All along the line, Marines slung their carbines and crusaders cased their bows. The crusaders were grimly ready, prepared by years of training to face the threat before them. Lewis’ Marines looked uneasy. The confidence and strength granted them by Father Jerome’s blessing ebbed as they put away familiar weapons and prepared to fight with the new.
No fucking surprise there, Lewis thought. A few hours of training on the run is the sum total of their experience with swords. And they’re about to face off against eight-foot tall monsters.
Captain Lewis drew his sword slowly. He raised the blade and pointed at the trolls crawling over their dead to mount the sandy berm. They shouted as they came, the bass cries almost deafening over the clatter of their armor.
Lewis pitched his voice to carry over the clamor of the onrushing trolls, “Keep it tight. Hold until the crusaders get to the line. Hold! We’re the goddamned Marine Corps. Send these fuckers straight back to hell!”
A ragged chorus of ‘oorah!’ went down the line. Lewis gripped his sword tighter. He felt the world squeezing in from the corners as the adrenaline hit. He took two deep breaths to regain focus. He adjusted his stance, as Siegfried had taught him.
The troll line had bowed out in the middle, right before Lewis. The new leading edge of the troll regiment had lost formation as it stumbled over the chewed-up remains of the first two ranks. They hit the bottom of the short slope and leaned into it as their squat, powerful legs pushed them upward.
The trolls were faceless, visors of their black helmets almost featureless save for a narrow eye-slit that wasn’t open at all, just a mesh of perforated metal. Fuck, this really sucks. Directly in front of him and charging at a full run the troll was a monster. Not even to the top of the shallow hill, he was already looking Lewis in the eye. Fucker is at least three feet taller than me, Lewis thought.
The troll’s gorilla arms each terminated in an armored gauntlet gripping a steel-clad, wood-shafted halberd. Its feet scrabbled in the sand as he churned up the hill. Deep breath. He settled the shield on his left arm, raised it as he’d been instructed. A twitch of his head brought his helmet visor down with a loud metallic clink.
The world went away. Sounds were muffled inside the helmet; his vision restricted to a narrow bar, his peripheral vision just gone. The troll raised his pole-axe. Lewis, at the top of sandy rise, looked straight out and into the eyes of his attacker, just barely visible through the mesh. Those eyes were wide. Was it feeling the adrenaline hit, too?
Lewis raised his sword. For a moment, he almost panicked. What if the sword doesn’t turn itself on? I’ll be fucked… Then the color drained out of the world and for the first time since the battle at the village he once more became a tool for the sword he held. Thank god, he prayed.
His left foot slid forward across the sand, he twisted right and caught the halberd on his shield. He felt the axe head bite into the dense wood of the shield and felt the shock compress his whole body into the sand.
He pivoted left from the waist, forcing the halberd down and off to the side. The troll rocked back, off-balance from the unexpected resistance, his left arm failed to come up to block the blow it had to know was coming. The sword flew. Lewis felt he was merely following it, not swinging it. With the entire strength of his body behind the blow he struck at the troll’s neck, just below the flanged bottom of the helm.
The blade bit deeply, severing armor and then flesh. The troll’s head rolled back, all but separated from the body. Blood shot up in a gory fountain, black and glistening in Lewis’ sight. The corpse toppled back, nearly taking out the troll behind.
Lewis recovered, sure-footed and graceful. One troll had grappled with Siegfried and locked him in its grasp; leaving him defenseless. A second flung its halberd down in a mighty two-handed swing. The sword leapt up and right and both hands and halberd dropped to the sand. Lewis watched black blood leak into the sand from within the armored gauntlet.
From the other side Pethoukis chopped down, graceless but effective, into the first troll’s shoulder. Breaking the grapple with the now wounded troll, Siegfried ducked back and dispatched it with a single, economical thrust.
The Prince dispatched two trolls in rapid succession. His next opponent was more skilled, blocking the prince’s attacks deftly with the shaft of his halberd. The Prince hammered blows on the monstrous armored figure in a figure eight, pushing the huge axe further and further out of line and culminating with a stop thrust to the chest, penetrating the massive creature’s armor. The sword caught on the armor. The Prince freed it with a stupendous kick that sent the troll rocketing back into the onrushing mass.
Lewis felt almost drunk, only able to focus on a single thing at a time. His vision lingered on small details; the engraving on the shoulder of a troll dying on the Prince’s sword, the sun shining on a slowly waving black-red banner, the surprise in one eye visible through the steel mesh of its visor as the sword pierced its twin.
Three more trolls fell to the sword, and now he had a small rampart built of dead trolls and mortared with blood. His next opponent approached more cautiously, using the length of his halberd and staying behind the bodies. The sword seemed to be everywhere at once, defense and attack both blended into a lethal blur, and the troll was forced back. A spear came in from behind, catching the blade of the troll’s halberd. That distraction was all that was required. The troll died leaking blood from a half-dozen rents in his armor.
Time slammed to a stop. The trolls and Lewis’ comrades both moved with exquisite slowness. It seemed to take minutes for his sword arm to recover and lance out to end another troll clambering over the corpse-wall. In his mind, Lewis stepped back and waited.
Time changed again. Any time Lewis focused on a thing, it stretched into infinity, hours seeming to pass in a second of realtime. If he looked away, time passed in fleeting snapshot glimpses. He saw the Prince dispose of one troll after another, protecting not just himself but Arp on his other side whenever the big corporal was pressed too hard – which was altogether too often.
Lewis was the still, bloodless center of the whirlwind. Anything that entered the ambit of his sword, died. He let go, let the sword completely take charge. He exulted in the death of his foes. Rejoiced in it. But not wholly; something of the strength that Father Jerome had put in to him made him remember sorrow. These weren’t men, but it was still killing.
Lewis felt the anger, the pain, and the fear of the trolls before him. It was a throbbing tide of red emotion, raw and bright. Blood lust, not altogether human; but not inhuman, either. Focussed on him. Him and the Prince Raimond.
Something glittered in the corner of his eye. He glanced up, and ten feet above his head was a grayscale will-o-wisp, sparkling dimly in the bright colorless light of the setting sun. It was not alone; and looking around he now saw hundreds swaying to and fro with what looked like purpose, not random motion.
His perceptions widened. Still he was there, there in the midst of an unending duel with inexhaustible trolls. But the entire battlefield rushed in. What the very fuck?
He saw the whole battle. He was a hundred drones at once, watching and recording. He saw van Buskirk holding his flank and the first of the crusaders moving up to reinforce the line. The sword fought for him, and part of his awareness was there with every troll he slew. But the rest… the other witnessed a growing sphere of violent activity. He looked outward, to the east.
Seven regiments of goblins charged across the plain, screaming their guttural war cries and devoutly praying for the death of the Snake River Brigade. Desperately, the cav fired barrages of artillery dangerously close to their own lines to keep those seven thousand goblins at arms’ length. Tanks and armored vehicles burned through ammunition, shot after shot clearing bloody valleys through the goblin ranks. This time, the goblins weren’t withdrawing, they pressed assault after assault with no regard to their losses.
His own Marines were pressed hard, too hard. He saw Angelo go down, one axe buried in a troll helm but gutted by the spike of another’s halberd. The Batman logo he’d painted on his chest was almost entirely gone and the rest covered with blood. Lewis felt nothing. Why can I not feel at the death of my men, and I feel the hatred and pain of my enemy?
Lewis let go the vision of the larger battle. He was aware again of being himself and the events unfolding before him. The sensation was strange; as if he had once been larger and squeezed into this smaller self. Yet he was still himself, there was no other. His body settled into the rhythm of the fight, coming to understand what the sword demanded. He moved faster, killed quicker as he surrendered to the sword’s tutelage.
A troll leapt over his slain predecessors, pushing its spiked halberd before him like a spear. Lewis swayed to the right, and a touch of the sword pushed the weapon to the side. He twisted his wrist and thrust; the sword pierced the troll’s intricately engraved breastplate with no more effort than pushing through paper.
To either side, the crusader knights on the line serviced the attacking trolls with dispassionate efficiency. The speed and strength granted them by the armor they wore matched the more natural strength of the trolls, who were slowed by the loose sand of the hill.
Lewis’ Marines were less competent and less strong, but gained confidence in the protection afforded them by their enchanted armor. The basic wisdom of the simple modes of attack drilled into them by Railen and the Prince’s other veterans in the few hours of practice on the desert served them well.
Short stabbing attacks; thrust and block with shield. They held the line, and slowed the troll assault long enough for the power-armored knights to finish them off. As the troll dead rolled and slid down the hill, they fouled the steps of those who followed. The Marines held the line.
The front line didn’t fight alone. The second rank of crusader men-at-arms and Marines carried spears, thrusting through the gaps in the front rank to kill. Where they didn’t kill, they distracted or wounded.
The Prince’s guard were all knights in the most powerful armor devised by man on any world. Lewis had been gifted training armor, it boosted his strength and endurance only a little. The sword made him their equal.
Lewis dropped another troll. Time slowed, and he coolly observed a knight die with a halberd piercing the silver armor that once protected his neck; dead protecting the Marine at his side. His emblem was three gold griffins on a field of green. Three more Marines lay limp and unmoving behind the line, dragged back by the men of the second rank. Two corporals and a private by the ranks they’d painted on their helmets, poor heraldry compared to the crusaders, but it was what they knew.
Lewis looked up and willed the view of the larger battle back into his perception. Again, he felt the peculiar sensation of rising without moving. The threads that he had dimly sensed, connecting his hill with the smoke rising twisted from the center of the plain were like lines of force, yet not lines.
More like the iron filings around a magnet, glimmers and reflections in washed out grey aligned themselves between two poles. One pole was behind him, the archimandrites bending reality to their will. The other pole was hidden, but he could clearly see its absence; a blank spot on the map where the goblin summoners bound evil spirits for their own ends.
The motes and particles from his wizards pushed and strained against those emanating from the enemy, but slowly they pushed back. They were holding, even winning. Accustomed, somewhat, to seeing magic, a strange shape drew his attention, beyond the troll. Buried in the sand was a worm, glowing white and dim as if behind a veil. The power that shone through was like a strobe, a beam of light escaping through a slit in the blinds. A dragon not dead, but gathering its strength.
Lewis turned his attention to the rear to gauge the progress of the Strategos. Lewis could feel Odo leading the Prince’s men back into battle. Lances, once more organized and ready, began to flow forward. The leading two lances had already taken up positions to bolster van Buskirk’s position, for now using bows to thin the ranks of the red-armored goblins and ease the pressure on the soldiers and Marines there.
Time started again. He snapped back to his body, feeling out-of-place yet more in control than before. He was learning, slowly, to put the feelings of oddness aside. But damn, is it fucking weird, he thought.
Lewis dispatched another troll and the sense of power in his hand was intoxicating. The strength of the father’s blessing still tingled in his arms and the magical strength of his armor buoyed him up. The oddness was strong, too; but somehow he felt that despite the supreme oddity of allowing a sword to fight for him it was in the end nothing more than a tool and extension of his will and not something that subverted or controlled it. He thought, I don’t understand how google works either, but yet it allows me to do things I never could without it.
A slight push of his will was all that he needed to bring the larger view back to his awareness. The giants gathered at the rear of the troll formation, pushing forward. They waded through the squat-seeming, broad-shouldered creatures, head and shoulders taller than the trolls. In his mind, he drew a line on their forward motion and it ended right on the prince. Five more minutes, no more, he estimated.
Lewis called over his shoulder, “Chen, radio check! Runner, mortars, drop everything on the middle rear of the troll formation. Giants coming in.”
While he spoke, three trolls came over the low wall of the dead. Two went for the prince, the most visible man on the battlefield in his golden armor. The last went for Lewis. A wicked sharp halberd flew down at his head. Lewis threw up his shield and he felt the shock radiate through his entire body. His boots slid back a couple feet in the sand from the force of the blow and his shoulder radiated electric pain down to his hand.
It should have driven him to the ground, but he held; from the half-crouch the blow had forced him to he lashed out and down. The sword struck, catching the troll at the hip; half-severing the leg and sending the monster screaming down the hill like a Catherine’s wheel of blood.
Raimond killed one and then the other troll he faced. He raised his sword to Lewis in a brief salute before returning to the fray. Lewis didn’t answer. He was away again, watching the Snake River Brigade. Each assault pushed as far as the goblins could bear as artillery, tank guns and the massed fire of the brigade ate at their flesh.
The 116th’s fire stopped the assaults, but each charge stopped closer to their lines. The goblin’s eagerness as they sensed this gave them fire and hatred to take the punishment. Brogan’s men couldn’t hold for long.
He felt like the battle had gone on for hours though it was only minutes. A dozen or more pierced and bleeding trolls lay at his feet, and as he thought the sword drank blood.
The giants were coming. The cav would fall before the crusaders could take the line and push back. The dragon was out there and would soon return. And so long as the goblin summoners contested the field the crusader archimandrites could not tip the scales in their favor.
The thought was enough to trigger new sensations. The battlefield spun in his vision, but not in the least dizzying. He calculated, he mapped the future in his mind. Defeat, unless the equation changed. He looked to his men, his Marines holding the line against monsters, fighting with weapons alien to their experience and training. How long?
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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Nine.