Chapter Thirty-Three

Four explosions rippled down the wall; prepared charges cutting gaps in the crest and dumping sand into the trenches before the wall. The blasts seemed small and pathetic  compared to the titanic blasts of the M58, but each detonation moved tons of sand and earth. Bulldozers moved up, scraping the rough earth into something like a road and pushing the earth down to form a ramp onto the plain below; burying hundreds of dead or dying goblins in the process.

The cav sallied forth. The soft whine of the Abrams’ turbine engine jumped up in pitch. A rooster tail of sand and dust kicked out behind the tank as the treads grabbed for traction and Kimball clung on as the 70-ton tank accelerated up the ramp and over the wall. He was near blinded by the smoke and dust of the explosions, and for a moment he felt his nuts twist with the sensation of weightlessness you get when you go over a sharp hill on a country road.

Four columns of armored vehicles poured out of the fort. The 116th had a nominal strength of 48 M1A2 Abrams tanks and 66 M2 and M3 Bradley Infantry Fighting vehicles. Kimball had no idea how many they’d left home with, but between vehicles down for repairs and a dozen or more smoking hulks thanks to dragon CAS those numbers had dropped significantly. Brogan had left eight of the Abrams on the line for direct fire support, a job they were infinitely more suited for than the lightly armed Bradleys. Over the ramps came eighty armored vehicles; a half-dozen main battle tanks at the head of each column, 120 mm guns loaded with canister rounds. Down off the wall, they slowed and shifted their formation to a broad wedge, with the Bradleys fanned out behind.

Lieutenant Linderman had his head out of the commander’s cupola. The slightly built officer shouted into his radio. He looked up, pointed at Kimball. “Get the flag up you son of a bitch!”

Holding on to the tank with one hand, Kimball reached into his pouch. He pulled out the Holy Icon of St. George and shook off its cloth cover. Now what? he thought. The tank was bouncing across the sand, still going through the dead zone where the line clearing charges had pulped the goblins. The smell was incredible. He carefully moved to the front of the turret, and held up the small wooden icon with his right hand. Maybe it’s the sun slowly setting in the west, but damn me if it isn’t glowing, Kimball thought. Happily.

***

“Motherfucker…” the Bruce shouted. The last of his cry was swallowed in thunder. More columns of black smoke coiled angrily into the indigo sky. Van Buskirk watched debris fall to the earth. The mile or more of distance between them concealed its nature; and that, he thought, is a good thing. Whatever the 116th had done, it was godawful fucking loud. Hopefully it was as lethal as it was loud. In this fight, lethal and loud matched up not nearly fucking enough.

The attacking goblins staggered to a halt, dismayed again by the sound. Many turned to look behind them, unsure what it meant. Van Buskirk saw his opportunity and seized it. From his place in the center of the second rank, he shouted the order to advance. The corporals and sergeants of the line echoed the call, and his men took one step forward. As one man they stabbed out and down.

His sergeant, the Bruce, had command of the left. The lieutenant commanded the right, but both stood in the center. They oversaw the simple, brutal methodology they had drilled for a few hours on makeshift training grounds beside the desert highway. The soldiers were nothing more than a machine: step, chop, set, and repeat. Ruthless and inelegant perhaps, but Captain Lewis was right. They had no time to learn subtleties; this was KISS: death boiled down to its essence. Anything that came within reach of his men died. Maybe not immediately, but the pressure of the enemy’s own insistent assault fed goblins into the maw of van Buskirk’s gory, goblin-bladed wood chipper.

For once the goblins were unprepared, confused by the still-echoing thunder of the massive explosion across the plain. Dozens of goblins dropped as the swords of van Buskirk’s company passed through wavering defenses. The men raised a shout and on the command stepped forward again, their shields pushing the goblins for a moment off the hill. The three power-armored knights waited behind, ready to plug any break in van Buskirk’s line.

The rest of the lance Lewis had detailed to support him were men-at-arms, stationed on the rocks at each end of his line. There they used their bows to keep the goblins off his flag, the stars and stripes that served as their own regimental banner. The crusaders had three times already dropped the goblin standard with their supernaturally accurate arrows, though it had never stayed down long.

Van Buskirk’s machine wasn’t perfect. His own inexperience had nearly killed them all a dozen times already; the inexperience of his men nearly every second. But barely remembered drill from boot camp and the discipline the army put into its combat troops glued them together. Even if that discipline wasn’t up to Marine standards. As he fought, he could see in his mind a better doctrine; one that would take everything the goblins were throwing and deal death in return. But only if they survived.

Fewer and fewer leakers were getting through, and they were learning to deal with the ebb and flow of the battle with assurance, if not actual skill. He risked a quick glance behind him. The double row of corpses laid out on the sand attested to the price of the lessons, and the pressure was mounting. Two hard-won steps were all he got out of the goblin’s momentary distraction. The goblins redoubled their efforts; pushing back using their greater strength to slam their shields against the Americans. Men were knocked off-balance, and cut down by the dripping swords of their enemies.

He was amazed at the noise, the clamor, of this medieval warfare. Not just the swords and shields crashing together, but the shouts and grunts, and the screams of the wounded and dying. The men he’d known for less than a week were dying, and he couldn’t stop it. So much effort for gains of a foot of ground, and nothing like the fluid, mechanized combat he’d spent the last five years learning.

***

“Go! Go! Go!” Linderman shouted into the radio. Kimball rocked back, almost losing his grip as the massive tank bolted forward. Paine and Vance were firing, probably more just to be doing something. He felt an idiot sitting on top of the turret waving the icon, with the smell of dust and cordite filling his nose.

They picked up speed rapidly, but the area of devastation left by the mine-clearing charges was wide. It took just a moment to reach the edge of it, where wounded and confused goblins tried to stagger out of the way of onrushing tanks. The main gun barked, clearing a lane just to the left of their line of advance. There was no point shooting people they were about to run over.

Goblins started going down under the treads. The sound was sickening, like running over a dog on the highway, but doing it hundreds of times in a row. Crazed goblins tried in vain to avoid the tanks, but there was no getting clear. The tanks were in echelon formation like the dudes who rake the sand on the infield at a baseball game. Few got away. Dodge one tank, get tatered by the next. The whine of the engines and clank of the treads made a stupendous noise, punctuated by the even louder big-throated Boom! of the 120 mm cannons. Dust and sand rose up behind the racing tanks, creating a massive cloud. It was glorious.

The turrets twisted back and forth, as the big guns of the Abrams cleared lanes through the mass of goblins that had been marshaled to follow the regiments Brogan annihilated with the miclics. It’s the Civil War on fast forward, Kimball thought. Close-in direct fire artillery chopping men in half, sending mists of blood in the air. He grinned harshly. But Bobby Lee never had no 70 ton lawn mower, neither.

He looked at Vance and smiled. This was payback, and it felt fucking good. They’d watched an armored column out by the Syrian border get lit up by a dragon. Two minutes had changed millions of dollars of the best American technology into a dozen smoking piles of metal. This would be suicidally stupid, army stupid, in the face of enemy air support. Or magic support. Or whatever the fuck.

Vance and Paine continued to fire off the sides of the tank, as did the reservists parked on the back decks of most of the tanks and from the half-filled passenger compartments of the Brads. Their fire was inconsequential compared to the titanic blasts of the big guns, or even the .50 cal machine guns. But they fired anyway.

The sickening thump of crunchies going under the treads slowed and stopped like the last few kernels of popcorn popping in a microwave. They were clear.

***

Two soldiers died on the savage blades of the goblins, and opening a hole in his line as they fell. Sergeant Avila was the file closer; before van Buskirk could utter a word he was shouting commands to close up the line. The goblins charged up and through the line, gutting the men of the second rank before they could step up to plug the breach. More goblins poured into the gap, threatening to collapse the line.

The Bruce charged forward, yelling for the reserve. Arrows from the crusader archers on the left end of the line dropped two goblins, but more poured in. The goblin drums beat louder, urging the monsters on. The sergeant charged into the gap, shield high and swinging his gladius-sized enchanted sword wildly. He beat back the first goblin, stabbed him in the leg and the goblin dropped gouting blood. The second goblin was more skilled, or more ready for the sergeant’s wild attack. He parried, beat the sergeant’s sword to the side and crashed his shield onto Bruce’s. The sergeant, rocked back, struggled to retain his balance only to feel the goblin’s sword chew through his armor and into his abdomen.

His sergeant bled out onto the sand as van Buskirk fought desperately to plug the hole. “Fuck!” he screamed. The standard-bearer waved the banner while the lieutenant dueled two goblins just as desperate to open it further. Van Buskirk caught one sword on his shield, shrugged it aside. He caught another on his sword, and the two blades slid along each other, locking at the hilt. He stared into the reddened eyes of his opponent, whites clearly visible in the dark, shadowed eye sockets. He grunted, pushed, but the goblin was stronger; far stronger. He felt his arm weaken; he was arm wrestling the goddamn terminator.

There was a metallic tick, and suddenly all the pressure released. The goblin’s helmet had sprouted an arrow, van Buskirk watched the bright fletching of red feathers as the goblin slumped to the ground, almost taking van Buskirk with him. He would have fallen to the sword of the other goblin but for the vicious shield buffet of the knight who miraculously appeared at his side. The goblin tumbled down the slope, fouling the steps of half-dozen of his comrades as he fell.

Van Buskirk staggered back to his feet. He checked behind, the flag still flew. The men still held the line. Two crusader knights leapt over the heads of his soldiers to land right in the midst of the advancing goblins. Five seconds of pirouetting death dealing and they leapt back to the comparative safety of van Buskirk’s line, leaving dozens of goblins dead and momentarily slowing the assault. Momentarily.

***

Kimball clung desperately to the top of the Abrams turret as they bounded over the desert sand, holding the icon before him as best he could. The column raced across the plain, doing over 40 mph at least. They’d run over or run past the last of the goblins that had massed to assault the brigade’s entrenched position.

Paine shouted over the noise, “World’s biggest fucking hit and run!” He grinned like a madman.

Kimball shouted back, “I know, right?”

Next stop, goblin central. They were angling north and west from where the bulk of the 116th still sat behind their walls. Lewis and his Marines were directly west of that position, but Brogan wanted to make the most of his freedom to operate. They aimed for what they assumed was the goblin HQ, the place where the magical pillar of fire had struck. If they could take that out, Brogan figured, they’d be gutting the command and control for the enemy. Why the fuck not? They closed the distance quickly as it was only a mile or so out. The command center, if that’s what it was, was a rough circle of tents around an open area. Around the edges goblins were scurrying, clearly disturbed by the rapidly approaching tanks.

A flight of arrows arched up from the camp, plunged down. He saw men drop from the backs of tanks. One arrow stuck into the turret just inches from his leg, buried a hand deep in armor that was proof against depleted uranium shells. Fuck me, he thought.

But this wasn’t the Civil War or Agincourt after all. An American main battle tank does not take minutes to cover a half mile of ground, it takes seconds. Before the goblins could loose another volley, the tanks were upon them. Again, the sickening thuds as bodies were hit by the frontal armor of the tanks, or chewed up by the treads. Kimball looked to Linderman, who wore a canary that ate the cat grin. Linderman shouted, “Living the dream, bro!”

“Cleaning that shit out of the treads is gonna suck.”

“Not for me!”

They were through the outer lines. Everything was going perfectly according to plan, which in Kimball’s experience meant that everything would explode in their faces in five, four…

Linderman’s driver slowed somewhat, and led the column down a road between tents. The tanks behind were in echelon, slightly to the left and right of the lead tank. They rode right over them and into the open area at the center of the camp. The icon flashed gold. Kimball nearly dropped it in surprise as he felt an electric shock run down his arm. Not painful, more like hitting your funny bone a dozen times at once. Ahead, five goblins stood outside a large tent, in front of huge bonfire. A part of his brain whispered, where the fuck did they get firewood? They weren’t in armor like every other goblin he’d seen. VIPs? he wondered.

The center goblin raised its arms. The sleeves of the black robes it wore dropped down, revealing gold and silver bracelets and jet black skin. The fire flared, Kimball felt the icon jump in his hand.

“Vance, hold me!” Vance instantly pushed off from where he sat at the rear of the turret, skidded over the deck and grabbed Kimball around the waist with one arm, and wrapped his other arm and legs around the barrel of the cannon. Kimball raised the icon in both hands; above his head and facing directly at the fire and the goblins.

A disturbance in the air, lambent and scintillating, formed like a wall a few feet in front of the goblins. “Shit, magic!” Kimball cursed. The fire billowed up, like someone had just dumped a couple gallons of lighter gasoline on it. That’s not no ordinary fire. This fire twisted and writhed. The tongues of flame solidified, became serpents of black smoke with veins of fire. The fire was bright, and their eyes were burning coals of fire, and out of the fire went forth lightning.

“Oh, fuck!” Kimball said, quietly.

Paine opened up with his M4, and Linderman with the .30 cal. The bullets reached the glowing wall and stopped, and dropped almost soundlessly to the sand. Linderman shouted, “Gunner – fucking goblins – middle goblin!”

“Identified!”

“Fire!”

“On the way!”

From the mouth of the cannon shot a yards-long cone of fire and smoke. The wall bowed inward, two feet, three feet. One of the goblins collapsed, whimpering and grasping his head. Then a second. Thousands of tungsten pellets, still wreathed in fire, came to a stop. The wall snapped back with a ripple of light.

“Not good!” Paine shouted.

The fiery serpents detached themselves from the fire. Men on the tanks fired wildly, but the bullets could not find anything to pierce. The serpents danced wildly in the air, their movements unwholesome and sickening. Linderman vomited over the side of the tank. Kimball felt his stomach twist. Not right, not right, his mind began to gibber.

The serpents came for him. All he could do was hold the icon before him.

***

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Continue on to Chapter Thirty-Four.

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