Chapter Thirty-One

“Lost the cavalry,” Paine said.

“What?” Kimball asked. He looked west toward Lewis’ hill, but could see little. The setting sun cast beams of light through the haze of smoke and dust. He settled back on his sandbag.

“They just faded out. Still headed west when they cloaked.”

“Another flanking move?” Kimball asked.

“Can’t see what else. I didn’t take them for the kind that would bail. Ever.” Paine trained the binoculars on the goblins in the field before them once more.

“Next one will be bigger. Another regiment queued up.”

Kimball glanced up, and saw another block of goblin infantry settling into place. They’re coming up faster than we can kill them. God, what’d I give for a squadron of BUFFs and a permissive ROE right now. But all the planes were half a world away by now. Or part of the landscape.

Outside the walls, there was chaos. Kimball had seen a lot of bodies over the years. But never so many all at once. The once pristine desert was ripped and blasted; littered with corpses and craters.

Between every assault, the brigade’s combat engineer companies had repaired and improved the rough fortifications. The sandy soil was easy to shape, and the brigade’s position now resembled a passable fort. Even now, graders were moving shit around, though why they were building ramps behind the wall, Kimball had no idea.

SGT Weber climbed up to their perch on the right end of the 116th’s north wall. He was dust covered, dirty and unshaven. He looked little different than the three, given the efforts the three had made to conceal the magical armor and weapons they’d acquired from Lewis. Beards and long hair were the only things that really distinguished them from the more squared away reservists around them.

“Kimball, the colonel needs a word,” he said as he looked out on the goblin horde readying itself for another thrust.

The sergeant stepped up to the wall. “Another big one.”

“New world record,” Paine said.

“Shit.”

“Let us see what colonel dear wants, shall we?” Kimball asked. Vance shook his head disapprovingly but said nothing. As usual.

***

Lewis fought on grimly. The pain was inescapable, his muscles driven past all human limits. The sword fought for him; he knew that without it he would have given up long ago. His sense of time was simply gone. He couldn’t conceive anymore of a world where he could just sit and suffer without having to move. Though he felt like an automaton under the ruthless tutelage of the sword he bore, he fought with increasing confidence. Whether the sword was getting to know him, or whether he was getting to know the sword, he had no fucking clue. But he killed, and all the while the sword fed his calculating mind glimpses of the battle around him.

The Prince staggered under the blows of the giant he faced. The strength of his armor protected him from strikes that would have killed a more conventionally armored knight a dozen times over, but could not dissipate the force entirely. Raimond screamed wordlessly and kicked savagely – buckled the creature’s knee, dropping the monster backwards and screaming.

It was almost like being drunk, seeing double – except that one view was the reality in front of him, and the other of somewhere else, magically imposed on his sight. Along the line, power-armored knights threw all their strength against the giants while the Marines desperately tried to stop the trolls from infiltrating. They were failing; falling before the swords of the giants and the axes of the trolls. Men moved swiftly to fill the gaps in the ranks, but Lewis’ reserve was being depleted at an unsustainable rate.

The giant chief, fearsome in his black armor, mounted the hill. He swung his sword, and a crusader knight flew back a dozen yards, bleeding around the crease in his breastplate. Machine gun rounds sparked off the giant’s helm, making it ring like a bell. The giant waved its enormous hand like it was trying to swat away flies. A knight ducked in, trying to hamstring the monster.

Shouts in the troll ranks warned of another threat. Cries of pain as the dragon pushed forward, heedless of the allies it crushed under its claws. Lewis couldn’t see it with his own eyes. Without asking, the sword obliged. Mother of god, Lewis thought.

***

Down in the low, sand-covered bunker Brogan stared at his map. Weber cleared his throat and said, “Colonel, I’ve got Kimball.” The colonel turned and looked at the three special forces troops. He was a small man, slightly built. His close-cropped hair almost concealed a severely receding hairline. He looked pissed.

“Kimball, what else can this thing do?” He pointed at the icon that hung unobtrusively in a corner of the command bunker. Though it was small, it drew the eye. No more than six inches high, it was rich with gold leaf and bright colors. The icon depicted an armored figure on horseback, fighting a dragon serpent. A golden halo surrounded his head as the figure stabbed down at the serpent with a spear. If you looked too closely, or too long, it almost seemed alive. Kimball shook his head.

The Holy Icon of St. George. Father Pietr had said that it had come from another world, where for the last four centuries it had hung behind the altar of the Cathedral of San Whatever-the-fuck in some mountain valley. The last time it had gone forth to war, the English hadn’t yet planted a colony in the new world. The father’s briefing on the icon had been, well, brief. He’d given Kimball the words that had set the thing off. That had raised Kimball’s stature considerably among the men of the 116th. Especially after it blew the fucking orcs right off the wall. But…

“Colonel, fuck if I know. The father said that it ‘protects the righteous.’ Until the righteous show up, I guess we can stand in for them.” He paused, trying to remember everything that the priest had told him. “He did say that the last time they took it out for a spin, they carried it before their armies.”

“What, like the Ark in Indiana Jones?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

The colonel cupped his chin in his hand and looked back at the map. “I’ve been talking to your Captain Lewis. It seems that his crusaders cocked up. We’re no longer going to be able to stay here and let the orcs beat themselves to death. They’re coming up too fast, and we haven’t killed enough of them.

“Lewis wants us to sortie. But I want every edge I can get if I do.”

“Well, colonel, seeing what the icon did earlier? I can’t imagine it would hurt to have it with you.” The colonel nodded.

“And sir? Vance had a suggestion.”

“Yes?” Brogan replied.

“Move your artillery up. Direct fire is better,” Vance said.

Brogan looked as if he expected there to be more. When nothing more was forthcoming, he cocked an eyebrow at Kimball.

“He means that the airbursts from the 155s aren’t fucking shit up like they should. The direct fire from your Abrams have done more damage than anything else. Move the batteries up and use them Civil War style.”

“Is he always so…?”

“The word you’re looking for, Colonel, is ‘gnomic.’ Or at least Vance tells us that’s the word we should use.”

Brogan looked pensive for a moment as he considered the possibilities. Finally, he shrugged. “I’ll take that under consideration.”

“Right. Kimball, you take charge of the icon. Get with Lieutenant Linderman, he’ll be up front when we go for a stroll. You can ride with him.”

“Dismissed.” Brogan turned to his staff and resumed planning the coming offensive.

***

Father John strode toward the enemy; a nimbus of light, like a sapphire, formed around his head and fingers of subtle fire danced in his hands. His beard stood on end, a Byzantine John Brown ready to smite his foes. His face looked tired and worn, but determined; his jaw set and eyes sharp.

Father John stepped up to the gap in the line. He raised his arms, his hands like claws. The hands twisted, and ravening fire poured forth. The fire took the shape of a sword, and Lewis thought of the flaming sword borne by the angel who barred the gates of Eden.

“Yes! Fiery death, you motherfuckers!” Coleman cried. The allies on the hill cheered as trolls staggered back in fear.

The archimandrite was clothed in blue flame and the sword burned bright; and out of the fire went forth lightning. Jagged arcs shot out, hitting the giant chieftain and scrabbling along the faceted surface of his armor. The black armor glowed dull red at the edges. The giant screamed and lashed out with his sword, hitting the arc with the edge of his blade. Sparks showered at the impact, like a foundry. The Archimandrite stepped closer, and the sword leaned toward the giant.

***

Four thousand goblins screamed and charged. Mines, claymores and emplaced charges tore their lines but still they came, rushing to fill the gaps in their line and cover the bloody ground. It was eerie to watch so many of the enemy hit by the explosions stagger to their feet and rejoin the charge. Kimball noticed that the mines seemed particularly effective, he guessed that it was a good thing that the goblins hadn’t had the foresight to armor the bottoms of their feet.

Howitzer rounds detonated above their heads while the M1 Abrams poured on canister fire at point blank range. Since the fireworks over the enemy HQ, the artillery had been working more or less as usual. The rounds were exploding where they were supposed to, at least. The goblin’s armor made sure that too damn many of them survived. At the center of the blast the fuckers stayed reassuringly dead.

Over the din of heavy weapons, machine guns and massed fire from the dismounted troops along the wall created another layer of hellish din. The goblins pressed forward, and the soldiers dropped down into the trench behind the sandy wall. The Snake River Brigade’s 155 mm batteries dropped a curtain of final protective fire almost on the heads of their own troops. That must suck to be right there, Kimball thought. Especially without goblin armor.

This one might make it, Kimball estimated. Each assault had come incrementally closer before the concentrated fire grew too much and the goblins retreated in disorder. But never far. They regrouped and fresh regiments moved up; the bloody, nerve-wracking process repeated.

The enemy clearly had little concern for casualties. Make that no concern. It was only a matter of time, really. Once the 116th ran low on ammunition, they were fucked. Without air support, their stores of ammunition were the only reserve they had, and an empty carbine is no match for enchanted steel. And that time couldn’t be far off the way Brogan was pouring on the fire.

Behind the perimeter, Brogan had gathered the bulk of his armored vehicles. A few tanks and brads still remained on the line providing direct fire support, but three dozen M1A2 Abrams tanks and four dozen M2 and M3 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles waited, engines idling, behind four ramps the engineers had built up to near the top of the wall.

Kimball watched as the Paladin self-propelled 155 mm howitzers moving forward from the artillery park. He nudged Vance with an elbow. “He listened.”

“Smart colonel,” Vance said.

“How’s he going to get out when there’s 4000 goblins trying to get in?” Paine asked.

“Miclic.”

***

Six humvees towing boxy trailers sped up to the wall and turned. They backed the trailers right up to the edge of the trenches behind the wall. Two parked between the center two ramps, the other four spread out on either side. The occasional arrow arced over, making the engineers nervous as they ran to the trailers. Holy fuck, Kimball thought, this could be interesting.

The fire from the wall cut off like someone flipped a switch. From his perch on a gently humming, turbine-powered tank sitting near the top of the middle ramp, Kimball could just barely see over the wall. Orcs looked up, confused at the sudden absence of explosions, but they didn’t slow. The rattle of machine gun fire sounded almost like silence without the big booming 120s.

From each trailer, a small rocket fired. Kimball watched six rockets hiss up and over the heads of the army reservists on the wall and fan out above four regiments of orcs. The rockets left a wavering trail of white smoke as they labored to gain altitude; burdened by the heavy lines they pulled from the large boxes on the trailers.

Four seconds later, the rockets sputtered out. Six thick cords fell to the earth in nearly parallel lines, neatly spread through the bulk of the goblin soldiers charging toward the wall. There they lay for a moment. Most of the goblins kept running, but some shied away from the cords, unsure of the meaning of this new trick.

BOOM! A tremendous, stuttering crack filled the world, and shook the ground. Shit, I’ve felt earthquakes weaker than that, Kimball thought.

Six fingers of fire ripped straight through the heart of the assault. Orcs disappeared, engulfed in dully-glowing orange flame and black oily smoke. Roiling clouds of black rose in six towering mushroom clouds above the field.

It was the loudest boom he’d ever heard. Brogan had had an idea, no fucking shit indeed. The M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge, MICLIC to its friends. Each of those cords was 1750 pounds of C4 at five pounds of high explosive per linear foot. Kimball had watched some Marines back in Afghanistan clear an IED-littered road with one. The Marine engineer sergeant had waxed rhapsodic on its abilities to, “provide close-in breaching capability for maneuver forces.”

Each charge cleared a lane one hundred meters long by eight wide. Mines or IEDs in the lane either experienced sympathetic detonation from the shock or were physically hurled to the side. Brogan had set up his MICLICs to fire the charges spread out like fingers, the lanes barely overlapping close in to his defensive line but spreading as they reached out.

The M58’s designers likely hadn’t had goblins in mind. The enemy never assembled in one place like that anymore. Or not until last week. Instead of clearing mines, they cleared monsters.

Dust and smoke obscured everything. Kimball felt like he’d been gutpunched from the concussion. What that had done in the middle was simply beyond comprehension. Debris and goblin chum rained down. “Oh, fuck me!” Paine shouted when a bare goblin foot landed on his lap. He knocked it to the ground.

“Dude, that would have made a nice keepsake.”

“There’ll be more.”

***

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Continue on to Chapter Thirty-Two.

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