Lewis looked back to Odo. The Giant chieftain was a small mountain in jet-black armor with a super-sized sword, ready for the onrushing Strategos. He took a step forward as Odo approached and raised his sword.
Odo neither jumped nor dove, but charged straight in. The sword came down and Odo twisted, spinning like a shot-putter to dodge the blade. He came out of the spin, planted his left foot and lunged, his sword arm to full extension as he thrust up to the giant’s waist.
The giant’s thick armor took the blow and Odo’s sword shattered. The giant chieftain stood there, unmoved and gazing down at the tiny man before him, stunned and disarmed. He raised his sword.
Lewis scanned the engagement. The Strategos’ charge had rotated the engagement. Coming around from the north had shifted the giant’s attention and spun the axis of the front counter-clockwise. Where minutes ago, the men-at-arms of Odo’s division had stood their ground between Lewis and the giants, now, there was only empty sand.
“Burke, take the shot!” Lewis yelled.
Burke answered with fire. The range was less than a mile, medium range for the powerful 105 mm tank guns of the MGS Stryker. The lead giant, sword raised above his head, took the armor piercing, discarding sabot round square in the side of his chest.
The Giant collapsed abruptly as his entire chest cavity went out the other side in a red mist.
“Jesus Christ, did you see that!” Coleman shouted. The Marines around Lewis shouted their approval. Odo, showered in giant blood, backed up quickly to avoid being hammered by the falling corpse.
“Burke, fucking do that again!” Lewis yelled into the radio.
The other MGS opened fire. Boom! Lewis watched the streak of the projectile, almost too fast to see at all. Miss, high. The third MGS let loose, and caught a second giant in the side. No explosive decompression, but the giant went down. Amidst the echoes of the shot, Lewis heard the electric whine of the turret acquiring a new target and a small thud as the shell casing hit the sand after being crapped out the back of the turret.
The giants looked to be freaking out. Lewis and Coleman watched as they looked around them in confusion, not knowing the source of this new and lethal danger. A couple looked their way, but the Archimandrite’s charm still held.
A green-armored giant, his blocky armor reminiscent more of a transformer than anything, pointed at Lewis’ hill. Burke fired again, boom! Lewis saw and felt the flash from the long gun barrel, and this time saw the dust kicked up by the round’s shockwave as it raced downrange over the sand. Pointy’s head disappeared in a jagged, twenty-foot wide flower of grey smoke as the HE round detonated on impact.
Lewis glanced up at Evans on his sniper’s perch, watching the scene through his scope.
Another giant roared a deep throated battle cry, and waved his sword at the crusaders, knowing or guessing that proximity to their enemy might save them. The next two shots, armor piercing rounds from the other two Strykers, transformed him from quick-thinking leader material to paste.
At a signal from Odo, the crusader trumpets rang out. That succeeded in motivating the giants where tank rounds had not. They charged, trying to close the distance to Odo’s men. Burke and his crews fired again, dropping another two giants at the front. The MGS guns fired in staggered volleys, each gun firing about once every ten seconds. That timing seemed to fuck with the giants more than the casualties themselves; every time they’d get to moving, another volley came in.
Burke placed every round on target. Considering he trained to put rounds in tanks or buildings, he put steel on giant with uncanny skill; using the cannon as nothing more than an enormous sniper rifle. Another giant officer candidate stepped forward and again pointed at the crusader line pulling back rapidly away from him. This one seemed to have a better sense that he was now a target, and ducked. All that did was make the armor penetrating round take his head clean off.
“Yes!” Evans shouted from his sniper perch.
The giants broke. They scrambled from the field, heading north toward the bluff and away from Burke’s murderous guns. Four more giants dropped, each receiving a 105 mm parting gift in the back. “Thanks for playing, motherfuckers!” Lewis heard Burke shout from the radio.
After less than a minute, the guns ceased firing. Two dozen HE and APDS rounds down range, and over a dozen giants down. Burke hadn’t missed once.
“Outfuckingstanding, Lieutenant,” Lewis spoke into the radio.
“Shot dry, Captain! We’re down to canister,” Burke reported.
“Very well. Be ready, we’ll need them,” Lewis replied.
“We found something that’s not bulletproof, sir!”
“If you’ve got a big enough bullet, nothing’s bulletproof,” Lewis said without taking his eyes from the battle.
Odo took advantage of the giant’s retreat to pull his men back in good order. They remounted their horses, some riding double, and turned to rejoin their Prince on Lewis’ hill.
Prince Raimond had cleared a space between his men and the troll regiment. The red-armored goblins were in full flight. But the danger was not past. Regaining their composure, the trolls came on at a disturbingly fast lumbering run.
“Their proportions are all wrong,” Coleman said.
He’s right, Lewis thought. Their arms are far too long. He couldn’t see their faces, their helmets had full visors with only narrow slits for visibility. The oddly sloped and angled construction undoubtedly offered good protection, but whatever lived inside would have shitty vision – at best, a narrow field of view directly forward.
“Look at those helmets. No head shots,” Lewis observed.
The Prince rode his horse across the front of his line. The Prince was exhorting his men. Lewis couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he saw the crusader knights cheer and pound their shields with their swords. The Prince turned to face the onslaught. In the middle of the formation, Lewis saw Gamez’ antenna waving forlornly, totally out of place in the medieval scene.
Seconds later, the trolls hit with a deafening crash. Lewis saw the knights in the van literally pushed back by the impact. A knight in red surcoat with a white cross like a Swiss army knife blocked a halberd strike with his shield and the strength in the troll’s arm smashed his shield into his helm and nearly threw him from his high-backed war saddle.
Mortar rounds began dropping in the midst of the troll formation. Having learned that the noisy explosions did little harm, the trolls were now stolidly ignoring the explosions above their heads.
Lewis heard Pethoukis on the radio. “Captain, mortars aren’t doing dick. They’ve got heavier or better armor than the goblins.” Fuck! Pethoukis was right. Unless a mortar round dropped right on a troll, it wasn’t even slowing them down. “Switch to the goblins. Keep the skeer on them.”
“Aye, aye, sir,”
The trolls lashed out at the horses, aiming to dismount the knights and hopefully keep them in place long enough to pound them flat. Raimond wheeled his horse in place and blocked an axe with his shield. His mount almost crumpled as the force of the blow was transferred through the Prince and his upraised shield into the body of the horse.
Another troll stepped up and crushed the skull of the Prince’s horse with a stamping press blow. The prince leapt from the saddle, vaulting from his mount’s crumpling body over the head of the troll. Mid-air, he twisted and lanced his sword down into the full helm of the monstrous troll. He landed behind, but before the trolls in the next rank could react he jumped again back into his line; killing another troll as he flew.
Horses were down, screaming in agony, all along the crusader line. Lewis watched the knights respond to the threat. The knights that had just savaged the goblins streamed forward, leaving their lances behind to guard the flank.
Raimond and his unhorsed knights gave ground stubbornly to the relentlessly advancing trolls. The knights, strengthened by the enchantment of their armor, looked to be stronger than the trolls, but lacked reach. Their size alone gave the trolls advantage as they pummeled the knights from above with halberds and the occasional mace. The rear guard held the line, the men of their lances using spears to stab in between the knights, wounding and killing trolls who were occupied by the swords of the knights.
Raimond caught a double-bitted troll’s axe neatly on his shield, turned it and deftly as a surgeon stabbed the troll neatly in the throat. The troll folded over, hands on its throat, blood spurting through its hands.
Another troll climbed over the bleeding and screaming tango to take its turn. The Prince parried and struck, hampered by the dead and the living both as the press of the engagement increased. The trolls were a thousand-headed hydra, inexhaustible despite the murderous competence and strength of the knights. Inexorably, the crusaders were being driven back.
Relief appeared, for a moment, when the knights from the right flank hit main body of the trolls in the side. Lewis watched in awe as the shock of that charge hit and visibly propagated through the ranks of the densely packed trolls.
Raimond reacted instantly. He shouted and waved his sword forward. He jumped, planting a frightful kick in the chest of the troll before him. Riding the shoulders of the stunned troll to the ground with impossible grace, he paused for a half a moment to dispatch the foe with an economical thrust. Followed by a half dozen of his knights, he spun into a frenzy, laying about him with powerful yet graceful blows. The trolls fell back in disorder.
The knights assaulted, their counterattack made the more effective for its suddenness. For a brief moment, the savage assault of a handful of knights held back hundreds of trolls. Raimond’s aide, the Baron Vischennes in green and gold, rallied the lances, keeping them moving toward the hill.
“Shit!” Pethoukis yelled.
“What?” shouted Coleman.
“Dragon!” Pethoukis pointed to the East. Lewis and Coleman looked up from the savage combat. Coasting in from the northeast was the dragon. If it was hurting from its encounter with the artifact, it didn’t look it.
“No,” Coleman said.
“Shit,” Coleman said. Damn straight, Lewis thought. The Cav saw it coming, too. The guns of the brigade’s Abrams boomed, gouting flame as they all took shots at the dragon cutting across their field of view.
To no effect. The beast had learned not to fly in a straight line. It cast its tiger-striped head back and forth as it flew, pure predator looking for the tastiest prey. In seconds, it had passed the cav and flew over the central plain between the hills. Its eyes fixed on the battle below. It pulled up sharply, opening its wings to slow; rearing up and casting forth a blast of actinic light from its jaws.
Lewis covered his eyes with his arm. Shit, that was bright! Even the edges of that beam left purple circles floating before his eyes. The blast drilled a hole through the Prince’s formation, dozens of men vaporized in their armor in an instant. Greasy smoke eddied at the edges of the blast, twisted by the wind. Lewis scanned, but saw no sign of Gamez or his antenna.
The dragon pulled its wings in and dropped, gaining speed like a stooping bird of prey. It vomited forth another impossible gout of light, and burned another trench of death through the crusaders.
“Since when do dragons have fucking lasers?” Coleman shouted.
Fast and low, now, the dragon again spread its wings. With powerful strokes of its mighty wings, it beat back into the sky; it continued on to the west, no doubt intending to turn and strafe the crusaders again.
Odo’s men streamed south straight toward Lewis’ hill. They had the dragon over their left shoulders and slightly ahead, and as it flew it cut directly across their path. Knights gave the order and the entire division pulled their bows from their cases. They commenced to shoot volley after volley at the flying menace. Lewis was saddened but not surprised to see that not a single one penetrated the armored hide.
“Coleman, what was that joke about wanting to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets?” he asked.
“Sir, I’m not finding it as funny as I used to.”
Lewis felt a presence behind him. He turned to see Father Pietr. The priestmonk twisted the cord of his belt in his left hand.
“Captain. Please be very still.”
Behind the priestmonk was Archimandrite John. The gold of his vestments seemed to glow in the sunlight. Despite the sunlight, he realized. Wait, his robe is actually glowing. What the…
The wizard raised his right hand in a gesture of benediction, holding the index and middle finger up and the two smaller fingers crossed over to his thumb. He made the sign of the cross and intoned a low chant.
The priest’s auburn hair stood on end like he was being electrocuted, though he showed no sign of distress. His thick, spade-like beard widened as the hairs repelled each other.
“Captain. Observe.” the priestmonk quietly said, and pointed toward the battle.
Lewis snapped his head back. The dragon had passed the small formation of crusaders and was wheeling for another pass. The knights and men-at-arms in Odo’s division still showered arrows on it, just to have something to do.
Lewis felt a pressure on the back of his neck. “What the fuck?” said Coleman, and started to turn.
Father Pietr laid a gentle hand on his armored shoulder. “Do not look back, my friends. Do not.” the small voice of the monk somehow became a word of command.
Pethoukis shouted, “Eyes front!”
The pressure increased. Lewis felt as if someone had set an anvil on the back of his neck. He watched the dragon swoop in for a third strike.
Whatever was happening, it was utterly silent. Streamers of light formed from nothing in the air above the crusaders. They twisted and writhed, almost invisble in the bright desert air. Colors, barely perceptible reds, greens and blues, hid behind the light.
The threads wove together, dancing two hundred feet off the ground. Father John’s chant became faster, more complex in its rhythm. Lewis could make no sense of the twisting shapes. It was like trying to focus on the surface of a pot of boiling water. Then, it was a bird, limned with fire. It spread its lambent wings, waiting for the dragon.
The dragon was too close to change course. It raised its head and breathed electric fire into the heart of the insubstantial phoenix. The fire passed through, unimpeded, branching out as it went like lightning; the heat of its passage triggered a small thunderclap.
The dragon and the ghostly bird grappled. The dragon shook with the impact. Now, the bird seemed palpably real even though Lewis could see dragon straight through the phoenix. The two barrel rolled through the sky. Wild bursts of actinic fire shot in every direction as the dragon sought frantically to shake or blast off its ethereal opponent. Most went wild to sky or sand, but some hit men or troll. But only the bird’s claws were substantial, all else passed through as if the bird were no more there than a fog bank. What the fuck was that thing?
Lewis saw gashes appear in the dragon’s adamantine skin. Blood ran down the dragons flanks, becoming red streams of mist as they left the body. The blasts from the dragons’ mouth became weaker and farther apart. It’s getting exhausted, Lewis thought. Good to know it runs out of ammo.
Intertwined, the insubstantial white phoenix and the surreally present tiger-striped serpent spun down and augured into the ground in the midst of the troll regiment. Dozens of trolls were crushed instantly as they crashed. On the ground, the writhing winged serpent thrashed desperately; trying to shake free of its attacker to no avail, each twitch of its tail tossing nine foot tall trolls like toys.
It reared up from the ground, the phoenix still clingling remorselessly to its back. It lifted its wings, and the dragon looked to its right. Great rents had been torn in its wing, the skin falling loosely to drape on the ground. It let loose a bone chilling, 150 decibel screech.
“Holy mother of fuck.”
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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Five