Chapter Thirty-Two

The fiery sword cast lightning, burning with bright fire. Hierodeacons Ambrose and Jerome followed Father John and the sword, interposing their weightless, immaterial shields between the swords of the enemy and the men on the line.

Ambrose flung out his left hand, caught a nine-foot long axe with the invisible plane of mystical force. The axe head made no sound as it stopped in mid air, but the wooden shaft broke in two with a loud crack and the troll bellowed in anger. Another troll raised its axe to strike a Marine struggling to stand. Jerome squeezed his right hand into a fist and the troll collapsed to the ground, helmet collapsed like a beer can in the grip of an invisible redneck.

Bolts of actinic fire rained down from Archimandrite John’s fiery apparition, and his eyes glowed with the power coursing through his body. The apprentices looked like shadow boxers, but were more lethal by far. The force they projected crumpled enchanted armor like tin foil, threw trolls from the line like rag dolls. Their breath came hard; Lewis could hear them rasp as they fought to inhale. The strain was incredible and Lewis through the agency of his sword could feel reality twist and curl around them as they focused that force.

He had no idea how long they could keep it up, or at what cost. The giant before Lewis fell, sparks leaping off his armor as he dropped and filling the air with the smell of ozone. A vision of the left wing of his line interposed itself on his perceptions. The giants had never seemed that organized, and not all had gathered at the center. Some had decided to take revenge, and now a squad of them clambered over a low wall of troll corpses to assault the Strykers that anchored the far end of his line.

The lead giant, menacing in grey, flat-aspected armor, raised his sword for a mighty, two-handed blow. The machine guns of the right-most Stryker blazed, not firing in controlled bursts but letting loose a continuous stream of fire. The giant looked like he was wading into a firehose, slowed but not stopped by the torrent of lead.

The sword came down, hitting the barrel of the Stryker’s 105 mm cannon. An explosion of sparks and an enormous metallic clang filled the air, and ten feet of hard steel gun barrel dropped to the ground and rolled to the side. The giant slashed at the tires, huge sweeping blows that laid open the rubber and drew lines of sparks as the tip of the sword scored the metal armor.

The other giants attacked. Now defenseless and unarmed, Lt. Random attempted to back out of the fight. The Stryker’s engine roared and sand spun out from under the wheels. Two giants hammered the front of the vehicle with savage blows, like deranged wood-choppers. The cage-like anti-RPG slat armor lasted less than a second, then they were hacking through the vehicle’s armored hull; their massive, enchanted blades cleaving huge rents into the refractory armor.

The grey-armored giant went right for the commander’s hatch on the Stryker’s left side. He lifted his sword again, and buried it a foot or more into the steel. With a mighty wrench, he pulled it free for another strike. Two more blows, and the commander’s position was exposed to air. The giant reached in with his off hand, grabbed Random by the neck and hauled him out screaming. The giant dashed him contemptuously to the armored deck, and the lieutenant dropped bonelessly to the ground.

The driver was still trying to back up, hampered by shredded tires, the rocks behind, and the giants to the front. All the while, machine gun fire from the other Strykers continued to pour into the giants. Finally, one lucky round pierced the thinner armor of giant’s visor. The giant fell to earth like a tree, landing with a metallic crash.

The rear Stryker couldn’t rotate its cannon enough to get a shot, not that Lewis thought they had any rounds left anyway. But Burke’s Stryker made a sudden lunge forwards to clear the bulk of Random’s vehicle. The 105 mm cannon swung round, clearing the line of marines and crusaders and pointing at the giants chopping at Random’s Stryker.

Five knights from the reserve were running toward the Strykers, but they were not going to be enough to stop their whole line from being rolled up once the Strykers were gone.

Boom! At point-blank range, the mid section of the giant just disappeared. The canister round had no time to disperse, most of the tungsten pellets hit the first giant. But enough passed to the side to wreck the arm of the giant behind, he dropped bleeding from a stump to the sand.

The barrel rotated again, and the remaining giants dropped to the ground, below the barrel. The knights arrived, leaping into the fray from a dozen yards away. The first giant died, a crusader sword straight through the back of his helm. The next died harder, but the incursion was stopped, for now.

***

The Marines, heartened by the pyrotechnic assistance of the Archimandrite’s magic, tried to push back. Though trolls and giants reeled from the onslaught, it was a firehose trying to hold back the tide.

In the corner of his perception, the sword flashed a view of the crusaders clearing the corner of the badlands, the rough terrain just to the west of his hill. They moved as quickly as they could under cover of Archimandrite Theodore’s enchantment, unseen and likely unseeable seeing as how Father John’s Death Star attack had taken out the enemy magic artillery. Best damn counter-battery fire, ever, Lewis thought. But he sensed the shadows gathering again, and the dragon was coming.

One of the Prince’s guards went down under the swords of two giants. The Marines next to him stood no chance of even slowing them; the giants brushed them aside like flies and strode into the rear of Lewis’ line.

“Shit! Shit!” he screamed. Baron Siegfried glanced right. Pausing only to kill the troll before him, he bolted to intercept the giants, and Pethoukis followed him. Their tiny reserve had already moved left to deal with the giant attack on the Strykers. There was nothing left. Lewis and the Prince had no choice but to spread out and cover a greater breadth of the line and pray they could hold.

***

The bodies of the two dead Marines rolled down the slope into the hollow, kicking up a little dust until they rested at that bottom. The giants, eleven feet tall and armored like tanks, strode in, followed by the deep-voiced shouts of half a dozen trolls.

HM1 Fagan looked up from directing the Air Force volunteer medics removing the dead and wounded from the line. Fagan froze, his face going white under his desert tan. “Incoming!” He screamed. Burhan, the Arab translator, had been shadowing Father Pietr to help with translation as he performed what first aid he could. He grabbed a fallen carbine from one of the injured Marines and opened fire on the advancing giants. A casual blow from the giant cut him in half at the waist.

The two giants laid about them with their six-foot blades. Fagan’s head went spinning from his shoulders, and the pieces of a dozen of the apprentice corpsmen littered the sand. TSGT Furber raised his own carbine and fired on full automatic knowing it wouldn’t stand a chance of penetrating the giant’s armor but unwilling to abandon the wounded. Behind the giant he could see Pethoukis, Siegfried and Hierodeacon Ambrose rushing to confront the giants.

The giant towered above him as his carbine locked on an empty mag. The sword reflected the red sun as it came down. Furber dodged, but screamed as he lost his left arm at the elbow and the sword hit the sand.

Baron Siegfried and the sergeant charged into battle. Siegfried skipped across the sand like an astronaut on the moon. The gravity that pulled at everyone else could not find a hold on him. He crouched and leapt into the air, a silver-armored superman. In mid-air, he curled into a ball, his metal-clad form wrapped around the blade of his sword, the point of which projected just ahead of his shoulder.

He crashed into the back of the second giant, just below the shoulder blades. Propelled by the full weight of the armored knight and the tremendous strength of his armor, sword pierced the giant’s armor and went deep into its back. The giant tipped back its armored head and screamed loud enough to wake the dead. It spun with impossible quickness for one so large, sweeping its gargantuan sword at waist height; waist height for a giant. Siegfried had already dropped below the arc of the swing, and struck out in a furious salvo of blows to the giant’s legs.

Hierodeacon Ambrose rained magical blows on the giant, insubstantial seeming but hitting with the force of a jack hammer and leaving fist-sized dents in the angular, faceted armor. He kept his distance, wary of the giant but unwilling to let it proceed. The giant shrugged off the attack, stooped and picked up the bleeding Air Force sergeant and threw him at the apprentice wizard.

Pethoukis, lacking the speed and strength of the Baron and his armor, charged in more slowly but with no less determination. The Prince and the captain had cut off the breach, but a half-dozen trolls and two giants were in the rear. The trolls were already turning when he hit them, but unprepared for the sergeant’s headlong assault. The sergeant’s stolen goblin sword gutted one troll; he had to dodge just to avoid being crushed by the corpse.

Evans shifted his aim from the battle to the forces loose in the rear, and a fusillade of .50 cal rounds rang off the troll’s helms. One, then another dropped as Evan’s fire found the weak points in their armor. Pethoukis knew he didn’t have the skill to go hand-to-hand against a nine-foot monster. He just charged, hoping he could get inside its defenses and hack until something broke.

He came up covered with blood. The other trolls had arrows or bullet holes in their heads. “Right,” he panted.

Furber screamed as he cartwheeled through the air, hitting the Hierodeacon straight on and both collapsed to the ground. The giant covered the distance in two steps, and dispatched both with a single blow.

The Baron cast his shield into the face of the giant, his strength such that the blow rocked the titan’s head back and nearly knocked it down. He took his sword in both hands and thrust up at the heart of the giant, piercing the armor just below the breast and penetrating deep into the chest behind.

Pethoukis and the Baron raced to face Ambrose’ killer, now running to attack the Raimond and Lewis from behind. The giant heard or sensed them coming, and whirled around to attack. The sudden attack caught the men by surprise, Pethoukis skidded to a stop, lost his balance and dropped to the ground on his ass. The Baron jumped back to dodge the blow, then leapt forward again to attack.

His leap carrying him man-height off the ground, he kicked out and landed a solid blow on the giant’s chest, rebounding and landing gracefully on the sand. Shieldless, Siegfried prepared for the giant’s attack. The monster hammered him with two blows the knight could barely deflect. The giant feinted at Siegfried then chopped at the sergeant just now getting off the ground. Baron Siegfried skated sideways, extended his sword to shield the Marine. The giant’s massive blade knocked the sword from his hand to clatter to the ground, but Pethoukis was unhurt.

Pethoukis stabbed clumsily at the giant’s hand, missed. The giant recovered, swung the sword like a he was a lefty chasing a sinking fastball. The blade hit Siegfried in the groin, opened his armor like a zipper. The Baron dropped, gutted.

Sergeant Pethoukis charged in again.

***

The rear ranks of trolls dissolved in confusion. The trolls scrambled, their futile attempts to get out of the way of the advancing monster hindered by their tight formation. Their cries of pain echoed over the din of combat. The serpent, contemptuous and heedless of its own allies, crushed them underfoot by the dozens in its slow and callous progress.

From atop the low hill Lewis could see it come, implacable and beautiful. It screeched its piercing war cry and all fighting on the line stopped; the combatants shocked to inaction by the savage call. Even the giants turned to look behind. The black and gold tiger stripes glistened where they weren’t dusted with sand. Long scars marred the subtle patterns, reminders of the apparition that it had dueled in the air over the goblin army. The wounds no longer bled; whether they had healed that fast on their own or through some magic Lewis had no idea. The dragon moved like a perverse combination of a ferret and a sidewinder. Its legs were very short compared to the long, snake-like body. Its back arched up with every step, and it crabbed sidewise to move around the tighter knots of troll infantry. Each sweep of its tail battered trolls to the ground. That was a creature made for flying not walking, Lewis thought, but wounded as it was, the dragon’s every movement signaled immense strength.

It never held completely still; some part of its sinuous, 100 ft long body was always in motion. It was hypnotizing. The dragon reared up on its hind legs, took on the aspect of a cobra ready to strike. The wings, tattered and ripped, spread wide. A shadow seemed to fall over the wall, though the setting sun still shone from the side, bright in the sky to the west. The dragon raised its head and roared, different from the piercing klaxon cry, deeper and somehow even more frightening. Archimandrite John stepped up between Lewis and the Prince. The three men shared a look of grim resolve. Lewis tightened his grip on the sword, and lifted his shield.

The dragon uttered another brief cry, and tossed its head. A beam of ravening energy poured forth. Lewis squinted from the impossible arc light brightness of it. He saw every detail as the beam danced lightly toward him. Where the fire touched the ground, the sand boiled. Rocks scorched and burst like grenades. Liquified glass splashed the enemy, green and smoking gobs sticking to their armor. Trolls caught in the arc exploded in their armor from the heat, vaporized blood bursting from the seams in their armor before disappearing in muffled explosions. The smell of scorched metal, ozone and pork filled the air.

The giant who a moment before had been scrambling up the slope suddenly realized his danger. Like a bug caught in molasses, he tried desperately to move. Dragon fire caught the giant in the back, and he became a black silhouette limned with green-white fire bleeding around the edges. Lewis felt his own armor flash hot just from the edges of the titanic blast. The giant arched its back, flung out its arms in pain. The center of the breastplate glowed cherry red, and the fire burst through.

Archimandrite John raised his hands to ward off the dragon’s fire, but there was no need. The blast was spent. The dragon had cleared its line of fire. It sounded a stuttering, joyous sounding cry. I’d sound smug too if I could do that, Lewis thought. The dragon lowered its head once more. From forty feet away, Lewis saw its enormous eyes, cat-like and flecked with gold; and glowing. There was an intelligence there, feral and cold; angry and hungry. Not a beast, no matter how savage and how beautiful.

The dragon vomited up another arc of plasma. This one did not track along the ground, it was aimed straight at the Prince. The bolt of actinic fire hit the Prince square on the shield, blew him clear off the sandy berm.

“Oh, fuck.”

***

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Continue on to Chapter Thirty-Three.

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