we can resolve this through bribery or cunning.”
“Kimball, you take your team and be ready to sneak into the compound and warn the prisoners that a jail break is about to happen. I will discuss the situation in person with the Saudi commander and convince him of the error of his ways. If I fail to convince him, my men will take them out and you can win hearts and minds among the oppressed natives.” Kimball and Paine smiled broadly.
“I’ll see what assistance we can get from the crusaders to smooth the way. A proper demonstration of frightfulness can make taking the easy way out more…palatable.”
Lewis turned to the Prince. “Prince Raimond, these men are soldiers in my nation’s army. They inform me that the Saudis – the Arabians – have captured a number of American soldiers and Marines, and are holding them just up the road at the border. They are also denying access to their territory, which presents us with a problem.”
“The Saudis are bound to us by treaty. That these Saudis are acting this way suggests that there is chaos in their government, or that the situation for the United States has deteriorated more quickly than we had imagined. Under ordinary circumstances, we get low level hassles from all the states in the Middle East, but no one really dares to really mess with us. Taking American soldiers prisoner is a desperate move, or a stupid one.”
“Fact is, we don’t know how much chaos the invasion has really caused. I plan to free my compatriots, hopefully without bloodshed. What I need to know is this: You have said that Archimandrite John is a, uh, wizard, correct?”
“Oc,” the Prince answered.
“What can he do that would scare the crap out of some Arabian border guards without necessarily killing them? Or could he knock down the wall around the prisoners at a word from me?”
“Thomas, we can speak with the Father when he arrives. I am sure that there is something he can do; though he will be the best judge of what, and how. However, magic is a risk to both body and soul. We do not use it lightly,” Raimond said.
“Ah, okay. Good to know.” Lewis paused. “Okay, I think that with the armor and weapons we have, we can put the fear of God in them. But there’s no such thing as overkill.”
The Prince laughed as the translation reached him. “True enough, my friend, true enough. If you plan on confronting this border guard commander yourself, please allow me to accompany you. Perhaps I can add some ‘overkill.'”
Lewis sweated in his armor. He couldn’t complain, really, as the armor was actually a damn sight lighter than the interceptor body armor the Corps had supplied him with and now lay in a pile back at the village. But armor was armor and it certainly wasn’t soft Egyptian cotton. Pethoukis slowed the Humvee as they approached the roadblock.
The Saudi border guards were lax, he saw. Two were smoking cigarettes and another was lounging in a chair. The other three that were visible were carrying M16s. One of these walked into the highway waving for them to stop. Pethoukis pulled to a halt about twenty feet from the soldier, which clearly pissed the Saudi off considerably.
When Pethoukis showed no signs of moving, the Saudi shook his head disgustedly and trudged forward. Lewis jumped over the side of the humvee, landing lightly on his feet. The Prince and Burhan followed. Behind them, two more Humvees were filled with goblin-armored Marines who for, the moment, remained mounted.
The border guard raised his hand, “This is a Customs Station. You must present yourselves for a customs inspection…”
“Bring me your commander!” Lewis ordered. The Saudi just stood there, shocked that things were not following his script. “I’ll wait here,” Lewis prodded, a fraction more gently.
The guard backed a couple steps, turned, and hastened to the shack. A second later, another guard strode out. This one was blinking heavily. It looked like Lewis had interrupted his nap time. Before he could complete his angry march, Lewis bellowed at the first guard, “Are you fucking deaf? I said bring me your commander, not your sergeant!”
By this time, the smokers and loungers had stood up and were watching the show. They grabbed weapons, but did not raise them. They looked nervous. No doubt the sight of an American Marine in full medieval armor was entirely without precedent for them. In their defense, Lewis thought, it would be for anyone, really.
Someone must have called back, because a few moments later Lewis saw a car racing up the four lane highway on the wrong side.
Out of the car stepped a SANG officer, a major. The Saudi Arabian National Guard was King Abdullah’s private army; a completely separate force from the Saudi Army. Lewis wasn’t sure what that meant, politically. The man was a self-important peacock of an officer if Lewis had ever seen one. He was clean shaven, tall, and thin. His uniform looked tailored and he was wearing an expensive pair of sunglasses under his cover. Gucci Muj.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked. His English was only slightly accented.
Lewis waited. The man fumed.
“This is a Royal Customs Inspection Station. You and your men must submit to an inspection before crossing the border,” the officer insisted.
“Is it the habit of officers of the SANG to insult officers of the United States Marine Corps?” Lewis asked in a quiet voice.
Surprise crept across his face. “Excuse me?”
“The United States is allied to your Kingdom. You hold prisoner over a hundred of my countrymen. You lie to me about a farcical customs inspection. You intend to deprive me of my weapons and imprison me with the others.”
“That, my friend, is an insult.”
The Saudi officer looked from Lewis to the Prince, resplendant in his golden armor, and then back. The presence of Lewis’ Marines behind him no doubt weighed heavily on his mind, too.
“We, I…. Procedures must be followed…. You cannot cross our border on your whim.” The man seemed to be rallying a bit, Lewis thought. Time to cut him down before he backs himself into a corner.
“You will free the men you have taken captive and return their vehicles and weapons. You will stand aside as we cross your border. You may have heard it said of the Marine Corps, ‘No better friend, no worse enemy.'” Lewis said. The man nodded.
“You are not being friendly.”
Lewis gripped the hilt of his sword. The sword seemed almost to vibrate in his hand. What the hell, he thought, it worked for General Mattis….
Lewis snapped his sword out of its scabbard and leveled the point a fraction of an inch from the now deeply frightened Saudi. Lewis watched while a bead of sweat crept fearfully through the man’s stubble.
“I tell you true: I come in peace. But fuck with me and I will personally kill every one of you. Every. Single. One.”
The Saudi officer shrank into himself as Lewis stared unblinking into his eyes. A long second later, he dropped his eyes to the deck.
“Yes. Yes of course, we meant no disrespect…” the Saudi officer stammered.
“Of course you didn’t.” Without taking his eyes off the man, he signaled with his left hand. Pethoukis and his squad of goblin-armored Marines swept forward.
Pethoukis reached under Lewis’ sword and tugged the Saudi’s sidearm from its holster. “We’ll hold on to this. For safekeeping,” he informed the Saudi. Lewis’ Marines fanned out, relieving the border guards of their weapons.
Lewis lowered his sword, and the Saudi slumped. Lewis sheathed his sword and brusquely motioned him out of the way. “You can wait here until we’re ready to leave.”
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Continue on to Chapter Fourteen.