Chapter Thirty-Four

Through the scope, Evans tracked the subtle disturbances around the knights that told him that they were cloaked. To the naked eye, it was nothing but desert and dust devils. Fucking weird, he thought. The mojo must work on your head, directly. Watching the picture digitally generated by the CCD chip in the scope must duck the effect, mostly.

Mostly. Mostly means that the fuckers probably could puzzle out a way to jinx digital imagery if they realize what’s going on and get hold of an iPhone or a digital camera. When that happens, we’re fucked. Shit.

He peered through the scope again. He focused on the Archimandrite Father Theodore, the human cloaking device riding along, holding the reins loosely in one hand as the crusaders held to a ground-eating trot. The other hand he held before him, hand cupped as if he were holding an invisible weight.

The hand dropped and the visual distortions faded. He looked through his other eye, and the empty desert suddenly gained the ghosts of four hundred medieval cavalry, almost transparent, their color washed out and almost white. A second later they were solid and real, casting shadows and kicking up dust as they moved to the gallop.

Again. Evans felt a distinct sense of Deja Vu. Jesus, this is the most fucked up battle ever. The same troops executing the exact same maneuver against the same enemy twice in the same battle?

The armored knights, their squires, and their men-at-arms lowered lances and prepared to assrape the trolls who were so very, very focused on the battle in front of them. Look behind you, motherfuckers. Evans’ slight smile faded. One troll looked like he heard something…

He took aim again, and began servicing targets.

***

In the sudden silence he heard a muffled scream from within the tank. The tank panic-stopped and Kimball was torn from Vance’s grasp by his own forward momentum. He slid feet first off the turret and across the front glacis of the tank to pitch off the front. Kimball tucked and rolled; came up on the balls of his feet still holding the icon in his left hand. He was mildly surprised to discover that his tomahawk was somehow in his right.

Shit. Kimball raised the icon high, and cried out the words that Father Pietr had taught him, “The Lord supports the afflicted; He brings down the wicked to the ground.” The words came out in a rush; he didn’t even know if they came out right.

There was no flash of golden-white light, there was no shock wave rippling out like before. The snakes writhed closer, tethered to the bonfire like some sick, nightmarish jack-in-the-box. They were black and smoke and half-hidden flame, and he felt ice run down his spine.

They reared back, like a rattler about to strike. Kimball screamed. Fuck, fuck, fuck, he thought, I am dead. He saw the goblins, their eyes pure black. It wasn’t just black, not just darkness. Their eyes were lanterns of darkness that sucked the light out of the world. Kimball felt his blood hammering in his temples with each heartbeat. His vision narrowed, and all the colors but red faded away.

“No!” he screamed. He ran toward the fire, icon tucked under his left arm like a football and ‘hawk in his right. Like the bow wave of a speedboat, the icon pushed the serpents back as he charged. He slowed; he was running through molasses. The resistance of the mystical barrier or the palpable evil of the serpents fire pushing him back. Kimball dug in, felt pain in his legs and arms as he pushed through. Cold fingers reached into his brain. Agony arced down every nerve, and he screamed again, wordlessly.

He fell to the ground when the wall collapsed. The icon flared golden-white and the serpents were blown to wisps of fog, and dispersed. Another goblin summoner dropped, gripping his head in both hands and crying out in agony.

Kimball jumped up, and charged again. He buried the enchanted edge of his tomahawk in the forehead of the nearest wizard, and watched the blackness drain from his eyes. He yanked back hard, but the axe remained lodged in the skull.

“Shit, shit, shit!”

He released the axe and the goblin fell. His Beretta appeared in his hand. Two rounds took down a second wizard. Another double tap and a third wizard dropped to the sand.

Bright sun flooded in; dwarfed the light of the fire. Kimball stood there for a moment, breathing hard. One of the goblins that had fallen earlier stirred, tried to stand up. Kimball walked over and calmly shot it in the back of the head. It fell limply, and a pool of blood spread and slowly seeped into the sand. He shot it again. Then again. For good measure, he slowly moved down the line and double-tapped each one. Just to be sure.

***

Pethoukis raised his shield as he ran, certain that that enormous sword was going to come down and open him up just like the poor fucking Baron. He was surprised when he hit the giant’s leg with a clang. He found himself staring right into the giant’s armored crotch. Perfect, he thought. He stabbed up with all the strength he could muster; aiming as well as he could for the joint between the leg and the hip. The tip of his sword skated on the surface and fuck! It wedged under the massive plate guarding the giant’s hip, and stuck.

Fuck me, he thought. Through the giant’s legs he saw a handful of knights charging toward him. They wouldn’t get here in time. The rear of the line was just a few yards to the right. Give this fucker five seconds and he’ll wreck it, and we’ll all be dead. Pethoukis let go the sword and rolled back. He drew his handgun. Keep the giant distracted, so the nice crusaders can backstab the fucker to death. He took aim at the giant’s armored head.

“Hey motherfucker!” he shouted. He pulled the trigger; the giant’s helm rang like a bell and a lead streak appeared on the ship’s prow-like visor. He took a step back.

“Fuck you” Bam. Another grey streak, just below the eye.

“You motherless.” Bam. “Goat-fucking.” Bam. “Abortion.” Bam.

The giant took a huge step forward. It raised its sword and Pethoukis boggled at the sheer size of it, like Lincoln’s statue at the memorial came to life, stepped down off his seat and came after you with a sword.

“You cockgobbling” Bam. “Cumdumster.” Bam.

Pethoukis covered the giant’s faceless helm with streaks of lead, but he might as well be drawing on it with a sharpie for all the damage he was doing.

“You fucktarded” Bam. “Corpsefucking” Bam. “Cunt” Bam.

“You shit-eating” Bam. “Mongoloid” Bam. “Fuckwit” Bam.

The crusaders were bounding like rabbits over the sand. Almost here, Pethoukis thought.

“I’m going to hatefuck you with a chair.” Bam. “Suck devilcock in hell you puke-drooling, dickless faggotdwarf” Bam.

The slide locked open. The Giant took another enormous step. Pethoukis dodged; rolled to the left. The sword came down.

***

“Kimball! Stop fucking around and get back on the tank!” Paine yelled. Kimball snapped his head up, coming out of the fog that had clouded his mind. The inside of his head felt like it had been dipped in oily waste and he tried to shake off the lingering feeling of intense creep.

He holstered his weapon, ran back to the Abrams and clambered on. Linderman shouted orders to his crew and the vehicle rumbled back to life. Kimball ducked as the turret rotated clockwise to point off to the right. He looked down the barrel and saw hundreds of armored goblin soldiers charging in his direction. The coaxially-mounted .50 cal alongside the main gun chattered, sending lead downrange. The main gun spoke, obscuring his vision with a cloud of smoke. The tank shuddered into movement. The column sped off again to the west, chewing up goblins by the dozen with canister rounds as it left them behind.

Paine shouted in his ear, “We’ve wrecked these fuckers, and I think you just axe-murdered the goblin wizards. The horse cav is in it thick, and the dragon just torched Lewis’ position.”

“I thought it was dead!”

“It disagrees.”

Kimball looked out to the west. Smoke rose above Lewis’ hill, but he couldn’t see anything more. There was a huge cloud of dust out over the plain to the right, that had to be the Crusaders. They’d left mostly track-paste behind them, and just driven through the goblin HQ. The center of gravity had shifted again, toward Lewis.

Linderman put down his radio. “Need more crunchies!”

***

Raimond bounced up from the sand a dozen yards back, shook off his burning shield. His armor was scorched and his white surcoat hung off the golden armor in tattered, smoking threads. He ducked his head and charged back, covering the ground in huge bounding leaps.

Thank you, God, Lewis thought. He snapped his head back to the dragon. The monster dropped its forelegs back to the sand but its head, perched atop fifteen feet of thick, muscular neck, was still high in the air above him. The serpent opened wide its jaws and another bolt of fire erupted. A corona of glowing plasma haloed the dragon’s head as it pivoted, tracking fire along the line of defenders to Lewis’ left. Dragon fire blew crusaders and Marines from their places atop the wall to plunge down into the hollow wreathed in flame and screaming in pain.

The head rotated back toward Lewis like a tank turret. Lewis stared into the Dragon’s open mouth, only yards away. The dragon’s cat-like eyes glowed like headlights, lit by hatred and eldritch power. The sword flashed a hundred outcomes before his eyes; all of them ended with him dead by fire.

The fire started as spark deep in the dragon’s throat. Then, almost instantaneously, it grew to arc-light brightness, a tightly contained sphere of coruscating energy floating between foot-long fangs. It burst forth; the air caught fire and licked around the barrier that Archimandrite John had erected. Lewis glanced to the right. The flaming sword was gone, and he saw the wizard, face tight with exertion and sweat pouring down his face and into his beard as he strained to withstand the fire.

The fire cut off like a switch. The dragon jerked its head back and screeched its frustration. Fuck that thing is loud, Lewis thought. Before Father John could reorient his defenses, fire struck to the right, incinerating a dozen more knights and Marines. The dragon crabbed sideways, looking to get around this obstruction. Trolls scrambled to make way, but one was crushed; its armor shattered as the dragon’s leg pistoned the troll into the ground with the power of a industrial press.

The dragon roared, smoke curling around its teeth and trailing along its jaws. The wings stirred, but the tattered skin could not support flight. Machine gun fire poured onto the dragon; .50 cal bullets bounced harmlessly off the black and gold scaly hide. Enchanted like the armor, a small but calculating part of Lewis’ mind thought.

The Prince appeared to his right, his legs absorbing the force of his landing. Raimond shouted something in Occitan to the Father John, who shouted something else in return. Again the Archimandrite guarded them from dragon fire with his mystical shield, exhaling harshly at the effort.

The monster lunged forward, uncoiling its long serpent body and pushing off from its rear legs. It hit the invisible wall of the Archimandrite’s defenses. Twisting, curling braids of red and orange lightning radiated outward from the point of impact, and the wall visibly bowed inward. Father John collapsed as the wall shattered and some small fraction of the energy he had bound to form it blasted back.

The Prince planted his feet and struck. The supernal sharpness of his blade was not enough to defeat the armored scales on the side of the dragon’s head and the Prince’s sword glanced off. Proof against the blade, perhaps; but the dragon was not immune to the sheer power of the blow. The dragon’s head jerked mightily to the left, neck twisting. The dragon shrieked in rage and lunged back to attack.

Lewis, motions guided by his sword, ducked down and stabbed up into the hopefully softer armor under the dragon’s jaw. But the armor was no thinner there, and the jolt of impact brought renewed agony to muscles already pushed beyond mortal limits. The dragon dropped suddenly, hammering Lewis with a head almost as long as he was tall. Dazed, Lewis slid down the slope. Just for a moment, until his feet stopped on the corpse of a troll. He leaned forward and pushed off from the troll’s back. He flew for a moment to land, cat-like, at the bottom of the hill. The dragon’s left foreleg was planted on the chest of a giant; Lewis swung.

The sword, guided by its uncanny power and possessed of its own supernatural sharpness struck upwards, sliding the edge under the armored scales to bite at the flesh beneath. The dragon jerked back, killing another handful of trolls as a spasm of pain rippled down the 100′ length of its body. Up close the dragon’s scales glistened, each one a microcosm of the pattern they collectively made. Black and gold in subtle, waving lines; some more black, some more gold. Lewis struggled to focus on what was happening; happening here or in the battle at large. But his mind was dulled by pain, and the sword fought for him.

More knights rushed to support their Prince. Lewis glanced up and saw those terrible jaws lash out like a snake and catch a knight by the waist. The jaws bit down, and the fangs pierced the enchanted armor. The dragon shook its head, and the knight’s dead body flew to the side.

Lewis heard a hiss. The sword flashed an image before his eyes; a missile flying through the air trailing wires. TOW! Lewis thought. An anti-tank missile launched from a Bradley at the leading edge of the 116th’s advance. The missile had a range of over two miles; it didn’t mean that the cav was close, but it did mean they were closer. Lewis looked up and saw the missile tip down; entering its terminal guidance phase. The TOW IIB struck tanks from above to penetrate the weaker armor there; as tanks mounted their heaviest defenses to the front to defend against the fire of other tanks. The missile plummeted down, and Lewis turned and crouched. He didn’t want to be this close to ten pounds of high explosive, armor-piercing warhead. Lewis felt the explosion before he heard it, the shock waves of the detonation echoing through him. He and the dragon were enveloped by fire, and he smelled his hair burning and felt pain where fire crept through the gaps in his armor.

The dragon bellowed; its mid section writhed in pain. The feet came stamping down and Lewis rolled left and then right, narrowly avoiding getting pancaked into the sand. The dragon twisted its neck and rotated its head 180 degrees to the rear. A gout of dragon fire burst into the air, toward where it must have imagined the attack came from. The dragon wasn’t wrong, it did. Two miles back from the deck of a reserve brigade Bradley fighting vehicle.

If the dragon was mortally injured, it didn’t show it. Fuck am I tired of bulletproof, Lewis thought. The Prince and the Archimandrite fought on at the top of the hill. The wizard had regenerated his magical defenses, providing cover for the prince’s lost shield; and the Prince landing blow after blow on the enormous head that snapped and struck at them, desperate to penetrate their defenses, desperate to kill.

While Father John wove the energies that protected them against the plasma bolt fires of the dragon, he did not neglect the offense. His left hand guided the plane of energy that frustrated the dragon’s fire, keeping it interposed between the gaping, smoking maw and the body of the Prince. Lewis’ peered closer, and the perception that allowed him to see the mystical energies that flowed around the Archimandrite revealed that the braided rope of fire that had connected the two Archimandrites which had faded now strengthened again. He looked to the wizard riding behind the Strategos Odo and saw that he had gathered a great store of energy, compressed into a fierce ball of light between his outstretched hand. Force that he was now once more communicating to the embattled Archimandrite at the Prince’s side.

There was no diminution of the Father’s defenses, but in his right hand a shape took form. He waited a moment, until the dragon struck again. The Prince, shieldless, leapt lightly to the side; twisting and striking down at the reptilian head. That mighty blow drove the dragon’s head into the sand and Father John saw his chance. He let go the shield, and it popped like a soap bubble. Father John strode forward, arms stretched forth and drenched in power. Gobbets of energy spit off like fat sparks from a fire. He struck the dragon just below its enormous eye and the fire spread.

Dancing beads of fire scattered and raced raced along the dragon’s head like drops of water on a hot skillet. They shot down the scaly neck, and soon covered the entire enormous length of the serpent’s body. Lewis saw that the beads of fire were connected by delicate threads of emerald; it was a net of fire.

The dragon lashed out and its fang caught the Archimandrite in the shoulder, slashing through the richly embroidered robes and savaging the flesh beneath. Father John dropped soundlessly to the ground, blood pouring from the terrible wound. The Prince struck again, distracting the beast before it could finish its deadly work. The Archimandrite’s fire faded and disappeared, absorbed into the dragon’s scaly armor. Had it done what he intended, or had it failed when he fell?

Burke’s big gun Stryker drove off the side of the hill, careening down the sharp slope and rolling over the dead trolls that had heaped up at the bottom, victims of 105 mm canister rounds, .50 cal slugs, or the swords and arrows of the crusader knights. Bouncing crazily over the debris, Burke turned and accelerated along what had been the line of battle. The troll assault had faltered not for lack of will, but in sheer awe of the dragon that had crashed into the middle of it. Trolls had been dodging the dragon’s tail, now they jumped to the side to avoid Burke’s madly accelerating, 20-ton armored vehicle.

What the fuck is he doing? He’s out of ammo… But the turret tracked left, rotating to line up a shot. Lewis backed up the hill, trying and failing to get up before getting knocked to the ground by the squirming bulk of the dragon’s sinuous body.

The Stryker skidded to a stop maybe ten yards shy of the dragon. Trolls moved to attack it, axes upraised. BOOM! A flash of flame and smoke, and Lewis was sprayed with gore as the depleted Uranium penetrator round exited the dragon’s shoulder a dozen feet above his head. The dragon screamed; an awful, protracted screech of pain and anger. Lewis dropped to his knees, trying to put his hands over his ears even though his head was encased by armor. It was the loudest thing he’d ever heard, and it hurt. The dragon reared back with the pain, arching its slender body almost double.

Unfuckingbelievable! How can it not be fucking dead? Dark red blood, almost black, poured from the gaping wound as the dragon turned. It screamed again, and dropped its forelegs to the ground, twisting its neck as it tried to lick the ghastly exit wound of the four-inch, armor-piercing shell. The dragon attempted to put weight on the leg, but the leg buckled, its cords cut when the shell savaged the serpent’s shoulder. It nearly collapsed; the head came down.

Lewis rose, and ran. The sword traced a path of fire in his sight and time slowed to a stop. He’d never have another chance. He wrung every last drop of energy left in his impossibly weary body and stabbed upward, into the right eye of the dragon.

The dragon straightened, all 100 feet of its snake-like body at once. The head swung up, catching Lewis like a shovel and tossing him in the air like a bull. The wings thrashed wildly, and then stopped.

The dragon died, and smoke poured from its mouth.

***

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Continue on to Chapter Thirty-Five.

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